My future is golden, according to the entrails of the chicken sacrificed on my behalf to celebrate the merapu new year. If I spend very much longer trailing around islands heavy with ritual sacrifice, it may also be vegetarian. Though I’m coming to respect the natural instincts of the animals that share every corner of one’s space in Eastern Indonesia. They sit under one’s feet on the bus, snuffle around under one’s bed in the village, find their way into one’s luggage. Judging from the reluctance of these, my fellow travelers, they have a pretty good idea of what awaits them.
Last year, the Wellcome Collection in London had a glorious exhibition of anatomical models, called Exquisite Bodies. They were accompanied by banners from the fairs and markets where these models used to be shown. In the prudish Victorian age, they were often the only glimpse people got of naked bodies other than their own. Part education, part pornography, all entertainment.
In the country markets of Indonesia, these models still take pride of place, though I’m not sure “exquisite” quite describes them. The sellers of herbs, patent medicines and quack cures are the only people in the market with loudhailers, sometimes even electronic sound systems. They hang their stalls about with photos of largely naked inhabitants of Papua, Indonesia’s Eastern-most province and the source of many miracle cures. And they use their models to illustrate the many benefits of whatever it is they are selling. My personal favourite was the gentleman who covered his bets by selling large heaps of tobacco as well as “Raja Gunung”, the King of the Mountains, a herbal remedy guaranteed to cure lung cancer.
I’ve just spent a few days hunting whales in Lamalera, on the eastern end of Lembata island, off Flores. We didn’t have much luck, but last week, there was something of an end-of-season bonanza: in rickety wooden boats and using only long bamboo harpoons with rusty metal tips, the lads of Lamalera (and they are definitely Lads) brought in six whales. They get hacked up on the beach, which is littered still with spines and skulls.
Every household gets its part: when I arrive the whole village is garlanded with shriveling flesh, dripping oil. It stinks. I hate to keep harking back to my past life, but when we were writing questionnaires for sex workers, the boys from Statistics Indonesia and I had long arguments about how to describe symptoms of chlamydia and other STIs in women. In the end we settled on this delicate formulation: a vaginal discharge “yang bau kurang sedap” (“that smells unfragrant”). Now I’ve got a new suggestion: “a vaginal discharge that smells like Lamalera”. The whole village exists in a miasma of stale fishiness; since dried whale meat is virtually the only protein on offer, that stuck-in-the-back-of-your-throat stench surfaces on the dinner table, too.
To punish me for my uncharitable thoughts, the whale Gods saw to it that the villager sitting next to me in the truck leaving Lamalera spilled a bottle of fish oil over my backpack. A little, portable miasma which at least creates space around me in overcrowded buses.
For readers in Britain, here’s a BBC feature on the whale-hunters of Lemalera:
You can tell a lot about a country from the sort of junk mail it circulates. Or, in the case of Indonesia, junk SMSs. Travelling in areas where a particular tree is designated as a “pohon senyal” or “signal tree” (hold on to the tree and you might just get enough of a signal of your phone to send a text or even make a call) I get quite excited if my phone beeps. But with disappointing regularity, it is someone trying to give me money. “NEED 200 MLN IN QUICK CASH? JUST 1.6 %, NO FEE, QUICK PROCESS FROM WELL KNOWN BANK. CALL EVA AT 021 92526473.”
200 million rupiah is around US$ 21,000. And MY well-known Malay-Indonesian bank assures me they’ll lock in a 7% interest rate if I put it on deposit for three months. So if I borrow at 1.6, and lend at 7.2… Hmmm. Is this beginning to sound like one of those Nigerian “You’ve won the lottery” scams? The easiest conclusion to draw is that a few Indonesians are very credulous, and that this is a plain old scam. But Bank Indonesia, the central bank. recently shocked markets by cutting its base rate to 6%, its lowest rate ever. Which means that money is getting cheaper for everyone — more credit floating around, though 3-month deposit rates of 7.2 become rather less likely.
My well-known bank is one of those trading at about three times their book value, pumping out around 20% more loans this year than last, in response to consumer demand. But wait, it’s also the bank that tried to shove a platinum credit card down my throat “Guaranteed no fees, life-long”. Despite the fact that I am unemployed and on a cultural visit visa. So that I can consume, simultaneously adding to their “assets” and creating demand, and so creating the need for more loans.
Having come from the doldrums of the Euro-wobbly West, it’s great to feel the energy of an economy that is growing at 6.5% a year. Faster even than inflation, for now. Bank Indonesia may well be lowering rates to discourage “hot money” from the West, but they have to consider, too, the message that cheap money sends to the recipients of all those junk SMSs. Does anyone else see the word “bubble” floating on the Indonesian breeze?
Some years ago, when I was working on HIV prevention in Indonesia, we diligently treated sex workers for common infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, using national treatment guidelines. They were not cured. After much head-scratching, we sent some samples off for resistance testing. The results were pretty shocking. We found that 100% of our gonorrhea samples were resistant to tetracycline (marketed here as “SuperTetra!”), and 40% to Ciprofloxacin, the second commonly-subscribed antibiotic. (It took a shameful four years to change the national guidelines to include drugs that actually worked, and during that time we continued to use ones we knew didn’t work. But hell, it’s only hookers, right?…)
In an effort to find out why so many bugs in Indonesia are resistant to tera, cipro, amoxy and the rest, I went out to ask the nation’s pharmacists, Here’s one, helping with prescriptions in a market in Boawae, Flores.
In my proposal for Taking Tea with the Dead, I wittered on at some length about how fabulously plugged in Indonesia is. The world’s second largest Facebook community, some 18 percent of all Twitter traffic. Jakarta pulsates a glorious crimson on this wonderful Twitter heat map at most times of the day and night.
But as Merlyna Lim reminded us in a recent report on democratization and social media in Indonesia (pdf), most of those people live in Java and Bali, with a smattering in large cities in other islands. Since I’ve started my travels far from the mother-lode, I can identify especially with this map, taken from Lim’s report, of telecoms distribution.
And let’s not forget that that phone pictured above, under lock and key in a Waikabubak guest house, counts as part of the 0.2 percent. I’m hoping some of those open source guys can find a way for us to Tweet by tom-tom.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
Note to self: don’t leave sandals outside your room when you’ve had a scrap with the room boy and barked at the dog. Though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the dog that left my slashed sandals peeping neatly out of the bin outside my room…