There’s a slackening — something missing. Even the air goes slack. A country of second-hand.
The wind tells me things, most of which I don’t want to know.
I’m dreaming: Valamae and I are speaking in Mataram. I stand, smile and thank her as I leave. My legs are light, but a westerly wind rattles the windows and something comes down so hard that I shiver and collapse. I wake in a sweat on the floor. The fan above spins slow, sweeping hot air across me. I sleep on the floor sometimes, to confuse any late-night intruders. It’s not comfortable, but I’ll take any advantage.
What is authentic and what isn’t twists. Memories and dreams blend, all manner of shit goes down when the Anin-mundewudda, a fragmented nor-westerly, circles like this. Everyone feels it differently. When it visited me in Melbourne it said go north; when it visited Valamae in Yava Dvipa it said go south. I left Spencer Street a day later near midnight. I made contact as soon as I could. We’re meeting in Atam’bua tomorrow.
I walk to the window, take my sunglasses from the bedisde table and put them on, and open the nicotine-heavy curtains just enough to observe, while remaining hidden. The Dry Creek motel is a crumbling two-storey beauty, a converted Customs House hiding in Alice’s southern fringe. I can endure crap and afford overpriced, but hate paying for both; still, her elevation provides a full view of the jalan below and of the desert plain. I scan for signs of people or vehicles coming in from the desert: red dust clouds, glinting sunlight, birds startled into flight. I’m relieved to see none. Out of habit I search the heat shimmers. My sunnies are polarised. A CSIRO study way back proved the Ancestors follow the songlines by using the Earth’s frequencies to travel. They come and go by moving within the core patterns of the world. I probably won’t see any today, Indig, Tamil or Indo, but I can’t help searching. This entire continent’s a sacred site.
Below, the jalan is filling: people, carts, buffalo, motorbikes, rickshaws and microlets: 12-seat minibuses that, mostly, scuttle around Alice’s jalans picking up passengers. There’s even the odd Ambassador car, but they’re few and far; India doesn’t make them anymore. I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves. I let the curtains fall. Each day this desert moves in a little tighter.
Just north of Alice lies the fractious and porous Austral–Indo border. Bisecting the continent’s central and western deserts, it delineates Australia’s north from Java Nusa Agung (CSIRO) — Indo’s most southern province. Mirror cities, once industrial and political power centres, Alice and Atam’bua stare, each waiting for the other to flinch. I shave and shower (I insist on Western showers, I don’t like using a mandi), and despite a continent-wide drought, I linger; these last weeks feel like years. I’m in Alice two months and haven’t slept properly since. After drying, I dress and head downstairs: glad to be leaving.
The empty lobby has the same decrepit feel as the rest of the place. Nothing a coat of paint won’t fix, the owner said, signing me in and pointing out the fading autographed photos of dignitaries who stayed in the hotel, like Soekarno and Soeharto; Curtain, Forde and Chifley; even Ali Alatas and Gareth Evans on the walls. Shysters, the lot of them. I paid two months in advance, and he couldn’t help glancing at my single bag, but to his credit didn’t ask any questions, so, on my way out, as the lobby fills with the ghosts of past conversations, I leave him a reasonable tip.
The prospect of another scorcher has drawn people out early. Alice’s hot and dusty in the Dry; hot, muggy and muddy in the Wet. Yet, even in the face of high temperatures, a smidge of moisture sweetens the morning air. I glance at the Dry Creek’s run-down beauty one last time. Nostalgia? Sadness? Nothing so simple. Something’s missing. As witness to centuries of taut red-heart history, the Dry Creek was grand in her day — Alice and Atam’bua have seen better days, for that matter — but now she aches for that station.
The week I left Melbourne, four separate Sacred Title Claims were registered on the Disputed Territory (dt), an international exclave in the heart of the continent, and both far-Left and far-Right groups attacked the Uluru Agreement (UA) as a sham. Every few years proof the UA is illegal pops up, and each time it’s proved fake. Uluru is central to the DT. The UA allowed the DT to be administered by an Inter-parliamentary Council consisting of represenatives from the Indigenous National Territory (INT), JNA and Australia; the IMF; the UN; and the South East Asian Principal Bank: SEAPB. Similar to Ireland’s Comhaontú Bhéal Feirste, this was supposed to put to rest the spilt blood that flowed across the continent during the centuries. The whole episode made the Spanish civil war look decidedly uncomplex. But all of reality is charged, layered and invested with death, hope, luck, even magic. For these reasons spilled blood will never be put to rest.
Some claim the DT is Australian land; other say it’s part of JNA; others, that it’s Indig land; and some claim it’s a fourth, separate country. If I were pushed, I’d say it should be turned into a resort, and tourists should be able to climb Uluru. Sacred my arse. I personally don’t see the fuss, but everyone views that rock as sacred: Indig, Indo, Chinese, Tamil, Portuguese, Australian, Dutch, French. Even for the French! Don’t get me wrong, I love the French, as a rule. Any country where it’s a national crisis when the chefs go on strike is ok by me. So when I say, even the French, I mean they don’t often see anything outside of France as sacred.
This country is one remove from the cultural source, twice removed, three times. The UA is ad hoc triage on a home caesarean gone wrong, and all the ancient disputes continue. If I were pushed, Uluru should be turned into a resort so tourists could climb the bloody thing. I don’t see the fuss, but everyone claims that rock as sacred: Indig, Indo, Chinese, Tamil, Portuguese, Australian, Dutch, French. Every culture longs for a place in history that never was. The Portuguese call it Saudade. Like visiting my mother’s hospital bed, my grief upon leaving was for an impending loss, not a longing to return any time soon. The air goes slack when I think about it and I can’t breathe. So I try not to think about it. Longing for a history that never existed almost makes it come true. This continent is times apart. This entire continent houses ghosts.
