Sleepless in Jakarta
Copyright © Judith Shaw
It took us a long time to figure out what was going on.
It took even longer to realize there was anything to figure out. I mean, lots of parents of toddlers don’t sleep. And if your toddler has never been a good sleeper, you could lose the habit of sleeping altogether, right?
That’s what we thought had happened to us, until it was time for R&R.
We flew Garuda from Jakarta to Singapore, checked into the Mandarin, had a quick dinner, and hit the sheets. All three of us slept the whole night through. No interruptions, no abrupt wake-ups, nothing but sound, peaceful sleep. Even the baby slept through.
It was a red-letter night. It was also peculiar, so peculiar that we had to talk about it. What was it about the Mandarin that let us get a good night’s sleep? We had no idea. Okay, so what was going on in our beautiful Jakarta bungalow that kept waking us up?
We compared notes for the first time:
It wasn’t that we couldn’t get to sleep. Far from it. We’d go to bed at 9:00, exhausted, and fall asleep like falling down a well. Then around 11:00 we’d wake up. There was nothing gradual about it. We’d be shocked awake from deep sleep, certain that someone was walking around in the hallway outside our bedroom door.
At first we thought it was our daughter, waking up and looking for us in the night. One or the other of us would get up and check, but she’d be out like a light. Back in bed, we’d sink into that delicious floaty state just before sleep, then WHAM! Awake again, hearts pounding, certain that something was wrong. This sink-into-sleep startle-awake cycle would go on until the 4:30 call to morning prayer. Then it would turn off like a switch. Unfortunately work starts early in Jakarta, so staying asleep was not an option.
We loved our house in Kebayoran Baru, one of the few old neighborhoods not yet turned into an armed fortress for oil company execs. We loved its wrap-around verandah and the fruit trees in its garden. It was leafy and quiet, but with the mosque across the street there was always something going on, and the five calls to prayer punctuated our days. The last thing we wanted to do was move.
Once we knew that whatever was happening at night was happening to both of us, the situation looked different. It had a kind of objective reality that demanded action.
We started looking for another house.
House hunting in Jakarta in 1979 was not something to undertake lightly. For one thing, foreigners paid the rent for the entire period of the lease up front. In cash. Sometimes in a brown paper bag. Usually the foreign corporations paid the rent, and since the money was already spent—in our case, three years in advance—the bank was not going to be pleased if we walked out on our lease.
Also, there weren’t many houses to rent. Indonesia was in an oil boom, and all the suitable houses were rented already. Everything we looked at sucked.
Our house, on the other hand, was perfect, if we could only filter out the hours between 11p.m. and 4:30 in the morning. But we couldn’t. As time went by, we became punch-drunk from lack of sleep. We didn’t know what was causing it, we didn’t know what do about it, and we didn’t know how we could survive it with our sanity intact.
That’s when our landlady’s husband stepped in.
Frank was one of those people who always knows what’s in the wind. He’d heard on the landlord grapevine that we were looking at houses and wandered over to see what was up. It was easy. He lived only four houses away.
We told him our troubles. “You can’t sleep either?” he asked. “Nobody on this street can sleep. We’re sitting on top of a field of earth radiation.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s easy to fix. Just go down to Glodok—Chinatown—and buy some lead foil. Cover the floor of your bedroom with it, and the problem will be solved.”
Earth radiation. Just what a 4-month pregnant woman wants to hear. We kept on looking at houses.
Next thing, our landladies invited us over for tea. They had grown up in the house, and there was nothing about it they didn’t know.
Irma and Marjan were, to put it impolitely, mongrels. Their mother was a Dutch Catholic. Dad was a Karo Batak from North Sumatra, the only son of the tribal chief. Sort of like the crown prince. He left Islam for the Catholic faith when he married, pissing off all strata of his smaller and larger communities in the process. The Dutch residents weren’t too pleased, either.
Their parents built the house on Jalan Raden Patah III in a seriously Muslim neighborhood, with what was then Jakarta’s biggest mosque right across the street. I can’t imagine what they were thinking, exposing very young children to the neighbors’ righteous religious wrath. Apparently Irma and Marjan couldn’t walk to school without rocks being thrown.
Anyway, there we were, drinking tea, eating sweet Dutch pretzels and listening to stories about our house.
“What exactly is it that wakes you up?” Irma asked. We took turns explaining: the sound, almost too faint to hear, of bare feet on terrazzo tiles and the feeling that someone was walking around in the hall. The description was more concrete than the experience, but those were the only words we could find.
“We used to hear footsteps coming from the verandah outside our bedroom,” Marjan said. “We’d get up to see if the night watchman was walking around. After a while we just stopped noticing.”
Frank walked in with a beer and sat down. He looked troubled and talked about strange things happening on the street over the years, things that couldn’t really be explained.
Earth radiation was never mentioned again.
