My work week in Solo rapidly became an established routine of bedside rounds in the morning, followed by lunch, then didactic sessions in the afternoon, using the slide sets of medical topics I brought with me from the States. I quickly came to realize that the support services and labs and X-rays which until now I had taken for granted at home were unavailable, or greatly curtailed to my medical colleagues in Indonesia. There was little use in my talking about workup of diseases using technologies which in Solo and the surrounding countryside either did not exist or were unreliable. Most of the medical technology at the hospital was the legacy equipment from the Dutch, who left Indonesia in 1954. When equipment broke down, finding parts or someone knowledgeable to replace them became increasingly difficult. Much of medical care depended on history taking and physical diagnostic skills, and knowledge of pathophysiology, so I attempted to focus most of our time strengthening these core areas. After my experience with TB patients being placed next to post-operative patients (described in an earlier blog in this series), I could never be sure if the information I was attempting to convey was being accepted, or I was simply receiving the polite reception accorded to visitors, and everything would revert to the status quo after my departure. I asked Barun about this, but he could only smile and shrug his shoulders, saying “Foreigners have a hard time in my country. We don’t change quickly, and we don’t change easily.” It would be nice if people who design these programs understood this concept better, and planned accordingly.
My friend Marjorie and I looked forward to using our free weekends to explore as much of this marvelous country as possible during our limited stay. Having visited the temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan, Marjorie was very interested in visiting the site where Java man, discovered in the late 1800’s, was found. It was considered at the time to be the oldest hominid fossil found, and is now considered the archetype of Homo erectus. We trekked to the site, which turned out to be not much more than a cordoned off area in a field by the Solo River, with a small adjacent hut, and a couple of plaques describing the original discovery, and some of the subsequent anthropological details. This all fell into Marjorie’s area of research, so she was quite excited by it all, though even she was a bit disappointed that the person who was likely no more than a guard at the site could answer very few of her questions. I learned a lot more regarding the fine points of skull development, morphologic classification, and subtle anatomy than I ever cared to know, but Marjorie was such an enthusiastic teacher that I had little choice but to pay attention to her discourse, and hope the final exam, should there be one, would be multiple choice.
Sensing that I was underwhelmed by our visit to the site of Java man, Marjorie suggested that I choose our next weekend destination. Discussing options with my driver and translator, Barun, I decided I wanted to visit the vast lowland jungle at the southwestern part of Java, home to a large number of rare animals and plants not to be found anywhere else in the world. This is also the location of Krakatau, the site of the largest volcanic eruption in modern times that in 1883 killed over 36,000 people, and was felt around the world. (It had another, less severe eruption in 2020.) Having reached the Sunda straits, we were taken by boat to the site designated to meet our guide. After a wet landing (no dock – just splash ashore by foot) on a pebble beach, we were greeted by a man wearing a green uniform, sandals, and smoking a clove-scented kretek cigarettes which appeared to be ubiquitous. Taking a few steps inland, we were in the rainforest. The ground was a soft mattress of decaying plants and roots. Overhead was a conflagration of bamboo, ferns and strangler figs all clinging to trees towering upwards of over a hundred feet. Only thin rays of sunlight penetrated the canopy, forming an enormous green cathedral, the Sistine Chapel of photosynthesis.
You don’t see much in the rain forest, but the sounds all around you are extraordinary. The whoosh of air is from the broad wings of a flight of giant hornbills; black birds with yellow splotches and hooked beaks. The rustling in the branches is from a black gibbon swinging through the trees, escaping our invasion. We come to a jungle river, and board a raft with a couple of more guides, joining our current leader. They take a position in the bow of the raft, wielding machetes to aid us through the dense jungle. We look up to see pythons curled in the branches six or seven feet above our heads. Our guide warns us not to jump out of the raft should a snake fall in, because there are crocodiles in the river. Why didn’t anyone tell us these things before we signed up? Python sightings, I discovered, do not get boring with repetition. Did I mention I’m not terribly fond of snakes? Indiana Jones would have felt right at home in this place. Marjorie, meanwhile, is playing the role of the excited school girl, chattering on about how wonderful and exciting this all was, every bit as good as the last time she was in a place like this. “And you didn’t warn me?” I think to myself.
We eventually make it to a beach, where we are offered a buffet of Indonesian dishes: rice, tempura styled jumbo shrimp, stir-fried vegetables, and the ever present big bowl of tasty but inscrutable fruits. I find out that what appear to be hair red golf balls are called rambutans, and the shiny things that look like white eyeballs inside are mangosteens. I must admit, I’ve come a long way from being a picky eater to accepting the advice that it’s best to eat what’s placed in front of you, and not ask what it is you’re eating.
Having survived our jungle experience, we come across a debus troupe. These are clubs that carry on traditional warrior rites mixed with magic and illusion trickery. We join a group of around a couple hundred locals watching a dozen men in blue garb sing, chant and beat on drums. One picks up a steel spike, and pounds it against his comrade’s bare stomach, then thigh. There is no blood, and no apparent damage. Another man tears apart a whole coconut using only his teeth, then cuts the nut open to reveal inside – colored cloths. Now, the machetes come out. One man takes the machete, drawing it across his forearm, producing blood, and then rubbing his hands over the wound to have the scar vanish. Finally, a young warrior proceeds to eat and chew a pane of glass and a lightbulb. Looking like he needed to vomit, he reaches in his mouth, and pulls out something small and black, which proceeds to fly away – a live bat. Too bad Penn & Teller were not there to watch this.
Next chapter – a visit to Bali.