A man with one name is playing with shadow puppets on an Indonesian volcano

After a decade-long absence, Monitor reporter Dan Murphy returns to Indonesia determined to avoid the usual journalistic cliches about the nation.

Indonesian officials examine the crater of Tangkuban Perahu volcano in Subang, West Java, Indonesia, last month.

I've returned to Indonesia after a decade away. The country was where I became a reporter, and in many ways was where I was cursed (and blessed) with a certain estrangement from the country that spawned me.

I arrived in 1993 with a vague idea that I'd like to be a reporter, with no idea of what that really meant. I had come to visit a friend for a few weeks after finishing college and tramped around, ignorant but enchanted, until the little bit of money I had saved up ran out.

Even now, memories of my first few days here are among the freshest I own. The ubiquitous odor of cloves, added to the national cigarette that remains a major health scourge. The roving food-peddlers of the Jakarta night and the special sounds advertising their wares; the rasping tick-tick-tick of a chopstick on an upturned wok advertising fried rice; a man cooing "tahu, tahu" selling fried tofu; the higher pitched and more rapid "satay, satay, satay" for grilled and heavily sauced meat on a stick; and the roaring whoosh of a gas stove when their kitchens on wheels had earned a customer, usually one of the night watchmen or weary day-laborers on their way home. 

Most of all I remember the kindness of people I met, everywhere. Rich ones. But especially the poor. A family came across me tramping between rice fields on Lombok, the island just east of Bali, and they insisted I come for dinner. I stayed for three days, not understanding as I do now what a drain an extra mouth to feed was on their limited finances. They never let on. As I made my way back by ferry and minibus and train to Jakarta, families lined up to share their food and jokes with me, steering me in the right direction and safely home to my friend in Jakarta.

On my next to last day in Jakarta (I had a flight home of course) I met a woman who I've never seen again. I mentioned this vague idea of being a reporter. She immediately perked up, said she knew someone at The Jakarta Post, and that they were always looking for native English speakers to work as copy editors for the capital city's main English language newspaper. She wrote down a number for me, I called, and within a few days I was hired on for a little shy of $200 a month.

It was a night job for the daily newspaper, starting at about 5 and running til midnight. My days were free to explore the Post's library stacks and study the language. In the early evening, when work was slow, various editors and senior reporters there tolerantly schooled me in modern Indonesian politics, for no other reason than I was there and asking.

Time went on, I went to work for Bloomberg, and then the Far Eastern Economic Review, and eventually The Christian Science Monitor, before I left. For a brief time Indonesia, this sprawling, dizzyingly diverse country was actually interesting to US readers. There was the fall of the long-standing dictator Soeharto, with shades of what was to come in Egypt over a decade later (more on the connection, or lack of it, between Egypt and Indonesia in the coming days); a punishing economic collapse; years of turmoil and sectarian violence that had people doubting the stability of the country; and a wave of Al Qaeda style terrorism at the end of the 1990s through the early 2000s that had people wondering (bizarrely, especially in hindsight) if Indonesia was a "front" in the United States' newly-minted War on Terrorism.

Then, well, things started to get better. The economy righted itself, democracy of a sort started to take hold, and the handful of locals inspired by Al Qaeda were killed, captured, or gave it up to get on with their lives. For the US press, by and large, Indonesia wasn't a "story" anymore. I leaped at the chance to go to Iraq when asked in 2003.

The paper has given me a chance to come back after a decade and poke around for a few weeks, to see what's gone right, what's gone wrong, and what dangers lie ahead. I am very, very grateful for the chance. My first trip is to Ambon, at the heart of what were once known as the Spice Islands, tomorrow.

This weekend was mostly social, catching up with old friends. Which brings me back to the title of this post. They reminded me of an ongoing, national pet peeve (for those who read the foreign press). In what I hope will be a very prolific series of stories and posts about Indonesia you can count on three things. You will never read that a person quoted "like many Indonesians, only goes by one name" (which is frequently untrue anyways). There will be no descriptions of Indonesian politics, business, or society being "like a smoldering volcano" (Indonesia famously is on the Pacific ring of fire). And there will be no comparisons of Indonesian politics to wayang, the shadow puppet plays that loom so large, even today, in Javanese folklore and society.

I'm probably going to get plenty wrong. But I'm getting that out of the way up front.

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