Pak Nur – From Poor Orphan to Haji Bird Farmer



I am so happy you are here!”

We were headed to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city and then on to the rough and rugged outpost island of Madura for our second perkutut competition.  We didn’t know we were in for unrivaled hospitality, ‘executive’ karaoke and a drawing for racing cows.

We booked “executive class” on the train from Jogjakarta, (a whopping $15 each).  Move over Amtrak, this was service.  Red caps carried our luggage into the car and stowed it for us. As the train pulled out, porters offered hot soup, nasi rames (rice with side dishes) and cassava chips.  A little girl poked her head between the seats, winking and grinning at me.  We played winking and grinning on and off over the course of the ride.  The train passed bright green rice nurseries, teak plantations, cassava and papaya orchards, and lots of little villages.  With evening we saw clouds obscuring distant mountain tops and little wisps of smoke coming from the darkening fields. 


We had met Pak Nur at the Solo competition and he offered to pick us up in Surabaya and bring us to the perkutut competition in Madura.  He and his friend Pak Tarjo met us at the very modern Surabaya train station and we packed our big suitcases into his daughter’s Ford Focus.  On a little video screen next to the driver, the latest music videos played.  We drove to a fancy fish restaurant and he ordered several gurami, some fried, some grilled – easily the best fish I’ve eaten. 


Pak Nur exudes joyful energy.  He always smiles (except for pictures, which seems a national trait, I find myself  saying  “cheese” repeatedly.)  Over dinner Pak Nur told us about his trip to Mecca two years earlier.  He and his wife were able to book the “executive Haj” as the regular quota allowed by Saudi Arabia had been filled for the next five years.  Over the next few days we would never see Haji Nur without kopiah on his head and he rarely missed prayer times.  At dinner Pak Nur looked at both and said, “I am so happy you are here!  It makes my heart warm!” He put his hands together and gave a little bow.  What a welcome!

He insisted on paying for everything and offered to have us stay at his house.  We thanked him but were feeling the need to have a home base to charge batteries, do logging and administration and blogging.  The Hotel Satelit sported a hodge-podge of Chinese furniture carved from massive teak roots, a dopey-eyed American chef sculpture advertising the 24-hour coffee shop and meeting rooms named alternately after Roman gods and astrological symbols.  On a large boat hanging from the center of the lobby are printed the words “Let’s Archipelago".  I have no idea what it means…

Pak Nur said he would pick us up at 6:15 the next morning (this is an early country) and at 5:45 the phone rang letting us know he was in the lobby. 


We drove through a trendy neighborhood of Surabaya, called Citraland, the Singapore of Surabaya and after some twists and turns arrived at the Cendana Bird Farm run by Pak Nur.  Cendana (sandalwood) gave birth to Beauty, the number one ranked perkutut in Indonesia owned by Pak Gunawan but trained by Pak Sukur in Sidoajo (home of the mud volcano.)

The plan was to get to the bird farm before his neighbor started house construction to record clean audio of the perkutut.  Audio has been a problem for us in Indonesia – between motorbikes, street vendors playing Casio renditions of the Godfather theme song and the call to prayer  – audio had been tough.  We got to his place, a large house with an sprawling indoor fountain and the farm built out onto patios and balconies.  After half-an-hour of recording his neighbor starting hammering.  “He’s starting early today,” Pak Nur said.

Pak Nur told us how his parents had died when he was 12 and as a child he earned money as a caller for angkot, a van fitted with a side door (that always stays open) and benches along the sides.  For every full van (14 passengers), he earned one fare as a commission. We took a quick visit to his old workplace.  He heartily shook everyone’s hand at the station.  “A lot of thugs here,” he commented. “You have to be very nice to them.”  He paid for his own schooling, riding free on pick-up truck to school.


He eventually earned a college degree at a night school and worked for his friend, a contractor for Lapindo Brantas, the oil drilling company.   Eventually, with capital supplied by friends, he won a bid at Lapindo to supply and manage their oil-trucking fleet.   Penniless when he won the contract, he had friends come with their computers to a rented office to convince  a Lapindo inspector they were a bona fide operation.  Money was better until the Sidoarjo mud volcano started.  Nur was asked to build dykes, but  Lapindo delayed payments and business became stressful.   Pak Nur went back to school for a Magister Management degree.   Eventually his wife mentioned that since he went abroad for management training he had stopped raising perkutut and she missed their songs.  Pak Nur took her to Thailand to shop for birds and came back with a bunch.  That was three years ago.

