IN THE LINE OF FIRE
Hands down, the equator's most difficult sport is sepak takraw, a Southeast Asian game that combines soccer and volleyball. Teams of three players try to keep a rattan ball airborne by heading, legging or kicking it over a five-foot-high net. No part of the arm—from shoulder to fingertip—may be used.
Hands down, the equator's roughest sport is an unarmed contest called sisemba, which is popular on the Indonesian island province of Sulawesi. Played just below the equator in the precinct of Tanatoraja, sisemba is a more genteel version of Thai boxing. Hands are taboo, so you kick your opponent until he cries "Uncle!" (or the Toraja equivalent). Sisemba is a distant (but never distant enough) cousin of sibamba, a local "club sport" in which contestants use bull-hide shields to fend off truncheon blows. The combat in sisemba is more benign, though things can get a little out of hand when villages of 200 or more face off. This may be why these fights are staged around the time of the summer rice harvest...which also happens to be the most popular time for funerals.
THE PSYCHIC HOT LINE
Not since that misty morning at St. Andrews when the Amazing Kreskin bent a spoon (and a mashie-niblick) with his mind has the line between the normal and paranormal been crossed in sports. That is until pencak silat—a free-form discipline that is part martial arts, part Uri Geller—came along. Pencak silat is a mind-over-matter Indonesian game that might confound even Penn and Teller. "Everything has a spirit, even the equator," says Oyong Karmayuda, secretary-general of the International Pencak Silat Federation. "You get a power from the equator line, a supernatural power. And that may be where tenaga dalam, the inner force of pencak silat, comes from."
That inner force supposedly radiates from the solar plexus of silat practitioners. A bapak (master) can generate enough of this power to smash a coconut or a stack of five bricks with a single blow of his forearm. Karmayuda claims that a true bapak can shoot arrows through targets while blindfolded, chew glass and swallow razor blades. "One fellow even cut off his tongue, held it out for display and then stuck it back in his mouth with no ill effects," he says. "Actually, we never intended to promote that ability"
Based on the fighting styles of the Menangkabau people of Sumatra, silat evolved as a training method for self-defense. The 13,500 islands that make up Indonesia now boast more than 800 styles, many of which are modeled after the movements of animals. Madju kakikiri harimau means "taking a tigerlike stance." Lompat sikap naga translates as "jumping in dragon style." And the slightly misleading lompat putri bersidia stands for "jumping like a princess and standing near." Our advice: Whenever you see a jumping silat princess, get out of the way.
In Java, under the Madjapahit kings of the 13th through 16th centuries, a wide array of weapons was added to the silat mix. Among them were the kris, the parang and the tjabang—blades that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the nightmarish gynecological instruments in the film Dead Ringers. During the 350 years of Dutch rule of the area, silat was banned and had to be practiced in secret. In 1948, three years after Indonesia won independence, a national silat federation was formed. Thirty years later, silat turned from a spiritual discipline for attaining self-perfection into a weaponless sport akin to judo. Today matches are brief and brutal, with "silatters" slung forcefully to the mat or pinioned to it.
"Physical strength means little," says Karmayuda. "You win with speed, technique and concentration sharpened by the inner force." The beam of the inner force is not just trained on Indonesia. Competitors from 45 countries, including Turkey, Spain, the Netherlands, Vietnam and the United States, participate in silat's biannual world championships, but the inner sanctum of the inner force remains the Ikatan Pencak Silat center in Jakarta. Near the entrance of this broad, imposing stone structure is a stone pit in which silat techniques are demonstrated to visitors. Down in that pit, a bapak repeatedly smashes an aluminum softball bat into the stomach of a trainee. The trainee doesn't flinch. A second trainee slices through a half-inch-thick steel rod with a single sheet of rolled-up newspaper. The eyes of a third trainee are taped shut. A blindfold is pulled over the tape. Then a second blindfold, and a shroud. The optically challenged trainee then whirls around and gracefully prances through an obstacle course without touching any of the concrete columns strewn in his path. "His inner force felt the objects' vibrations," explains Eddie Nalapraya, a federation official. "I'd like to figure out how to open bank safes with vibrations."
Later that day, on the banks of a nearby pond, a 69-year-old bapak named Ibrahim Adie sits with his back turned to five silat disciples. He wears a polo shirt, jeans and a red felt cap called a kofiah, but no shoes. On cue, the disciples rush him. When they are just a few feet away, Adie claps his hands, and the attackers are abruptly flung backward with the exaggerated flourish of Keystone Kops. They writhe on the ground, clutching their bellies until Adie waves off the force field with his hand.