Indonesian Critters

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You don’t need to watch a scary movie to make your flesh crawl, as Daniel Pope explains.

A fellow English language teacher in Jakarta had an unusual way of demonstrating the difference between the passive and active voices. Apparently – I only had his word for it – he would stand before his class of adult students and loudly break wind. This came easy to a heavy drinker like himself at nine o’clock in the morning after a night on the town. Allowing a few moments for the gasps and muttering amongst his students to subside, he would explain, “And so you see, I was shocking, and you were shocked. Any questions?”

English may still be the most useful language to learn for its international popularity, but when I returned to my home town of Oxford after a nine-year absence, it seemed no longer to be the prevailing language. In fact, I understood less of what was being said around me on the crowded streets of Oxford than I did in the centre of Jakarta, although much of the confusion was due to mispronunciation.

In a high-street cafe I ordered a cup of tea. “You wan meal?” asked the server.

“No thanks.” I wasn’t hungry. When he handed me the tray with my drink on it, I said, “May I have some milk, please?”

He stood still and looked at me impatiently. “I ask if you wan meal and you say no. Now you say you wan meal…”

Anyone wishing to experience a simulated day in Jakarta should find an industrial tumble dryer, pump it full of vehicle exhaust fumes, chuck in a pair of loud speakers blaring calls to prayer and other assorted noises, add heaps of grimy junk – anything that will rattle around, turn the heat up high, and climb inside along with enough strangers to overcrowd the drum. One hour on full-tumble should make you feel similarly dishevelled, disoriented and in need of a stiff drink.

In the past few years Jakarta has grown noisier than ever with all the demolition taking place. Down every street there seems to be a muddy entrance to a boarded-off rubble-strewn site. Loud crashes, booms and clangs reverberate above the roaring of diesel motors, the clatter of drills, the showering of broken concrete. You have to be as impervious as a common dog to sleep through this.

But in predominantly Muslim Java, dogs are neither common, nor are they man’s best friend. Instead, they are haram, meaning they are deemed unclean and should be avoided. Even in Hindu Bali, dogs are believed by some to be reincarnated thieves and criminals, and are shunned as such.

Much of Jakarta though is dominated by cats, especially by tatty and mangy cats. They survive off scraps that humans discard or donate, and live around rubbish tips and food outlets. Back in the 1990s, when I first came to Indonesia, the majority of cats had crooked tails. Some said it was due to inbreeding, others asserted that the cats slept at the edge of the roads and had their tails run over. Or perhaps evolution under President Suharto’s regime favoured twisted tails.

But cats are nothing when compared to the most horrific creature associated with human habitats found in Indonesia. My worst encounter with these dreaded vermin came during a ride in a becak, a kind of rickshaw popular in parts of the country, one stormy and traffic-gnarled day.

In Jakarta, traffic jams are so fearsome that similarly to hurricanes they are given names. The Indonesian word for traffic congestion is macet, so you had Macet Marauder, Macet Mayhem, Macet Nemesis. At least in my fanciful mind you did. But the biggest of them were certainly the stuff of folk lore, as were floods.

I was in the East Java capital of Surabaya and due to catch a train, and had given myself plenty of time to get to the station. But it suddenly poured with rain, and just kept on pouring, relentlessly, until the roads around my hotel resembled fast-flowing rivers. Catching a taxi became impossible.

And so I rolled up my trousers, hoisted my bag onto my shoulder, and waded into the streets in search of alternative transportation. I eventually found a becak parked nearby, its large spoked wheels half-submerged in the dark water. The driver, looking like a sailor dressed for rounding the sea off Cape Horn, agreed to get me to the train station within the few minutes remaining before my train was due to depart. I clambered aboard.

What followed, as the driver pressed down on the pedals, haunts me to this day. If you’re not familiar with cockroaches of the type found in Indonesia, think of the most grotesque insect you can – scabby brown, about the size of a thumb, hard but squishy, some might say crunchy.

Next, imagine that this miniature alien, horrifying enough as it scuttles up chair legs and across table tops, can split open its back, sprout wings, and fly.

But it flies so infrequently that it’s always a shock. Not only that, but it also has a tendency to aim for and land on humans in a dizzying way, and it runs across your bare skin with feet that seem to pinch and nip.

However, it wasn’t their ability to fly that bothered me on this occasion. Unseen in the dark, masses of these abominable creatures had been seeking refuge amid the dry spokes and rims of the unsubmerged halves of the wheels either side of the becak.

When the wheels began to turn, carrying the insects toward the waterline, they all swarmed upwards onto the passenger bench, in a seeming frenzy to escape drowning. Further upward still, until I was covered in cockroaches, all scrambling around my body.

As the becak accelerated, I must have looked to other road users as though I was having a fit – writhing and jerking and slapping myself all over. I eventually removed my jacket and flung it overboard. I was too disgusted even to shake it clean.

The becak driver pedalled onward through the flooded streets, puffing and panting, occasionally uttering “aduh …” when the going got too tough and he was forced to jump off the vehicle to push it.

But we finally made it to the station with seconds to spare. I was relieved, and pleased that the incident if nothing else had provided me with my own classroom anecdote to illustrate the passive and active voices. For without a doubt I had been horrified, and the cockroaches had been horrifying. Any questions?

 

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Daniel Pope is a part-time hedonist, residing mostly in Jakarta, where he still finds everything a bit of a rum do.


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