Oh dear friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
So that I can attempt to make totally clear
That at no point in time have I tried to be great,
But it just sort of happened that that was my fate.
I was meant to be powerful, motive and large.
I could not ask permission, I had to take charge,
And fulfill what my destiny meant me to be:
The most cardinal force in the earth's history.
It's important to me that you all understand
That I meant no malfeasance in taking command,
And I need you to recognize and to admit
That it's not me, but fortune, to whom you submit.
Because just as my instinct demands what I do,
Oh dear friends, Romans, countrymen, you have fates too,
And we must learn to live with our preordained roles:
I, my friends, am the ruler, and you are the proles.
All our fortunes were wagered, that's how the dice fell.
I'd be foolish to fight it, and you would as well.
It's much easier if you just do what I say.
I will issue commands, and then you will obey.
This is not usurpation, I reiterate:
I am helpless to alter it. This is my fate.
Last night, Rick and I went to a bar. Now, I've been to a lot of bars in my life - alot - but I've never been to a bar so strange as this. On the second floor over a video arcade, to climb those brown, scabby-carpeted stairs was to enter a very unusual world. The first thing to hit us was the music. There's a lot of Hindi music here in Indonesia for some reason, but never before had I heard Hindi music sung in Indonesian. Never, that is, until we were almost to the bar-room, the already surreal vocals echoing hallucinogenically down the stairwell. We reached the top, turned right into the room, and found ourselves a seat.
The music, as it turned out, was live, performed by a series of large-bodied scantily-clad overly-made-up women who took turns at the microphone, and accompanied by a keyboard player, a geeky-looking fellow who never seemed to glance up once from his hands, and who churned out cheezy stringy background music over preprogrammed bossa-nova beats.
In front of the stage lay a not-much-bigger dance floor on which mostly men danced. They twisted and frooged slowly, lugubriously, in sync with the slowest and most lethargic of the available beat patterns; their movements contained a fluidity and grace which seemed bizarrely out of context with the winding, high-pitched, nasally music. We watched this spectacle, Rick and I, from our seat, one of perhaps a dozen couches all arranged to face the stage, each separated from the next by a coffeetable littered with bottles and cigarette boxes.
Not long after we had sat down, a very drunk, very sleezy-looking man sat next to me, followed by a beautiful slender Indonesian girl. He leaned toward me, putting his arm around my shoulders and resting his heavy drunken forehead against the side of my head, and said in a grimy loud voice directly into my eardrum, "Do you want a girl?" He pointed at his companion and said, "25,000." That's ten dollars. I mock-conferred with Rick, and turning to my assailant politely, thanked-but-no-thanked him. He argued a bit, even reducing the price, but we stood firm and after a while he abandoned ship, taking to the dance floor.
Rick and I continued to admire the club's ambience. The stage and dance floor were illuminated by what seemed, more or less, to be glorified Christmas lights. The rest of the place had regular track lighting, but all the fixtures were colored, dim, and pointed at the ceiling. This, combined with the dark wall-coverings and furniture plus the constant cigarette haze and the swarms of hookers, created a sort of brownish underground atmosphere. We sat comfortably, drinking our beers, enjoying the scene.
A few minutes later, our friend returned. This time he had with him two girls, the one from before, and another, sort of pudgy, but friendly-looking. He seemed to have come to the conclusion that the only possible reason we didn't take him up on his previous offer was that there wasn't a girl for each of us. He sat, leaned in, and made his pitch. But again, to his slobbering shock, we refused. "Why not!?" he howled, making my tympanic membrane shudder and crackle against the volume. He was clearly confused by our rejection of his offer.
"I'll tell you what," I told him. "If we decide we want a girl - or two - we'll be sure and find you, OK?" This seemed to pacify him a little. He reached into his shirt pocket and produced his card, which I accepted. his name, I learned, was Karno, and when he wasn't selling girls in sleazy bars he apparently spent the balance of his time vending interior design supplies. I thanked him and, satisfied, he and his stock returned to the dance floor.
Not long thereafter we were joined by another guy. He asked us our names. "Alyosha," I told him. He was pleased to meet me. "Vomit," Rick said. They shook hands. We exchanged the basic "where are you from" pleasantries, and then the three of us sat for a while, watching the dancing, and the band. After a few songs, our friend said, "You like the singer?" She was a large-framed woman in red sequins and thick legs.
"Sure," I replied.
"You want her?" You know it's a good bar when other customers feel comfortable offering you the band members.
