JAKARTA (Reuters) - More than 40 years have passed since U.S. President Barack Obama came to Indonesia for the first time, but the memories of his former childhood home came flooding back during a state visit to Jakarta on Tuesday.
Obama received a warm welcome from many locals after spending four years in Jakarta as a child, when his mother married an Indonesian man, though when asked how it felt to be back he said things had changed a lot.
“When I first came here, it was 1967. People were on becaks, which — for those of you who aren’t familiar — is a bicycle-rickshaw thing,” he said, in a description of a vehicle now rarely seen on Jakarta streets packed with new sports utility vehicles and Toyota sedans.
“If they weren’t in becaks, they were on bemos, which were sort of like little taxis where you stood at the back and it was very crowded,” Obama said, gesturing animatedly and drawing a smile from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“My understanding is that traffic (now) in Jakarta is pretty tough,” he said, before admitting that he had not experienced it since now as a president the streets had been cleared for him.
Obama’s motorcade, met by a tropical downpour, had sped quickly through eerily quiet streets in a city where normally heavy traffic and floods can lead to four-hour commutes.
The gridlock has led Yudhoyono to suggest moving the capital, and the country’s inadequate infrastructure is seen as both a deterrent to U.S. direct investment and an opportunity for investors such as the Chinese and private equity firms.
Obama sprinkled a press conference with words of Indonesian and carried on the conversation with Yudhoyono, together with his wife Michelle on her first visit to the country, at a state dinner where he was served his favorite childhood dishes of nasi goreng, bakso and rambutan (fried rice, meatball soup and fruit).
In an after-dinner speech that drew warm applause, he described how his mother, an anthropologist, travelled from village to village by motorbike, and said he was “deeply moved” for a medal presented to him on behalf of his mother for the work she did in the country.
“I could never imagine I would one day be honored here, never mind as President of the United States. I didn’t think I would be stepping into this building, ever,” he said, recalling his life here as a boy.
The Indonesian president also recalled Obama’s youth, playing in paddy fields that are now soaring high-rises, or with the monkey or baby crocodiles he had as pets as a boy.
Despite cancelling two previous planned state visits and waning popularity at home, many ordinary Indonesians regard Obama as a long-lost son, and his old school in exclusive central suburb Menteng has a statue of him as a boy at the entrance.
Indonesian journalists gathered in a press room at the state palace clapped and cheered at TV footage of Airforce One touching down on Tuesday in Jakarta, and a second roar went up when the aeroplane’s door opened.
“Assalamu’alaikum!” one man shouted at the TV as Obama emerged, a friendly greeting meaning ‘peace be upon you’ in majority Muslim Indonesia. “I love you!” another viewer cried.
Obama, who aims to use the trip to reach out to the wider Muslim world, said it was disorienting to return to his childhood home as a U.S. president but that his feelings toward Indonesians had not changed.
“I feel a great affection for the people here. Obviously, my sister is half-Indonesian,” he said, adding that he hoped to return with his two daughters one day.
Editing by Neil Chatterjee