An October 2004 trip
to Indonesia by Uncle Travelling Al
Quote: A journey across the seas and the islands from Darwin to Sumatra...
"You must try some leaf soup," smiled our host. Sounds different. We're halfway up an Indonesian volcano, invited to a friend's home, and we're offered some leaf soup. Ah, sure we might as well give it a try... Three bowls later, the tripping began...Three days later, the comedown continued...So as I walked the streets of Mataram, pondering my purpose here and indeed, the reasons for my very existence, trying in vain to regain the use of my eye muscles (they had all but filled my eyeballs for 72 hours), I suddenly realised there was a purpose. I was here to observe..."Hello mister," the ringleader of a cute group of teenage girlies shouted. "Hello," I uttered quietly. As usual, this sent them into reels of laughter, hands clasped over their faces to help them contain their guts. Such an incredibly witty retort they had apparently never heard...I moved on. My mind flashed back over the last few days of tripping—what was real and what was not?—the scariest moments being:1. My attempt to doze off a couple of nights before, only to jump up screaming at the horrid realisation that a massive constrictor snake had wriggled its way into my bed (not real).2. The monkey that flashed its teeth fiercely at me and then proceeded to chase me down the road after I tried to take its picture, its shrieks piercing my poor distorted brain (real).I strolled past the street stalls, Westlife blaring from one of the million dodgy karaoke CD shops; some poor sod of a heartbroken Indonesian lad was sitting outside, following the words on-screen and singing along, painfully out of tune, but with all his heart, as they usually do. Two more teenage lads passed by, holding hands. They weren't gay; they were just Indonesians. That was normal—a far cry from home.Beep-beep. The motorbikes whizzed by. Beep-beep. Ladies sat sideways on the back to preserve their dignity. Lads hung off the back, placing their helmetless heads trustfully in the driver's twitchy hands. Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Five minutes just to cross the road; each passing motorcyclist beckoning eagerly, most likely in a great rush to get to the other end of the street, so he could turn around and come back, beeping louder than ever—"Transport? Transport? Where you go?" Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep. I didn't know. I didn't really care. Beep-beep. Please b*gger off and let me cross the road.The next shop was a newsagents' and the rather provocative young lady on the front of a magazine caught my eye. The trap worked as God surely intended. I was lured to sneak a peak. In a predominantly Moslem country, I should have known better. The black and white chequered pages flicked by like an optical illusion. Not a naughty lady in sight. It was a crossword book. I walked on in bemusement, then amusement. It was Indonesia after all...The markets and shops, as usual, were brimming with stock. They were open all hours. But not a buyer in sight. I neared the conclusion that shops are in fact only there for decoration in Indonesia. Indeed, so few people bought anything, I think the sellers had forgotten how to sell... "How much for this synthesiser?" I quizzed in the music shop. Enter Mr. Indo Salesman of the Year: "Oh. This one is not good. It takes no diskettes."Hmmm. "Okay, can you show me one that takes diskettes?" I was genuinely interested."Sorry, we have none...[pause]...This one is the best we have", he mumbled, pointing gingerly at the model he'd told me was just about as good as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition. I looked back at him in bemusement."Where you from?" he managed, trying desperately to save the sale opportunity he'd single-handedly fluffed.
