Since things have been getting a little heavy both in the news and in my life, I thought it would make a for a minor break to run something that I wrote in a lighter vein a while ago. This was first written for The Peak Magazine.
The sounds of silence
A few months ago, I flew to Ambon on some family business. Despite the nature of the business – visiting an aging relative who was in the hospital – I was looking forward to getting out of Jakarta for a few days to relax and see a part of the archipelago that I had not had an opportunity to get to know.
I knew that Ambon was the capital of Maluku Province; that it was located in what was reputed to be one of the most beautiful parts of the country and therefore, Indonesia being what she is, the world. Even before the plane touched down, I was enchanted.
From a few thousand feet, as we made our approach in the direction of the sunrise, I watched a squadron of dolphins herding shoals of fish toward a bay, occasionally leaping exuberantly from the crystal blue water. Golden beaches, tropical postcard palm trees, miles of emerald and jade forests extending inland. Even the airport was a pleasant surprise. Modern, efficient, equipment intact and working, not crowded, and – I swear to God – clean.
My first impression was borne out as I got out of the airport. The road around the bay that one takes from the airport to Ambon is lovely; pothole-free surface, staggeringly picturesque with the sapphire water of the bay on the right, quaint villages and jungle to the left, villagers washing clothes and laying them out to dry on the rocks of the pristine estuaries we crossed by way of intact and unbroken bridges. To add to the serenity and beauty of the scene was the fact that tons of cloves were drying on rattan mats, steeping the air with their scent until the whole region reminded me of Grandma’s kitchen on Christmas.
The fly in this sensual ointment was that – until I arrived, anyway – I wasn’t deaf. To this day, I swear my ears are still ringing. For some reason, the city and environs of Ambon is the loudest place on earth. One expects an airport to be noisy, so the aural overload didn’t become apparent until we got into the car that was waiting for us. After greeting us at the top of his lungs and with traditional Indonesian warmth, the driver put the bags in the back, got in, turned the car’s extremely efficient sound system to 12 (one level higher than Spinal Tap’s), and then turned and shrieked something over his shoulder at me. I bellowed back that if he would turn the dangdut down a smidge, I might be able to understand. Howling with laughter he continued to shout something I couldn’t hear; possibly because he was now driving with his left elbow firmly planted on the centre of the steering wheel, activating the customised horn, which sounded like a cross between a ship’s fire siren and the Millennium Falcon making the jump to light speed (our approximate velocity).
We stopped at a roadside restaurant, where I thought I might get a chance to staunch the blood that must be pouring from my ears, but such was not to be. Inside the open-air seating area overlooking the spectacular beach, there was a television, volume cranked, showing some badly dubbed, Chinese chop-socky film, punctuating our dining experience with screams of pain and the sounds of fists crushing vertebrae. Fortunately this was somewhat disguised by more dangdut blaring from a speaker system that, to judge from its vintage as well as capacity for decibel delivery, had once been used on one of The Who’s last five farewell tours.
How the inability to hear led me to find out only much later that the meal I consumed consisted of radioactively spicy dog meat, I will leave for the time being.
I couldn’t help but contrast that experience with the sinister silence one occasionally encounters when engaging a taxi in Jakarta.
Anyone who has spent enough time in the nation’s capital to have experienced the variety of driver/taxi types is familiar with the silent one. That’s the guy to whom you say “good morning” and then give your intended destination and hear nothing but silence in return. You repeat the destination. Silence.
You ask if he is familiar with it. Silence.
You ask again. He repeats the destination.
This conversational two-step is social code for “I haven’t the faintest notion or idea of where that is, but there’s no way I’ll actually admit it.” It’s at this point that you have to step up and let the driver know that you don’t either, and were hoping he knew the city better than you do, or, that it’s no problem because you know exactly where it is and you’ll direct him. If you fail to do so, the next step of the silent driver waltz will kick in.
You (not having understood the social code) sit in the back and read a newspaper. The car stops, you look up and your silent driver has stopped at a warung where he is engaged in conversation with nine or ten ojek drivers, clearly asking for directions. He comes back, you ask him if he now knows where to go he says, “Tahu!” and you set off again, back the way you came. Your reading is interrupted again as he stops at another warung for more guidance from yet another group, all of whom seem to be pointing in various directions. He gets back in the car and says nothing as you set off again in an entirely new direction.
The day has just started.
The Ambon experience and the Jakartan silent treatment. Indonesia is indeed a land of contrasts.
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