Indonesia days: Bapak, our go-to guy

bapak_bandung75Bapak (sometimes also spelled bapa’ in those days, and sometimes shortened to Pak; the final consonant sound is “unreleased” or cut in half) is an Indonesian term of respect usually applied to all older men, or to show courtesy to any man, similar to using “sir” in English or “uncle” in Hawaiian English.

Soon after my wife, Sally Ann, our baby twin girls and I moved into our rented home on Jalan Karang Layung (yang lalu) near the gigantic Ikan Mas swimming pool in Bandung, West Java, in 1975, we met an old man who proved very helpful in many ways. If I ever knew his given name, I’ve forgotten it; but in any case, we always called him Bapak.

Bapak was at least in his 70s and always wore the black cap that so many Indonesian Muslim men preferred in those days. Like most Indonesians, he was short and thin, but also strong, vigorous and very handy: He lived in the nearby kampong or village and we hired him to do yard work. He would cut the entire lawn with a machete, not while bending over and swinging the blade, but with that typical Southeast Asian crouch, butt close to the ground, and chop-chop-chopping the grass. Then he would rake everything that needed raking with something that looked like a Samoan salu or coconut-midrib broom.

He couldn’t speak a word of English, and only a few words of Dutch (from colonial times back in the 1940s; but that was more than I could, even though my mom and Dutch grandmother spoke it frequently around our house when I was a kid). In any case, this helped me practice my Indonesian. I can no longer remember what we paid him — not much, in any case — but he soon proved invaluable in other ways. Three examples come to mind:

The house we lived in had a European-style bathroom. Correction, our bathroom had a European-style toilet with a mandi — a small tiled cistern that one would ladle clean water from to get wet, then after soaping, ladle again to rinse off. It was cold water, of course…and even though Java is on the equator, because Bandung was about 4,500 feet in elevation on the side of a 10,000-foot-plus volcano, it seemed very cold during the rainy season. Some non-Indonesians, when first seeing a mandi, would invariably wonder how they were supposed to bathe in a tub that small and vertical. Used bath water from the mandi, as well as the toilet’s plumbing, apparently connected somewhere beneath the floor and ran through a pipe comprised of fire-baked clay sections (similar to the half-sections which were widely used for roofing) buried just under the grass in the back yard, thence to a position somewhere down a steep hill where it just flowed into a ravine. Not very sanitary, in retrospect, but that’s how all the houses were in our neighborhood. At least we were in a mountainous area; sewers in Jakarta in those days still slowly drained into open canals in some places; and people in the kampong used outhouses, with Asian-style facilities — sometimes literally a hole in the ground, or a slit trench.

Anyhow, one day our toilet got clogged, and I asked Bapak if he knew anything about plumbing. Indeed he did; Bapak would take care of it.

He got a shovel and uncovered the pipe in the back yard. Then he carefully cracked the top part of several sections of the clay pipe until he found the blockage. Next, he got a long piece of sturdy but flexible rotan, which in some dialects and even in English is called rattan, and worked this through the pipe until the blockage broke up. He then replaced the cracked pieces of pipe and replanted the grass. Service was restored, and within days you couldn’t tell from the grass that anything had been done.

We were fortunate to have “running water” in our bathroom. Like many houses in Bandung at that time, our water came from a well, which had a fairly large hand-pump that our house maid would use to do the the dishes and laundry by hand. The owner had also installed a small electric motor which pumped the water into a tank on top of a small tower that would then feed by gravity into the house, one tank full at a time. Somebody actually had to go outside to turn the electric pump on, if the water in the bathroom stopped flowing…and then, of course, it would take a while for the tank and pipes to fill up enough to start flowing again.

One day the hand-pump wouldn’t work, so our maid couldn’t do any dishes or laundry. I again asked Bapak if he could help, and sure enough, after a quick inspection, he knew exactly what was wrong. He went to get a few ancient tools and dismantled the pump; but there was a big problem: We needed to buy some new parts to fix it. There was no way I could explain this to someone in my faltering Indonesian, so with Bapak on the back of my motorcycle [that’s another story for another day], we went to a place he knew in downtown Bandung, got the parts, and soon enough he had the pump working again. I think he liked the motorcycle ride part the best.

Those of you who knew me in those days know I loved to play tennis, and I think with all the practice I got playing in Indonesia I was as good as I ever got . . . but some of the courts I played on were relatively rough, and because I would typically drag my foot in some of my shots, by the spring of my school year there I had a fair-sized hole in one of my tennis shoes. It was also hurting my foot and wrecking my game.

I looked all over Bandung (a city of 1.5 million at that time) for a new pair of size-12s — gigantic by Indonesia standards — but no luck. I looked around Jakarta (a city of 6 million then), where I usually had to go on business at least once a month, with similar results; and I asked a friend going to Singapore to look there for me, but there were no size-12 tennis shoes to be found. I began to despair that I would have to give up my final months of tennis in Indonesia…when I finally thought to ask Bapak if there was any way he knew how to fix my problem — an almost impossible task in my American mind, where the obvious-and-only solution was to buy a new pair of tennis shoes.

Bapak told me he was pretty sure he could get it fixed, even though it might cost a couple of dollars. He took the shoe to a tukang sepata, a shoemaker, he knew…who applied and shaped a latex patch. The latex, in this case, came straight from a rubber tree. The results weren’t pretty, but the patch dried durable and flexible — this long before anyone had ever heard of “shoe goo” back home.

Several months later when we left Indonesia to return to Hawaii, Bapak asked me what I was going to do with the old shoes. Again with typical American thought, I had planned to toss them, and though they were way too big for him, he said he would get them to fit. Of course he could.


  1. SALLY adds her own memory of Bapak:

    I liked him a lot. One day when our kids were playing in the yard and he was there, working, he gestured to us to stand back. There was a dangerous black-and-yellow snake, which he chopped up and buried. He was my favorite.

  2. What a magical story! Thanks for bring that to life for me.


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