Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Tale of Fiction from Indonesia

The speed boat bounced across the surf past Lintea Island without slowing. La Ane could count six white people. They would be visiting just before dinner, the highlight of his day. Tourists traveled from the fancy dive resort once every two weeks. Today felt special to La Ane. He sensed that this would be a day blessed by the gods. The afternoon would pass slowly as he waited for good fortune to arrive.
With tourists coming, he had not been allowed to fish with his father, La Pudda. His mother was planning to spend her day cooking. He was instructed to keep his younger brothers and sisters out of trouble. At the age of ten, he wanted to be with the men farming the seaweed. It was a hot day, and it would have been cooler to be fishing with the sea air on his face. Now he was stuck in the island heat.
He herded his two younger brothers under a large curving palm where the sun was filtered. Their skin was light like that of his mother’s. La Ane was proud that the sun had darkened his arms and face like the fishermen. He was nearly a man, and he told his brothers constantly.
La Ane was to spend this day watching over his three younger sisters as well. He would have to think of ways to amuse to them all. It was too hot to sit and do nothing at all. He held the baby in his arms as he led the line of skipping children in an out of the palms that lined the narrow beach. His six year old sister begged for La Ane to carry her pick her up. She ran behind him. With a leap, she tried to straddle his back. He reprimanded her. He was holding the baby. Grow up, he thought. He was grown. It was time she was too. He was in charge. He directed the children in a parade around the island which lasted for the afternoon.
La Ane wanted the tourist boat to return. He loved the left over sandwiches, freshly cut pineapple, and chocolate cookies that would be given to the children before the boat went back to the private resort on the island in the distance. He gathered the little ones around him.
“We need to make an offering.” He watched his mother make offerings several times a day. He knew how it was done.
The younger brothers and sisters stood still, while La Ane gathered shells from the beach and placed them on a folded strip of a palm frond. They were instructed to remain prayerfully silent. They did as he directed. He spoke a few quiet words, and then placed his offering by a log that had washed ashore. The gods would be pleased. Good fortune was now assured.
La Ane stared to sea as the tour boat pulling the three yellow kayaks disappeared to the north and headed toward the stilt village. The white visitors were annoying, he thought. They insisted on taking his photograph. They rubbed the hair on his head. Adults were not to touch in public. He had been scolded by mother several times to not move, and to let them touch him. The strangers did not know the rules and were not required to obey. He was ten, and too old to be petted like a child. After all, he went fishing with the men of the village. La Ane looked up from his offering. He could hear his mother calling for him to come back to the house in order to change clothes.
Jennifer’s eyes were shaded by her dark blue baseball cap and her Oakley sunglasses. This was the farthest from the Untied States that she had traveled. She was now exactly half way around the globe from home. It was thrilling to be skimming across the turquoise water on this glorious sunny day with Alice and four other friends from the dive resort. None of them had been to Indonesia before. Their eyes scanned the horizon for the stilt village promised in their afternoon tour. They had given up a lunchtime dive to visit the neighboring island and see how the native people live.
It had been suggested that they bring items from American to donate to the area children. Jennifer had brought brightly colored water soluble markers. She had given the art supplies to the front desk of the resort, so that they could be distributed to the local school. When she spotted the first rickety shack on stilts, she wished that she had brought more things to give.
Jennifer squinted at the sun which backlit the tiny blue building that clung to the surface of the water. They bounced along the surf until they were fifty yards from the small rectangular structure. Jennifer tried to remain stoic as she stared at the hut. A dark, tan figure of a man peered around the wall, through the opening that formed the doorway, and stared back at the looking tourists. He checked the watch on his left arm and then ducked behind the privacy of the three quarter wall that formed his house. As the motor boat came closer, Jennifer could see that the thatched grass forming the walls and roof were draped with a blue tarp. This was the same tarping she had used to cover the floor of her garage when she spray painted her lawn furniture at the beginning of the summer. It all looked so flimsy to her. In the distance, rows of huts appeared, lining the horizon like an apartment complex on the surface of the water. Her sympathy for the man hiding behind the wall prevented her from noticing the other details; the solar panel, the wires from the eaves of the roof, and the lucrative piles of seaweed on blue pontoon platforms.
