Friday, December 11, 2009

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why, in fact, do chickens ever cross roads? Roads are dangerous places full of cars and trucks and motorbikes: wheeled vehicles unkind to chickens when they travel at speed. On the face of it chickens would have to be fucked in the head even to attempt it. Why do they do it, Mike? Whyyy?

A: Chickens are, indeed, fucked in the head.

That's how it seems to me now, anyway: traveling at speed by motorbike through the verdant steamy island of Karimunjawa. Chickens keep launching themselves across the road and therefore into my path and I hafta say it seems about the stupidest thing they could possibly do while I hurtle along, threatening their skinny necks with the moving interface between my wheels and the holey road. Like I said: fucked in the head.

As for us: we are following a bearded Dutchman with the radiant eyes and friendly smile of a crazy person. He has a sea-cucumber farm. We are following him to it.

Q: So you're riding a motorbike? How is it you're managing to type, then? Do you have some kind of crazy fancy mobile interface thing? An iPhone or some hipster shit like that?

A: Good question! I am not actually speeding along just now, I am sitting at home with a cup of tea. The whole present-tense thing is just a literary device designed to create drama and excitement.

Anyway, we met the Dutchman like this: we'd been riding around on the holey roads looking for a white sandy beach with palm trees like they have on postcards. We'd seen this beach the day before from the deck of a wee boat and we nearly went there too but Tristan started vomiting: blech! and so we didn't. The beach has become a tiny grail for the day: we know it's there but we don't know where. If we are valiant and pure of heart maybe we can find it and drink the blood of Christ while we laze on its glowing shores.

So we're riding along and this bearded guy with glowing eyes overtakes us. He's riding pillion on a motorbike being driven by a 12-year-old.

Q: A 12-year-old? For realz?

A: For realz. One of the great things about Indonesia is the basic unit of traffic is the motorbike. Motorbikes go around things easily and they don't have as much momentum as cars so they can swerve and brake without anyone getting too upset. When the basic unit of traffic is motorbikes the traffic takes on a fluid quality: everything flows around whatever's slower. Since everything is in constant flux, and since, like Bob Dylan, no-one ever looks back, drivers are alert. I felt so much safer there on a bicycle or as a pedestrian than I ever do in Australia. In Australia the basic unit of traffic is the car, which needs a lot of space and makes the driver impatient of obstacles and interruptions to the inexorable pull of historical destiny, i.e. getting to one's final destination. Just getting into a car makes me want to annex Poland and herd the Jews and homosexuals into freight cars. Put another way: in a car in Australia I feel like I have a right to my momentum. If anything makes me lose momentum - say a traffic light, or someone pulling out in front of me - I feel personally affronted, because some motherfucker is trying to fuck with my rights.

Another good thing about Indonesian traffic is every kind of person rides motorbikes, from 10-year-old girls to mothers with babies to oldish people and whole families. It undercuts the machismo of motorbike riding and keeps everyone careful. There are of course hopped-up attitude-heavy young men shooting about the roads like angry spermatozoa, but they seem to be the exception, not the rule.

Anyway: the upshot is that here we are, speeding along behind the radiant-eyed Dutchman and his 12-year-old driver, on the way to the Dutchman's sea-cucumber farm. We don't know it yet but there is in fact a very nice beach there with water the temperature of Christ's blood and we will float in its mirrory shallows as the sun goes down. After that a fisherman with a small boy and a big machete will come up and stare at us and ask us questions but we don't know that yet either and are just doing our best not to kill any chickens on the roads of Karimunjawa.

Q: Wait, what is this Karimunjawa of which you speak?

A: Good question! It's actually a group of islands off the north coast of Java. You get there by boat. The fast boat was full so we caught the slow one. We were inexecutif class which meant we had life jackets and a small unit sprayed a foul synthetic mist over us every so often so we couldn't smell each others' farts. The door nearest us was locked and the windows were tied shut with orange nylon twine, though, so the lifejackets seemed a tad hopeful. An attendant stood up the front and said "Please note the nearest available emergency exit, bearing in mind it may be locked and under several feet of water." They didn't really, we just made that bit up.

Later we found an unlocked door and went up on deck and sat in the sun. I was sitting with Hanna. Two Indonesian teenagers came up.

"Excuse me! Could we have a photo with you," they said, pointing at me, and then at Hanna, "but not you?"


A: Well, Hanna is half Chinese and the Chinese have a funny position in Indonesian society. As far as I can make it out it goes: they have a lot of money but no-one likes them that much.

"We're the Jews of Asia, baby," said Hanna later.

"True. You do," I said, "however, have quite an extensive homeland."

