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Indonesian Rivers

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Scene: David and I, outside some hotel in the center of Jakarta, December-something 2012, walking alongside a river at the seamy hour of about midnight. The sidewalks ahead are washed in a glow of dull yellow lamplight. Everyone else is out and I feel terrible, physically and emotionally.

The river, snaking alongside us without seeming to be moving at all, smells like an open toilet. I observe as much.

"You wanna know why that river smells like crap? 'Cause people crap in it!"

And - as stupidly obvious as David's observation is, I laugh, and laugh and laugh, remembering all the times I've seen old food peddlers squatting on the conveniently angled concrete banks, or seen children with their little brown butts just barely hanging over the edges of combined bridges/sidewalks over man-made canals. 

At that moment, I felt so far from Boise, where the river (which runs straight through downtown) is so clear you can toss a stone into the current and watch to see where it comes to rest at the bottom. 

Rivers in Indonesia are never clear, nor even a discernibly natural color. Maybe they're an earthy brown in Borneo or Sumatera or the village at least, but in human-infested Java cities, you'd be more accurate to describe a river's water as 'minty'. Whether or not they stink depends on the day, and probably the diets of the people whose houses feed into it, or squat over it. The river right near my house would get to stinking about every night at sunset; I affectionately dubbed it 'the s#!t ditch'. 

Rivers also serve as convenient trash bins, and the homes of skipping bugs, and tiny fish who are in constant danger of being fished out by boys with handmade fishing rods. They squat in neat rows at the river's edge, contemplating the water, slowly baking in the sun, the keenest observers of life going by. 

Don't be fooled by the greenery

Despite the filth and neglect, rivers still play an important part in Indonesian life and lore. Entire tent cities prefer to take shape along their banks, and certain people use the water to wash dishes, their hands, and their nether regions. It isn't uncommon to see boys and men bathing in the filthy brown waters, and their pure joy at playing around for even a few minutes out of the day overshadows the fact that they're doing their personal hygiene more of a disservice than anything.

Many times, I was told that a river in Surabaya was home to sharks and crocodiles, and that its waters, though nearly stand-still at first glance, were treacherous. The name 'Surabaya' happens to be a combination of the words 'suryo' and 'buaya' - shark and crocodile. Legend has it that a shark and a crocodile battled in the very river making its way through Surabaya's center, and their struggle has been immortalized in statues around the city. The most famous is in front of KBS, and aside from the hero's monument, it's the best symbol of Surabaya there is.


Definitely lore gone a little awry, but there are worse things to do than buy into a myth when living in Indonesia.

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I'm Sara, the freckled bule, one out of eight of the coolest people in the world. I spent a year in Indonesia as a KL/YES Abroad student but now I live in Boise, Idaho. Welcome to my bloggity blog.


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