This is a lot longer than my usual posts, please excuse my departure from brevity.
In 1995, I went to Indonesia for the first time. My (then) husband, a Malay, was working there – and on first landing in Indonesia, I was smitten by the country.
That first time I went – not to Jakarta, the capital – but to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra. The news this week of the devastation that has been wreaked upon the island has brought back so many memories of my first time in the country that I was later to call ‘home’.
It was in Sumatra that I first encountered people who, in meeting me, were meeting the first white person they had ever come across. Children would huddle together and giggle politely behind their hands while staring at me. And calling out the only words of English that they knew:
I would smile, wave and greet them in my pidgin Bahasa Indonesia
“Selamat Pagi!” Or ”Selamat Siang!” I would call across, which would tickle them even more than the fact that I was there to begin with.
What of those children now – who would be in their late teens and early twenties – are they still alive? If they are, I’ll bet they have little to smile about.
Eka, one of the men my husband was doing business with, came from a privileged background and had studied in Canada. He spoke flawless English with a soft Canadian accent overlying his native one. The lines between business and pleasure were blurred, and my husband and I often dined with the people he was there to see professionally.
Eka was one of the few people I encountered there who spoke more than a little English. He took great care to make me feel more included – translating the gist of conversations when I was obviously lost, and explaining cultural nuances. One night, over dinner, he took it upon himself to explain the origin of the word for ‘milk’.
“Actually, susu means breast as well,” he told me, running his hand over that part of his own anatomy to emphasize his point. He imparted this information without a shred of embarrassment, or a hint that he was trying to embarrass me. Or titillate the rest of the company. It was important to him that I felt welcome, at ease and comfortable.
Today, I wonder how comfortable he is. Or if he is dead.
It took a few days before I got used to being stared at. The first few times I was approached by Sumatrans who came up to me and held their faces a mere two or three inches from mine, I was unnerved. Then I realised that all they wanted was to see for themselves how un-brown my green eyes were, and it didn’t bother me anymore.
How many of the eyes that stared into mine are now permanently closed?
The Sumatrans – the Minangkabau – are very proud people. This is reflected in their architecture. The rooves of the area are shaped like buffalo-horns. The roof of the Ambacan Hotel – where I stayed for my first few weeks in Indonesia – was also shaped like buffalo horns. I have fond memories of that hotel and the staff who were so kind to me during my stay. Today, I learnt that the Ambacan toppled in the earthquake – trapping at least sixty people in the rubble. The rooves in Padang are so constructed to honour a time when, according to legend, the Minangkabau defeated the Javanese in a buffalo fight. Everyone from Padang assumes you haven’t heard the story before, and proudly relates it you.
It pains me to think of this pride dashed and dented.
On my second day in the city, a stout police sergeant crossed the road to the side where I was walking. Smiling, and with his hand out-stretched, he approached. Pumping my hand enthusiastically, he loudly proclaimed “My friend! You are my friend.”
Returning his smiles, I assured him that I was.
Now, I wonder how many of his friends he has lost since Wednesday.
Wherever I went in Padang, people touched my skin. They stroked my arm, or the back of my hand out of absolute curiosity to see what it felt like – if it was in any way like their own.
Today, I wonder about those anonymous people – men, women and children – whose curiosity overcame their innate good manners as they touched me, un-invited. I wonder how many of them are still sheathed in their own skins.
The person with whom my husband mainly dealt was a squat, rotund man called Arnolih Boy – or ‘Boy’ for short. Though married and with his sixth child on the way, he was regarded by one and all as a ‘boy’. There was mischief in his smile and it was difficult to believe that someone who looked so childlike could drive a hard bargain and was a local ‘hot-shot’.
What of Arnolih Boy today? Where is he and his wife and all their children? Has the smile been permanently wiped off his face?
Everywhere I went on Sumatra, people took my photograph. This annoyed my husband so much that one day he rounded on some unfortunate man, telling him to put his camera away, that I was his wife, and ‘not a national monument’.
I can’t help but wonder how many of Sumatra’s monuments are still standing.
During my first fortnight on the island, we passed by a hall where a young couple was getting married. One of the people we were with vaguely knew the family of the groom. He left us for a moment to wish the couple well. Minutes later, the groom’s father came out, ushering us to join in the festivities, to eat and drink our fill and to bless the couple. I remember one of the older aunties there insisted that – moreso than anyone else – I was to have my photograph taken with the newly-weds. They told me they were honoured to have a foreigner at their wedding (my husband translated). I replied that I was the honoured one.
Where are they today? Are those newly-weds now among the newly-dead?
Fourteen years ago, Sumatra carved a place for itself in my heart. Today, Sumatra itself has been carved apart by a devastating earthquake. Half a world away, I wonder about all the people I encountered when I first went there. I think about all the people who extended their hospitality and kindness to me. I think about all the people who helped me – translating, taking me shopping, inviting me to break bread with them, putting their cars and drivers at my disposal, showing me the natural beauty of the countryside. I am helpless to do anything for them but pray.