“Pass the truck – go!”
Buncis (pron: Boon Cheese – means ‘string bean’) jammed the stick into third and gunned it. We swerved around the truck into the oncoming lane charging instantly toward giant headlights. “Back!” Buncis slammed on the brakes and jerked us back in. A double lorry flew passed and Buncis, without missing a beat, pulled out again. We accelerated past the truck as multiple motorbikes whizzed at us and an old woman with a woven basket on her back stepped off the curb. A tour bus was rapidly bearing down on us as Buncis ducked us back to our lane, now tailgating another truck. The next curve revealed an infinite line of head-to-tail traffic Buncis would advance through for the next ten hours. Henry reclined on a big snuggler in the front seat calling out driving orders as I prepared for my death.
Sleep, I thought. Just try to sleep.
We were headed to Surakarta (Solo) for one of the national perkutut championships. This harrowing drive seemed a foreboding preface to what I had assumed would be a relaxing day of people strolling through the grounds taking in the sweet melodies of our singing feathered friends. But we would learn that the Perkutut Konkurs, the reason men all over Indonesia invest hundreds of millions of rupiahs, was indeed a rowdy fest.
In the back of the SUV, next to our volumes of luggage, were two perkutut in their competition cages. Henry asked we not put noisy items in the back, to avoid disturbing the birds’ sleep. Sleep? I had a seat, floor and handle above the door to steady myself. The doves had thin branch perches in the middle of their cages . Hard to imagine they’d be getting any shut eye.
Rest stop on the road – 3am
We pulled into the bird field at dawn. As is the case everywhere in Indonesia, there were already people around. We eventually found the hotel and Kian and I settled in for a little rest before the competition.
At 8am the general cut the ceremonial rice cake and the competitors rushed to the field. A screaming lottery had been held to determine who would get what position in the field. The edges are not coveted because of the noise of the crowd.
“Wait!” The general commanded. “If you don’t all quiet down and pay attention to the ceremony, I will order this competition closed.”
The field went quiet with all eyes to the front. The central Java delegates paraded to the reviewing stand. I’ve noticed that Indonesia seems big on ceremony and certificates. Next came the judges who were sworn in as the general warned the crowd not to attempt to bribe (Indonesia is known for its corruption.)
“There is a white guy here filming,” the general raised a hand to me. “Don’t worry, maybe we will all be on National Geographic. Welcome, Jim.”
I did a little wave. Shortly after, the competition began.
Okay, you are wondering, how does a perkutut competition work? Well, everyone anxiously hoists their birds in the air. Halim, the owner of Napoleon, asked me not to get too close because of the “lasers in my camera.” The judges gather in groups below, clipboards ready. As the anticipations builds, the start is announced over the loudspeaker. And then…nothing happens.
Really, it is perfectly quiet (except for kids in the neighboring cemetery who were playing some pop favorites.) And then one bird makes a toot. And then another. The crowd is gathered on the sidelines staring intently. Judges start moving and indicating to the flag boys where to mark. And then, as though a goal had been scored at the World Cup, the crowd goes wild.
“What happened?” I asked Kian?
“Must have been a good bird song.”
(Spectators, judges flagging a pole, Kian doing sound, Halim whistles to Napoleon)
As the day progresses, the crowd calls out numbers to the judges who shoot back annoyed glances. Bowo was disappointed that the general’s bird was quiet. “We just took his eggs away,” he lamented. Beauty, Gunawan’s champ, was also not singing. But Pak Gun seemed jovial as ever. Although a bit of a mystery to us, the crowd was keeping score and got more and more boisterous toward the end of each round.
We went to talk to the leader, Haji Imam (a Haji is someone who did the Haj and went to Mecca), whose bird Henry had been eyeing. I asked him if he would like to say anything to U.S. viewers. “Even the United States cannot bring peace to the Middle East because of Israel,” he said.
Henry took Haji Imam by the shoulder and offered him $5,000 for his dove. The man laughed. (He eventually sold it to a man from East Java for $6,000. To keep it in his region, he said.)
The event went on for four forty-five-minute rounds. At the end crowds smother the judges as they do the final tabulation. Pak Gun distracts everyone with the door prizes – LP gas stoves, wall clocks and a television. “Number 78 – calling once, twice, last call number 78. Okay pick another number.” Number 78 came running to the stand. “I’m here!" “Sorry Pak, too late.”
The general came forward and began presenting trophies. Of our characters, only Halim was in the lineup. And then, as though nothing had happened, everyone vanishes. I suppose this is a combination of needing to get to afternoon prayer and facing long Sunday drives home. Henry and Buncis shook our hands and said goodbye and we found ourselves alone in Solo.