27 - Hey Mister, It’s Election Day! (Bima, Sumbawa, Indonesia)
Lost your faith in democracy? Visit Bima on election day. I did. I’m not a celebrity, but I played one in Indonesia. Sometimes the best experiences are the ones you never see coming. Thank you, universe.
by The Nostomaniac
IMIN PICKED ME UP AT 7:30 AM, and we began our Bima Suburb Magical Mystery Tour. He wanted me to meet his whole family. And I did. All of ‘em. Father, stepmother, mother, stepfather, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, ancestors, descendants, so on and so forth. We made the rounds. I couldn’t possibly exaggerate the rarity of a visit like mine, i.e. a westerner dropping in for the hell of it. Development workers? Maybe, but Johnny Tourist might as well be Bigfoot. People were dumbfounded.
Crowded streets intensified the effect tenfold. Why so dense? It was Election Day in Indonesia, and they don’t fuck around. Everything is closed. People have nothing better to do than vote. Want people to vote? Prove it. Make it easy. In the US, you get one day, a fucking Tuesday no less. You snooze, you lose. The “greatest country on earth” and that’s the best we can do? Smooth. There are many reasons why Donald J. Clusterfuck got elected, but turnout was key. Having to choose between the Clinton dynasty and an orange dipshit is demoralizing enough. Why go out of your way? Well, a lot of folks didn’t. Now, the universe suffers. Electoral College? Fuck, Yeah! Thanks, America! ♫ God Bless, Amer-i-ca. Laaaand that I luuuvvv… ♫
Brad Pitt can suck an ostrich. I was the spectacle in Bima. Hollywood stardom? I get it now, sort of…on a much, much smaller scale, of course. If that’s your life, how do you avoid turning into a raging asshole? Dunno. Notwithstanding the jolt to my ego, the experience was (insert clichéd adjective). The people were exceedingly curious, open, and friendly. The reaction was, for lack of a better word, adorable. I had a camera. People wanted me to use it. And I did. Like it was my job. At one point, I pretended it was my job.
Imin, now a bit of a star himself, ushered me from relative to relative—my very own press junket. His family hadn’t seen an American tourist, much less had one in their homes. They treated me like an honored guest. It was awkward at times. No one knew quite how to behave (including me). Folks were embarrassed and assumed, rightly so I suppose, I’m accustomed to elevated living standards. And I have to admit some homes were little more than corrugated tin and appropriated scrap wood. Not to say they weren’t neat and tidy. They certainly were, but there’s no escaping the reality of impoverishment. I felt ashamed that they felt ashamed, but I was grateful for the invitation. Given the economic disparity between cultures, part of me thought someone might ask for a “gift.” Negative. Nobody asked for a goddamn thing.
Everyone and their mother were up for pictures. At Imin’s father’s house, photo time initiated the shuffling of chairs, smoothing of clothing, and a dash of primping. I hate to sound dismissive or condescending, but this too was adorable. I was brimming with gratitude, as were they. Gratitude might just be the universal panacea. Get some. Even awkward apologies concerning the state of their home weren’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm.
Although Imin acted as a translator, I quickly realized his English proficiency was less than I’d hoped. I hadn’t noticed the night before but this became evident when I tried to have more in-depth conversations with him and his family. Most conversations ended in confusion (for me, especially). Let’s remember he’s an English teacher. Hard to judge him harshly when you consider the setting. I’m guessing they aren’t able to shell out millions for public education. Money’s tight. You make do with what you have.
This was a special place, one of many along my path. I look back and wonder, What could I have done differently? Set up camp for a spell? Explored the culture more? Imagine how I could’ve improved Imin’s English. Or how about his students? He did invite me to visit/teach his class after all. A wasted opportunity? I should think so. What could I’ve learned in a week? A month? I had plenty of excuses. I invested in the motorcycle. I had a visa to renew and all my original documents were in Bali. How could I stand still when there was so much to experience, so much to explore? Excuses are like assholes. Where's the Peace Corps when you need ‘em?
While at an uncle’s house, a family friend (sadly, I’ve forgotten his name) stopped by for a chat. He was a smart fellow and spoke English well. He filled me in on the election stakes. They were voting in representatives for Parliament on the national and district level. According to him, there were so many political parties and individual candidates, people were justifiably confused by the ballots. More than two viable political parties? Fucking savages.
