Hugues de Montalembert and Indonesia’s olfactory delights

The story of French film-maker Hugues de Montalembert is a remarkable one.

In the prime of life and only 36 years old, he was heading back to his apartment one night when a couple of junkie scum bags tried to mug him.

Hugues de Montalembert initially fought them off, but unluckily for him, one of the low lifes produced a small phial of liquid which he threw in de Montalembert’s face.

It was acid and the next morning Hugues de Montalembert had to come to terms with the fact that he would be blind for life.

Then, incredibly, after a couple of year of rehabilitation, what did he do?

He took a taxi to JFK airport and boarded a flight to Indonesia!!!

The story goes that he was basically reborn in Bali thanks to the “gentle nature” of the people who live there.

Now that’s pretty contrite really since the reality of life in Bali is often very different to what Westerners perceive it to be. Even so, what Hugues de Montalembert found must have helped him a lot because within a year or so he had managed to churn out 800 pages of a handwritten introspective.

Having heard this amazing story my first thoughts were “why Indonesia?”

I mean I can’t think of a more difficult place to be blind. I once remember being amazed by seeing this blind bloke get off a metro mini bus in Jakarta and thinking he doesn’t stand a chance in hell (it looked a lot like that computer game Frogger – but without extra lives). Negotiate Jakarta’s roads blind? I’d rather take on the boxer Chris John with one hand tied behind my back!!!

Blindness sharpens the other senses - including the sense of smell. But can you imagine what that would be like? Some of the smells in Indonesia are so overpowering without them being amplified I can’t imagine what a blind person would make of them! Must be the olfactory equivalent of listening to ACDC on an IPOD at full volume I guess.

As for some of the off-the-radar smells that Hugues de Montalembert might have come across in Indonesia? Well these are some of them:

1) Durian. These fearsome fruits really pong. Banned in Singapore (in certain places) and from aircraft in the SE region the English writer Anthony Burgess once remarked that eating durian was “a lot like eating vanilla custard in a latrine”.

2) Kota. The old Dutch area of Jakarta is of great historical interest and the local authority has said that development of the area would draw large numbers of tourists. The tourists could even sit in outside cafes – provided they are a bit partial to the effluent fumes of the turdgid canal waters and the acidic air polution generated by the monumental traffic jams.

3) Petai. I have no idea why the vegetable Petai smells like it does. All I know is that he makes me feel very, very sick.

4) Cheap perfumes. Cheap perfumes tell the sorry stories of mediocre, humdrum lives; of young women looking for that special person whom they will almost certainly never find. Hell, if Indonesia were a movie it would be the Indonesian equivalent of the tragic and tear-jerking classic, Love Story.

waiting at a Jakarta bustop

5) Indonesian rubbish. The scavengers pay regular visits to my outside rubbish bin and with a long hooked stick in hand try to find things worth salvaging. Now I know that recycling goods is good, but rotting vegetable peelings and goat innards isn’t half as fragrant as Channel no. 5.

6) Clove cigarettes. The sweet smell of clove cigarette smoke will stay with anyone who has ever visited Indonesia. In some ways I guess these cigarettes can even be considered as some sort of an analogy for Indonesia with the “sweetness” merely serving to mask the harmful and damaging effects of smoking. Oh well. But I doubt if they will ever be banned – although
they recently were in the US.


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