The word is pronounced rrrrrrANGG-ohng. A brief vocal overture with the tongue playing timpani and horn. Emphasis on the first syllable, rolling the r’s, nestling the tongue back against the roof of the mouth for the “ng” sounds.
For the uninitiated, a bit of tongue play is needed before the word rolls out nicely. To achieve full effect, ranggong should be forcefully expelled while leaping backwards in terror. This is the typical enunciation in the shocked pause following a ranggong encounter.
I learned the Manggarai word for scorpions the morning I forewent my pseudo-Buddhist convictions and smacked one into mush. In the tropics, we grow accustomed to being surprised by stinging whatsits: that is how they introduce themselves. They sting first and we ask questions later, such as: “Ouch! What the *&%bleep*&% was that?!”
Prickly fruits and forest vines, stinging bushes and nettles, ants, flies, hornets, beetles, mosquitoes, scorpions, scorpion fish, catfish, jellyfish, lionfish, rays, cone shells, and anemones. Manggarai whip dances and dishes containing scalding doses of chili pepper. They all sting.
Indonesia, a 17,500-island megadiversity hotspot, hosts a plethora of scorpions and scorpion-like creatures, including a giant midnight-blue forest scorpion packing lobster claws. Indonesia being Indonesia, new species are constantly being discovered: an eyeless forest litter scorpion in Maluku, a tailless whip scorpion on Borneo1. Or the “water scorpion” of Flores Island: a seductive taxonomic mystery whose pincer-like arms resemble a true scorpion’s.
Fortunately, the water scorpion, also known as the “water boatman,” is, in truth, a bug. A beefy, thumb-sized bug who breathes through a built-in snorkel in its tail or, more charmingly, by embracing an underwater air bubble. The Tado, my adoptive Manggarai clan whose name refers to both people and place, have bestowed a grandiose name on their native water scorpion: empo wae — “Grandfather of the Water.”
Like most critters with biting, pinching, or stinging parts, my first water scorpion had impeccable timing. It found me half-naked. Our introduction occurred on the Racang river, the only waterway on Tado lands gushing deliciously along its entire length, even during the dry season. Ordinarily, river bathing is a treat. Far better than public bathing at the village water pump or beneath a trickling bamboo tube, where all ablutions take place beneath the cover of a large cloth sarong, such that nothing more scandalous than a shoulder or an ankle is revealed to curious onlookers.
I try my utmost to adhere to traditional bathing codes, yet the contortions required while encased in a skin-tight sarong leave me only partially soaped or rinsed, weary of constantly re-cinching the knot decorously secured across my breastbone. Bathing in rivers allows for equally modest, yet less strenuous gymnastics: dipping my entire body into masses of flowing water is much easier than trying to direct rivulets down an armpit or more inaccessible parts.
So there I was, standing in the river trying to get clean, or in the words of my long-departed (human) Grandma, “washing up as far as possible, washing down as far as possible, and then washing possible.” A rather delicate setting, with so much exposed skin. I was focusing on body parts, not so much on my watery surroundings — a forgivable lapse for a bather untrained in aquatic entomology.
Not that it mattered. Instead of manifesting in its usual form, a dullish black exoskeleton easily camouflaged in darkened waters, Grandfather zinged past my ear with his flying apparatus extended, revealing lurid folds of red, blue, and black. I inhaled sharply: this was a miniature invertebrate superhero, an animated character from a blockbuster movie suddenly gone 3-D and bursting off screen.
At the time, standing dumbstruck in the water, I had no idea of what the creature was. Hummingbirds don’t exist in Indonesia. Sunbirds, their evolutionary counterpart, do, but the colors I saw didn’t correlate with sunbird hues. The next possibility, a rhinoceros beetle — also large, black, with massive pincers and buzzing when flying — came to mind, but samples collected by our community-based research team never deviated from a monochromatic scheme. Plus the rhinoceros beetles’ favored habitat centered around coconut palms in household gardens, not scruffy riverside vegetation.
