Indonesia in dispatches and sketches
by Cliff Whitehouse
For the millions of dollars spent on this project, it’s the wee hundreds that don’t get spent that draw attention. While top execs chopper in and out of the site, the rest, the bourgeoisie, have to travel on age-old infrastructure, which means top-heavy buses and small, jerry-rigged, un-maintained boats that reel with the rough seas. Last week the ferry engine was swamped by a wave and cut out. The boat rocked wildly without control until the engine restarted. It’s one thing to inflict this on miners, another altogether to make their wives and children suffer the wrath of Poseidon.
The bus from the dock at Talongalong, a piecemeal raft of boards strung together and floated out into the water, is an air-conditioned tour of the Third World. It cuts across Lombok like an incision, exposing jungle and village life. There is nothing but subsistence living here. Chickens scratch in the dirt; people stoop over rice, knee deep in flooded paddies; kids thresh rice or make clay tiles or haul water or step into oncoming traffic in an attempt to sell some ware or another. Animals, from snakes to dogs to water buffalo wander freely from side to side. Old women carry jugs or bricks or fruit atop their heads—the weight belied by their walk.
Every Sunday there are wedding parties teeming in the streets: brightly colored costumes worn by battalions of women, bands marching or being driven along on open trucks, crowds of families and well-wishers, the men with small pill-box hats of faith—white to show they have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the women with hair pulled into a bun or covered by veils.
One Sunday, though, as all the weekend pass-holders were making their ways back to catch the last boat to Sumbawa, a funeral was in session. It was uncomfortable to be edging through the crowd of silent, mournful villagers in a taxi. Even the driver felt discomfiture, apologizing quickly and quietly to everybody that moved to allow us to pass. Such conflicts of interest are the straws that add up on the camel’s back. I was glad to be early for the boat; I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the latter taxis or buses that had to interrupt the solemn occasion yet again. The worst part was that there was no other road. Infrastructure is not a term most Indonesians are familiar with.
Many of the mourners had on bright orange vests that showed they were part of a vigilante group established to combat the growing thievery and violence on the island. There have been murders and an escalating frequency of robberies around as the economy dies and desperation sets in. For the most part it has been localized native-on-native but there are cases of tourists falling prey as well. The Mount Rinjani attacks for example and a daytime attack on a man whose rental car quit out in the sticks. The boys in orange create an image frighteningly like that of the Hitler Youth Brigades, their blind unification and sense of «justice» just waiting to be manipulated and misused.
For one hundred miles it is primitive, then, Mataram. The Dutch were a presence for three hundred years and it shows in the way the city is built, the way buildings have permanence and landscaping. It is an attempt at Europe in Indonesia. Obviously, ultimately, the attempt failed. The Dutch left in World War II but the influence has not yet died.
The Dutch are back now, just in a different capacity. Gone are the soldiers, the officials and bureaucrats. Now it is tourists. At Senggigi Beach, they lounge around on the beach, stare at the heavy tropical sun, swallow beer at the bars, sleep loud and late at resort hotels and take pictures to prove Indonesia was a good land to rule.
The hotels along the beach in Senggigi are nice in the way that fish and white wine are nice: sophisticated, exploitative, historically elite. The fact that the staff to guest ratio is 2:1 says something about cheap labor and profit margins.
I get sandwiched between two beliefs, the first that great buildings and monuments have been achieved by despotism and slavery which wouldn’t have been achieved otherwise. The second is that there should be some equality in the world, that is, a certain benevolence come from one’s fortune of birth. A WASP who goes to med school or gets an MFA and cashes in on Wall Street should have a bit of compassion for the Siberian peasant who suffers and struggles to subsist. I believe that great physical monuments are not as necessary as a monument of humanity, but equality amongst people seems an impossibility—a great idea but an impossibility. At least a monument can serve to inspire, to show what man is capable of.
There are Sheratons, Holiday Inns and other swank establishments built from the beach and up the hill, all with pools, restaurants, copies of fine art and well-appointed rooms. But that’s not what I mean by an inspirational monument.
At the Senggigi Beach Hotel, a plush jungle atmosphere resort, I rent a windsurfer for my birthday. After it is put away and I’m changing into dry clothes, Andi offers me a KANSAS cigarette (slogan «Taste the Freedom»), lights up, tells me he wants to quit because he has asthma, then holds the smoking plug in front of him and lovingly says, «But it is hard; this is my best friend.» In the next exhalation he says his wife died in May of cancer.
He is the flesh and bone denial in all of us: defiance in the face of knowledge. He is a weather-stained man with incoherent tattoos wrapping around his arms and back. His life is renting snorkeling equipment to the Senggigi Beach Hotel guests seven days a week and raking the sand near his booth. Never have extremes been so apparent: have versus have not. Andi and hundreds others like him earn about a dollar an hour while guests pay $180 a night, eat $20 dinners leaving half on the plate, rent boats and go scuba diving—submarine beauty 100 feet below abject poverty.
