Autobiographical explorations


Mijn eerste ruimtevaart - my first space trip

We were living on Refinery Avenue at the time, in the small oil concession town of Sungei Gerong on the broad and muddy Musi River. Ten miles or so up river on the other side was Palembang, the ancient capital of Sumatra.

The former Netherlands East Indies had just become the Republik Indonesia the year before, in 1949

My Dad had been sent away by the Company to Tandjung Uban, a small island off the coast of Singapore, apparently for his own safety, because he had become embroiled in a political dispute. He was a chemist, but had temporarily been assigned to teach a group of Indonesians the kind of technical English and Indonesian required in his profession--and pressure had been brought to bear on him by the PKI, Partai Kommunis Indonesia, the local Communist Party, to pass some students he had given failing grades. Threats had been made on his life, so he was sent away for a few months to let things cool off. The post colonial period was still very turbulent. 

My two younger brothers were about age two and three--the twins were not yet born and I must have been eight at the time, attending the third grade at the local school of the Stichting Nederlands Onderwijs in Indonesie, the Foundation for Dutch Education in Indonesia.

Our house was a modest colonial bungalow with the living and dining room one one side flanked by a few bedrooms and a bathroom in the main building, connected by a covered walkway leading to the belakang, the achtergebouwen or service buildings, which contained the servant quarters, the kitchen and the laundry area.

The covered walkway provided space for us kids to play when it rained or when it was too hot to play out in the yard. We had an old sturdy table there, which was to become my space ship.

I had been reading some of Jules Verne's books, borrowed from the company library located in one end of the old World War II army quonsett hut but which on the other end, facing the soos, societeit or club, also housed a Chinese restaurant during the week, and was used for church services on Sundays.

I hope I remember all this with some degree of accuracy, but I cannot vouch for it, for my memory of that time is becoming quite sketchy. In any event I got fascinated by the idea of traveling to the moon myself but needed a co-pilot, so I decided to divulge my daring, secret plan to one of my clasmates I had begun to hung out with after my bosom buddy, whom I still missed a great deal, had returned to Holland with his family. 

Children have a vivid imagination and in those early days of our species, little technology was available to assist us.

But there was that old table on the belakang, it would prove sufficient for our needs. And so, many years before Sputnik awed the world with its bleeping sounds we arranged to set off on our unprecedent and historical voyage to the moon. We found cardboard boxes and crates, all kinds of sticks and pipes, discarded wheels, and anything else we could lay our hands on to construct a serviceable spaceship out of that old table on the belakang.

The maids looked on in bemused bewilderment as our rocket ship slowly took shape and when the day finally had arrived and we disappeared with a loud blast in a puff of smoke, there were cries of fear and astounishment.

Would we ever make it back? We were kids, we never thought of the great risks we were taking. Coming back was not in our vocabulary, it was not our worry. We wanted to explore the great unknown regions where no man had gone before and prove that old Jules Verne was right after all, against all conventional wisdom, that it could be done.

Indeed, we were eager to face the unknown, just like all the other explorers we had vaguely heard of, Columbus, the discoverer of America, Magellaen, the circumnavigator of the world, or our own countryman Abel Tasman, who had found a whole new continent south of the Indies and named it New Holland. We were going to claim the moon and the stars for the our beloved Queen Juliana, who had just taken over from her aging mother, Wilhelmina. And we never even thought or worried about coming back. Who cared, as long as the Moon would be Dutch.

But then the call would come for het middag- or avondmaal, for lunch or dinner, and the smell of nasi or bami goreng, (fried rice or noodles), with various side dishes like aer manga (shredded, iced mango salad) or gado gado (mixed salad with peanut sauce), krupuk (deep fried crunchy shrimp chips) and deep fried chicken livers--hmmm, heerlijk, terlalu enak, delicious, as long as it was sauteed in tamarind sauce! And even the thought of pisang goreng (fried bananas) or mashed and sweetened avocado with coffee and a hint of rum for that extra flavor as toetje (desert), our stomach engines growling, provided us with the necessary rocket fuel for a speedy return from the moon, all the way back own to earth.

Oh, the stories we would be able to tell everyone at school, in third or fourth grade! They would be green with envy, as green as those strange little bug-eyed critters we had encountered on the far side of the moon, the ones  we had caught, baptized and taught to sing the Wilhelmus, our ancient national anthem.

But of course no one would believe us, so we'd opt for a haughty, mysterious silence. Our information had to remain classified. After all, what did they know, those other kids, still playing their usual old and tired games of cops and robbers on their little bikes or balloon tired scooters, speeding in between the unruly hedgerows that lined the narrow pathways among  the white plastered, red tiled houses of het Oude Kamp, the Old Camp, with its pre-war colonial architecture, or over the hills and valleys of the Grintberg (pebble mountain) of het Nieuwe Kamp, the new Camp, built mostly in a kind of Texas ranch style after the war by the Americans. 

Those games were over for us. Our classmates, they would not understand, they would not believe. They were not interested. But we, we were ruimtevaarders, astronauts, we had conquered the fear of the unknown, the greatest dragon of them all, and the entire universe awaited us.