“Oh God, Alice.”
Alice nodded in acknowledgement. Nothing more need be said. They watched the blue hut disappear behind them, as their boat accelerated toward the horizon and their next stop: the stilt village. To their east, Lintea sped by. The small island village would be their last stop. Children ran along the beach, tiny dark figures poking their heads around palm trees to get a better look at the tourists. The white observers were too far from shore to see the smiling face of La Ane, as he watched the boat from the shore. Cameras from the boat snapped in an attempt to freeze the scene, as it disappeared on their left.
With the wind in her face, it was hard for Jennifer to be heard. She yelled to Alice.
“I could have built those huts, and I don’t know how to hammer a nail in straight. Did you see them? Not one wall or roofline was plumb. What do they do in a storm?”
“Storm? What do they do in the rain? There are no windows or doors.”
They fell back into silence as the ramshackle huts, framed by a thick band of waving green palms, merged into mangroves and a coral rimmed coastline. They watched the montage of scenery unfold. A documentary on local Indonesian life opened before them that afternoon, a short boat ride removed from the luxurious five-star hotel. The two guides carefully watched as well. It was their job to see that the visitors from so far away had a pleasant afternoon, and that all of their expectations were met.
The resort boat neared the silt village. The midday sun shone bright and hot on the huts above the water, the elevated walkways, and the canoes tethered to the pylons. It washed away the color and blurred the details of the brown figures looking at the boat passing them by. Men and boys stood by their doorways and stared out at the tourists with their three yellow kayaks. The tourist boat slowed. Hands waved greetings.
“Obama, Obama,” voices could be heard chanting above the motor and surf.
“Obama, Obama,” came the chorus of reply from the boat.
“Everyone loves Obama,” laughed Alice, a democrat.
Now that the stilt village had been seen, the boat accelerated. There were other stops to be made before the sunset cruise back to the hotel and a gourmet dinner. The guides were happy that the tourists were appropriately sympathetic. So far, so good.
The boat and kayaks pulled into a white beach along the black coral coast. Trash littered the uninhabited shore. Pieces of blue tarp, torn strips of netting and empty water bottles dotted the sand. Alice and Jennifer instinctively began to pick up trash and place it into the last canoe. They would leave the beach cleaner than they found it. The tide would bring more trash to the shore as soon as they paddled away. Back at the dive resort, employees were picking up the plastic that was washing ashore. In the morning, they would repeat their endless task.
La Ane and his brothers kicked through the trashed that had washed ashore behind his uncle’s hut. The girls were uninterested in the free treasures that could be found daily on the beach. They sat on a smooth coral rock with the baby and played with her hair. They threaded a pink bow through the dark wisps on the top of her head.
One sister rose to walk along the beach. Her bangs fell in her face as she dreamily looked for bits of red and orange coral at the water’s edge. A grey face with teeth smiled out of a hole. She bent down to pluck a tree-shaped fragment of coral and placed it in her jumper pocket. The eel watched her and receded back into the coral, his eyes shining in the dark recess of his hiding place.
The youngest brother laughed when he found a large pink flip flop that was wedged beneath a palm log on the beach. His two brothers ran closer. La Ane picked up the day’s find and smiled. This was a good omen. He deserved the fortune that would be his today. He had taken good care of his brothers and sisters. He turned when he heard his mother calling again, and gathered them into a line for a parade back to their hut. Their mother waited at the top of the ladder. It was time to change and get ready for the tourists. They would be arriving in an hour or so, and there was a lot to be done. The palm mats need to be put into place. Shirts and shorts needed to be changed, and the ribbons taken out of the hair. All part of a day’s work for the village, and the payment for the visit would be helpful. La Ane knew that he would reap benefits today as well. Like plucking treasures from the shore, good fortune would hand him gifts today. It was just a matter of time.