His Cendana bird farm produced the top Indonesian champion Beauty which he sold for a low $200.  He smiled when he told it.  The bird has brought his operation so much acclaim that the low price doesn’t bother him. 


(Pak Nur with Bagio, a worker on the farm)

On the second day with Pak Nur he invited us to his mosque at prayer time.  Kian grew up in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, but had never been in a mosque.  I hadn’t either.  We went to a modern Muhammadiyah mosque, the organization that had just celebrated its 100-year anniversary.   The next day Pak Nur would bring us to the sprawling Grand Mosque (the largest mosque in East Java)  for the very important Friday prayer.


DSC06871 DSC06873

We finished at the mosque and then Pak Nur took us to see the mud volcano and to visit the Prisma Bird Farm.  

Prisma Bird Farm


Pak Nur had been helping a new startup bird farm called Prisma, located in Sidoarjo.  The young owners started the farm after one of them, Heri,  had a dream that he had been given two singing doves.  His relative Wahyu was interested and, boom, they started a bird farm.  Wahyu works in marketing for Toyota and they decided on a Toyota theme for the farm.  Birds are named Camry, Corolla and Rav-4. 


Living near the mud volcano they plan to follow what Pak Nur calls the four P’s of business – product, price, place and promotion.  They plan to move from the shadow of the mud volcano into Surabaya, to improve the third P.

The guys were really sweet and offered us coconuts when we arrived.  I had gotten an email through the blog a few weeks before from Prisma.  Heri was trying to research perkutut in America and came across the blog.  I told him there was no perkutut competition in America that I knew of and he said he hopes we can introduce it there. 

Heri and Wahyu were planning to compete in Madura in a few days.  More on that soon. 

Assorted Pics

DSC06563 DSC06547

DSC06846  DSC06866

Leave a comment

Filed under 3-5 Pak Nur

The Earth Bleeds Mud


If you want a glimpse of the apocalypse visit the Lapindo mud volcano in Sidoarjo south of Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya.  BP could have learned about unplugged holes from the Lapindo Oil Company which is solely responsible for one of the archipelago’s biggest environmental disasters.

In 2006 engineers from Lapindo drilled for oil in a plateau bordering the volcanic Mount Penanggungan.  They drilled and drilled and found no oil.  But they did not plug the holes back up.  Soon after, the ground collapsed around one of the drilling sites and out of the massive crater bubbled volcanic mud.  The mud graduated from bubble to eruption as tons upon tons of boiling liquid earth exploded from inside the ground.  The muddy porridge soon filled the crater and began advancing on nearby villages.  Villagers were given two days to evacuate, though many, reading the Earth’s signs, had left already.  New craters started forming, swallowing houses and releasing sulfuric gas.


The government started building an emergency dyke around the mud flow.  Earth movers worked day and night and soon a towering ring wall encased the mud.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

But the mud soon filled the giant bowl formed by the dyke and like a poison chocolate pudding the mud flowed over the steep walls.  The first village fell and then the next.  A new dyke was quickly constructed.  It failed.  Another concentric ring was built enclosing several more villages.  The mud kept advancing, rolling over every new dyke.  Eight rings would be built over the next four years, holding in a 21 meter high sea of hot mud that covers 12,000 hectares.   In all, 16 villages would be consumed.

And the mud keeps coming. 

Our host, Pak Nur, was once a contractor at the site and drove us to have a look.  The original toll highway had been buried under the mud and one now approaches on a congested dirt highway.  We parked along the road and a man offered to be our “car guard”.  We stepped carefully through a muddy path and across wooden planks and the railroad tracks, which had collapsed and had been rebuilt.   Pak Nur warned that under the road stores of natural gas gathered and there was a risk of explosion at any time.



Several men wearing bandanas over their faces (I presume for the dust, but it did make them look intimidating) stopped us to collect a fee to ascend the stairs of the dyke.  Nur said that they were former villagers trying to make some money from visitors to the site.  Fair enough, I thought.  We paid and started up the 21-meter high dyke. 