Border shuttles — microlets — leave for Atam’bua from the Ghan Transit Centre regularly. To ensure no one follows, I zigzag through Alice’s back jalans and along Leichhardt Terrace, following the contours of the dry Todd River. It’s a little out of my way, but I have some time up my sleave, so I’m going to hit the katuupa stalls. The identical stalls stand in the sand all along the sides of the Todd.
They sit side by side: tarpaulins, some UNHCR, all stretched over bamboo-pole frames. They sell pisang goreng, idli, katuupa, coffee and chai. Blue-and-white eskys cool the cans of Bintang and Tsing Tao, and vb and Tooheys.
Each stall has a small fire in a drum, with corn roasting in the embers, or ayam: chicken, and ikan: fish, cooking on on skewers on grills. Women shoo flies with palm leaves. Men tend the fires, cook the food. The kids play, running around, in and out of the stalls. Customers eat. Everything looks normal and no one looks out of place. That makes me even more paranoid. Tarp corners flap tight and quick in the wind, beating an agitated rhythm.
There’s even a kelapa pedagang: coconut seller, standing next to his rickety old cart under a big old Bloodwood. ‘Kel-apa, kelapa, kelapaa!’ he sings. The first word is elongated; the second, chopped; the third, tailing up at the end.
I chose a kelapa from the pile in his cart and pay him. They all look the same to me, but I pretend to move them around and choose what I think is the best one. As he takes his golok: machete, from its leather holster and grabs my kelapa, smiling and telling me it’s a good choice. I can see he’s a veteran salesman, probably all of sixteen years old. He places the kelapa on a dished wooden block mounted to his cart. Then, precise and effortless, his movements imbue poetry into each hew, as the brown husk is removed to reveal the green skin — some of which he’ll use to sculpt a spoon. He chops: the bottom is flattened and the top is carved to a point. He cuts once and the top is removed to create a neat hole. I take it and sit at a table at a nearby stall. The cart and stall are obviosuly connected. I order coffee, idli and dosa.
A product of Melbourne, I’m aware that I am a coffee snob, hanging out in the inner-city cafés and bars for the past twenty years. I’ll own it; at least I’m honest. The coffee I just ordered will taste shite, but along with being a snob I’m also an addict. The dull throb in the back of my head means I need some caffeine before it turns into a full blown headache. As I sit in one of the plastic chairs its legs sink into the sand.
I gaze north and drink down the air kelapa: coconut milk— it’s less sweet and more earthy than the shit from the supermarket. This light is unique to this continent. I call them silver days, and I’m sure anyone who’s worked in the mines would agree, a sheet of shining white cloud sits above the horizon in a band, sandwiched above and below by bright blue sky. When I finish, I lob the nut to him. In one movement he catches it mid-air on the golok blade; turns; thumps it down on the wooden block and halves it. The two halves come back to me with the spoon he made. He smiles as he places them on the table in front of me. The only thing ruining this day, really, is the restlessness and incessant Anin-mundewudda. It carries lies and dust, and just won’t stop. Like that old saying: when the wind’s at your back you don’t notice it. when it’s blowing in your face it’s all you can feel.
After I scrape out and eat every ounce of kelapa flesh the other pedagang brings me my coffee, idli and dosa. I thank her with a smile and a nod. She takes the empty shell and throws it in the fire drum. Her husband turns the corn, ayam and ikan. His eyes are red from years of smoke. The print on the her sarong is that vibrant Indo style, and she looks old, but could be any age over twenty-five. The windy time, between Dry and Wet, brings sickness, agitation, constriction. I eat and drink quickly, and ignore whatever message the Anin-mundewudda is trying to beat out. Those UNHCR tarps turn up in all sorts of places.
The gtc itself is state of the art, and it’s design mimics a termite mound. Self-sufficient: solar power and water recycling. The top levels are Japanese capsule hotels, or ‘coffins’; the mid-levels house bars, casinos, brothels, restaurants — the Tekka restaurant’s fish-head curry, my favourite, is world famous; and the underground levels house the Port Authority, which transfers all vehicles, including Charvolants: the desert ships; of which I’ve only seen from a distance.
The jalans adjacent to the gtc resound with Arrernte, Indo, English, Tamil; perfumes, foods, chemicals, spices. Pedagang: hawkers, sell everything from hot dogs and pies, to black-market buffalo and camel meat; from brand-name knock offs to pirate DVDs and CDs; and currencies, fake passports and visas, and drugs. You name it. There’s even santet: black magic, and of course Songs. Indig have shared and traded songs across the continent legitimately for tens of thousands of years, so of course there’s a black market in that as well. Too many people here deal in that shit, so I keep my eyes lowered and hurry through, down into the Port Authority and follow the signs through a warren of platforms and escalators to the poorly ventilated basement car park that is the ‘shuttle bay’ — as the grimy, sullied wall sign proclaims. Groups of people are waiting for all sorts of transports to all parts of the continent, and they’re transporting all sorts of things. There’re squeeling and bleeting pigs and goats tied by the legs to poles, chickens and roosters in small bamboo baskets, and piles of vegetables that I don’t know the names of. I don’t know how they fit it all in, and often on, the shuttles, but somehow they manage.
