Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Birds Do Battle

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“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

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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. 

The Konkurs

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.) 

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“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.”

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(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. 

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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.

Assorted Pics

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Xena Warrior Princess and Lunch

I need to catch up on posts – so I will make this one mostly pictures.  Bowo turned out to be a great guy and accommodated us by keeping on his prayer clothes (he said he felt comfortable with the birds in his mosque gear) and placing a little camera in a cage to hoist up a pole.

The Xena Warrior Princess Bird Farm is the most lavish we have seen – even boasting its own competition field and reception rooms.  Bowo was incredibly gentle with the birds and clearly has a lot of love for them. 

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Fill ‘er up

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Reception room with portrait of the general

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Talking to Anwar – a Perkutut competition judge

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Me with Bowo in front of trophies and crazy horse painting

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Lunch

This was some Medan-style Padang food that Kian adores. Medan is where Kian grew up on the island of Sumatra

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Beef rendang, fried fish with chili, jackfruit with string bean curry, green chili sambal

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Boiled cassava leaves, jack fruit and string bean curry

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Cow skin crackers

We arrived at Henry’s at 6pm and began a harrowing 10 hour drive to Solo for our first Perkutut competition.  More on that next post.

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The General

(Dear Readers, If you are enjoying this blog, please send the link to other like minds.  Terima kasih,   Jim)

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At 4:17 am someone got the keys to the local mosque and hit the loudspeaker hard.  I stumbled in my sleep thinking it early for the call to prayer.  As I patted around the mattress for my earplugs (essential in Indonesia) a loud banging came at the door.  “Jim!”  It was Kian. “Get up we have to film the sunrise.”  I unlocked the door and Kian stood in full sound recording regalia – microphone, wind screen, digital recorder and XLR cables. 

“Come on, get dressed.” 

“Huh? Isn’t it too early?” I knew the sunrise didn’t come until 6.  Near the equator, Kian had said – sun up at 6, sun down at 6, all year long. 

“It is call to prayer – do you want to miss the sunrise over the mountain?  Meet me downstairs in five minutes.”

I peeled myself from the hot, sticky bed in my little student cell and fumbled for clothes and camera.  In the narrow corridors of the dorm some flip-flop clad youths were still hanging out from the night before.   I groaned, trying to keep my eyelids up.  Careful on the stairs, Jim.  This steep would never pass code in the U.S.

We went to the roof.  Complete darkness.  I persuaded Kian we could sleep for another hour-and-a-half and we each returned to our rooms.  At ten-to- six, with the next round of blaring prayer,  it was raining and we went down to the canteen for sarapan (breakfast).  We each downed a little plate of rice, prawn cracker and tempeh and Henry soon joined us. 

Henry spoke little English so Kian did the usual translating work.  “Bowo will pick you up at eight,” he said.  Bowo, the master Perkutut trainer for General Zainuri, pulled in on time in a well-worn Range Rover.  He shook our hands without a smile and began to speak to Henry about the competition in Surakarta in two days.  He invited us into the car and we were off to meet one of the former heads of the Indonesian army – now the president of the national Perkutut federation and founder of the Xena Warrior Princess Bird Farm.  Gunawan said it would be an insult for us to not meet with him.

After twenty minutes we drove into a perfectly-landscaped gated fantasy suburb.  Absent were the usual pedicabs, beggars, street vendors and homeless kids. Present were tall stone walls, preened shrubbery and even curbs.  Cloistered behind a wall of volcanic rock  was the general’s house.  An electric gate opened and we pulled in.  Bowo indicated we should remove our shoes and we were lead across a cool marble floor and up the stairs. 

Standing in a central courtyard garden was the general.  He came down the square slate steps and greeted us.  A houseboy brought us our shoes and we were invited to sit on an outdoor sofa.  The general settled into his seat, lit a cigarette and leaned back.  “James,” he said.  “I am pleased to meet you.”

Terima kasih pak,” I said. “You speak English?”

“Just a little.  I was sent to Oklahoma by my army in the 1980’s to study special operations.”

“Oh,” I said, a bit startled. “How did you like Oklahoma?”  (I mean, what does one say to a general of the former Suharto regime?)

Bowo brought out five fancy cages with Perkutut and distributed them around the garden for the general to enjoy.  Kian began explaining our documentary project and the general listened carefully.  Kian handed him a business card and the general asked a question.  Something seemed wrong.  Kian was looking nervous and talking faster.  The general sat quietly and observed him.  I heard the words, “art” and “hobby” and from the general, “National Geographic”.   Kian took a letter from Branda Miller, one of my professors and guru at RPI and placed it on the table in front of the general.  He put on his reading glasses and held the letter up.

“Everything okay?” I asked. 

“He asked if we have a license to film,” Kian said under his breathe.

“Oh.”  We didn’t.

The general got up and went inside.  A few minutes later the houseboy brought us cups of sugary tea.  “Okay, I think it’s okay,” Kian said.

We interviewed the general for about an hour during which staff and family passed gently and barefoot through the garden.  The general’s wife descended the garden steps deliberately and gracefully in a long batik house dress.  We stood and greeted her as she glided past.

“General,” I asked.  “Your bird farm is named after an American television show. Why?”

He looked me sternly in the eye and a smile came across his face.  The smile broke into a hearty laugh.  As was our routine he turned to Kian to answer the question in Indonesian.  “I am very fond of this show.  And I find Xena very beautiful.”  He paused for a moment. “Do you think I could be sued?”

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After the interview the general brought out his photo albums from Oklahoma and his trip to Washington DC and brought us some local bananas (they are better, folks.)

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It was Friday and the noontime call to prayer had begun.  We knew Bowo needed to pray and Kian urged me to say our thank you’s.  The general lead us out past huge portraits of his family and a real stuffed Sumatran tiger.  We were out the door and on our way to the Xena Warrior Princess Bird Farm – which I will cover in the next post.

Assorted Pics

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