Alice and Jennifer made good paddling companions. Jennifer dug her paddle into the green water, and Alice steered them safely around the grey trunks of the mangrove trees which looked like southern magnolias growing up from the ocean. They ducked beneath the low hanging branches of large glossy flat leaves. It could have been a swamp thought Jennifer, but the water was clear. They watched blue striped fish and pointed at red crabs. They did not see the anaconda that swam near the narrow yellow kayak. The two guides had failed to mention that there would be large snakes swimming in the Indonesian mangrove forest. Jennifer was not fond of snakes. Her limited knowledge of the surroundings kept her from worrying about danger. Alice was cautious, and watched the branches closely as they glided quietly through the maze of mangrove saplings that buffered the forest from the ocean. The sun sparkled off the top of the water, and the shadows of the trees were disturbed only by the dipping and stoking of paddles. A flying tree snake dropped from the top of a mature mangrove, parachuting through the air to a lower branch, unnoticed by the passing tourists.
Their kayak adventure ended on another liter strewn beach with a rooster waiting in the sand by the shore. He was a striking bird with purple, yellow and black feathers, and a bright red comb. Everything in Indonesia was colorful. While the kayakers landed, Sjarif, the day’s adventure guide, hopped out of the boat and distributed iced white washcloths. It was hot on the island, and the Americans wiped the sweat from their foreheads. Such luxury in the jungle! The cooler was opened, and everyone enjoyed the fresh pineapple, apple slices, and pears. There was so much food that the six tourists left the cookies untouched.
“Would you like to walk through the jungle?” asked Sjarif.
Of course! They were supposed to be going to a seaweed village. Perhaps they would arrive on foot, like native islanders. The six started off in flip flops through the greenery. The coral was uneven, sharp, and unstable. The path was dangerous. Jennifer immediately tore her shoe. Alice twisted her ankle, but not so badly that she could not walk. She had to go slower and watch her steps.
“Oh my,” chuckled Jennifer. “If we were filming an episode of Survivor, we would be all dead by the end of the first night! How do the islanders make it to their village in the dark?”
The iced towels seemed a long way away.
“We are here.”
Sjarif smiled and pointed to the trees in the clearing. The group looked around. They stood in the center of the island jungle in a small open space. Green leaves surrounded them. Vines and bushes merged together into a thick mass of oversized foliage. Only the long leaves sprouting from the top of the few banana trees that encircled them broke the monotony of the landscape.
“This is a banana grove.”
The amazed tourists stared at their guides and took long swigs from their bottled water.
“I thought we were going to a village,” Jennifer whispered to Alice.
The cameras continued to click as the banana trees were photographed. The green bunches of fruit were zoomed in for close ups. A fat pink flower on a thick ribbed stalk curved down from the bananas. It looked like a football suspended in the air. Small new trees grew up from rhizomes that had survived the coral path, as they had. The air was steamy, and there was no village to be seen.
“Would you like to walk further?” they were asked by the guides.
“Is there a village?”
“We’ll go back.”
The tourists took photos of their group in the clearing, framed by banana trees. In their pictures, they glistened with sweat. Their eco friendly shirts had been christened by a real jungle. The unnoticed green tree viper and the reticulated python lounged on nearby low branches. They watched the group head back to the beach and the waiting rooster. After the kayaks were tied to the back of the boat, the group motored away through the low light of the late afternoon. They had been in a jungle. It had been hot and rocky. There had not been a village to tour. The only animals they had observed had been crabs, fish, and a rooster. There was one stop remaining on the day’s adventure tour.
La Ane was finally free of his brothers and sisters. He rushed back to the shore. A black chicken ran beneath an elevated hut and hid behind a large woven basket. Mother watched from the top of the three stepped bamboo ladder in the shade of the overhanging thatched roof. She was finished with her cooking. The smell of fried chicken, sambal, and rice wrapped in banana leaves filled the air.
The boys had changed from their surfer shorts into t-shirts and old slacks. The mats had been put in place. The baby cuddled in her mother’s arms. The pink ribbon was folded and placed in a carved wooden box. The two older girls clung to her skirt. They had reluctantly changed out of dresses and into pajama tops and sweat pants. They were ready to receive the western guests. La Ane heard the sound of the motor boat, and now he could see it approaching around the end of the island. He was running so fast that his bare feet barely touched the sand.
The tourists were excited as well. They had been waiting all day to come to the island of seaweed farmers. They watched a small band of young children sprint along the shore to see where the boat would land. Their clothes were as colorful as crayons in a box with their brightly dyed t-shits and unmatched pants.
