Sex, Lava and Self-Control
By Aubrey BelfordFebruary 6, 2012
With nowhere to point your moral compass, Indonesia presents a journalist with some tricky choices.
It takes minutes before either the taxi driver or I bother to mention the piercing screech coming from the steering column. We had been hurtling quite nicely along one of the deceptively modern toll roads that spiral into Jakarta’s mire when the sound kicked in, a droning electric squeal designed to scramble our frontal lobes.
This being Indonesia, where blithely ignoring what most other people would find extremely irritating is a national pastime, it was just another banal, daily trial of my patience.
“Pak, what’s that sound?” I ask.
“It’s some new alarm they installed back at the rank,” he replies. “If we go over 100 kilometres an hour, it goes off. It’s making my head spin. I can slow down if you want.”
I check the speedometer: We’re doing a respectable 120 km/h. Other cars already are tearing past us.
We could slow down. That would mean no irritating sound and less chance of traumatic death or injury (of course I’m not wearing a seatbelt in the back; I don’t want the driver to laugh at me). Or we tough it out, keep speeding and get home maybe four minutes quicker. Really, it’s an obvious choice.
“No problems,” I say. “Just keep going.”
My driver, a middle-aged guy, seems to like this. We get into small talk over the shriek coming from the dashboard. He complains about Islamist radicals giving his religion a bad name and asks me about my family. Then he gets to the topic that he’s clearly been eagerly waiting for the whole time.
“I’ve got a mistress. Just for fooling around,” he brags. “She’s 20 or 21. Her body is amaaaazing.”
I try to think of a way to respond, and then it hits me. After five years in Indonesia, my boundaries for everything have changed — the annoying sound, the reckless acceptance of danger and, now, listening to a complete stranger expounding on his extramarital sex life. Probably the hardest thing about reporting in a country like this is that everything — from buying breakfast to talking with terrorists — occurs in a world where the familiar lines of what’s risky, what’s intrusive and what’s moral are different.
For anyone, living abroad can be a challenge. For a reporter, it’s doubly dangerous. Jakarta is a city where, no matter how hard you try, you will end up living in some way as an adjunct member of the elite, the beneficiary of a massively corrupt and unequal society. If your job is telling the truth, then you already begin from a very shaky ethical foundation.
Truth itself here is more slippery. Indonesians, like many Southeast Asians, tend to like to avoid conflict of any sort. It’s not uncommon to be told two completely contradictory things in one sentence, and end up with no clue if that person truly means both things, just one of them, or neither. Entire monologues in the Indonesian language can be a jumble of meaningless acronyms and dodgy words, the dross left behind by the old authoritarian regimes. Politicians here, as anywhere, lie, but they do it with an artlessness that shows how rare it is for them to be called out on it.
As a reporter here, I also often get the feeling that I’m the only one policing myself. What’s to stop me sexing up a quote from a villager or embellishing details from some obscure corner of the country? The more obscure the story, the more powerless your subjects, the more you become the main arbiter of the truth. More than a few times I’ve read English-language reports that include a turn of phrase that I think could not have been possible in Indonesia, and I wonder just how genuine it is.
And so we muddle through, and occasionally get brought down to reality. I remember reporting on the eruption of Mount Merapi, on Java, in 2010. Entire villages had been blasted away, and dozens killed, in superheated, rolling clouds of gas and debris. Yet almost everyone I talked to expressed fatalism about death. The emotions I expected to find — grief, anguish and terror — were buried beneath layers of Javanese religion, politeness and self-effacement.
When everyone else has handed over their fate to the divine, it’s easy to feel invincible.
One night a journalist friend and I got the bright idea to drive up the mountain and see the lava flowing down its flanks. Hopping into his car, with a couple of cold beers, we climbed up into what we had been told was a 15-kilometre evacuation zone. It was another “fact” that turned out to be completely fuzzy. Past a couple of unenthusiastic cops, deep inside the area where villages were meant to have been cleared, locals lingered by their homes, seemingly unperturbed by the groaning of the mountain. Everyone else’s lack of concern seemed to goad us to go higher.
Eventually, six kilometres from the peak, our internal policemen switched back on with a nauseating thud. We’d seen no lava, but we had realised we were doing something monumentally stupid. In a minor panic, we slunk back to his home, just over 20 kilometres from the volcano’s mouth.
Some 24 hours later we were roused from our beds by rolling thunderclaps and the harsh metallic clang of falling sand. The mountain was erupting again, bigger than before. With ash whipping through the air like sleet, we sped our car into the mad exodus south and fled to safety.
Meanwhile, further uphill, in a place we had been treating as our playground just a day ago, men, women and children were being incinerated alive in their dozens. Even with that sickening revelation, it was still hard to shake the feeling this was all some big adventure.
So, sitting in the back of my taxi, listening to my philandering driver, I can feel the boundaries being tested again.
One side of me, the inner prude, wants to be shocked. The other side of me has been marinating in the moral ambiguity of half a decade of life in Indonesia, and loving it.
So I do what any self-respecting urban, Indonesian twenty-something would do: I goad him on, and I tweet it.
I’ve found myself in an absurd world. I may as well tell it like it is.