'Topeng monyet' still captivates

As a kid, I was always content passing the time with what we called cheap and fun recreation. My favorite activity was taking a becak (pedicab) ride around the complex with my father to buy kue cubit (traditional small pancakes) and orange-flavored mambo ice at a stall near our house.

Hailing to the topeng monyet (door-to-door monkey circus) that passed our house was the best part. I always enjoyed watching Sarimin -- the name usually given to the monkeys -- perform.

Over twenty years later, I still think cheap and fun recreation is easy to find in our beloved city.

The government always provides fireworks for free on New Year's Eve. Music performances in Ancol, North Jakarta, are often held free of charge. It is impossible to say Jakarta lacks cheap and fun recreation.

However, an experience with my nephews a few weeks ago taunted my opinion.

It all started when they called me, bearing the news that they had passed their exams, getting high ranks at school.

The youngest, 6-year-old Tian, said, "Can we go to Kidzania? Please?"

The eldest, 11-year-old Oas, immediately added, "Yeah. Yeah, I'd like that."

Kidzania is a large children's playground located in a mall in Central Jakarta.

I simply said, "Why do you want to go there? We went there a couple of months ago, remember? We should go to another place.

"Hey, what about watching topeng monyet?"

My two nephews paused for a moment. Oas, the eldest, quickly recovered from his bewilderment and said, "Are they still around?"

"What's a topeng monyet?" Tian asked his brother.

I was very surprised to hear that Tian did not know what topeng monyet was.

"Just wait here, and I'll pick you guys up and we will find topeng monyet," I said to them.

After I picked them up, the three of us circled Jakarta on a quest to find topeng monyet.

I decided to go to the suburbs. Our first destination was Depok. When we got to Depok, we drove along Jl. Margonda Raya. The result? Nothing. We saw no topeng monyet.

We tried Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta, but still no luck.

We spent more than two hours combing the area. We even had lunch at Ragunan, not far from Pasar Minggu. Still, we didn't see any. My two nephews started getting fussy and asked to go home.

When it was almost maghrib (nightfall), I drove them home, promising that we would continue looking the next day. My curiosity was challenging me.

That night, I called all of my friends to ask if there were any topeng monyet in Jakarta.

I got a mixture of reactions -- from ordinary curiosity, "Don't you have better stuff to do?" to casual mockery, " Are you missing a distant relative or something?"

Mostly though, they said I might be lucky if I tried some housing complexes around South Jakarta and Central Jakarta.

The next day, around 9 a.m., I picked my nephews up again. I told them if I could not find topeng monyet that day, I'd take them to Kidzania.

We went to Jl. Hang Lekir, South Jakarta, and to Menteng, Central Jakarta. We went to all housing areas, but still there were none in sight.

We asked all parking attendants, security officers and even a security officer at an embassy house just in case they knew of any topeng monyet around.

Eventually, I conceded defeat. I drove to Pacific Place on Jl.Sudirman, Central Jakarta, where Kidzania is located. I was keeping my promise to my nephews.

And then all of a sudden, something caught my eyes. There, in front of a busway stop near Jakarta Police headquarters, I saw someone.

It was a topeng monyet guy, sitting with his monkey on his shoulder. I immediately parked my car and asked my nephews to step out of the car.

"Bang, punten (Excuse me, sir), do you think we could ask you to perform?" I asked him.

"Oh, yes, sure, sir. Wait a moment," he said.

And then the show began on a nearby pedestrian walk. The monkey that had once been called Sarimin was now named Juliet. She was not only able to carry a tiny basket and an umbrella, but she was also able to ride a motorbike wearing a petite jeans jacket.

Her basket had now changed to a postman's bag made out of raffia rope. She disco danced to a dangdut tune while waving red fabric like a matador.

Juliet didn't stop posing and performing before the three of us. Since it was a Sunday, we weren't reluctant to laugh out loud because there weren't many people around.

Tian, particularly, loved how Juliet acted. He never stopped laughing while recording her with his mobile camera.

It all seemed a bit ironic. Apparently topeng monyet performers need to adjust to changes. They struggle to maintain their existence while competing with other entertainment in Jakarta. A few kids like my nephews may still enjoy them, but others may find it unattractive.

No wonder it was so hard to find such performers in the city. Two thumbs up for topeng monyet performers and their effort to exist and preserve the traditional performance. It may be one of the most original kinds of entertainment in this country.

That night, I got a text message from their mother. "What have you done to these two? All of a sudden Tian asked topeng monyet as a present for his birthday next month. Where in heaven can I find one?"

I slept with a broad smile on my face.

--Bram Maro

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