JAKARTA, Indonesia – Barack Obama marveled at the sights and sounds — the rickshaws, the cramped taxis — still vivid in his memories of boyhood in this Asian nation. More than four decades later, the president said it was "a little disorienting" to see the sprawling, built-up capital.
A shopping mall built in 1962, now dwarfed by glitzy high-rises, was the only building on Jakarta's skyline he recognized, Obama said Tuesday.
The bicycle rickshaws that plied the streets when he lived here in the 1960s were nowhere to be seen as the president's limousine hurried along routes cleared for his motorcade — though he still said "my understanding is that Jakarta traffic is pretty tough." In fact, Jakarta has changed, even as Obama's own circumstances have dramatically altered since the days he played and studied in a humble neighborhood here.
"As a young boy in Menteng Dalam 40 years ago, I could never imagine that I would one day be hosted here," Obama told Indonesia's president during toasts at the state palace, referring to the area he lived in as a child. "Never mind as president of the United States. I didn't think I would be stepping into this building, ever."
Obama moved here in 1967 at age 6 after his divorced mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, remarried an Indonesian man who moved the family to Jakarta. She stayed on after the marriage broke up, working as an anthropologist and development aid worker, but Obama returned to Hawaii when he was 10 to live with his grandparents.
Obama indulged in some wistfulness about the changes, both to Jakarta and himself, since those days.
"When you visit a place that you spent time in as a child as president, it's a little disorienting," the president said at a news conference.
When he arrived here as a boy, people rode about on bicycle rickshaws called becaks, and on crowded little taxis called bemos, the president said, seeming to relish pronouncing the Indonesian words of his youth.
"The landscape has changed completely," Obama said.
"And now as president, I can't even see any traffic because they block off all the streets."
Obama arrived in Indonesia Tuesday and was leaving Wednesday, a brief but long-awaited visit cut even shorter because of the threat to air traffic from volcanic ash spewed by Mount Merapi. Two previously scheduled visits had been canceled, first because of final negotiations on the health care bill and then because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Those repeat cancellations and the brevity of Obama's stay somewhat dampened Indonesians' once sky-high enthusiasm about welcoming their native son. Nonetheless, people throughout this vast nation of 17,000 islands gathered around television sets Tuesday to watch Air Force One touch down, and the president and first lady emerge into the hot, humid afternoon.
And President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seemed as eager as Obama to evoke the U.S. president's childhood here, and take note of the alterations the years have made.
"Your excellency must have felt the difference in Jakarta when you arrived this afternoon," Yudhoyono told Obama at the state dinner, as the president looked on with a smile.
"You didn't see any paddy fields in the middle of the city, or see fields where you might have played soccer and flown kites in the past," Yudhoyono said.
"You didn't see pets like monkeys and infant crocodiles like your excellency might once have had in your home in Jakarta."
Yudhoyono also extolled Obama's mother, who died in 1995, and he presented Obama with a medal on her behalf.
Though he lives halfway around the world now, the president sought to assure Indonesians that he wanted to keep the country of his youth close to him and his family. It was first lady Michelle Obama's first trip here, and the president said he would like to return one day with daughters Sasha and Malia.
Said the president: "I promise that it won't take so long before I come back."