I am told that we are going to a bar called Chinook, on Jalan Riau (aka Jalan Laksamana Laut RE Martadinata) in the North Eastern part of town, not far from one of the main areas of boutique factory outlets and the tourist snack shacks that service them. We pass the semi-circular park, the Taman Premuka on our left, then the adjacent two storey colonial building of the current British Institute where some late classes have just broken up. We are going to watch a friend’s band play. I have met Akang, the guitarist, only once about a month ago. He had been wearing a black jacket sporting a large white BBC logo with the words BBC PHANTOMS 4 EVER, his piercings and tattoos, his short hair spiked at the front and the confident, decisive way in which he manoeuvred himself reminding me of my original presumption that BBC was some kind of gang. He had rushed to join us at the Dago hospital after an incident in which Luki had been head-butted completely out of the blue at a party by a guy, consumed by his own domestic problems and looking to vent his anger on some easy target, someone half his size who wouldn’t fight back. Whilst Luki had taken control of the situation, bleeding profusely from the top of his eyebrow, and bundling himself and some friends off to the hospital in typical, unalarmed, fashion (“It’s nevermind. I must feel and enjoy the pain because it will be gone soon”), phone calls were being made all across Bandung by senior members of the BBC, specifically Akang’s mother, to find out where this guy was, who he was and whether he was a BBC member. Not long afterwards, Luki received an apology from his aggressor and everyone went on with life, knowing that nothing of the kind would happen again between the two men. About 10 days later, when we bumped into him and a mutual friend in the passageway of Luki’s workplace (the guy works occasionally as security there), Luki reached out to touch his shoulder lightly in greeting as he passed by. When I asked why he did that, his reply was “I am clear in my mind. I don’t want to friendly with that guy. But I want make everyone comfortable.”
My presumptions about the BBC are again challenged when I realise that this is a reggae gig. I am confused by the amount of ink and metal swaying rhythmically alongside clumps of dreadlocks bobbing up and down to the famous lyrics “I wanna love ya...and treat you right....everyday and every night“. The music itself could only be described as a “little bit good”. Still, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.
We are joined by Anya, Jeff and Patrick, the latter a ”Belanda Indo” with traces of English and Spanish blood added to the mix - a self proclaimed “gado-gado” (referring to the local dish comprising a variety of boiled vegetables served with a peanut sauce dressing). He speaks very fluent English and despite also being a little bit Dutch but not a lot, his modest Dutch vocabulary of random words picked up from cousins in Holland and a Dutch grandmother puts mine to shame. He tells me that he lives in the Cihapit area (formerly Tjihapit), which is apparently just nearby. I recognise the name as being one of the two women and children’s internment camps in Bandung during the Japanese occupation – it hadn’t occurred to me that Tjihapit would resume its status as a residential area after the camp liberation in 1945. I wonder if indeed it is the same place. “Cihapit?” I ask again.
“Yes, Cihapit” he replies.
“Patrick is the King of Cihapit” Luki interjects.
“I think my family might have lived there during the war” I probe. Patrick seems to understand my non-question:
“My Grandfather was in the Indonesian military, he was a freedom fighter after the Japanese occupation, and he told me stories about Tjihapit during and after the war, things that many people here don’t know about”. I am interested to press for more information but too many Gin and Tonics and the apparently slow and painful 2nd death of Bob Marley is rendering serious conversation too difficult to keep up.
Somebody asks me across the table “How long have you been here?”.
“Eleven months” I reply.
“And how long will you stay?”
“I don’t know.”
I explain the fact that the powers that be (my Company’s bosses) have indicated that I may be posted to HK but nothing is certain as yet. HK, a goal for which I had been pushing, thinking that it would finally put me on the map to pursue a “normal” life course, is now starting to lose some of its urgency. I realise that I am quite content here on the whole, and that, should I not have the threat of becoming what in China is referred to unfavourably as a SHENGNU (literally a “leftover woman”, usually in her 30s), should I not already have thoughts of being single, childless and on the wrong side of 35 hovering over me like a dark shadow, maybe it would not be so easy to leave. It seems my relationship with time as catalyst for an uncertain future, not so long ago an obsessive and fearful one, has improved somewhat. Not so long ago, I was in perpetual panic, discontent with the directions in which both my professional and my personal life were headed. It was as if time had gotten hold of me and was punishing me for having put off growing up and taking responsibility, for pursuing an “interesting” life, for far too long. I felt every day as if time were running away from me and It was ripping my heart out as it ran.