I jump a waiting microlet, red with dust from its last run and overloaded with people and luggage, I cram in next to a woman wearing a light-blue sari; her sandalwood and clove smile reminds me of Valamae. It’s overcrowded, there’s more than twelve people in here, and the sweat’s dripping off me. There’s no escaping the musty smell.
Every bump along the road to the border drills my back. No microlet I’ve ever been in has had suspension, and I can’t express my relief when we stop. It’s about a half-hour ride, but feels like more. I don’t wait. The four soldiers guarding the checkpoint entrance stare at me as I clamber out and stretch my back. An Australian flag hangs off a stunted flagpole above the door and the building looks like a bunker. An east–west barbed-wire fence runs to the horizon and there’s a heavy gate across the road. It’s electricfied, over 10ft high and is topped by razor wire. I’d say it started as dingo- or rabbit-proof. I help the driver unload the dust-covered luggage from the roofrack. Before heading inside I face the direction I’m headed, pick up some dirt and coat my hands in it as if I’m washing them, then I let what’s left run through my fingers. A silent ritual I perform each time I leave one Country for another, to pay respect to the old people and Ancestors.
Inside, Security Officers check my passport and visa; my bag is x-rayed; my clothes, shoes and bag are swabbed; then I’m marshalled through metal detectors into the Customs area, where I join a long slow-moving queue. I tell myself to relax, but I hate queues. This feels efficient in the way hospitals feel clean. I try to check my emails on my phone, but there’s no signal. I count six soldiers. I would’ve expected more.
At the counter — finally — the Customs Officer scans my right hand, retina, passport and visa. ‘Sorry for the wait,’ she says; ‘network’s slow.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I say and smile. They’re all wearing those blue gloves, and the cut of her uniform does her no favours. She smiles back, and while she might be cute, she’s lying. Right now shitloads of government databases are cross-checking me. (And I don’t even want to think about the data they just gathered.) I smile in hope of hiding my anxiety, but the longer this takes, the more likely they’ll find something. Nallak, nallak, nallak: come on, I say under my breath; I want to get moving. I could only cover my tracks so much before leaving. The computer beeps; I can never tell if it’s a good or bad sound. She compares my face, passport photo and digital image. I never know where to look when Officers stare like this. Her eyes are beautiful: sapphire blue. So far, so good. My tracks are covered.
Satisfied, she stamps my documents and moves me on through. ‘Have a safe trip,’ she says.
I smile. ‘Thanks.’ Then join yet another slow-moving queue.
Next I undergo a full body scan. The Officer is big enough to play front row forward, so I stand where he tells me with my hands above my head. The scanner thing swings around and over, but it takes forever, and my arms are aching by the time he tells me to step from the machine. Next I have to take my belt and shoes off, and put them and my bag through another x-ray. I try to relax. Next he runs a metal detector over me and swabs me again. Next we go to another counter where he double checks everything again. Finally, he returns my documents, I collect my things and I can go.
I step out onto Terra Incognita, no country, a flat 3km exclusion zone, a stateless space, separating Indo and Australia. Almost there. Years ago both governments agreed: existing infrastructure could stay, but no new development. Both have taken that to mean no maintenance either. The old arterial has fallen into disrepair and is no more than a crumbling goat track being repossessed by the red dirt. The heat’s like a wall. Remote reconnaissance drones about the size of dinner plates patrol Terra Incognita like insects over a garden. Faded Federal Government signs appear at regular intervals, reminding everone that this a Prohibited Area. To the east, where the three borders converge, is Port Arrente: a declared zone; a mini city with the sole purpose of seamlessly moving goods between the three nations. No matter the politial posturing, nothing slows trade. And so tourists and schmuks like me have to go through this shit. I try to keep my face hidden.
Then, in no time the Anin-mundewudda‘s twisting at my heels, misbehaving. For me, it unnerves and twists things to curdling; it beckons, like the Min Min, with never a chance of catching it; it’s unknowable, accruing names in many languages. I can’t win, can I. When it‘s still, I get anxious; when it gusts, I get aggravated; and when it’s goading and biting like this, I want to kick it. In some languages willy willys are known as genies or devils or ghost winds or spirits.
About half way I stop, drink some water and swap my Telstra sim for my Indokom one. Still no signal. I look to the horizon. Odd stumpy shrubs try to interrupt the flat. We’re in the Simpson, Gibson or Tanami, I can never remember, but the desert’s hum relaxes me. Cities force the resonances underground, but they resurface out here. Burying them must do something: storms, floods, droughts? I look into the heat shimmers. They say it starts with an unseen presence, where the heightened double awareness is like a two-in-one picture; and then, right before the Ancestors appear, the air changes and smells like it does before rain. They probably disappear and reappear nearby more often than we know. I see and hear shit all the time. I was a CSIRO UPSI: Unexplained Phenomena Sighting Investigator. Sightings, even in today’s day and age, are big news. A drone flies over me and hovers. I hide my face and start walking again.
