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Indonesian Journal: The Swarm And The Sick House

I thought it might take some getting used to, driving on the left side of the road after a lifetime on the other side of the yellow line. But driving in Indonesia isn't really about sides. It's about space: If there's a space, someone will fill it. Headed to town for a fried rice dinner? Watch out for three motorcycles in your lane, coming your way. Oh, and mind the Toyota Kijang SUV that's swung wide to pass a tottering pedicab. The Kijang's taking up most of your lane, and its driver is closing in at about 40 miles per hour. You'd pull toward the outside but there are six people walking in the street right there and you're boxed in between a Honda Civic with a new lime green paint job and a tour bus with a chrome sun shade that reads "Total Cowboy." The bus driver blasts his horn so people will just naturally drift over and out of the way, only there's nowhere to go to get out of the way. So what? He keeps honking. The Kijang blows by, maybe eight inches from your foot. Normal. And here comes a man with about 100 chickens inside a plastic cage that's balancing on the back of his motorcycle seat. Right at you. And another guy with, I don't know, 50 or 60 pounds of banana leaves bundled on his back. Cutting across your lane, two friends on a little black Honda are somehow transporting a small-but-not-insubstantial refrigerator.

We move together, waves of to and fro, left and right, merge and brake. Exhaust thick in the air. And did I mention the guys in the orange vests? The freelance traffic control guys? They stand in parking lots or on sides of roads and stop traffic for drivers seeking egress; they walk into traffic, sometimes with a little official-looking orange flashlight and sometimes just flailing their arms, and they halt everyone who doesn't swerve around them into oncoming traffic. In return, the egressing driver hands them about 1,000 rupiah, maybe 10 cents. It's very organic, this traffic swarm. And everyone's involved.

I joined the swarm when I recently bought a manageable little Yamaha scooter - in Indonesian parlance, an automatic - so that I could get around my Central Java town without cadging rides or being left stranded by the public mini-bus. The Yamaha is almost brand new, very red, and it gets me back and forth from the municipal pool and the grocery store and several excellent sidewalk food carts. Biking is almost out of the question. The distances are pretty great, the heat at times stroke-inducing, and the roads and drivers simply aren't made for bike lanes. A share-the-road, bike-right-of-way, even if I could describe the idea in Indonesian, would be heartily laughed at. Oh, Brett! That a good one! This is a country, after all, where the state-owned petroleum company dominates distribution and provides a nifty subsidy for all Indonesians (and visitors) who can afford internal-combustion transportation. So, everyday I strap on my shiny new helmet, fire up the scooter, and head out for some harrowing transit. And everyday I see something that makes me think maybe I should get off and push this thing for a little while. Just slow wayyyy down. A visit last week to the local hospital - where I'd be taken in the event of a bike wreck - was all I needed to forever give up any lingering lead-foot fantasies I brought from home. Like jail here, I'd pretty much do anything to stay out of that hospital. The Indonesians call hospitals rumah sakit, which means "sick house," or more literally "house of sick." They're exactly right.

A friend of a friend, a young kid about 17, had been struck by a car and busted his shoulder. My friend was delivering some snacks to lift the kid's spirits and asked if I wanted to see the hospital. Sure. A little local color. Let's go. Well, I wasn't ready for the blood. At least not all over the entryway tile, a splattered trail that we followed into the building. It had dried and turned rust brown and nobody was moving to clean it up. People walked through the blood, or around it, or they stepped over as they smoked and talked and came and went. We followed a group of smoking men back into the hospital, a cluster of white-washed buildings with tall faded-orange tile roofs, all connected by outdoor walkways. Very Javanese. People stood or squatted in the walkways, the yard, and on front porches of various buildings. We arrived about dinner time and several families were actually cooking over charcoal fires in the interior courtyard, dirty smoke billowing across the campus. A couple women were washing pots from an outdoor spigot. Others were sleeping on oily mattresses, or maybe they were eating on the mattresses. The place had a squatter's camp feel and most everyone looked very tired. They were sitting vigil for friends and relatives inside. Who knows for how long. I wasn't ready for the encampment, either.

