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Two fingers up for family planning

Family Planning statue
Family Planning? F off!

When I first lived in Indonesia, in the not-entirely-golden age of Suharto, family planning was one of the government’s core priorities. So much so, they’d take people on safari for free. These family planning safaris involved laying out the camp beds, slapping women down on them and shoving an IUD up them. Though the programme improved hugely in later years, it remained sullied by its coercive infancy. When responsibility for reproductive health devolved to the districts, it was a rare Bupati who dared to make contraception a priority.

One of the results is that Indonesia’s population has just passed the 241 million mark. That’s one in 30 of the people on this planet. Another consequence is that one very rarely sees any public support for family planning. So I couldn’t resist stopping to photograph this hang-over from the Suharto years, which stands outside the central Flores town of Ende. (I took exactly the same photograph in 1989 — the fuck-off gesture amused me even then). The statue refers to the campaign’s central slogan: “Dua Cukup!” (Two is Enough). It was often accompanied by another hand gesture, the universal gesture for “Stop here!”, an open palm held out at arm’s length.

The two fingers flicked, then five fingers in your face gave its name to the state-sponsored brand of condom: 25 (Dua Lima). This somehow tickled me, and I mentioned it to my riding companions, two medical technicians from Jakarta who were installing equipment in the hospital here. The younger of the two looked completely blank. “Huh? Family Planning? I thought it was a peace sign”.

It’s surprising to me that the only places I’ve seen any sign at all of the family planning programme (now with the slogan Two is Better), is in Flores, the only Catholic-majority island. In many other places, the family planning programme seems to be completely moribund. Lamentable. Dua Lima condoms have vanished, too. A lot less lamentable. Especially when they’ve been replaced by cheap and high quality brands such as Fiesta and Sutra.

Graffiti, Catholic style

The Blessed Virgin Mary on a hill going out of Boawae, in Flores, made me homesick for the near-identical BVM outside the Priest’s House in Castletownshend, the prettiest village in Ireland. (I wonder idly where they are produced. There’s a smaller but otherwise also identical version in the garden of the guest house I’m staying in.) As I walked up to photograph her, this graffiti outside the dorm rooms caught my eye. I wasn’t sure whether to be shocked that it was there at all, or to be shocked by how tame it is…

Indonesian Ferries: possession is nine-tenths of the law

Not trusting to the vagaries of shonky inter-island passenger ferries, I scheduled my visit to Sumba so that I could move on to Sabu, an even drier and poorer island in NTT, on the fortnightly PELNI boat. Needless to say, just for this one fortnight, PELNI is having the barnacles scrubbed off it. The shonky ferries are “lagi kosong” — “currently lacking”, a phrase that strikes horror into the traveler’s heart in much the same way that “rail replacement bus services” does to users of Britain’s creaky and overpriced trains. There was a weekly flight on an eight-seater plane for a while. But the company that ran the service had a plane “disappear” a couple of months ago, That made the aviation authorities a bit suspicious, so they pulled the company’s license.

So I found myself on a shonky ferry after all, going to a quite different island. There are three classes of transport: VIP, 1A and economy. The principal difference between them seems to be the volume of karaoke/music played.Oh, and the expensive classes have seats, which makes it harder to lie down. I usually opt for economy, and have learned that arriving early and staking out territory is nine tenths of the law.

Staking a claim between two trucks
Priority seating courtesy of SQ gold card

I opted for the space between two trucks. pissing on the proverbial patch with sarong, backpack, and Singapore Airlines frequent flier Gold Card. I wound up sharing the space with a Granny I had met a few days before while searching for a Granny I had buried 20 years before that, but mostly I held my own. As you can see, the space fills up rather quickly.

My patch, early on
My patch, circa 5 pm
My patch, later on
My patch, circa 10pm

Still, it’s a good way to travel. The price is right — about eight dollars for a 12 hour trip (though more if you want the karaoke). You can chat to (most of) the other passengers, and learn a bit about this nation on the move. The Sumba-Kupang ferry was pretty well filled with men going to work on some “proyek” (which usually means road construction) in northeast Flores, and women going to work in Malaysia. “From West Sumba, the diligent ones,” explained one lady who was herself going to burn candles over her mother, who had died in Flores. “Here in the East, we’re too lazy.”

Fellow passengers
Fellow passengers

Twenty years on: warrior-in-waiting heads Sumba village

For my 30th birthday, my mother framed school reports from the time I was 12 or 13. “Elizabeth is far too fond of the sound of her own voice” and “she sometimes sails too close to the wind for comfortable passage in the flotilla.” Are we really set in stone by the time we reach our teens?

I had cause to wonder this week, as I wandered West Sumba in search of people whose photos I had taken 20 years ago. One of my favourite pictures was of a young boy dressed up for the pasola jousting festival. He was too young to take part, but that didn’t stop him challenging the camera with a “you wait, I’ll show you” sneer.

Incurable I'll-show-you face
Pelipus Pekaba, photographed by Enny Nuraheni in 1991

Showing the pictures at a friend’s house, some one piped up: that’s Pelipus. That’s our Kepala Desa. The kepala desa, or village head, is now an elected position, arguably the one that has the most influence on people’s day to day lives in remote rural communities such as Gaura, where we were at the time. We went off to find Pelipus; he was preparing for the ceremony that marks the negotiation of a dowry. It starts with reading the entrails of a dog (provided by the bride’s side), to determine whether the partners are well-matched. The groom’s side is secretly hoping for bad omens, not necessarily because they want to see an unhappy marriage, but because a bad prognosis brings down the dowry. There’s no point holding out for too many buffalo if you’re going to have to return them when the couple divorces. Second order of business is to slaughter and roast a pig (also from the bride’s side); no serious bargaining can take place until everyone has eaten their fill. So Pelipus was busy, but not too busy to have a look at some old photos. The party oohed and aahed over pasola heros past and present. And then the village head found himself on my iPad.

