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Indonesian Journal: Bulls, Beer and Mystery Sex Pt. 1

First of a three-part series.

For about three seconds, as a pair of yoked and frothing bulls bore down with their teenage jockey skittering sideways behind them, I forgot all about the heat and the mud and the welts forming on my ankles from the previous night's hotel bed bugs and I just got the fuck out of the way. Fast.

Me and maybe 40 other camera-toters and rubberneckers crowded into the north end of a weather-beaten cement stadium in the sweltering, rain-soaked East Java island of Madura.

We just turned and ran, and as I made my break I thought specifically about avoiding the kind of inexcusably silly death or near-mortal injury that occasionally turns up in the international news briefs. American man trampled at foreign bull race; Had no business being there, now confined to breathing machine.

The bulls came charging past the finish line and into our ranks, veering hard right as a group of local men stepped up and collared the animals, then helped the jockey drag them to a relatively quick halt. A perfectly normal end to the race, it turns out, and the joke was on us. Irritatingly high-pitched laughs all around.

But, really, if you're going to watch bull races you need to watch from behind the finish line. All of the action's down here, including most of the gambling.

And if you want to watch bull races at all, you need to travel to the flea-bitten, sun-scorched, gritty little Maduran capital of Pamekasan during the last week or two of October. It's the only time and the only place on earth where this happens.

The Madurans love their bulls and they race them all over this poor and flat and deeply Muslim island year round, but that's minor league stuff. The President's Trophy is the big deal and features the finest bulls in Madura, racing in two-animal beast-teams that have advanced through local and regional tournaments to get here.

The race track is a bumpy and patchy 100-meter grass field ringed with Red Bull banners, squeezed between the air-conditioned Philip Morris VIP tent and the small and crowded cement grandstands filled with Maduran mothers and grandmothers and children - the men all down at the finish line or crowded along the makeshift bamboo rail with tote sheets in hand.

Despite the corporate support, the races retain a kind of makeshift amateurism that's fitting; this is basically a state fair for a threadbare and very rural, very hardscrabble outpost a couple hours from Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city.

* * *

The race announcer teases the crowd through a buzzy loudspeaker. As bull teams approach the starting line, groups of handlers muscle the animals into place and the announcer says, Awas! The word means be careful.

The bulls lumber into place, lunging forward and pressing against their handlers, while adolescent jockeys take their mounts behind the animals, standing on wooden drag-sleds they'll ride flat-out for 10 or 11 seconds of earth-pounding haul-ass.

A coffee can is fixed to the bottom of the skid; it's filled with nails and is supposed to rattle along behind the bulls as they gallop down the field, irritating them and goading them on to faster, angrier finishes.

Awas, the announcer croaks. And the bulls toe the starting line. Awasssss . . . And then someone waves it off. No go. A restart. This happens at least six times for each heat, usually more. The crowd tenses, and releases. Tenses, and releases.

And eventually they tense and the bulls come humping down the field, chased out of the gate by groups of rowdy young men who shake their own nail-filled coffee cans and yell after the bulls to go get it. Lari! they yell, urging the bulls to run. Lari, sapi!

The bulls are sleek and muscular, of course, but they are small and their features almost delicate. Their coat is a beautiful fawn and their faces and eyes are smaller versions of a Brown Swiss, their eyelids naturally mascaraed. The bulls' small horns are buffed to a high polish, their faces and bodies adorned with gilded headdresses and halters. The winners will command hefty stud fees all year; the losers will go home as prized possessions and village celebrities.

All of them are fussed over like thoroughbreds, although when's the last time a prize horse entered the track to the sound of his own marching band?

Prior to the races, and prior to the raucous and loosely choreographed Whip Dance that kicked off the races, each bull-team was paraded across the racing field with a retinue that included trainers, jockeys, toadies, little brothers, occasional visiting Westerners, and a busy troupe of men playing gamelan gongs, drums, and reedy bugles called sronen.

The sound is percussive and buzzing, waves of resonant gong and chime rippling beneath a swarm of mildly angry bees. The bulls aren't supposed to like it, just like they aren't supposed to like the hot glue that's shot into their eyes before they race for a little edgier run or the Maduran bull race crop that's beat against their hind haunches the length of their run.

The crop, really a stiff wood switch, has a nail or three pounded into one end and the jockey hammers away at the bulls with this thing. At the finish line, anyone looking can see the hot glue cried out and setting on the bulls' faces or the blood streaming down their rear legs from wounds opened near their tails. This is a party but it's not for especially squeamish animal lovers.

Like a lot of Indonesia, the Maduran bull races are earthy and a little rough. About an hour-and-a-half before race time, I found a man skinning a freshly slaughtered goat near the grandstand. He'd tied the animal to a tree by its rear feet and had cut off its head. The goat's chest was split open and its guts were in a pile by his feet, field-dressed. The man was butchering the animal for meat he planned to sell to spectators, and as he worked a couple other of his goats, tied to a nearby truck, grazed and watched him slice through flesh and fascia. Race-goers walked right by. Later, they ate the goat.