"No," I told him, "do you?"
"Of course," he said.
"Why don't you?" I asked.
"Not enough money," he answered, "she's 30,000." That's 12 dollars.
Again we lapsed into silence. Soon I had the opportunity to watch Karno make a deal with another Indonesian man sitting nearby. Terms were discussed, hands were shaken, and a girl supplied, who took her new lover by the hand and led him up to the third floor, an area I hadn't previously noticed, and which consisted essentially of bedrooms for temporary use by bar patrons. Now that's service. But eventually Rick and I felt like leaving, so we went to pay for our beers. They were, in fact, the most expensive beers I had in Indonesia, 7,500 each. As I descended to the normal bizarre of street-level Indonesia, I marvelled that for the price we paid for two drinks, we could have had sex, all without leaving the premises, and the guy who couldn't afford the singer he lusted after, probably could have if he'd drunk less. It just goes to show you: everything is a question of priority.
We went home.
I sit on the bus, meandering its way around the rocky and fertile irregularities of the north Java coast, the sea on my right cresting upward into the distant clouds, shifting, swirling, like the rambunctious force that it is, moving from a coastal brown into striated layers of greens and blues rising ultimately to the sky, which, always calm and blue, accepts the sea into itself seamlessly, belittling the bumptious waves with its infinite magnitude.
And out the bus's left window, my life drifts by endlessly... sorry, did I say "my life"... I meant to say "rice", yes rice drifts by with startling abundance, sort of like my life, I suppose: each moment, hour, episode, each its own paddy, overflowing with color so vibrant and full of the earth's love as to elude imagination, each terraced field straining at its mud wall, each lapping and overlapping the next like the impatient waves endlessly superceding each other on the Java beach, but different: the rice fields, the events of my life, only play at seeming to struggle against one another. In truth they fit together like pieces in an incomprehensible puzzle, each static in its given place, each internally brimming with rice, with experience, the staple product of my existence.
And when the bus does eventually come to a halt, I shoulder my pack and head out into the streets of yet another exciting new city. The cities too here are like puzzles, each a maze, a rubik's cube and a mystery novel rolled into one, full of the complexity of alleyways, the geometry of maps, and more incredibly fascinating characters than you could meet in a lifetime, each with a different assessment of the puzzle as a whole.
Of course, it's made harder to solve (and more fun) by the fact that we're not just observers trying to untie a knot that sits on the table before us... we're part of the fiber, as woven and twisted into the core of the conundrum as anyone.
After we left Yogya, our pace picked up a little bit, due partially to the fact that we'd spent a month in one place and were eager to move, but also because Rick was suddenly along and itchin' to travel. He didn't want to hit the road slow, he wanted momentum, lots of it, and although that wasn't the style of travelling I had cultivated, I could see its importance to him, and so I resolved to speed up my pace for a while. From Yogya we proceeded directly to Kediri, the cigarette manufacturing capital of Indonesia, with Ole (who'd shown upin Yogya as well) in tow.
I'd count our time in Kediri as a qualified success... a success because it grew into one of those expectation-surpassing experiences that remind you what travelling is all for; and "qualified" because "unqualified", despite its implication of "without attenuation", always sounds like an insult to me, and besides, as far as successes go, it fulfilled its purpose very well. Such are the ravages of usage.
The ride to Kediri was a sort of pleasant hell. A lot of it was taken up playing face games with the cute little girl four rows up who, don't ask me why, seemed unable to face forward, and unwilling to sit. I did all the normal stuff: crossing my eyes, the cigarette-in-my-ear trick, sticking my tongue up my nose (I had the longest tongue in my high school class), firespitting, the needle-through-the-brain trick, etc., and she reciprocated to the best of her ability. Fun. I almost had her pitching peanuts into my gaping mouth, too, but she seemed unable to fully invest herself in the endeavor, instead mounting a few meager launch attempts which resulted in nothing more than the consternation of the passenger two rows behind her who sat, it turned out, at the perimeter of her peanut projection range. Anyway, somehow the hours dragged quickly by and we finally stepped down from the womblike comfort of our cosy chariot at the gates of the Kediri alun alun at dusk. After getting a room we wandered around a bit, ate, and tired from the bus ride, crashed. We knew a special day lay ahead.