From a distance the Indo checkpoint looks mish-mash, but as I get closer I see the buildings, while fortified, are in manca lima: an old village plan using five buildings, trees and gardens to circle a central thatch-roof courtyard. Manca lima‘s spiritual, it promotes safety and creates good luck. I enter from between two buildings, a frangipani, bougainvillea and some palms. I’m always taken by how JNA looks and smells like Australia, but feels like Indo. It’s just a few lines on a map that separate and demarcate the countries, but they’re so different. Although the air in the courtyard’s cool, the energy’s chaotic, and Prickly Heat’s biting at my neck. Travellers jostle in front of the Visa Office; pedagang tout counterfiet brand-names, makanan jalanan: street food, and rupiah; and to my right, eight TNI: Indo Regular Army, sit under a pohon mangga: mango tree, chewing betel and smoking kretek: clove cigarettes. Now, I don’t trust TNI at the best of times, they’re known extortionists, but this group gives off a dirty vibe; so when the commander sees me and stands and the others follow as one, I shuffle back. TNI aren’t that disciplined.
‘Stay there, olanda!’ the commander yells in crude Indo, waving in a languid overhead motion. A lit kretek dangles from his mouth.
Olanda is an insult. Apparently, when the Dutch and British first ventured to the continent and kepulauan: archipeligo, the locals called them all olanda — understood today as a bastardised Hollander. And while I’d like to claim that I’m standing my ground right now, truth is my legs freeze.
‘Where you from, hey?’ he says as they surround me.
They’re all my height or taller, and armed. They crowd in and I can smell the starch in their uniforms. They shit talk me. I look past them, at the other travellers. Everyone is at pains to avoid looking this way. No help there. I don’t blame them. The TNI speak to each other in slang. Their Indo is idiomatic. They know I’m fluent and can understand everything.
‘Well…’ he says and unclips his pistol and holds it, then speaks to the others. ‘Maybe this olanda can’t speak simple Bahasa Indonesia.’ They all laugh.
‘Melbourne,’ I say; ‘but where are you from?’ I hope showing I can discern accents might wrest a little control. ‘You’re not JNA.’ For a moment his expression changes; I’ve impressed him. Then it’s gone.
He scratches the side of his head with the back of his pistol. ‘Melbourne?’ he scoffs, speaking as if to a child; ‘you are assam.’ He laughs. They all laugh. A few of them ridicule my accent and pronounciation.
The slur is centuries-old. Rawit is chilli; assam is tamarind. Tamarind is cold climate. Rawit people are deemed warm-blooded, thus reputable, while assam people are regarded as cold and heartless. It’s baseless.
‘I am Flores,’ he laughs. ‘Rawit.’ The others crowd in and mock my accent.
The Atam’bua border crossing’s an arse-end posting for any Indonesian, here at the bottom end of everything, so far from Java, so if this isn’t about money, my only leverage is face, so I risk challenging his power. ‘Commander,’ I say, scared shitless; ‘did it take you a slow time to reach your rank, coming from an outer pulau, as you do.’ A few subordinates chuckle. That’s what I wanted. This has to work. It’s another old-time insult. During Indo’s revolution, communications were so erratic that outer regions often reacted to events late. Frustrated, Javanese leaders publically called their outer-pulau allies slow and stupid. The stigma remains. I hold his stare; only just.
He finishes his kretek in one drag. That’s tough; those cigarettes are harsh. Then without one word, his glare silences the others.
My challenge isn’t going to work on him. Shit.
He grabs my upper arm and sticks the pistol into my ribs.
‘Hang on.’ I struggle, but they all grab me and take me into the nearest building. My calls for help are muffled by hands and fists and jabs as they shove me inside. I try to fight back and kick out but there are too many. I’m fucked.
They drag me down flights of stairs, along hallways, through heavy doors and down corridors, past room after room. I can’t see properly in the dull light. I can’t think. They place me in front of a plain wooden door in a narrow corridor and stand to attention along each wall.
‘Where am I?’ I’m breathless and sound more panicked than I’d like. These corridors run longer than the building.
‘You’re in Indonesia now.’ The commander tightens his grip on my arm. ‘If I had my way. Your type would all stay south of the border. Open it.’ He shoves me.
I reach for the door handle; his look suggests I’m lucky he doesn’t pistol whip me.
‘We’re not stupid,’ he says.
My throat is so dry it’s hard to swallow. I may have misjudged him personally, but there’s no way these guys are regular TNI.
I open the door, and he shoves me through. I was imagining a dank room, metal chairs and a harsh uncovered light — that sort of cliché; instead the air-conditioned room smells of breakfast. I’m thrown.
The door closes behind me.
There’s a table topped with food. Still no phone coverage, though. Two tall men carrying tablets enter through a door opposite — Bakin or D88, I’m guessing. Both are dressed in stylish suits, and a confidence exudes from their inaudible movements. Bakin is Indo Intelligence, and D88 is counter terrorism.
‘Tolong duduk,’ the first man says. ‘Mr Smith, is it.’ He indicates the table. ‘You are our guest.’
Tolong duduk means sit, which I do, but had I seen the floral centrepiece I wouldn’t have. Now I’m bound by a tradition that’s been around since the Tamil Kingdoms stretched from south asia, across the indies, to the north of Terra Australis; a time when envoys were routinely poisoned. To show respect and build trust we must eat the same food together before discussing business. It can take hours. I don’t have hours.
‘My name is Setyo Emanuel Atmosumarto,’ he says as they sit; ‘and my colleague’s name is Arjuna Kafa Kapur.’ They both bow their heads in greeting. I do the same. He offers me a kretek. I decline. He points to the long-necked clay coffee jug sitting in a small basket on the table. ‘Kopi, then?’ He smiles and places his tablet on the table. ‘Sumatran coffee. The best coffee in Indonesia.’ They each light a kretek. Setyo looks at me; Arjuna, at his tablet.
