Monday, January 10, 2011

JUANITA'S WILD ANIMAL PASSION

I'm straining the coffee grinds through my teeth, the ceiling fans whirring like upside down helicopters, when the Indo man enters the cafe and greets me like an old friend. Oh dear. He must be selling something. At this juncture i might consider life insurance, but not much else. I see is carrying an ornately carved wooden tube, about thirty inches long, which he raises to his lips. Oh no. Ethnic music.

He blows suddenly and hard, and a six-inch steel dart appears with a thwack in the wooden column next to my head. He smiles, and holds out the instrument for my inspection. I shake my head. Undeterred, he demonstrates how the weapon comes apart, folding down into a short tube. '100,000 rupiah. From Kalimantan.'

It's Christmas in two days. I consider briefly whether any friends or family members could benefit from a gift-wrapped set of blowpipe and poison darts.
'No, thank you. Far too impractical,' i say as he fits the darts one by one inside the tube. 'I prefer the Smith and Wesson.'
He shows me the wrapped product in a short tube of newspaper and cardboard.
'Very good, very small,' he says. 'Only 100,000. from Kalimantan.'
I shake my head and return to my typing. 'Sorry. I'm working. Terima kasih.'
I wave him away. I'm loving this little folding keyboard. Somehow the phone knows when i open up the keyboard, and lets me type little stories. Blue teeth. I don't pretend to understand them, but, like women, you don't have to understand them to love them. And soon i will publish my first blog post created directly from this freshly blown technological bubble. I'm back in the zone. Back in the zone, man. I strain more coffee grinds and keep typing.

The taxi driver has now developed a nervous twitch, a kind of car-based St Vitus Dance. We have, by some miracle, suddenly found ourselves on a stretch of open road in the centre of Jakarta. But the driver has become catatonic, and is nervously scratching while veering across the road, lurching about in a series of sudden stops and starts. Clearly his meth-addled brain is having difficulty processing the idea of a traffic free -

'For you sir, 90,000 rupiah.' The bubble bursts as though pricked by a dart.
The smiling Indonesian again proffers his newspaper-wrapped bundle of Christmas joy.
'Please, I am writing,' i beg. 'Terima kasih.'

After driving at a lunatic pace between lanes on Jakarta's main roads - barrelling along the breakdown lane, passing cars and trucks on the inside, pushing his way though traffic with millimetres to spare - after driving at impossibly high speeds through dense traffic, twisting across lanes to avoid looming police traps, he is now on a stretch of open road, and appears not to know what to do. Now he scratches wildly at his feet, which he has lifted up (thankfully one at a time) to rest on the steering wheel. Now he is scratching wildly at his back. We have come to a complete halt on a roundabout in Jakarta Plaza. Cars make their way around us like a creek around a fallen tree before he suddenly breaks out of his torpor and is whirled away into the stream of traffic, cutting off and almost sideswiping a driver in a black 4WD.

'Please sir, you buy now?'
I sigh. 'Mate, even if i wanted a portable pygmy blowpipe, which i don't, it would never pass through customs. And if i really wanted to kill someone, which i don't, i'd use a gun, not some souvenir from the wilds of Borneo.'
'No sir, customs no problem. You can take. I promise. If you no can take, you come back and kill me.' He thrusts his chest forward as a potential target. Hmm. This is one of the more bizarre lifetime guarantees i've come across.
'How about i save us both some time and kill you now?' i suggest.

I cast a sidelong glance at the taksi driver. His red eyes are narrowed to slits. Beads of sweat form on his brow and his shirt is soaked, despite the arctic blast of the aircon. He is clearly the throes of some Malaccan drug overdose. Perhaps they have cut his meth with cyanide.
'You OK?' i ask. Not that i particularly care - but i do want to find a hotel sometime before midnight. Everything is taking far too long. Late connecting flights, and now all this traffic. Who would have thought they'd be celebrating Christmas on the roads of Indonesia? 'We arrive Jalan Jaksa soon, yes?'
He has slipped back into his toe-scratching reverie. In answer to my question, he selects another tune on his dumb smartphone. Once the volume is turned up full, he slides the shiny device into a slot on the dashboard, where it blares out a harrowing, distorted whine.
'Mariah Carey!' he shouts.
I press my eyes into my hands.

The man touting the blowgun has finally relented, and is now simply sitting at my table, smiling. I'm waiting for Juanita, former lifestyle editor of the Phnom Penh Post. She is threatening to take me to Jakarta's wildlife market. She wants to adopt a slow loris, and needs me to help her choose one. I'm not sure i am ready for this level of commitment. My son's girlfriend has just had a baby boy, and this is as close to caring for a small simian creature as i care to get.