We waited a few minutes before a guard would let us in to the patient ward - plenty of waiting here - and finally were waved in. All white, and tile. But dirty. Grimy. No disinfectant smell. Nothing like that antibiotic tang you get when you step off the elevator into even the most basic American health clinic. This place smelled heavily of sweat and dirt, a little of piss and shit, and curiously of fried chicken. We found the boy's room and ducked in. We were very definitely not alone. The kid was in a three-bed recovery room, maybe eight feet wide by about 20 feet long. Each bed was occupied - there were no curtains for privacy - and the guy on the far end wore a thick and blood-stained bandage on his head. His wife and one child sat beside him as he turned over and back, over and back. Right near the door, an adult man lay on his back with a small blanket covering his lower half. He smiled at me when we walked in. The man's son climbed in and out of bed with him and at one point changed into pajamas. He was clearly there for the night. The man's wife bickered with the young boy, who didn't want to change into pajamas, and she produced two plastic stools for my friend and I to sit on during our visit. She did not look at us, just shoved the stools toward us and went back to skirmishing with her son.

My friend's friend, the kid we'd come to see, actually didn't look that bad. His shoulder was slumped and his chin was scraped but he was sitting upright and forcing a smile when I met him. He had an IV but no sling. A shy kid, he mostly mumbled and stared at his feet. His mother and father explained the accident to my friend, who translated just a little bit for me. The boy, Yoga, had run into the street after a ball and got clipped by a van. It could have been much worse. They were upset but glad he would recover. Yoga sat in the bed in a dirty black t-shirt and blue shorts. Nothing like a gown. Nobody had a gown. It was street clothes and children's pajamas, and whatever food people cooked outside or bought and brought to you. A ceiling fan hung still. The night wasn't that hot but the room was close, and fetid. We said our goodbyes and headed back toward the entrance.

On the way out, we passed a bulletin board with pictures from a staff party and what looked like a birth announcement for one of the doctors. And right beside that, we saw some truly grisly images. Of surgery, at the hospital. It took me a minute to recognize what was happening in the roughest one: They were performing knee surgery on some poor asshole whom I swear did not walk again, not on that leg. The entire leg was exposed from about the hip to the shin, like cubic yards of red meat and tendon, and a doctor was standing inside the joint, kind of wrapping the bloody leg around his own waist. When I first saw the picture, it looked like someone was wrestling a skinned alligator. And then I thought maybe someone had been cut in half and a doctor was holding the spinal column in a bear hug. But it was just knee surgery. Or maybe they were amputating it. That would actually make more sense. My friend, though, insisted is was a repair job. Like old-timey sawbones shit. Raw. I thought about the Yamaha and about the traffic swarm. My stomach got very heavy. This hospital . . . ? I asked my friend. Is not a good hospital, is it? she interrupted.

The Indonesians have a sing-song word that means "be careful." Hati-hati, they say. It's on warning signs all over the place and almost every time I head off on the Yamaha, someone says to me, Hati-hati, Mr. Brett. Driving home from the hospital, I could feel the phrase in my marrow. Hati-hati. No, seriously. Hati-fucking-hati. This is a country where I can keep a blog routinely updated with little fuss using a wi-fi router, and where Coca-Cola and Heineken line the shelves of the local grocery store, where cell phones are a total fact of life, and where you can take air-conditioned buses up and down this overcrowded island. You can direct-dial the U.S. from Borobudur Temple. You can take a hot shower, and then another. But that's just part of it. Beneath that modern gloss, there's still an old and sometimes broken, sometimes perilous world under there. Indonesia. Hati-hati.


Brett McNeil is a former Chicago Tribune reporter, Chicago Journal editor, and Fulbright English teacher living in Indonesia. He blogs at The Year of Living Volcanically and is also the Beachwood's new Southeast Asia correspondent.


* Indonesian Journal: Buying Flowers, Burning the Koran
* Indonesian Journal: The Control State


Comments welcome.


Posted on October 18, 2010

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