I was vaguely familiar with the faded-black version of the water scorpion, as we had several specimens, their wings and appendages folded into inert carapaces floating in bottles of diluted alcohol in the Tado Community Research Center. But the zooming, outrageously colored thing that just whipped past my shoulder? That was new.
It wasn’t until I described my encounter to Kanisius, a research associate responsible for our insectarium, that we made the connection between dead specimen and living specimen, and the water scorpion became my new favorite insect2.
Grandfathers of the Water are amphibious, aerodynamic, and musically inclined. Species of water boatman in Europe have distinguished themselves as the world’s loudest animal, an achievement potentially nonsensical until we do the calculations. Water boatmen produce the loudest sound relative to body size: 99.2 decibels, similar to a passing freight train. Sadly, only submerged creatures with excellent eyesight can fully appreciate the boatman’s stridulations: sounds produced by rubbing a penis the width of a hair across corrugations on his abdomen. (Could any creature, no matter how segmented their thorax is, perform a more brilliant seduction?)
Outside of the concert arena, empo wae are carnivorous ambush predators, hunting tiny freshwater shrimp, fish, tadpoles, and mosquito larvae. They kill with a one-two punch: an immobilizing sting followed by an injection of digestive enzymes, allowing the victim’s tissues to be sucked up like slimy spaghetti. (Not that my sixty-kilogram, dripping wet self could be reduced to limp pasta by a bug the size of my toe. Or, at least not this particular bug.)
Back to scorpion-scorpions. The western Indonesian version of the house scorpion, known as kalacengkeng (kahl-ah-JENG-kehng: a lyrical, playful-sounding word meaning “scorpion with its butt in the air”), are espresso-black and feisty.
I have seen hundreds of these feisty-butted scorpions. Strolling through a crowded roadside market in south Jakarta in the mid-1990s, I observed, in fascinated horror, the direct-marketing strategies of a Javanese herbal medicine (obat) salesman. Short, stocky, bearded, and wild-eyed, he promoted scorpion bite remedies from a stool centered in a light blue plastic basin. A hand-lettered sign purveyed his wares: “Obat Kalacenkeng, Rupiah 1500.”
The sign was overkill, because swarms of scorpions merrily bustled over every visible millimeter of his body. The man was a living Hitchcockian moment, erupting with scorpions, while he smiled, apparently unperturbed, and gesticulated while shouting out the merits of his wares over the heads of nonplussed passersby, his singsong advertorial a running commentary on the amazing properties of his scorpion-bite medicine.
An ethnoecologist by training — and thus duty bound to honor species’ multiple roles in both cultures and ecosystems — I remain ambivalent toward creepy crawlies. Scorpions have earned permanent status on the list of Top Ten Critters Who Make Me Shudder. Yet, I appreciate their insouciant nature, their structural elegance, and the immediate potency of their toxins.
In Manggarai villages, we are on perpetual scorpion alert, and everyone has a bite story, the Indonesian equivalent of cockroach encounters. Scorpions and cockroaches may belong to different entomological orders, but as residents of the southeastern United States can attest, there are scary, buzzing roaches that bite: ask anyone who’s had a close encounter of the bizarre kind with a recently disturbed palmetto bug, frenetically zoom-smacking its way into one’s airspace.
I have my own unforgettable palmetto bug story: eight years old in Florida, opening a cousin’s infested dollhouse that languished in storage for far too long, my delight and anticipation napalmed into running-away-screaming horror as the denizens sprouted six legs and winged carapaces, and an equally memorable scorpion story.
Mid-afternoon on a weekend in Tado, I was finishing work in the Tado Community Research Center before heading over to a village social event. I expected one of the usual rather desultory rural gatherings involving coffee, cigarettes, and overly sweet desserts to celebrate the anniversary of a death, or a first communion, or a child’s completion of middle school, or some other reason to flaunt the host’s financial ability to throw a party. I wasn’t looking forward to the requisite bland chitchat, but the promise of imported baked goods (a rarity) titillated my taste buds.
