Javanese circus by Steve Salfield. September 2006

The Javanese train was comfortable enough. The open windows allowed the hot humid breeze to provide some relief from the stifling tropical heat. Pungent smoke from the coal fired steam engine occasionally drifted in through the window and every now and then the blowing of the whistle brought memories of travelling in England by steam train not too many years earlier. At each small station hawkers got onto the train selling food and drink, and an assortment of amputees exhibiting their stumps, sadfaced ragged women with small children, cripples and other needy people would get on and parade through the carriages begging for money before getting off at the next station to return home on a later train in the opposite direction.
After travelling for several hours we decided to try our luck at the next station. We had no idea what the town would be like but wanted a different experience from big cities and from the major sights described in our guidebook and to see what life was like in an ordinary Indonesian town.
The small platform was not busy but two Europeans with small backpacks were an unusual sight and we were immediately surrounded by an inquisitive group of young men and children. “What is your name? Where are you from? What is your religion?” These were the usual questions that we were growing tired of answering after several weeks in Indonesia. We had learned to say we were Christian as the answer “no religion” was interpreted as meaning communist, a dangerous answer as only a few years earlier hundreds of thousands of communists had been massacred by Suharto’s government. We asked for directions to the nearest hotel but were informed that there was no hotel or guesthouse in town. One young man who spoke English offered us accommodation in his parents’ comfortable home and we agreed, relieved to have a bed for the night.
The small town was similar to many others we had passed through on trains and buses. There was a bustling main street with numerous small open fronted shops and stalls selling sarongs, batiks and other textiles, hardware, tropical fruits and vegetables, meat of both familiar and strange animals. There were crowded buses with people on the rooves and hanging out of doors and windows. Horses and carts and bullock carts transported people and goods. The ubiquitous pedal rickshaws were the main transport for short journeys in town.
Our horse and cart drove us past cottage industries where people made the necessities of life. Tofu was made by traditional methods in mud floored huts by cigarette smoking men with filthy hands. Women sitting on a concrete floor treated fabrics with wax to make beautiful multicoloured batiks. Liquor was produced by a lethal looking process using assorted tubes, spheres and distillation cylinders. Brass gongs for gamelan orchestras were made in an intensely hot, primitive foundry where molten metal was manipulated by men in shorts and open toed sandals. There was a clayworks where roofing tiles were fired.
That evening, we learned, was to be a festival. By six o clock the town was a throng of activity. The main town square was covered in small open stalls where we feasted on spicy kebabs, peanut sate, rice and noodles fried in large woks, and coconut cakes, all washed down with locally made arak.
In a small temple the mellow gongs and drums of a Javanese gamelan orchestra played quiet, mesmerising music using an unfamiliar scale. The character of this gamelan was so different from the rousing raucous gamelan orchestras we had recently heard in villages and temples in Bali.
We were led down dusty backstreets and into a square lined by single storey wooden houses. A noisy excited circle of people babbled, shouted, exclaimed and gasped in bahassa Indonesia. I could understand only the occasional word. Around the square the usual assortment of food stalls sizzled and spat and emitted a heady mixture of mouthwatering aromas of spicy frying food. In the centre of the crowd was an arena some ten metres across. Men in traditional finery squatted on their haunches around the perimeter of the arena chatting and laughing loudly. They were short wiry swarthy characters with fine moustaches who had clearly seen years of work in the hot sun in the rice paddies and probably some years in the Indonesian army in East Timor or Irian Jaya or some other area of Javanese colonisation. But on this night they were stars, competitors rivalling each other for the championship. They wore turbans and fine batik sarongs. Each man had several small wicker cages and in each strutted and bristled a potential champion fighting cock. Two men squatted at opposite sides of the arena, each holding his best bird and thrusting it towards his opponent, taunting and provoking, while his bird became more and more angry and adrenalised: eager to pounce on his enemy. At last the birds were released and flew at each other amidst squawks of anger. Wings were spread, feathers flying, beaks pecking, and legs lashing. Suddenly there was a piercing avian scream, blood was spurting and one bird fell to the ground, lanced by the razor sharp silver spurs attached to the legs of the victor. Wagers were settled, hands were shaken, the owner of the winning bird was surrounded by backslapping admirers and was paid his winnings and then it was time for the next two competitors.
Later in the evening we were taken to the edge of the town and into the rice paddies. In the fading light we walked on a patchwork of raised earth pathways between the sunken and partially submerged fields of young rice plants. An occasional farmer was working late with his buffalo drawn plough. Women worked waist deep in the warm water planting and weeding. After a couple of miles, hidden in the paddies, we came to a raised area of dry land. Here was an arena some twenty metres in diameter with a stockade of thatched palm leaves. A crowd of spectators in holiday mood and dressed in their best batiks and sarongs chattered excitedly. An announcer with a microphone shouted unintelligibly. Our host told us that what we were about to see was illegal and had to take place away from the town and at night. A small trapdoor was opened and into the arena trotted a small bemused looking wild boar. Then another trapdoor at the other side of the arena was opened and three lean hungry yapping terriers emerged. After running around aimlessly for a minute or two they started to attack the boar who gamely fought the dogs off. The small dogs were not able to slaughter the pig quickly but persistently nipped and bit at the increasingly distraught boar. After half an hour the dogs tired and were replaced by three more yapping hungry terriers. While this torture was carried on, the audience chatted pleasantly and occasionally cheered when some particularly skilful tactic was tried.

On the train to Djakarta the following day we reflected that the previous night’s activities may have seemed cruel but only twenty years earlier my wife’s grandfather was still involved in illegal cock fighting in England and badger baiting with small dogs was still practiced in some South Yorkshire towns. Bull fighting continued in Spain and fox hunting in the UK was still legal. Cruelty to animals for human entertainment is a widespread phenomenen.

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