'Isn't this illegal?' i asked her over the phone from my room on Jalan Jaksa.
'Yes and no,' she said. 'Everything is illegal; everything is permitted. But I think I can give a lazy loris a better life than it would have otherwise.' A pause. 'But then, buying these animals just encourages the trade.'
'Oh dear. It sounds like human trafficking. Why don't you just get yourself a slave? A slave would at least be useful. What does a lazy loris do, anyway?'
'Nothing. They do nothing. And when they move, which is hardly ever, they move very, very slowly.'
I've had experiences like that. They must subsist on a steady diet of magic mushrooms. That would explain why they have eyes like saucers and can barely move.
'So what happened to Billy?' i asked, in reference to the pet crocodile she had in Bali.
'Billy and i no longer talk. He was a little shit.'
'And your pet rabbit?'
'The rabbit died. I don't know why.'
'I'm not convinced your apartment is a safe haven for wildlife, Juanita. Can't we just rescue the loris from the market and return it to the wild?'
'We'd have to fly to Sumatra. And besides, the monkey dentist removes his teeth so he can't bite, so i don't think he would survive. It's a jungle out there.'
My curiosity getting the better of me, I arranged to meet Juanita and go with her to the illegal wildlife market. Given the layers of satire and irony in which Juanita's existence is swaddled, i had my doubts that she actually wanted to adopt a slow loris. This whole escapade is probably a ploy to pursue some investigative journalism on the illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia. But you never know with Juanita.

The pet markets are, on the surface, what you would expect - full of the usual innocuous, domesticated animals. Thousands of caged birds piled one upon the other, their tiny bamboo apartments heading ever upward as though in a frustrated attempt to return to their occupants to the sky. We chance upon some glass boxes of tiny hamsters, and Juanita scratches one awake. Apparently he is 'too cute', although the more probable reason for her not pocketing him and taking him home is the frosty reception her prior rabbit got from the management of her ultra-modern serviced apartment. We press on through the menagerie. Kittens, guinea pigs, carpet snakes, geckos, and all manner of birds, from racing pigeons to an astonishingly large black cock (oops, did i say that out loud?)

Juanita has elected to come with a guide, who asks around, enquiring as to the availability of a lazy loris, and immediately finds a willing seller. We set out across the market, following our agent as he gestures us on, winding through the seemingly endless production line of cages and caged animals. We follow our man and the mystery seller through the market before coming to the gate to his apartment.

The wildlife merchant slides the steel bolt of the gate open, and we sidle up the dank concrete stairs into an airless concrete room. Our agent speaks rapidly to him in language and he nods, yes, yes, before disappearing around a concrete wall at one end of the room, into what appears to be a toilet. Juanita looks at me and raises an eyebrow. Almost immediately the wildlife merchant reappears, carrying a steel mesh cage harbouring a loris, or cus cus, which he sets of the floor in front of us. The small furry creature - ridiculously cute and sad looking with its enormous, black ringed eyes - is curled in abject fear on the floor of its cage, head down, looking up at us piteously. We stare at the lazy loris purveyor accusingly, and, believing the animal is not up to our expectations, he shrugs his shoulders, returns behind the concrete wall and comes back with another two cages containing a pair of slightly less traumatised-looking creatures. He says something in Indonesian. 'From Sumatra,' explains our guide.

Juanita takes a fancy to one of them and points, asking how much. The loris purveyor indulges in a deep and extended conversation with our guide.

'One million rupiah,' he says in translation, 'though I think you can get it for less. Maybe 300,000.'
'What do they eat?' asks Juanita. 'Worms?'
The guide patiently explains how unlikely it would be that a tree-dwelling marsupial would eat worms.

No wonder her rabbit died, I'm thinking. She was probably feeding it octopus.

We take several photographs of the caged animals, to the point where the owner becomes impatient and suspicious. We have not bothered to make an offer on any of his animals, and seem to be treating his apartment as a private zoo. I mention this to Juanita.
'Who cares,' she says, 'The guy is an arsehole. What kind of person keeps wild animals in cages in his toilet?'

5 comments:

Miss Mayhem said...

Ahh a.d! You could have made good use of the flute that fellow was trying to offload on you and used it's pygmy powers for good on the illegal animal trader.
If I were there we probably would of ended up with poison dart juice on our hands...
Wonderfully written! Now go and expose the live wild animal trade you investigative journalist you x

sarah toa said...

Duh. Had me totally tricked with Juanita's wild animal passion. Thought there would be some sex in there dammit! Great writing by the way. how is the new Bukowski?

Mark Roy said...

The new Bukowski is like the old Bukowski, only more so.

Mark Roy said...

OK Sarah, I've incorporated sex into the latest post. Somehow it just didn't seem appropriate for the lazy loris.

Ms Martin said...

When the fuck are you writing a novel?