Early last Monday I was riding my bicycle down our street on my way to work when I chanced upon a rather interesting spectacle. A local man was holding a leash in his hand, at the other end of which was a monkey dressed in a rather natty little uniform. The primate was dancing agitatedly to the distorted rhythms of his master’s cheap karaoke sound system, to the delight of the assembled local kids.
I thought for one horrible moment that I was having some kind of detox hallucination brought on by the current city wide alcohol crisis which in turn has been caused by a recent customs clampdown. Recently I’ve been having visions of myself turning into Richard E Grant’s dipsomaniacal tour de force Withnail from the movie Withnail and I. i.e. either drinking furniture polish in desperation or hammering on the doors of Kemang’s perpetually closed duty free shops with my fists bawling, “I demand to have some booze,” in an upper class English accent.
The simian sideshow was real though and I realized that I had unwittingly stumbled into what are locally known as Topeng Monyet. Basically Primates are kidnapped from their natural habitats in the forests and jungles of Indonesia, forced into anthropomorphizing little trousers and jackets and taken around the streets by vagabonds who make them perform circus tricks for money. It’s a practice that’s as loved by locals as it is loathed by expatriates who perceive the whole undertaking to be rather cruel and heartless.
Standing watching the somewhat sorry display before me I was put in mind of a rather sad and squalid Victorian freak show, so human did our little furry friend seem. The show was however marginally more entertaining than that other great Indonesian street theatre, namely the hairy, dress wearing brutes with pancaked makeup, tambourines and dead giveaway Adam’s apples that trawl through the traffic giving everyone the willies (actually, perhaps I should rephrase that).
After a few minutes of dancing punctuated by vicious yanks on the leash, a mini bicycle was produced for our urbanized tree swinger to use. The little chap proceeded to zoom back and forth on his steed before eventually simulating a crash and playing dead for a few seconds. This rather apposite Jakarta tableau gave me a few moments pause for thought and I shuddered as I recalled my own bone crunching bike accident of a couple of years back.
As our furry banana enthusiast lay prone on the asphalt like a dead Ojeg driver it dawned on me that the whole Topeng Monyet circus could possibly fulfil some valuable educational function after all. Maybe our betailed friend was sowing the seeds of evolutionary consciousness in the minds of the clapping children. Perhaps what Darwin described as our, “Arboreal past,” and a sense of our species’ position at the top of the primate pile were gaining a tentative conceptual foothold in these impressionable young brains as they watched our not so distant cousin dancing in his tiny clothes.
This is no doubt wishful thinking on my part and a pretty unlikely outcome in modern Indonesia, especially in these trying times of religious retrenchment. As I stood watching Mr. Monyet doing his best homo sapiens impression though, I could at least comfort myself with the veracity of evolutionary theory. Thankfully there is no hell for bikini clad violators of Indonesia’s new porn law to sunbathe in. Conversely, let us be comforted by the fact that there is no heaven of 72 virgins for the recently executed Bali bombers to slake their twisted lusts on. Only sweet oblivion awaits us all. Indeed, the whole 72 virgins thing is alleged to be a bit of a mistranslation in any case. According to some scholars, the real translation is 72 bunches of grapes. Not nearly as much fun although I guess Amrozi and co could trample them down and have a good old booze up….Oh dear, guess what I’m thinking about now.
A solution does seem to be marching with ill advised confidence towards my Eureka valve though. In order to able to stump up for the 400 percent price rise on a bottle of vodka I suppose I could follow the Topeng Monyet model and drag some poor creature around the streets with me on a piece of string and try raise some funds that way. Actually, given the attention and general mesmerized stares that simply being a whitey on the streets of Jakarta can elicit maybe I should just cut out the piece of string altogether, put on a little sailor suit and do a one man dance routine. That voddy’s as good as mine.