MACAM KUMBANG by Peter Nolan Smith

In 1990 I got off the train from Surabaya a little past dawn and headed over to the port of Jakarta. An inter-island ship was departing to Sumatra at noon and I looked forward to a cruise through the Java Sea to the Indian Ocean.

As I neared the dock, a man of indeterminable race approached with a smile and greeted me in Hebrew.


I responded in Yiddish thanks to my reading the books of Isaac B. Singer.

“Sholem Aleykhem.” I readjusted the bag on my shoulder. I was traveling light, but also carrying a small electric word processor.

“Are you Jewish?” asked the portly man in his thirties.

“No, but I’m the shabbos goy.” I had spent the previous year on 47th Street schlepping diamonds between the Ashkenazi and the Hasidim. My commish from the sale of a 5-carat FSI1 diamond bought a round-the-world ticket.

“Then you’re the closest thing to a Jew in this city.” Jakarta was 99% Muslim.

“I like pastrami and don’t mix dairy with meat.” The Javanese weren’t too friendly to Christians and the imams reserved a special vitriol for non-believers like myself. “Some of my best friends are Jewish.”

“And I’ll be your newest.” David Mussery introduced himself as a Syrian Jew running a nightclub called the Pink Panther. “Where are you going?”

“Padang.” The port served the west coast of Sumatra. “By that liner.”

“Have you bought your ticket yet?”


“I’ll send my servant over to the ticket office, while you visit my club. Drinks will be free for a Landsmann. It’s a fun place. Girls and sailors.”

“Sounds irresistable.” I liked bars like his. “But I don’t want to miss the ferry. There isn’t another for three days.”

“No worries.” He checked his Rolex watch. Business at his bar was either good or the watch was a fake. “I’ll get you on the boat.”

“Okay, I’ll check it out.”

“You won’t regret it.” David grabbed my bag and motioned for me to follow him down a muddy street.

Jalan Macam Kumbang.

“Macam Kumbang means Panther in Bahasa Indonesian. Are you a journalist?” He pointed to my typewriter.

“No, I’m writing a novel about pornography in LA.”

The Bugis sailors on the sidewalk drank tuak, a cheap sweet palm wine, and their eyes were glazed from the morning’s drinking session.

“Shouldn’t you be writing that in LA?” It was a logical question.

“Probably, but I wanted to see the world.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” David held open the pink door to his bar. “This is the crossroads of the world.”

It was barely 8am, but his rundown establishment was filled with sailors from Malaysia, the Philippines, Indian, Africa, and Europe consorting with Indonesian women ranging in age from young to very old. The music crackling from the jukebox speakers was loud garage Indonesian rock.

“Dara Puspita doing TANKA AKU. Those girls were big in the 60s.”

Several girls danced to the song. Their partners did the Twist. Most everyone held a Bintang Beer, although several sailors chugged brown liquor from small glasses.

“Palm Whiskey. 40 degree in strength,” David explained in a hushed voice. “My customers think it’s whiskey.”

“After a few I guess they don’t care what it is.” I sat at the bar and a wrinkled woman chewing betel nut poured David and me a ‘whiskey’. Glancing at its effect on the sailors, I hesitated beforeclinking glasses with my host.

“I know what you’re thinking.” David laughed aloud. “You meet a strange man in Jakarta and you’re thinking I’ll slip you a sleeping pill and get robbed.”

“The thought crossed my mind.” My version had me shanghaied to Sulawesi on a Bugis prahu.

“I’ve been running the Pink Panther since 1974. It had been my uncle’s place back then. He handed me the keys after he left for Israel.”

“But you stayed?”

I went once to Jerusalem and came right back. Here I’m me. Back there I was only one of millions.”

“And you have no trouble with the Muslims?” Strict Islamists condemned both drinking and dancing.

“As long as I don’t throw it in their face, everyone loves the Pink Panther. It’s someplace you can come and not be yourself.” He raised his glass. “It’s good for you.”

“Sie gesund.” I toasted him and downed my glass. It wasn’t bad and I ordered two more. David signaled for a waiter and ordered him to get a second-class ticket to Padang. I handed the man 40,000 rupiah. It was more than a month’s wages on Java.

The jukebox switched to the same band performing A GO GO.

I started moving to the music. I liked the Pink Panther. It was rough on the edges and even rougher in the corners. A scary-looking tranny asked me to dance. David waved away the banci.

“Some things are always tref.” He snapped his finger and a beautiful young girl emerged from the dance floor. She could have been Miss Teen Indonesia 1990. “Her name is Sandy. She’s from Madura. They have a special way about them with men.”

In the dim light Sandy looked about 16. She put an arm around my waist and stroked my thigh.

“Sorry, she’s new to the scene and doesn’t speak any English.” He smiled upon seeing my expression.

“Don’t look so surprised. Eveything goes at the Pink Panther. So where are you from?”

I didn’t tell him Boston, but said New York and added, “I work selling diamonds for an old friend. Manny lets me work six months of the year and the rest I write.”

“Diamonds? Maybe I should have slipped you something.” David lifted his hands. “Just kidding.”

A Javanese version of LOUIE LOUIE dropped onto the jukebox record player. Sandy pulled me onto the dance floor. She was a good dancer and loved a singer called Adnan Othman. When I came back to the bar, David handed me a 2nd class ticket. “My man says no one is in your cabin, so it will be like 1st class.”

“Terima kasih.”

“So you speak ein bissen Bahasa?”

“Enough to keep from starving.” I signaled to the bartender. “Tiga bintang.”

“Make it two beers. Sandy doesn’t drink. She’s a good Muslim girl. Still a virgin too.”

“Are there any virgins in here?”

“Just Sandy. She’s a friend’s daughter. She makes her money from tips. Nothing else. But you can always think about it. That’s free.”

I spent the next two hours dancing and drinking with David. We discussed Palestine.

“They’ll never be peace there, until Israel accepts that it stole the land.”

“They’ll never do that.”

“They’ll never say it, but they will think it.”

“Thinking it is not as good as saying it.” I knew, because I really wanted to kiss Sandy.

“Thinking it is the first step, but we’re thousands of miles from Jerusalem. Here’s to Peace on Earth.”

I bought the bar a round. It cost me $20US. We drank to Meraka or Freedom.

“I love this place, because it has everyone from everywhere. We are all human. If only everyone knew that, the world would be a better place for everyone.”

I drank to that and several more of his toasts.

A little before noon he tapped his watch.

“Time to go, unless you want to stay.” He offered me a job with very little pay. “A sheygutz like you could make a fortune.”

“Money and I are distant cousins.” I counted on getting rich in my next life.

“I could teach you the ways of my tribe.” David was lonely, but I had a ticket for a ferry.

David accompanied to the port with Sandy. They bid me Selamat Jalaan with their hearts. Sandy cried on cue. I tipped her $20. David asked me to call him, if I passed through town again and the following year I swung by the Pink Panther.

Nothing had changed in the bar.

He was a good Jew, I was a good sheygutz, and Sandy was more indah than ever.

All were a state of mind meant to last forever and none of us cared how long forever was in 1991.

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