I distinctly remember it was June 1980. I had just turned forty-five and had been promoted Director of a large division. That Monday morning I was peacefully planning my week at my desk, hoping to catch up with the backlog, when my Secretary came into the office, white as a sheet, to tell me that the Assistant Director General wanted to see me immediately about an urgent problem. Five minutes later he told me that I was to leave on a mission to Djakarta that very evening to represent Unesco at the Borobudur Festival.
What Borobudur Festival ? Why me ? I knew practically nothing about the subject. I vaguely remembered that Unesco had launched an international campaign and had collaborated with the Indonesian Authorities for several years in restoring and rescuing the Borobudur Temple. What was the Festival about? I knew that the project was looked after by another division and handled by a project officer by the name of Massaringhe – a notoriously difficult, recalcitrant and confrontational man who could not stand me.
Massaringhe disliked France and the French. He considered the French snobbish, cynical, elitist and arrogant. He often said that they have a natural inclination to show off and that they see themselves as the only civilized people on earth, believe that there is honor in seduction and world supremacy in a bottle of Grand Cru. Even though these characteristics were not necessarily mine, he had included me in his negative vision of the French. After my recent appointment to the Director post – for which he had also applied – his resentment had intensified.
The Assistant Director General told me that the decision had come from the very top and was not to be discussed. It was no use wasting time in trying to argue. A complete file had been prepared by the division in charge, with a concise description of the project, the agenda of the Festival, the speech to be delivered, and proposals in the draft ‘Program and Budget’ for continued collaboration with the Indonesians. Mr. Massaringhe had been asked to brief me and I had plenty of time to study the Borobudur file on the plane since I would arrive in Djakarta twenty-one hours after leaving Paris. I was already feeling tired, suffering from an anticipated jet-lag. I was then informed that the Unesco Protocol Division would be in touch with the Indonesian Embassy in order to facilitate the delivery of an entry visa upon my arrival at the Djakarta Airport. I was going to be met at the airport and all arrangements would be made in time by the Unesco Djakarta Office. I did not have to worry.
When the Assistant Director-General saw me aghast and totally collapsed in my chair he said, “Come on, Jacques, consider yourself lucky. You are going to see the vastest, the oldest and the most beautiful monument in the southern hemisphere.”
He waxed lyrical in its description. With its stone terraces rising skywards, stratum upon stratum and the profusion of unique stone reliefs and statues of the Buddha, this magnificent Buddhist sanctuary had been built over a thousand years ago and abandoned when people were converted to Islam. When it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, it was rotting in ruins and seemed doomed to collapse. Thanks to Unesco and to international cooperation this great work of human genius has been saved for posterity. I was told that I was lucky to see it on this occasion and that I should be happy and act accordingly.
In spite of the energetic ‘pep-talk’ I did not feel happy. I did not know then that this would turn to be an unforgettable mission. I left his office without saying a word.
I spent the rest of the day running around frantically, overwhelming my secretary with an avalanche of orders. I canceled appointments, I delegated authority, I distributed assignments and secured my Travel Order, my tickets and my travelers’ checks.
I called Brigitte and asked her to cancel the dinner party and pack my suitcase instead. At first she said that she did not know that she had married a Paratrooper or Fireman and then wanted to know what was all the excitement about and what was Borobudur, anyway. When I answered that I did not know, she thought I was being nasty and was most upset.
Then my daughter called, crying on the phone, because I had promised to attend the school play on Friday where she was to come down from the ceiling as an angel, suspended by a rope. I had promised to attend the play in order to applaud her and, at the same time, hold my wife’s hand who was scared stiff at the thought that the rope might break. In fact, we all thought Françoise, who was nine at the time, was too big to play angels.
Among other things my daughter was upset because she had studied volcanoes in school and knew that Indonesia was in a geologically active area of the Pacific known as ‘the Ring of Fire’. She informed me between two sobs that the Indonesian chain was home to some 130 active volcanoes. Why did I have to go to such places ! I was impressed by the knowledge of my nine year old angel.