George Orwell raises a relevant question in one of his essays, «Why does this slavery continue?» His thoughts, relating to plongeurs (dishwashers in France), still hold 50 years later — nothing has changed.
«People have a way of taking it for granted that all work is done for a sound purpose. They see somebody else doing a disagreeable job, and think they have solved things by saying that the job is necessary. Some people must feed in restaurants, and so other people must swab dishes for eighty hours a week. It is the work of civilization, therefore unquestionable. But it does not follow that he is doing anything useful; he may be only supplying a luxury which, very often, is not a luxury.»
Orwell suggests that modern slavery (long hours, little pay) is a means of controlling the «mob» and ensuring the status quo. Here, in the fourth largest country in the world this is painfully obvious. The shame is not so much in those that unwittingly take advantage of the situation but that people like myself, who recognize the injustice, do nothing about it.
I’ve had a dream for several years of building a big house in the mountains of Colorado that would serve as a place for inner-city kids to experience the beauty, peacefulness and quietude of nature. In this selfless dream, mi casa es su casa. Then, quite suddenly, I am in Indonesia with a relatively large apartment while thousands of workers sleep in slightly modified sea containers or worse, in thatched shacks with no running water, no electricity and no protection from disease. I could begin benevolence by letting a dozen locals sleep at my place. It would save them hours of waiting and busing everyday.
Will I do it? Probably not. We can all think of myriad excuses as to why we haven’t and why we won’t: company policy, danger, theft, privacy, et cetera. Only in times of abnormality would such a thing happen. As best we can, we want to establish a hermetic world where only occasionally and under our control do things change. It was nice living in Boulder because almost everyone was affluent and better-off than me. I’d rather be at the bottom of the envy ladder than the top. The guilt of possession is an uncomfortable albatross. I’m no saint. I enjoy all the perks of my relative wealth — I just want to live without the remorse.
The movie «Ordinary People» was on recently. A family wants to see a shrink about dealing with the death of one son but Mary Tyler Moore’s character, a woman who cannot express her grief, says, «I am not perfect. I have my faults, but I don’t want to change.» She feels that if a family has problems, it is up to them to work them out or live with them, but not to share them with the rest of the world.
How far does a shrink’s responsibility go? Or a doctor’s? Having sworn the Hippocratic oath, is it fair to leave a man dying on the operating table if one has already put in eight hours of life-saving surgery? A doctor recently sued American Airlines for $900 reimbursement after he provided medical attention to a man with a blood clot during a flight.
Or a teacher’s responsibility? Or a businessman’s? People will always die. People will always be hungry. How and when does the conscience develop? There are essentially two views: one is to help those you can and make some small difference; the other is to succumb to the futility of all action.
America is a country of instant gratification and competitive wealth. We are four percent of the world’s population yet use twenty-five percent of its resources and produce twenty-five percent of its waste. How long can that continue? No other country has as many per capita lawyers, an industry which runs on the scheme of cashing in on someone else’s labor.
Nothing is produced. It is a false economy. It cannot last. Corporate bankruptcy has become a way of life in American business and personal bankruptcy is catching up to people. Remember the film «Roger & Me?» Rabbits for pets or food. Our day in the sun is surely drawing to a close.
There was some concern about the way the school doors were unlocked when teachers arrived in the morning, but it was chalked up to forgetfulness or haste. Then, a stereo went missing. Not a great one, but something that had a remote control, tape deck and CD player. The shame of it was the timing. The children in Fay’s class had been told that if they were good, they could listen to CDs and to bring some to school.
«Call me a cynic,» said Marsden, an Aussie who’s been in Indonesia for 10 years, «But, it was only a matter of time.» A month.
So, our first theft. That could and does happen in every country in the world. It’s the way it was handled that is very Indonesian—with hints of Russian bureaucratic constipation thrown in. First, the principal spent an hour on the phone with a voice over at the security office. A meeting was scheduled. Three men arrived with notepads. They interviewed the vice-principal, noted his name, address, passport number, age, badge number, all numbers whereat he could be reached and his version of the story, which was only what had been told him by Fay and Stephen.
Well, Carol then needed to be interviewed. After all, it was her room where the theft took place. Even though she was in Singapore when it happened. All her vitals were recorded and her version of the story—which was only what had been told her by Fay and Stephen.
Fay was next because her room is next door to Carol’s. Again, birthdate, home address, numbers, years in Indonesia, etc. And her side of the story. As if she was suspect; she whose apartment comes furnished with the exact same stereo.
Stephen, too, went through the inquisition. His being the strangest because he is a teacher in Mataram, not Sumbawa. It was Laurel and Hardyesque:
«What were you doing in Carol’s room?»
«I was teaching her class.»
«Why wasn’t she teaching it?»
«She was in Singapore.»
«But you live in Mataram?»
«Yes, I came over to cover her class.»