Back down at the finish line, the sun is impossible. A wet furnace. I am in shorts and a diaphanous shirt and am still sweating heavily, as though I'd just finished a long run. I am slick, the hair on my forearm stuck to my skin, and sweat from the small of my back is dripping into my underwear. I can feel rivulets of sweat sliding down my soaked shins and into my shoes. We are in an outdoor steam room. We are pressed together here, chest to shoulder, and the Maduran guy next to me is wearing a denim jacket and heavy jeans. He's got a bandana tied around his neck and a floppy olive drab hat pulled tight on his head. This is local sunblock - you almost never see an Indonesian outside in short sleeves or shorts, and not just because many Indonesians are conservative Muslims - but here in this dizzying heat, how can he be comfortable?

But then everyone's in a jacket, some in what could pass for spring or fall-weight back home, others in nylon and acrylic fabrics that are definitely trapping heat inside. There's no way they're not.

Kusmarwadi, a short middle-aged man in a nylon jacket, said he wouldn't miss the races for anything - and a little sun was nothing. "The bull race is one of the traditions of Madura, and nowhere else," he said.

If any of us were drinking beer we'd be hammered or heaving from dehydration, but there's no beer. Pamekasan is an almost completely dry town, and the bull races are fueled by nothing more potent than lemon-lime Fanta. We drink bottled water and sugary pop and sweat it out between races.

* * *

The night before, a friend and I went looking for beer. Indonesia may be the world's most populous Muslim country but generally speaking you can find overpriced cans of skunky, unrefrigerated beer pretty easily at the local Indomaret or AlfaMart convenience stores. In Madura, though, no such luck. You will not visit the races and retire to a patio bar for a tall cold one. There is no patio bar, and no bar of any kind in town.

We should have guessed. When we got to Pamekasan, our driver made about a dozen laps of the town square trying to find our hotel. This he did in the traditional Indonesian-Javanese way, by simply driving around and asking people for directions every five or ten minutes. (On another recent trip to a Muslim wake, after we'd stopped a fourth time to seek directions, I asked if anyone in my group of Indonesian friends ever consults a map for directions. Never, one female friend said. Besides, Indonesian people are friendly. They always help you. Okay, but what kind of help is it when we keep driving in circles? Don't worry! We'll get there eventually!) So on our sixth lap of the square, we noticed a very official-looking traffic sign in Indonesian. Translated it read, Don't Ruin Your Soul by Drinking Alcohol. Funny. Beer is definitely legal in Indonesia, and I've never seen another sign here making a case for salvation at the expense of lubrication. But Madura's a little different.

Dusty and scrubby, with little of the natural and human resources that have long made Java the epicenter of Indonesian culture, Madura has for centuries been a rural backwater. Located just off the northeast coast of Java in the Java Sea, the oblong, rocky island is now home to about 3.7 million people and is arguably the most religiously conservative outpost in all of East Java, a notoriously hardline Muslim region.

Until two years ago Madura could be reached from the Java mainland only by ferry boat. Today, a new and much-celebrated suspension bridge, the Suramadu Bridge, connects Madura to Java, and that freer island access may or may not eventually affect the way of life on Madura. Until then, subsistence farming and animal husbanding is still what people do - transporting six cows means stuffing them into the flatbed of a half-sized Daihatsu pick-up truck - and you can see men and boys walking leashed goats through the island's small towns like more-stubborn dogs.

Other domesticated animals are well and fully represented too - stringy chickens scratching roadside, tufted rabbits hutched and not, cats underfoot and on rooftops, and of course the bulls.

Madurans are so strongly strongly identified with their racing bulls that a Javanese friend of mine, a high school English teacher with a civil servant job that's protected for life, told me in all seriousness that the blood of Madurese people tastes like cow. (Javanese blood, she explained, tastes like goat. No, it's true.)

Whatever their taste, the people of Madura are among the poorest in this part of Indonesia and they are also considered among the proudest, the most stubborn, the most aggressive, and maybe even the most hot-headed. Madura: Mas Macho, like parts of Cowboy Texas, without the Coors. Bull wranglers. Throwers-of-hands and wielders of knives, maybe, if it came to that. Prideful religious men. Who like tight pussy. This is the other thing everyone talks about while not actually talking about it when they talk about Madura: Vaginal contraction.


Tomorrow: Beer and whoring.


Brett McNeil is a former Chicago Tribune reporter, Chicago Journal editor, and Fulbright English teacher who chronicled his adventure in Indonesia at The Year of Living Volcanically and served as the Beachwood's Southeast Asia correspondent.


* Indonesian Journal: Buying Flowers, Burning the Koran
* Indonesian Journal: The Control State
* Indonesian Journal: The Swarm And The Sick House
* Indonesian Journal: It's Funny Until 13 People Die
* Indonesian Journal: The Chicago Way Out Of Vietnam
* Indonesian Journal: My Chicago Hedge Fund Manager Was A Fraud
* Indonesian Journal: The Possibly Mob-Related Mystery Of My Fake Chicago Hedge Fund Manager's Voluntary Imprisonment
* Indonesian Journal: Obama's Beacon Of Hope Sorely Tested
* Playing Doctor


Comments welcome.


Posted on February 22, 2011

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