In the meantime, Mr. Massaringhe never showed up. A few minutes before I frantically left my office, his Secretary came in and handed me the Borobudur file with an icy look, saying, “This is the file that was prepared for Mr. Massaringhe’s mission,”
I do not know how on earth I managed to be on that Air France flight to Bangkok, that Monday evening. I was scheduled to arrive in Bangkok at around noon on Tuesday; leave Bangkok that same evening to arrive in Djakarta before midnight. Mr. Mangala, Director of the Unesco Office in Djakarta, would have made all the arrangements for transportation to Borobudur on Wednesday, where the Festival would start on Thursday. Mr. Mangala certainly knew a lot about the project and could very well have represented Unesco all by himself.
We were now above the clouds and I could not get my mind off Mr. Massaringhe. What had happened? Why not him ? Why not Mangala ? Why me? Would I ever find out? After a while I dozed off.
I woke up just in time for cocktails. The lady next to me was very attractive and elegantly dressed. Dinner was delicious. A little champagne, a little Bordeaux, and Borobudur did not look so bad after all. I loved to travel by Air France; for one thing meals were generally first-rate and champagne was served generously.
After coffee I pulled the famous file from my briefcase and opened it for the first time, with great expectations. I was suddenly horrified and terror-stricken. I turned page after page, totally appalled. The file was about the restoration of the colonial center of Quito, Ecuador ! I was petrified.
I must have been as pale as death because the lady to my right asked me if I was feeling well. My blood was running cold. How could such an incredibly stupid thing have happened ? The lady handed me a glass of champagne. I asked for the bottle.
I had to talk to someone. I told her the whole story, over and over again, in total disarray. She listened with interest but I could detect in her mocking eyes a shadow of amusement. I must have been very excited, gesticulating abundantly. Her elegant composure and crystalline voice eventually pacified me a little.
She was a very graceful Eurasian lady, could have been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty-five; she had lived in Indonesia for many years. Was probably born there. She had visited Borobudur and knew the country inside out. She taught Asian History at the State University of Utrecht, Holland, and went back to Indonesia every year for the summer holidays. “You know,” she said sipping her champagne, “You did not get the wrong file by mistake. Your colleague who was supposed to undertake this mission gave you the wrong file on purpose. It is his revenge. Believe me, I know a lot about such underhanded maneuvers. Feminine intuition is a powerful tool.”
I did not answer. My Eurasian neighbor, who seemed to know a lot about intrigues, suddenly appeared to me as a sort of modern Mata-Hari. She continued to talk while I was searching in my memory for the ‘Mata-Hari file’. I had read her biography by Alain Decaux, in Les dossiers secrets de l’histoire (The secret files of History). Mata-Hari, famous oriental dancer and spy, was in fact Dutch, just like my neighbor. Mata-Hari was not born in Java as she pretended, but in plain Leewareden, Holland. Her real name was Margaretha-Geertruida Zelle – or Grietje for close friends. She had spent a few years in Indonesia with her husband. In Java, she had become totally bewitched by the sacred dances, the religious rites and ancestral mysteries of the local culture. Later on, Grietje from Leewareden became, for the world at large, Mata-Hari from Java.
When I heard the word ‘Borobudur’, I suddenly realized that my neighbor had been talking to me for sometime, while my mind had again wandered. “How interesting!” I said “This is my first visit, please tell me about Indonesia.”
“I just did!” she answered.
“I want more. I want more. You are my Borobudur file !”
She giggled with satisfaction and, as an experienced lecturer from Utrecht she described Indonesia ad nauseam. I learned that Indonesia is made up of over 10,000 islands. It is the fourth most populated country in the world. From West to East, Indonesia is 1000 kilometers longer than the USA. It has 600 varieties of orchids and possesses the largest flower on earth, the ‘Raflesia’ which is over a yard in diameter. I wondered how a young bride would look with a dozen raflesias in her arms and chuckled at the thought.