Sulfur fumes and dust circulate at the edge of the lake.  In the distance a giant plume of smoke masks the bubbling mud.  Though this has been going on for years, there is a feeling of urgency to the site.  Heavy machinery moves up and down the dyke road, and between the wind, noise, dust and village refugees it is a very unsettling place. Pak Nur found us someone to take us around the dyke on motorbikes.  Pak Romly had been hawking DVDs of the disaster and said he had lived in a village, “about there…” he said as he indicated the middle of the mud lake. 


I got on Pak Romley’s bike and Pak Nur and Kian shared another bike as we started our tour around the mud.  The tops of large factory buildings were still visible and as we turned a corner we saw a field of white walls standing like gravestones. 


Pak Romly explained that villagers had demolished their own houses, carting away roof tiles and wall blocks to hopefully rebuild somewhere else.  This site was just on the outside of the dyke, but it seemed only a matter of time before the mud would cover it.  Compensation, Pak Romly explained, was based on having a “certified” house.  After four years “certified” owners (likely the minority) have gotten only 20% compensation.  Others, without the certification, get nothing.

DSC06671 DSC06674

In a temporary (possibly permanent) solution, the mud is now mixed with water and pumped into the nearby river, which flows to the sea.  Refugee camps surround the dyke and people reportedly have been sticking pipes into the ground to retrieve gas for cooking.  They light the gas coming out of the pipe and there have been several explosions from the practice. 

I managed to hold the video camera high above my head as we cruised around on the motorbike to get the panorama.  We approached a gate and Pak Romley crawled under, a security guard drove up and said we couldn’t go to the place where the mud was bubbling because it was too late in the day.  (Apparently it is no problem earlier. This would be totally off-limits in the US.)

DSC06687 DSC06688


(Sign: Beware, Danger! 1. Poisonous gas from center of eruption,  2. Slippery dyke can cause landslides, 3.  Hot mud, 4. Dry mud acts like quicksand)

DSC06702 DSC06713 DSC06723  DSC06689 DSC06705

(Pak Nur surveys the mud filled street of a doomed village.  Five mosques had closed because of loss of congregations or had been completely lost to the mud.)

As we made our way to the pumping station we were told that the pumps had broken.  A small amount of mud water pumped out, but not nearly enough to accommodate the volume coming out we saw at the site. 



After several hours touring the site we were tired, feeling a  little queasy from the smell and just completely ready to leave.  We paid Pak Romley and headed off to visit the owners of the nearby Prisma Bird Farm, which I will cover in a subsequent post.

Wiki post on Lapindo:

Satellite image showing area covered in mud:

Sidoarjo mud flow


Filed under 3-4 The Earth Bleeds Mud

Sri in the Land of the Pyramids


“Oprah, she is my inspiration.”

Many a westerner’s adrenal glands would explode if they saw their baby crawling on the ground in a busy Indonesian bird market.  They would push, tumble and dive to save the little one as it moved with purpose  toward four giant rooster cages, little fingers reaching for the thin bamboo bars.  But Sri, the baby’s mother, watched nonchalantly as she stood by the door of the public toilet waiting for customers.  The baby picked at a cage while the mammoth rooster  nervously danced as far from the little human as the bars would allow.   The baby said ‘ack’ (in bahasa Indonesia, of course) and crawled to Sri who picked her up and bundled her in a batik sling.  A man approached, smiled at Sri as he dropped a 1,000 rupiah note in the change box and went inside to pee.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio, it is theorized, because his spotless boyhood environment did not allow his body to develop antibodies.   Welcome to the floor of the bird market – no babies in white frocks going to doll parades here.  The babies, like most Indonesians live, for good or bad, very close to the earth.  There are no weed-free lawns or ipe’ decks.  Hell, there are almost no sidewalks – even in Jakarta.  For many,  the rice field is your day and a bamboo hut is your night.  Maybe you can raise some birds at home and afford a motorbike (on credit).

Aris, Sri’s husband, has birds and a motorbike.  He also owns a toilet business at the Muntilan Pasar Burung  (Bird Market’.) The family takes in about 45,000 rupiahs a day.  If that sounds like a lot – it isn’t.  Coming in at just under $5 twice a week (minus rent), it is a very meager income.  So meager that Sri (who speaks six languages including English and Japanese) told me that in one month she will leave Aris and their three kids to work as domestic help in Egypt for two years. The pay, $9,000 a year for back breaking 7-day-a-week work. 

