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Posted by Achintya Nilsen on 11th May 2020

“I grew up in an orphanage in East Timor until I was seven years old. One night eight of us boys decided to run away, and we jumped on a boat. When we stepped on land one week later, we celebrated in excitement, thinking we were in America. Then we heard people speaking Indonesian and realized we were still in Indonesia. It was Jakarta.”


“I grew up in an orphanage in East Timor until I was seven years old. One night eight of us boys decided to run away, and we jumped on a boat. When we stepped on land one week later, we celebrated in excitement, thinking we were in America. Then we heard people speaking Indonesian and realized we were still in Indonesia. It was Jakarta.”

Perhaps you wouldn’t believe it if you saw him now, but Peter James grew up an orphan on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia. Literally on the streets, without a home, and a family. He had to spend his days begging to be able to eat, to be able to survive. I was interested in learning Peter’s story when I kept seeing all the good deeds he would do for people on one of his accounts, I wondered what motivated him to move with random acts of kindness continuously. Little did I know how inspired and amazed I would be with the story he had to tell.

Born in East Timor, Peter never knew his parents. His dad, while waiting on the birth of his son, passed away in the morning from a heart condition. And that night, Peter was born. Within seven months, his mother, a red cross volunteer nurse from Peru, also passed away due to a tetanus infection. It was East Timor in 1984. A place still in recovery from the war in 1970.

He spent the first seven years of his life in an orphanage. One night, he and seven other boys decided to run away. “We were afraid. Because the owner [of the orphanage] wanted to rape us. So we ran to the harbor, and we jumped onto a boat.” Peter told. And one week later, they ended up in Jakarta. “I grew up in the streets of Jakarta, without any family. Until today I have no family,” So without many options, he took to begging on the streets. “And on that first day we got there, I got Rp.5000, and at that time it was worth quite a lot.” Following this, he went to the markets in Blok M, Jakarta, and in there, he saw an old lady. “There was a granny who was selling those peanuts in the small plastic bags. And I told her I want to help you sell this in front of the markets.” She gave the price of 25 rupiah. And Peter sold it for 50 Rupiah. “So 25 goes to her and 25 goes to me. And that’s where my business mindset started.”

I thought about what I was doing at aged 7. Feeling proud of making it to the top of a mountain, and completing a spelling test without any errors. Meanwhile, here we have a seven-year-old who had to think of day by day survival. But Peter did not stop there. I think perhaps what is more inspiring than his durability is the fact that he strived for more. When I was younger, we used to see kids begging all around the streets of Bali. And whenever they came up to our car, my mother always offered the same thing, “How about instead of money, I give you an education, and I put you through school?” And each time, they walked away–choosing to take their chances on street earnings instead of an opportunity to go to school.

Meanwhile, in Peter’s case, he wanted to get an education, and he worked to get it. “I spent a year standing outside of the school, crying. Because they kept shooing me away. Because obviously, I was a street kid,” Peter started. “Eventually, all it took was one teacher, one woman, her name was Ibu Desi,” He explained. She went to him as he sat outside of the school and asked: “Why do you want to go to school?” And he told her that when he ran from East Timor, he only brought two things with him. His mother’s necklace always kept around his neck. And her diary. But it was all written in Spanish, so he didn’t understand any of it. And to understand it, would mean a better understanding of his past, and where he came from. “I don’t know anything else about my parents. There are no photos. The only thing I have is her diary,” Peter shared.

So the teacher told him that if he could be one of the top 10 students (Indonesia has a ranking system within each classroom) of the class within the next four months, she could work to provide him with a scholarship. Peter not only got a scholarship for his primary school years, but he maintained this scholarship throughout middle school, high school, and eventually also getting one to get into University, where he studied cross-culture anthropology and theology. Upon finishing his undergrad studies in Jakarta, he went to Bandung to conclude with his graduate studies. Completing his studies, Peter James then became a teacher in Jakarta. And it wasn’t until nine years ago, that he finally moved to Bali. Without any relations, without knowing anyone, and without anything on him, “I ended up sleeping in Kuta Beach,” He narrated. At first, I laughed, thinking of what Kuta was like in those days and wondering where he would’ve stayed, and then I realized, “Sorry, did you say at the beach?” I clarified. “Yeah, right in from of the McDonalds, at the beach.” He responded. “Because I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t have anyone,”

The next morning he opened Bali Advertiser (a newspaper) and looked for job openings. There was one for a blackberry store, from Canada, that just opened their branch here. “The job was probably the easiest and most fun job you could think of. Just testing games,” He said. “They just asked me if I could speak English and I said yes I can. My grammar was not great, but I could speak conversationally,” And the next thing he knew, he was accepted. And he had a job.

“You know, I truly believe that was only possible by the grace of God,” Peter mentioned. “I had no knowledge or background on IT or anything related to it, and yet somehow, I was able to receive this job.” He managed to earn a good salary and find himself a more comfortable space to stay in. After working with them for about four years, the company went bankrupt. All the offices around the world closed, and suddenly Peter was out of a job again. Miraculously, at this point, he randomly found a one-way ticket to Singapore, costing only $3. Using the severance he received from the company, as well as some of the sums he saved up, he ended up booking the trip. “From Singapore, I ended up just hitchhiking through to Thailand and all the way up to China. It took me about 5 or 6 months,” And when the money started to run thin, he decided to come back to Bali. And upon his return, he opened up his business PJ Collections.

