“Chicken! Chicken!” My husband nudges me. “Shit!” I mumble under my breath and scramble to turn on my camera, but it’s too late, we’ve missed another one. I sigh and wonder if we’ll ever get a good chicken picture.
We are being driven down a road near the city of Malang, on the island of Java in Indonesia. Here, it’s best to leave driving to the professionals. Scooters populated by sleeping children, furniture, harvested sugar cane and much, much more swarm around our van. The roads are lined with tiny beaten-up food stands with big signs boasting “Es Kopi” (iced coffee) and “Bakso Malang” (Malang meatballs). Men sprawl on benches outside these food stands, smoking, and in the middle of it all, are chickens, scratching in the dirt by the side of the road.
We have seen many things in Indonesia; monkey forests, bat caves, temples thousands of years old, but for whatever reason, we are obsessed with fascinated by the chickens. We have pictures of the monkeys, temples and bats, but we have yet to capture a satisfactory chicken picture, which is making us both a bit antsy because we feel, deeply, that the trip would not be complete without one.
My husband has dubbed them “Free-Range”; a name which has kept us smiling for three weeks. First, because that term is so inadequate, so tame in describing the kinds of freedoms these chickens enjoy. These chickens are free range in the way the early cowboys were. Tough, independent, they go anywhere they want; a neighbour’s back yard, a farmer’s field, a storefront, a busy thoroughfare. A family friend who lives in a village and owns chickens, told us they aren’t actually fed by their owners. The chickens run around, free of fences, to fend for themselves, finding grub wherever they can, and return home at night (for the safety of shelter, we assume). These chickens are big, wiry, built for fighting. (In fact the roosters are kept for cock-fighting sometimes. They keep them in cages the day before a fight to make them angry.) “Street” chickens might be a more accurate term.
Secondly, these chickens also fall under the “Free Range” moniker in the sense that they are technically organic, free of hormones and antibiotics. (“Free Range” isn’t actually the same as organic, but we often think of the terms interchangeably). Yet again, the name doesn’t quite fit the picture. When I think “organic chicken” I imagine fluffy chickens in green fields eating pesticide-free bugs and grain, probably listening to Bach. It takes work to grow organic chicken and is reserved for people who can afford it. But in Indonesia, it’s opposite. The organic chicken is ubiquitous, running across the street in front of your van. The expensive chicken is in KFC. Which makes sense. Shouldn’t it be more difficult to get chicken that’s had something (like steroids) added to it?
Ultimately, I think the chickens exemplified a kind of freedom and honesty that I didn’t know I was missing until I saw it. Life in North America looked overly structured and sterile for the first time. Knowing that the “ayam campung” or “village chicken” on my plate at dinner had likely been looking for worms at the side of a road the day before felt honest in a way that the fat, packaged chicken in the supermarket never could. Sure, many North Americans may balk at chicken that has been God-knows-where and eaten God-knows-what. But at home, if I buy Free Range chicken, I barely know what that even means. The many rules we have over food production are meant to keep us safe, yet I constantly have to dodge the doublespeak of marketing to avoid chemicals I know are harmful. And it wasn’t just about food. Looking at my life, it seemed that it was filled with ideas and beliefs that I thought were sophisticated, but only complicated matters. It was so refreshing to step away from the emails and “worries about my career” to view life more simply. Living isn’t actually as complex as we like to make it; give us some sunshine, water and food, a little place to run around, shelter at night and some company. The rest can be added or subtracted as we see fit.