I can’t pick Setyo’s accent, but agents are trained to mask regional differences. ‘Please.’ I nod. Every pulau on the kepulauan, claims it has the best coffee in Indonesia, when in fact the best coffee in Indonesia is Luak, Civet or Musang coffee. In some places this coffee sells for $100 a cup. Some cat eats the best cherries off the tree and shits it out, it’s guts fermenting the bean. Poo coffee. I’ve only had it once and it’s fucking fantastic. Sour, with a depth of flavour I’ve not had since. Still, I’ve only had one cup today, so as an addict, I’m not going to refuse this cup, regardless of where it’s from. ‘The flowers are elegant,’ I say, indicating I wish to start the ceremony.
This particular arrangement uses JNA’s floral emblem: eucalyptus urophylla, Indo’s National Flower, the Flower of Charm and the Rare Flower. It’s displayed using a replica buluh perindu: a mythical Indo flute similar to a didgeridoo.
Setyo pours four coffees. An extra cup is always poured. He then places a small bread roll from the centre of the table on his plate. ‘Let’s not lean on ceremony,’ he says; ‘we’re all friends, are we not.’
So much for custom and ceremony.
‘What’s CSIRO’s business in JNA?’
I try not to flinch, which means I already have. ‘Who’s asking?’ I say, trying to cover my nerves. How’d they identify me? They must think I’m still upsi. It’s old intel. Usually Indo’s up to date on this stuff. He looks to be considering an answer. As ex-CSIRO, at least I thought I did? Indo doesn’t want a ups because it takes years to untangle all the patents, copyright and ceremonial sanctions. We’re all on the same side here; I don’t want it either. And if a upsi finds a sacred site, hope that all the Ancestors in the known and unknown universes are on your side, because the fucking Inter-governmental Land Title Act complicates everything. Any sacred site finding could leave you stuck in whatever backwater shithole you find yourself in for at least a decade.
‘Let us say we are from the Department of Science, Technology and Infrastructure,’ Setyo answers. Then, as if reading my thoughts, adds: ‘One of our drones identified you.’ He smiles. ‘Please, what is CSIRO’s business in JNA?’ He dips the bread roll in his coffee and eats.
‘This is a personal trip,’ I say; ‘I’m not with CSIRO.’ I can’t sense anyone reading my mind, but there is tech that can do that seamlessly now. Just in case, I re-focus on protecting my thoughts. ‘I’m holidaying in the pegunungan,’ I say. Arjuna works on his tablet. ‘I like pegunungan.’ I didn’t think drones had facial recognition. ‘I’m spending one night here in Atam’bua.’ If this were regular shit I could bribe my way out, but I’m not even going to try.
Setyo shakes his head. ‘Please, without further explanation, I am sorry, but the Indonesian Government will be forced to reject your visa, arrest and deport you, and I can not tell you how long that could take.’
‘Let’s just say,’ I pause, taking yet another risk; ‘I’m from the Australian Department of Science, Technology and Infrastructure.’ As I finish lying about maybe being a spy, Arjuna’s phone rings. Until now, his eyes haven’t left the tablet. He takes the call, speaking in a local language I don’t understand. Here the interview pauses, so I ignore etiquette and pour myself more coffee. If I’m going to get tossed back to Australia I may as well drink and eat. I take idli, pisang goreng, poached eggs and basmati rice. Setyo smokes as he watches me. Arjuna hangs up, and the two of them discuss whatever’s happening using that same local language.
Setyo stands. ‘My apologies.’ He speaks Indonesian again. ‘A thing has arisen. Please, your papers.’
‘What’s happened?’ I ask.
‘Please, finish. You will be escorted through to Atam’bua. Your credentials.’ He holds out his hand.
My concern is that they have who they want and they don’t need me any more.
‘Mr Smith,’ Setyo speaks Indonesian again. ‘My apologies.’ He stands. ‘A thing has arisen.’
‘What have you done?’
‘Please, I don’t know anything. You will be escorted through to Atam’bua.’
‘CSIRO knows I’m here,’ I say. ‘Operatives work all over the continent.’
‘You covered your tracks adequately,’ Arjuna speaks to me for the first time. ‘When our system flagged you, our experts traced your digital fingerprints and erased you. No one knows you’re here.’
Setyo motions to the door I entered through. ‘Leave now, or the punishment for the ups espionage charges we’ve concocted is life. I can see you in Lembaga Pemasyarakatan Kerobokan. We don’t want that, so please.’ He stares across the table, like he’s waiting for me to flinch. Then he smiles. ‘Apologies for the inconvenience.’ They leave as silently as they entered.
I give him my passport and he slides it through a machine like a credit card reader on his tablet. He returns my papers and they leave as silently as they entered, without so much as glancing at me again.
I finish all the kopi luak. I don’t usually drink this much coffee. I won’t sleep again for days.
The commander is where I left him. He escorts me to a small flight of stairs at the end of the corridor. The ceiling is short and squat, which only accentuates the corridor’s narrow, grey brick walls. He climbs the stairs and stands at attention next to a digital access code pad. I follow him up the stairs, but before I leave I stop and look at him. ‘I apologise,’ I say in my most formal Indonesian accent; ‘if I have done anything else to offend you I hope you can see fit to forgive me.’ It is a sign of respect to apologise to someone for a non-specific behaviour when there is little or no chance of ever seeing them again. It lets us both save face. I give him a tiny nod. His response is what I’d expect. He plugs in the code. There is a beep and the mechanism unlocks. I take the handle, open the door and step through. More and more I’m beginning to dislike closed doors. After being so wrong last time, I don’t imagine anything about what’s on the other side.
