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Indonesia: with Erma Bombeck

Every country in the world worries about the threat of aggressive neighbors who seek to conquer them. Not to worry. The Russians will do themselves in by drinking too much vodka. The Japanese will smoke themselves to death, the Finns will phase themselves out from arteries clogged with all those dairy fats, and the entire population of Indonesia will eventually die from the traffic. It's just a matter of time.

For a change, both my husband and I were excited about going to Indonesia. Usually we were a house divided on where we were going to go and what we were going to do, but this country offered everything. It had white, sandy beaches; the Ujung Kulon Game Reserve; Krakatau, the volcano that erupted in 1883, creating the largest explosion ever recorded in the history of the world; plus one of the most unusual cultures in the world. Although the largest religion is Islam, there is a blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and animism throughout the country.

Once you see the drivers in Indonesia, you understand why religion plays such an important part in their lives. After a day as a passenger in a car, I would have worshipped the hotel draperies if I had thought they would protect me from bodily harm.

The first thing we noticed in Jakarta (Java) was the absence of dogs and cats. It didn't take me long to figure out they had probably once roamed this part of the world in great numbers, but one by one they were picked off by Mercedes and Volvos as they tried to cross the street. It brought about their extinction. People were next.

We picked up our guide in Yogyakarta at the hotel. Outside, he introduced us to our driver. This was very unusual, as one man often serves as the driver and the guide.

The driver was young, frail, and said little. He was emotionless, and from time to time he displayed a tic of sorts. His right eye would blink, his head would jerk, and he stretched his neck as if he had on a tight tie.

“We visit the Sultan's Palace,” said the guide, smiling. The car shot out of the driveway like the Batmobile in Gotham City.

I. d like to point out here that I am not a nervous passenger. I have survived three teenage drivers: one who used cruise control in downtown traffic at five p.m., one who put on full make-up while driving through a construction area, and another who got a ticket for driving forty-five miles per hour ... in reverse. But this was unbelievable.

Most of the highways in Indonesia are two lanes. Everyone passes. Everyone. How do they do this? you ask.

There are basically seven modes of transportation in the country. At the slowest and bottom of the spectrum is the horse and carriage, which is exactly what it sounds like. Next is the pedicab. This is a little buggy on two wheels hooked up to a man who pulls it through traffic. The becak or powered tricycle is next, followed by motor scooters, hired cars (and taxis), then trucks and finally buses.

This is how the pecking order works. Your car passes another car at a speed of fifty or sixty miles per hour. If you meet a motor scooter head-on in the passing lane at the same time, the motor scooter is below you on the scale of size. He has to disappear. Don't ask me where. He just knows that. On the other hand, if you are in the car and meet a truck or a bus, then you must give way.

It's the old game of chicken that has reached state-of-the-art.

All the while our lives are hanging in the balance as our guide is trying to indicate temples and points of interest. I can't take my eyes off the driver.

Every once in a while, the driver engages in a little ritual that is bizarre. As we stop for a light, he tilts his head all the way to his shoulder and then with both hands gives his head a jerk that would have broken a normal spinal column in half.

“Why does he do that?” I asked our guide.

“It relieves the tension,” he says. “Actually, he is a very good driver. You are here to relax. Just sit back and enjoy.”

It would have taken a lobotomy for me to relax.

I. d like to say that despite the frenzy and the insane passing, I never saw an accident. But that. s not true. It was like being in the middle of Demolition Derby. I saw women on bicycles balancing trays of fruit on their heads, only to be forced to hit the ditch and become fruit salad.

I saw an ambulance give way to 'you got it' a truck, and in the city it was not unusual to see people sitting on the curb holding bandaged heads while they hauled their vehicles away. But through it all, I never once saw anger, obscene gestures or exasperation. I never heard shouts or language of any kind ... only quiet, emotionless resignation.

Over dinner our first night there, our guide kept insisting, “You must relax, Miss. How would you like to see Indonesian dancers in Ballet of Ramayana at the theater?” He was right. I had worn a hole in the floor of the back seat of the car where all day I had jammed on imaginary brakes with my foot. “I'll go back to the hotel and change into something suitable,” I said.

I travel with a limited wardrobe, but I always carry one dress for special occasions. This one was all white with a gold belt and sandals. We should have been suspicious we weren't talking Bolshoi when our driver drove like a maniac down dark alleys and came to a stop on a dirt road several feet from the 'theater'. Actually, it was a tent with the glow of naked light bulbs shining through the canvas. We bought our tickets and stepped inside. Not only was I overdressed, but the performance was undersold. There must have been seven hundred folding chairs distributed around the riser. There were five other people there besides ourselves. I think they were German tourists.

At seven o. clock, the music started and the graceful dancers glided onto the stage. Our guide leaned over to interpret what was transpiring on stage. “A young man named Jaka Tarub, while hunting birds one day, sees a lovely nymph descending from heaven to bathe in the forest lake,” he whispered. “He hides but watches the nymph Nawangwulan and falls in love with her. Jaka Tarub steals her clothing. He returns to his hiding place and creates a disturbance to frighten Nawangwulan, but she is unable to find her clothing and so cannot return to Heaven. Feeling sad and lonely . . .”

I listened numbly. My eyes felt like balloons filled with water.

At eight-thirty, our guide was still talking nonstop. “When Dasamuka attacks him and forces him to flight, Kala Marica then transforms himself into a Golden Deer to lure Rama and Lesmana away from Sinta so that Dasamuka can kidnap Sinta. The Golden Deer then teases ...”

From time to time, my head would fall to my chest and I would jerk it up to hear his voice reciting in a monotone, “In return, Sinta gives her hairpin to Senggana to deliver to Rama ...”

I spit on my fingers and rubbed them across my eyeballs. My husband had his head between his legs. His elbows touched the floor. He was comatose. I looked for some kind of compassion from the five other people in the audience.

They were gone. My arm was bruised from where I had pinched myself in an effort to regain consciousness by inflicting pain. “Then the ape tells both ladies to leave and he begins to destroy the garden,” the guide droned on. “He breaks loose, sets Alengka on fire, then returns to Pancawait to ...”

It was after eleven when we fell into the car that took us to our hotel. I slept the entire time. Maybe that was the answer to surviving as a passenger in Indonesia.

As a break in our schedule, we planned a cruise through the Spice Islands. My husband wanted to climb the mountain of cinder sand and look down into the smoking remains of Krakatau. It was nice to get out of the fast lane and not worry about rites of passage.

When we docked five days later, the captain of the boat said he would be glad to drop several of us off at our hotel. I settled back into the cushions of his car as if I were safe in the hands of Allstate.

The next thing you know we were weaving in and out of the traffic like we were competing in time trials at the Indy 500. Suddenly there was a screech of brakes as we stopped for a red light. Then there was a crash from behind and I flew into the seat in front of me. I turned to look at the van behind us. One of the passengers had hit the windshield. An ambulance siren sounded in the distance. The man assured us he was all right.

I bowed my head and said a silent prayer to the patron saint of Indonesian passengers: Our Lady of Valium.

Excerpt from Erma Bombeck's book “When You Look Like Your Passport It is Time to Go Home”

This article has been circulating around the expat community for years - so we thought to share it with you! The magic of Erma Bombeck lives on ...

© Erma Bombeck