The question of HK itself isn’t the ultimate deal breaker for us two. A combination between brief fling, shotgun wedding, and a surprisingly short pregnancy means that Luki is doing what he had thought was the “right thing” but is no longer so sure as the little boy grows bigger and he finds it more and more difficult to be close to him. In any case, he too has an uncertain future with regards to where he will be in the coming months. He is a bar manager, currently looking for an opportunity as well to lead a more “normal life”, to work days, to build something for his future. Through friends, opportunities have come and gone, the most recent of which is looking promising – a 2nd interview for a job as a personal trainer. Nevermind the fact that he hasn’t been to the gym on a regular basis for years, this is Indonesia: anyone can try something new and no one would “blame you” if your skills are only a little bit ok. Besides, his friend will ensure that he gets the best training. I choose not to tell him the disaster scenarios that are going through my mind as I consider what it would mean if this were the UK with its blame and compensation culture. Instead we tease him about his lack of 6 pack and he retorts, effecting a kind of swaying dance with hunched shoulders, swinging arms and accompanying pout which may or may not be intended to mimic the incredible hulk, that when he comes back from training in Jakarta, he will look like a rugby player!
I stand at the back of the room, looking on at a motley collection of friends: A Eurasian catholic wearing a sleeveless Motorhead t-shirt and with distinctively paler skin than his Sundanese companions; a reggae-playing, tattoo-toting muslim “gangster”; a lesbian Chinese Christian who has recently converted from Islam; a tea-total ex addict; a strong, fiercely independent young bar manageress; and a 25 year old, happy-go-lucky father of two, who most definitely will be relegated to sleeping on the sofa again tonight. A big, bizarre, yet perfectly functional, family. Plus a couple of bule (foreigners), thrown in for good measure.
At around 2.30am, the bar starts to emtpy out and we emerge from the large smoky hall into the relative cool mountain air. A small group of us are saying our goodbyes. The parking attendant helps manoeuvre the motorbike out from behind a row of other bikes and as he is slipped a 2000 rupiah note, I mention the fact that the previous week I almost had my bag stolen whilst we were riding the motorbike back home late at night. Before I know it, it has been decided that we will be escorted home by Ariel, a big smiling bear of a guy wearing a black jacket with a large white BBC logo in the centre. Patrick calls out “Le, put your bag on your lap” to which Luki adds “don’t worry, no one can touch you because they can see it is BBC”.
“I am more worried about the fact that you have been drinking” I point out as I put on my helmet, one which I purchased at a roadside shack for 50,000 rupiah (5.50 USD). There weren’t any more expensive ones on offer and I have to admit that the only sturdier looking one was in the “wrong colour”.
“It’s ok, Ariel will make sure we are ok. Anyway, I have something in my wallet. It’s a blessing from the Koran that my mum give to me. She go to a Dukun because yaaa she always worry about me on my motor cycle at night and sometimes a little drunk after my work.”
Oh dear god.
“What is a Dukun?” I ask, putting aside other, more pertinent, questions, as the motorbike starts and we set off, Ariel hanging back a little distance behind and to the right of us.
The answer is half lost in the wind: “.....white Dukun..... keep safe....black dukun.... magic......make you scary...”. We cross the flyover where, in the daytime, you can look down on the sprawling ghetto of concrete houses and shacks which crowd the banks of the murky Cikapundung river as it snakes through the city: Later, after arriving home, I push for more details.
“Yaaaa the white is the good Dukun. The black Dukun, people can go to the black Dukun if they want to make someone bad. Like Chris, her parents, somebody want make them bad and go to the black Dukun. The father Chris he get sick, nobody knows why but his stomach have problem. After he die, the same thing happen to the mother Chris.”
He goes on to explain that there are different kinds of Dukun and the reasons for going to them are as varied as the methods that they employ to grant those requests . A Dukun is able to enhance a woman’s appearance (a practice called SUSUK) by embedding small needles or tiny particles of gold, without causing any wound, under the surface of the skin.
“But it is a problem when she get old and want to die because she must find the same Dukun to take it out again. If not do like this, it very difficult to die.”
A black Dukun can be sought to perform a kind of curse, like the one that is believed to have been made on Chris’ family. It is said that when another Dukun is called upon to help a victim of a Busung curse, as this form of black magic is known, to try to exorcise them, they will find all sorts of items, metallic objects, broken glass, (“even small frying pans or animals” according to some reports !!), buried in the person’s stomach. According to these reports, “Busung victims rarely escape death”. I am told that Chris, a Christian of Chinese descent, also carries a similar piece of paper in her wallet, on which is written some lines from the Koran, to keep her safe.