I also learned that there are seventeen language groups but the national language is Bahasa Indonesia. It is basically Malay, enriched by Dutch, Indian, Arabic and English words. She said that it was a very simple language to learn. All the champagne I had drunk had put me in an exhilarating mood and a number of silly thoughts came through my mind. I thought that since I did not have the Borobudur file to read on the flight, I could perhaps learn Bahasa Indonesia, instead.
Unperturbed by my smiles and chuckles Mata-Hari continued her lecture. Until 1949 Indonesia had been a Dutch colony under the name of ‘Netherlands East Indies’. The mass expulsion in 1957 virtually eliminated all the Dutch settlers from the country. In addition to the indigenous population, there were numerous Chinese and a few Eurasians, native-born residents of mixed parentage.
“Eurasians are beautiful”, I said. She smiled.
She went on to explain that in an integrated effort of its diverse populations, the Republic of Indonesia had retained as a national slogan ‘Bhinneka tuggal Ika’, which means ‘Diverse and one, at the same time’. I repeated the motto and had my pronunciation corrected several times until I could say it well.
“Almost like a native,” she said.
“But how is Borobudur ?” I asked.
She informed me that the great Buddhist Temple in Java, 8th century A.D., consisted of a series of terraces around a hill 150 feet high, at the top of which is a large Stupa, surrounded by several smaller ones. The stone lining of the terrace walls is completely covered with exquisite relief sculptures illustrating the life of Buddha.
My lecturer went on to explain – while her only student began to feel sleepy – that the average yearly income in Indonesia was about $600. Most Indonesians had to have three or four jobs in order to survive.
“You know, the population grows by over 2 million people each year,” she said with a strange expression on her face, as though I had something to do with it.
I figured that perhaps, deep inside, she felt that the Borobudur Festival – which she probably imagined as a sort of mundane supercocktail – was not what the country needed most to cope with its economic problems.
“But cultural heritage, history and national patrimony are certainly important aspects of a nation’s life, don’t you think ?” And before she could answer I added, “If the national slogan is ‘Diverse but one’ (Bhinneka Tuggal Ika), Borobudur certainly contributes in making the ‘diverse’ feel like ‘one’.” She nodded and said that it sounded good enough for a Unesco speech.
With the ironic thought that, after several hours, I had found one good sentence for my speech, I smiled and closed my eyes to rest. I felt strange. Why was I in such good mood ? After all, the situation I was in could turn out to be very embarrassing. Back in the Office when anything crossed me ever so little I lost heart and temper. Whereas here everything was amusing. Strange. After breakfast – or was it lunch? – we arrived in Bangkok.
At the VIP lounge I called Paris. It was one o’clock in the afternoon in Bangkok and seven in the morning in Paris. The Assistant Director General was under the shower. In very few words I told him that I had been given a file about Quito, Ecuador and that I expected to receive by cable (The fax was not yet in use then) the full text of the speech and whatever information would not be available at the Djakarta office.
“If I do not receive such cable in time, ” I added you will understand that I shall not be in a position to attend the event. In that case, perhaps Mr. Mangala could take the floor for Unesco.”
The answer was “ Mr. Mangala is in New Delhi and shall not be back in time”.
After a long silence I said emphatically “Then, please keep an eye on Mr. Massaringhe, on what he will send and on when he will send it”.
I had never talked to the Assistant Director General in that tone, but I was certain that I had managed to put a quick end to a leisurely shower !
I then looked for Mata-Hari who had promised to tell me more about Indonesia, until the departure of the Thai flight, and probably beyond. I was being followed all the time by a skinny Thai who offered to take me downtown to a good massage parlor. I was unable to discourage him with any of the arguments I could think of. He followed me all over the airport, until I found Mata-Hari. He then left with a big smile saying, “I now understand.”
We sat for coffee. I asked her “How does one behave in Indonesia? Tell me about good manners, etiquette and local aspects of courtesy.”