"Ireland." "Ooooh. Westlife!!" he shouted excitedly. Yes. He'd succeeded. He'd found some common ground. Westlife were from Ireland too. Amazing! The sale was surely now a foregone conclusion. "Goodbye." Onward I roll. "Hello Mister. Where you going?" I heard from the shadows, for roughly the 77th time in 6 and a half minutes. Did they really care? I don't ask you where the *eck you're going, do I? Now kindly b*gger off and let me observe you. That's what I'm here to do.Another shop I passed. Another proliferation of teenage girls seemed to run the business. No doubt in this Moslem society, the older sisters were now married and too preoccupied with keeping themselves hidden under wraps to continue their interest in the family business of standing around pretending to sell stuff...A "HOMYPED" shoes neon sign shone brightly in the Main Street. Surely designed for your typical gay paedophile customer group.Tasteless plain biscuits and unripened fruit filled the shelves of the foodstalls.My mind flickered over all things distinctly Indonesian I'd seen in the month previous:...the amazing popularity of transvestite singers; the open drains that invited me to break a leg every time I broke my concentration to avoid them; the Russian hats favoured by the more officious types (I concluded the more important you were, the more important it was to sweat profusely); the mixture of religions living side by side and actually visibly respecting one another's beliefs; the words that audibly were derived from the colonial years—Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese—you name the country, they've been colonised by them—rather worryingly I realised from looking around me, that a German colonisation seemed to be in progress......the bewildering lack of price knowledge by the staff in anything from hotels to newsagents. When put on the spot, they almost wet their pants. "One minute please," and just like Kaiser Sauzee, "Poof"—Never to be seen again. The price would remain a mystery. The sale a non-starter......the remarkable improvement of service in McDonalds compared with the rest of the world. They even have egg-timers that they set when you place your order to guarantee a 1-minute service!...the incessant chewing of "Betelnut" (or beetlejuice, as it is filed away in my head) on the more easterly islands—the Indonesian equivalent to Coca—fights fatigue, keeps you working, drowns thirst, and beats off hunger. Every business owner's dream, I thought—a workforce of vampire-like drones, their mouths oozing red saliva from behind seemingly blood-stained teeth (a chronic side-effect of this mouthwatering delicacy)—but they could work every hour that the gods kindly send...As I continued to weave my way through the meandering steets of Mataram, everything around me seemed so familiar...My memories of my time thus far in Indonesia came flooding back. I was still tripping, and I'd amazingly answered the question of my purpose here. For now I was happy. I had observed, and I liked what I had seen...Uncle Travellin Al
Mandy In the Bathroom..."Mandi!" the little old man spluttered out through a smiling, toothless mouth, with a rubbing gesture up and down his body. He had just returned from the bathroom.Had I been green to Indonesia, I would have naively assumed that a pretty young lady by that name was offering her services in the bathroom and I might have been tempted to seek a smile as big as his. But my "command" of the language told me that he was suggesting I have a shower, having spent enough time (25 hours) sitting down to have left a permanent impression of my buttocks on my seat. But my odour blended beautifully with my surroundings, so I didn't want to rock the boat.Being a VIP guest on the ferry had already afforded me some very special privileges:1. Watching 25 hours of Borneo-style MTV, with local female singers gyrating their hips on-screen to the point of almost dehinging their booties.2. Spending enough time in the company of cockroaches to be able to locate their nest inside the arm of a chair close by me.3. Selecting the upper pieces of meat from a lunch tray which the cockroaches had already begun to infiltrate from the bottom.4. Waking up in the dark to that special tingling feeling pattering across your skin, indicating that you are not alone in your chair (and nobody likes to be alone)...
Yes, VIP is the certainly the way to travel in Indonesia. Borneo beckoned. The jetty was in sight...An indigenous welcome..."What is it?" I ask innocently. "I don't know," shrugs the owner of the homestay. "It comes from the jungle." That seemed a very acceptable explanation as I downed my tasty beverage. When in Rome...Time ebbs. Dilated pupils. Feeling of well-being. Sounds familiar. An hour passes hazily. An invitation with a selection of local DJs and scholars to a secret room. A complicated chemical contraption lies in wait."What is it?" I ask, (almost as innocently as the first time). "We call it Chukung—it means canoe, named after the way you smoke it." Again, a very acceptable explanation, as I inhale deeply. When in Rome...A feeling of very well being; I belong here.No more questions—too high to care. Within hours of my arrival, my long-standing policy of When In Rome... led me into a near-sleepless world of digital music creation and clubbing as a VIP (i.e. western) guest, in a 7-nights-a-week dance culture that would unexpectedly inspire (an albeit brief) return to wicked ways of old. Forest People...Landing on my feet, with a 6am start, unshowered and straight from the niteclub, I headed into the back of beyond with a couple of friendly German girls, the only other westerners in town, not-so-fresh from 6 scary weeks living with a dayak professor-cum-warrior in the interior, conducting research on the burning forests."What do you mean an orang-utan took it?"After a day of motoring upriver, deep into Tanjung Puting, we arrived at Kalimantan's only orang-utan sanctuary. But