Jesting With Rabies: Indonesia
© Copyright 2010 by M. Byron
This was unintentionally my ill-fated version of the Bali trip in “Eat, Pray, Love.”
It was winter and I was taking a much-needed break from my English teaching stint in Korea. For me, the so-called Land of the Morning Calm had recently become a hotbed of guilt and anxiety. Rumors were spreading of my dating habits and, as I was exceedingly single, hearing the imagined stories of my supposedly vibrant gay sex life felt all the worse.
I met my travel companion, Julie, in Bali and we sat down at an open-air restaurant for a much belated travel itinerary meeting. After gathering a consensus on what we aimed to see this vacation we decided our highest priority was to see some dragons. We devised to head further east to Komodo Island and then work our way back west, all in the ambitious period of two weeks. We praised our speedy decision-making and sat down to our first Indonesian lunch. I took a heaping spoonful of rice and without delay felt as if I was chewing on pieces of my own teeth. Julie had a similar experience and we soon realized there were stones in the rice. This was to be the first of many omens to come.
It's afternoon and we board a ferry to another island where we will spend the night. There are four dead eels drying themselves in front of the loading dock, a man sits on a milk crate keeping watch over them. I note that he is missing four very relevant teeth. This perhaps is to be the second omen. The 3 ½ hour ferry ride becomes 6 ½ achingly slow hours and takes us long past evening into the dead of night. Julie and I find ourselves to be hot commodities aboard the vessel. As the sun sets, what had only just been a peaceful and novel journey becomes the stuff of low-budget horror films. Everyone aboard the vessel is now missing relevant teeth and all seem to have twitches and pressing issues to mutter about to themselves.
Regretfully, we are befriended by the ship's crew, the self-titled "Seamens" who we, at first, deem to be less dangerous than the passengers. I've now been traveling for two days with no sleep and I can hardly keep my eyes open. They let us sit in the "VIP Room," the name they have given to the control room atop the ferry reeking of body odor. The Seamen's persistent invitations of "You sleepy? You rest in VIP room," are the only thing keeping my eyes from drooping. They offer coffee and against my better judgment I accept my very first open beverage from strangers. Date rape or no, I need coffee.
Enter: Sausage fingers, captain of the creepy crew and rusted vessel. He attempts to interlock his swollen fingers in mine on more than one occasion, causing me to gag and internally weep. As they continue their inquiries, "You sleepy? You sleepy?" I begin to gravely question the coffee they hospitably gave me earlier. A tiny man lies on a yoga mat made of straw and pats it in what he thinks to be a welcoming manner, but his yellow soiled wife-beater, eyebrow for a mustache, and irreparably lazy eye tell another story. I politely decline.
We narrowly escape their advances, hour three. On a disserted bench on the top deck we chat gladly about being alone for the first time in hours. A sailor claiming to be a soldier in the Japanese army soon joins us. I don't know if that's a line that works on most women, but it falls flat with us. He begins to stroke my hair, "like a boys" he says smiling, this will not be the last time my boyish looks are noted affectionately and used as a come-on in this country.
Inopportunely I now have to pee and am much too afraid to do anything about it. Four hours in, still no sign of land, I fold. We both go in search of a toilet. There are only men on the ferry, understandable once we witness the state of the toilets. An un-flushable urinal is tiled into the room, it is placed higher than my waist, disallowing me from any form of squatting. A small square basin filled with water for which you are to ladle water into the urinal to "flush" fills the rest of the room; it's like a small puddle of holy water, except exceptionally dirty and something you would develop a horrible water-based disease from if ingested or touched.
It is day four and we are no closer to Komodo Island than when we started. We decide to head back west as we're told it will take a week to reach the island and perhaps two weeks to return to Java where our flight is. My patience with Julie is waning. She has a self-diagnosed allergy to cigarette smoke, cigarettes being the main staple of the Indonesian diet, it has caused not a few problems. Her allergy symptoms consist mostly of dry coughing; when she coughs her tongue shows, like a child faking a cough. I take to observably wincing at each uncovered bark. She leaves snotty tissues wherever we go; a Hansel and Gretel-like trail mark our wild route across this country.
The allergies are soon masked by a weak stomach and dysentery. She first gets sick on a "Finding Nemo" tuna melt from a tourist restaurant by the name of "Fish and Chips." I secretly revel in her illness as her manner of eating food disgusts me and I hope this will stop her outright. She takes gaping bites, shoveling without tasting or thinking, like a ravaged dog. Each time she takes a sip from a straw her tongue comes out, exposing itself like some fleshy leech. She refuses to take western medicine and insists on only eating white rice with salt. Due to her ill-thought treatment she is increasingly sick and progressively more malnourished, (read: moody), for the extent of the trip.
