Friday, October 14, 2011

Sungai Penuh: Sleepy Mountain Town or Portal to Hell?

This week I started a subscription to the local newspaper, Radar Kerinci.  It's important to pay attention to the local news because it helps me stay abreast of political developments that might be directly or indirectly related to forest clearance activities.  Today, though, it was not a story about illegal logging or a new road through the national park that grabbed my attention.  Rather it was two golden nuggets of small town reporting that have exposed a different side of my adopted home. 

Heboh, Kesurupan Massal di SMAN 1 

Loosely translated this headline is "Commotion, Mass Demonic Possession at Sungai Penuh High School #1".  The front page, above-the-fold story is accompanied by a picture of a distraught young lady being led off by (presumably) her parents.  Evidently over the past week scholastic activity has ground to a halt at Sungai Penuh's elite high school owing to a growing wave of possession by demonic spirits.  The trend started last week, when on Friday the souls of two students were overtaken by spirits from the Pit.  Three more students fell under the sway of dark powers on Saturday, 15 on Monday, and 20 more on Wednesday.  All in all the legions of the Evil One have infected more than 40 students, the majority of which were females.  On Thursday some students took it upon themselves to close the street next to school in the interests of public safety.  "Maaf Pak," one motorist was told.  "Tidak bisa lewat.  Ada kesurupan di SMAN 1 Sungai Penuh" (Sorry sir, you can't pass.  There's been a possession at Sungai Penuh High School #1).  Things got so bad that the headmaster was forced to close the school. 

The incident is not surprising to local residents, because evidently it happens every year or so.  In addition to this (and I am not making this up), the school is built on the site of an old graveyard.  One local resident familiar with the history of the school suggested that the resting place of the dead had been disturbed, and so they in turn disturbed the living.  The way these types of occurrences are usually handled involves inviting an "orang pintar" (1) to dispel the mysterious spirits, after which a traditional banquet is held and a buffalo sacrificed.  I would imagine similar measures will be taken this year, so next week hopefully I'll be posting about the feast.

I couldn't get this story out of my head for two reasons: 1) the sheer oddness of it, and 2) I, like all normal males, have a fascination with high school girls and demonic possession.  So I spent the evening talking with my friends about the hottest news in Sungai Penuh.  I wanted to know if they believed the story.  Only a few said they doubted the validity of the demonic possession.  I expected this response; mysticism is strong in rural areas of Indonesia, and in many places there is a mixing (syncretism) between local beliefs and the big universalizing religions (Islam and Christianity).  At the same time, this area of Sumatra is known for being devoutly Muslim, and so I was curious as to how people reconciled stories of demonic possession with Islam.  Most all of my friends didn't see any incompatibilities between the two, but there were a couple that described the possessions as superstitious and therefore sacrilegious.  One of my friends even took me over to the school.  I felt a little cold there, but that's most likely due to the altitude.  Below you can see a picture I took of the entrance gate.  WHOOOOOOO!!!!

Keluyuran PNS Nakal Digaruk

This headline translates to "Naughty Truant Civil Servants Nabbed".  Before I go into the details of this one, a little background is in order.  Here in Sungai Penuh on any given workday you will witness teeming masses of civil servants on motorcycles and stepthoughs cruising around town, strolling around the square, or milling about in coffee stalls seemingly without a care in the world.  They are easy to spot because they are all in uniform.  To the newcomer it's quite a striking sight indeed.  In fact, I had a conversation about this very subject with my new American friend here.  We wondered why this sort of behavior was tolerated.  Apparently someone high up in the ranks decided to put his or her foot down.  A multi-agency task force was assembled and dozens of police officers hit the streets to round up civil servants that were out of the office without permission.  The police collected ID information and sent the naughty civil servants back to work.  The paper says that action will be taken later.

I'd never heard of anything like this before, but after being in Sungai Penuh for 4 weeks it makes perfect sense.  My friends told me that civil servants have a reputation for lax attitudes towards work.  I don't want to compromise myself too much here, but let's just say that as someone that has had extensive dealings with the bureaucracy here, I understood where they were coming from.

Scores of civil servants were caught in the sting.  I'm sure, though, that the numbers are exaggerated.  Most of the civil servants couldn't get the proper permission because the boss was out of the office!

(1) literally "smart person" but I assume this has a local connotation having to do with someone versed in the ways of the beyond

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