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Obama in Indonesia: a whirlwind tour

Jakarta residents answer one question: If you had one hour with Obama, where would you go?

Obama in Indonesia
U.S. President Barack Obama gestures to reporters with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after speaking at a joint press conference, Nov. 9, 2010. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Dany looks nervously over his shoulder: “Come on, we have to move.”

A few feet behind the slender 25-year-old, two policemen are approaching, clapping their hands and barking at the street vendors, vagrants and urchins who have gathered under this central Jakarta freeway seeking refuge from the raindrops. In the distance, a siren wails.

Dany grips the handlebars of his bicycle, steadying it so as not to spill the precious box of steamed fish dumplings balanced precariously above the back wheel. He turns the bike resolutely and heads away from the police, away from the route U.S. President Barack Obama will take later today.

“They’ve been doing this all day,” Dany mutters once he reaches the obscurity of a nearby side street. “The police just keep moving us away from the best places to sell.”

For Dany and thousands of other Jakarta residents like him, Obama’s arrival in the Indonesian capital raises mixed emotions.

Indonesia is the second leg of Obama's 10-day, four-nation tour through Asia. At a news conference today with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Obama touched on a range of issues, including cooperation with Indonesia, the recent elections in Myanmar and his efforts to reach out to the Muslim world.

But while many in this city of almost 10 million feel a quasi-patrimonial link to Obama, who spent four years here as a child, several residents interviewed on the city’s streets today raised more immediate concerns and more practical gripes about the president’s brief visit.

As the grays, greens and berets of the army and police fanned out across Jakarta, residents complained of increased traffic disruption in the already clogged city. A waitress at a chain restaurant said business was down as patrons avoided the streets. A group of students was concerned that media images of protests and police heavy-handedness might tarnish Indonesia’s reputation abroad.

But all the residents interviewed had their own, unique answer to one question: If Obama were here, now, and wanted to spend an hour in your company, where would you take him in this city and what would you do?

Achmad Husein, a 27-year-old driver of a motorcycle taxi, was adamant. If Obama wanted to spend an hour in his company, Husein said, he would teach him to drive a motorbike, the true vehicle of Indonesia.

The first place he would take him?

“There are slums right near the school he went to when he was growing up here, under the railway bridge,” Husein said, after a moment’s thought.

“I’d take him there, because no one else is going to.”

In the rattling heat-haze, under the railway bridge in the slum neighborhood of Jalan Tambak, 35-year-old Budi Maryani and her husband, Neneng, thought about Obama’s visit as Maryani’s mother served fried snacks to passersby.

“I just think about the thousands of policemen who are here protecting him,” Budi Maryani said. “The response to Merapi is far behind, maybe they should be there instead.”

She was referring to the continued eruption of Mount Merapi, hundreds of kilometers southeast of here, where more than 100,000 people have evacuated their homes and are living in government-run shelters.

But Maryani thought Obama should be allowed to reminisce a little while he’s in town, as well as dealing with complex political issues.

Given an hour of his company, Maryani would take Obama to Monas, the national monument of Indonesia, a towering edifice of white concrete and gold that soars above the city. From there, she said, the president could enjoy an unparalleled view of his childhood home.

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But the monument was shut for the day and three men in their early 20s, in town on a university trip, had to content themselves with a seat on a sweltering patch of muddy grass near an armored personnel carrier and a squadron of army guards.

“The Indonesian people see Obama as some sort of God,” said Andi Mapatola, a student from the city of Makassar in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi. “He’s not a god. There’s a real reason why he’s here and it’s to continue American imperialism. There’s a real reason behind everything.”