Alice turned to Jennifer and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“Aren’t they adorable?”
The cameras clicked off photos of the children as the boat pulled into shore. La Ane was in the front, the first ambassador to the seaweed village. The six children stood still, and waited as the six tourists emerged onto the beach. The Americans wore brightly colored clothing. To the boys and girls, they looked like the new colorful markers from school. The divers squatted to be at their level and smiled.
“Hello. Do you speak English?”
“Hello, hello,” parroted the children.
“Do you speak English?”
“Hello, Hello,” came the response. This was the only English word the children knew.
Jennifer pulled her small digital camera from the pocket of her shorts. La Ane and his brothers ran to her side and looked at the camera. They knew what would come next. It was always the same.
“May we take your picture?”
Jennifer held the camera out in straight arms, and then made a gesture with her index finger as if she were taking a photograph. Alice brought her outstretched arms together, trying to make the children group together for a better composition.
“Do you speak English? May we take your picture?”
The photographers’ heads moved up and down as if answering their own inquiry by nodding . Jennifer touched the arm of the eldest boy. She patted it softly and showed him the camera. La Ane stiffened, and the smile faded from his face. He did not like the touch. His brothers and sisters saw his expression, and their faces became serious too. Alice gently moved the children close together, and a picture was quickly snapped.
Jennifer turned the camera for the staring children to see. They were thrilled at their image on the screen. They began to laugh and grab for the camera. The photographers laughed. They had communicated without words. Jennifer was pleased.
“Did you see your frozen expression?” La Ane’s younger brother teased in Indonesian. “You look like you stepped on a stone fish, and he turned your face to stone. You are a stone face stone fish!”
“Shut up!”
“Stone face! Stone face!”
La Ane pushed his laughing brother in the soft sand.
Jennifer began to walk toward the first elevated hut by the water. Two women sat on their knees working with a pile of seaweed, seemingly oblivious to the tourist who had just bent down and joined them beneath the floor of the hut. Jennifer smiled.
“Do you speak English?”
The two women continued with their work and giggled, as they made eye contact. Jennifer showed them the camera, opened her eyes in appeal, and made an exaggerated gesture of taking a photograph. She nodded her head up and down. They nodded back. Several pictures clicked, as they threaded wet pieces of golden seaweed onto long blue cords.
Jennifer nodded a goodbye and emerged from beneath the hut feeling awkward. She had intruded. She felt for the first time that she was in a place she should not be, an interloper in the lives of others. She wondered how the islanders felt about the cameras and stares. Even with smiles, the tour was beginning to feel like a trip to the zoo. She wondered who was watching whom. She needed to walk through the village alone, without the children, and without the other tourists. She took photographs, as she wandered to the center of a circle of huts, away from the water.
There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the construction of the structures. Some were lower to the ground with short wooden ladders at the entrance. Others were built on higher stilts with taller bamboo ladders at the front. One wall might be made from panels of intricately woven palm fronds, while another, of roof thatching held in place by random strips of wood. Nothing appeared orderly or measured. Every hut had bundles of wood, burlap sacks, and water jugs beneath the floor. Wet clothes were hung on the lines that had been strung between the supporting stilts. As she peered around the houses, chickens and ducks ran in the sand. Jennifer continued to worry that a storm would blow the inhabitants away. She was happy to see one porch covered with corrugated tin. Finally a building material with which she could relate.
In the center of the village was a circle of black coral rocks. Sjarif had joined her and explained that this was a temporary grave. There was no cemetery on the island. The dead were cremated, an important part of the religion and culture. If the family of someone who died was too poor to afford the elaborate meals, decorations and carvings required for the cremation ceremony, the dead would have to rest in the ground for a while. Eventually a public cremation would be held, and the village would share the cost. This might take as long as ten years. It was a humbling experience for a family to wait for cremation. Sjarif paused in his explanation. Jennifer looked at the simple circle of stone in the sand and the folded green palm leaf offering in the center. She felt humbled too.
Her thoughts were broken by the confusion of the rush of children grabbing for her camera. A crowd had gathered. The younger ones begged to be photographed. Several adults had come down from the ladders. A woman in a yellow t-shirt stopped grinding tapioca in a flat round basket , dusted the white powder from her hands, and left her cell phone on the floor of the porch before she climbed down to join the group in the village center. La Pudda had appeared. He stood near the grave.
