Welcome to Makassar, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Somewhere I read Garuda Indonesia was a backwater national airline not quite up to keeping company with the majors. Based on our flights to and from Makassar, we think the critics got it wrong. From the first friendly greetings at the check-in counter through the boarding process to the onboard creature comforts and solicitous crew and trouble-free flights, our experience was as first class as you can get anywhere when you buy economy tickets. Oh, there were some snafus, but they weren’t exceptional. Well, maybe a little. We required some assistance from the help desk in Melbourne on our way to Makassar because the day before Garuda had notified us our return flight from Makassar had been cancelled. The airline automatically moved us to a later flight. Thoughtful not possible. The new flight had us arriving in Jakarta 15 minutes after our connecting flight departed for Singapore. Hence our trip to the help desk. After some confusion, the attendant went to work, rescheduled us to the earlier flight we requested, and we breathed easy again.

We thought our troubles were over, but we then left Melbourne an hour late, which reduced our connection time in Jakarta, so we practically ran down the long, long concourse as the announcement came over the PA system, “Final boarding call for Garuda Flight 717 for Makassar.” This came after a polite golf cart driver offered to carry us to Gate 20—and I just as politely declined. “We need to walk,” I explained. But then we had to run! Sometimes our crises are not the airline’s fault.

John & Juli Liles

We were greeted by a stutter of Js—the Liles family. Juli jumped out of their van to greet us, John to load our luggage. Then we met most of the rest of the Js: James (11), Joshaya (8) and Joel (pronounced Joe-ell) (5). We met Jona (13) later. Thus began a whirlwind of activities as John and Juli made certain we learned as much as possible of Makassar and their work here.

Liles guys at play

This was a long overdue visit. I had fun explaining to their Indonesian friends that I’ve known John since before he was born. I first met his parents Ona and Ruth at a CMF board meeting in Mesa before they left for service in Ethiopia, where John was born. They later returned to Mesa for a short stay when the Communist revolution forced them out of Ethiopia. They then moved on for distinguished service in Indonesia, where John and his siblings Naomi and Philip and Rachel grew up. Joy and I reconnected with John when he was a student at Hope International University during my time as president there. After graduating he returned to his real home in Indonesia, met and married Juli, a native of Sumatra, and eventually settled in Makassar where together they founded and now operate and teach in a small but growing elementary school along with their extensive work among the poor. Ask me if we’re proud of this energetic, visionary, dedicated couple! I should add, from all we could observe, they are also exemplary parents. We enjoyed hanging out with all these Js.

Indonesia banana market. The rain doesn’t interfere with the trade.

We didn’t pick the best time to visit, just the one that best fit our travel schedule. It’s rainy season here. By rainy season I don’t mean what the term means elsewhere, as in San Miguel, Mexico for example, where the rains come predictably late every afternoon but the sun shines most of the day. By our last day here we hadn’t seen the sun, and torrential downpours didn’t discriminate between day and night. As Oregonians, we welcomed them.

Traffic on side street. It’s more crowded on the main thoroughfares.

A comment about traffic. If there’s a good time to try to get somewhere in this city, we haven’t found it yet. (3:00 AM, John suggested; we didn’t test his hypothesis.) A ten-minute trip regularly stretches to an hour. If there are any rules for the road, we couldn’t detect them. Still,  every driver seems intuitively to know when to go and when to yield. U-turns occur everywhere; drivers play “chicken” while foreign passengers hold their breath.  Once again I was happy I wasn’t driving. The secret to survival is rather simple, it appears. Drive slowly, take turns, never panic and don’t lose your temper. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

Makassar is the provincial capital of South Sulawesi, Sulawesi island’s

Liles home

largest city, and the fifth largest in Indonesia. It lies just across Makassar Strait from the island of Sumatra. (Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it; we hadn’t either before the Liles moved here.) From 1971 to 1999 it went by the name Jung Pandang, which is still often used interchangeably with Makassar—to this traveler’s confusion. The population of the greater metropolitan area is about 2.5 million. And they’re all going somewhere else at the same time.

Dutch traders arriving in the early 17th century left an indelible stamp on the culture of Makassar. They replaced the Portuguese—earlier colonial masters—to capture the lucrative spice trade. The Sultan of Gowa (the name of this general area) lost his power as the Dutch took over. They renamed the city’s fort to Fort Rotterdam and in general ran things. For awhile. Gradually, though, Dutch power ebbed as Arab, Malaysian, and Chinese traders gained increasing independence. In time Makassar became a trading center for most of eastern Indonesia. Wikipedia quotes author Joseph Conrad’s assessment of Makassar as ”the prettiest and perhaps, cleanest looking of all the towns in the islands.” Then came World War II and the Japanese occupation. An uneasy independence followed as a succession of dictators like Sukarno and Suharto assumed control. Regardless of who is running the country, what is immediately apparent to the Western visitor today is the dominance of Islam. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country.

Inspiring church service in Makassar.