I lied. Through my teeth. Out my ass. On occasion, I was prone to impersonating a freelance journalist. In the right circumstances, I theorized this might get folks to open up more. Admittedly, it could also backfire. Maybe it would allow me to dig deeper, cultivate a more nuanced understanding. Ethical? Maybe not. One could stretch reality and label my blog “journalism”, though my reach far, far exceeded my grasp. (A dozen or so followers and at least three to four hits a day.) My intentions were pure, but perhaps that doesn’t justify the ruse. Little came of it…until I hit Bima. And then pay dirt. Upon hearing of my journalistic “credentials” my new friend asked me to accompany him for a spin on his motorbike. He had something to show me.
Destination? Democracy, bitches. I experienced polling station ping pong as I was ferried from one voting depot to another (eight in all). My celebrity status mushroomed, almost atomically one might say. I wasn’t just the center of attention, I was a major distraction, much to the chagrin of polling agents. Pretty sure I made official government-types nervous. Snapping a shitload of photos didn’t help. Voters, on the other hand, were loving it—saying hello, smiling incessantly, demanding I include them. And yet, nobody in charge uttered a word in protest. I believe my chaperone had clout.
My guide explained the procedure. People from nearby villages come to the station, sign in, and then sit and wait for their name to be called over the loudspeaker. They then head to one of four small tables where they make their choice (I was shown a ballot). They take the ballot to the appropriate box (there’s a separate box for each election, four in total) and cast their vote. All this under a canopy erected for the purpose. Privacy is lacking though sufficient to vote your conscience…probably? I have no idea how fair or unfair it was, but my friend assured me coercion was absent. In fact, he was adamant about this. He wanted me, perhaps needed me, to see this and share my experiences with others. The process did feel streamlined, but what the hell did I know? The facade of transparency and true transparency can be difficult to distinguish…especially to a pseudo-journalist.
Have I mentioned the scrutiny? I entered a polling tent, stood dead center, and began capturing the accoutrements of democracy. There was a festival atmosphere. Some of this (maybe a large part) was, no doubt, due to my presence, but I sensed genuine enthusiasm. It was amazing, the feeling contagious. I mean, what an idea. Give, or should I say mandate, the day off and encourage citizens to come together as a community to shape their future. In a sense, it was a party. I was mere fuel on a steady flame.
Election guide & family.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think my name was “Hey Mister”. This is how I was addressed the moment I set foot on Sumbawa, but the phenomenon escalated in Bima. It was like mortar fire; people lobbed “Hey Mister” from every direction. Even Imin didn’t get around to using my name. I heard it when I walked the streets, cruised along on the Phantom, ate at a restaurant, in my dreams…It provided endless entertainment; I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
After all the election excitement, we surveyed Bima’s outskirts. I can’t lie. Meandering the countryside while simultaneously promoting my journalist fantasy was a shit ton of fun. At a glance, it’d be easy to conclude there was nothing to see, but a local connection made all the difference. I found even the mundane aspects of island life fascinating and was so thankful for the opportunity. Too much dead horse beating?
Not sure Imin had much experience behind the wheel. He was a little shaky, and there were a few instances when I thought shit was gonna get hairy. Thankfully, he held it together. Collisions have a way of ruining your day. I had no desire to immerse myself in a local emergency room.
Lunch fell through. We were going to murder a chicken at an uncle’s house and indulge in chicken satay. This, too, was a gesture of goodwill and hospitality. Whole chickens are for special occasions. That’s when you know you’re a big deal. Unfortunately, the birds were also on holiday. There was a chicken somewhere taking a few extra breaths so the people could bless democracy. Lucky bird. I’d never been present for a live chicken slaying (still haven’t) and I’d be lying (again) if I said I wasn’t morbidly curious. Still, the day was perfect enough without a sacrifice.
That evening I drove to the port town of Sape so I might catch a ferry to the island of Flores in the morning. Flores is the jumping-off point to Komodo National Park. Both it and Komodo Park have a lot going for them. Sape? Not so much. Though reluctant, I must call a spade a spade. It’s an ugly, borderline shithole. Most small ports are. My hotel fit right in. No matter, my fragmented sleep, replete with visions of dragons, provided adequate compensation.
Gear came and went. I jotted down a casualty list at the time:
Wristwatch — Fell off while riding motorcycle.
Winchester multi-tool — Stolen from bag at Bali guesthouse.
Steel water bottle, shoulder strap, and holster — Fell off bike.
Camera lens cleaning cloth — Clip unclipped itself.
A hundred dollar bill (US) — I had Ben Franklin rolled tight and sequestered in my shorts’ pocket in case of emergency. Had them laundered. Forgot to remove. Made a stranger’s day.
Three twenty dollar bills (US) — Had the Jackson threesome wrapped together and hidden in belt loop. Must’ve dislodged and fell on the ground. Fiddlesticks.
Self-pride — I lost some every time I spoke Indonesian.