Colleen's Corner: Djakarta Letters
©2020, Colleen Irwin. All rights reserved.

My mother's parents were world travelers. My grandmother Paddy was originally from England. She met my grandfather Carl in Australia. She outranked him when they met, she in the Australian army, he in the American. He was a Yank and they fell deeply in love. A love that I didn't quite understand until only recently. A love I yearned for yet couldn't find. That was until George and I figured out that friendship didn't mean less if we were a couple. That was the part of the equation I missed. These two had a most colorful life full of adventures. Their later years were fraught with illnesses and great difficulty. But they had their friendship and sense of adventure to tie them together. I guess that is where I get my sense of wanting to see the world. They lived all over the world and for a short period of time they lived in Indonesia. My grandmother wrote "newsletters," only a few of which survived. They reflected attitudes of the time, some of which don't apply now. The coup my grandmother refers to was a major event in Indonesian history. George and I looked up what happened, and it was not pretty. George didn't remember ever hearing or reading about this before. This is what is left along with a few pictures. My grandmother in these pictures and I today are about the same age.

Djakarta, Indonesia
4 December 1965

Again I ask you to forgive me writing this type of letter, but so much happens here and things change so fast I feel like Alice in Wonderland at the Mad Hatters' Tea Party. I can't remember who I have written to since the Coup, so if I repeat myself, please bear with me.

After the Coup, life was quite exciting, and being a dull housewife, I felt that I was really in the thick of things. Of course, the curfew cramped our style a bit, but we were able to catch up on some much needed rest. The social life was pretty hectic and I was gaining weight. All the dependents were asked if they wanted to leave, and not one said yes, and everyone seemed happy. Carl came home one day and told me that I was going home in about a week, and that all the other wives were also going. At that time it was possible to go to Manila, Bangkok, Australia and other places. Of course I decided to go to Australia and visit old friends. I was due to leave on the Wednesday and felt quite sad about leaving but also was exciting about going back to the place that I love.

When the evacuation started the only women who were allowed to stay were the ones who were working and had no children. To make it brief I was offered the job as manager of the American Embassy recreation association. I have 20 men working for me. Carl calls me Miss Management, but believe it or not, I received a raise with my first check. I have received so many compliments I'm getting a big head.

It is a beautiful club with swimming pool, tennis courts, snack bar and bar. The first day I really shook in my Zories. The Indonesians are not too energetic and you have to keep after them to get the work done. I've found that the only way to get the job done is to physically show them what they are to do. Who would have thought a year ago I would be doing all this. I talk to contractors, filtermen, pool cleaners, gardeners, waiters, etc. Now I know the meaning of Chlorine, filter material and all those things. When the bar tender was sick I even acted as bar tender.

Have met many interesting people, and the Ambassador (Marshall Green) is a very charming person. The other night we went to a party, it was a quite a mixed group, with President Sukarno's half-brother and his wife. They are real nice people. Also at the party were Australians, English, Swiss and Indonesians to be sure the good old yanks, bless em.

The situation seems calm, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. The poverty here is astounding. We give a rice ration to our help, and without it they just wouldn't eat. The canals that run through Djakarta are used for washing clothes, themselves and are public bathrooms. I feel terrible about it and want to help but what can one person do? One just can't see what they did with all the aid that was poured into this country. The average life span here is 37 years. My maid looks much older than I but is probably years younger.

Servants in this country are a necessity, and not a luxury. With the heat we westerners just can't stand it. One also loses her memory in the tropics, and I keep writing notes to myself to remember all that I have to do. The have a saying here "Tida-Apa-Apa" which means "no, I can't help it", and that is what everyone says. It's just a way of life. Carl tells me that the sooner that I stop fighting it the better off I'll be.

I can't afford to have another ulcer with only half a stomach. The old saying "only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun" applies to me, and I'm out in it every day to check on the help at the club.

Wish I could tell you all the funny things that happen, even though they are not funny at the time. To mention a few like dinner being cooked at 3 in the afternoon for dinner at 7, ask for a branch to cut off a tree and the entire tree cut down, and being locked in your own house.

This is the land of keys, everything is locked up. It embarrassed me at first but they would steal from their own mothers. Half the time I can't find the keys because I've locked them up.

This is turning into a book, and one day I might write one. Right now Carl and I are in our Mountain retreat. Since the Coup we have not been able to travel. This is really a lovely place and I look forward to this trip. We only had two checkpoints to go through this time. When we were unpacking 2 soldiers came to the cabin to take our passports. Carl wouldn't let them take them, so they settle for our passes, driver and car. About an hour later they returned, and wanted Carl to go with them and one of them stay with me. I wasn't about to stay with a trigger happy soldier. I was determined to go with him, but we gave them some cigarettes and they went away. Corruptsy as we call it is rampant. You can get anything done with money whether it is legal or not.

This morning while eating breakfast the Puntjak Chief of Police came to the cabin, and wanted a donation for the Puntjak Red Cross (non-existent), the police charity, community building programs plus a little for him. We paid and away he went.

My arm is tired, and Carl just asked me if I was writing a book? Hope I haven't bored you. I will close now. My help call me Njonja Ketjil, which means Mrs. Small, and on that I will close.

