The Far East is full of mysteries. I’m sure you’ve heard. For expats and travelers this can be fun, fascinating, frustrating, or infuriating as I discovered myself. For two years I sojourned on the tropical island of Java, Indonesia, with the man of my dreams and our two blond daughters.
I did not attempt to unveil the mysteries of religion, mysticism, spiritualism and other high-minded affairs, since my mind only lives on the lower plains of existence, just so you know. Even so, in daily life, I found some mysteries to deal with. Such as that people on Java like to pinch the cheeks of cute little kids hard, as our girls painfully discovered. And when you’re in a car accident, logic as you know it does not apply. Let me tell you a scary tale:
So one day I am in traffic, in my little car. I’m on my way home from shopping at Pasar Johar, the open market in Semarang, the town where we live. I buy my vegetables and fruit there, and fish and meat as well (and no, we’ve never been sick).
I have to make one more stop at a small store along the street, so I slow down and signal my turn. Behind me a cool kid on a motorcycle decides to pass me at the same time. On the outside, the curbside, illegally. Either he does not see my turn signal or he just ignores it because he is sixteen and therefore immortal.
As you will understand, disaster strikes as I turn my steering wheel. With a horrifying bang he crashes right into the side of my car, behind where I sit in the driver’s seat. Then he bounces over the top, bike and all, and ends up lying in the street on the other side. My heart rate is off the charts.
People stop. Traffic stops. The daredevil cyclist clambers to his feet, apparently unscathed except for an injured elbow, praise be to Allah. His motorcycle is a mangled mess.
Long story short: The hara-kiri biker and I end up at the police station, where a report is drawn up. Witnesses to the scene have confirmed that the motorcyclist was at fault, passing me on the wrong side, and that my signal was turned on. Why did he pass me when I had my turn signal on? He shrugs and says he didn’t believe I was going to turn. Oh, really?
The officer in charge of our case now suggests to me that I should pay the young man some money so he can go fix his bike, if this is even possible. I am not sure I hear him right.
“It was not my fault!” I say. “Why should I pay?”
The officer assures me the accident was not my fault, and that it says so in the report, so why don’t I give the boy some money so the case can be closed and I can go home?
The full shock has finally hit me and I am trembling. The kid could have been dead, and guilty or not, I would have carried the image of his bloody corpse with me for the rest of my life. I am enraged he did such a stupid thing and now I have to give him money? No way!
The officer looks confused. The kid looks confused. Why don’t I fork over some rupiahs and be done with it?
I tell them I will not pay money. Not even a token little bit. Absolutely definitely not. I did not cause the accident and I will not pay!
“But the young man is poor,” the officer says. “He needs money to help with fixing his bike.”
My husband and his colleague Jim arrive at the police station to give me aid and succor. I pour out my story, while the hara-kiri kid watches us as he nurses his painful elbow. More talk with the various officers who have gathered to watch the drama. I stand aside. I’ve had enough. I’m hot and sweaty. I’m mad and tired. I want to go home, have a shower and a stiff drink or two.
A while later my husband takes my arm and leads me out of the station.
“They’re letting us go? What did you do?”
“I gave the kid some money,” my man says, cool as a cucumber.
I’m sizzling like a chili in hot oil. “Why?” I wail. “It wasn’t my fault! Why should we pay him even a single rupiah!”
“It’s not a matter of who is at fault,” Jim-the-colleague tells me. “It’s a matter of who has money. That’s how it’s done here. You have the money, so you pay. That’s fair.” He grins his American smile at me.
You’ve got to be kidding.
“And,” my husband adds, “the other logic goes that since you’re a foreigner, the accident wouldn’t have happened in the first place if you hadn’t been here.”
Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
* * *
All over the world people have different ways of thinking, of making sense of things. I’d love to hear what you’ve come across that surprised, angered or amused you. I’m waiting!