Rereading what I’ve written, it sounds as if the only problem was our inability to stay asleep, but it wasn’t really so. Strange things started happening soon after we moved in. They were subtle, and we didn’t twig that anything was genuinely odd. It was my first time living in another country, attempting to speak a foreign language outside of high school French, so pretty much everything seemed strange to me. But some things were obvious. First among them was the water on the floor.
We’d had a lot of work done before moving in, including laying down new terrazzo tile. Even the master bathroom, which was as big as a barn, got a new floor. It looked great, but whenever anyone took a shower, a puddle of water appeared right outside the bathroom door. Obviously a pipe had broken during the tile installation, and shower water leaked under the floor to settle in front of the door.
I talked to the contractor, who said there was no broken pipe. In my broken Indonesian I said there had to be and explained why. He said, very firmly, that there was no broken pipe. What we needed was a selamatan.
I went to Nimah, our cook, to find out. Apparently a selamatan is a purification ceremony performed by an imam from the mosque. We would provide a “mountain” of yellow rice and lots of delicious food. The neighbors would be invited, the ritual—which involved incense, scented water and flower petals—would be carried out, and everyone would box up the food and take it home. The house would be cleansed, and the water would disappear. It sounded like a perfect excuse to have a party.
I told the contractor to take up the floor and find the pipe. We could have a selamatan afterwards, to celebrate.
He broke up the floor outside the bathroom. Where the tiles had been there was only dry dirt.
We had the selamatan the following week. It was a lovely ceremony, much more animist than Islamic. After the food was packed up and the guests had gone, I checked on the bathroom, just for fun.
The entire bathroom floor was under water.
Our adventures with plumbing proved nothing, really, but they did soften us up for Frank’s trump card.
A few days after the tea party, Frank came around with a pad of graph paper, some sharpened pencils and a carpenter’s expandable ruler. He walked around the house making notes and measuring all the rooms and hallways.
He left without saying anything.
The next time he came around, he sat us down and told a story.
“I have a younger brother who is mentally ill,” Frank said. “He believes he’s possessed by evil spirits. We tried every medical treatment available, with no result. Then we heard about an old Dutch priest in Central Java who has permission from the Vatican to perform exorcisms and spiritual healing twice a month. It’s the only thing that’s given my brother any relief. I bring him several times a year.”
Ron and I looked at each other.
“I would like that priest to consider what is going on here.” He handed us a meticulously drawn floor plan of the house and gardens. “He’ll look at the drawing and tell me what to do.”
Old Dutch priest? Exorcism? We were totally out of our depth, so we asked him what he had in mind.
“I don’t know, exactly. But if there is something going on that has to do with spirits, he’ll see it and do something to make them go away.” He looked embarrassed. “I don’t know if I told you, but before the mosque was built, this whole area was a cemetery.”
Ron was silent, but somebody had to ask the question. “Are you saying the house is haunted?” Frank didn’t answer.
I came home from looking at houses a week later to find my husband digging a hole in our bedroom floor with a pickaxe.
He was using Frank’s floor plan as a guide. It was crumpled and dirty, with three areas of frantic-looking spirals scribbled on the paper. In some places the pencil had pressed so hard that it tore the paper. On the bed lay three . . . objects . . . made of copper wire, wound very tightly into three distinct and different shapes.
“We’re supposed to bury these in the floor where the marks are,” Ron said, and continued to hack at the tiles. “Frank said the priest did automatic writing on the floor plan to find the problem spots.” Problem spots sounds a lot better than haunted house. I was freaking out, and it had to be more of a nightmare for Ron. He doesn’t even read science fiction.
It took awhile, but finally three holes were dug—one in our bedroom, one in the bathroom and one in the servants’ area at the back of the house. The objects were placed inside, and the holes plastered over.
Frank came around to supervise. When we asked what the priest said was wrong, he shook his head. “He wouldn’t say. He just said it was bad, and we didn’t need to know.”
That night nobody slept. The house felt like it might explode any minute. You know how it feels when you walk into a room where people have been fighting? They stop talking before you open the door, but you can feel the tension like a buildup of static electricity. That’s what the house was like for the next week of totally sleepless nights.
Then it all quieted down. Whatever had been happening didn’t exactly disappear, but it became much less intense. Instead of waking up every night, we only woke up two or three nights a week.
It was good enough for us.
We stayed in the house for the rest of our lease, then renewed it for another three years. Were we crazy? Maybe, but it was a great house, and there really wasn’t any place else to go.
The house wasn’t perfect, not by a long chalk, but at least now we were getting some sleep. In any case, it was the only house we were going to get.
When our stint in Indonesia ended, people we didn’t know very well wanted to rent the house. We advised against it and told them why. They told us we were crazy, because “there’s no such thing as ghosts.” We shrugged and left; they moved in.
For a while, we heard, everything was fine. Then their pictures started falling off the walls.