Indonesia Expat
Featured Observations

Unsung Heroes of Indonesia

Unsung Heroes of Indonesia
Unsung Heroes of Indonesia

The 10th of November is Heroes Day in Indonesia, to remember those who fought and risked everything to get the colonial powers off their back – the Dutch, the Japanese, and the English.

Where I live, in Surabaya, many streets are named after these heroes and the “Suraboyos” know those names and what the heroes did. The battle of Surabaya, where the local freedom fighters battled the English, was the bloodiest confrontation. Indonesian citizens fought against the English who had more guns and even tanks. Thousands of these heroes died.

The history is complicated as so many nationalities are involved including the Dutch, the Japanese, and the English. On 17th August 1945, two days after the surrender of the Japanese in the Pacific, Soekarno and Hatta declared the independence of Indonesia. Indonesia is a young democracy, and the citizens are proud of it and the positive future they are building.

As an expat from a developed country, I never stop noticing people here doing useful jobs for small money or no money at all.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I want to mention why I care about these people as it relates to my own experience. Because of the intentional choices I have made to become an artist and a writer, my life has not always been easy. At one point I had an opportunity to buy a hilltop farm at an exceptionally good price. The nearest neighbour lived about two kilometres away. It was and is a beautiful place and suited my need for natural beauty and the peace needed to think, paint, and write. Unfortunately, work opportunities were few. There was, however, a very big YMCA camp about 20 kilometres away and they hired me as a maintenance man. For the next year, I unplugged countless toilets, dug up sewage systems, soldered copper pipes and other things like that. I was happy for the work and unashamed despite my fancy education.

Eventually, I found a more interesting way to make a living in that remote and beautiful place, but the point is that I relate when I see people doing humble jobs with energy and purpose. There is no shame in humble work. On the contrary, there are honour, fame, and glory there.

The most noticeable are the tukang parkirs who help us park everywhere. Without them, life in Surabaya and other cities would be impossible. Risking their lives, they flag the traffic and help us park, and get us in and out of the parking spot without having an accident. If that sounds simple, it is not.

One of my favourite guys is who we call Pak Ogah. He stands in the middle of a four-way intersection and makes sure nobody smashes into anyone else. He stands there like a statue, an old man, wearing a broad-brimmed hat to protect him from the blazing sun. I know another guy like that, a very small young guy with long dyed red hair who always has a smile as he helps us move into the traffic without danger. Drivers give money to these people, small money.

When I take my morning walk, I always see the garbage man pulling a large wire basket behind his motorcycle and throwing the garbage from the neighbourhood houses into it. Sometimes the garbage spills and hits the street. He picks it up. Sometimes I wave at him. We are about the same age, and sometimes he waves back but not always. He does not need that. He totally accepts his life and his responsibility.

These people are the real heroes to me, people who work, do their chosen job, don’t complain, and show up.

Streets in the neighbourhoods have gutters, channels at the side of the road. They are about a foot and a half wide and three feet deep. They collect all manner of water, dirt and lots of nasty stuff that comes from the “grey water” of houses, plus everything else that gets pushed or washed into them from the street. Periodically they must be cleaned out because if they don’t flow there will be floods in the rainy season. That is serious here.

Yesterday, I watched a man up to his waist in that dirt, scooping buckets of “it” and putting “it” into heavy plastic grain bags to be carted off. The city government manages to recycle it into “night soil” for gardening purposes. I have seen it used in the flower beds that separate the main thoroughfares here. The man doing that hard work is a hero to me.

Last night there was a deluge of rain falling as it can only fall in the tropics, so hard you can barely see. No way could these men get even small money in that situation. Still, they were there, almost invisible in the pounding rain, helping the cars make their turns, preventing stress and accidents.

We walk in the morning in our very pleasant housing area. We see birds such as the Javanese Pond Heron and The White Breasted Water Hen. It is a pleasure. My wife and I walk together, and I scatter some seed for birds, and she feeds the numerous stray cats who run out to greet her.

At one turning point on our walk, we noticed an old man, old but still strong. He was sweeping the street on the corner. Another time we saw that he was planting some vegetable plants on the edge of undeveloped land near that corner. We mentioned to him that we liked what he was doing. He told us that he had been part of the security team (satpam) for our neighbourhood for many years. But they fired him when he got too old, so he was jobless. Yes, jobless but still strong, proud, and straight, a very honourable old man. People like that are my favourite people, they continue to do their best no matter what.

Others also deserve praise. I taught at a school here for several years and one of my former colleagues has, for eighteen years, made the commute to school two hours each way, from Sidoarjo to Pakuwon City, Surabaya. That is our hours a day on a motorcycle to get to school, teach classes, and go home. For me, that is truly fame, honour, and glory. Blessings all around.

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