Obama makes long-awaited return to Indonesia

After two years of waiting, Indonesians are finally getting the chance to welcome back their adopted son. But the euphoria that swept the predominantly Muslim country after Barack Obama’s election victory has been replaced by a dose of reality.

Few here now believe he will change American policies in the Middle East or improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world. And hopes that the two countries would march forward together on the world stagehave been cast aside.

Still, Indonesians gathered around television sets all over the country — in their houses, coffee shops and office buildings — and watched as he touched down.

“We all stopped what we were doing,” said Tito, who works at the front desk at the Novotel Hotel in Balikpapan, a city on Borneo island. “Staff, guests … It’s just so amazing that he grew up here, has family here, and is now the U.S. president.”

While Indonesians take tremendous pride in having partially raised the American president, who spent four childhood years in the country, the plans for his long-anticipated homecoming Tuesday have been accompanied by a sadness that he is not fully theirs.

He’s already canceled two planned trips and is due to stay for just 24 hours. Shortly after he touched down his spokesman said the trip may be even further shortened because of concerns about the ash of a volcano hundreds of miles (kilometers) away.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presented a line of ministers to Obama, who greeted them in Indonesian.

Obama planned to later tour the country’s largest mosque and make a speech that will give him another opportunity to convince Muslims that the U.S. is not waging a war on Islam, but on terrorism, and needs the help of moderates to fight it.

That will give him no time to visit his old neighborhood in the sprawling overcrowded capital — a jumble of houses and narrow streets that has changed little since he was here from 1967 until 1971, although it is now in the shadow of luxury shopping malls and high-rise buildings.

At a news conference after arriving, Obama joked about the changes to the capital and the intense anticipation surrounding his homecoming.

“Obviously much has been made of the fact that this marks my return to where I lived as a young boy. I will tell you though that I barely recognized it as I was driving down the streets,” he said to laughter. “The only thing that was there when I first moved to Jakarta was Sarinah (a shopping mall). Now it’s one of the shorter buildings on the road.”

He added he was sorry the trip was so short and he hoped one day to return with his two daughters to show them the country.

This time, his tightly packed schedule does not even allow time for brief meetings with family and friends.

“I have waited so long for this visit,” said Katarina Fermina Sinaga, 61, who taught the chubby, vivacious boy, then known as “Barry,” in the third grade. “I still hope to meet him. I just don’t want him to forget us.”