The problem with the view from an Indonesian street corner, more often than not, is the distinct lack of a corner to view things from. This is true of almost all Indonesian street corners I have attempted to occupy, and it was true of the one that I found myself on in a town called Tarempa in the Anambas Islands, one hot October day. (It might have been any month, not necessarily October, and it could still have been quite easily described as hot, such is the fashion of things in north Indonesia.)
Of this corner matter, I do not mean by it that Indonesian society has developed some foolish aversion to right-angles; as far as I can tell they are as persuaded by them as the rest of us. The problem, rather, lays both in getting to, and staying on, them. So busy and crowded are the streets and their corners, that any attempt to remain in the vague vicinity of them is to wage war with the whims of an army of wandering Indonesians, of whom there is seemingly a limitless supply. If caught in a particularly determined throng of such soldiers, it is most likely easier to submit to a lap of the town in its entirety, than to try and fight your way back to your spot in the corner.
On the particular street corner that I was bidding to inhabit, there was a policeman charged with overseeing such hustle and bustle. The population of Tarempa was made up of one part policemen and one part citizen, so far as we could tell, which is no small matter for a town of 10,000 or so. But, somehow, this one poor uniformed man had been assigned with masterminding the island’s busiest crossroads, and all on his tod. This in spite of the fact that the intensity of the traffic progressing east-west along the high street, merging with the north-south movement of people and goods to and from the port, was palpably too much for one man to bear. As he stood in the midst of the mayhem, gesticulating wildly and indiscriminately, sweat gushing from every pore of his body, blowing his whistle to the point of fainting; I felt genuine pain for this mere mortal, consigned the Herculean task of instilling order to such sweltering, unresponsive chaos.
A lot of this was the responsibility of the shops, I reckoned, whose merchandise spewed rapaciously out on to what was probably once intended as a walkway, but which has since been interpreted as an extension of their tat-selling businesses. In this way, those who are travelling on foot are forced to walk in the road, and this does little to ease the pressure on the traffic, let alone on the blood pumping through the policeman’s visible and throbbing veins. I noted with some relief that an old dear, having watched him turn purple, had taken him by the arm and led him into the shade of her fruit stall, where he sat now staring vacantly into the middle distance, as she fussed him with oranges and mangoes.
In front of those swelling shops lined up scooters that perhaps numerated in the hundreds, although I did not count them to be honest. I only offer this approximation because as a rule all Indonesians drive a scooter, no matter what their age, and so if anything it might be an underestimate. For an Indonesian – be they just learning to walk or just losing the knack of it – to be without a scooter is to be like a fish without fins. The side of an Indonesian road, therefore, stirs not only with the fit and able springing to and from their rides, but also with those alleviating themselves of prams, zimmer-frames and walking sticks, so that they might clamber aboard their scooter in one way or another, and manoeuvre out into the middle of the road. Once there, they would find just as many scooters parked in a traffic jam as there were parked along the edges, and so they’d busy themselves with making the same amount of progress here, as they would have done had they stayed where they were just moments before.
Two wheels is the default amount, I saw, but it was not the only option. A man came around the corner with a wheelbarrow, exuding an aloofness that was as if he were strolling across a peaceful field rather than a severely congested urban area. It was this relaxed manner that almost saw him sweep up the policeman, who had charged back into the fray with less purple but more determination in his face, and who scolded the wheelbarrow-bearer with Indonesian words that nobody had agreed to teach me, but whose meaning I perceived easily nonetheless. The wheelbarrower continued on entirely unfazed with his one wheel, and the policeman redirected his wrath elsewhere.
Three wheels could also be found. Trailers were fused to the rear of motorbikes in such a way that a trike-like thing was born, and on the back of these invariably sat young men, atop whatever materials their trade called for: bags of rice, perhaps, or piles of breezeblocks. These men tended to wear balaclavas. This might have been intimidating, had my first experience of balaclavas in Indonesia not been out in the ocean, where a fishing boat brimming with balaclava’d men had raced over to us from a mile away. If you’ve become numb to the remoteness that the ocean offers you, having a shipload of balaclava’d men approach you at full speed brings it back into sharp focus, I can assure you. Just as I was about to reach for the radio – or maybe it was the machete, I forget now – the line of Indonesians lifted their facewear, and administered to me a series of lengthy and enthusiastic waves. I dutifully returned this typically-overfriendly gesture, and went to change my trousers.