«Who was teaching your class?»
«Who was that?»
«Can we speak to him?»
«If you like. He is in Mataram.»
«We’ll send someone over.»
«He doesn’t even know about the theft.»
«So you don’t know what the stereo looks like. How did you know it was missing?»
«I went to play a CD and there was no player.»
«When did it disappear?»
«I don’t know. Over the weekend, I guess. It wasn’t here on Monday, but Fay said it was here Saturday when she came in.»
«What was she doing in Carol’s room?»
And so on… After two hours, they left. Then, Tim, VP, received a call. Security was going to send someone around for an official report the next day. So, the next day, two men arrived, one with an officious air, the other with a black, boxy briefcase. The briefcase opened to reveal a film noir typewriter with wing-arm keys and a convoluted ink ribbon. The process repeated itself, for the record. Absurd enough yet? The next day, another call. The supervisor of security wanted to come around. Hands flew into the air, exasperation ran through the building like a hairdresser on fire.
It seems a French comedy to add that it didn’t end there. The next day seven men arrived; seven! With their white boss to ask Tim more questions and look around the building. The sad thing is, it was better dealing with well-meaning bureaucracy than a white man on a power trip. Without politesse he went room to room, roughly demanding who people were and what they were doing in their rooms. Fay responded courteously, «I am preparing for my next class, Mr.…?» It is as Tim later said, security people are quite often those who don’t deal well with people, those whose strength is, well, strength and that is all.
But how to explain the triplicate behavior? Imagine people from a village without running water, without paper, without pens, without education beyond the sixth grade. Transplant them to an office and the assignment of record-keeping. Of course, they want to do a good job, follow instructions to the letter, leave nothing out, cover all the bases. And take as long as possible. Because the alternative is to end up the one blamed for a blank line, an un-asked question. And in a country full of unemployment, disease and hunger, no one wants to lose a job that provides an office, a car, accommodations and a box lunch.
The same mentality was on parade when two boxes of mine, shipped from America, went missing. After weeks of reporting the un-appearance to different people, a man arrived at school to investigate. He asked questions of the other teachers, who knew nothing except what I had told them: «I’m missing two boxes from America.» They all pointed him in my direction. Since I was in the middle of teaching a class, he took pictures of me through the window. After class he approached me, asked where the two boxes were. Missing. He wanted pictures of the boxes that had arrived. They were in a dump somewhere, I reckoned. He wanted to come to my apartment and take pictures of the stuff that had been packed in the boxes that had been disposed of. I’m not missing the stuff that came, I explained. I think it was the new digital camera hanging from his neck that compelled him to shoot so many photos. He left and was never heard from again. Some day, I expect another man to show up with a similar camera to run through the same procedure.
The majority of security is made up of locals who are given stiff blue uniforms, radios and the mindless task of sitting by the road to check badges and see that no one unsavory causes any trouble. But where does loyalty lie? To a family member who comes over the hill at night to steal something, or to THE MAN who can be seen in such manifestations as a Land Rover and a big house with a TV and VCR and fridge.
There is a beach resort being built at the edge of town, reputedly entirely from stolen materials. The opening date had to be pushed back because someone cottoned on and hired security guards from another island. The joke is that anytime something goes missing, go to security, it’ll probably be there. They are the worst because they are always watching; they know schedules and patterns. A pair of jeans disappeared yesterday from a balcony. The logic is, if you’re not wearing them, you don’t need them — you’ve got too many pairs. It is hard for ex-pats to get out of their Western way of thinking: I bought it, it’s mine.
She is the type of woman wherein one can see a childhood of battles for attention. Hers is a personality of antagonism, a modus operandi of the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Her body is a Korean car: a collection of parts, experimental, poorly painted. She relishes the attention of being one of the few women in the minesite, complains about the looks she gets, the comments she knows are being made. Conversation always has a reference to her boyfriend lest one forget she has a lover, a man, is capable of finding a partner.
Cigarettes are part of her image—proof she is as tough as any man. And many a night, she has drunk larger men under the table. She is proud of her South Dakota, proud to be an engineer, proud to insult people, to go toe to toe with foul language. She has become a warrior for equality at the expense of likability. She can exceed men at being the pigs they are.
She is holding forth in the bar, listing manly accomplishments. At her first flight training, the landing gear crumpled and the plane flipped. The instructor said, «Guess you don’t want to be a pilot anymore.» Upside down, hanging from her seat belt she replied, «When will this thing be fixed?» She has ridden bulls, run rivers, hiked mountains and of course, she owned more guns than anyone else in the bar and was a crackshot. Which led to a story…
After a housemate moved out (I can see why), she was living in a huge ranch house (her own, of course) with many acres at the edge of National Forest land. One day, after work, she came home to find her tool belt in a different spot than where she had left it. With the hammer placed on the floor of the bathroom. While most people would freak out, she figured it was a friend playing a prank.
