Saturday, August 01, 2009

Coz I'm a Voodoo Chilli

Fundamentalist Islam has, rather tediously, rarely been out of the news headlines over the last decade or so. Alas all these Islamists have at their disposal in order to leverage column inches and air time in the great battle for the world’s five minute attention span currently raging between Allah, David Beckham and Paris Hilton, is violence. Blowing people up or going all shouty and purple in the face is pretty much the only card that these people have to play on the world stage.

It should be remembered however that Indonesia, despite the best efforts of the beard and robe brigade (who increasingly seem to have a whiff of the lynch mob about them) remains a veritable witch’s brew of animist, infidel beliefs and strange superstitions. Many never seem to get beyond the local equivalent of the Santa Claus and tooth fairy stage and live their lives in an arrested development thrall to all manner of ghouls, ghosts, mythical beasties and legends. Such beliefs and superstitions can seem a trifle medieval to those beholden to the scientific enlightenment and eerily reminiscent of something from Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’:
Sir Bedevere: “…and that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana shaped.”
King Arthur: “This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.”

Such beliefs are not perhaps essentially much different from having an imaginary friend up there in the sky however maybe I shouldn’t pursue this line of argument too doggedly this week lest some suicide bomber disguises himself as the aqua delivery man and takes Metro Madness Towers out with him (a couple of fire crackers would probably do for the old place in fact).

For those who live on or near Java’s south coast, a belief in the Queen of the South Seas, Nyai Loro Kidul, is common. This Javanese mermaid goddess, unlike good old Santa, is alleged to be quite malevolent and to frequently drag swimmers and divers down to a watery grave in Davy Jones’ locker. Famed for her beauty though, this is one goddess I wouldn’t mind coming down my chimney as it were. Apparently, Kidul is angered by the color green and thus one should under no circumstances wear green when going for a swim. Green is also the color of Islam of course but I’ll leave you to pick the psychoanalytic bones out of that one. Down at the popular resort of Pelabuhan Ratu, April 6th is celebrated in Nyai Loro Kidul’s honor and is a memorial day for those who have lost their loved ones at sea.

Volcanoes are another great source of danger and thus superstition. Central Java’s Gunung Merapi, for example, is believed to have a king living inside it and locals proffer gifts to calm him down when the crater is active. Food, live animals, money and, ironically, cigarettes are all tossed into Merapi despite the protestations of vulcanologists who insist that people really shouldn’t be up there when the thing’s about to blow.

A belief in Dukun, the shamans or witch doctors who magically manage to part credulous fools from their hard earned rice vouchers, is prevalent all over the country. Your average Dukun’s ability to eke out a living from the gullibility of the general populace involves such charming procedures as rubbing excrement or semen on their clients or chanting incantations over glasses of water. Whether people are actually made richer or more attractive by these bizarre procedures is anyone’s guess. Personally I would be inclined not to go for a meeting with my bank manager or on a date whilst smeared in human excreta or man paste but hey, I’m no expert on the dark arts. I mean even Indonesian presidents have employed the services of these charlatans, proving just how deeply a belief in such quasi mystical hokum is ingrained in Indonesian society.

Other local superstitions, whilst not necessarily anymore risible than their Western equivalents, seem to be so numerous as make one dizzy just to read them. Some of my favorites include: ‘An unmarried woman should avoid washing her hair on a Saturday as this would cause her to marry a man who is difficult to please.’ This one would at least seem to have some tenuous relationship to reality as a man who could put up with his paramour’s reeking locks on a Saturday night date is clearly not too fussy. Another interesting superstition that I found during my extensive research of the topic is: ‘If you come across a piece of chili lying in a pan for no apparent reason, this is a sign that a disaster is about to occur.’ This would no doubt explain the endless series of Tsunamis, landslides, earthquakes, dam bursts and volcanic eruptions that continue to bedevil the archipelago, I mean there must be an unattended pan full of chili on every street. On a rather different tack, the advice to, ‘Avoid looking at the sexual organs of your spouse during intercourse as this will result in bad luck for a week,’ seems a little puritanical, not to mention impractical, unless one goes down the Victorian route of wearing especially designed bodysuits with flaps for the aforementioned offensive organs. Whatever happened to ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’?