It was a big room, as hotel rooms go. That hotel was famous for its large rooms. Big beds also. It was in the centre of Jakarta. On the roof was a very big swimming pool. But no garden surrounds, just concrete. Good for swimmers, but not for those who wanted to muck around in the water and occasional rest by the pool. Arid and concrete.The big room was meant for, as usual, two people. A double bed meant a couple, usually. Or just a lone person. When the door opened, after I knocked with the proper code, at first I couldn’t see how many people there were inside. Too much cigarette smoke. My eyes hurt and my throat itched. I thought immediately that the next few hours, no matter how interesting politically, was going to be torture physically.
This was in Jakarta, 199x. Suharto was still dictator.
I walked through the cigarette fog. The bathroom door, which was on the left as you walked in, was partly open. A small hell was visible – how many people had been using it? Then I saw them: 14, 12 men and 2 women. Lot of folders and papers. Some of the people were sprawled, half sitting sort of, on the big bed. Others were on the floor. An intense discussion was under way.
“Sit here,” one said to me,“ pointing to the lone chair in the room, embarrassed to be given that privilege as the lone whitey in the room.
Two people were asked to go downstairs to the lobby to keep an eye out for anything suspicious.
The discussion, which had been interrupted briefly because of my arrival, resumed. An order had been issued for the arrest of all members of the party – the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), several months earlier. Some key leaders had already been arrested and were in gaol. Some were on a police list to be arrested, but the police did not have photos nor their real names. A few of these were still in hiding. The discussion was about how to organise protest actions – aksi, they were called – under these conditions and under what organisation’s name. There were also elections looming, which were going to be held in an even more repressive atmosphere that usual. One of the usually compliant parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) had elected a leader – Megawati Sukarnoputri – in defiance of the will of President Suharto. The government had intervened to then oust her and install a pro-regime leadership. Megawati had asked her followers to boycott the elections. But mass anti-regime sentiment was palpable on the streets.
The activists in the room needed tactics.
But these issues are not the point of this sketch.
Somebody knocked on the door. Nothing to worry about. It was expected. It was lunch. Nasi bungkus. Rice with chili sambal and tempe and half an egg and some Java spinach. One packet for each person. People ate while they talked.
The egg and tempe and rice was egg and tempe and rice – quite ok. But the sambal was delicious. The chillis and other ingredients had been freshly ground, no doubt with traditional granite stone pesta and mortar. My tongue zinged as I learned what was planned. I would write about it later in Australia. Zing, went my tongue. I thing it also zinged my brain, or was that the politics. The politics had a zing as well.
So there you have it, sambol. Maybe the only one good lasting thing European contact with southeast asia brought to the region: Chillies, from south America, maybe via China.
Certainly dictatorship, which was the colonial system of a rule by a unelected Governor-General; or racism, where different “races” had different political rights; or economic backwardness, even by 1942 the Dutch had not built even one truly modern factory in the Indies were things brought by Europe which were lasting, but none of them good.
Viva sambal! In both cuisines and politics. Keep it hot! (Might have some sambal with my fried potatoes later while I do some writing.)
Miss that hotel room, though not the smoke.