“I have been strengthening my heart,” she said.  “I won’t tell the children.  I’ll just go.  My mother and father will look after the kids.”  Well, my heart went weak when I heard the news.  We had been spending several days with Sri and Aris at their bamboo house in the woods.  Aris had once been a political operative for the Indonesian communist party, PRD (Partai Rakyat Demokrat), but had lost his position in a power struggle and found himself and his family out on the street.  Sri moved the family back to her parents’ house in a little village near the Menoreh mountains, close to Borobudur.  We met them at a bekisar rooster competition – a low-income cousin to the perkutut world. 


The first day we headed out to Sri’s and Aris’s  house on our own, we didn’t remember where Aris had taken us.  The ojeks (motorbike taxis) didn’t know the little village and eventually we found an old driver of a house and buggy who took us the 6 kilometers to the village.  The town people stared curiously as the white guy and the “Malaysian tourist” (as some had started dubbing Kian) pulled into the narrow lane.  Piles of dried rice stalks were being burned to keep bugs away.  We hopped down as the black smoke swirled around us and made for the house.

Kian learned from Aris that he had worked for Prabowo Subianto, the alleged mastermind of the massacre of thousands of Chinese Indonesians in 1998.  Kian, who was granted asylum in the US because of the slaughter, looked disturbed.  “It isn’t true,” said Aris. “This was used to slander his name.”  I didn’t know at the time what was being said and I proposed a change of scenario.  Aris said he needed to catch bugs for the roosters and lead us down steep clay steps to the rice fields.  He whipped a net quickly through the stalks aiming at unsuspecting crickets.


Agil followed his father over narrow clay walkways above the waterlogged paddies.  The three-year-old stepped down into the water.  Aris chuckled and hauled Agil out, his feet now covered in gray mud.   “There used to be snakes and frogs here until they started using pesticides and depriving them of food,” Aris had told Kian. “I go to the non-pesticide area.”  He whooshed the net again and the two ambled off to a little watering hole where they bathed.  All I could think of was the pesticides and the grey water runoff of a thousand bamboo huts on the hills around us.  “Fresh, natural,”Aris said as he hauled a naked Agil on his back and we headed home.


It was the next day that we went to the bird market and found out from Sri that she was leaving.  “I asked Aris and he said it was okay.”  

I asked, “What are you doing to prepare yourself emotionally?”

“I think of Oprah. She is my inspiration.”

Wow, go Oprah!  “Sri, why don’t we record a message from you to Oprah and I will send it to her.”    Sri looked at me.  “To Oprah?” 

“Sure, why not?  Why not let her know how she has touched you. Maybe nothing will come of it, but why not?”

Then it dawned on me that this was a bad idea.  What sort of false hope am I delivering here?  Well, it is already out there…

Sri looked at me and said, “Oprah has been an inspiration to me and I’d like to say to her…”

I interrupted her.  “Sri, look right in the camera and speak directly to Oprah.”  (Jim, what the fuck are you doing?  You fucking stupid American.)

Sri turned her head and looked deep into the lens.  The baby was now sleeping in the sling. She swallowed hard and began,  “Oprah, I just want to tell you have been an inspiration for me…”  She stopped, her eyes growing with tears.  “I can’t, no, please.  Not into the camera.”  Sri stepped out of firing range and checked the change box.

I might have been delivering false hope, but in Sri I had met a realist.  The next day we came back to the woods delivered on motorcycle by Ari, a worker we had met at our bamboo hut-style hotel (bucolic except for the mold everywhere).  We talked to Sri’s father who worked for 17 years sweeping the floor of a factory until he was laid off in the economic meltdown.  He became one of those hopeless old guys you see sitting in becaks (pedicabs) waiting for a fare.  He came back to his home in the woods and at 83 still works the rice field everyday.  “If I don’t,” he said. “We won’t have enough to eat.”  DSC05206 DSC05212

The kids loved having the camera around and we watched as they played naked around a street vendor with beef ball soup who had stopped for a rest.  (The vendor carries two large boxes on both sides of a large bamboo pole that he balances on over one shoulder, one box in front and one in back.)   DSC05239

Aris had been sick and he sat on the foam couch.  “What do you think about Sri leaving?” we asked him.   “Sri is like a butterfly,” he answered. “Now it is time for the butterfly to leave.”  Sri sat at the other end of the couch looking at the floor.  I can only imagine Aris was masking his own pain – saving face is very important in Javanese culture.“Mr. Jim,” Aris said.  “Do you have children?”  I answered no.  “Oh, you must have children.  Without children there is only loneliness.”  DSC04281

It was getting dark and we called for the motorbikes to pick us up.  As we waited for them to arrive Sri called to the kids, “C’mon while the camera is still here, say hello to Oprah.”