PJ Collections is an online and wholesale brand that recycles wood and bamboo and repurposes them into accessories. They have bags, shoes, sunglasses, and tumblers, among other things. I asked what inspired PJ Collections? “Well, firstly, I love nature and the environment,” Peter responded. “And, I thought about it when I first saw the wood or bamboo construction workers use in the development of a building. Once they are done, they just throw it away. So I thought, what can I do to utilize that? What can I make with it?” The pieces were much too small to build intricate recycled furniture. He did some googling, browsed on YouTube, and stumbled upon two young dutch people who made bamboo framed sunglasses. He contacted them, asked how they made it and requested step by step instructions that he then eventually translated into Indonesian. Why? Because he wanted to make sure this benefitted the locals as well. So he hired local help and started his business. “I wanted to help the locals. They’re very talented, but sometimes I feel they don’t know how to market their talents,” Peter elaborated. “So I made something that is environmentally friendly, and also something that would benefit the locals.”

I questioned Peter on why he felt this drive and motivation to help the locals so much. “I don’t know, maybe because I grew up in the streets,” Peter vocalized. “It was tough for me, and I guess I just want to help people like me. People that don’t have enough, people who don’t have parents. People that don’t have a family,” “That’s why every time you buy something from PJ Collection, 10% will always go to the PJ Foundation,” And the PJ Foundation is a program ensured helps the street kids or orphanages of Bali. I always think these kinds of initiatives are a great idea–how a business benefits not just the creator, but others who are in need. “At the end of the month, it doesn’t matter how much I got, maybe it’s just Rp.100,000. But I will use what I have to go to the markets, cook a lot of food, and I’ll walk around the streets and eat with people together. Just sharing the love,” “I don’t have much now,” Peter added. “But I just want to give something.”

Peter’s work in giving to others and starting projects that help those in need does not end there. I recalled having seen these baskets being tied to poles on the Canggu Info Instagram story, and upon seeing them on my street could get a closer look on what it said. They were giving baskets. For people who are able to, they can share some basic food or other supplies. And for people who are in need, they can take what’s inside the basket. “It’s just for helping people,” Peter explained. “Now it’s a hard time for everyone, and not everyone will have so much to give. But some people who have more than enough will have the opportunity to help out in a little way,”

“I just have a lot of ideas because, as you know, I grew up on the streets. And as a kid, every day was about what I can make for tomorrow,” Peter voiced. “Until today, that’s still how I think. How can I survive. What do I need to make, what do I need to do. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop,” But it is this that makes him feel independent, Peter shared. “I’m not afraid of anything. I’ve fallen a lot,” When he thinks about his past, and where he is now, Peter said, “I could’ve been dead by now, but something is guiding me,” There was a time when he didn’t have any money. He was hungry, and with no idea what to do, he searched up ‘how do you make money without money?’, found a list of top 100 jobs you could do, and did the first three. House sitting, Dog sitting, and an online business. Which is how he got started with Canggu Community, and then eventually moved on to Canggu Info. “I just breathe, think, and there will always be a way out.” And it is in this trust and guidance that he feels inspired to make something not just for himself, but for others. People and animals alike. “I believe in something bigger than me. But when people ask me, what is your religion. I just say, religion is love. That’s it. Everything is about treating other people with love, and good karma will go back to you,” Peter expressed.

Having been in Bali for nine years, I asked him if he has been around to witness the developments and how he feels about the growth of the island over the years. “I still remember when Canggu was nothing. I tried to get to Deus, and google maps couldn’t even tell me where it was,” Peter revealed. “People change. Places change. In many ways. But I like Bali. I can still feel the vibe. In how the locals keep the culture. How they keep the traditions alive. Yes things have changed, but Bali is home for me now. I feel at peace. I’m just happy,”

I wondered if perhaps this has anything to do with the fact that he lives for other people. “Of course,” He acknowledged. “I’m just happy when I’m helping others, and I’m happy when I’m around the dogs. I do this because it’s what I love to do,”

“In Jakarta, I nearly killed myself three times. When I was 7, when I was 13, and when I was 15. I drank Baygon. I died. I went somewhere and I came back. I was desperate. I don’t have any family. I was hungry. I was tired. I was eating from the garbage behind a KFC. And I hated God. I blamed God for everything. I said God, if you are real, why me? Why do some people have parents, and I don’t? Because I didn’t understand. I blamed everything on everyone,” How does one change their mindset and continue to push forward? How does on not give up in the face of so much against them? “Well, I think it changed since I moved to Bali,” Peter remarked. “I started doing some yoga, some mediation, and then one day, I met a healer. And he did his healing thing, and I started crying a lot and he saw my parents. And the only thing I ever wanted was to know them. That’s why I wanted to die. I wanted to meet God and ask him that. And as the healer said that, I said okay, just tell them I love them. I forgive them. And that’s when it all changed,” He told me that, from there, he just felt healed. That Bali gave him its energy. And that’s why he believes in the specialty of this island.

I asked if he ever learned anything about his family, eventually–referring back to his mother’s diary that he had with him. “Yes, I stole a Spanish dictionary when I was in high school. And slowly translated it all. And that’s how I knew that my father’s name was also Peter. My father passing away the morning before I was born. That my mother was a Red Cross volunteer they sent to East Timor. And they met in the hospital, where they eventually fell in love.” He said through Facebook, researching the shared last name, he found what are potentially his relatives from his mother’s side. A small Jewish family in Lima, Peru. “It’s still important for me to look for my family, but I also have to focus from the now. And forgive the past,” He divulged.

As a final thought, I asked him, if there’s one thing he would pass one, to summarize all that he has experienced “Just be kind.” He said, without hesitation. “Just love everyone, and be kind to everyone.”


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