I emerge into a narrow space between two buildings; the hot air smells of rotting vegetables, eucalyptus and dirt. After the cool of the air con, my skin prickles at the heat. I’m in a pasar: market. Anamtyerre, Javanese and Tamil crowd and echo. The door locks shut behind me. Cardboard boxes are scattered, and some of the graffiti on the walls dates back to Soekarno. I sneak forward and look around the corner. The stall opposite sells brightly coloured ground spices heaped in baskets. The pedagang’s sarong is pristine. She pours scooped spice powders into plastic bags. If that were me, I’d be stained head to foot with turmeric and paprika. I must be somewhere in the guts of Pasar Atam’bua. The pedagang glances at me as she spits betel.
There’s santet here. As strong as in the jalans around the gtc. This place feels wrong. I need an exit.
Pasar Atam’bua is a chain of large, wall-less sheds covering thatch stalls linked by a warren of laneways. It’s in Atam’bua’s oldest district, Batavia Lama, and like so many central markets — Melbourne’s Queen Vic and Paris’s Les Halles — it’s on an old cemetary. As if the continent doesn’t have enough ghosts. It reminds me of Queen Vic. And today it’s packed. Valamae insisted our meeting take place here tomorrow at a warung: restaurant, she trusts. I was reluctant. She argued there’s safety in hiding in crowds. She argued that hiding out in the open is a good place to hide. Sometimes that’s true.
A child bumps me and I catch her arm before she can steal anything from me.
Her sad eyes stare and she pats her stomach with her free hand, then puts it to her mouth to mime eating.
‘No,’ I say.
She bares broken teeth and black gums. A putrid smell. I let go. She growls before running into the crowd, which seems to open up for her. I can’t move two steps without getting bumped and knocked.
‘That girl,’ the spice pedagong calls to me. ‘She’s wrong.’ She rearranges her sarong. ‘She’s sial.’
I can hardly hear her over the echoing voices. Sial is a bad omen. This woman’s another see-er. ‘You saw her?’ I ask.
‘Everyone does,’ she says. ‘They are all over the pasar. That is ilmu gaib. You should wash that hand.’
Ilmu gaib means supernatural power. ‘Do you know where she went?’ I wipe my hand on my pants. She interchanges Tamil and Indonesian, and speaks with JNA’s rough accent.
She shakes her head. ‘Pasar hitam.’
The pasar hitam: black market, is everywhere, so that’s no help. It used to occupy a bunch of burnt-out government buildings from the ‘60s, until a joint Indo–Australia crackdown flushed the blackmarketeers out, so they flooded Pasar Atam’bua to use legitimate pedagang as cover. Water into cracks. Should have seen that coming.
‘Look.’ The pedagang calls me again.
The girl and two other sial are coming towards me.
‘That way.’ She nods towards an empty alley running alongside her stall.
I slip away, running past a number of stalls until I exit the pasar near a culvert.
It’s the calling hour when I reach the safe house. To get here I followed narrow jalans past thin buildings and shallow canals where kangkung: water spinach, grows; I navigated by memory; I doubled back; I cross stitched my path in case someone, the sial, anyone, followed. Part of what makes the safe house safe, is that there are no rambu jalan: street signs, anywhere around here. It’s been like that for years. This is so government forces, police and military alike, can’t just come in and take people. They do still come in from time to time and are successful in picking people up, kidnapping, arresting. It’s just a fact those forces infultrate, and there are military and police officers who used to live in the area, people who grew up in the area, but to train the have to move out, so locals can tell when a stranger has enterd the kampong. About five people have taken it in turns to follow and surveille me for the past hour or so. Kampong is an old word for village, but has come to mean neighbourhood in the cities.
‘Mas!’ Meli says. He’s sitting on the bonnet of his car, under a frangipani tree a the top of the jalan. He’s smoking a kretek and wearing a white singlet, his tattoos exposed.
‘Mas,’ I reply. It’s hot, and there’s a group standing around his car under the tree, each scraping together their own bit of shade. I can smell something frying in minyak kelapa: coconut oil, and hear Gamelan music jangling from a radio. Another part of what makes the safe house safe, is that it looks like all the others around here: traditional one and two storey designs.
He jumps from the hood. ‘Good to see you.’
He speaks a Jakatanese-inflected vernacular. The others cross-examine me. ‘Mas,’ I say and we shake hands. When we unclasp he touches his heart with his right hand. I do the same. It’s for family and friends. It means we take each other’s concerns with us. Mas literally means older brother, but is used as a term of mutual respect.
He gives them each a cigarette and waves them away. They step back, but hold onto each inch of shade. ‘Get in,’ he says. He’s so fast and wiry that he makes everyone else look slow.
‘What?’ I may have misunderstood.
He gets in the car. ‘Nallak.’
I throw my bag in the back and get in. The car smells like kretek and spray-on deodorant. He starts the engine and the tape player jumps to life. He loves Indo guitar bands, so I’m not surprised when one crackles through the speakers. Out of habit I check the around and under my seat for microphones. Then I check the dashboard, the glovebox and the mirror pocket in the sun shade. We move off. ‘Who are they?’ I ask. I speak differently in the desert. I talk slower and use shorter sentences. It’s not because it’s hot, Melbourne can get hot in summer; it’s the north, the centre.