within a couple of hours of my being there, I was aggrieved to find that an orang-utan (roughly translated as forest person) had swooped on my unattended camera. While the description on the police report could have read...The suspect is 1.5 metres tall, with shoe size 75; an 8-foot arm-span; a bit of an all-over ginger hair problem - and lives in a nest... ...I have my doubts.My first encounter with the real orang-utans was with Princess—one of the locals—as she strolled along the pathway, her baby dangling from her side...Veronika freezes as her water bottle is snatched from her grasp. Princess examines us, then calmly unscrewing the bottle-top, takes a swig and swishes the water round in her mouth...Dangling baby waits anxiously. Mammy assesses the water quality. "It won't kill ya," is her verdict (without the words). Lower lip protrudes for Baby to slurp from. We look on, spellbound.One more swig, and off she waddles along the path, leaving us shaking our heads in awe of her intelligence. Give her a visa and a job in an Irish restaurant and you'd be amazed at the improvement in service. Borneo Belly...Return to Kumai. Struck down with a nasty dose of the Rota virus, courtesy of the pineapples in which I'd overindulged. Not knowing whether to use the bathroom or puke, I found I could do neither as I collapsed on the pier and was carried semi-conscious to the nearest doctor.Tests carried out. Medicine despatched. "He'll need a receipt for all the medication and the doctor's bill, to claim back on insurance," explains Andy at great pains to the doc. I eventually receive them thankfully. The bill comes to 3 euros.Still in recovery the following day, I make the mistake of taking a journey on what can only be described as the undisputed, most pot-holed road in the world. I fight to hold whatever contents need to be held inside until each pitstop.Sampit: A Lesson Learned.I had an hour to explore this town of some 50,000 (all-Dayak) indigenous people and went walking. Now, as it transpires there's a wee reason why only Dayaks live there. A little digging showed the statistical facts to be true, but it's a story I was asked to relay by a local "as a lesson to others." What the lesson might actually be is a scary thought...As it happens there was "a bit of a tiff" between the Dayak people (indigenous to Borneo) and the blow-ins from Madura in February 2001.Feeling increasingly persecuted and unwelcome in their own land, the Dayaks retreat to the mountains to consult with their ancestors. Twenty-three great warrior ancestors are awakened, 23 of the Dayaks become possessed with their souls. A 200-strong army is formed. Blood is on the menu as they descend on the villages.Wearied by an incessant attack strategy of the possessed, the Madura people did not sleep for a week —when Dayak day warriors rested, night warriors took to the streets. Resurrecting "ancestral practices," the bodies of the Madura victims were mutilated and beheaded by means of the Mindau sword. Within the week, the official death toll rose to over 500, with thousands unaccounted for (the Dayaks claim to have killed 11,000) and with an estimated 50,000 Madurese evacuated from the area. Contradicting some of the "facts" of the Dayak story, the Indonesian government reasoned that two men were the masterminds of the attack, one of them the Professor-Cum-Warrior Head of the Forestry Board in Palangkaraya, who spoke locally of how warriors brought him the hearts of the slaughtered Madura people as gifts. And if other people were not careful "the same could happen to them." Charming fellow.Walking the streets of Sampit does nothing for the nerves. You sense a madness in the wild eyes of the people that turns your blood cold. How much of the story is true? How many of the locals have killed and mutilated? I wonder as I wander...Probably best to wait in the bus...Uncle Travelling Al
The Friendly NeighbourA knock on the door. "Hello!"In walks an uninvited, smiling middle-aged man. I had been alone in my room in the nasty Hotel Barito, in the nasty frontier town of Tarakan—a necessary pain-in-the-bu**ocks stop en route to Malaysian Borneo. My Indo visa expired the next day. My guitar-playing seemed to mean Open Invite.He sits on the chair; casually lights a cigarette. I'm a little taken aback, so I leave the door wide open, standing uncomfortably. How do I get rid of this?He spots my camera. A digital photo—that'll keep him amused for the duration of his cigarette. He is impressed by how well he looks: his moustache drooping over his upper lip, combed downwards for extra effect; his slick-black hair combed suavely to the side, kept in place no doubt by a combination of accumulated grease and phlegm.[He puffs on his cigarette...a long pause]"Polisi," he says smugly, breaking the uncomfortable silence. He observes my reaction before eyeing my belongings. Here we go... On my request for identification he produces a wallet, showing a photo of his good self and a young lady in uniform. Now, drawing on past experience—call me hasty—I reached the conclusion that photographs taken at fancy-dress swingers parties with similarly kinky members of the opposite sex do not qualify as valid police ID. Eventually the badge is produced. He begins to rummage. As is always the case when I'm completely innocent, I feel guilty as hell. I'm not carrying anything illegal... Am I?...As he pulls my bag apart, I come to my senses—"Search bag—police station—no here," I utter in defiance. My broken Indonesian gains his attention. Clearly understood; clearly ignored.A wallet comes out of the bag. The wad I'd just withdrawn at the ATM; followed by the bundle of ziplock bags I'd bought to keep my stuff dry on the river-trips. Wide-eyes: "For drugs? Aahh, money. For me. Polisi. Yes?" 50000 Rp note in his left hand—TWO MILLION Rupiah in his right. If he just wants one note, it's worth it to get rid of him, isn't it? What if he wants it all? Hold on—You're innocent...
