Before I continue writing about my travels in Ukraine, I wanted to go back to Indonesia. I’ve been thinking about Indonesia a lot this past week because an important presidential election was just held there and because I just went “back” to Indonesia after reading and reviewing Elizabeth Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc. The presidential election isn’t quite over because both candidates claimed victory and the official counting won’t be finished for another 10 days. It’s a pivotal moment in Indonesia and all of that got me thinking about my first days there.
So here’s a short story I wrote some time ago about sambal and masuk angin. Enjoy.
The burp caught me off guard. It was my second day in Indonesia and I was busy worrying about lunch, learning a new language and my own foolish decision to accept a yearlong job offer in a country I knew almost nothing about. “They had a dictator named Suharto. It’s the fourth largest country in the world and the most populous Muslim nation. Bali is there. And, it’s going to be hot,” I told my friends in a self-assured tone that was masking all of my deepest fears.
On my first day in one of the hottest countries I had ever allowed my pale, prone-to-burning body to enter, I had gone to lunch with teachers and students from my language school. “Sambal,” my teacher Asti said as she handed me a plastic bowl with a red substance inside. I had watched as everyone else at the table took two, three, four or even five spoonfuls of the red sauce and dumped it on top of their plates full of rice, vegetables and meat. Two spoonfuls later, I was a total wreck. My pale skin had turned bright red, I was sweating profusely and I was desperately trying to hold back tears. “You like spicy food? You like chili pepper sauce?” Asti asked. Why, oh why, hadn’t she asked this a minute earlier?
The loud, deep burp interrupted my painful recollection of lunch. I was startled. I looked over and saw a group of middle aged motorcycle taxi drivers sitting with their tank tops rolled up over their bellies while smoking clove cigarettes that created clouds of intoxicating smelling smoke. As soon as they noticed me, the shouts of “Hello, Mrs.! Where are you going?” and “Beautiful” started. And then, one of the drivers burped again.
“Oui, people they burp here. It’s not impoli,” a French woman at the language school told me. “Things are different here. You know people here believe in ghosts and magic.”
“What do you mean ghosts and magic?” I asked.
“My Indonesian housekeeper tells me stories all the time about ghosts. Ghosts that sneak into homes and people accidentally sleep with them. You know they have sex,” she said. “It’s true what I tell you, I can see you don’t believe me.”
I didn’t believe in ghosts or magic powers, although I did now believe in death by sambal.
After a week of language classes I moved to the traffic-clogged, smog-choked capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, and started work as an editor at an English-language newspaper. The pollution in Jakarta is notorious and with all the sambal and smog my body was starting to break down. I developed a hacking cough and terrified everyone I interacted with. I became a pariah in the newsroom.
“We should go get massages,” Niar exclaimed. Niar was my ebullient language tutor I had met through a friend in Jakarta. She was also my source on all things Indonesian: politics, religion, food and batik fashion.
“We’ll go to a place in my neighborhood. It’s very clean and very cheap. And you’ll relax,” she said.
I coughed for the hundredth time that day.
“We are going tomorrow,” Niar said. “You need to relax and you’ll feel better.”
I had no choice.
The salon was located on a somewhat quiet street in the Tebet neighborhood of South Jakarta. In a city of over 10 million people full of motorcycles and mosques with loud speakers, it never is completely quiet. Niar had been born and raised in this area and she promised we’d have lunch and look around after. As soon as I heard the word “lunch” I started thinking of sambal.
Our masseuses met us and led us to an area with two beds separated by a screen. As the floral-scented oil was rubbed into my back I began to drift off.
Then, catching me completely off guard in a state of aromatherapy bliss, it happened. My masseuse burped. Then she burped again. And a third time. Maybe she had just had lunch? Maybe she was pregnant? After the tenth burp I was getting worried. The burps were moderate both in sound and size. Was she ill? Did she need to take a break? The burps kept coming and now I was just as impressed, as I was worried.
Niar spoke to me through the screen, “Lydia, are you O.K.?”
“Well, I’m fine, but, um, I don’t know if the masseuse is.”
A swift exchange between Niar and the masseuse in question transpired in Indonesian and then Niar said, “The masseuse wants to know if you’ve been feeling sick lately.”
“I’ve had a bad cough.”
“Yes, she says your body is full of bad wind,” Niar said. “She is transferring all of the bad air from your body out through her body, that is why she is burping.”
“Oh,” I said.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say. For the next 50 minutes I lay there perplexed with a background soundtrack of soothing bamboo music from the speaker system accompanied by intermittent burping. When the massage ended, I was genuinely confused — how much do you tip someone for transferring bad wind out of your body through their body?
At lunch I asked Niar to tell me more.
“What just happened?” I asked. “I don’t think I understand.”
“Masuk angin,” she said. “Bad wind. Literally it means that wind entered your body. But it was bad wind. Your masseuse was special. She is gifted and she has a sixth sense. She told a woman last week not to take a motorcycle taxi because she had a bad feeling.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well the woman got in an accident,” Niar said. “Sambal?” Niar offered me the bowl.
“Yes, thank you,” I said, grabbing the spoon and covering my food in my continuing effort to build up a spice tolerance.
“You’ll feel better tomorrow,” Niar said with confidence.
The next day I woke up and my cough was gone. Was it magic? Was it masuk angin? I’d never get answers that would satisfy me. So I decided to accept that sometimes things work in mysterious ways — burps and all.