‘It’s their tree,’ he says. ‘They sell phone credits.’
We turn left across a makshift bridge over a canal and follow the road to a large roundabout with a victory statue in the middle, where we merge into thick, fickle traffice: more carts, animals, microlets, rickshaws, motorbikes.
This is not like Meli, he’s way too quiet. He turns the volume up again.
He swerves the car around a family riding a scooter. He honks the horn and waves as we pull level with them. Three kids are wedged between the man and the woman. He honks again as we go through another large roundabout. The scooter driver waves back as they veer off to the left. We continue straight.
‘My uncle,’ he says. ‘My sister’s husband’s cousin.’
‘How does that make him your uncle?’
‘He just is.’ He adjusts the volume higher and lights another cigarette.
‘Maun, ita-nia familia diak ka lae?’ Meli is urgent.
It takes a second to place the language. It’s Meli’s local language. He taught me the basics years ago. It’s spoken in his mother’s home town. My guts churn. The use is the code, not the words. We only use this language when things go to shit.
‘Ita-nia familia diak ka lae?’ he repeats, slowly.
This is a simple sentence, I know, but takes me more time than it should to translate. We chose it because it’s not widely spoken, so is difficult to eavesdrop. We have nine emergency locations. He’ll ask a series of questions and we’ll pretend to have a conversation. When he asks if I have children, that’s the number of the location I go to. He asked how my family is. I answer that everyone is well: ‘Ema hotu-hotu diak.’
‘Ita husi nabe’e?’ he asks.
He asked: Where are you from? I answer, ‘Northcote, Mas; Melbourne, Australia.’ I ask where he is from. He answers, Betugaude. From what I can gather we’re heading south.
‘Ita kaben nain?’
Are you married? I answer not yet: ‘Seidauk.’ It’s coming back to me. Words are sounding familiar. I ask how his wife is. He ansewers, fine. The we trace a path along Comoro river, swinging over it on the last bridge and then coming north again.
‘Ita iha maun-alin I bin-alin nain hira?’ We drive through more roundabouts with more victory statues. Soekarno built hundreds of them, each illustrating one theme: peasants tearing off the chains of opression.
Do you have any brothers or sisters? I answer two sisters: ‘Bin-alin dua.’ We double back across Comoro river but keep heading east.
‘Ok,’ he says. ‘Ita gosta hasai ferais iha ne’e ka?’ We turn onto Jalan Pontai: a congealed northern artery. From here on, Meli lurches and brakes hard. Our eastern trajectory becomes a northern one.
Are you enjoying… something; I’m not sure of the word but it doesn’t matter. I answer yes: ‘Sin.’ I ask how his work is going (at least I think I do). He answers, well. I hold the dashboard to stabilise myself.
‘Ita iha labarik, ka lae?’
There it is. Do you have any children? The sixth question. I answer not yet: ‘Seidauk.’
We’re stuck behind one of the Chinese-made tanks Indo owns. It belches black exhaust, so I wind my window up and then Meli lights another cigarette.
‘Don’t much like this song,’ he says as he turns the radio down.
‘These roads are so shitty,’ I say. Our conversation continues, blending into Indo. Small talk. The road’s edge is compacted red dirt. The tank’s caterpillar tracks do so much damage.
He laughs. ‘Progress can not be stopped. We have Soekarno’s victory statues to prove it.’
‘Jalan Pontai doesn’t need more potholes,’ I say as a tip truck overtakes us on the narrow shoulder to our right. Dirt, gravel and dust spits up and clouds us, and we only just miss hitting a goatherd’s flock. The goats scatter. I look back to see if we hit any. The goatherd is standing in the middle of the road, cars swervig around him, shaking his arms at us and yelling and cursing.
‘Poor bugger,’ I say.
‘Lucky we did’t kill any,’ Meli says.
Meli reminds me of an Indonesian Bon Scott. ‘Do you like ACDC? They use big guitars.’
‘Sometimes,’ he says.
‘Depends on my mood. I like S.I.D; Guns ‘n’ Roses; Painters and Dockers; Galaxy; and Anggun.’
‘Of course you like Anggun,’ I say.
We pass another victory statue; this time, though, there’s a local political party’s flag on top. ‘Elections soon?’ I ask.
Meli nods. ‘Local. Kampong level,’ he says. We sweep through two more roundabouts. ‘Usual government promises,’ he says and lights another cigarette. ‘Cold down there this time of year.’
‘I like it,’ I say. Then we double back again, to the south-west, and where the road narrows there are irrigated paddies. Fallow this time of year. Buffalo and horses graze.
We head towards the city again, despite Meli taking us in a circle.
After a couple more double backs, Meli drops me a few blocks from Atam’bua Railway Station.
‘Mas,’ he says in Indo; ‘you must go, now, this minute. There is no one following anymore. Act casual from here on in. But hurry.’
We shake hands in the car.
‘Take care, Mas,’ I say.
‘You also,’ he replies.
When we unclasp we touch our hearts.
I hurry through the jalan belakang: back streets. Atambua is that mix of official business, dodgy business, opportunists and displaced locals. Bali without the beaches. Anyone could be hiding among the crowd out the front, waiting, but, lucky for me, Atam’bua’s Pasar Ikan: the fish market, is adjacent to the station, so I go in that way. Tradie’s entrance, so to speak. I navigate narrow rows of vendors shouting prices, standing by ice buckets and racks of live molluscs. The smell of fish. Location six is in Majapahit. I’m on my way there without even knowing if Valamae’s there to meet me.
