Monday, September 28, 2009

Masuk Angin

I wrote this for Harvard's PROJAK newsletter in response to the theme: Describe a superstitious belief that you follow, or somehow affected your life.

In the West, when we have a runny nose, a cough, a headache, congested sinuses, a sore throat, frequent sneezing, a fever, general weakness or any combination of the above we say we have "a cold." Our persitent use of "cold" is a historical anachronism from the days before germ (and virus) theory of medicine where we thought that "colds" were caused by being generally cold and wet. They can be co-incident (e.g. being cold and wet can supress your immune system to the point where a cold virus can gain a solid foothold), but that does not necessarily mean there is a causal relationship (i.e. in the absence of a rhinovirus, you're not going to get a "cold").

In Indonesia, people refer to one with the abovementioned list of symptoms as having "masuk angin." Literally this means "wind has entered." In addition to the list of symptoms that accompany a "cold", Indonesian "masuk angin" sufferers can expect to burp and, less frequently, may even have an upset stomach, with all its concomitant symptoms. The burping and/or farting is key, as it symbolises the "wind" trying to escape.

You can catch "masuk angin" by being exposed to wind or any sort of fast moving air. Common ways that this can happen include being in the direct airstream of a fan or air-conditioning unit, having your window open in a moving car, sitting on a motorbike without a jacket, being outside on a windy day and so on. While some expatriates in Indonesia like to make fun of the locals for this superstition, of course, this is no more ridiculous than people warning "you'll catch your death of cold" in the West.

Good ways to get rid of wind include eating foods or drinking tonics that are "heating", ("heating" being foods defined thusly by Chinese medicine, such as ginger, etc.) and getting massaged. There are various massage techniques to draw out wind - the most notable of which, "kerok," involves rubbing the skin with a coin until you have big red lines all over your body - but during all of them you (and your masseur) are expected to burp profusely as the wind is drawn out of your body.

Now, being the sceptical sort of chap that I am, I try not to buy in to either superstition. But being used to the Western concept of "having a cold," the idea that you burped when you had acute viral rhinopharyngitis seemed odd to me. I expressed my scepticism to Indonesian friends who just shrugged the sort of shrug that says "I don't care if you don't believe me, it's true."

Sure enough, the next time I got a cold, I became very aware of my burping. "Do I always burp this much?" "Was that a 'masuk angin' burp or an 'I ate my food too fast' burp?"

Sceptical folk like me are often very quick to dismiss traditions that seem to be based on superstitions. We often mistake "all we currently know" for "all we can know." There is some bullshit behind the Western conception of "catching a cold," but there is some useful practical advice in there too: "Don't go out when it's cold. It depresses your immune system and makes you vulnerable to passing rhinoviruses." No doubt, there is some bullshit behind "masuk angin," but there may well be wisdom in it too.

And, hell, who am I to presume that I know how to sort out the pearls of wisdom from the bullshit? At least (as far as I know) the traditional healing methods haven't been conclusively proven as having no impact like Vitamin C, which is commonly sold in the West as a cold and flu cure-all...

Until then, bring on the awful tasting herbal medicines and burping masseurs...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Last post about cycling

Ok, I'm aware that this has become a cycling blog... Not to worry, this is the last one for a while. I have a bunch of posts on Timorese nationalism, the current furore over Australian/Timor-Leste/Indonesian relations, use of Indonesian in eastern Indonesia, how expensive university degrees are a forthcoming bubble, and so on milling around my head.

Anyway, there are a bunch of videos of the Tour de Timor that were quite good that I thought I should post.

The first, replete with uplifting, energising soundtrack further confirming my conviction that it's impossible to write a good song even peripherally about sport:

That aside, it's a pretty rocking video.

Finally, here's one of the crowds on the way into Dili. I've got to say, I don't even really remember the crowds at the end because I was busy trying to outmanoeuver Jesse and Joao...

Monday, September 21, 2009


I went for a bike ride this morning up Becora hill. I woke up a little late and by the time I got to the top, I figured it was too hot to do the whole Hera loop, so I turned around and started heading back down.

As I rounded the corner just as it starts to get steep I see a middle-aged Timorese guy walking down the side of the street. Not hearing anything, and - I guess - not expecting a quiet bicycle, he starts crossing the road without looking behind him. I'm still a good 30m away by this point, going about 40km/hr.

I yell out to him, "hey, look out!" and start to brake gently. He takes a second to react, and then turns around to see me coming. I start braking more heavily. He's bang in the middle of the road so there's no real obvious way for either of us to go. I start going left, he dodges left, I try to react and veer right at exactly the moment he reacts to my left-veering and dodges right.