From my position on not-quite-the-street-corner, I could see a similar band of men approaching on the back of a trike now, though they had to settle for the snail’s pace that the crossroads demanded. I had since learned that the balaclava had a more genial use in Indonesia than that which the mischief-makers of the west have enlisted them for, which is simply to protect the skin. To offer an explanation drenched with the juices of generalisation, but no less interesting for that matter; dark skin is not a desirable facet in a hot country, because it shows you for the poor man that you are toiling away under the sun all day, be it as a fisherman or a labourer, rather than in an air-conditioned office that serves to keep the complexion of the middle-classes fair. This generally applies for Indonesian women as well, and some even take things so far as to undergo skin-lightening treatment and nose-enlarging operations, in order to westernise their faces. Ironically, western women would be horrified to hear they had either light skin or a large nose, and would do whatever it took to look more like an Indonesian woman, no doubt. Oh, how green that grass looks over there!
Finally there were the four wheelers, but from my time spent in… well, the middle of the road is essentially where I stood… from my time spend in the middle of the road, dodging the gesticulations and imprecations of the revived policeman, I saw that they were a very rare sight. If they did inexpediently try to honk their way through the din, then they had to be particularly squat trucks, because hanging above all this tumult were low-lying lights that illuminated the street with carnival colours every balmy evening; and so busy does the street remain every balmy evening, that it as if it really were a constant carnival. Amongst these lights are bundles of electrical lines that are a perfect mystery to me, but they are weaved so numerously and thickly between the buildings that they conspire to give the appearance of a ceiling to the street. This is certain to exaggerate any feeling of claustrophobia one might be prone to in this tight spot, as well as to keep all imports of trucks onto the island below a certain height. The logistical consequences of a truck becoming stuck under this street ceiling simply don’t bear thinking about on this particular junction: the policeman would be done for, that’s for sure.
Three Indonesian ladies walked by and asked if they could have a photo with me. I said of course, if that’s what they wanted, but that I wasn’t famous or anything. This seemed to be construed in the opposite, and installed an excitement in them that meant several photos had to be taken so that each of the four of them might be standing next to me in at least one of them, with a different person taking the picture each time. This was all very confusing to me but they seemed to have the system in place for it, so I just stood where I was told and grinned like a wally for a few minutes.
As we lined up again for the fifth or sixth time, or however many goes it took to shuffle everybody about suitably, I saw some men smirking from the other side of the street. I seemed to remember that these were the immigration officers who had cleared us in to the Anambas, and that they had also requested a series of photos with us, and so I returned their looks with a firm but friendly one that I felt might summon this hypocrisy to their minds. I can’t say whether it worked, though I would have liked to ask them, from an academic point of view you know.
We had become quite used to – and it would be an untruth to say not unpleased with – a sustained popularity in Indonesia. It was impossible not to walk down a street and not be detained with a “Hello Mister!” by some friendly fellow or fellowess, who wanted to know what it was all about, two white men walking around their town. They were quite happy with it, of course, but it caught their curiosity and they preferred to know what was what. In this way they could also find out what they could sell us, and today a lot of people wanted to rent me their scooters. After all, their baby had one that it wasn’t using at the moment – it couldn’t breastfeed and steer at the same time, you see – and so I could take it for the rest of the day if I liked? So abundant were these proposals that it was plain the news had got around town that we had gone for a ride about the island the day before, and they fancied perhaps we’d have another go today.
In politely declining all such generous offers, and responding to all the “Hello Misters!” that reverberated around the crossroads; as well as dodging vehicles with anything from one to four wheels, and the arms of a policeman who periodically found the reserves to flail them from the middle of it all; and grinning stupidly for a photo from time to time, all the while trying to keep a hold of my street corner; I had plenty to keep me occupied, and quite happily so.
Yes, I can thoroughly recommend the view from an Indonesian street corner, or as close to one as you are able to get yourself.