She obviously liked the question. She put on her special Utrecht professor look and advised me that I should never touch the head, hair, hat, or turban of an Indonesian man or woman, for the head is the sacred part of the human body; it is the seat of strength and power. Touching someone’s head is considered an insult. I assured her that it was not at all my intention.
She smiled and explained that it is not necessary to take off your hat in front of a lady. Indonesia is a Muslim country, men keep their little hats on. “Like in the old Hollywood movies ” she added “ where men are indoors, without jackets, sometimes without ties, but always with their hats on.”
Then she went on giving some hints regarding table manners. “As a guest you have to eat faster than your host who is not allowed to finish his dish before you. In the country if you eat with your fingers, be sure that your host dips his fingers in the water bowl before you do. Never hand over something with your left hand. It is insulting.”
She continued to explain table etiquette in great details, until I decided that it would be much too complicated to eat in Indonesia. So I gradually stopped concentrating, as the jet lag was beginning to show its effects on me. Obviously the Mata-Haris of the world suffer no jet lag.
“If you go to Bali, it is another story”, she said “Bali is a Hindu society. Civilities are subtle and complicated. For example, the higher the rank the higher the chair you sit in. As a Unesco Director you will probably be given a very tall bar stool.”
“Since I am afraid of heights, I should avoid Bali!”
Another strange thing I learned was that, in Bali, when you give a present you should leave the price tag on so that the person who receives the gift will be able to reciprocate with a more expensive one. If you hide the price, you create confusion.
Then she went on saying that funerals are a joyous ceremony in Bali and one is not expected to look sad. She ended the Bali chapter on funerals by informing me that in a mountain district called Tenagan, water is sprayed on the corpse, collected under the coffin and offered around in small glasses. When you drink that water the virtues of the departed are infused into you. I bet that Mr. Massaringhe did not know that.
When the Thai flight to Djakarta was announced, we proceeded to the gate. Dinner was delicious. The Thai hostess as feminine and pleasant as can be. The flight smooth. The landing perfect.
At the airport’s customs I expected endless problems. Instead, the entry visa was granted without difficulty. Smiles shined on all the faces. The luggage was there. Mr. Russell, the Acting Director of the Unesco Office, was also there to greet me. Mr. Russell was a tall and skinny man, wearing glasses, almost bald with a high-pitched raspy voice. He was shy, unsure of himself and knew the Unesco Rules and Regulations by heart. I was driven to a comfortable hotel. The night was reasonably calm.
On Wednesday morning after breakfast, Mr. Russell, fairly excited, appeared on the scene to announce that a few journalists had come to the hotel for a mini-press conference. “ You must be joking ! Impossible !” I said and as I began to explain why such an encounter could not take place, the journalists were introduced to me one by one.
We bowed to each other and exchanged smiles and greetings. There was something so incredibly unreal about the situation that I had to laugh. This new development put me in an exceptionally cheerful mood. It was too much. I felt as if I was about to participate in an amusing game or competition. The whole event struck me as a sort of hallucination – or was it another of my dreams?
Dream or reality, there I was on a small platform, without notes, without files, without knowledge, surrounded by half a dozen short, tanned and smiling men, with sleek black hair and wide noses.
“Mr. Dupont,” asked the first journalist “We are very happy to greet you in our country. Could you tell us why you are here?”
“Because the Assistant Director General of Unesco told me to be here,” I said.
The journalists burst into laughter. Mr. Russell looked bewildered. The journalists told me later that they thought I had a good sense of humor, compared to the more conventional diplomats of the United Nations family. In fact, only humor could save the day for me.
I answered all questions with a cocktail combining my general knowledge of Unesco’s policy and programs, the briefings of Mata-Hari, a touch of good sense, a pinch of humor and a tiny sprinkle of diplomacy and praise. So, help me God.
“Why is Unesco represented at this Festival ?”
“Unesco, as a friendly organization which has cooperated with Indonesia for many years in the fields of education, science, culture and communication, tries to be present at every major event to bring its moral support.”
“Mr. Dupont do you think the Borobudur Festival is a major event ?”