Inside, the station is crammed close with people and scents. Voice resonates in a particular way within large buildings. The building fuses Tamil architecture and Gothic Revival — according to the plaque at the base of the stairs. No wonder it reminds me of the temples in Tamil Nadu. The lattices are by students from the Institut Seni Indonesia: Indonesian Institute of Arts, in Yogyakarta — according to the plaque on the concourse. I guess the plan was to get the students work for free, and hope someone made it famous. A third plaque lists the students’ names, but I’ve never heard of any of them. I break my sims into two and drop the bits into a few different garbage bins. The ticket windows hug the concourse edge.
Of the two rail companies that service all of JNA: Western Railway and Northern Rail, they’re both good. I push my way to the front of a wr window, which has been designed for the person sitting in the office selling not for those of us buying tickets. I have to half crouch to slide my money in under the security grille. ‘Kutarajayarra!’ I shout above the voices. Concourses with domed ceilings look nice enough — this one is opal-coloured and decorated with an astronomical map, but the acoustics make everything so fucking loud.
The guy in the office cups his ear.
‘Kutarajayarra!’ I repeat. This service goes across to the west coast, near the Pilbara and only makes two other stops — Majapahit and Martuthunira. I pay full price for a ticket all the way. He hands me my papers.
The train is idling when I get to the platform, and the air is so sour from the diesel that it bites my throat. I immediately feel ill. Down the end of the platform people are waiting outside the stock carriage — every so often a tied-up goat or pig squeals.
I’m early, so go to my seat and take advantage of the free wi-fi. The empty carriage is so quiet that I can hear the air con. Both diesel and air con make me uneasy in the guts — but air con is the lesser of two.
A tall Indig woman wearing a green-patterned sari is sitting in the window seat next to mine. She’s working on a tablet and her noise-cancelling headphones are silver. She looks up as I sit. I smile and she smiles back, then shows no more interest. She smells like burnt eucalyptus, so is either travelling into foreign Country, or is returning home. Aside from the eucalyptus, the train smells of carpet cleaner and air freashener. I send a group email via a vpn on my phone, using a combination of real and fake addresses, explaining my Red Centre holiday is going well. I use a couple of Meli’s mirrored addresses. He’ll contact me when it’s safe to do so. As I finish I hear the chai song.
‘Ch-ai, ch-ai, ch-aai… Ch-ai, ch-ai, ch-aai’. The words are split, with the second syllable accentuated.
I look out the window past the woman next to me. An old wooden chai cart stops on the platform.
Pedagang chai work in pairs. The cart pusher keeps the main pot on a gentle boil, while the salesman sells the chai from a milk can slung over his shoulders. The pot’s held in a wooden frame and sits on a gas hotplate. A good seller can sell three milk cans per carriage.
This seller’s good. Before entering our carriage he stops and splashes a dash of chai across the threshold. ‘Ch-ai, ch-ai, ch-ai,’ he sings, then closes his eyes and whispers an offering. Only then does he step inside. The smell of chai. As he walks down the aisle all it takes is a glance; a nod; a smile. Few words, if any. The raising of a finger. He sees all the signs. The more charisma, the more sales. And this guy has charisma.
When he comes to our row the woman next to me orders. The nod of her head was so slight. He ladles the chai so it froths. A pinch of garam masala from the leather pouch on his belt. I saw a pedagang chai once who had a parot on his shoulder. It just slowed him up and shat down his back. He passes her the cup, takes her money and hands her the change. In a moment he’s serving the customer behind us. I’m impressed, and a little envious. I can’t do sums in my head like that.
When the pitch of the engine falls — I know from having missed a train — departure’s close. And we’re already moving, albeit slowly, when the pedagang chai comes back through to make one last sweep of our carriage.
‘Ch-ai, ch-ai, ch-ai.’
Who knows, he may sell some extra cups in these last minutes. People who didn’t buy initially, but become arrested bythe aroma of nutmeg, ginger, cinamon, cardamom, honey. I don’t like chai.
We leave the platform. And by the time the station is far enough behind for me to relax a little more, I’ve packed my phone away, settled in and I’m checking out my entertainment options on the tv screen mounted to the seat in front. I’ll watch a Bollywood film after sunset.
Beyond Atam’bua’s outer kampongs we start out over the Setubandhanam floating bridge onto the lake: danau. I’m always taken by Danau Atam’bua’s proximity to the city itself. Indo fashioned the Soekarno mountain range on the western edge of the deserts. Officially it was to provide irrigation and hydro power. That said, the end result is a gorgeous series of four adjoining salt danau. I can’t tell where one stops and starts, so to me they all look like the one an inland sea. It doesn’t take long for all sight of land to disappear.
There’s nothing like travelling the beauty of twilight, my favourite time on the water. And travelling west means a lengthened sunset. As a kid I thought the trains really floated, but it’s more prosaic than that. The Setubandhanam is a series of anchored floating pontoons. These types of floating bridges are used all over the world. I recline the seat and hunker into the cusion — what a day. I watch the sunset, a beautiful blood-red, through the window, over the woman’s shoulder. I can never remember if a red sun means it’s going to rain or not. By the time the sun sets the woman hasn’t looked from her tablet once. When she does look up, it’s to turn her overhead light on. Sometimes the moon and sun rise and set over the danau at the same time. In the gentle evening I drift and I’m sure I hear water whooshing against the train, but the way these bridges are built, that’s impossible. I dream about submarine trains.