Achmad says Indonesians have a body odor problem.
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Smelliness
As I stepped out of Sukarno-Hatta airport one balmy night after a recent trip to Thailand, I was welcomed by the familiar scents of Indonesia: Kretek cigarettes, a touch of Kamboja flower, and the crushing, unmistakeable musk of underarm odour.
Driving home, with canals, slums, and giant toll-roads passing by outside, the invisible fumes made it hard to breathe. And sadly, the pollution came not from a factory or a machine, but the moist armpits of my toothless Javanese driver.
Indonesia, it seems, is content to fall behind its neighbours, Thailand and Malaysia, not only in education and science, but now in standards of personal hygiene as well. Indonesians may be overcoming the Krismon and building democracy, but along the way we've abandoned the basics: soap and deodorant.
It's not just the men, either. Ladies, cheap perfume - no matter how much you lather on - cannot hide the pungency if you've been wearing the same panties for days. A guy wants a woman to smell like a Jasmine flower or a Rose, not a raw, week-old Gurame fish!
By contrast, in Thailand, even the "working girls" shower at least three times a day; sometimes up to five times. Remember folks, it was the Viet Cong, not the Viet Pong, who defeated the great U.S. of A.
In New Delhi or Hyderabad, it'd be understandable. You'd have come prepared. Those same India-nose pegs would go with you to Sub-Saharan Africa, and even some parts of Italy. But this is Southeast Asia, home to the Spice Islands, where centuries ago the aromas alone once attracted sailors from across the seas.
Why do tourists prefer Phuket or Chiang Mai to Bali or Jakarta? The average foreign visitor to Asia might cough politely as he or she mentions the scary images on CNN. But could the real culprit be strong odours? I, for one, often find myself holding my nose in elevators and shopping malls. Sometimes, I even have to do it in boardrooms.
Please, Indonesia, it's the meek who'll inherit the earth, not those who reek! But, as the communist leader Lenin once asked: "what is to be done?"
For a start, foreign journalists could end their conspiracy of silence. They casually blame Indonesia's problems on terrorism and politics instead of giving us in-depth reports on the nation-wide pandemic of bad smells.
Also, Indonesia's many activists could turn their attention to the real environmental crisis -- their own unwashed, ungroomed, super-stinky selves. In the end, perhaps the government will have to snub the International Monetary Fund and re-introduce subsidies, this time on soap and toothpaste.
It would be a tragedy if, after embracing French Republican ideals of the 1790s, Indonesians took on that era's bad habit of masking body odor with perfume, instead of bathing. Even now, too many Indonesians consider their inalienable rights only to be: life, liberty, and the pursuit of smelliness.
One day, this great country may solve its big problems, like money laundering. But please, Indonesia, get on top of the little ones, like clothes laundering first. Let's look forward to a day when visitors don't have to keep one hand on their nose while the other is hailing a taxi.