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Disasters, Where Art Thou?

Sometimes I really think that the people who live in this city, Jakarta, are actually fond of bloody disasters! In other words, disasters for Jakartans are like an ulcer on your skin - you know when it’s there; you are annoyed by it and wish that it’d just disappear. But when it’s not around, you are missing it, probing every inch of your skin to search for it, dying to scratch it, and missing the enjoyable itch. Bloody hell, it’s a bad comparison isn’t it?

I have reached this conclusion based on my own experiences with all kinds of gritty creatures who have been living in Jakarta all their lives. These are actual examples I have gathered from my own friends, my favourite friends that I hang out with.

One day I was in my car with friends from work. Being typical Chinese Indonesians, they tend to comment on everything that they think is not really right according to their standards. When we were driving on a traffic-jammed street, they commented on why the street was so crowded. And then they theorised the possible causes, one maybe there was a demonstration or a riot or masses that had run amok, two maybe there was a fire or another disaster with equally catastrophic effects somewhere in the city. They couldn’t accept the fact that the particular street we took always has a traffic jam during that particular time of the day.

And then when we passed down a quiet street, they wondered again. The street is too quiet, it looks eerie. Something is definitely going on, they said almost in a chorus, illustrated by a few screams in the Chinese language, which completely befuddled me. The quiet street was not right, according to them. They pondered that perhaps the police had blocked the road due to a demonstration, or another cause associated with traffic jams.

And then after everybody stated each of their hypotheses, the group was very quite for a while; you could hear a drop of sweat flowing down on one of my friends’ foreheads. At that moment I felt like screaming, what do you want? Does life have to be so exciting every friggin’ day for you guys? If I did scream, then my friends would snap their necks to look at me, scrutinising my face as if there was something wrong with me.

I then took a deep breath and said ‘Okay, okay I understand, please don’t give me that same litany about how dangerous your lives have been all this time and as Chinese Indonesians how you should be cautious all the time.’ They smiled at me and tapped my left shoulder and mumbled words that I knew by heart meaning that I should be thankful to have brown skin. How I love them.

One afternoon, I had a lunch date with the very same group of friends. When I picked them up at the lobby of their office, I saw that one of them was missing. ‘Where’s A Fong?’ I asked. Julie explained that A Fong had to go to the bank to empty her bank account and take all the hot cash and other valuable items from her deposit box. Then she had to bring them home. “Why?” I asked.

Calmly, as if she was talking about the weather or how nice the blue sky was, Julie said that A Fong had to do it because her cousin’s neighbour had heard on the radio that an ex-army officer was warning people to get ready for possible riots happening before and during the country’s election month. This guy had apparently also said that people were urged to protect their houses with heavy arms and weapons or even hire security guards or police officers, Julie further explained. Was I the only person in this city who was so ignorant about this, or was Julie merely pulling my leg, I wondered.

Julie ended her explanation by saying that A Fong had to bury her treasure underground - in her house, behind her washing machine, right below the clotheslines to be precise - but that’s a secret. How did she know that? I could just see the Indonesian newspaper’s headlines: ‘Indonesian thieves now equip themselves with shovels.’

For my own sanity, I pray that the city would just show its normal motion, especially every time I see these friends of mine. They are basically my only friends and I hate how their behaviour affects my nerves when we are together.

But this year, I realised that my wish didn’t come true. First, we experienced the Mad Cow and Bird flu scares. Secondly, the spreading dengue fever cases. And hopefully, lastly, the floods.

No matter how reluctant I was to hear their complaints, I just couldn’t stand not seeing my friends. I am addicted to the bittersweet comforts they offer. So, last month we went to have lunch at one of the mall food courts. We sat there in silence, trying to be cheerful while crunching the tasteless leaves from our salad bowls; the salads were without dressings. They were too scared to eat food with chicken or beef in it because of the bird flu and mad cow scares. They couldn’t order their favourite Thousand Island dressing with the salad because they said it contained eggs.

Last week, after they heard the news about dengue fever and the coming flood, they rang me, “We can’t go to work today. We have to go to the Hypermart to buy lots of things. We have to stock mosquito sprays, incense and lotions. We need to spray our house and our yards every day as well as put on mosquito lotion every time we go out. And to prepare for flooding, just in case our house or our neighbourhood is flooded and we will be isolated, we need to stock dry staples at home.

We may even need to buy a rubber dingy. If the flood isolates your house, you can hardly leave the house to buy these essential things, you see. And just in case, because usually floods are followed by electricity blackouts which can take several days to rectify if the electricity’s main power supply is also submerged underwater, we need to stock kerosene lamps and candles and matches too. What do you think, should we get a genset as well?” Believe me, she literally sounded excited.

So I couldn’t go out to lunch with them that day, because they were busily digging their backyards to get some cash out and going to the local Hypermart to stock their houses with essential things to prepare for the possible disasters. You see, even in the midst of a real disaster they’re still creative enough to come up with ideas about even worse possibilities that might appear following the current disasters. It’s sort of fun, isn’t it? Is there something wrong with me if this thing really gets on my nerves?

First published in the Jakarta Post