I can't say for sure exactly how fast I was going when I hit him, but as my bike hit him I managed to sort-of leap over him and execute, what I must recognise as, a pretty impressive forward roll down the road ahead.

I've heard all sorts of horror stories about car-crashes in Timor. People quickly get surrounded by mobs that can turn violent (the story of the USAID guy who got hit in the head with a machete after his driver hit a guy in Metinaro, then jumped out of the car and ran off into the distance comes to mind). If you're lucky enough to extricate yourself from the mob, there are all sorts of payments demanded, no matter who was in the wrong.

Of course, before I even have a chance to worry about any of this, we've both popped up and both apologised and established that neither of us are too badly hurt. I have managed to come up with only small scratches on one knee and both elbows and a modest patch of road rash on my right hip. I can't talk definitively about his injuries, but he certainly had a cut on his hand and must have had some bruises in his back and side from where my bike crashed into him.

Sure enough, the guys who were sitting under a tree up the road start running down to see what's going on. By the time they get there I'm already helping the guy wash out his hand with some water I had with me. They seemed to be quite disappointed that no conflict had erupted and kept pointing out our respective scratches and wounds.

We both apologised, shook hands, introduced ourselves, expressed our desire to meet again sometime and went on our way.

I've only really had two proper crashes as an adult. One in New Zealand on a mountain bike track up above Golden Bay where I cracked a helmet in half and left a good chunk of skin on the road, and this one. Each time I've come away feeling thankful.

In this case, sure, I wouldn't have hit him if he hadn't walked out into the road without looking, but I probably should have been anticipating that and started braking earlier. People do it all the time here, and the concept of right-of-way doesn't really exist.

Each crash for me has a good lesson in your own mortality and fallibility for the price of a few square inches of skin. That's a bargain, as far as I'm concerned.

Respect the bike...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tour de Timor results

Before I decided to enter the Tour de Timor, I had only ever been a commuter cyclist. I could have counted the number of times I had "gone for a ride" for exercise or for pleasure on my fingers. But hey, I'm always up for a challenge and it's a beautiful way to see the country, so I signed up.

I didn't actually prepare that well. The only long rides I did were one to Baucau (130km, which just about killed me, there were multiple times I felt like I was going to cry), one to Manatuto (70km) and one to Gleno (30km, but most of it is up a big hill). Other than that I rode up to Dare (20km up and then down a big hill) a couple of times and to Cristo Rei (20km on the flat) a few times a week in the mornings. Other than that I did a bit of basketball, frisbee and yoga.

And, the verdict: easier than I expected... It was certainly tough, I don't want to undersell it. Spending over 23 hours on a bike in 5 days is no cakewalk, but it was certainly easier than a weekend frisbee tournament, or even a one day footy tournament. I suppose it's also a matter of knowing how to push yourself through the pain barrier. When I hit the barrier, I just slowed down...

Total timeStage 1Stage 2Stage 3Stage 4Stage 5



Percentage off the pace62%54%72%40%89%65%


Avg speed19.521.21720.30921.27113.22822.365


Overall, I finished in the top half of the pack. I did better than I probably should have on the first day because so many really excellent cyclists were just dying in the heat and that was enough to keep me in the top half until the end. My fastest day by far was the fifth day, but I got two flat tyres halfway through and lost at least 20 minutes while I snapped my tyre iron and puzzled over why my brand new tube wasn't inflating (big hole in it right out of the box). The people I was riding with on that day ended up coming in the high-80s. Oh well, considering I hadn't had a single mechanical issue or crash the whole race, I was probably due for some karmic payback... My team-mate, who I had been riding with most days, broke a spoke on the fourth day, and other people had had run-ins with dogs, potholes and wash-outs, so I should count myself lucky.

Before anyone gets too dismissive of my average speeds, in my defence, the terrain was pretty rough, and some of it was actually proper mountain biking, crossing rivers and whatnot. The people in the top pack called the fourth day, where we climbed from sea level to 2000m and then back down to 1800m "the toughest climb I've ever done." Of course, they did it in just over half the time it took me, do that's not terribly surprising...

Health-wise, I felt really good the whole race too. My wrists and back were getting pretty sore by the last day, but my legs felt good the whole time. No digestive issues, other than getting really, really sick of all the sugar from the GUs, Gatorade and power-bars... I had a bit of a headache - most likely from the heat - after days 1 and 3, but I felt good at the end of the other days.

