Wherever I’ve ventured in Indonesia – by sea, land, or in airports – I’ve been unable to escape this nation’s scourge: a smoking epidemic. There are tens of millions of addicted chain smokers throughout this country.
We’ve all heard of Indonesia’s so-called “smoking babies” as young as 2 years old, puffing away. That’s old news. Let’s jump to the present and pay attention to what’s becoming of this booming population, all but tethered to tobacco.
On a recent ocean ferry trip, I (normally a healthy man) was coughing up thick yellow phlegm from breathing on the deck. Why? A considerable proportion of the crammed floor space was occupied by smokers aged anything from 13 to 80. The on-board canteen sported a wall of cigarette brands on display so high, shorter passengers had to crane their necks to see what else was for sale behind the unintentional blockade.
The moment I stepped off a flight and out onto the arrivals / deliveries parking bay area in Bali, breathing fresh air wasn’t an option. A light grey haze enveloped me and everyone else as I pushed my way beyond endless solicitations from baggage handlers and curio peddlers, many of whom were exhaling cancer-causing cigarette smoke into my face as they begged and pleaded.
And running the gauntlet to a “warung” (street food stall) is no different. Dozens upon dozens of men and women – some clutching a baby – swarm around me inquisitively, since I’m the only white man where I am in Borneo. Breathing out rolling barrels of smoke as they smile and drive their noses to within a foot of mine, I’m asked my name, nationality and religion repetitively as I try to time my breathing to avoid the worst of it.