Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Dear Mom, Part 7

Part of our ongoing series of exerpts out of letters to home. You can find previous installments in the archive near the bottom of the right column.

The first few months are a struggle as you try to grasp at anyting familiar in order to orient yourself in this strange place. Things as simple as bathrooms are a complete mystery when one first arrives. There is no toilet paper, just a hose with a spray nozzle, or worse, a tank of water and a ladle. This is no tub or demarked bathing area. The whole room is the shower. There are no instructions, as to an Indonesian, it’s all quite obvious, but to a poor foreigner just off the plane, it’s a shock.

Living, as I do now, in a neighborhood is even more disorienting. The sheer number of vendors who ply the alleyways and the rhythmn of daily life is wildly different from home. Those old enough to remember the Fuller brush man would boggle at the choices here. From shoe repair to green grocers, junk collectors and mobile kitchens, tailors and handymen, just about any necessity comes right to the door several times a day. They all have their own distinctive calls or sounds. The fried rice guy says, “Nasi-nasiiiiiiiiiiii!” The soup man clangs a spoon in a glass bowl. The fried noodle man rattles a spatula in a wok. The shoe man calls, “Sapa-TOO!” The bread guys all have electronic jingles that play a short tune followed by an electronic voice (usually female) that says, “Roti roti,” and the name of the bakery.

There was even a comical moment, to me, several mornings ago when three bread men from three different directions all met at the intersection directly in front of the house. It was a terrible cacauphony of jingles and electro-voices as they tried to sort things out.

Another sound, which is unique, is the night-watchman, who patrols the neighborhood each night. As he makes the rounds, he bangs out the hour on light poles. “Ting, ting...TING!” 3am. A couple of minutes later, you can hear him down the alley, banging on the next light pole. It’s one of those little things that is at once reassuring and completely foreign.
The night watchman is a function of the neighborhood sheriff, called pa-er-tay (bapak RT). No matter who you are, resident or servant, foreign or domestic, the first order of business when you move to a neighborhood is to go over to the Pak RT and register. You bring a copy of your ID and pay a nominal fee. He tells you the rules of the neighborhood and gives you a quick orientation. After that, all the night watchmen know you and know you belong in the neighborhood.

This is important, in part, because at 10pm, the gates of the neighborhood are closed and locked. Only selected gates remain open after that, and you must past the guard to get in. You will be challenged if you are not recognized. Fortunately or not, I don’t have much problem. I am the only bule in the neighborhood, and everyone knows me.

Another reason why it’s important to register with Pak RT is that you don’t get services, such as trash pickup, without registering and paying the monthly fee. In this neighborhood, it’s Rp.35,000/month, or about $3. That also covers the cost of the night guards, who receive a nominal fee for sleeping by the gate (!). The trash is collected regularly, but erratically, by young guys using pull-carts. They go through the neighborhood and take the trash bags that are hung on the gates and fences every night. The more conscientious ones will even clean up after the trash pickers, rats and cats have all gone through the bags.

One Saturday a month, our Pak RT organizes the men to go around the area picking up litter and cleaning up the public flower beds. If someone (rarely) volunteers a can of paint, the patrol will tidy up the grafitti, as well.

There’s also a daily exercise group that meets in the park across from my house at 5am. They play a music tape that is apparently nationally sanctioned, or at least ubiquitous. Everyone knows it from grade school on. The music is suspiciously like zydeco with a woman’s voice counting off the beat, “Satu...dua...tiga...EMPAT...lima...enam...tujuh...DILAPAN!” It goes on for an hour, like clockwork.

The park is really a fascinating window on life here. I was lucky to find a house directly in front of it, not only for the view, but for the people watching, as well. During the day, kids play basketball and soccer. In the evenings, the old folk come out for a stroll. At night, the young adults sit around and play guitars and pitch the woo, as it were. By eleven, Pak RT chases everyone home, only to start again at 5am, with the exercise group. It’s the center of social life in the neighborhood, and it’s really quite fun to observe.

