The Pigeon Racers Of Indonesia | WYPR

The Pigeon Racers Of Indonesia

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 9, 2017 2:25 pm

It's a late Saturday morning and a dozen men are hanging out in a scraggly playing field in Borobudur, Indonesia. There's a shaded dugout along one edge, and a worn patch of dirt in the center that makes this look like a lopsided baseball diamond.

It's training day at the Lapak Netral pigeon racer club.

To race, you must have a pair of birds. Pigeons, it turns out, mate for life. The male bird is the racer, and returning to the female provides his motivation.

The males are piled into a cage and ferried by motorbike to a release spot about 2 miles away.

Ken Rapopo, 40, pulls two birds from the cage and holds them up in the air, one in each hand. He pulls his arms back, then flings the birds up. A split-second later, they spread their wings and start flapping.

The two pigeons circle the field and Rapopo reports their movements by walkie-talkie. Suddenly one bird changes direction and flies in a direct line toward the goal, where his female partner awaits. He disappears over the trees and out of view.

Back at the playing field, two men watch the sky, waiting for their birds to return.

The men squat in the dirt, each with a female bird in one hand. Sometimes they spread the bird's wings and wave her up and down. When the male racer is close, they call: "Way, waaaaay!"

Since this is an aerial race, the finish line is four tall posts strung together with red streamers that form a box 20 feet in the air.

A winning bird must pass through that box before landing in his owner's hand. Pak Iskan, 50, is the first to walk away with two pigeons in hand — one male, one female. But he's not the winner. Speed isn't the only rule of this game. The bird has to make a perfect landing.

"It's bad, bad pigeon," Iskan says, laughing.

But he and the others clearly love their birds.

Caring for them is an intimate business — giving each bird tiny handmade cups of water after a race, misting their feet with water, like a trainer in a boxer's corner.

Just a decade ago, nationwide infrastructure improvement meant that police closed down a lot of Indonesia's pigeon racing. It used to disrupt traffic. Recently, the sport has grown in popularity — so much so that a slew of recent divorces have been blamed on some men's addiction to the sport.

The men can spend full days, from morning to night, sitting outside, flying their birds, training them, betting on the winners.

Some decoratively dye their birds' wings or build beautiful cages for them. And they give them unexpected names — like Jack Black.

He's a special bird. A big winner. Someone offered 20 million rupiah — almost $1,500 — for him. His owner wasn't selling.

"Maybe if they have babies," he says, "maybe the babies I could sell."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All week, we've been bringing you stories from Indonesia. And on this Friday afternoon, we have one final piece for you. We didn't set out to find it. My producer and I stumbled across it - a scene so curious that he insisted we get off our bicycles and start recording. So here's what producer Matt Ozug and I found in central Java.

MATT OZUG, BYLINE: It's late on a Saturday morning, and a dozen men are hanging out in a scraggly playing field. These guys definitely aren't chatty, but they let us hang out and watch them train. And that's how we got to know the Lapak Netral pigeon racer club. We're here on a training day and slowly begin to make sense of this sport. First, to race, you've got to have a pair of birds. Pigeons, it turns out, mate for life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Husband, wife (laughter).

OZUG: The male is the racer, but the female bird - she's like the bait. Males get piled into a cage and taken by motorbike to the release spot about 2 miles away.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Indonesian).

OZUG: Then word comes back over the walkie-talkie. The first pair of birds is away. Two men are watching the sky, waiting for their bird to come back. The men squat in the dirt, a female bird in one hand. When the racer is close, that's when they call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Shouting in Indonesian).

OZUG: This is an aerial race, so the finish line is actually four tall posts strung together with red streamers that make a box about 20 feet in the air. A winning bird has to pass through that box and land in its owners hand.

Like a lot of clubs around the world, this is a bro-fest. And it feels as much social as sport. We wonder out loud to the men, is this your passion, your true love?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking Indonesian).

OZUG: No, it's just a hobby, they all say. It's a way to pass long weekend hours together laughing, smoking, waiting to train your bird. But their pigeons - the pigeons they clearly love. It is an intimate business feeding each bird little cups of water after a race, spraying down their feet like a trainer in a boxers corner. Some men even decoratively dye their birds' wings. And of course they give them fabulous names like Jack Black.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Jack Black.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Jack Black (laughter).

OZUG: Jack Black - he's a special bird, a big winner. Someone offered 20 million rupiah - almost $1,500 - for him. His owner wasn't selling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Speaking Indonesian).

OZUG: "Maybe if they have babies," he says. "Maybe the babies I could sell." Before these racers go long distances, they have to learn to jump from one handler to another. It's like a game of catch but with pigeons. It looks kind of easy, so we let our intrepid host try his hand.

SHAPIRO: Ok. He's putting the pigeon in my hand. I'm holding the pigeon. I can hear - oh, oh, I'm waving my hand up and down to attract the male.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Down, down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Down, down - OK, it's flapping its wings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Like this, like this.

SHAPIRO: Wow, oh, and here comes the male, landing right on top of the pigeon. I now have two pigeons in my hand. And that's how it works (laughter).

OZUG: The next day, Sunday, is a race day - more smoking, joking, hanging out, waiting for your turn to race. There is a winnowing of course. Beat a first opponent, then a second. Eventually you'll be in the finals, squatting in the dirt, calling your favorite bird out of the Javan sky.

(LAUGHTER)

OZUG: Matt Ozug, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: (Speaking Indonesian).

(SOUNDBITE OF VISIONEERS' "IKE'S MOOD I")

SHAPIRO: And during our trip across Indonesia, NPR photographer Claire Harbage shot some incredible images. You can see her photo of that winning pigeon and lots more at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.