My opinion of her takes a daily plunge. We stand in what I sense to be mutually contented awe in front of a golden Hindu temple. My meditation is brought to a speedy end by her whisper, "I'm super afraid to fart because I'm worried more will come out. Hasn't that ever happened to you?" I answer with mortified silence, no longer pondering the aesthetics of Eastern religion but instead now questioning just how many times it has happened to her.
In the second week Julie's health appeared to be improving and she was understandably eager to shed her limited diet for some authentic food. We passed a colorful shack with a hand drawn picture advertising what looked like a pelican swimming in a bowl of jelly beans with the Indonesian equivalent of 75 cents written next to it. Both of our eyes got wide and we wandered in. There were flies swarming everywhere and a tubby, giggling woman proudly stirring a cauldron. I was excited but told Julie we should eat somewhere where the food cost $1 so she wouldn't get sick, but Julie is stubborn and adventurous. We were served heaping bowls of ambrosial spicy chicken noodle soup swimming in cilantro and dried onions. I tipped the woman a few dollars and she shook my hand like I had made her year.
That night we were walking to our shanty of a hostel after enjoying an evening of shadow puppet theatre when Julie remarked, "Is that the street or did I just shit myself?" I really couldn't say, but when we returned to the hostel Julie was back in the bathroom and I was back to reciting my self-gratifying inner-monologue of "I told you so."
While still on the island of Bali we came upon a rather touristy town touting a Monkey Forest. After stopping at an out of character café where I happily ate a room temperature cup of tiramisu (read: pudding pack dumped in a glass cup) and Julie ate rice with salt, we headed to the forest. Along the way we bought some mini-bananas and rambutan, a spiny-red fruit that looks like a body part you'd find on a dragon, for the monkeys. I armed myself with my camera and Julie scouted for a not-too-small and not-too-large monkey to get on her shoulder, as a poorly worded "Torist for Rulers" (read: Rules for Tourist) sign supposedly advised. She found one and readied a banana. But the monkeys knew the game all too well and snatched the naked bananas one by one from her wavering hand without ever giving me the chance to get the perfect shot. Finally she got one on her shoulder and smiled broadly for the camera before the thing scurried away.
By that time we were down to only two rambutans and it was my turn. I was mistakenly dressed in a tank-top and the thought of having those little claw paws on my bare shoulders scared the rambutans right out of my hand at the first touch of fur. Not wanting to make the long trek back to the fruit stand, but adamant about getting a picture of a monkey on my shoulder, we masterminded a scheme. I took an empty banana peel from the ground and dangled it temptingly around my neck. A largish monkey took the bate and hopped up. I smiled confidently for the camera, happy to have outsmarted the monkey. After the first picture I threw the peel to the ground. He at once knew the rouse and instead of leaping off as I had planned he grabbed my hair and made furious bites around my head. Julie dropped the camera and ran for a stick as I shrieked.
His tiny paw claws were grabbing my face wildly and as I was stupidly throwing my head around I heard Julie scream, "He thinks your eyes are fruit, cover your eyes!" I hid my face in my hands and continued my high-pitched screeching. Finding no fruit on my head, the monkey went for my bag where he assumed the unpeeled banana he had been promised was being kept. I dropped the bag, holding onto it by a strap for fear he would carry my passport away into a tree. As soon as he was on the ground Julie began pummeling him with fruit peels and small sticks; defeated, he finally ran off. I pulled some twigs and burrs from my hair and had Julie check for blood. Five minutes following I still wasn't foaming at the mouth so we decided to go souvenir shopping.
"Muslim?" the word is the same in Indonesian as it is in English, which makes it all the more difficult to pretend not to understand when someone asks. Julie and I bounce along in our seats, I give a half smile without answering, pretending to be enthralled by the uniform lush rice fields we pass; they're stunning but we've been watching them for ages and these fields are no more beautiful than the ones before them. Julie can't think ahead or even of the moment at hand so she gives a confident "Yes."
She convinced me we should buy Hijabs, or headscarves, at the market. For one, it would be more respectful since the majority of Indonesians are of Islamic-faith. But mostly she pressed, "men won't bother us if we're wearing our masks!" Since donning her headscarf Julie has adopted this shy, almost flirtatious look; her lips purse, her chin turns down, her eyes drop to the side, she never looks anyone in the eyes, and yet you feel drawn to her. I've never thought she was attractive, I certainly don't now, but there's something oddly compelling about her in that headscarf. She looks almost beautiful; that is, until she blurts out something hideous and true to herself.
The man is intrigued, and sadly for us or simply me, as Julie is now off in her own little world, he speaks perfect English. "But why are your arms showing?" he inquires. Not understanding the exact ground rules of Islam I stammer something about the heat and not being good Muslims. I worry that my tone may have been off and he might take my answer as something akin to a bad line from a porn film, i.e. "we're not good Catholic school girls." To my relief, he does not and instead just smiles and sits back. We all ignore each other for a while until the van driver asks where exactly we're headed. I tell him the stop; not realizing it's a Hindu temple, which only adds further fuel to the fire.
