The Cage Makers


Pak Joko, kiri, kiri!”  (Pak Joko, left, left!)

Duto Birdvit had found us a driver named Pak Joko, a cheery guy with an SUV called The Panther and a penchant for trying to teach me impossible Javanese phrases.  I’d repeat them badly a couple of times.  He’d correct my diction and I’d smile and nod.  Then we’d smile and chuckle heartily at each other as I hoped his attention would soon return to the road. 

My father use to tell a story about a race car driver with a debilitating joint disease who chose the grip of a steering wheel when informed by his doctors he could pick only once the position of his hands for the rest of his life.  With his wrists cranked to ninety-degrees on the wheel Pak Joko recalled this tale.  I started thinking of him as ‘Pa’ Joko because of some level of paternal grace he evoked (Bapak means ‘father’, Pak is always used before a man’s name.)  When I’d go to buckle my seatbelt, Pak Joko would wag a sage finger at me, “Countryside – no police.”  When in ticketing territory his own seatbelt would be draped over his shoulder and lap,  the chrome insert resting on his thigh, just centimeters from the catch. 

Kian was on the phone with a cage makers whose name he’d gotten at the competition and we were trying to locate his village.  We whizzed down a elevated roadway through miles of rice paddies passing husking machines pulled by horses and batik-clad old women with pointed sun hats carrying large aluminum tea kettles.  A day earlier I had asked if we could stop to film some of the rice harvesting.  Kian and Duto brought me over the clay banks into the now drained fields.  “Tourist from America, sir.  Can he take your picture?”  I looked at  Kian as I recognized the universal word ‘tourist.’  “It’s easier this way,”  he explained. “Tourists are highly revered.”

I did some handheld shooting and for the first time felt really invasive.  The others were several paddies away from me as an old woman started shouting to me.  I put up my hands helplessly but got that she wanted money.  Fair enough.  I scrambled back over a stream to retrieve some 1,000 rupiah bills from Kian and handed them out.  Then I realized how many people there were looking.  I waved uncomfortably and made my way back.  Pak Joko was leaning against The Panther smiling and indicating other good shots, raising his eyebrows in unison with his pointing finger.  “God,” I thought.  “I really am a tourist.”


“Left Pak, left,” Kian said as we came upon a dirt lane.  The lane wandered through a small forest area and in the distance we could see colored flags arching over the street.  We passed a homemade railroad crossing pole, went over the tracks and into the little village.  The cage maker and his family stood by their house waiting for us.


We  sat for tea and Kian explained about the documentary.  “Boleh,” the father said.  ‘Boleh’  was a word I had been hearing constantly since our arrival.  It is the granting of permission and had only been denied to us once – when Halim thought we were going to shoot lasers at his perkutut from my camera.  I hauled out the gear and we all sat barefoot on the front porch.  The family, we learned, could make three cages every two days and they sold for about $11 each.  Most of the cage is bamboo with some wood carving decorations.  Bamboo is sliced thin and then pulled through holes drilled in a cheap metal scraper to make consistent bars for the cage.  A little boy and two women sat weaving the bamboo ribbon around the cage top as a man carved little rosettes with a paring knife.


I was lead to the back where a homemade drill press lived.  Without markings the bottom support is drilled for inserts for the bamboo bars.  Quickly and evenly the bottom piece was moved around as a foot treadle was pushed below.  “”We want to get an electric one some day,” the man told Kian. “They are expensive.”  (A hint that some money from us would be nice. We did oblige when we left.)

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Kian stopped a woman selling snacks and the little boy went wild.  Apparently the family does not often have money for such luxuries.  He jumped up and down at the cart as I held the big camera above his head.  I followed him from behind as he ran back to the house with the treats.  Great shot, I thought.  Then Pak Joko stepped into the frame. He stopped the boy and spun him around to face the camera, took his hand and started waving.  I looked at him, my lower lips pulled down in disbelief and I shook my head. “No, Pak Joko, no!”  He looked at me and smiled and drifted away. 

Have to cut this post short – we are now in Surabaya and going to see the man considered to be the master of all perkutut trainers.  Yesterday we visited a mud volcano started from a drilling operation gone awry. Sixteen villages are now buried under 21 meters of mud.  Post on that coming up…

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