Ari and his friend Amin arrived and balancing tripod, camera and sound bags we made our way back to the Podak Tongal hotel on the road to Borobudur.

Assorted Pics

DSC04318DSC04317 DSC05239 DSC05233 DSC05219


Filed under 3-2 Sri in the Land of the Pyramids

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.)

DSC03782 DSC03793 DSC03795

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…

Leave a comment

Filed under 3-3 The Cage Makers

Lunch with the Prince


“Prabuku…, Prabukusumo…”

I was determined to get the full name of the prince right.  We were do to meet him at the palace in Jogja for lunch and I was preparing, “Pak Prabukusumo, saya senang jumpa”  (I am pleased to meet you.)

The prince had been a former perkutut competitor and we wanted his outlook on the sport.  He’s also a busy man – head of a regional political party and heavily involved in Muhammadiyah, a moderate Muslim organization that would start its 100 year anniversary in Jogja the next day.


Kian groaned.   “Just call him Pak Prabu.   Otherwise, you are going to get it wrong.”

Before the trip Kian had called the palace who connected him to the prince’s house and staff there gave Kian the prince’s cell number.  They had chatted several times and he seemed quite affable.

“The prince is likely to be refined, right?”  Kian gave me a “duh” look.

“He is a prince.  He’ll be very refined.”

I wondered if he would have  a sense of humor if I got his name wrong.  Okay, mnemonics.  “Pra” is like “Prada”, “Bu” think of ghosts in the palace.  “Ku”  the soft coo of the doves and finish it off with Japanese wrestlers.  Right, truth telling ghosts who make doves sing as they watch two big guys pull at each others’ underwear. Got it.

Pradabukusumo”  Wait I don’t think there is a ‘d’.  “Prabu, right, Prabu.  There is a good prabubility I am going to screw it up.

Kian had been commenting that Indonesians always want to meet white people.  It seemed true.  At the Prambanan and Borobudur temples people would ask to take a picture with me.  Passing little kids in the street they often reach out to touch my arm.  Kian kept saying that my being white helps to open doors.  The general, for example,  had referred to us as “James and some Indonesian guy.” 

DSC03967 DSC03930 DSC03962 DSC03976 

We put on some nice batik shirts and got a taksi to the palace.  The complex is huge, taking many acres of the center of Jogjakarta and wrapping itself around old colonial fortress walls, giant magical Beringin trees with their masses of viney air roots and the palace village which in its meandering alleyways houses over 25,000 people.  We found the prince’s door and rang the bell.  A woman with shopping was walking toward us and unlatched the door to let us in.

We stepped inside and stood next to two black Mercedes parked next to a grand veranda enclosed in tall white-washed walls.  The prince stood at the back talking to a gardener and came to greet us.  We started to reach to take off our shoes and he waved at us.  “Really, no need,”  he said. “Welcome, please come in.”

“Terima kasih Prince,” I said.  I hadn’t gotten my phrase out, but I was prepared to use his full name at some point in our meeting.  We stepped up to the veranda with its expanses of white tile interrupted by little clusters of Victorian furniture.   I could see a strong resemblance between the prince and pictures of his father, the sultan who had sided with Sukarno during the fight for independence and earned Jogja “special territory” status.  Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX had died in 1988 on a trip to Boston.  George Bush senior had his body flown back on Air Force Two.

We sat and chatted for several minutes and then the prince said, “Come, let’s go to the palace restaurant.”

The prince’s driver held the door of the Mercedes open for me and I sat in the back with the prince.   “So, Pak Pra-Bu-Ku-Su-Mo,” my intent to make small talk so I could slip in his name.

“That’s right, Prabukusumo.  I am very involved in politics but my favorite is philanthropy.  I really enjoy this.”  We drove a short distance down some narrow alleys and arrived at an outdoor restaurant.

