Obama In Indonesia 2010: A Long-Awaited Return
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- After two years of waiting, Indonesians are finally getting the chance to welcome back their adopted son. But the euphoria that swept the predominantly Muslim country after Barack Obama's election victory has been replaced by a dose of reality.
Few here now believe he will change American policies in the Middle East or improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world. And hopes that the two countries would march forward together on the world stage have been cast aside.
Still, Indonesians gathered around television sets all over the country – in their houses, coffee shops and office buildings – and watched as he touched down.
"We all stopped what we were doing," said Tito, who works at the front desk at the Novotel Hotel in Balikpapan, a city on Borneo island. "Staff, guests ... It's just so amazing that he grew up here, has family here, and is now the U.S. president."
While Indonesians take tremendous pride in having partially raised the American president, who spent four childhood years in the country, the plans for his long-anticipated homecoming Tuesday have been accompanied by a sadness that he is not fully theirs.
He's already canceled two planned trips and is due to stay for just 24 hours. Shortly after he touched down his spokesman said the trip may be even further shortened because of concerns about the ash of a volcano hundreds of miles (kilometers) away.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presented a line of ministers to Obama, who greeted them in Indonesian.
Obama planned to later tour the country's largest mosque and make a speech that will give him another opportunity to convince Muslims that the U.S. is not waging a war on Islam, but on terrorism, and needs the help of moderates to fight it.
That will give him no time to visit his old neighborhood in the sprawling overcrowded capital – a jumble of houses and narrow streets that has changed little since he was here from 1967 until 1971, although it is now in the shadow of luxury shopping malls and high-rise buildings.
At a news conference after arriving, Obama joked about the changes to the capital and the intense anticipation surrounding his homecoming.
"Obviously much has been made of the fact that this marks my return to where I lived as a young boy. I will tell you though that I barely recognized it as I was driving down the streets," he said to laughter. "The only thing that was there when I first moved to Jakarta was Sarinah (a shopping mall). Now it's one of the shorter buildings on the road."
He added he was sorry the trip was so short and he hoped one day to return with his two daughters to show them the country.
This time, his tightly packed schedule does not even allow time for brief meetings with family and friends.
"I have waited so long for this visit," said Katarina Fermina Sinaga, 61, who taught the chubby, vivacious boy, then known as "Barry," in the third grade. "I still hope to meet him. I just don't want him to forget us."
When he was first expected to come in March and then again June, the country whipped itself into a frenzy of anticipation: Books and movies about his childhood were released, celebrations planned, and exhibitions mounted.
But this time, the country seems sapped after twin natural disasters – a volcano and a tsunami – over the past two weeks that killed a combined total of 600 people. There was speculation Obama would cancel again, and the country has been unwilling to get its hopes up. Even the government waited until the last minute to announce that the visit was on.
Hopeful he still might make a last-minute stop to his old elementary school, dozens of third- and fourth-graders, dressed in green-and-white uniforms, spent Tuesday morning practicing a song dedicated to him.
"We haven't been told anything," said Hasimah, the clearly disappointed headmaster. "So we don't know how to prepare."
There is sense, even here, that what Indonesians want most is a little attention.
"He's not even taking time to meet with us," said Din Syamsuddin, the leader of the country's second-largest Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, whose 30 million members had high hopes for Obama. "Even Bush did that ..."
Obama moved to Indonesia when he was 7 after his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, married her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, whom she met when they were studying at the University of Hawaii.
The neighborhood they first called home was Menteng Dalam, a Dutch-era neighborhood with red-tiled roofs in Jakarta's center, where many share fond memories of the young Barry.
On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that decades before he would decide to run for president, Obama hinted at his aspirations to boyhood friends"
In the compound, Mr. Obama often played with the two sons of the physician's driver.
One time, recalled the elder son, Slamet Januadi, now 52, Mr. Obama asked a group of boys whether they wanted to grow up to be president, a soldier or a businessman. A president would own nothing while a soldier would possess weapons and a businessmen would have money, the young Obama explained.
Mr. Januadi and his younger brother, both of whom later joined the Indonesian military, said they wanted to become soldiers. Another boy, a future banker, said he would become a businessman.
"Then Barry said he would become president and order the soldier to guard him and the businessman to use his money to build him something," Mr. Januadi said. "We told him, 'You cheated. You didn't give us those details.' "
"But we all became what we said we would," he said.
Beyond the playful exchange, Obama's old friends recounted other details.
They remember that his mother would walk him to school through streets muddied by monsoon rains, that he was comfortable speaking Indonesian, and that the family kept white crocodiles and a monkey in their yard.
"We really have to greet him like a homecoming brother," said Linggas Sitompul, a 65-year-old customer at a food stall serving Bakso, the same spicy meatball soup the president says he loved as a child.
Before Obama's inauguration, Indonesia viewed the United States mostly as a target for protest. Hard-liners saw the George W. Bush administration's anti-terrorism efforts as a proxy for anti-Muslim feelings.
They had hoped that Obama's connection to Indonesia would give it a special place in his administration, but two years into his term, reality has set in. Most now recognize his visit will not improve their poverty or raise their national stature.
And they know that despite feeling a kinship with the American president, in the end, he will leave and go back to the place that is really his home.