Parting is such sweet sorrow, but coming back is a hoot.
A few weeks ago I was in Java and Sumatra on one of those travel-writing assignments that make it worth getting up in the morning. It’s been twenty-five years since I stepped on Indonesian soil, as regular readers of this column may recall—and by that I mean readers of this column when it last appeared on a weekly basis, which was nineteen months ago. Given the pace of life these days, those readers will long since have grown up, gotten married, become disillusioned with their career choices, gotten divorced, had hip replacement surgery, and moved countries to get away from their poxy grandchildren.
So, to recap briefly, Indonesia was where I lived for five years in my adolescence, a time that was golden and wonderful except for the bit where our dog nipped out of the gate never to be seen again, and the bit where I chomped into an apple that had a worm in it, and the bit where I fainted after a gamma globulin shot (gamma globulin being an anti-hepatitis medication rather than the instrument of Mordor that it sounds like).
But as they say, you can never really come back home. For many years I thought that this was just a thing my mother said to me every morning as she pushed me out of the door—she still starts crying when I walk in at the end of the day—but it turns out that it actually means something like Things Change, or You Can Never Step In The Same River Twice, or You’ve Forgotten Your Address Again You Halfwit.
All this is true, but sometimes the new river is close enough. The smell of the terminal at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta whisked me straight back to 1982 and my ten-year-old self, which is a poignant testament to the way in which governments, when they find a good detergent, just stick with it. The smoked glass of the corridors, the iridescent green of the grass outside, the thickness of the foliage, the frangipani flowers hanging heavy on the trees, the scent of clove cigarettes and the occasional exclamation of ‘Aduh!’ were all deeply familiar. Words of Bahasa Indonesia that I didn’t even know I knew magically clarified the signs around the airport. It felt great.
But everything was also undeniably different. I’m now forty, even though I still live like a seventeen-year-old. This was the first time I was smoking in Indonesia. This was the first time in over a decade that I was smoking inside a restaurant (Indonesia is a great country); the first time that I was travelling in a bus that wasn’t a school bus; the first time I went to a discotheque in Sumatra. Most tellingly, though, it was the first time that I felt I had somewhere to return to after the trip.
And that’s what the last nineteen months have felt like: as if I’ve taken a longish trip somewhere else, and now it’s time to go home. The people there may long ago have taken over your cupboard and thrown away your talismanic plastic spoon from that great evening with the false nose and the brief police detention, but you still sort of know where everything is, and there are lots of things you don’t have to explain to the inhabitants, and they know how you like your tea.
This column, now a fortnightly, is happy to be home. Now I wish everyone would stop crying.