A week later, after work, all the windows were found unlocked and wide open. Someone had been in the house. Probably a friend just funnin’ with the woman living out in the sticks by herself. She called the friend she suspected and said, «I don’t appreciate what you are doing.» The guy said, «What did I do?» She explained, he denied. She said, «Look, you do it again, I’ll blow your head off. I’ve loaded my shotgun. I’m not kidding.» The guy said, «You better check to make sure it’s still loaded.» She walked over to the gun, checked the chamber and it was empty! She began yelling at the friend, saying she would call the cops and they’d be there in ten minutes and he better have a hell of an explanation. Turned out not to be that friend.
It was, in the end, the brother of a guy she dated twice. They had a showdown at a bar. The brother glared at her as she walked past.
«What’s your problem?» she demanded.
«You fucked up my brother’s life. You took him away from me.»
«Your brother doesn’t even know me. We went out twice. I couldn’t have fucked him up. If he’s fucked up, it’s his own fault! Here, let me buy you a beer, and we’ll call it over.»
Aubrey pulls at her tepid Anker pilsner, inhales full and strong off her cigarette and stares at the rapt crowd around her. This is living, she thinks.
Some people you hang out with by choice, others by necessity, and still others out of sheer disbelief.
they call him. He was the guy who drove me and a couple of others up to the Kencanah Beach Resort last month, gunning the truck like a native on the winding, slender black obstacle course called the road. He was cocky, rough with the vehicle and enjoyed the brutality and dirtiness of navigation. There is a certain pact with mortality one has to have made to drive at the edge of control in a land of dangerous obstacles.
He has usually a raffish air about him as he stands at the bar, Marlboro always going in one hand, bottle of Bintang in the other. He has the body of a Greco-Roman wrestler turned line cook and the bitter laugh of a clown who has bounced a check.
His field is computers and, tired of living in the attic of his parents’ house, he is one of the few who asked to work here. His idea of seeing Asia is tragically misogynist and atavistic. He spent most weekends in Senggigi, drinking poolside, watching the cross-dressed bands play Indonesian pop and, as many of the men do, going for a massage et cetera at a well-known place called Jamu Jamu. He is a typical mine employee in those ways, a stereotype of the bachelor ex-pat. It is a life that in many ways is better than the one he would have to eke out in America where manners and morality matter as much as money.
Alas, Bill’s days in Indonesia are over. He already had two strikes against him for drunken behavior towards Maluk’s demimonde and then went and had a few too many Bintangs at the bar, then tried his old style of driving and ended up in the ditch. The management here doesn’t mind drinking—in fact underwrites it in many ways: bars, beer at the commissary and «piss ups» on the beach—but frowns on rolling a company vehicle. They gave him one day to pack his bags.
On his last night Bill was buying drinks for everyone (not one to wallow in his misery, nor one to change his behavior because of a minor disagreement in policy with his employer), getting rid of the «Monopoly money Rupiah» that would be useless in the States. He seemed undaunted by his change in status, even jovial. The tumescence on his head, the scar down his forearm and the chipped teeth from the accident added to his appearance as a miscreant and made him even more of a caricature than a human being.
There are benefits to eating at the mess besides crepes and apple cobbler and ice cream twice a day. Like Chinatown or Tribeca, people are met, deals are made — though it’s more like a German essen-hall. If there’s an empty seat, you may take it. It’s interesting to see the seating patterns from day to day: New people are more open to strangers, veterans stick to themselves. And the eating patterns. The teachers talk about me behind my back — about how much I eat, that I’m going to bankrupt the catering company. Exaggerations all. There is a man here, akin to my grandpere Omer — a hoarfrosted man with a giant belly but the body of a foreign language teacher. He eats more than me: piles of meat and potatoes, bowls of fruit and custard, cups and cups of coffee.
As I Friday sat the mess, worrying a chicken leg, Ismed approached and asked if I wanted to go on the chopper to help count turtle eggs. When? The following day at 10:30. Yes!
It was like being in the military without having to do pushups. We rode in a troop transport vehicle down to the heli-pad, learning interesting bits of turtle trivia as we went: they lay about twice a year after 7 years old, sometimes up to a 100 eggs; they come during high tide, over the sharp coral reef if necessary. Very few survive—they are eaten as eggs, plucked by birds as they take their first steps, and taken as snacks for predators in the sea.
The helicopter is an old warbird from Korea, past its prime — still whopping along but dangerously close to being put to pasture. It is a yellow and white tropical fish costume wrapped around a washing machine agitator that sits two up front and ten in the back on canvas benches — lined up like paratroopers, an EAM life raft near each door in case we survive a plunge into the sea.
