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"For centuries, along with the tiger's penis, the poor old rhino's horn has provided a perverse comfort for men who steadfastly refuse to admit that no matter how many exotic powders they rub into it, it will not get any bigger."
- Sam Bowen

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Letter to home from Indonesia
by Sam Bowen, Australian in Jakarta, Indonesia
Mar 5, 2000

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It is sometimes easy to overlook the difficulties in communication when you travel to Asia. Besides the obvious differences in language, real meaning and intention are often veiled behind understatement and double-entendre. And I don't mean that in the Benny Hill sense, like "oi, 'as anyone seen me melons?" or "can I carry those jugs for you, waitress?"

For instance, I was told a few weeks ago that the Indonesians have 1,000 ways of saying "yes" and 999 of them mean "no". The best example of this is when a Indonesian says "maybe". "Maybe" means there is absolutely no chance that the subject of the "maybe" will occur. "Maybe" means "no". The reason they say "maybe" and not "no" is tied up in that delicate, impenetrable concept of face, which, if you are not Asian, requires a masters in anthropology and a PhD in patience to even begin to appreciate, let alone understand. Rather than admit that something cannot be done or that they don't know something, Indonesians say "maybe", because to say "no" would mean a loss of face to them.

So anything from asking "will England regain the Ashes in our lifetime?" to "is it all right if my friend Bob here sleeps with your little sister tonight?" will evoke the same response: "Maybe". And it is of little comfort for you the poor Buleh (white person) that the Indonesian has saved face, when you are the one who ends up suffering the often dire consequences of taking this "maybe" at "face" value (I don't do puns, so none was intended...(!)) And you learn the hard way.

So I took a last minute invitation from a friend last Friday night to go to Ujung Kolong, a world heritage area on the south-western tip of Java. Among a huge variety of wildlife, it is the last remaining habitat of the Javan rhinoceros which once roamed an area from India to East Java. Since then, it has succumbed to a strictly enforced Asian environmental policy requiring the complete destruction of anything which occurs naturally, coupled with the endless and ruthless pursuit by inadequate-feeling men for sexual potency. For centuries, along with the tiger's penis, the poor old rhino's horn has provided a perverse comfort for men who steadfastly refuse to admit that no matter how many exotic powders they rub into it, it will not get any bigger.

And so we headed out west from Jakarta to a town called Serang, a sort of poor man's Newcastle but without the nightlife. It is so interesting Lonely Planet devotes five lines to it. I was going to give it a little more space, but on reflection I have to admit that Lonely Planet was right. It was our driver Bazukiís turn to choose the music, and so I had to put up with Phil Collins and Genesis the whole way. Not that I have anything against Phil Collins or Genesis. I just canít stand their music, especially that "No son of mine" song. Try hearing that over and over again.

Anyway, turning south we made it late at night to Labuan. Just on the horizon from Labuan are the islands which once formed Krakatoa until it blew it's stack in 1880s in one of the biggest explosions ever recorded on earth. Anak Krakatau (son of Krakatoa), which has formed in place of Krakatoa, still rumbles and hisses angrily from a few kilometres off the coast. It is the source of much superstition among the locals who have conjured a belief that the Devil resides there, mostly in order to sell more wood-carved totems to European backpackers and the rookie WWF investigators who stop by on their way to save the rhino.

We stayed the night at a half-built sailing resort which, like most resorts in Indonesia, fell foul of the civil unrest and currency crisis a few years ago. The result is a mosquito filled pit in the place of a proper pool, a fold-out mattress in the place of a proper bed and Fosters in the bar in the place of proper beer.

Running the resort in the place of a proper manager was Jasper, a Dutchman who apparently forgot to withdraw along with the rest of them in 1945. Either that or they left him to the locals, which is probably a more likely explanation. Jasper advised us gravely that a trip to Ujung Kolong was not advisable in the wet season. The sea-route which would take 2 hours would be wrought with heavy seas. It would also cost us 2 million rupiah. Going by land would be difficult, along a "bad road", and the 200-odd kilometres would take over 5 hours. In short, he said we would be mad to try it and did we want to please spend the rest of the weekend at his resort. Please. At a discount. Please. "I have bills to pay...."

Planning the trip

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