"NO!" I shout angrily, pulling the note and the wallet from his hand.Ooops."Hm!" he grunts angrily, grabbing my passport. Out comes the mobile. Details relayed. I gather a few words, clearly spelt out by him as he glares at me. Visa finish tomorrow...Wants leave on boat in morning. Is this guy gonna plant something on me?One note. Six dollars. B*gger all in my terms, but a few days' wages here. As usual with travel, once you're attuned to local prices, it sometimes needs a step back to realise the fickleness of the situation. "Visa finish, yes? Police station, yes?" he grunts, shuffling in preparation.The money is sitting there. I gesture him to take it, trying to smile, as if giving a present. He refuses. The AC is broken. This guy knows how to bluff. I'm sweating hard, but thankfully there is no fan for the "stuff" to hit...After eating some very bitter humble pie, pleading with him to take it as a gift for cigarettes, he eventually gives in, and having feigned reluctance brilliantly, the note magically diffuses into his wallet wad. And suddenly his body, having been temporarily possessed by that money-grabbing maniac, is returned to the smiling, pleasant man that came to visit the guitar-player. "Goodnight friend," he beams to his new blood-brother. My blood boils. I stew for a few minutes but decide that the principle outweighs the hassle. I storm down to reception and explain angrily, showing the digital photo of my smiling friend. "Oh no, are you sure? It must be a misunderstanding. I know his face yes, but he wouldn't do that. He must have thought it was a gift—why did you offer him the money?" A conspiracy was forming in my head.The guy has good English, so drawing on deep reserves of BS kept in store for such occasions, I explain my status as an international journalist and researcher, sponsored by the Indonesian High Commission (who?) to research and report on tourism and travel in Kalimantan (Huh?)I flash my little black book, ask him for a pen and the local phone booth. "Where are you going?" a worried voice quivers as I storm out. "Tomorrow you will have no job and that man will be in a LOT of trouble."Out I march, a man on a mission. "Sir!... Sir!..." But I've built up a head of steam. I'm going, with my little black book (brand new and empty) to make a phone call to an imaginary person who would get me my money back and deal with these two men. As I steamroll down the street, to the local payphone, I begin to realise that imaginary people don't tend to do very much about this kind of thing. I'm being tailed by a shifty guy on a moped; dodgy characters line the streets. I make my call to my imaginary friend who tells me that everything will be OK. He was on the case now. I sometimes worry about my mental health. I return to the hotel, feeling a little foolish, realising that I should get across the border before my complaint to avoid visa complications in a country to which I'll soon return."Sir please...," but once again, I storm past reception to my room.Little did I know that meanwhile, my imaginary friend was hard at work...A knock on my door a few minutes later. Who is it this time? I brace myself."Sir please! I have your money!" I open the door warily. The night manager is standing there, pleading, hands outstretched with the note. "He is a nice man sir. I spoke with him. He is a soldier. You must have misunderstood. He speaks little English. He wanted a PENNY for his coin collection!"Butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. I could see the image forming: The pleasant, smiling man who came to say hello and was wrongfully accused by an ignorant foreigner of blackmail and extortion. And the night manager who did everything in his power to help the impetuous and ignorant outsider understand the situation.His case was so honestly pleaded that laughter was the best remedy. These guys had done this before...Most likely they would do it agan. What should I file in my report to my imaginary friend at the Indonesian High Commission? Don't be conned, my friends...Uncle Travelling Al
Uncle Travelling Al