How Java’s controversial female ruler grew into the job
“That lady you call the ‘chic woman’ is Madam Lara,” my friend the professor said. ”She’s the owner, and she manages things.”
Can we meet her?
“She doesn’t appreciate people approaching her. She’ll sometimes stop by a guest’s table to see if everything is okay, but the house rule is we wait for her to make the first contact.”
It wasn’t until we were finishing our dessert that Madam Lara came to our table. I rose to shake her hand. Her grip was firm, and she looked me directly in the eyes. I was struck by her hair, luminous black with a narrow streak of blue-grey, pulled tight in a chignon and held in place with a single gold chopstick. We made some small talk about I’ve forgotten what. And then, I don’t know why, I said, “I appreciate the effort you’ve made to make the resort sustainable.” Some platitude like that. And Madam Lara looked at me and, instead of thanking me, said, “Why would I do anything other than respect nature?” She turned to my friend and said, “I hope you will invite your guest to lunch again tomorrow.”
Which he did. We didn’t see Madam Lara during the second meal, but as we sipped our espressos, one of the handsome waiters, who resembled a lifeguard in a Javanese version of “Baywatch,” came to our table and said, “Madam Lara invites you to tea. Follow me, please.”
Her office overlooked the Southern Ocean, which on this day was grey and ominous, with storm clouds quickly moving in. The room was filled with books. Some were antique hand-bound books with spine labels hand-written in Java Kuno — the old Javanese language that is a cousin of Sanskrit — but most of the volumes were in English, Dutch and Italian. Her library included books of modern photography, Asian anthropology and religion. On her desk sat the latest iMac desktop computer. Next to the computer was a small stone Ganesha. Majapahit period, I thought, perhaps 700 years old. A museum piece.
“You are familiar with women’s energies?”
“You write a lot about conservation, Mister Paul. Do you mean what you say?”
“How do you know my name? How do you know what I write about?”
“Ah, don’t be afraid. It’s not a trick, and it’s not a scam. You have to leave your passport when you enter the hotel grounds. Google is the new soothsayer,” she said, patting the iMac. ”Google knows everything. And of course you have been asking the staff about me. You should know that in Indonesia nothing is secret.”
She poured tea from a Javanese earthenware teapot. The beverage was deserving of the small, handle-less cups, which were translucent, of the finest Chinese porcelain. I noted a Ming Dynasty imprint on the bottom. I tasted green tea, but with notes of honey and lavender, and with a slightly bitter, somewhat lemony aftertaste. Soon after finishing the first cup I felt that I was entering a state where I was relaxed but my mind was attuned to the smallest stimulus.
“You are an interesting woman,” I said. “And if I might say so, you have an energy that is rare.”
“You are familiar with women’s energies?”
I liked the way she turned the word into a plural. Was this woman of indeterminate age flirting? Or was I just kidding myself?
“We face so many problems in Indonesia. And many of them are related to greed and ego. Greed and ego. The two major factors in nature destruction.”
I explained I had a similar view. She refilled my tea cup.
“These goddesses … Are they benign?”
“Are you in a hurry? May I bore you with my view of the role of people and nature?”
And Madam Lara gave Hal and me a thoughtful analysis of why people destroy nature in Indonesia. I wish I had taken notes. I wish I could remember it all. If my memory serves, her philosophy is that people have a need/fear relationship with nature. We come from nature, we are part of the warp and weave of life. But we fear wild nature (Snakes! Spiders! Demons!), and by extension, we are suspicious of people who live too close to nature. That has led to a feeling of superiority by well-educated urban folk who watch CNN, whose children can sing Walt Disney songs, who have a preferred latte flavor. The wilderness is dangerous, according to the urban dweller; therefore we have a right, even an obligation, to “civilize” wild nature and the people who live in the forests. “It happened in your own United States,” she said. “The white East Coast elite felt it was their manifest destiny to ‘conquer’ the ‘Wild West.’ They tried to civilize the Red Indians, and if the natives weren’t cooperative, they wiped them out. The men afflicted by greed and ego decimated the Indians and slaughtered the buffalo. And the same thing is happening all around us in Indonesia.”
We continued to drink tea. I looked at her when she spoke, but through her eyes I could see the beach, where a few people wandered in the dunes. They were a kilometer away, but I could see them clearly.
“It used to be simpler in earlier times,” Madam Lara said. “People knew they were people, and gods knew they were gods.”
“So, you don’t buy the New Age philosophy that god resides in each of us? That every person is divine?”
“Of course not. Once you democratize a god, then she loses her power to influence.”
“And this god, or gods … ” I corrected myself: “These goddesses … Are they benign?”
“They are neutral. They have their responsibilities.”
“I never considered that gods have job descriptions.”
“Of course you have. You’ve written about it. Of course many of those job descriptions are man-made – Surya controls the sun, Indra controls the rain, Dewi Sri controls the rice harvest.”
“We Javanese see nature as a lover.”
And then I realized what she was telling me. The characteristics we humans attribute to the gods have actually been dictated to us by the gods themselves.
“People today don’t respect nature. You Europeans use the term ‘Mother Nature’ as if nature is all-giving, all-forgiving. But we Javanese, although we don’t use these words, see nature as a lover, a concept to get excited about, but not one to trifle with. Like a lover, nature gives but can also destroy if she isn’t treated properly. More tea?”
“Lover Nature.” I realized, as I said it, that the idea would worm into my subconscious.
“You mustn’t idealize it. Having a lover implies responsibility. For example, down on the beach right now, there might be a man discarding a cigarette packet.”
“You see that all over Indonesia,” I said.
“Not a big thing, perhaps, but it shows he doesn’t give a damn about Lover Nature. And he thinks he can act like that without punishment.”
As I continued to look at Madam Lara, I also saw, as if in a high-definition CCTV video, a tall Indonesian man take a kretek clove cigarette from a packet of Gudang Garam and throw the empty pack into the sand dunes. As soon as the packet left his hand, it somehow reversed position and finished up in his grip. There was a flash, the pack incinerated and the man screamed in pain as his hand caught fire. He was far away. I saw it all.
“And far out at sea there could be a fishing boat trawling with gill nets. Their by-catch includes turtles and dolphins. They catch sharks and cut off the fins and throw the carcasses back into the ocean.”
And again, I looked at Madam Lara but simultaneously saw a fishing boat. Moments before it had been a speck on the horizon; now I could see the entire boat. It was about 10 meters long, with a diesel engine belching black smoke. The captain had just given the order to drop the nets when there was an explosion on the boat. The fishermen screamed. Some of them grabbed life preservers or life jackets and leapt into the water. I saw sharks circling. The boat slowly capsized. Several men clung desperately to the hull.
And that’s all I remember. I don’t remember leaving Madam Lara’s office. Somehow I found myself in my comfortable hotel room at the Novotel in Yogyakarta. I was lying on my bed, fully dressed.
(To read the final chapter, Part 5, click here.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer who has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including long stints in Southeast Asia. He has written 13 books; the latest, Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia, was published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017. Paul’s next book will focus on his experiences with mediums, psychics and spirits, which seers predict will be published in early 2019. He can be contacted at www.sochaczewski.com.