Already up'n'out the next morning at the crack of noon, the three of us moseyingly ambled over to Unit 1: Gudang Garam's administrative center, and the exalted focal shrine of the cigarette Mecca. As we approached the gate, resplendent with wrought iron "GG"s, Ole and I exchanged excited glances: four months prior, over cigarettes by the water in Kuching, we'd talked fancifully about coming to this place, and out of so many travel plans which dissolve in the course of their own enaction, this one was about to be made real. We ceremoniously crossed the threshold. Once inside, we made the proper contacts, were assigned a guide/guard, and soon found ourselves in a room where 2,000 women sat rolling Gudang Garam reds in long rows of workstations. One of them invited us to give it a shot, and Ole and I took turns learning to use the lo-tech rolling machines, with the expert hands-on kind of instruction you'd expect from a woman who rolls 1.1 million cigarettes a year. We emerged from the room each proudly holding our very own self-rolled Gudang Garam cigarettes. Sweet.
In the corridor a chalkboard announced that only 38,000 people had reported to work that day, and asking about the other facilities in an unctuously curious way, plus pushing a few key buttons (this is so exciting what a beautiful factory we came all the way to Kediri just for this) landed us squarely in the back of an official Gudang Garam jeep, driving from unit to unit, sampling their sights. And what sights! We saw rooms of 4, 6, and 10(!),000 women all busily rolling, snipping and wrapping, their hands flashing robotically under the dim fluorescent light to the pulsing rhythm of piped-in dangdut music. We saw machines doing the same jobs only faster. We saw the fleet of (three) Gudang Garam helicopters. But what we really saw most was the insincere smile of the PR minion who escorted us around and answered our questions with polished fiction. "We hire only women," he told us, "because our research shows them to be better suited to monotonous labor." "Cigarettes are very good for Indonesia," he confidently promised, and, of course, "Gudang Garam is very good to its employees." Right. these employees who toil in perspectivally long cattleyard rows for 3,000 rupiah a day; who, as our guide freely admitted, sometimes go insane from the labor; and who are forced to listen to methamphetaminic pop music on a continuous basis as they manufacture the poison of a nation. Filling out a job application I am not. (Besides, I'm a guy.)
We ultimately returned to Unit 1, were showered with cigarettes and shirts, and, thanking our guide profusely through our smirks of triumphant lootery, took to the streets of the city. Total score: data, pictures, shirts, and five boxes of cigarettes each for Ole and I, each box marked with the signature of success: "Tidak untuk dijual"... "not for sale".
I didn't, however, like my shirt so much. It felt more like a nondescript golf shirt than a Gudang Garam souvenir. It had a red and blue stripe motif on one shoulder, a minute GG logo on the pocket, and red and blue lines running around the collar. Lame. So out on the street, I started hunting. In this town, everybody - everybody - wore Gudangphernalia, some of it old, some fresh and new, in a range of styles and designs. It took little time and less effort to decide upon a shirt I liked better than my own, and from that point on it was a piece of cake: "Excuse me," I innocently said, "but I have this brand new Gudang Garam shirt, and I like your old one so much better..," letting my words trail off into his dumb perplexed look, allowing them to be followed, on my target's own initiative, by the bright-eyed formation of a brilliant idea: "Want to trade?" he offered. Me: "Yeahgimmegimmegimme." Quick strip'n'swap, and the street vendor looks mighty snappy in that clean white shirt while I'm walking off down the street clutching a souvenir worthy of the title, worthy of the words printed on its collar label in red and blue: "GG Collection." It's a real gem, candy-speckled with logos, and with the capital letters GUDANG GARAM spanning the sleeve from left shoulder to cuff. That's right: long sleeves. I guess the GG collection has a winter line as well.
(By the way, GG makes - gulp - 150,000,000 cigarettes - gulp - a day.)
I won't bore you much more with tales from Kediri except to say that it's a really cool town, very down-to-earth and functional in a healthy medium-sized-city kind of way. People there were cosmopolitan but without pretence, and seemed to see us more than our skin. Nice. Ole and I went to a disco, and were shocked not only by what a happening disco it was, but too by how little attention we attracted. It felt refreshing to be citizens, not oddities. And the next morning Ole left for Probolinggo among hopeful cries of "see you in Sulawesi!" and Rick and I headed north to Tuban.
Tuban itself was nice enough. A pleasant little fishing town complete with hundreds if not thousands of colorful fishing boats designed in the exaggerated local traditional style; an alun alun full of motorcycling teens on Saturday night, kite-flying kids on Sunday morning, and Golkar demonstrators on Sunday evening,... but always full of something; and, of course, seafood deluxe, bought from charcoal-fanning ibus in kampung alleyways. Cool little city, where people go on walks for entertainment. Right on.
