Pacu Jawi traditional bull race in Sumatra, Indonesia

Pacu Jawi – Bull Race in Padang Luar

More? Feel free to read about my experience!

„Anda Melintasi Khatulistiwa. You are crossing the equator“. Just a few kilometers left until I will reach Bukittinggi in West Sumatra. The motivation for foreign tourists to venture to this dusty town is quite limited, as it is for most Indonesian cities I strongly believe. No, rice fields, bucket showers, and Nasi Goreng aren’t reason enough to roam the area. But the rustic event „Pacu Jawi“ truly is. So far I know, it will be held tomorrow, but neither do I have any idea where exactly it will happen nor do I know how to get there. However, I’m lucky enough to meet accidentally Rifki Fauzan in a trendy coffee shop, who himself did a documentation about the weird bull race which is taking place annually in his neighborhood. He explains me the route to the hick town of Padang Luar in Tanah Datar regency, as well as some insights about the festivities.

Emerald green paddies surrounded by coconut palms mark the lush valley which cuts through the two volcanos Marapi and Sago. Whereas tiny wooden mosques and picturesque houses (known as Rumah Gadang architecture) of the orthodox Muslim from the Minangkabau ethnicity line the roads. Additionally, some cumulus clouds hang in the blue sky. „Thanks to the paranormal efforts of the farmers it never rains during Pacu Jawi“, I remember Rifki saying. „Pacu Jawi“ means „bull race“ in the traditional Minangkabauan language. Whereas the indonesian language Bahasa, „Jawi“ isn’t used any longer. Instead, „Sapi“ refers to both genders, cows, and bulls. That’s why the Balinese, Maduranese, and Eastern Javanese call their race „Karapan Sapi“. The social event in West Sumatra might not look unique at a glance since bulls are speeding all across the Indonesian archipelago, but just the Minangkabau turn a freshly harvested paddy field into an improvised track, which makes a muddy disaster inevitable. The cult of surfing rice farmers has already past several generations, some might wonder that there is no deeper sense behind. Pacu Jawi is organized and celebrated by fellow farmers to mark the end of the rice harvest, that’s all. Nevertheless, every year global media attaches more importance to these little village spectacles, since photographers started publishing dramatic images of muddy jockeys behind their two furious bulls. Alongside the international attention, also the local tourism department starts showing an interest and even sympathizes with organized duck races in the near future to take the well established ideas a bit further.

It’s about 10 o’clock, I’m chatting with some locals while enjoying fresh Sumatran Kopi Hitam (black ground coffee just out of their backyard). Meantime, the proud farmers drop in one by one with their horned cattle. All cowboys appear with pseud-heroic facial expressions and toned bodies from their tough farmer’s life. And to fit more stereotypes, most of them are chain smoking. When walking over to the meeting point where jawis and jockeys are waiting alike for their turn, I remember my first impression at a racing track in a suburb of Zurich, Switzerland as I observed the snobbish horse jockeys. None of these well-paid mini riders would ever mingle with the rank and file. However, here in Padang Luar I’m with down-to-earth sort of people who are frank and support my investigations. I make friends with Hamid, the last year’s winner, who is roughly one and a half head shorter than me, but probably double as strong. First of all, Pacu Jawi isn’t a real competition, he quotes. There are neither proper valuation criteria, nor does a committee trace the speed of the dashing bulls by radar guns. I bet, this is a predictable future case if the seasonal event gains more popularity.

Each jockey balances barefoot on a pair of wooden plow tools called Papik, which both are loosely tightened to the humpback of each bull. As the bulls are just tied together with a thin rope, it makes it difficult to keep them heading in the same direction, this is why grabbing their tails comes in handy. „It’s like a steering wheel“, states Hamid. If the jockey remains within the course and crosses with the full speed of approx. 30-40 km/h to the finish line (where all the Chinese photographers are placed), he might possibly make it a winner. However, no one really cares. „Berapa banyak?“, I ask Hamid. For how much, he would sell me one of his cash cows? He smiles a business smile, for 42 million Rupia (roughly 3’000 USD) I could have one. That’s roughly what he could make on the livestock auction these days. Of course, it is more sort of symbolic price, since a racing bull won’t make more cow ladies happy than an average bull which costs a third compared to the last year’s winner. I’m quite sure, Hamid has his secrets, I double-check if he strokes the animals the night before the race or at least provides a delicious feast. There we go, food is the key to success. He adds protein rich duck eggs and stamina boosting honey to the daily grass or wheat dishes. I give Hamid a high-five and wish „Hati Hati di Jalan“ (“Be safe on the road”). He gives me this certain view, as if he would say, „I’ll see you later“.

The first bunch of totally 80 jockeys gather at the starting point. With the first race, the nicely dressed musicians also start their dubious entertainment. Wearing gloves with attached bells, they jingle on porcelain plates. Some xylophonists try to accompany. Who wouldn’t run to this music? Hamid goes first, steps gently into the mud, grabs both bull tails, and skates with brilliance towards the end of the 80-meter long track. If zooming in, one can easily spot the second secret. Hamid bites one of the bull’s tail on the way, which seems to work like a turbocharger, as the bull suddenly leaps forward. Others pursue these tactics as well, while a good amount of jockeys are not even getting the tails close to their tees because they’re more busy to avoid doing the splits as their bulls tend to run in different directions.

Okay, to be fair, this isn’t an overstimulating sort of epic as the NBA final Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs where you pay for the worst seat with the worst view in the uppermost corner as much as for a Sumatran bull, or where the best-paid basketball player earns as much per year as the whole army of Indonesian rice farmers combined. It’s a sensation for village folks, but therefore incredibly cool for visitors to crash these little communities. Especially, if the official event comes to an end and Hamid summons you behind the butts of his bull duo to try it out yourself. Life is short, and I’m the kind of fool that wants to suck it out. As long as my mental and physical powers are sufficient enough though. The little crowd cheers me to the start, I remember Rifki Fauzan when he mentioned, that if a bull smells fear, it could end unpleasant for the contestant. I also remember a good mate, who once told me “whatever you do, do it with style.“ With mixed feelings. No fear, check. Style, check. I hop on the Papik and try to find the tails which both bulls are now hiding between their legs. Ha, who fears whom now?! I’m getting suddenly more confident, as I’m bending the tails back out and hiss my command. We race for about two meters until I land head first in the mud, even worse, my foot got tangled in the wooden frame. But the Bulls don’t really care about my style attempts and continue to drag me for some 20 meters along the applauding villagers. Well, I’ve learned my lesson. I clean my mud dropping face, creep back to the start and place myself again behind the two bull butts. I will never forget this second run, although I wasn’t stable enough to blow some kisses to the crowd while surfing the mud, neither have I been able to chew on a tail, but hey, I crossed the finish line elegantly. That’s all what really matters.

Pacu Jawi traditional bull race in Sumatra, Indonesia

After a day of fun and excitement everyone returns home, the farmers are squeezing their bulls back into the shared truck, and the local spectators take some last selfies.

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Pacu Jawi traditional bull race in Sumatra, Indonesia