The organisers did an absolutely spectacular job. If I really want to think of something to complain about I could say that (i) there was a serious lack of vegetarian food, (ii) the food service was a little slow for one dinner, (iii) the speeches went a little long in Loihonu, and (iv) there weren't enough toilets at Maubisse. That's literally it... Not even counting how quickly they pulled this thing together it was mindblowingly well run. You arrive at the finish line, somebody greets you with a bottle of gatorade and a bottle of water. Your bag is right there, your camp-site is right there. Food, showers, water, physiotherapists, massage therapists and medics are all ready to go. We had a car with us to carry all our stuff and a lot of extra food, but we didn't need it at all. A friend who had been on the Trans-Alp race in Europe said that this was far better run.

And the crowd... The crowds were absolutely incredible... I felt like I was in the Tour de France. I was riding through Manatuto with two Timorese guys and the atmosphere was electric. People were going out of their minds cheering and seemed genuinely ecstatic that all of these international people would come to see their rai. I've got to say I got a little overcome with emotion feeling the love in the air.

So, will I be doing this more often? Well... It was fun and all, but I don't know that I'll be doing it as a regular hobby. It was a beautiful way to see the country and the racing side of it was interesting, but I think I'm more of a team sport guy. I think I'll go back to being a commuter cyclist and if individual races come along that look interesting, are close to me or are otherwise attractive (or all three as this one was) then I'll do a little half-arsed training and enter as I did with this one. I'll also keep cycling as a regular part of my weekly exercise routine, just because it's so different to everything else I do.

This race did certainly open my mind to the idea of cycle-touring. There are lots of places in the world that you can ride around. 100km on a good road is very doable in a day, even if you stop for lunch. This also opened my eyes to the possibility of much longer commutes in Australia, e.g. the 60km from Melbourne to my parents' place.

So, overall, I'll give it a solid 5 stars and highly recommend it to anyone for next year.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Spam poetry

I've always had great trouble writing lyrics. I get very self-conscious about trying to put words together in ways that aren't contrived. As a thought experiment I have periodically taken lyrics to some of my favourite songs and tried to imagine that I had wrote them to see if they'd get past my internal editor.

Ground control to Major Tom
Ground control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

I hear the train a'comin
It's rollin' round the bend
and I ain't seen the sunshine since
I don't know when

Here come old flat top he come groovin' up slowly
he got joo joo eyeball he one holy roller
he got hair down to his knees
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

And so on and so on. All great songs, all great lyrics, but if I'd written them, they would never have seen the light of day. For me, the challenge is turning off my internal editor long enough to try and develop an idea completely and then deciding whether or not it's crap. Of course, given my entire recorded lyrical output consists of one song and one line from one chorus of another song, you can gain a little insight into how regularly this process is successful for me.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney regularly proclaimed that they had no special creative talent. They wrote most of their early songs sitting side-by-side at a piano or with guitars, ukuleles or whatever other instrument they had at hand and bashing away at them until they heard something they liked. They particularly enjoyed finding bizzare combinations of chords at random and then trying to find vocal melodies that worked for them. John particularly liked to compose at the piano specifically because he knew less about it than the guitar and thus was less likely to rely on the tropes that had served him well in previous songs.This is why so many of their songs have chord changes that are theoretically "wrong", but oh-so-right. Kind of like the idea of the proverbial thousand monkeys, they claimed you just needed to wait around long enough and you'd hear something good.

If you believe this theory of creativity, then a great artist is no more than a great editor of the cultural flux that passes through his brain. All art is found art. The artist just found it hanging around his brain at the moment when he had a guitar/paintbrush/pen/can of soup in his hand. If this is so, does it matter what the source of that flux is? If the artist is just an editor, then can he take anything, call it art and be its creator?

Following the thought a little further, you could argue that all consumption of art is a creative process because to consume the art, you are interpreting the stimuli in a way that it pleasing to you. So, in consuming art, you become the artist.

I first came across the idea of spam poetry years ago, but I received a spam email just now with, arguably, the finest specimen of its kind I've ever had the privilege of receiving.

I present to you,

Anus Embus Syren Bride Anon.
sudd pore corny dulse!
glean rait pore scat?
marry fled qualm spill?
doty inker.
dull col rake tardy.
psalm duff rein ado.
apace palpi.
shout mark tower clan.
apace glean helve scan.
delve col embus.
bud syren pore who?
catty sudd scan syren.
sally rein col betid?
nexus reedy shay guest?
palpi samp apace scull.
old pore reedy grass.
grass inker stoke sudd?
spill calve sue scat?
cong scull.
corny lotto who wrap!
samp pear wrap embus?
cong old cur pule.
tenth work psalm.
anus embus syren bride.

I guess I don't quite buy into that theory of creativity, otherwise I would have credited the poem to myself. Still an interesting idea though...