I wrapped up my work, grabbed my travel bag, and snapped the leash onto my long-haired Chihuahua, Muku. Traversing the office, I made it midway across the floor when a sudden stabbing pain shot through my big toe. I shrieked and scooped up Muku in the same instant.
No need to look down to confirm the culprit. Once you’ve been inducted, the signature pain of a scorpion sting is easily identifiable, whether the perpetrator is strikingly obvious or quasi-invisible. I was in perfect scorpion habitat: our Center was roofed with thatch, walled with bamboo, and floored with cement. Unlike their shiny black cousins in the western half of the archipelago, eastern Indonesian scorpions are perfectly color-coordinated to match human settings. Cryptically grayish or translucently tan, Flores scorpions scuttle everywhere humans are, blending in with dirt, bamboo, wood, concrete, and the occasional peeling linoleum. The ultimate stealth-stingers, abetted by the Asian custom of no shoes indoors.
Swearing and stumbling, I hobbled to the doorway and crumpled on the concrete sill, gripping my bitten foot in one hand, my dog in the other. Staring out at the hillside scenery — nobody within sight — I resigned myself to being stuck. This was the era before reliable motorcycle taxi service, and the few public minivans sporadically plying the roadways could take hours to appear, if they did at all.
The road wasn’t within hollering distance, anyhow. No way to call for help. No landlines, cellphones, pagers, satellite units, or walkie-talkies. There wasn’t even a gosh-darn tin can rigged up to a clothesline. I could limp to the local posyandu (public clinics staffed by someone with a health diploma), but their schedule was erratic, the clinic rarely open. Their few boxes of government-supplied medication ran out during the first week of every month, leaving the community to fend for itself or travel long distances to the more distant puskesmas (larger clinics with basic laboratory facilities and more staff), even if all a person needed was aspirin.
A scorpion-bite neophyte (this was only my second sting), I had no idea of what to do. Lance it like a boil? Apply pressure? Suck the poison out? Ice would be nice, but there was no chance of procuring it within the vicinity: the nearest refrigerator was twenty kilometers away.
I resorted to Plan E: gazing out the doorway and gritting my teeth. The Center sat squarely along a water buffalo-herding path and was an object of curiosity. Folks made it their business to routinely check in; I knew someone would show up eventually.
Sure enough, several agonizing pain cycles later, one of my uncles from the ‘hood hiked up the hillside carrying a bundle of grass thatch panels, on his way to a roof repair.
“Selamat — good afternoon,” Uncle greeted me. “Gimana — what’s up?”
“Scorpion bite,” I squeezed out through clenched molars. Involuntary tears stung my eyes. “Ada musa — is there any sort of medicine available?” I asked, deliberately using the Manggarai word for traditional herbal remedies, because I sensed no store-bought pharmaceuticals would provide relief.
“I’ll be right back,” he replied, dropping the panels to the ground and hopping nimbly over a ridge to climb into the lower branches of a Ceylon oak3 tree. I watched him pull a few leaves off, stuff them into his mouth, and then leap back to the ground.
“Can you stretch out your leg?” he asked. “Show me where you were bit.”
I did, and after chewing the leaves and spitting them into his hand, uncle gently applied a poultice of masticated goo around my toe, assuring me the pain would subside. Rubbing more globs around my foot, he added extra spit and a prayer with his callused hand on my knee for good measure.
Then he sat down and, with a chuckle, entertained me with detailed family remedies for various types of common bites — snake, rat, wasp, bee, centipede. Scorpion, no big deal. Plenty of other bitey critters to contend with, and did I tell you about the time I climbed up a tree to trim some branches, was surprised by a green mamba, hacked its head off with my machete and killed the snake, but still got bit when I stepped on the dead mamba’s open jaws because I wasn’t looking where I put my foot on my way down? Adu, did my leg swell up! It was unrecognizable!
