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Knalpot, Anyone?

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One of the first things you notice when you arrive in Jakarta, is the profusion of signs saying 'knalpot'. And 'ketok magic'.

You can't miss them, they're everywhere. Intrigued, I tried to find out who knalpot was, and why he seemed to pop up at regular intervals, maybe it was a common Javanese name? As a tourist, my Bahasa Indonesia was non-existent, you understand, and it didn't even occur to me to check the kamus (dictionary). I was only visiting for 2 weeks, and there was so much else to explore and discover.

I finally found out, several years into a long stint in Indonesia, that knalpot actually means automobile exhaust pipe, and learnt how to pronounce it right (knalpot, as in knalpot). But I still haven't quite figured out the intense preoccupation with this essential, though surely not imperative, chrome-plated appendage, and why there are so many knalpotters around. Unless there's a thriving underground knalpot-ripper-off mafia operating, sort of like a parallel side-view-mirror-ripper-off mafia. That might explain it.

And ketok magic. This happens when you wreck your car and need it fixed. You locate the neighbourhood ketok magic joint, and in a supreme act of faith, you hand over your car, your keys, and disappear for several hours or several days, depending on whether you gently bumped the car in front, or drove into a wall at 180 kmph. The car is whisked off behind a metal siding, and you're not allowed to witness the procedure or the 'magic' won't work.

The story goes, and I'm still not sure how much of it is true...that the system works pretty much the way reflexology does: if you have a headache, they poke sharp pointed sticks into your foot. Reflexology is all about pressure points and pain. Extreme pain. They say it works, so I tried it once...for all of 5 seconds. It does work; I screamed so loud I scared my migraine away. It hasn't come back since.

So in effect, ketok magic works on a similar principle: if you have a dent in the rear left door, they will go toktoktok on the front right door, upon which the dent obligingly 'pops', or un-dents itself. Or they 'urut' (a kind of rubbing massage) the dent till it disappears, and your problem is fixed. Well, almost. Because they believe that to protect the car from another crash, the guy who fixed it must sort of water it. In the sense, he must errrm, well sort of pee on it. To make sure it doesn't happen again. Or else your car is going to come right back to the same ketok magic man within the week. After another crash. That's what I heard anyway.

Now, how much of this is true, and how much just a tall story to get an orang asing's* knickers in a twist, I honestly don't know. But this I DO know for a fact: it's called ketok magic for the toktoktok sounds that emerge from the shed as they bang away at your car's pressure points. Good thing cars don't scream.

Random Factoid: 'Orang Asing' is the polite term for 'foreigner' in Bahasa Indonesia. The not-so-polite term is 'bule', and usually refers to a 'white-skin' albino. Luckily, I was born with a tan, so ain't nobody ever going to call me a 'bule' (pronounced boo-leh).

© Priya Tuli

Priya Tuli is a Strategic Communications Consultant with long years in advertising, and is based in Jakarta. She's available for all sorts of projects involving concepts, creative writing and strategy. She does web content, corporate brochures and annual reports, TVCs and corporate videos, email blasts, buzz and viral campaigns. She's been a columnist with the Jakarta Post and is also available to house-sit your villa in Greece (any island is fine), and your holiday home in South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, the Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka or New Zealand. You can view her blog at and reach her at or

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Practical Information for foreigners, expats and expatriates moving to Indonesia - find out about housing, schooling, transport, shopping and more to prepare you for your stay in Indonesia

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