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Encountering Trial by Buyer

A walk through open-air markets strains credulity and haggling skill

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 1990


WE spotted the packed trophy case just after a no-holds-barred meal of ``Mrs. Suharti's'' famous mbok berek - fried whole chicken soaked in coconut milk and ginger (Java's answer to Colonel Sanders's). Birds, it seems, are not only this restaurateur's vocation but his avocation. ``He's a champion owner of perkutut,'' explains a waiter. Every month, all over Java, we're told, the singing turtle doves compete, and those judged most mellifluous are granted a trophy.

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Attempts to find out more about competition, training, and owner proved unsuccessful. But we did find the doves - among a few thousand other fowl - in Yogyakarta's Pasar Ngasem.

Visiting an Asian bird market is a revelation. The high-decibel cacophony is almost equaled by the visual riot. In the old part of town, a maze of narrow, muddy alleys connects a hundred or more open-air, terra-cotta roofed shops. Each is crammed with dozens of exotic winged creatures from Indonesia and beyond.

Inside one shop, a young man cups his hands over his mouth, emitting a complex whistle in the direction of a black, orange, and white bird overhead. ``A poksay,'' he says. We learn it is originally from Japan, takes about four months to train for competition, and lives 15 years. How much? ``A hundred thousand rupiahs,'' about $55, is his opening price.

Moments later, a middle-aged man, a ``Mr. Siahaan,'' latches onto us and begins a guided tour through the grotty warren.

``This a singing cock,'' he says, standing in front of a large gray rooster under a bamboo basket. ``A cross between mountain cock and Java cock. You want sing?'' he asks, tapping the cage, coaxing it to crow.

Then he steers us past huge baskets filled with an amber mosaic of different grains. ``This here very special food for birds - ant eggs,'' he says, pointing to a cane-grass tray of red ants shoving around white, rice-sized sacks. Our tour continues past a noori from Irian Jaya, Sumatran woodpeckers, chickens from Borneo. With a soft whistle, he calls to some mousey-brown turtle doves, the kind that win trophies for chicken restaurateurs.

Moving on, a whistle carver sells us six tiny wooden whistles for 6,000 rupiahs (about US $3.35). The locals tie them to the carrier pigeons but we were told children can tie them to their bicycles for the same melodious effect.

``You want to see flying dogs?'' asks Mr. Siahaan, lifting the corner of a plastic tarp to expose a cage of large, mahogany-hued bats peering at us from the inverted position. In another nearby cage: squirrel monkeys, and above those, two small mongooses.

Wide-eyed, we follow Mr. Siahaan, wondering how these animals are obtained. How much of this trade is legal? It looks like a legitimate market, but bird smuggling is a problem throughout Asia and the South Pacific. Conditions here seem far from sanitary. One of our group leaves the market early, in physical discomfort over the sights.

Most of the creatures appeared healthy, but the cruelty of caging magnificent birds strikes home when our host proudly unveils a bedraggled, meter-high eagle in a cage barely large enough to contain it.

It's not surprising that when we ask Mr. Siahaan the way out, he leads us on a convoluted path past his batik painting shop. We don't buy much, but offer a few thousand rupiahs for his gracious impromptu tour.

If one ventures into any Indonesian open-air market - where bargaining is the rule - it's not unusual to be ``befriended'' by someone hoping to sell you something. One tactic is to offer you the ``best price - for friends only.'' Another is to steer you to a store that supports ``orphans.''