“Here are all the favorite dishes of my father and the sultans before him.”

A table of businessmen stood quickly when they saw the prince.  He put his hands together and bowed gently to them as we were lead to our table. 

“My favorite is the beef tongue.  Would you like to order it?”

“Ah, prince, I don’t know if I am ready for beef tongue.”

“It is incredible.”

We began discussing perkutut and plates began arriving at the table.  (The prince’s food came very quickly.) 

“James please you must try the beef tongue.  Take one piece from my plate.”

Hmmm…I thought.  Guess I shouldn’t turn it down.  I took the plate from him and cut off just a little piece.  The prince gave me a quizzical look as I handed the plate back to him and now I wonder if I had passed it back with my left hand – a big no-no.  That’s the toilet hand.

The beef tongue was delicious.  It just tasted like incredibly tender beef.  Javanese ginger beer to wash it down, two kinds were brought, one chilled and one hot.  The hot one was a deep ruby red.

“Drink half of it and then squeeze in lime and it will turn the color of the other drink.  I ordered this for you.”

“Thank you Pak Prabu.”

He sat trying  to think of an ingredient in the drink.  He got up and a waitress returned with a stick of fresh cinnamon, still moist after picking. 



We lunched on kassava medallions, marinated tempeh, beef ball soup with coconut and chicken with mixed peppers and tomatoes.  The rice was a blend of white and a special red rice from the region served with sauteed papaya leaves and a nut cracker.


DSC03122 DSC03116

On the ride back to his house I tried to talk politics.  “ I read that the NU and Muhammadiya are rejecting calls for Sharia law in parts of the country.”  The prince gently rebuffed me, changing the subject.

“Yes, yes.  The palace was built in the 1750’s and my brother the sultan still lives here of course.”  Must be the tidbits of information he gave to all his visitors.

We arrived back at the house and set up for an interview.  As I gave him the wireless mike I said, “Prince Pruba…”

“Prabu,” he corrected.

“Oh, did I say Pruba?  I meant Prabu.”

“No problem.”


We interviewed him for about an hour.  I said that a lot of Americans would be questioning the humanity of keeping birds in cages.  Without the sport, he countered, these birds would not exist.  “Should we release them into the wild?  They will be hunted or die in the jungle.  These birds are bred, they cannot survive on their own.  The sport creates many needed jobs too.”

The prince obviously loves the birds.  When he bathes them he sometimes holds the bird’s beak in his lips and kisses it.  He knows all the doves by the sound of the singing voice.

After the interview we got a tour of the house.  It is actually a series of houses separated by gardens full of tropical flowers, fruit trees and a full grown iguana.  In the last garden were the perkutut cages.  We went into a room loaded with trophies and evidently his wife’s overflow closet.

“So many trophies, what do I do with them?” the prince lamented.

“E-bay?” I said.

Kian shot me a glance. 

In the main house we looked on the wall of family portraits including Pak Prabu’s father, the sultan.  The prince explained that when his father died and Bush sent Air Force 2 with his body to Indonesia that Suharto, not wanting to be  upstaged by the Americans, sent a plane to Hawaii to intercept and take the body from there.  “This is something, right?”

The prince also wondered about Paul Wolfowitz.  Wolfowitz was ambassador to Indonesia for many years and is still revered here.  “He knew we were against the invasion of Iraq.  How could he support it?  I just don’t understand.”

After pictures and a warm handshake we said our goodbyes and the prince had our driver take us back to the hotel in the big black Mercedes. 

Assorted Pics

DSC03140 DSC03120 DSC03115 DSC03139



Filed under 3-1 Lunch with the Prince

A Night at the Javanese Opera


The competition over, we had time to explore Solo.  Solo (Surakarta) had been its own kingdom like neighboring Jogjakarta. But the royal family didn’t back the Indonesian independence movement  in 1949 and their power ceased when Sukarno founded the new nation.  Jogjakarta, on the other hand, had been fiercely supportive and became a “special territory.”  The sultan is still the legal ruler, not a figurehead.  (In subsequent posts I will get to our lunch and visit with Prince Prabukusumo of Jogjakarta (the sultan’s brother) at the palace restaurant – amazing food and company.)

