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One Day in the Zoo

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I looked at my face reflected in the mirror, trying to trace any She-Devil lines in between my laugh crinkles and mumbled: “Could people actually see me as a criminal? A replica of the famous Thelma and Louise duo perhaps – with a five-year old girl as the mischievous accomplice?”

The story began one beautiful Sunday; the sun was shining brightly and the birds were chirping in the lush green trees, cheerfully decorating my old black car with their droppings. My two-year-old son wanted to go to the park and see wild animals, he said. My five-year-old daughter thought that it was about time we went shopping. After some persuasion my son was finally convinced that it would be too difficult to visit Safari Park on a Sunday as every weekend more than half of Jakarta’s population tends to visit the famous mountainous recreation destination, Puncak, to get some, allegedly fresh air.

Being a very reasonable mother, of course I added at the end that these very people end up sniffing the abundant fresh carbon monoxide produced by their less-than-pristine weekend cars. You don’t want to be part of the not so pretty sight or, God forbid, witness those cute cuddly bears choking to death from inhaling the excess pollution or from chewing plastic-wrapped candies thrown by those ignorant weekenders, do you son? He got the picture.

We voted and finally agreed to spend the beautiful sunny day closeted in a crowded shopping mall, the shop windows richly adorned with overpriced Versace pillowcases and must-have limited edition LV bags. My husband, who is shopping-phobic, reluctantly decided to come with us after he gave up trying to locate the whereabouts of his TV remote control.

After we finished packing the children’s essential survivor kits, which include a bottle of handy clean, mace and a dog leash, inside a bright pink Barbie bag, we were set to drive to the mall. We reached the entrance gate of the mall at half past ten. It felt like trying to penetrate a military camp. Security officers clad in intimidating black uniforms (which hardly intimidated anybody since most of the officers were pre-midgets) stopped our car and interrupted our driver while he was playing tug of war with the ticket machine, which was actually the highlight of his day. One security officer asked our driver to lift up the hood of our car to check for an explosive device. Who would be so moronic as to keep explosive materials in a raging hot machine I wonder. And I‘m pretty sure we didn’t really look like a bunch of religious martyrs ready to explode themselves in order to achieve eternal life surrounded by beautiful virgins. Then the officers opened the side doors and looked under the seats while taking the time to peek under my mini skirt, which I think wouldn’t be a very comfortable place to hide a bomb at all.

Our driver dropped us off at one of the mall’s entrance doors and parked the car somewhere inside the labyrinth-styled parking lot. There were four swinging doors at the mall’s entrance we approached. It’s funny to see how Indonesians tend to use only one door, which is the door opened and used by the people before them. Rarely does somebody open and go through another door, even if it meant saving them from standing in a long queue at one particularly sacred door. It’s like watching black-headed ants following their leader. The ants are too scared to take the risks involved if they choose another route. I opened a door on the left; not only to avoid the stupid queue, but mainly for safety reasons. Imitating the black-headed ants, most Indonesians are too absorbed in their self-importance to remember the common courtesy of holding the door open for a while for the people behind them. I had to experience several doors slamming in my face before the idea actually sank in my head. Daft. Most Indonesians do not find this facial door-slamming regime bothersome.

Feeling famished; first we went to the food court. Close to lunchtime, the huge hall was packed with weird and wonderful people sitting on colourful plastic chairs, eating, talking and spitting at the same time. More than two dozen restaurants are lined up on the sides. A song advertising the latest Taiwanese mobile phone gadget screamed loudly from the multi-faceted wide screen TV stationed in the middle of the court. We sat down and tried to finish our fat saturated deep-fried meaty things served on Styrofoam plates as quick as possible. Somebody get me out of this onion-infused sweaty hole please!

Since the late 90s, like most people, I bring my mobile phone in my bag wherever I go. If I forget to bring it, I feel so hopeless and miserable – the catastrophic effect is even greater than if I forget to put on mascara. That day, I forgot to bring my mobile. My daughter and I were watching a pair of bright green hair decorations shaped like Pamela’s boobs displayed in one of the shops, when we realized that I had lost my husband. I looked in every nook and cranny – I couldn’t find him.

We went to the department store inside the mall. I told the person behind the information counter I’d like her to announce through the store’s loudspeaker that I would wait for my husband at the information desk. Yes, but you have to wait, she said. Apparently she needs to use the telephone to announce the news. And at the time a female shop attendant was busily chattering on the phone. I tapped the attendant’s shoulder and explained to her that I needed the phone for a few seconds. She ignored me and kept talking with her horse-style smile plastered on her face. Then I had a better idea. My husband had his mobile so I should just borrow someone’s mobile and ring him. I approached two guys and one woman nearby me to no avail.

“No, I don’t want to lend my mobile to you,” said a middle-aged Indonesian guy bluntly. He scrutinised me and my daughter from head to toe, totally ignored my usually charming ‘puppy’ look, and treated me as if I was some suspicious criminal who was going to misuse his mobile phone. Inspired by an Aboriginal story I had read, I felt like pointing a dead chook’s claw at him and curse that one day he will be in my position and suffer greatly. I can only think that if one day a lost mother and her toddler come to me and ask for the same help, I would not think twice about assisting them. What has happened to this city that drives its people to be so ignorant, suspicious and selfish?

The security checks, the unregulated queues, the face-smashing doors and the selfishness of the people in the mall we visited sound a lot more primitive than a zoo. The following week when I stopped my car on the gravel road in the African Village at Safari Park, I inhaled the fresh manure-scented air. A strand of a Texan long-horned steer’s hair stuck on my nostril, a blotch of a llama’s spit perched at the tip of my Reebok shoe and I shouted: “I just love civilization!”

First published in the Jakarta Post, on Sunday, February 8, 2004

Housing and schooling information for expats in Indonesia expatriate website for Indonesia Indonesian language translation of article

Practical Information for foreigners, expats and expatriates moving to Indonesia - find out about housing, schooling, transport, shopping and more to prepare you for your stay in Indonesia

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