“Well, yes. If it were not a major event, would you all be here this morning ?” They giggled.
“Mr. Dupont, we are sure the national authorities are thankful for the moral support, but don’t you think our people need more than moral support ?”
“Yes, indeed. This is why our collaboration in education, science, culture and communication involves concrete financial assistance in a multitude of projects in Indonesia. In addition to these financially-supported activities, we also encourage and give moral support to what we think are worthwhile national activities, such as this one.”
“Could you tell us, Mr. Dupont, what concrete financial support Unesco is bringing to Indonesia in general and to Borobudur in particular? “
“Well, well. What Unesco has done in the past for Indonesia and Borobudur is well known to you and has been widely covered by the local press over the years. What Unesco assistance and collaboration will include in the future will be discussed with the national authorities during my short stay in Indonesia. You will understand that it would be embarrassing if your ministers were to learn of these proposals through the press. I shall be glad to discuss this question with you at the end of my mission, should I have the pleasure of seeing you again.”
They again chuckled and smiled. When the questions moved from Borobudur to the problems of Indonesia in general, I drew abundantly from the Mata-Hari brief and cited without restrain an avalanche of figures and statistics the number of islands, the different types of orchids, the famous Raflesia flower, the yearly national income, table manners, peculiarities of Bali funerals and what have you. Mr. Russell had first turned purple and was now becoming white as a ghost. The journalists continued to smile. What is the real meaning of a smile in Asia, I’ll never know !
“Our country is democratic. Our University and high-school students are free to organize public demonstrations to protest against corruption and dilapidation of public funds. Their slogan is ‘Kami Ingin Tahu’, which means ‘we want to know.’ How does Unesco feel about that ?” asked a journalist.
“Unesco does not and cannot interfere in internal matters. But as you well know, Unesco is for a free press and the freedom of expression. ‘We want to know’ is a good motto. We all need to know. Knowledge is basic to education, to research, to advancement of science, to progress and democracy. Unesco’s own slogan could very well be “ Kami Ingin Tahu.”
“Mr. Dupont what is really Borobudur for Unesco ?”
“It is a beautiful Buddhist Temple which deserves to be saved for future generations – from an aesthetic, architectural, historical and religious point of view. But more than that, it is a symbol of Indonesian diversity and unity. The beauty of that temple proclaims for everyone to hear ‘we are diverse, but one at the same time’… ‘Bhinneka Tuggal Ika.”
At that point the journalists stood up and applauded. I came down towards them, shaking hands – but not touching their heads – and apologizing for my bad Indonesian accent. They said it was almost like a local accent from southern Sumatra. Where did I learn it? I told them I had had a good teacher by the name of Mata-Hari. Again they laughed. Mr. Russell looked thunderstruck. He did not know how to take all that “Blah-blah-blah”. Neither did I. I never imagined for a moment that Mr. Massaringhe’s file would turn out to be so useless !
The next day, to Mr. Russell’s astonishment, the local papers had nothing but praise for Unesco and its representative from Paris. Deep inside I was thankful to the French Education system at large and, in particular, to the Political Sciences Faculty who had taught me how to enlarge on a subject I ignored, with zest, animation and a certain logic.
That mini-press conference gave me great confidence. I felt jubilant and in good spirits. With Mr. Russell’s agreement, I convened a meeting at the Unesco Djakarta Office, I asked a thousand questions on the Festival, took notes, invited opinions and advice and discussed everything. Then a cable arrived from Paris. It contained the speech, essential briefing elements and many apologies. We left for Borobudur.
Borobudur was just like Mata-Hari had described it. Situated on a hill commanding an extensive view of rice fields and more distant towering volcanoes, the Temple looked like a low pyramid composed of successively receding platforms. Impressively majestic and beautiful. The Assistant Director General was right. I was lucky to be here.
The place was crowded. The Festival was attended by many foreign dignitaries, Ambassadors from Djakarta, members of the government and the army as well as politicians, and to quote Shakespeare “the choice and master spirits of the age.” Beyond the fenced Festival area, a huge colorful crowd added a further dimension to the event.
