WINNER of “Competitive Events” – INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY AWARDS 2014 (link)
The pacu jawi(cow race) originated in the Minankabau region of West Sumatra. It is held on rice fields as a celebration or auspice of good harvests and possibly increase the value of well performing cows and bulls. Jockeys also bite the animals’ tail to increase speed.
What follows is more about the journey there and back. All information I’ve managed to have on the actual event is above 🙂
I came across some pics of the race when I was planning my crossing from Singapore to Padang. I googled all the names of districts and towns I could find on the map and clicked on “Images”. Eventually I saw some images that just stunned me. Pacu jawi suddenly became my n.1 priority. Unfortunately there was little details on precise location or calendar events though. All locals I could get in touch with from Munich knew little or nothing about it so the research would have to be done once in Sumatra.
From Batam, going through Buton, Pekanbaru, all the way to Padang, I had been asking everyone I met but only managed to get more confused as nobody really knew much or anything about it. Only in Padang the receptionist in the hotel I was staying at took me and my cow race obsession in sympathy and did some research for me until she found the number of someone called Abraham who apparently was promoting the event but when she called she was told that there was no race planned before January 2013. The interest on pacu jawi had grown on me so much that I actually felt depressed for a few days after the bad news. My return flight was scheduled for the end of November and who knew when I was able to be there again? I kept the number anyway for a possible trip in the distant future.
I then carried out with my itinerary to the Mentawai Islands but the cow race was still haunting me. As soon as I got back to Padang I called the number myself ’cause “hope is the last to die”. The phone rang for ages until Abraham picked up. He told me that he couldn’t guide me but if I was interested there was a race planned the following day in the afternoon in a rice field near Batusangkar. I couldn’t believe my ears!!! “No problem, that’s enough” I told him “I’ll find my way!!”
In the morning I got a travel (small bus) to Batusangkar. I asked anyone on the bus for directions to the paku jawi. I tried English, Spanish, French and body language but no luck. As usual I got some “aaahhh yes, pacu jawi” correcting my pronunciation and then “sorry, I don’t know”. Frustrating, very frustrating. At some point during the journey, a man with all his family and an incredible amount of luggage and boxes sat next to me. He apologised for the inconvenience as we had to travel packed like sardines and started talking to me in fluent English. He had worked as a waiter for 8 years in Bali and gathered enough money to buy some land in the area for rice growing and moved back there with his family. When I asked him about the pacu jawi he told me “I don’t know where or when it’s held but as soon as we get to Batusangkar I’ll help you finding it”. Cool! The rest of his conversation was a massive complain about Indonesia’s corruption. The rest of mine was about Italy’s.
When we finally got to Batusangkar it was already 3pm. The bus stopped in front of a moto-taxi service and as soon we touched ground we were surrounded by half a dozen roaring scooters. My friend asked around for pacu jawi. All the drivers pointed their arms in different directions. Nobody seemed to know where it was actually happening and a discussion started. My friend looked at me and shrugged his shoulders in disappointment. When I was about to start kicking something suddenly everybody got quite. A big shady figure with paper-thin, barely visible flip-flops and a cigarette in his mouth came out from the moto-taxi office. He instructed a driver to take me to a certain rice field – I guess – and pointed his huge arm in that direction. My friend smiled and clapped his hands to tell me to jump on the scooter and hurry. I did so and I started another “God knows where, how long and how much” journey. The young driver didn’t speak a word of English but I fully understood him when he asked me to get off the bike as the police were in front of us and I was not wearing a helmet. I walked around the block and then jumped again on the scooter when we lost exposure to the cops. We arrived at destination, I paid him something like 30000INR and then he speeded off again. I looked around and all I could see was mud and some sort of ceremony happening. I’m sure I looked lost but so did the people around me when they saw me. It seemed to be a wedding or something and I couldn’t see rice fields or cows. I didn’t know what to think. I’ve never liked wedding photography and didn’t think it was time to start. A man invited me to follow the procession. Next to me were many decorated army officers and I was struggling to keep a balanced walk on my flip-flops in the mud with the camera bag swinging behind me. I walked like a Honda’s Asimo along the crowd ’till we finally reached a massive rice field. I saw the splashes flying from the terrace below. “Here we go, the pacu jawi is happening!!!” I thought. But then my left flip-flops gave way to the wait and I found myself stuck with one leg knee-deep in the mud. F…..lipping hell! I really had to get down and dirty. When I managed to get out of the mud-trap I stuck the flip-flops in my pockets, I cleaned my hands on my trousers and got the camera out. I only cared about the front glass. The body was brown in no time. I found myself a nice point of view from the edge of the terrace above the race ground and started shooting. I changed position and placed myself right at the end of the race track but I was too much stuck in the mud to dodge the furious cows in case of emergency so after a few shots I got back to the safer upper level.
In the late afternoon, after the race finished as it was getting dark, everybody seemed to disappear. I followed the crowd – again – and found myself in the parking lot where I was dropped off, full of mud, with no idea how to get back and where. Near me there was a group of boys and some of them had a scooter. I approached them but nobody spoke English and understood where I wanted to go . The places I was mentioning didn’t seem to make much sense to them until one of them hinted to sit on his scooter. I tried and clean myself as much as I could with the little drinking water I had left but I was still pretty covered in hardened mud all over. He took me on his bike anyway. Half way through the journey he stopped in the middle of some rice field, he smiled and pointed at a small canal nearby with clean running water. Good lad! I finally managed to get most of the mud off myself and the infamous flip-flops. We then carried on to Batusangkar. He left me in front of a taxi office, I paid him 30000 rupiah and he came back with some change and some sweets for me.
I had to wait a little for the shared taxi to fill up with other people but then off we go, the driver boosted the car stereo and speeded off to Padang. He spoke no English. I tried to ask him what time we were getting back to Padang but I got no answer, just a laugh. So I pointed at my watch-less wrist trying to make him understand my question. I wish I never did that. He laughed again and said “yes yes no problem!” and he pushed on the accelerator like a lunatic. I had the craziest drive of my life. The road to Padang is one of the busiest of Sumatra. It’s a simple road with one lane for each direction and this guy was taking over cars that were already taking over themselves – as you do in Indonesia – but he was definitely taking reckless-driving to a new level. Basically, he was racing. I could read the disappointment on his face when we were taken over by another car. He then started a chase and at some point he run out of space in the opposite lane and had to go through a gas station on the other side to avoid impact with incoming vehicles. I consequently fastened my seatbelt and stopped asking questions. The other passengers behind me (I was in the navigator seat) complained loudly. He laughed again but finally slowed down untill we eventually reached Padang.