We arrive at the temple and hop off, avoiding the man's gaze. Before the van pulls out Julie rips off the headscarf exclaiming, "It's boiling in this!" I glance up at the van just in time to see a small grimace appear on the man's face.
We're at a tiny border town waiting to board a night bus that will take us from Bali to Java. An Indonesian Teddy Roosevelt, in look and character, I like to think, takes us into his good graces. His job is to collect money and help unload bags on the many, many stops this bus is to take throughout the night. He advises us to take seats nearer the back, away from the door, which he promises will be busy. Julie however sees people lighting cigarettes and insists we sit in the front-most bench seat, near the door and fresh air.
There is not a moment in the night when new arrivals are not bumping into us; our knees become raw and sleep is out of the question. The seats become filled and then the aisles, milk crates are arranged facing us, near enough to touch our feet, to make more room still. For a few hours a man with widened legs continuously adjusts and grabs at himself, grinning towards us on one of the crates. A wrinkled old woman sits beside him and miraculously falls quickly asleep, absently laying a haggard hand on my knee, "She's making a move," Julie murmurs, I worry she isn't joking.
At an indescript part of the late night or early morning a small boy with a large cigarette box comes onto the bus selling what appear to be snacks. We don't want anything as mixing food with the barren metal seats with their chewed up lining and the rocky terrain sounds like a bad idea. The little boy takes a liking to us anyhow and gives us a complimentary cup of what look like cold French fries. He leaves and I taste one, dipping it cautiously in the small bag of chili jelly it came with. It turns to inedible flakes in my mouth; I gag, and place it on the ground where one of the tied up chickens can reach it.
After the sleepless bus ride we summon our little remaining energy and travel a few more hours further west and up through the highlands. There we would do an early morning climb up a crater to get a sunset view of a big volcano. Julie cannot sleep when she's cold, and as we had made no reservations and were not prepared for how very high the highlands were, issues arose. The room was sparse, but by Indonesian hostel standards, it was decent. There was a holey rag on the cot that played the part of a blanket and a rock that played the part of a pillow. But for the equivalent of a dollar fifty, you really couldn't complain. Though Julie could. The highland town was small, the number of hostels smaller yet, and as we'd unknowingly arrived on a holiday weekend, we were lucky to get a room.
Julie went in search of thicker blankets as I changed clothes. Minutes later I heard shouting in the hallway and ran out. Julie and a hobbit of a man holding an armful of musty down-jackets were screaming at each other. I asked what the problem was and she yelled, "He wants us to pay for coats to sleep in!" I asked, "How much is he asking?" She thought a minute, converting, and realized her mistake, "like 50 cents." We got two; mine was red and smelled like ferrets, Julie's was yellow and she said it smelled like cigarettes.
We had planned on waking up at 4 am to trek to the crater but I hadn't changed my watch to Java time so we ended up starting at 3 am and getting lost for the darkest hours of the day. Along the way to what we thought was the crater we encountered a herd of young men. One of them was playing Indonesian pop music on his cell phone, which we snobbishly confused for catcalls. Julie began worrying and said in code, which was simply Spanish, "que van a robarnos en la montaña" ("they're gonna rob us on the mountain"), I thought worse, so we decided to lose them by veering a bit off the path. As there was still no sunlight and our cheap rented flashlights had already died, it didn't take long for us to become even more lost. At a certain point Julie had to pee so she walked a few feet away from me and crouched. When she came back we started off again in the direction of what we took to be the crater. Minutes later she realized she didn't have her purse.
Luckily, the same group of men we had foolishly "outrun" were also lost and mistook our Korean cell-phone lights for the path. They saw us sweeping the ground and asked if they could help. After 20 minutes of blind searching one unfortunate guy found the purse and confused the dampness of the bag for dew, rather than pee. The sun was beginning to rise just as soon as the pee-soaked sack was recovered. We could finally make out a steady stream of people following a seemingly well-marked trail and we all scrambled towards the crater.
After that I ditched Julie. She took one open-mouthed chew too many and I had to go. So three days early I headed to Jakarta. There I sat, the day I arrived, eating hand-churned durian ice-cream from a food cart outside the Jakarta zoo. I deserved to get sick, but it tasted too good and I was done with being cautious. Having just dumped my defunct travel companion in a nowhere town somewhere in Java, things could only look up.
I fear I must use a rather obvious pseudonym since
the most entertaining things in life are, inevitably, at the expense
of others. And now for the third person, M. has been fortunate enough
to make mistakes all across the globe without yet reaching adulthood.
She has been privy to befriending and defriending, meals of dog soup
and live octopus in bits of Asia, anti-malarial medication-induced
nightmares in the wilds of East Africa, 24-hour discotheques in the
lesser parts of South America, and dating the wrong girls every step
of the way.
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)
Contact M. Byron