Song of the Fire Ants


It is about 10PM.  I’m already tired and know that at four the next morning we have to be on the road to the rocky island of Madura for the next perkutut competition.  Our black, late model car slowly circles the streets of downtown Surabaya looking for the hidden entrance of our destination.  Cak Nur (pronounced Chock Noor, which I remember by thinking of 80’s martial arts star Chuck Norris) and Tarjo confer in the front seat, finally pulling into a little driveway.  I see before us a two-story building with a tiled lobby lighted by medieval style fixtures with a flickering orange light.   Several young men in white shirts and black bowties guard the entrance.

We pull  right up to the edge of the lobby and Cak Nur guns it a little to get us over the tile lip.   The men step aside as we drive indoor and park in the middle of the lobby.  Scantily dressed women wave and wink  to us from behind a registration desk.

We have arrived at Indonesian karaoke.


One of the men takes the car and drives it deeper into the structure to the valet parking.  We are led down a dark hallway and a door opens revealing ten or so giddy perkutut farmers laughing and singing in a haze of smoke and Casio-driven pop songs.  “Oh no,” I thought.  “I hate karaoke.  And I know they are going to make me sing.”  Kian smiles.  “Chalk it up to experience,”  he says.

Cak Nur said he used to have to do a lot of karaoke entertaining when he was a contractor for Lapindo, the company that caused the Sidoarjo mud volcano.   A non-drinker, he would carefully monitor the level of his coca-cola to see if anyone had slipped him some spirits.  Tonight Cak Nur was in form in our private karaoke room belting out Indonesian favorites.


Kian and I sat next to each other on one of the side couches until one of our grinning perkutut hosts showed up with two young women on his arm indicating that we should sit boy-girl-boy-girl.


My denim mini-skirt clad call-girl (all innocent mind you) went by the “easier-than-my-real-name” appellation of Esther.  She smiled and stroked my arm hairs (we don’t have these in Indonesia) and asked me why my drink was so full. “I’ll drink and then you drink,” she giggled.  I smiled and nodded and took the smallest sip I could.  She chugged half of her glass.  “You won’t be able to keep up with me!” she chortled.  “That’s the idea!” I smiled.  (All this was said in shouts above a sound system which could rival any mosque’s loudspeakers.)

We were moved to a larger room and a vivacious young woman named Cindy – bleach-blond hair and denim short-shorts – became the animateur.  She butchered Love me Tender, but she had spirit.  I had hoped that the room change would enable Kian and I to sit next to each other again but we were again ordered to separate as the girls plopped down in between.

“So, Esther,” I decided to make small talk after I nodded yes that my wife would be angry if she held my hand. “Do you like this job?” I said.

“No,” she answered. “I get drunk every night and hate the smoke.  But I do this job because my father died and the family needs the money.  Beer?”

At that moment Cindy shoved a mike in my hand.  It was a song in English, so I guess she thought I must know it.  I pecked along behind her in a stunningly horrible rendition of Welcome to my Paradise (never heard of it before),  but the well-lubricated perkutut men laughed and cheered all the same.


Around midnight, with hoarse voices and tired eyes, we went back to Cak Nur’s house to catch some sleep.  The DDT had cleared from our room and we settled in for three-and-a-half hours rest.  Well before dawn, in a  steady rain, we were on our way.  Just after crossing the new Madura bridge (one of the longest in Southeast Asia) I could feel my neck resisting the sleepy bob of my head.  My head seemed to have won as I woke up in Sampang, the location of the match.

Kian pointed out the piles of white limestone which is the foundation of this island.  Piles of the stone cut into blocks lay in lanes on the road and every house seemed to be built of the stuff.


We had been warned that Madura was not as friendly as Java (which has got be the friendliest place I’ve ever been).  In fact,  we had been warned that Madura was not at all friendly and I thought of the tough faces of Albania I had seen in National Geographic.  Hmmm, are these people akin to the dour pusses that sharpened every fence pole in their country to stave off a possible parachute attack?  The faces on the street did look hardened.  We’ll see.

We found the competition site and unloaded the special cage we had made to house a camera. It was an old cage of Cak Nur and my hope was to be able to mount it up on a long pole to get a bird’s eye view.  The risk, however, was that one of the 600 competitors would protest and we could have trouble.  We had bought a ticket in the corner of the field and we picked our way through the puddle-ridden grounds to the site.  I delicately reached into the cage and turned the camera on.  Tarjo hoisted the cage up on the rope and we waited for the competition to start.


A Madurese traditional band was playing and I went to film them.  In front of the band stood the two racing bulls that would be awarded as a door prize.  I stood shooting the band and bulls when I felt something crawling on my sandaled feet.  Fire ants.

