Love and Death in Indonesia
I felt embarrassed and degraded, as though I’d been turned back into a screaming infant who didn’t know how to shit on its own. My parents were attempting to use my behaviour from that time I was chronically depressed as evidence of why I shouldn’t go to Indonesia. My mum sat there looking like she might cry while I tried to convince her of the relative safety of travelling like a bum without a plan.
“No, I don’t really know anyone there. Yes, the one person I do know is fairly unreliable.”
I left the next day. My parents, sick with worry, did their best to be supportive of my (let’s face it – downright idiotic) decision. I hadn’t studied the geography of Indonesia, or the language, or potential travel routes. All I had was a thousand bucks in my bank account and too much boredom back home.
Two weeks later, I had conquered that incorrigible bastard we call jetlag and adjusted to the alien culture of Indonesia to a degree (though I suppose I was the alien in this culture). I’d escaped by train the hopeless commercialism of mall-centric West Jakarta to the smaller city of Bandung. I’d met some bad-ass punks from Austria, drank myself under the table with a guide called Rocky Mountain, stealthily taken advantage of internet, TV and laundry services in shwanky hotels and not even been murdered once by a taxi driver. If only my parents could have seen me. I even survived a three-hour run up a mountain outside of Bandung with the shits and more than a modest skidmark to show for it.
Quite romantically, it was when I was washing that skidmark from my under-knickers that I met Nony. I didn’t think much of her at first. There were a lot of beautiful women in Indonesia. In fact, since I was living in the guest room of a vocational college, I was constantly surrounded by them. Roger, a fellow American and at that time my next-door neighbour told me that the girls in the flight-attendant program would just eat me up. That seemed a little weird to me. I wasn’t romance questing at the time. Fellow foreigners who were female were frequently fixated with fellows of their own. Local ladies, on the other hand, lacked proficiency in English, and I in their language, thereby lagging lingual exchange to the point it was unlikely I could relate in any personal way. Not to mention that should any girls lapse into licentious behaviour, their families would be livid due to the conservative culture of the place.
So I had no particular ambitions when I looked up from the bucket of soap and water in which I was cleaning my shit stain to find a very pretty Indonesian girl asking me what I was doing.
“Laundry, of course.”
She was sitting on a bench, and what struck me instantly was her posture. It was the posture of a self-assured woman – easy and relaxed, with a head and body that seemed to be held up by invisible strings. She also spoke English excellently – not with the largest vocabulary, but with the fluidity of someone who needn’t translate a conversation back to their native language and again to English.
She convinced me to audition for a movie. A movie in Bahasa Indonesian. A movie that my fast-expiring tourist visa would never allow for. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve acted in a number of short films and theatre productions and I do say I provoked many a hearty laugh, sob or shock. But I did feel somewhat unqualified for this role.
Nony wasn’t having any of that shit. She dragged me to the second storey just above my room, which turned out to be a talent agency. I even got to audition first, giving a couple of pantomimes of sadness and anger on camera (seeing as I couldn’t even read the script for which I was auditioning). I sobbed from imagined heartbreak and was ready to beat the shit out of the fictional chump who stole my faux girlfriend.
Before long, I got to watch my new love interest audition. She kept asking me how she had done. The only response I could give was, “I have no frickin’ clue, because I don’t know what you’ were saying. You look amazing though.”
Throughout this time we’d shared laughs, more than a few casual touches – even some smouldering glances with complimentary smiles. By the end of the day, I was stupidly in love and aware of how inconvenient becoming emotionally attached would be. It didn’t change my feelings, and I thought about her incessantly. I was so lovestruck that when I left my room later that night, I forgot my wallet and had to play hooky on the cab driver I’d half-mindedly hailed.
I was the worse for it the next day when she showed me pictures of her with her fiancé. For not the first time, the floor fell out from under my lovesick heart. So I did what all self-respecting adults with romantic crises do: I got the fuck out of there and jumped on the next train to the farthest tip of the island.
It was another 10 days before I had the guts to return to Bandung and see my (one-sided) Indonesian love one more time. I met her brother, Bapits, and learned that he had acquired an exotic owl. At this point in the story, PETA members and anyone squeamish/empathetic is advised not to continue. I count myself in the latter category, but didn’t have that same luxury to skip over feeding time that you do now. Two fluffy baby chicks were trembling in a paper bag unaware of the predatory creature to which Bapits intended to feed them.
Now, getting the first one down was no easy task for Mr. Owl. Its usual diet consisted of finches, sparrows and the like – birds about three-quarters the size of a baby chicken. After desperately holding one of the chicks up to the owl’s face like some deranged game of “Here comes the aeroplane!” Bapits finally managed to spur the owl into frenzy-death-attack mode. I’ll spare most details, though before long the chick was short a face, and after five or six minutes of there-is-no-God inspiring terror, the spindly orange legs of the chick were disappearing down the owl’s gullet like red spaghetti.
After trying miserably to ignore the distressed chirping of the second chick I grabbed it from its cage. It would be several hours before the owl could eat again and the chirping was a serious boner killer on my final moments with my off-limits lady love. I tried to cradle it in my shirt and feed it grains of raw rice, but they were too big for the pitiful thing. So I bit off smaller pieces of individual rice grains with my teeth and fed them to it from the tip of my finger. It pecked in that feverish way, always denting my finger tip a few times before getting each piece. I even started, I kid you not, purring to calm it down. With imminent death looming, the least I would demand of my executioner would be to chew my food and spoon/purr me into a blissful sleep. What, you wouldn’t? Weirdo.
Its eyes had fluttered closed, wrapped in my shirt; it was a darling, innocent thing. It hadn’t asked for this to happen (nor had I – this was frickin’ traumatic). I looked down at the yellow ball of innocence cradled in my shirt, saw its ignorance to the untimely fate perched just behind me, and suddenly I had a pretty good idea what my parents felt like when I left for Indonesia.
Just like with Nony, I left the little bird before I saw the consequences of my attachment.
Nony and I are in touch to this day; in other words, I continue to abuse myself. She ended up being cast as an angel (be still, my beating heart). The bird was presumably consumed by the owl, brutally – the way that nature operates. As for me, after a devil of a time with a missed international flight, I made it home to Colorado. I fell surprisingly easily back into the repetitive rhythms of home life. Back with family, friends, trips to the bank and filling up gasoline. The relevance of what I had seen and done so far away; all too remote, too surreal.
But the unerring fact of life is that it ruthlessly continues, with or without our present selves, and so the currents of home life were bound to sweep me along with them. Safely I could ponder the meaning of love and death in a world where few have the luxury. And there is a compartment inside me that will always carry these rare treasures.
Cover by Peter Hopwood