Hope to hear from you all.
Selamat Djalan (Bon Voyage)
Njonja Ketjil

PS: Forgot to mention Carl is well and without his unfailing good humor and love I'd never make it. Can't describe our life here fully, all I know is that when we get back to the good old USA we will have some adjustments to make.


Djakarta, Indonesia
23 March 1966

This will probably be my last newsletter. Expect to leave in July. Right now we are waiting to hear where our next assignment will be.

It has been a most interesting tour and while at time frustrating, due to the help and the "Tida-Apa-Apa" attitude of the people, plus the changing political situation, we wouldn't have missed it for anything. We feel we have seen history being made.

As you probably read Dr. Sukarno is no longer President. What a pity that dedicated men get power hungry and lose sight of the needs of the people. We hope the future of Indonesia under a new Government will be a success.

Djakarta is a busy place right now. People are pouring in from all over the world. Everyone wants to get in on the bandwagon. It's like a convention city. The one decent hotel is full. Now when we go out we get smiles instead of scowls, even if there is a demonstration going on. The price of everything has soared beyond reason. Hope the economy will stabilize now.

We were invited to our wash ladies house to celebrate the circumcision of her son. This is done at the age of eight to ten, and it was quite an honor for us to be included to this selamatan (party). It goes on for three or four days. Carl had his Polaroid and took pictures. Everyone came running to get in the picture. We counted 25 people in one picture.

It's tragic to see the way they live in the compounds. All water is carried and when it rains there is nothing but thick red mud. The houses are just little shacks. We were served tea and rice cakes and all kinds of things. I don't even know what they were. I do hope things improve for them. One finds oneself quite concerned for their welfare.

When you hire help you become Mother and Father to them, provide rice, which they eat in great amounts, tea, coffee, and pay all medical bills, plus salary. If anyone dies, or is born in the family you are expected to help. I've had such bad luck with servants but really I would steal too if I were hungry.

I don't know if I mentioned in one of my letters, about a friend of ours who's name is Arismunder? He was mentioned in Sukarno's book and is related in someway. Last Sunday he died of a heart attack. A friend and I went to the funeral, which took place at 1:00 the next day. We went to the house of his first wife, with Lisa the second wife (my friend had spent the night there). Women were sitting by a prayer run buring insence and canting. The coffin was there. He was covered with a batik and veil over his face. His first wife seemed to be the important one. No one paid much attention to Lisa. She was alone except for Pat and myself. We proceeded to the cemetery. Every conceivable form of transportation was used; buses, trucks and cars – have yet to see a hearse – flowers were tied on the backs... orchids, mainly.

The heat was almost unbearable and we were so hot, trickles of perspiration were running down our legs and backs. Pat's face was beet red. Finally we reached the cemetery. We had a long walk ahead of us, both of us had heels on, the ground was hilly and full of rubble. At last we reached the grave. There was one funeral in progress and two other graves ready... all within a few feet of each other.

Lisa stood on one side and the first wife on the other. The coffin was lowered, a priest or holy man with a shawl over his head said prayers and chanted and kind of wailed. Everyone took handfuls of earth and when up to the grave to drop on the coffin. Two men immediately filled the grave with earth; flowers were put on top and it was over.

It struck me as being very fast, but in this country, it's the only practical way. Time is an important factor since they have no way of keeping the body. Pictures were taken all the time which I though strange. By this time, were about to faint. My shoes were full of this red earth and my feet were swollen over the tops of my shoes.

Sorry to write this way. It was a sad but interesting experience. The wives must now stay home from 3 to 30 days until their souls meet with their late husband.

Depending on where we go, we hope to by a camper and see America. So don't be surprised one day if we arrive on your doorstep.


PS. A couple of new ways to cook... Told my houseboy to make hamburger buns, he put Chocolate Chips in. Corn chowder – take half a can of popcorn, chop up some onions, add hot water, maybe in time you would have it, everything is ready at three in the afternoon for dinner at seven.


Djakarta, Indonesia
4 July 1966

As you see, I've been a long time getting this letter finished, but I have been waiting until we received our orders and two weeks ago, we did. We are going to Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania. Carl will be attached to the Mobile Movie and Television something or other. We think it quite funny since he has trouble taking pictures with his Poloroid. We will only be 280 miles from Carolyn [her daughter, my mother—Colleen]. Since Carl likes to fish and hunt, it sounds ideal. We leave here on 26 July. We have four days in Hong Kong, four in Seattle with Carl's brother, then on to Niagara Falls for 45 days leave.

We are all packed, except for our air shipment and are very tired. There is a big reception tonight at the Ambassador's, to celebrate the Fourth. So much going on right now with so many people leaving.

Will sign off now, because I want Carl to run this off and get it in the mail.

Love to you all


Here are a few pictures from that time. It appears from the back of one photo that these were taken at a going away party in June 1966.

These are my grandparents.

My grandparents with people I don't know. I think they might be the honorees at the going away party.

My grandmother always made sure there was a plentiful buffet!

And they loved to dance!

This was written on the back of one of the photos. "Selemat Djalan" was used in one of the letters and translated to "Bon Voyage" but George and I think it is more like "Safe Travels."