On Sunday morning the Liles took us with them to Every Nation Church, a strong body of about 200 worshipers. Several things impressed us: 1) the very full room; 2) the youthfulness of the congregation; 3) the enthusiasm of the worship—they all sang and many of them bounced and danced as they sang; 4) the excellence of the worship team, band and vocalists; 5) the friendliness of the people; and 6) the invisibility of the pastor.

He was there but took no part in leading the service. He looked on, I suspect with pride, as the young men and women he has been mentoring led the service, including the sermon. Of course we understood very little—our grasp of the Indonesian language being zero, but John quietly translated into English for us. The scripture was one of my favorites, Ephesians 2, emphasizing our unity in Christ and our dependence on grace and not merit for salvation. The sermon gained added poignancy since we were among only a handful of white faces in a sea of brown. We listened to a message that was all about including minorities like us regardless of our sinfulness, our marginalized status, our race and color, and our lack of spiritual merit. It seemed particularly timely for us Americans. We were glad to be here.

Then John and Juli gave us another treat. They had arranged a leisurely Sunday dinner with two other ex-pat families: David and Ruth and their children, and Brandon and Wendy and theirs. I think I counted 11 children. In the way they played together it was obvious they were good friends. The three families meet and eat together often enough to be a source of encouragement.

Sunday lunch with friends

We are wealthy here. The American dollar is worth 13,500 rupiahs. More than wealthy—we are millionaires. On our last evening Joy and I, wanting to say thanks for their superb hospitality, took John and Juli on a double date to an upscale restaurant. We spared no expense. The whole meal for the four of us came to $45. Earlier we shopped for some clothes. Didn’t buy any. I’d have had to shell out up to $6 for a shirt! There’s a limit, even for millionaires.

First day of school

We got to see the Liles’ school on Monday. It was the pupils’ first day back after their holiday vacation. After starting with a student population of seven two years ago, the steady growth has brought the number to over 40. Teachers are both Christian and Muslim, the Liles’ believing that the best way to teach mutual tolerance and respect is to minimize the us/them polarity.

Gentle John–school master–loves and teaches.

It’s an openly Christian institution that accepts Muslim students and Muslims on the faculty to share the teaching load with their Christian colleagues. The Bible is part of the curriculum; so is daily chapel.  From what we saw, the result is a pretty happy, well-integrated faculty and student body with a strong but not overbearing Christian emphasis.

Wooden Boat waits in port for storm to pass.

Makassar boasts a large wharf for all-wooden cargo vessels. Designed as oblique Us—high in the prow, low in the middle and rising again to an abruptly truncated stern—when loaded the center rides just above the surface. We crawled around one of them. Its load was cement!—ballast was not going to be a problem for this boat. I think three families make their living and their home on it. The toilet is self-flushing. There’s nothing below it but the sea.

Wooden Boat dock attracts kids to their neighborhood swimming pool.

So much more to tell, but this post is already long, so we must bring it to a close before we’re quite ready to go, just as it was on our final morning. John transported us to the airport before 6:30 Tuesday morning, where we bade farewell and gave thanks for this time we had together. At that hour, the traffic was manageable. It would slow to almost a halt just fifteen minutes later.

P.S. Because internet availability is so spotty on our cruise in SE Asia, it may be a couple of weeks before you receive our next post. Thanks for your patience.

Speaking of patience: We aren’t pleased with the quality of today’s pictures. Something seems to have been lost in transferring them from camera to blog post. Hope they look better to you than they do to us. We’re sending this to you from a small village in Thailand.


RoosTer and his reflection
The Hat
AND? How much is this papaya?
Indonesia meal wrapped in leaves


  1. Your post brought back many great many memories of our time with John and Juli and J’s. We were recipients of their gracious hospitality and were so impressed with the way they connected with both rich and poor in their community – from the wedding of true royalty to children’s ministry under a bridge, and sewing ministry in a slum. Our Makassar mug is a treasure of memories. Thanks for the rich description of your time there – and pictures are great! Looking forward to your next posting!

  2. fascinating essay. have never been to asia.
    once again, i am amazed and your endurance during these traveling years!

  3. Thank you for your generous description of Makassar and our family there. We enjoyed each picture and the discussion of their interaction and blessings that they give to their community. The best photo for me, aside from our kids, was the one of their home from a perspective that we have never seen…the back side from across the creek. I had forgotten the beautiful green of everything there, the trees and the bushes. We don’t have that light green color here in Arizona. We have green, but not like that… I’m certain that you were a blessing to John and Juli and family, thank you for visiting them. Made me homesick for them and Indonesia.

  4. Fascinating and informative glimpses into the life of John, Juli, and their J’s in Indonesia, including the worship service emphasizing inclusion of the marginalized and their Christian elementary school that enacts mutual respect between Christians and Muslims.

  5. I thought all the photos were rich in color and clarity!! I didn’t know any of what you talked about here starting with the country …. thanks so much for the education!! I do, however remember when Ona and Ruth came to Mesa. What a humbling way to run a school and Church …. so inclusive! I loved your description of the traffic.

  6. Thanks for the visit with the Liles. John stayed in my home when was a student at HOPE. I remember him as a skinny guy, and a bachelor. A lot has happened since those days. Well done John.

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