He agreed to be photographed again, after he had wrapped himself into his party clothes. He told me that he had dropped out of school shortly after that first picture, and become a thief and a cattle rustler. It wasn’t until he got married and had a child that he saw the light and decided that the life of a local leader might be more palatable. (Delsi, a young Sumbanese friend who teaches high school, commented: “It’s a good strategy, to make the naughty ones head of the class. But it doesn’t always work.”)

Baby warrior turned village chief
Pelipus Pekaba, photographed by Elizabeth in 2011

That “you wait, I’ll show you” look is still there, though when I bumped back along the 15 kms of unpaved road the next day to give him the prints of the “Then and Now” photos, he was looking a little the worse for wear — the dowry negotiations had continued until dawn. He and his companions had bargained a starting offer of 15 cattle up to 40 head of buffalo and horses. It would not surprise me one bit to come back in another 20 years and find that Pelipus is head of the West Sumba government.

Peliplus in his current and former incarnations

Death to the budget! Graves in Sumba

Sumba is a graveyard of bodies and good intentions. Physically, it is littered with impressive megalithic tombs and their hideous modern counterparts. Financially, it is littered with development projects that haven’t quite developed anything.

Megalithing tomb in Anakalang, Sumba

“Megalithic” sounds ancient, and many are, but they are still being built today. The tomb in the photo above was built in the 1970s; it took several hundred people the best part of a year to drag the stones on wooden rollers from the quarry to the burial site, and months more to carve. It’s “voluntary” work, but workers need to be fed, and richly. That makes for a lot of dead buffalo. No huge surprise that many people are now using cement and tiles. Since the tile-piles have doors in them (to make it easier to shove family members in as they die) the island looks increasingly like a repository for surplus public loos, though some families are prettying them up (and covering their bets) with pictures of Jesus.

Modern Megalithics: the Jesus tomb

Not wanting to be outdone, the island’s Christians Proper (often ethnic Chinese) have got Public Works to weigh in with cement. The Christian graveyard has a lovely new fence, in a delicate shade of primrose. Its cement pillars are carefully placed so that any Indonesian child and most adults can walk comfortably between them. And it cost this district, which scores close to the bottom of the national ranking on education and health, just 314 million rupiah (a cool US$ 30,000). This certainly doesn’t compare with the cost of a traditional West Sumba tomb, but still…

Slaughtering the budget: graveyard wall in West Sumba

May everyone rest in peace.

Moncong putih: nyoblos atau main belakang?

With individuals and political parties jumping in and out of bed with one another with gay abandon, it’s quite hard for a new (re)arrival to figure out what’s going on in Indonesian politics. I am somewhat incorrectly on the record as a supporter of PDIP (a story too long to tell, but perhaps this banner, modified ahead of the last election, will give an idea…).
Coblos moncong putih

I thus have to express dismay at the apparent bullying of PDIP in its former strongholds (including Bali) by the Bigger Party. One of PDIP’s undoubted attractions has been it’s bottom-line campaign slogan “Coblos moncong putih!”. “Puncture the white snout!” — it certainly loses something in translation. But this being the logo of PDIP:
and the slogan dating from a system where voters punched a hole in the party logo of their choice, it was pretty effective.

For some reason, I thought of it this as I saw this small, unstable, “moncong putih” being shoved around by its larger, older “parent”.

Siapa mau yang moncong putih?

Spinning around Sumba

Sumba is well known for its weaving; back in the day, villagers used to wait til the pods of the kapok tree kapas bush burst open to yield their cotton, then patiently spin it in to thread with nothing but a little wooden top (a jenny? am I making that up?) gyrating on a broken plate fragment. It’s rare these days. Trying to follow all the steps involved described by Mama Lakabobo, shown here with a whole year’s production, I could understand why.

Thread and fabrik made of kapas

The older spinners’ place has been taken by little boys with warring spinning tops. The loser of the last round sets his top spinning first. His opponent’s job is to knock the first top off balance, while leaving his own spinning merrily. Witness here the Great Spinning Top Wars of Waikabubak.

Repel hazardous trespasser!

Repel Hazardous Trespassers

You can see the hazardous trespasser reflected in the glass. For what it’s worth, a more correct translation would read:

For our mutual well-being, please wear your ID card.

Perhaps they are worried about all the dodgy visitors going cap in hand to the top floor of the building, home of the Ford Foundation, which funds all sorts of hazardous enterprises, including programmes that aim to increase accountability in government.

Yoga in Bali: to laugh or to cry?

Ubud is an expatirate encampment in the hills of Bali made famous by a dashing Brazilian who rode in on a white charger and saved Elizabeth Gilbert from boring the world to death with sun salutations. And it’s here that I’m suffering an attack of incurable Yoga Rage.

In a town where it is virtually impossible to get Indonesian school books or a pair of sandals without beadwork, there are a dozen or more shops selling yoga kit. Touchy feely 100% guarantted organic cotton yoga kit. Enough to make anyone cross. Not just me, apparently:

Yoga hurts, meditation is boring

Someone had such bad Yoga Rage that they made a graffiti template. I was still chuckling when, not five minutes up the road, I encountered a Yogi prostrate with laughter, despite the fact that it looks very much as if his business is going down the drain.

Laughing Yogi goes down the drain