‘I was born in Indonesia’

I come from colonial stock. Three generations of De Nooys lived and worked in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), always remaining loosely rooted in Dutch soil, with older children often sailing back and forth to Holland to attend university or agricultural college. Only recently has my heritage begun to pique my curiosity, partly thanks to the efforts of our family genealogist, Bert, and partly because it is the duty of the older men to bore people to tears with tales of the past. So, stifle those yawns and prepare to fall down my family tree, hitting a few branches along the way.

My great-grandfather, Hendrik Arnoud de Nooy, set sail for the Dutch East Indies in 1841 at the age of 28 to take up a teaching post in the colonies. He went on to become a state schools inspector and also compiled a Dutch-Javanese dictionary, which is still in the collection of Leiden University. In short, I was genetically programmed to become a writer and translator.

My great-grandmother was Antoinette Frederica Baerentz, who is rumoured to have been related to the famous Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, best known for surviving a winter on the Russian island of Novaya Zembla, eating polar bears and writing in his journal. This probably explains my penchant for eating Eskimo Pies and updating my Facebook status.

My grandfather, Johan Anton de Nooy, was born on the island of Solo in 1890. He returned to Holland to study medicine in Leiden and went on to become surgeon general for the province of Eastern Java. There is (or was) even a street named after him in Surabaya, Java. Here’s proof.

The De Nooy-weg in Surabaya

And then there was my father, Johan Anton Clinton de Nooy, who was born in Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1919 and was among the last Dutch colonists to leave Indonesia in 1957. Throughout his life he retained a strong bond with his place of birth. Whenever he met anyone new, it would only take a few of minutes before we would hear him say: “I was born in Indonesia.”

Yet, despite all this DNA driving me towards the Orient, I have never been more than an hour east of Greenwich. I’m not sure why. Last year, my accident-prone eldest daughter and her boyfriend safely returned from a seven-week tour of South-East Asia with fabulous photos and spectacular stories. While they were there, they went to Bali to attend the wedding of our friends Monique and Erik, who, in keeping with Dutch tradition, had taken their two young whippersnappers along for the honeymoon.

And so I’m starting to wonder whether I’ve been coming up with excuses not to visit Indonesia. Perhaps I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed. Perhaps the thought of travelling on boats and busses puts me off. I’m not renowned for my ability to put my life into other people’s hands. No matter how experienced or well licensed they may be. Strangely, I’m okay with planes and trains. Possibly because the risk of running into things is smaller. If a pilot or train driver falls asleep, they won’t drive into the nearest ravine or run aground on the nearest reef. All of which are very real threats to someone like me, with my overactive imagination.

I also intensely dislike camping and discomfort. Maybe I’m just too old to go backpacking, and don’t relish the thought of spending a night on the beach in a sleeping bag. Then again, I don’t mind hiking up into the mountains and living on rice for a couple of days, as long as there’s a good restaurant waiting at the end of the trip.

As I write this, I can feel the angry stares of my intrepid ancestors burning in my back. Maybe I should just pack the rucksacks, get the kids inoculated and head off to do some island-hopping of my own. I’d be most grateful if readers would point me in the right direction. Perhaps you could share your favourite, low-risk Indonesian travel anecdotes here.

Meanwhile, I’m off to scour the web for tourist travel-risk statistics. I need to know how travel in Indonesia compares to a treacherous highway trip from Holland to the Cote d’Azur on Black Saturday.

Richard de Nooy