Rex, our buzz-cut, tattooed pilot, swivels his head on its leather stump, juices the engine and we shake into the air like a jaundiced penguin doing St. Vitus’ dance. Down goes Benete port, falling away like a high bar on a dismount. The townsite where we all live comes into view. It seems so small. From end to end it seems no more than a little trench dug in the grass—a long divot that wasn’t replaced after a bad 1 wood drive. The salt water intake pipe scuds under us like a small, pale imitation of the Great Wall of China. A small village of transmigraci is laid out on a flat with Mormon North-South, East-West logic. A few wind propellers sticking high into the sky seem out of place—like satellite TV parabolas in the third world. Then, the dirt roads peter to nothing and it’s all green bush and palms and white lines of nose-candy breakers on the blue water.
The noise, dampened by earmuffs, is still intimidating — nothing like an airplane. The fragility of flight is too apparent in a helicopter: if the blades stop rotating, the metal cocoon drops like local currency during elections. It is a thrill but almost a relief to let down on a patch of green.
Our landing pad is a grassy plateau rising above a beach — so small the rotor hangs off the end, whipping around like the Moulin Rouge set on puree. We bail out with the gear while Rex holds it steady. Only now can I understand the drama of Reader’s Digest stories like «Rescue on Deathly-Cold Mountain» when the rescue chopper battles to remain steady while the boy and his dog are finally saved after three days of shivering and soul-searching.
Then, it’s gone. The double-whopping with breeze fades out over the hills. Looking around, it’s just two white girls, myself and five natives. Dark skin, dark eyes, dark gums, dirty clothes, cigarettes and knives. We set up the tents, use our right hands to eat rice out of a newspaper with a couple fish heads for flavor and roots of some kind in a spicy sauce, then settle down for an afternoon of waiting.
It is an afternoon of tranquility. There is a world chasing its own tale, slitting its own wrists, flogging its own back out there beyond the meniscus of seameetssky, but it is imaginary. In truth, there is only this stretch of coastline: its volcanic chocolate, gritty meringue, dappled roughage and wavesong.
A hermit crab insistently claws its six-legged way along sand, over fronds. It retreats into shell at the slightest danger, then a crack, a sensor, two eyes on sticks, legs and motion again. Trees as insects: thick body-trunk supported by spindly leg-roots that plunge into sand. An organic EKG device. Barbettes pierce the skin-bark outward, a mace-flesh painful to the touch.
In the woods I find a trail. Back home in the Rockies, I would explore it without thought; the familiar is not threatening or frightening. Here, I pause, envisage who, what, uses the path. Cannibals with bamboo spears? Gargantuan bush pigs? Komodo Dragons with their debilitating venom? Any of a half dozen poisonous snakes? Mind as battleground between a history of harmless adventure and potentially deadly jungle. What use here, a dictionary, morality, a credit card?
Headlines of the past few days flash into mind: Dayak Beheadings; Ritualized Slaughter; Tribal Justice; Tourists Attacked. How is it that the biggest threat is other people? To be bitten by a snake seems natural. Stupid but natural. To die at the hands of a fellow human seems unnatural, even more stupid.
The trail is dapple dawn drawn winding winding Grandmother’s house entreating. Tones and whistles of birdsong chandelier. Deeper and deep in, sea-sounds fade, tree-silence ensues. It is a rare moment of absolute solitude and self. How often does no one in the world know where you are? How often could you die and decompose the old-fashioned way, not as a patient etherized on a table? How often are you nothing but essential animal? It is fearful and profound. Heart of darkness stuff.
A dog’s wail. Below, distant, a boy washing. Better to turn around, retreat unseen. How would I feel if I were intruded on in my backyard? There is too much violence in the air in this part of the world to be chatting up hand-to-mouth villagers while flaunting $800 worth of boots, clothes and camera equipment. He is washing his vitals and I wonder if he has just had sex. Is his Eve nearby? He lives life without a bed, without running water, without electricity but he is human. I am glad to have seen him, to have the chance to wonder about him. His will always be an untold story.
In the full silence, I realize how loud a city body is. I cannot imagine jungle warfare—the tension of life hanging on discovery, on the betrayal of breathing. The closest we come in the city is that 4 a.m. vacuum when the day is dead, traffic is asleep, people are lost to the privacy of nightmares and there is only the tick of a watch on a dresser, the radio hum of a Ginzburg tenant losing the handshake of sanity.
It is a relief to be back near the shore, to have noises as camouflage against the madness of such an acute awareness of corporeality. There is comfort in the destructive power of watersongs, the gun-metal horizon slow-motion arch, turquoise explosion, roiling aftermath spittle and great dying, deflating, drowning humps. I can now understand the mythos that has been built around the great oceans of the world.
After a dinner of freshly dug clams and ramen noodles (that or chicken parts from a bag left out all day) the sun went down like a poorly applied tourniquet and we had hours to kill till the tide rolled in. In the tent, sleep came on sweaty and polychromatic. Outside the tent old skins of men from the forest arrive and sit, inert. They are Zola-simple folk waiting, waiting for the turtles.