Shit!  I pulled the velcro and started slapping dozens of ants off my afflicted peds.  “Damn those hurt!” I bellowed.

“You were standing on their nest, what do you expect them to do?” Kian offered in a none-too-consoling tone.  “We grew up with them.”

I would stand on fire ant nests about five more times during the day.  Basically, I deduced, they were anywhere the ground was dry, just like me.  Filming the local Madurese band – fuck! Fire ants.  Interviewing the head of the competition – bastards!  Hang on – I’ve got fire ants again. Why isn’t anyone else ripping off their footwear??

I went to look at the cage and indicated to Cak Nur and Tarjo that it was pointing away from the field.  We collectively grimaced.  Do you think we could put it in the middle of the field?  I see some free poles.  Let’s just do it, suggested Cak Nur.  I pressed him to ask Gunawan who was here representing the national organization and he agreed we could mount the camera on a free pole on the middle.  The bell rang for the end of round two and I followed Tarjo into the field to retrieve the camera cage.

“Jim! Jim!” Cak Nur urged me back.  He explained to Kian that the rules stated that no cages should go up or down during the 3 hour match.  Tarjo would try to get the cage up as quietly as possible. He slid a cage cover over it and hurried onto the field.  Instantly calls rang out from the crowd. “Jo, Jo, what are you doing!”  We ran over and explained what was happening and that it had been approved.  The cage, camera already running, went up and we watched as Jo rushed off the field.  Phew.

The sun had come out and I continued to film in the hard rays.  Many of the competitors, Henry Manila included, threw a frilly bird cover over their heads to shield the heat.  Round one, two, three and four.


The cages came down and Tarjo delivered our stealth cage to the edge of the field.  A man flagged me down and it wasn’t long that I realized he wasn’t one of the many people delighted to talk to me.  When Kian arrived to translate he was yelling, “you made my bird lose!  How dare you mount that cage among the birds! You cost me money!”

I conferred with Kian.  Should we offer him the price of admission?  How should we handle this?  Cak Nur came to the scene and took the man by the shoulder and listened to his complaint.  Lots of nodding and apparent sympathy later Cak Nur came over to us and said, “no problem, all taken care of.”  He warned us later that if we had offered him money the man might have been insulted that we were trying to buy him off.

Back at the front the band started playing again and winners were being announced.  I went up and one of the organizers who had greeted us was doing a swaying dance in front of the racing bulls.


Men started pulling out bills and handing them to the dancer.  A hand reached over my shoulder waving a bill and the man came and took it in his mouth directly in front of my camera.  Gunawan, the culprit, was standing behind me laughing.

A big toothless man, who was apparently the richest man there and the winner of the contest, grabbed at my camera to shoot the scene.  I smiled at him but wouldn’t give it over.  He laughed and pointed to the dancing guy.  And then a man with a revolver took it out and pointed it at me.

Woah!  My instinct, oddly enough, wasn’t to move but to take a picture.  The moment reminded me of standing on the roof of a tall building and flirting with the drop below. Frightening, but alluring.  Then it dawned on me I should move away from the gun.  Cak Nur later assured me that this fellow was  a bit nutty and doubted the gun was real.  Nutty and gun – great combination!

After a few more bouts of fire ants and trophies the competition ended.  As in Solo everyone disappeared quickly and quietly – except for the man who won the racing bulls who led them away kicking his heels and singing, an entourage of kids running behind him.

We headed back to Surabaya for some lontong balap (see the food entry) and a good night’s rest.  The next day Cak Nur would drive us to the airport.  We would be bound for Bali.

Assorted Pics

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2 responses to “Song of the Fire Ants

  1. Paul

    Jim and Kian,
    Wonderful posts! Forget the documentary, just
    do a book!
    Your fan,

  2. Hi Jim – You and Peter are fascinating in your travels! You guys remind me of a few of the folks I met in Greece back in the mid-80’s while inter-railing (Eurail-ing) through Europe. Not to mention the eternally-roaming guy from WikiLeaks (his roaming has another motivation, of course :).

    Caught a bit of Casablanca last night and thought of your 80’s travel adventure stories from Moracco, Jim. I have another friend, Nancy Lott from Albany, who is traveling through Scandinavia at the moment with her family, and so I’ve had the priviledge to follow you and Kian in Indonesia while simultaneously following her pictures and words (Facebook feed) from Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and then Norway. I’m so freaking jealous of all of you! 🙂

    Hope to get my traveling feet back into action again soon (we’re thinking a little closer to home – Toronto). Many thanks to you and Kian for sharing your adventures with us back home. Sincerely, Lawrence

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