We had a pretty good time in Tuban. The losmen we were staying in had that feel of an old hotel, of languishing grandeur roughened around the edges by neglect, but which at the same time wouldn't measure up to modern standards even in its finest state of repair. It had tile floors with tile motifs inlaid like a ceramic carpet in each room, and high ceilings, the paint peeling more and more toward the edges and yellowing more and more toward the center. The bathrom down the hall was the kind of place I can only hope that when I die, they don't find my body in. How humiliating that would be - and unsanitary.
Our first night was mostly punctuated by the bizarre behaviour of our losmen's owner. He always seemed drunk, but too cogently so. An aging portly red-faced balding buffoon, he demanded my passport when we checked in, and spent a sincere and silent five minutes examining it with the thorough care and methodical slowness of a paranoid drunk. Then he mutteringly made me explain my visa extensions, how I got them and where, before telling me in half-slurred English, half-bahasa, "If there's any trouble, don't say anything about this hotel. There's elections on, y'know?" I told him that I did. "You know!?" he shouted angrily. I told him that I did. "You know," he finally said with a suspicious, calculating calm, and then continued to tensely grill me about my travels, my home, and my potential affiliation to any underground international paramilitary communist freedom-fighting groups that might have operated at any time in that area in the last 50 years, before he finally let me go. Weird, paranoid vibe. Bad strangeness. After that initial episode, though, he was nothing but smiles and selamats, which is perhaps the strangest part of all.
And although always outwardly calm, that losmen was never really boring. At any given moment, we could hear someone somewhere shouting angrily, or someone else weeping sorrowfully, or perhaps the unmistakable sound of retching vomiting echoing throughout, or if not these, something else strange going on. I awoke very early Sunday morning and stumbled out in my sarong to pee, only to discover the staff all downing big glass after big glass of what looked like rice wine, which big glasses they endlessly refilled from a 5-gallon plastic gasoline container. They invited me to join them, and seemed disappointed at my bleary refusal. Of course, when I accepted a glass of arak the next morning, they were pacified. But always in the losmen pervaded a sense of unspoken dread, perhaps a sub-real anticipation of impending nothingness, a silent universal acceptance of life as doldrum... but regardless, it impregnated the air with an amusing tension apparently consciously noticed by no one but us. This weird place in a weird little town in the middle of Java truly felt endowed with the timeless strangeness of centuries past. I think it shines.
Our last night in Tuban we decided to do it "up". And after two hours of contradictory becak-direction-following, we did indeed locate a bar, a charming little box called "Karaoke Oke," a dismal carpeted dungeon more or less consisting of some booths, a projection TV, and too few dark lights. Now, I've been, bless my lucky stars, in too many karaoke bars to get really phased by them anymore, but this one offered two things I'd never really had an option on before: anonymity, since the lights were so dim even Helen Keller would bump into furniture trying to find her way around; and solitude, since it seemed that Rick and I were the only two people in Tuban with sense enough to patronize this no doubt first-rate establishment. Now seriously: how to pass up such a stellar opportunity? I talked Rick into it, we examined the songbook, chose our tunes and set the wheels in motion. I settled on "Come Together" by the Beatles, while Rick opted for the Hank Williams classic, "Your Cheatin' Heart". We wrote our selections on the provided slip in self-disbelief, we handed it in, and when our first song came onscreen we gripped our microphones, shouted "Hello Indonesia!" and proceeded to sing. We really cut loose, providing one another with background vocals, me trying for a Liverpudlian brogue, Rick for a Texan twang. I must say it sounded atrocious, and we interrupted ourselves several times during our performance with bouts of nonsuppressable laughter, particularly because while the Beatles video offered live footage of the Fab Four in concert, the Hank Williams tune came accompanied by images of an Asian couple splashing around in a hotel swimming pool and careening down a waterslide, which I guess is as far from country-western as urban-eastern gets. We put down our mikes in hysterics, our peals of laughter dramatically enhanced by the PA's reverberating amplification, and which trailed off into the darkness of Karaoke Oke as the video faded to black, the wet happy couple in each others' arms.