A sighting! We trudge down the beach, now lit by the proud-chested moon, and stop. This is instinctual motherhood: she crawls from acrobatic sea to awkward sand, moving four legs forward, pushing, four legs, pushing. Again and again. It is fatiguing to watch. She picks a spot and begins digging: great sweeping flipperfuls of spastic movement. Sand flies into the air in bursts. She pauses, sighs a geriatric sigh, continues. It is a Sisyphean battle — the hole fills back up with sand from the ever-collapsing edges.
Finally, the hole meets some internal standard and she props herself up and begins to drop soft-shelled eggs the size of tangerines. Dozens fall from her, looking and feeling like waterlogged Ping-Pong balls. But the eggs do not hit the sand; the hands of the poachers are there to catch them as they fall. The eggs pile up on a sarong: 50, 60. An hour later, when she is empty, the turtle heaves out of the hole and begins to cover it with sand — not knowing that her eggs are already gone. It is a four-hour process, she is exhausted, but the poachers are happy—it is a good haul, there were four turtles along the beach this night. With effort, she drags herself back to the sea, is lifted and pulled out by a wave.
«What’s the point?» asks Kathy. It’s a question that can only be answered by taking sides. None of the neophytes sleeps well, dreams of violation, theft, infanticide are too strong.
The chopper comes. We look like babies climbing into the swollen belly of a metal mother. How different from the night’s events.
Three days after turtling, the rotor cuff on the chopper cracked and put it out of commission. Fortunately, it happened at an uncrucial moment with a light load and no one was injured. If it had happened at a different time… Most of the time, our brushes with death go unnoticed. And it’s better that way.
This clarion blast of words, side by side, means some sort of roofing thatch. For some reason, it’s a popular name for bars and restaurants. One, a swank number in Senggigi with a Babylonian garden is a good place for a birthday dinner. The other, a structure of rocks and wood on the beach in Sekankang, has wood-fired pizza, smart-mouthed staff , hot salted peanuts (I am a simple man), fresh sea breeze, cowboy swing doors and an appointment with Poor Old Bastard—a grisly, solid man of Aussie birth, worldly passports and a soft spot for Irish music.
When I arrive, POB is doing his best Irish imitation: stomaching drinks and greasy chips. Talk ran from skiing in New Zealand to a new bike trail running 2,500 miles down the Continental Divide to pushing our principal to the trenches as a gigolo to calm a rabid mother. Random, interesting conversations at points, just words at others. I’d like to count the number of topics a bar goes through in an evening.
For a couple of hours, Indonesia felt like Dublin. Songs of rain, sea, hardship, loss, lasses, whisky and love were strummed and slurred. I remember one in particular, a well-known tune that I’d never heard before: «The Girl With the Black Velvet Band.» A good song is a time capsule, a cultural ambassador, a novel.
A Pakistani salesman showed up today to sell carpets. He took over the aerobics room with stacks of gorgeous carpets from India, Pakistan, Kazakistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia and Turkey. All made by hand (but no child labor), all with natural dyes, and all guaranteed for hundreds of years. He was a nice fellow with a bushy mustache and Boutros Boutros Ghali accent. While soccer balls whacked the wall on one side, rattling the floor to ceiling mirrors, and pulsing, pumping workout music came from the weight room next door, he related fascinating stories and a bit of carpet history.
The oldest extant carpet hangs in St. Petersburg and dates back 2,400 years. Carpets were found in the Egyptian pyramids. Up to a 1,000 stitches per square inch. He showed us a 150-year-old carpet with a price tag of $30,000.
One Iraqi king, in the time of Caesar, owned a 600 X 150 foot carpet with jewels sewn into the flowers. Tragically, when the Romans conquered, they cut the carpet up and gave pieces to the soldiers. A treasure destroyed. How human. How stupid.
The low-end carpets were the size of a single bed, made of silk and taking between 1.5 years and 3 years to make—sometimes with three people working on one. The animals and flowers portrayed within are virtual guidebooks to flora and fauna in different regions. When told it was $8,000, one of the students remarked, «For that price, it better fly.»
The urge to sleep in on weekends is strong, but the body is a traitor to ambition—it wakes as per usual before 7. So, a bit sleepy and a bit cranky, I bike down to the crossroads to meet Billy, a New Zealander who hasn’t seen his island in 10 years, and Marty, a stocky Aussie who has married an Indonesian and has made his home all around Indonesia: Jakarta, Bali, Lombok and now, Sumbawa.
The start of the ride is flat enough, though rocky and rough. We are all glad to have shock absorbers and fleshy buttocks. Then, steep hills begin to torment us. They are short but nefarious; it is all I can do to keep the bike going without falling. The reward is in the descent. But then there is another climb. And another. And so it goes for an hour until we reach Tonga, a village of shanties and relatively respectable brick houses.
It’s said someone came in, slapped up some solid houses for about 4 million Rupiahs each ($560) and now rents them for 400,000 Rupiahs a month ($56). Talk about return! In ten months, he’ll have paid off all costs; in the eleventh month, it will all be profit.