The poultice helped, the stories helped, and the immediate, authentic caring from my uncle helped even more. Yet my foot still ached. Badly. Mustering reserves of social-grace-under-pressure, I smoothed my face into a smile and nodded along as he chatted.
It wasn’t easy. The after-bite was intense. Unrelenting stabs pulsed beneath my skin, at times leaving me gasping. Dagger-wielding demons inside my foot mounted a vigorous jabbing contest where no side was winning, so each side dug in and redoubled their efforts. The toxins seared and throbbed in different directions every few minutes. The pain didn’t go away in any reasonable sense of time. It took hours.
Of course, such an incident was incredibly newsworthy. Foreign Scientist Bit by Scorpion and She’s Down for the Count, buzzed along the community grapevine, spreading the word up and down the highway. In record time, the village head showed up, followed by the Tado chief and several elders, all abandoning the party to come check on me.
“Kenapa — what happened?” asked each visitor as they stepped through the Center’s door. Aware that everyone knew perfectly well what had happened (otherwise they wouldn’t have shown up to witness the aftermath), I retorted, “diinjak oleh gajah — an elephant stomped on my foot,” and was rewarded with chuckles.
Woven mats were hauled out and spread across the cement floor, extending our seating area. I handed a fistful of crumpled rupiah bills to a youngster to go buy bottles of soda pop and crackers. Halfway through recounting more venomous tales, we found another scorpion, dead and being picked over by ants, next to the mat I was sitting on. Everyone recoiled for a nanosecond, then an uncle picked up the corpse and flung it out the door.
“One day I was taking down a towel from the wash line and there was a scorpion hidden inside. It bit me on the hand. Those bites can last for quite a while,” an auntie sympathized.
“If you swept your floor more frequently, you wouldn’t have as many problems with scorpions,” another auntie recommended, sniffing pointedly around the dusty Center.
“A scorpion bite on the nose of a water buffalo can kill it,” an uncle asserted.
“Most adults can handle two, three, five bites — no problem,” countered the chief.
Once we ran out of enticing conversation topics, the elders realized they were missing out on party goodies (the chief was a sucker for free cups of coffee and sugary treats), so they took their leave, promising to send back someone with a motorcycle to haul me home.
This time, I didn’t have to wait long. Our chief had serious clout. When I heard the motorbike revving up to the Center’s doorstep, I clambered to my feet, pulled Muku into my arms, locked the door, and seated myself properly on the bike, as a lady should: side-saddle, gripping the chrome fittings alongside the seat rather than the male motorcyclist’s waist.
Off we went, rattling across the pitted rock escarpment surrounding the Center, bumping up the edge of an unpaved feeder road, and turning onto the two-lane, trans-Flores highway.
“Ke mana? Where to?” The driver asked.
“One sekang tua golo — to the chief’s house,” I responded.
Of course, the driver wants to know what happened.
“Saya di injak oleh gajah — an elephant stomped on me, ” I yelled into his ear, so he could hear me above the wind, and we shared a laugh, the motorcycle whizzing by rice terraces, thatched houses, and wallowing water buffalo, eventually straining up the dirt road back home.
- Also known as a whip spider, although not a true spider or scorpion, but another type of arachnid with a separate scientific classification.
- A short video of Kanisius in the Tado Community Research Center with the water boatman specimens can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVgYLH9icBA
- Schleichera oleosa or cambi in Manggarai.
About the Author
A senior lecturer at San José State University and ethnoecologist focusing on biocultural diversity, Dr. Pfeiffer has published meta-analyses in major scientific journals and edited volumes on conservation. A finalist in the 2016 Hunger Mountaincreative nonfiction contest, her Pushcart-prize nominated prose has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Hippocampus, Nowhere, Between the Lines, and Langscape. More at www.jeaninepfeiffer.com.