There were puppet shows, dances and songs. When the crowd recognized an important public figure they would shout something which sounded very rude to my French ears. I asked Mr. Russell in disbelief, “Are they really shouting ‘Merde’ or am I not hearing well ?”
Mr. Russell smiled and explained, “Since the Liberation from Dutch colonialism, the patriotic greeting is ‘Merdeka’, which the crowd scans as ‘Merde- Merde- Merdeka’”.
“Oh, well,” I said, “Before he comes on an official visit, the President of the French Republic should be thoroughly briefed! “
The event lasted a long time. The sun was scorching. I wondered how the Borobudur Temple had not melted after all these centuries. Speech after speech, everything that could possibly be said on Borobudur was said. Speakers before me uttered the very thoughts and phrases which Mr. Massaringhe had put in the Unesco communication. I did not think I had the time or wit to come up with anything original. Then, the Master of Ceremony warned me that it would soon be my turn, and politely asked if it would at all be possible to make a short speech. “Oh, yes!” I said relieved.
I glanced at the twelve-page draft, which I had carefully edited, page after page, with Mr. Russell and practically memorized overnight, and in no time I reduced it to three paragraphs : a) the greeting, b) a concise recollection of Unesco’s past involvement and c) what we will try to do in the future. It was the shortest and, for that reason, one of the most applauded talks of the day.
As I was stepping down from the podium, someone in the crowd fainted – probably due to a sunstroke. I later learned that it was Mr. Russell who, at the end of my brief, unconventional speech, had blacked out. We never discussed the reasons for his malaise.
The meeting with the national authorities concerning future cooperation between Indonesia and Unesco went very well. We spoke of the Consultative Committee on the International Campaign to Safeguard Borobudur and other related matters. I took ample notes and structured my mission report before leaving the country, fearing that if I did not do it right away I would forget important points. I could have entitled my mission report “Much Ado About Nothing,” but I did not want to cause any further fainting.
It was now Friday or Saturday – I wasn’t sure. Mr. Russell was bidding me goodbye at the airport. He looked very happy to see me go. I could not remember when I had last slept and felt completely washed out. The plane had not yet taken off that I was asleep, with seat belt on. I do not know how many intermediate landings we made, how many meals were served, or how many movies were shown. The real and the unreal intermingled in a sort of hypnotic somnolence. Once in a while, an announcement would pull me out of my lethargy for a few seconds and then I would quickly sink into unconsciousness.
It must have been the funeral of some notorious man. Borobudur was crowded. Dignitaries were invited to speak one after another. Water had been poured over the corpse and each speaker was given a glass of that water to drink. I did not want any, since I had been told that Mangala was dying from it in a New Delhi hospital. Russell and Massaringhe were performing a Bali dance, ‘the fight of good against evil.’ When the journalists recognized me they joyfully cheered and had me sit on a very high stool from where I could dominate the scene. Far away to my right I could see Mata-Hari selling Batik textiles. To my left the Assistant Director General was taking a shower by the fountain. Way out in front, my daughter, dressed as an angel, was swinging at the end of a rope. Then a tempestuous wind hit the podium and a thousand sheets of paper flew over the crowd. “Not to worry,” said the Master of Ceremony, “it is only the Borobudur file !”
- Around The World In Eighty Missions: Introduction
- Does Life Start At Sixty?
- My Mission With Maurice Chevalier
- London With Spaghettini
- A Dress For Zeinab
- The Borobudur File
- Spiders, Veronique, And The Other Nuisance
- Kabuki, Sumo, And Sake
- The Vikings And I
- Kama Sutra And Bollywood
- Gay Paris With Nancy And Aunt Lily
- The Battle Of Leningrad
- Who Burnt The Library Of Alexandria?
- Viva Zapata!
- The Farewell Party
- Unesco – Sunny Side Up
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American copyright conventions.
No part of this book, text and drawings, may be reproduced or transmitted, in any forms or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.
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