Past that village is a transmigraci village—people transplanted from Bali or Java by a sultanate and given some land and a few buffalo; the Indonesian equivalent of 40 acres and a mule. There are fences around fields of tilled dirt. A few recognizable crops are in season: some cabbage, tomatoes and onions. People are at work in conical straw hats, usually in clusters for the sake of companionship. When we pass, they all yell out «Hello Mister.»
It is a perfect day for riding: overcast but warm. Rain comes without storm—just water from above. There is no need to seek shelter; the water is warm and refreshing. Moments later the clouds rise to mountain wispiness—tassels of cotton caught on branches—as if sheep had run a gauntlet through the jungle, the wild things reaching out for souvenirs. It looks like I imagine Chile to look.
Isn’t that a compelling phenomenon: comparing the unknown to the known, as if to control a place or thing by stating its similarity to another place or thing? Why not revel in novelty, uniquity, individuality?
Record reviews are the most elaborate example of this: «The Peach Lamps are Boz Skaggs meets Bantu drumming’s teenage sister in front of the Korean bottleshop that used to be The Palace of Kebab.» Whenever I see these, I think of the Chinese proverb, «The moment a thing is named, it loses its essence.» Still, the place looked like Chile should look.
The road we’re on supposedly goes for another 100 kilometers, but after a few river crossings and too many hills, we turn back. Instead of returning via the mountains, we opt for a trail through the trees that skirts the beach. It has the feel of backroad Kentucky in a Rolling Stones’ song about morphine sung in a hammock by the son of a preacher. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a pale man with large teeth had offered us a glass of lemonade.
Snakes & Danger
This is a country of deadly snakes: the white-lipped viper, the Burmese Python, the Cobra. And sea snakes. While snorkeling, I came across a white with black spots eel-looking thing. People told me afterwards it was a sea snake. Deadly. The yellow and black sea snake has the deadliest venom in the world. Fear coursed through my body. I had been two feet away. But they can’t bite. Huh? Scuba divers have them swimming around their buoyancy vests but there is no danger. Still, it seems a little like juggling vials of Ebola virus.
So, what’s on TV when I get home? ANACONDA, the story of a vengeful, cunning, indestructible monster snake. This behemoth exceeds suspension of disbelief. Hitchcock’s BIRDS I could believe, but a snake that eats a human and is still hungry, a snake that gets shot, pick-axed and burned and keeps going is stretching it. During safety training they tell us to back up if we run across a snake, that snakes are harmless unless threatened. Two versions of the serpent world. The only consolation is that the bad guy died and the heroes lived. One can hope life is a big-budget movie.
An important idea to keep in mind: People have different ideas of what counts as dangerous. Marty, a thick-boned Aussie with a knife wound that runs from lip to cheek, sits at the dinner table telling me about his adventures. He enjoys diving at a place called The Toilet. The name comes from the fact that as waves crash against cliff walls, they create a violent rising and falling swirl around a submerged pillar of rock. Marty likes to go there, hang on for dear life while the water rushes by, then, at the right moment, let go and get swept viciously away. He took a friend there but the friend wouldn’t let go. While the ocean raged around, Marty tried to pry his friend loose. Finally, he succeeded. But it was at the wrong moment and they were thrashed against the rocks then swept away. The results were not pleasant, but both men lived to tell the story, albeit, not the men they once were.
There are no signs of conflict at the Township on Sumbawa. We are several islands removed from East Timor, ethnically and culturally distant as well. Attacks have happened on Mount Rinjani in Lombok, but they don’t seem politically motivated.
Balinese legend has it that there is a spirit in Mount Rinjani that needs to be placated by offerings of live flesh. In the not-so-distant past, this meant virgins from the surrounding areas. Recently, this has been altered to live animals, preferable oxen and goats. The animals are tied to stones and dropped into the cauldron. Every year celebrations and sacrifices take place on the mountain.
For the tourist, the mountain is still a formidable challenge. It is about 41 kilometers of trail and some 3700 meters of serious mountain, It usually takes about three days to go up and back. One can hire a guide and porters who, often barefoot, carry all one’s gear, food, water and tent. The meals are often chickens and goats that make the journey alive until mealtime—carrying themselves to their deaths. The cost is an amazingly cheap $60 for three days.
I met a man who had done the climb several times and was working on a documentary film about the mountain and the locals. The story was a father-son relationship, the setting the mountain itself. He wanted to make one more assault before the rainy season set in. I hooked myself on to his adventure. The weekend was selected. Then, a notice from the Australian Embassy reached us: Tourist Warning. A couple of Australians were camped out one night when they were attacked. One was badly hacked by machete, the other injured by a rock to the head. They escaped but had to leave all belongings behind. The one man was treated at the hospital but died of complications back in Australia.