Dukuns can also apparently help people who want to improve their ability to sell or do business. If your eyes are open, I am told that it is possible to see many animals sitting on the edges of certain market stalls, beside the apples and the carrots. They allow the stall owner to exude the requisite charm and confidence to lure customers. I decide immediately that this could be the answer for my own professional predicament. I wonder whether these little animals can also sell ice to the Eskimos.
“So if I go to a Dukun, I can ask for anything I want?“
“Yes, I guess so”
“I could ask for better success in my job, more sales and easier customers?”
“Yes, you can try”. I think about what animal I would have. Maybe a magpie, they are resourceful and persistent and as animal totem are said to be helpful in many of the aspects that would appeal to me at this time. Or maybe a tikus, a mouse. That would be appropriate.......
“Don’t thinking so much” I hear from across the room, a reply to my inner thoughts, delivered with a chuckle. When the opportunity for superstitious wish-making arises, like when an eyelash falls on my cheek, I usually make a different wish altogether. As I blow it off my finger, that wish is always a little bit vague, reflecting my uncertainty of how it could possibly come about. My Doctor once said to me “Don’t worry, somehow there will be a baby”. I am surprised, yet somehow heartened, by today’s apparent switch of focus, however temporary.
“Someone misses you” an Indonesian would say as the eyelash is picked off and blown into the air. It’s funny how each culture has superstitions and traditions that are similar in origin yet have a different significance. This year, according to the Chinese zodiac, is the year of the Dragon – my 4th Dragon year. My ayi (helper) in Shanghai who was born just 2 months before me told me on one of my return visits at the beginning of the year that I must buy some red underwear, for luck in “our” year.
“In the village, it is always the mother that should buy the red underwear. But because your mother is not here, it’s also ok if you buy it yourself”. Never one to shun an opportunity to gain some luck, I went out and bought a matching set of red underwear (red is a lucky colour in China, in stark contrast to how it is perceived in the west). With only one pair of lucky red underpants, I decided to augment my chances by wearing red toenails as well and have done so for most of this year so far.
I return my thoughts to the Dukun. “What would I ask for?” I wonder aloud.
“Susuk! You should go to Dukun for susuk!” comes a teasing reply.
I joke ”But then you would never be able to let me go. And, Mr, you have baggage and responsibilities whilst I am free as a bird”. Our unspoken understanding, through circumstances which afford no other consideration, that there are no expectations and only the certainty of moving on, contributes to our very easy, yet respectful relationship.
As we approach my apartment, Ariel slopes off to make his long way home, in the outskirts of the city, holding up one arm to signal his goodbye. I think about this strange group, this club. Like some kind of neighbourhood watch in leathers. The difference between LMS (white logo) and ORMAS (yellow logo) has been explained to me, but I am only able to partially grasp the significance. Established in 1956 as a small Body Building Club (Buah Batu Barbell Club) in the district of Buah Batu, over the train tracks in the south eastern part of the city, it gained popularity and expanded to incorporate non fitness members as well as members from the wider Bandung area, whilst maintaining its roots in Buah Batu. Suffix names, representing the small groups that emerged, were added, such as AGOTAX, BANILS, BARROLS, DANGER, , GAMES, KUTUB, LEXS, MACHO, MEGAS, MOYANK, OYSTER, PHANTOM and SKILLS. In 1966, the name was further changed to Buah Batu Corps reflecting its expansion geographically and in purpose. Neither “branch” could be described as being a gang in the traditional sense of the word, although Ormas (and the small groups that align themselves under it) is certainly much more business and power oriented than LMS which focuses on environmental and community concerns and activities. Both are committed to making Bandung “grow up” and both count many prominent figures as well as regular Bandung citizens and youths amongst their members. Now that my eyes are open, I see the logo on the back windows of smart black cars and jeeps as well as ordinary vehicles and motorbikes. The essence of the power of the BBC is in its sense of, and commitment to, inner strength, independence and respect, particularly for one’s seniors. I possibly will never understand the intricacies or real significance of this group, but what I do understand is that, in Indonesia, where belonging to a group or “communitas” is an important part of everyday life, it is possible to bring together various independent groups, falling within two branches with quite different outlooks, under the umbrella of a wider organisation called simply, and rather innocently, ”Keluarga Besar”, “The Big Family”.