Bandung stirs outside and wakes us kindly mid morning.
Like small grubs we emerge from our pupae and instinctively head out to find a source of breakfast.
Low tables are laid with teapots set on little frames with small candles lit underneath to keep the tea warm.
Waiters in high collared coats wait to stack our plates with deep yellow omelettes and rice. There are glass bowls filled with strange pink and yellow fruits and baskets of krupuk.
Johnny trots about in bare foot happiness, his head just above the tables, reaching toward the food.
“Jangan sentuh, si kecil,” the waitress watches as Johnny strays over to touch the candles.
But Bandung has streets to explore and we do not linger over breakfast.
As soon as Dad moves to the door, we are beside him. Johnny is gently held back by a waitress with a promise of juice and smiles enough to make him stay.
First Dad makes a phone call in a little booth in the lobby, while Matt hunts the walls for switches to the ceiling fans.
Tony flicks through the books in a small library shelf.
I still dream of the empty space being filled by men in black dinner suits and women floating by in long satin gowns.
Dad gets some directions and we head out along the main street of Jalan Asia-Afrika.
We cross the road and turn off into Jalan Braga and I stop in mid step to take in a man sat on a dirty blue cloth. He holds a long, broad hand out toward us, low to the ground as if it takes him great effort to keep it held out. His crutches lie in front of him. He has no feet and some of his fingers seem to be missing on his other, half bandaged hand. Dad takes some rupees and drop them into the grey, metal cup on the ground. The coins spin around and make a sick, dry ring.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong with him Dad?” Matt looks back in intrigue, “Why’s he sitting out on the street?”
“He’s very poor, Matt,” Dad says.
My chest feels hollow like the breath has been sucked out. Like when we landed in Jakarta. Like when I fainted after my cholera shot at the doctor.
“Leprosy,” Tony hisses at Matt in an effort to quiet him.
“Like in the bible, like leprosy in the bible, like Jesus?”
“Jesus didn’t have leprosy Matt,” I have to interject.
“I didn’t say he did.”
“That’ll do, come on,” Dad closes the topic and shepherds us forward.
Matt soon is out in front and draws us toward another man at the next corner.
The man squats so low to the ground his legs fold up close to either side of his chest. His head is wrapped in a grey turban and his wide, partly toothed mouth half calls, half sings to bring a crowd.
Before him is a tiny woven corral which holds about twenty scorpions. Fat and black.
”Deadly” says Tony with a short raise of his eyebrows.
As we form our own little audience, other people start to gather around us and the man begins to poke and prod at the scorpions with a thick gnarled stick, a bit like the sheleighly Tony was given for being a page boy at a wedding.
The turbanned man finishes his stick waving and prodding and starts a long nasally chant. With a flourish he lays the stick down and rolls up his loose sleeves, then picks up one of the scorpions and places it on his bare arms.
All the time he keeps up his sing-song. The scorpion inches along his flesh, pinching the skin with its fine legs.
“Will it bite him Dad?” Matt is almost beside himself.
Matt is pretty keen to test his luck, “Can I touch one?” he stretches out a hand but the squatting man waves wildly at him with the stick.
“Awas, awas, berhati hati,” he smiles wildly at Matt with a wide toothless and blackened mouth.
“Hang on Matt I’m trying to listen to what he’s saying,” Dad pulls him back gently by his shirt.
The man’s head is broad and his face lined and gaunt. The small crowd seems as intent on this strange presentation as we are.
Some other people in the crowd ask questions and then the man stops his singing and removes the scorpions.
“The stick’s supposed to anaesthetise the scorpions” Dad translates.
“If you touch one and he bites you, you’ll be dead meat.”
“Can we get a stick?” Matt says, unabashed.
Dad bargains with the man for a stick.
“Can I have it? Can I keep the stick?”
Dad gives Matt the stick.
“Grouse!” Matt exclaims.
Now he too is armed and dangerous.
We can hardly tear ourselves away from the scorpions as they inch their way around each other and occasionally rear up with their frightening pincers and curling tails.
Some essential Indonesian words when small children (or kids like Matt) are about
Jangan sentuh, si kecil = ‘Don’t touch poppet’
Awas, awas, berhati hati = Beware, be careful
Our first day in Bandung was pretty confronting. We were thrown into such a incredible world of sights and smells.
Seeing very disabled people begging was a difficult reality. Indonesia is very changed today and although there is poverty, it is not as abject – at least in cities like Bandung – as it was.