Monday, October 08, 2007

The Hall of the Mountain King Pt.1: Robert

Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

My friend Robert got arrested the other night for staying at his girlfriend’s house after 9 PM with the door closed.

“Staying at my girlfriend’s house?” asked Robert, not quite believing his ears, when the policeman came to arrest him. “With the door closed?”
“Yes, door close, have seks, not marry!” said the policeman, sitting grandly on the couch in the living room where he’d parked himself, unasked.

“Door close, have seks, not marry?” repeated Robert.
“Yes! Door close, have seks!” said the policeman, leaning back and looking easily around the room, safe in the impregnability of polisi logic.

Robert’s in his mid-forties, tall and fair, from Australia and teaches English to the field workers at the Kerengpangi goldfields, a 200 square kilometre area of human and environmental desolation about 100 km north of Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan.

Robert’s job is part of a broader multi-national aid scheme aimed at improving the lot of the local mining community.

“It’s pretty low pay,” says Robert, “but I like the work.” In the early evenings, before he heads down the dusty, pitted road to his girlfriend’s place, he often takes extra classes for the miner’s children, and whoever else is keen, at no charge. “These kids have got nothin’,” he says.

His girlfriend, Ami, is Dayak, in her mid-twenties, a single mother and deserted wife, not an uncommon plight in Kalimantan. She lives in a three-roomed wooden house amidst a loose collection of buildings that constitute the village, although the original township has been stretched and pulled almost out of recognition by the demands of the goldfields.

It’s one of a few villages that dot the area.

“But Ami’s son is here,” said Robert, arguing with the policeman, “surely you don’t think we’d be having seks in front of the boy?”
“Door close, have seks!” repeated the policeman. “You go truck, go polis station, stay night!”
“Stay the night?” repeated Robert, hackles rising.
“Yes, for safety! Many people angry!” said the policeman. “Attack you!”
“Attack me?” repeated Robert.

A few minutes earlier Robert, Ami and the boy had been snuggled up on the couch watching Aishya, a popular Indonesian soapy about a poor-little-asthmatic-rich girl who cries a lot, and just as the clock struck 10 PM, there was a loud banging at the door.

Robert got up and answered it, somewhat alarmed. “Yes, can I help you?” he asked, startled, as the fat senior policeman pushed past and walked into the room.

“Outside,” he told me later, “there was a police truck, a half-dozen cops in SWAT gear running all over the front yard and I could hear another two or three banging around in the dark out the back. I thought it was a terrorist raid!”

“OK! Now we go! For safety! Many people angry!” said the policeman, motioning outside with his chin.
“People angry? For safety?” replied Robert again. “What are you talking about? I’ve got lots of friends here and nobody’s angry and I feel perfectly safe!”
“No make trouble, Robert!” cautioned Ami.
“No make trouble?” repeated Robert, turning to look at her. She was standing beside him, in fear and close to tears.
“Go, go in truck!” she urged.
“Go in the truck?”
“Yes, go!” she said, pushing him towards the door.
“Well, that’s easy for you to say, Ami!” he said, but offering only token resistance. When it's raining frogs, it's hard to know where to begin hitting back.

Five minutes later Robert is sitting upright in the back of the open truck, surrounded by policeman, waving goodbye to Ami and her young son, also in tears and clinging to his mother.

“I wondered whether I’d ever see them again!” he told me later.

“We bounce out of the kampung,” he went on, “then take off at break-neck speed down the highway, it’s pitch black and all along I’m just waiting for us to slow down at some point and take a left hand turn down some dirt track into the forest!”

“Yeah, fuck…” I said, at a loss for meaningful words, looking around the room, as you do when you suddenly see it expanding in size due to the fact that you’re shrinking.

“But it’s OK, I demanded a TV and got it!” he said and smiled. “Opra’s just the ticket when you’re in jail.”
“At the police station. After all the paperwork, they got me into the cell at about 2 AM, and I realised I couldn’t sleep, so I asked for a TV. Opra comes on early in the morning and as luck would have it she was interviewing Jon bon Jovi.”
“Yeah, so they got that, and then I asked for some food, so they had to go out and get snacks, and then I got them to get me a fan and supply me with a broom; the floor was a bit grubby.”

I sat in silence, waiting for him to go on.

“Yeah, I mean,” he continued, “you know you’re going down, and it’s just a matter of how much it’s gonna cost you, and for all they know the big dumb bule is gonna flip out if he doesn’t get Opra on the late night teev, so you might as well play it. ”
“Right…” I said.
“And they like it when you smile!” he said, grinning.
“Yeah, I bet they do,” I said.

“In the confusion they’d left the cell door unlocked,” he continued, “so in the morning when I woke up I wandered out, saw some guy sitting at the front desk with his finger up his nose, so I thought, ‘What the hell! If I hang around and wait for the release papers it’ll take hours.’ so I just walked out. He didn’t even see me.

As luck would have it, just as I got to the front gate one of my students was going past on a motorbike, so I flagged him down, and he took me all the way home.”

“Excellent, Rob,” I said.

Robert was charged with ‘offending the moral order’ and ordered to pay 4.5 million rupees, about USD 500 – 2 weeks wages for him, or almost 3 months wages for a local, quite a sizeable sum.
“I did suggest they fine Ami’s husband instead,” he said. “After all, he was the bugger who ran off and left her with the kid and absolutely no support. She hasn’t heard from him since the day he left.”

The fine was divided up amongst the morally offended parties in order of umbrage. The police, being the most offended, took the bulk and what was left was given to the mewang, the local Dayak district chief, ostensibly for distribution amongst the community. What was left of that was given to the kepala desa, the local village chief, the last in the chain and the person who made the original complaint.

The kepala desa later complained to the police that after going to all the trouble of making the complaint and getting the ball rolling he ended up with only 200,000 rupees, about 25 dollars, but was told to go away.

Having spent the night in jail and paid his fine, Robert can now legally visit his girlfriend up until 9 PM each night, but must keep the front door open at all times.
“I guess the knock-shop two doors down and the half-dozen karaoke bars up the road have got to keep their doors open, too,” he said, laughing.
“One would imagine,” I agreed.
“Make sure you keep yours open, Felix!” he said, patting me on the back as I was climbing on my bicycle to leave.
“I certainly will, mate,” I said, and I do.

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