Not until then did we discover that we had previously made a slight miscalculation: there were, it seemed, a couple of guys in a booth nearby, whom we hadn't noticed, and who had been forced to witness our disinhibition in all its glorious echotronics. So following the closing strains of "Your Cheatin' Heart", they exacted their cold revenge upon us in the form of a repetitive whiney Indopop hit. And then another. And then another. By song number 2's end, Rick and I knew that something had to be done. Our beers hadbegun to sink in, stripping us of inhibition, and we both felt that this challenge, this affront, could not go unmet. We had to fight fire with water, bullets with bombs, naked aggression with nuclear force. We chose the two cheeziest songs we both knew, and defiantly handed the slip to the hovering attendant.
The first song we picked was "Casablanca," you know, the classic ballad from the film of the same name, "You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is still a sigh... ", etc. Just the thing for our situation, yeah? So here's a tip for you: there has apparently infiltrated the mass market a song called "Casablanca" which is distinctly not the song Rick and I thought it would be. Oh, it was cheezy, no doubt about that, something involving the marital difficulties between a very svelte aryanish blonde woman and her hunky clean-cut hyper-steriodal man-friend, all shot through blur filters with sensual lighting; but neither Rick nor I had any clue how to sing it, or any desire to learn. We just giggled sheepishly and tried to pawn our mikes off onto the humming waitresses, since apparently everyone knew this song but us (do you?). But to no avail. So we hung onto the mikes as the mellow stringy background tones slid voicelessly by and the empty lyrics scanned across the screen.
During this whole fiasco another group of customers arrived, taking the booth right next to our own. They weren't part of the initial conflict, but they sure ended up as collateral damagees, for they ordered their drinks just in time to be lambasted with our discordant rendition of "If I Fell", an early Beatles love anthem in 3-part harmony tackled by two weird drunk white guys who can't sing. It was slow and torturous, and no doubt tinged with uncaringly embarrassed abandon on our parts. As if in retaliation, our new neighbors filled out slips of their own, and when their tunes came up, they got so spiritually involved, so mortally embroiled in the songs, that soon thereafter Rick and I had to go. What we witnessed there was just too horrible - and too personal.
We unsuccessfully tried to locate another bar, and ultimately went off home.
Next stop next day: Tayu. By the way, don't go to Tayu. There's nothing to see there and less to do. It turned into a sort of game for us to ask people what the locals do at night, winning for us a series of blank stares, a few shaking heads and scratched butts, and one guy's suggestion that perhaps we had mistaken Tayu for some other town where there was actually something going on. But since we seemed fixed on Tayu for the night, he decided to help us out. First he took us on his bike to see what he told us would be the sea, but which turned out to be an inland shrimp farm, a riceless paddy exuding a prawny stench on the outskirts of town. Beautiful stars and moon and land, but certainly not an evening's pastime. So again we climbed onto his bike and he took us home, to his family's house up on the nearby mountain. Nice house, dimly lit, and furnished more than decorated. We met the family, exchanged some pleasant chitchat, lapsing into occasional bouts of silence. Their porch was something to behold. Half of it, fully an area 6 feet by 4 feet, contained a pile of rice 3 feet deep, and there were many more sacks of rice stacked nearby. "These people," I thought to myself, "have firm stool." This could have been a world-class scnhecker-doodle household, if only someone would have the grace to show them how. And I admit, I felt pretty graceful that night, but I guess not enough.
The evening wore on, with Bapak regaling us with stories of Japanese atrocities he witnessed as a child during the war, conversations correcting televised misconceptions about western life, a detailed lesson on the Indonesian names for every kind of tree within flashlight range of their front yard, and the inevitable exchange of addresses, before we finally hopped back on the bike and were driven home. As we descended the mountain road, I could see the half-moon to my left hanging huge and orange near the craggy horizon line and surrounded by crisp puffy clouds whose shadow-edged outlines glowed translucently with Lunar radiation. One cloud made its pachydermic way across Luna's path, partially eclipsing the satellitic semicircle, and in doing so was itself lit round and bluish, giving the impression of a giant Pepsi logo hovering in the Tayu sky. And I thought Tayu was behind the times! I marvelled at the variety of forms life can take and enjoyed the cool mountain air as it roared past my ears.
Now at this point I experience a dilemma: I could continue to bombard you with anecdotes from the road, perhaps sharing how Rick and I had to wade out into the Java Sea and flail our arms to flag down fishing boats to prevent being stranded on a deserted island near Jepara; or how we got to take turns pedalling a becak around the streets of Jepara at 2 am; or how there's a coffeeshop in Semarang where the waiters wear such awful lime-green tuxedos that I felt guilty for having so much taste while others must go without; but I fear that to do so would be to risk your boredom as well as my own, and so I think that I shall now close.