Lots of rumors went around here: Tribal justice had been dealt and the perpetrators had had their hands chopped off. But some argue that whoever slashed an Aussie and gained a backpack, sleeping bag, tent and other expensive sundries would be a kind of hero. Of course, killing people is bad for tourism, but who thinks of the long-term effects when hunger is tightening one’s belly?
Two weeks later, five hikers were attacked: two Aussies, two Brits and a Canadian. This time, it was a set-up. The guides purposefully stopped, went into the woods to see a man about a horse and while they were gone, natives came out of the woods. All five hikers escaped but with serious damage—one man’s arm almost amputated, others seriously beaten. Again, the price of their lives was all their possessions.
Another two weeks later, two reporters on a story for a magazine were hit. They lost all their gear. Word is that it is not the local Rinjani people (which makes sense) but hoods from the Kuda area. This doesn’t surprise people who have been here a while. The Kudanese are infamous for their less than admiral behavior.
The attacks seem to be just for gain. Killing tourists is hardly ethnic cleansing. Needless to say, trips to Rinjani are not as popular as they once were. It is a tough lesson in economics.
Pop Culture’s Gossamer Wings
A few of the publishing world’s bastard children lounge about the staff room. These are magazines that have seen the light of day for one reason or another. Monthly installments of what should be common sense, but is heralded as insightful expertise. A sucker born every minute is being very generous. Readership of millions. My favorite article: «Simplify your life,» a few pages of advice. Number 6: Stop shopping for 30 days. Break the habit. Buy only food and necessities for one month (for more ideas, subscribe to the Simple Living Journal, $16 a year). Number 9: Find inner peace. Number 12: Go outside. Spend at least ten minutes a day in nature. Ten minutes a day in nature. That this sentence can be written and read with sincerity and applicability is an indictment of modern Western culture.
The Jakarta Post had several interesting articles about this date. One said that people in Indonesia didn’t go out in the morning because they expected Armageddon. People were paranoid until the 9th second of the 9th hour passed. It was only by performing elaborate rituals to «solemnize» and exorcise the evil that the day passed without horror raining down from above. Meanwhile in Malaysia hundreds of weddings took place because it was considered an auspicious day—lots of longevity, which is what kow (9) stands for in Chinese-Malaysian culture. Degustibus non disputandum.
Nostradamus said this day would be the end of the world. And it is for thousands in East Timor. In the staff room, talk goes from misbehaving students, missing stereos and bitchy parents to questions about passports—where they are, how we would get them. The answers are less than comforting. The passports are an island away in an office.
One teacher compares our situation to Chile in ’74. One day, all employees of a Chilean mine were evacuated without warning. They were herded to the airport and given their passports as they boarded. Tractors ran until out of gas, shovels protruded from the ground like acupuncture needles—an image as lifeless and haunting as ground zero.
Staff and students have been evacuated from here before. In June of ’98, when riots broke out in Jakarta, the parent company, Newmont, hired airplanes that shuttled ex-pats over to Perth, Australia. School was established in a Holiday Inn for a month until things settled down. Since it was nothing like the Hanoi Hilton of the Vietnam Conflict, it was just a bit of adventure and a holiday for everyone involved. The gamble of life, though, is precarious and whimsical.
Now, 15/9/99, airlifts are in effect. Australians are being evacuated from not only East Timor but also Kalimantan and points further abroad. Australians here are practicing their American accents should the moment arise when they need to do a little dissembling. Meanwhile, the students at school are trying to sound Australian in the hopes of getting a change of scenery.
Last night, 24/9/99, the township went to Code 1. That means have documents in order and a bag packed and ready to go. It was the talk of the rug-warming party. Sometimes life here is like being in Alice’s hole. We sat around on teak furniture, dressed in hand-tailored clothes, sipping imported drinks with ice, admiring an $800 Pakistani rug while talking about the demonstrations planned for the morrow, the shots fired between Militia and Peacekeeping troops. Some folks are scared now and wondering what the company is waiting for. The Australians take it personally. The last time the threat was against Americans and everyone was out ASAP.
The atmosphere has changed. Maybe the ex-pats are hypersensitive, but there are more stories of discomfort and suspicious activities. I’ve had guys on my porch late at night—maybe lost, maybe scoping the place out. When I yell out, «Can I help you?» I get a sheepish, «No meester.» One woman was having her air conditioner fixed and the workers asked her if she was Australian. «No, American.» They looked at her and said, «You’re lucky.» A bit disconcerting in one’s own home. Up at the tennis courts one night, a boy was asked if he was Australian. «No,» he lied. The man said, «Because if you were, I’d kill you.»
I wonder how much is genuine hatred, how much a bit of posturing and how much the result of minimal news—and that manipulated by the government/press. The photo on the front page of an Indonesian newspaper yesterday showed several Australians holding an Indonesian guy on the ground. The accompanying article talked about barbarous treatment. In the Australian papers there was no mention of the incident and certainly no photo. The world has made little progress since Stalin. We should be ashamed.