There's another thing going on though, weirder than just ordinary racism like this, and it's a kind of valorisation of paleness. In Australia the people on TV look like people from the cultural majority, just better-looking sometimes. Here in Indonesia they don't look like anyone you'd see, say, walking down the street. The actors and models are incredibly pale skinned and often of no identifiable race at all: they could be half-Indonesian or third-Indian or quarter-Japanese or one-eighth-Navaho or something. I can tell you don't believe me so check out the first Indonesian ad I can find on YouTube. Who are these weird pale people and where do they come from? The media seems to be saturated with paleness.

Anyway, I'm from Australia and when I meet someone with an American accent I feel like I'm talking to someone from TV because that's how a big chunk of people on TV talk. Same when I meet someone incredibly good-looking. I feel like if I stand close enough or talk to them long enough maybe I'll enter the radiant world of TV myself by association, that charmed world where everything seems so much more real than my humdrum life. And I wonder if the same thing happens here with meeting the pale-skinned, if I seem to glow like a famous person just cos I'm pale. And if Hanna doesn't quite make the cut even though, ironically, she has that beautiful mixed-race thing going on that'd probably qualify her way better than me for a job in Indonesian TV.

Q: Wow, that is pretty weird.

A: That's not really a question, is it?

Anyway: we went snorkelling when we got to Karimunjawa. I've only snorkelled a few times, so it always blows my mind. It's about as close as you get to being a disembodied eye floating through a world that pretty much disregards you. I feel like Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera or a flâneur. A flâneur - they told me at art school - walks around experiencing the visual pleasure of the modern world with all its funny conjunctions. Some people think tourists are the most extreme flâneurs, and I think snorkellers are the most extreme tourists: pure eyes drifting through a world we can never belong to, and drifting solely for the purpose of seeing.

The other weird thing about the underwater world is how many things have agreed not to eat each other. I saw dozens of kinds of fish, all swimming around ignoring each other, happy as Larry (for those values of Larry where Larry = being a fish).

Q: How can that many things not be trying to eat each other?

A: I guess because there's coral. Most of them eat coral. You can hear a snapcrackle sound when you snorkel around coral reefs kind of like you're in a giant bowl of rice bubbles, and it's the combined sound of dozens of fish chewing on coral.

Anyway: I recommend it. If you haven't done it, get into it now rather than waiting til retirement. Current projections give the world's coral reefs about another 40 or 50 years before they're gone. Enjoy them while you can.

Later we sat on beaches and ate things. The first beach we sat on had a fluorescent tube sitting in the other jetsam. (An aside: when I was a kid my dad started writing a dictionary. It had two entries:

Flotsam: see jetsam
Jetsam: see flotsam

I thought that was pretty funny.)

There was also an incandescent bulb sitting in a halved coconut. The filament was intact, too. I guess if power ever comes to that wee skinny unpopulated atoll they'll have some deciding to do: incandescent, for the warmth of its light, or fluorescent, for its power saving qualities? It's a toughie.

The second island was owned by some rich people, but they weren't there. While we'd been swimming around looking at tropical fish our guides had been catching a couple of them and when we got to the second island they hacked them open and grilled them over a fire of coconut husks. I ate a yellow fish with red spots. It reminded me of the three-eyed fish that caused such a furore in Springfield that Mr Burns offered to eat it. Mr Burns spat his out without swallowing it but mine tasted pretty good. I felt weird eating a tropical fish but I guess when you're in the tropics the only fish to eat are tropical, non?

Later we got back to the main island of Karimunjawa. There were fruit trees in the harbour town with black plastic bags hanging from the branches.

Q. Maybe to protect them from bats or something?

A: Yeah, that's what I was thinking. It made the bags look like strange wispy black fruit. Speaking of bats, sometimes they fall asleep in the powerlines here and when the powerlines sway the bats complete the circuit between two of them: zap! and their muscles seize up with the charge and the bats hang there forevermore, still gripping on with the grip of mortis. They hang there on the high-voltage vines like the strange wispy black fruit of electricity.

Appendix: Bees
In other news, we also went to Borobodur, the ruins of an old Buddhist monument. It's an hour and a half from Yogyakarta. The whole thing is a giant three-dimensional stone mandala, representing the journey toward enlightenment. It was full of stupas: vaguely conic stone statues which represent the enlightened mind, and inside many of them were statues of seated Buddhas. I pretended the whole thing was the Buddha's skull and I walked around it seeing what was what.

You're meant to walk clockwise around a stupa but no-one else really seemed to give a shit. Clockwise motion keeps the thing you're walking around on your right, which is an old way of showing respect.

I walked around it clockwise and it seemed beautiful but dead. The tourists climbing on the Buddha statues didn't help. Then I saw bees living in corners and wondered what honey from the Buddha's skull would taste like.

love to all
xx Mike


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