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Burgess Meets a Monster

Fear, death and arachnophobia in Sulawesi.

By Steve Burgess 22 Feb 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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I only started traveling overseas five years ago. People would tell me of fascinating tropical locales and I would reply, "You know, I don't want to go anyplace where the spiders are the size of dinner plates."

My secret shame was that I wasn't really joking. Arachnophobia is not a reasonable thing. I read about spiders, watch every nature doc with anything eight-legged -- I know a lot about them. It doesn't matter. That knowledge sits up in the ivory tower section of my brain. Down in the roiling, churning furnace room lives the Fear.

Now, here I was on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, riding a bus back to Makassar from the area known as Tana Toraja. My time in Tana Toraja had been a truly remarkable and, at times, disturbing experience. I had attended one day of a three-day funeral and watched a buffalo being slaughtered, fighting light-headedness as a second buffalo placidly lapped up its fallen comrade's blood. I had visited numerous open-air gravesites where skulls covered the ground and bones lay scattered near ancient, rotting coffins. Most memorably, I had sat with an old woman and her "tomakula" which translates as "sick person" but is actually the body of her husband in a closed casket, lying in the bedroom where it will be treated as a living person, provided with cups of tea and visited by friends, until the family can manage the expensive and difficult funeral arrangements that can be years in the making.

In Transit

In short, it had been quite a week. But now came the flip side of what had been an arduous journey -- the nine-hour bus ride back down to the large, featureless city known alternately as Makassar and Ujung Pandang. The distance covered from the Torajan centre of Rantepao is not much more than 300 kilometres, which is to say that the country is rather mountainous and the endless series of S-curves not overly wide. The kid across the aisle from me liked to sing. Sing, chant, make siren noises -- anything for a laugh. At the 4:15 mark of the trip, he paused for roughly an hour before resuming with new vigor and less pitch. Someday, he will give great concerts, nine hours long. Eventually, his fans will kill him so they can go home.

My wonderful Torajan guide Marcus had suggested I stay near the airport at the Transit Hotel, as I would be leaving for Denpasar, Bali next day. The driver knew the place. But then they switched drivers. The replacement went blank at the name. Finally, with the help of passengers, I was dumped in front of Makassar Transit Hotel II. Well, one, two, whatever. They must have expanded due to their fine reputation.

Regular rooms, 110,000 rupiahs; VIP rooms, 120,000. The first room I was shown was already occupied. The guests included at least a dozen mosquitoes and a handful of spiders. You'd think one of those groups would polish off the other, but this was a touching picture of harmony. As I said, I know something about spiders. These small, harmless looking fellows were what are known in literary circles as "foreshadowing spiders."

I asked for another room. It was pretty much the same, and this time I noticed that the bathrooms lacked sinks. Time to step up in class. I offered to pay an extra 10,000 rupiahs (about a buck and a quarter, which you tend to forget periodically due to the grandness of the figure). Go ahead, I said -- take me to a VIP room.

Roll? Your own

The VIP room had a sink. No mirror, though -- we celebs must take care not to get too big-headed. There were mosquitoes, but not as many. The bare drywall was decorated only with their corpses, the humid bathroom splotched with mildew. But trading up had paid off -- in place of the spiders, this room had its own gecko. Geckos rock. They prove that you can live on insects and still be cute. Any arachnids out there taking notes?

The new digs came with a bare bulb, twin beds and, I eventually noticed, no toilet paper. I went to ask for some. The bellman (shamefully out of uniform) shrugged. "We don't have," he said.

"What do people usually do?" I asked, fearing the answer.

"They buy their own. Maybe 300 metres down the road." It was 11:30 PM. Luckily, I had a roll in my bag.

Later at the Makassar Airport, a coworker of Marcus' would help explain this to me. "Transit Hotel II?" he said with alarm. "No, no. Not the same. This hotel is for 'night butterfly' -- you understand? Night ladies."

Ah. Not much call for toilet paper when you're renting by the quarter hour.

I killed as many mosquitoes as I could see and turned in. Fool that I am, I slept well.

Laba! Laba!

Morning, and I padded blearily into the bathroom. The mildew showed up as indistinct shapes. Something went by my unfocused eyes. I decided I would be better informed with glasses on. I fetched them and returned.

There it was, running along the wall, covering many tiles with its great, multiple strides. It was a spider big enough to eat the teddy bears off the welcome mat. It had probably finished off the gecko. This was the moment I had dreaded for years, the encounter that had delayed my introduction to the wider world. The monster disappeared around the corner into the bedroom. It was now between me and my bag. For all I knew it was in my bag. Perhaps it was carrying my bag to the door, slung over two or three shoulders.

I howled like a man who has been thrown into a cold shower. I shrieked like the doomed pigs I had seen in the Rantepao market. My heart was in overdrive, my internal systems no longer responding to reasonable requests. There's no arguing with primal fear.

I looked at the doorway -- that thing was out there. On the floor? I was barefoot. I ducked my head and ran into the bedroom.

The spider was splayed across the wall above the bathroom door, near the ceiling. I pulled on yesterday's shirt and pants and began jamming everything I could reach into my bag. The toiletries were in the bathroom -- they could be sacrificed, for now. The spider repositioned itself near the corner. It looked massive, a crab with the speed of a cheetah. I opened the door and ran down the hall, buttoning my shirt. "Laba-laba!" I cried out to the surprised little group of staff. "Laba-laba!"

It is a mark of my particular focus that the only Indonesian I know is "terima kasi" (thank you) and "laba-laba" (spider). Big terima kasi would be offered to the knights who came to my rescue now.

A couple of young men grabbed a broom and went in swinging. The fight was not over at a blow -- the beast did not go gently. The heroes dragged it out into the lobby where, diminished in death, it did not cover the same acreage. Nonetheless, it was the biggest damn spider I had ever seen outside of PBS.

But the phobic brain is not tamed with three swats of a broom. My room was now a hostile place. My senses were still shrieking. Brushing my teeth and shaving would somehow be accomplished while keeping my head on a constant swivel. Toilet paper? Not necessary -- no way was I going to make myself a sitting target. From the lobby, I could hear the sounds of laughter.


There was a knock on the door. A young staffer stood outside. "Someone is here to see you," he said.

What? Here in Makassar? Could it be animal control? Indonesian Comedy Central, here to tell me the whole thing had been caught on video? "A young Muslim lady," the staffer said. "Come and see?"

I buttoned up a bit and headed into the lobby. A group of students stood there, smiling shyly. "Hello sir," said the young woman who was their leader. "How are you today? We are from the school. May we talk to you?"

She and a couple of others held up tape recorders, and the light dawned. A week ago, on my initial passage through Makassar, a similar group had waylaid me on the street, posing simple questions as an English-study assignment. Someone at the hotel front desk had clearly called the school to say that one of the guests was not your average, 10-minute john. The kids were here to complete their homework.

We sat down. I was still clammy with fear and sweat. The students smiled. "What is your name?" asked the leader. "Is this your first trip to Sulawesi?"

"Do you like sports?" asked one student. Hockey, I replied.

Next student's turn. "Do you like sports?" he asked. (His follow-up question: "Do you like them?")

"What is your most memorable Sulawesi?" one asked.

What will I remember? I considered an honest answer, and thought again.

"The friendly people," I said. They all beamed.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at large cultural reporter…very much at large at the moment.  [Tyee]

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