Sunday, November 17, 2013

Day 12: Peace in the Heart of the Maelstrom

Toad Hall

Twelfth morning in Indonesia. First good night's sleep since I arrived. Blocked the storm drain under the wall with heavy chicken wire. Apparently this was the Door of the Toads: their only way into our back yard with its sexual and/or hunting delights. So after catching & tossing toad # 17, I had a night without their glass-shattering screeches. 

That said, every hour of my every day, the cup of life runneth over. There are fruit bats with 12-14 inch wingspans that roost in our mango tree; last night I watched them flitting in and out of the yard. There's a foot-long orange lizard called a tokay that can apparently bite your finger off (its night call is what I mistook for the "fuck-you frog") And inside me, there's a  deep sense that I've just gotten what I wished for: a chance to go back to school.
Chatting with girls studying English

To study what, exactly? I'm hoping that question will at least partially answer itself. But here for starters is something West Java illustrates in spades: OBNOXIOUS BEHAVIOR IS NOT THE GROSS HUMAN NORM. Indeed quite the opposite, if one were to judge by daily life in this insanely crowded moped-opolis (footnote 1). For all the overpowering noise of mosques and chaos of traffic, there is a personal ethic of calm & reserve here that could do wonders for America. Braggarts and loudmouths are not just frowned upon; they are, so far as I've seen, simply absent. Nobody yells, except children at play, and whoever happens to be holding the mic

at prayer time. Nobody blasts the
radio or TV. To make eye contact is to burst into smiles. There is no fear of violent crime. I've walked through some of the poorest back alleys of this city of 2-3 million and felt utterly safe--much safer than in the seedier parts of my little university home town, for example, and radically safer than in many parts of large U.S.  cities.

There are, blessedly, no guns washing around in this chaos. But also no hard, threatening glances, no faces composed to transmit a threat, no eyes that say, "Fear me, as I must fear you." That slight, mutual menace, so deeply ingrained that we barely recognize its presence, is simply gone.

Mosque in a riverside neighborhood. Streets often too narrow for cars (but definitely not motorbikes).

If this is the peace of an oppressive State I'm not seeing it. There are no swarms of heavily-armed police enforcing order. What I do see is a broad social consensus: We are crowded together, impossibly close. We will make the best of it. We will get along and find privacy within.

An amazing achievement. And perhaps an inescapable fate. For privacy without is surely an impossibility for all but the wealthiest West Javans, or perhaps a few hermits near the summits of the volcanoes. The latter are calling me--the volcanoes, not the hermits. But I'll need to learn to talk a little before I set out to climb one.

[Footnote 1: My guess is that there are about 1 million small motorcycles in Bogor. This morning at 5:45 AM, I walked down my street and saw, six blocks away, what looked like the flashing windows of a commuter train. In fact it was the even, ceaseless flow of bike helmets on the high street, catching the early sun]


Wasiq said...

Salamat Pagi Robert, What effortless fluency in your prose and how nice to have it all describing Bogor & Indonesia today. Its bringing me back to adolesence as I lived in Jakarta for 4 years between age 11 snd 15 and passed through Bogor once a month on the way to "Puncak" where we rented a cottage in the hills above a tea plantation. Back then, Bogor was famous for its botanical garden and known as the junior city of West Java -- smaller and less elegant than Bandung with its university and history as the home of the Non Alligned Movement. Strawberries, which Indonesians use the Ftch word "arbein" for, were also a special treat and only grown around Bogor & Bandung. About hiking up a volcanoe: go for it, but keep a look out for aggressive dogs which can be a dangerous nuisance even on the steep, but still inhabited slopes of Java's volcanoes. Wasiq

Robert VS Redick said...

Wasiq! I'd forgotten about your Jakarta years. So cool to get your reminiscences. The photo with the girls in the headscarves is in the Botanical Gardens, actually. I'm looking forward to seeing some other parts of Java, once I'm able to face down the traffic nightmare. Come see us! We can go off to look at Komodo dragons, or who knows what. And thanks for the dog warning. Maybe I'll wear shin guards. --RR

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