Nation Prepares to Welcome Prodigal Son Obama

He will be seduced with native fare like nasi goreng, serenaded with gamelan music and showered with familial warmth, but US President Barack Obama may disappoint old friends when he visits Indonesia next week.

Many had hoped the oft-delayed visit would be a sentimental homecoming for Obama but it has been pared down to the diplomatic essentials, with no time for a visit to his old school or a stroll down memory lane with his childhood pals.

It will also not take in a visit to Bali, which had previously been on the Indonesia schedule.

Instead the president is focusing on the big strategic picture of mending ties with the Muslim world, with a visit to the mainly Muslim’s country’s biggest mosque and a speech at a prestigious state university.

Even so, the symbolism of a long-lost child of the Menteng One primary school in Jakarta returning to his old stomping ground as the most powerful man in the world will be hard to escape.

“President Obama seems to be missing Indonesian food like nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie bakso (meatball noodle soup), so we’ll prepare these at the palace reception,” said Julian Aldrin Pasha, a spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whom Obama will meet on Tuesday.

“There will also be a traditional dance performance… We just hope that he’ll be happy and comfortable during his stay here.”

Sonny Imam Sukarso, 49, went to school with Obama in the late 1960s and remembers him as a chubby kid called Barry. He said he hoped the US president would make time to meet his old chums.

“Obama was my neighbour and elementary schoolmate. We used to play soccer together and visit each other’s homes,” the lawyer said.

“We understand his schedule is very tight but hopefully he will want to meet us… He was a nice and funny person and I hope he hasn’t changed.”

Hopes Obama would bring his wife Michelle to visit the primary school he attended in leafy Menteng from 1967 to 1971 were dashed when the White House announced the schedule.

Still bearing the bruises of the Democratic Party’s hammering in mid-term elections, Obama set off Friday on a nine-day odyssey of Asia in which Indonesia gets only a whirlwind 24 hours.

In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama described running around the streets of Menteng catching crickets and flying kites with the “children of farmers, servants and low-level bureaucrats.”

“People know him as Barack Obama, the man with great power. To us he’s just Barry, a boy who made history… the chubby Barry with no airs,” said Obama’s former neighbour, Ali Ruli, 60.

Excitement about the visit has been muted compared to the last time it was scheduled, in March, as the archipelago of 240 million people reels from natural disasters.

More than 430 people were killed in a tsunami on October 25 and less than 24 hours later a volcano erupted in central Java, killing more than 100 people over the past two weeks and displacing 100,000.

Not everyone is planning to welcome the US president with open arms and security will be extremely tight given Indonesia’s repeated brushes with terrorism and homegrown extremists.

The country’s largest Islamic organisation has condemned the small groups of extremists opposed to Obama’s visit, which they say will strengthen ties between the United States and the Islamic world.

“It’s an honour to have Obama spare some time during his short trip to visit the mosque. We welcome him,” said Subandi, a senior religious official at Istiqal mosque, Southeast Asia’s biggest, which Obama will visit on Wednesday.

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