The neighborhood is a small island in an ocean of craziness, though. Jakarta is a city, for which the word ‘bustle’ was tested and found severely lacking. Traffic here is a nightmare, to put it nicely. Many of the streets are ancient and were not designed to carry anywhere near the load that they do. Furthermore, Indonesians are insane drivers, and to top it off, there is no grid or planning to any of the city, even the newer neighborhoods. Streets stop and start without reason. They turn from one-way to two-way without warning or forethought. There are practically no stop-lights, and when there are, no one pays the least attention to them.

Some time back, I adopted the ojek as the only (vaguely) sane means to get around. Ojek are motorcycle taxis, which are ostensibly illegal, which means they are everywhere and advertise the fact. Motorcycle is the only way to get around in any reasonable amount of time, and that is the only reason I use the word ‘sane.’ Otherwise, it is a hair-raising adventure unlike any commute I have every known.

Traffic in Jakarta is a full-contact sport. On a daily basis, I bump into a half-dozen cars, buses and other motorcycles. A couple of weeks ago, my knee caught the bumper grill of a delivery truck and literally pulled it off with a loud clang. I regularly bump into massive buses and make contact with dozens of side mirrors on cars and other motorcycles.

My driver, Toyo, whom I’ve used for the past year, is a master of what the Indonesian call, “Jalan tikus,” or ‘rat path.’ In other words, he will dodge down the narrow alleys, drive up on sidewalks, go the wrong way down busy streets, and any number of other tricks to get me to the destination on time. A year ago, I would be a quivering mass of terrified humanity by the time I arrived. Now, I just take it all in stride. Part of the fun and challenge of the whole thing. Toyo has yet to throw me on the ground, which makes him stand out from most of the other drivers I have used. I chose him partly because he’s a hefty guy and can handle my size on his bike, but also because he has three kids and a wife, so he is motivated to stay alive as much as I am.

Toyo is as much bodyguard as driver, as well. He watches out for me, runs interference for me, and assists me when he knows I am confused or having a hard time because I can’t see. He’s quite a guy and has become a friend, as well. In fact, his whole family came to Thanksgiving dinner. Even though is wife is very shy, and he warned me that they would probably come early and leave early, she apparently had a good enough time that they all stayed for a while.

Toyo is Betawi, which means he is a native Jakartan. The natives are of a distinct group of people with their own dialect, which he is teaching me. His wife is Sunda, which are the people from the mountains south of the city and parts east, out to Bandung, which is the next major city to the east. They also have a unique dialect, two in fact (halus or smooth, and kasar or rough). Their children, two girls and a boy, are very nice and well-behaved, though they are extremely shy to practice their English with me, despite Dad’s constant prompting.

The language front keeps me constantly on my toes. I’ve mentioned before the hundreds of different cultures and languages that comprise Indonesia. I’ve managed to pick up a smattering of a dozen different dialects and subdialects, though I have chosen to focus on Javanese, in part because I live on Java, and because Wati is Javanese/Chinese.

Javanese is comprised of two primary dialects, halus and kasar, with halus being the royal speach of the Sultan of Yogyakarta and environs. Kasar is spoken by the north-central people around Surabaya, Tegal and Semarang. The difference is akin to that between Scotish and British English, more than, say New York and Texas. There are a dozen sub-dialects that have distinct variations in certain consonants and vowels, as well as vocabulary. Some parts of the dialects are completely distinct, while others are at least cognates.

One example that highlights the difference is the expression that means, “It doesn’t matter,” or “No problem.” In the halus dialect, one says, “Mboten nopo-nopo.” In the kasar dialect, one says, “Ora po-po.” In either case, it’s quite different from the Indonesian version, “Tidak apa-apa,” or the slang version, “Ga pa-pa.”

Indonesian and Javanese share most of the same grammatical rules, though they differ widely in vocabulary. Javanese also has a unique alphabet and writing that is nearly dead, though efforts are being made to rivive it. It is a consonant alphabet, much like most Asian languages and Hebrew. An example follows:

To my eye, it strongly resembles Hindi, though is somewhat simplified. I haven’t attempted to learn it yet. I’m satisfied just to be able to speak a little. Besides, most Javanese can’t read it anymore. It’s mostly a scholarly exercise, at this point. Wati learned it in grade school and still remembers most of it, but no one really writes it much around here. Many in central Java it’s more popular, though I won’t be able to say until I go there.

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