We strolled the wide avenues of Solo and wandered through a gate.  Two men were sipping tea and  Kian struck up a conversation. We learned we were speaking with the director of the Jawa (Java) Opera in Solo.  The other man was dressed in black and had long thick sideburns and a brooding regard.  He was Zambrot, the head actor of the troupe.  We were invited to film the famous Ramayana opera  Java had once been Hindu and the Ramayana story still figures heavily in the cultural heritage and philosophy of the island.  Sections of the epic opera are performed almost every night throughout the year as a service of the government.  Admission, about 39 cents.

The day of the performance we went to the Sukho temple (one of the late Hindu temples in Java and almost completely tourist-free) with Duto Birdvit and our new driver Pak Joko.  Duto edits several online magazines about birds and generously offered to take us around for a couple of days.  At the temple a crew was shooting scenes from the Ramayana and we hung out with them for the afternoon.


DSC02759 DSC02748


We arrived at the opera stage door at 6:30.  After plugging the small camera into the sound board, we went backstage.  Zambrot was there with a new haircut.  He said that attendance had dropped off when Suharto was thrown from power but was up again.  The roles changed every night and the actors didn’t know who they would be playing until forty-five minutes before the show.  Soon the director came into the dressing room and read out the assignments.  The actors made a beeline for the costume room and then back to get dressed.   It turned out that several of the performers at the temple were also in the play that night.  They were from a local arts high school and training for the Ramayana.  The boys paid slow and special care to wrapping and rewrapping their sarongs and dusting their bodies with powder.  One said, “Hello mister, I am very nervous to talk to you.”  I smiled and wished him “sukses.”

 DSC03050  DSC03056

 DSC03072 DSC03045

(Backstage, Zambrot (also him at the top of the post), actors preparing, the gamelan orchestra pit

As is the case on many floors in Indonesia shoes are banned from the stage and wings.  Even the tech guys work barefoot.  The gamelan orchestra had begun to play (Javanese gamelan has singers, Balinese usually does not) and the warriors took position next to the king on stage.  One of the tech guys hoisted the rope for the main curtain and the show had begun.  DSC02837

You don’t need to understand the language to get the basic twist of the story. Sita is abducted by Ravana, the evil king, and there is lots of flashing lights, slapstick and even a section (I found out later) that is a comic comment on current events.  The movements are very deliberate and purposefully recall the two-dimensional movements of Javanese shadow puppets which were used to tell the story before the use of live actors.


The house was about 1/10th full (no white people, sauf moi) and some of the people seem to routinely come to nap or for the air conditioning.  Kids running around = no problem.  Talking (loudly) = no problem.  And don’t expect applause – there isn’t any.  Members of the gamelan orchestra were taking little chit chat breaks in between their parts and others were texting.  All of this would normally make me a pissed-off audience member, but this is just the way it seems to work here.  And the actors didn’t seem to mind. 

Just for us (and a really nominal fee) the troupe had adjusted the performance to include scenes with Jatayu, the bird that dies trying to rescue Sita.  Not really sure how we will fit it into the final film but it seemed great footage to have.  The actor offered to stay after the show and I got on stage (barefoot) to shoot some scenes with him. 


Zambrot came out to ask how he was (he was really, really good) and to tell us he was the head of a Christian church in his village.  Would we like to visit?  We were leaving Solo the next day so couldn’t.  But we think that this company might one day make another great focus for a documentary. 

More soon – stay tuned…

Leave a comment

Filed under 2-5 A Night at the Javanese Opera

The Birds Do Battle


“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

DSC02292 DSC02301

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.) 


“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.”

DSC02381  DSC02383

 DSC02343 DSC02342 DSC02337

(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.

Assorted Pics

DSC02373 DSC02375

DSC02391 DSC02348

1 Comment

Filed under 2-4 The Birds do Battle

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. 




Fill ‘er up


Reception room with portrait of the general


Talking to Anwar – a Perkutut competition judge



Me with Bowo in front of trophies and crazy horse painting



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



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


Boiled cassava leaves, jack fruit and string bean curry


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.


Filed under 2-3 Xena and Lunch

The General

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

 DSC02157 - Copy (2)

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?”


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.)



