Tuesday, 24 July 2012

At the Border

A yen for the unknown takes me to Merauke in the easternmost part of Indonesia in Papua.  And while there, my friends and I decide to venture to the border where Indonesia ends and Papua New Guinea begins, and pay homage to the monument that marks the separation between the two countries.  The trip is a two hour drive on a long, straight road that traverses the middle of Wasur national park; a thick forest composed of eucalyptus trees alongside marshlands that reflect the cloudy sky.

Every now and then, among the tall, thick grass, loom strange-shaped constructions, russet in colour, like abandoned mini temples.  These are termite hills, a feat of incredible engineering made by these tiny wood-eating creatures from soil, grass and a lot of spit.  Needless to say my admiration is not without a tinge of shudder.  These industrious creatures can also reduce one's house to rubble.

Finally, after what seems to be an endless and monotonous drive, some buildings and bustling human activities signal that we're nearing our destination.  We arrive at a place called Sota and an archway welcomes us into the complex where the monument is situated.  Entering the area, we pass between well-tended vegetable plots and rows of prickly pineapple plants before stopping at a concrete parking area next to a gazebo and some fine-looking trees.
Here, in the middle of the jungle, is a garden that is large, nicely landscaped with neatly clipped grass and an array of carefully planted trees and flowers.  It is surprisingly clean and well-maintained.  Near the spot marking the border, a semi-circle concrete seating area is built to allow the visitors to contemplate the simple, white monument that is only a hands breadth taller than me.  It was built in 1967 by both the Indonesian and the Australian survey teams and bears the numbers:  141 1' 10" E and 8 25' 45" S in bold, black letters.

The monument itself is a bit of a disappointment.  I thought it was going to be much larger and more imposing than the puny, hollow construction made of four metal sheets stuck together and painted white.  The pristine landscaped garden with its many trees, potted plants and rows of flowers, however, is unexpected, especially as a few feet behind the monument on the PNG side is a dirt path that leads into the wilderness that is the Papuan jungle.

A policeman greets us with a wide and pleasant smile, revealing a set of even, white teeth.  In his hands he bears, like a rifle, a plastic garden rake with bright green prongs.

'My name is Ma'ruf,' he introduces himself, 'and I am the keeper of this park.'  A white signage board in the car park reminds us of who he is in case we forget.  It reads, the border park, looked after by officer Ma'ruf.

I notice that his police uniform is crisp and spotless as if fresh from the laundry, and his military boots black and shiny.  I have never seen a policeman so spick and span in appearance and certainly do not expect to meet one in the middle of nowhere.

Soon, with great pride, he shows us the monument and the well-maintained garden.  When he was posted here in 1993, the place was a mess, he said.  It was left to the bushes and the wild grass.  A rubbish dump.  Moreover, the area was unsafe and nobody wanted to go anywhere near it.

But this is the entry point to our great country, Ma'ruf explains.  It must be a place of pride and respect.  He was assigned only to guard the area, but he saw it as a calling to serve the country and the people.  'This is not the place where I work,' he corrects me in earnest when I ask him about his work, 'this is the place where I perform my service for a greater cause.  Where I create.'

Over the years, and with his own hands (nobody was interested in helping him), he cleared and cleaned up the place and slowly, with his policeman salary, obtained and planted seeds to create a garden that grew in size and in variety.  For some reason everything he planted thrived under his care. Today it becomes a place of recreation where visitors from both sides can come and enjoy themselves during the holiday.

Ma'ruf also bought some of the lands nearby to create a vegetable garden where he plants lettuce, salad greens and pineapples.  Anyone is free to help themselves to the produce.  'I do the planting,' he explains, 'you're free to reap the harvest.'

I ask him about money.  His wife, a sweet looking Javanese woman, makes and sells gado-gado for the visitors, he says.  It gives them the income needed to maintain the garden and buy the seeds.

Ma'ruf was born in East Java and was brought by his parents to Papua when he was two years old when the family migrated to the area.  He had never left Merauke since.  His schooling went as far as high school.  He became a policeman and since the beginning only remained a low ranking officer, posted to a place where others are loath to go.

Nobody wants to do his job, he says.  Later, others made fun of his willingness to dig earth and rake grass, as if unbefitting his position.

He on the other hand, appreciates the quietness and the nature, and the importance of his role as the keeper of the border.  It is an intense source of pride and joy to him, and one that he takes seriously and accepts with passion.  And he wishes everyone that comes to this place to share with him the importance and significance of this gateway to the country. A place of beauty, warmth and friendship.  A place to remember.

I marvel at his energy and industry.  Ma'ruf shows me a termite hill over ten feet tall in a clearing bordered with a low hedge.

'If these tiny creatures can create something as massive and incredible as this,' he says, 'surely I, as a human being, could do better.'

(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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