Indonesia’s rail sitters seek a cure for ailments

Each afternoon, Abdul Rachman indulges in his favorite way to reduce the stresses of the working world: He sits on the railway tracks not far from home.

Rachman, a 32-year-old security guard, says the unorthodox practice is intended to prolong his life, not end it. “Many people say I want to kill myself because I do this,” said the stocky man with a thick mustache, who has suffered from rheumatism and fatigue. “People can say what they want. I do it because I want to be cured.”

Rachman is among scores of advocates of railway “electric therapy,” a treatment some Indonesians believe cures such ailments as strokes, asthma, high blood pressure and rheumatism, not to mention a hard day at the office.

The practice took off last year after a man suffering from the effects of a stroke reportedly lay down on the track in an attempt to commit suicide but jumped off after feeling rejuvenated by the oncoming train’s electric current.

Now others flock to the spot near the Rawa Buaya Station in west Jakarta, along a litter-strewn riverbank that reeks of sewage.


Ignoring the makeshift bamboo fencing that’s meant to keep people off the tracks, they lie on the ground, splaying their limbs over the rails. Some lie with their necks and ankles exposed on the iron ribbons, while others like Rachman sit cross-legged gripping the rails with both hands.

Believers say that as trains pass on adjacent racks, they administer a string of low-voltage electric shocks that jolt away whatever ails people. So far, at least, officials say, no one has been struck by trains.

Rachman says his muscle pain is gone and that he sleeps better. Almost evangelical about the therapeutic merits, he has made daily sojourns to the tracks for three months and even knows the train timetable by heart.

“It just feels so good,” he said. “If you’re tired or have rheumatism, you touch the rails and all the tiredness vanishes. Your whole body feels lighter.”

Not everyone is buying the instant cure.

“I don’t believe the treatment can cure rheumatism or high cholesterol. There is no data, no research,” said Oki Kadarusman, a Jakarta physician. “Mystical reasons are driving [people] to things like railway therapy.”

Skepticism has led the local government to ban the practice, and officials have posted hand-painted signs along the tracks asking people not to “sleep on the rails.” But the measures have had limited success.

“I worry that someone will get electrocuted or the children will get hit by a train when their parents are doing the therapy, but we can’t force them to leave. All we can do is warn people about the dangers,” said Suardi, head of the Rawa Buaya Station, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.

Although the ban has reduced the number of adherents, many still flock here to see what all the fuss is about.

“I know there is a sign saying we mustn’t do this, but I still come because I want to be healthy,” said 66-year-old Elan, who lives in a concrete apartment block next to the tracks. She said the visits have improved her health, reducing her blood pressure and cholesterol.

In the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority nation, many practice a form of Islam that is mixed with superstition and traditional beliefs, including voodoo-like treatments to ward off spells and illnesses.

Still, rail therapy seems to be a case of economics rather than black magic. With more than 31 million Indonesians living below the poverty line, proper healthcare is a luxury not everyone can afford.

Agus Purwadianto, a Health Ministry spokesman, said officials don’t condone the practice, but he acknowledged that the national healthcare system might be stretched too thin.

“It is very dangerous and there is no proof in conventional medicine that it works, but still they continue. I think people use this electric treatment because the national health system is insufficient,” he said.

Although everyone is entitled to free healthcare, many get fed up with the bureaucracy of obtaining the services.

Rachman, who earns $120 a month, is one of them.

“You have to pay to go to the doctor, but here it’s free,” he said. “You can come whenever you want, morning or afternoon, and you can stay all day.”

Lamb is a special correspondent.