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

DSC02156 DSC02154

DSC02164 DSC02150

Leave a comment

Filed under 2-2 The General

The Birdman of Bandung


DSC02059No sooner had Jaya dropped us off at Henry Manila’s Bird Farm and Student Dormitory then the extremely generous Henry had us in the car on the way to a volcanic hot spring.  On a bumpy lane more dry stream bed than street we began our climb over Upside-down Boat Mountain.  As we passed roadside huts offering pumpkins, papaya and Kelinci, (bunny sate) Henry talked Perkutut.

He bred and competed for 11 years and then came the avian flu outbreak.  Perkutut were not affected but fears about any birds made the market collapse just after Henry made a huge investment.  Two years ago he got back in, going to every contest to rebuild his standing.  His new strategy seeks out offspring of champions which can be gotten cheaper than the champions themselves.  He nurtures the voice with sweet saga leaves commonly used in human cough medicine.  Normally the monogamous dove shares egg sitting time and males anger if eggs are removed. Henry treats the testy boys with a light dose of de-worming medicine which induces fatigue.

As he educated Kian and me Henry drove with gusto – passing trucks on blind curves and tailgating.  We progressed steadily across the boat’s keel and made a left at the rudder passing manicured tea plantations and strawberry farms.   The road carved through deep ravines terraced with mist-soaked cabbage fields and a million roadside shops offering fresh fruits, live rabbits, air for your tires, fish, ayam, pineapple and durian. 


Tea Plantation


Henry told us that he came to the hot springs about once a week when friends visited  and offered to take us for massages later.  “Beautiful ladies,”  he said.  “I like beautiful ladies.” He then let out a long bird-like cackle.  After an energizing soak in the spring (think big resort, not pools formed in Jurassic-period rock) and fresh, iced  strawberry juice Henry treated us to some local food in Lembang. We had fresh eels caught in the local rice fields and I tried my first lime-soaked, tamarind-marinated cow stomach.  It was actually very good.

DSC01979  DSC01981

DSC01976  DSC01974 

Henry lives in a bizarre meandering complex that he constructed in stages over a few years.  Little student monk-like cells open to narrow  inner courtyards littered with tea kettles, flip-flops and laundry racks.  A small canteen is on the first floor and everywhere you can hear cooing doves.  The residents are mostly Chinese students at a Christian college who sit at their desks, doors open because of the heat.  Kian and I were each given a room complete with squatting toilet which sounded like it emptied into the stream outside.  Henry’s house sits in the middle of a maze of corridors and stairs.  One turn reveals an old woman in a jil-bob (head scarf) ironing laundry, another two teenage boys scraping poop out of cages.


Because Perkutut are from hot coastal regions they have a hard time in Bandung’s temperate clime.  Henry compensates with glassed-in, sun-facing enclosures on the roof to increase the heat.  Puter birds, or babysitters, (Gunawan had called them babysisters) take over the hatching from the Perkutut  and their gentle purr is everywhere. 

On the second day a high school biology teacher named Dede came to buy a bird.  Indonesia seems to have perfected the art of hanging out and the negotiation lasted for hours during which Master Kwan arrived to demonstrate bird binding for us.  By inserting adjustable strings through the outer layers of skin the Perkutut can be tuned.  Pak Kwan sat patiently sewing up the bird harness.  The perkutut seemed perfectly relaxed.  Then he, Henry and Dede practiced cooing to encourage the Perkutut to sing.  None did.  What I thought was failure on their part turned out to be a magnanimous act for the film.  The adult birds just don’t sing in the afternoon.


DSC02096 DSC02104

As Kwan was leaving Henry said, “He has four wives.”  Kwan smiled and nodded.  Apparently you can have multiple wives in Indonesia, but four is the limit.  Ha Lim, another breeder and owner of the ass-kicking perkutut Napoleon (complete in a regal purple and gold imperial cage) arrived  and told us his strategy for winning the upcoming competition in Solo.   Henry would hire a driver named Boon Cheese the next day to take us and birds there.  But first we would meet the national head of the Perkutut association General Zieruni and visit his Xena Warrior Princess Bird Farm. 

Assorted Pics

DSC02013 DSC02036

DSC02042 DSC02111

DSC02117 DSC02123


(The fruit above is a Jirpaya, a cross between orange and papaya.  The thick rind is the part you eat.  The woman hugging me is my masseuse.  It was all innocent.)


Filed under 2-1 The Birdman of Bandung