Sjarif explained to the dive group, that La Pudda was the oldest member of the village and their chief. He was fifty-eight years old and looked eighty. Alice and Jennifer felt very old. They were both fifty-eight. La Pudda stood no taller than Jennifer, who was short. He puffed out his chest and crossed his arms as he posed for dozens of photographs. He had a grey goatee and bushy grey eyebrows. He felt handsome in his red and blue polo shirt, narrow black hat and baggy black drawstring pants. He had produced sixteen children with four wives. He had populated a village. The blood flowed well in the middle section of his body. He turned to pinch and grab at the guides.
“What’s happening?” Alice asked.
“He wants to know if my blood flow is good. If I can have sixteen children.”
Sjarif was a Muslim and embarrassed with prodding in front of the women. Everyone laughed and stared at Sjarif. It was an interesting thought. Could Sjarif have sixteen children?
“Where are La Pudda’s other wives. Did they die?”
“No. They live on nearby islands. He visits them from time to time. Gives them fish or money when he has it.”
La Pudda came closer and laughed through his missing teeth. He poked at Sjarif again. Jennifer was single. She was grateful that she did not live on this island with La Pudda strutting around, looking for blood flow, and single handedly populating this part of Indonesia. She did not see Sjarif place money in the pocket of his baggy pants. They spoke in Indonesian. She felt terrible that she had not learned more than a few simple words of greetings. She wished that she had something to give, something to leave behind of herself. The art markers that she had brought from home had been given away. She should have brought more.
The afternoon was almost gone. The sky was streaked with purple and pink. The reflections of the sun in the water to the west were bright and long. It was time for the tourists to say goodbye and leave for their resort where their huts had internet connections, warm showers, and freshly folded towels waiting on the beds for them. They had all the comforts of home with the exception of televisions. By at night, the divers were too tired to watch television anyway. They were on a remote island. They were grateful for the showers.
As they stepped into the boat to leave, Jennifer watched the oldest boy in the bright green shirt and the yellow pants waving goodbye by the shore. She knew then what needed to be done. She turned to climb out of the boat. The guides were pushing the bow back into the surf when they stopped her.
“No. No. Don’t get out.”
“I want to give him my hat.”
She pointed to La Ane and began to pull her Duke hat from her head. Her blond pony tail had been drawn through the back. The blue hat dropped into the water. Sjarif retrieved it.
“Please. Please give it to the boy in the green shirt.”
La Ane watched as the guide picked the lady’s hat out of the ocean. He could not figure out why she was trying to get out of the boat. Then the guide came right to him and presented him with the baseball cap. La Ane placed it on his head, and ran back to the other children who were waving on the beach behind him.
The boat pulled away. The three yellow canoes trailed in the failing light of the day. The tourists had remained longer than had been arranged. The children ran toward the pile of cookies, apples, and fresh pineapple. The baby sat in her mother’s lap with a chocolate chip cookie smeared on her face. La Ane was first to grab a fat sweet section of cut pineapple. His brother poked a finger at the brim of the baseball cap.
“Hey. Did you get anything else from the tourists other than that hat?”
La Ane’s mouth was full of pineapple. He shook his head no. His brother looked disappointed.
“You didn’t get those sunglasses.”
“No. And they were nice. They were Oakleys.”
“The hat’s ok.”
“Wish it had been a UNC cap. I like Michael Jordan. Anyway, I was rooting for Butler during the NCAA basketball championship last week. Not Duke.”
La Ane was beginning to feel that fortune had let him down. He had made offerings and everything. He was trying to figure out where he had gone wrong.
“Oh well. They will bring more people back again in a couple of weeks. Maybe we will get something better then. Let’s go in and watch ESPN. We can find a good game to watch during dinner. The World Cup is coming up soon.”
The two boys headed back toward their hut. Their mother had already removed the palm mats covering the flat screen television. CNN played in the background. She talked with her older sister on Tomea Island on her cell phone, while she dished out rice, sambal, and fried chicken. She had driven the jeep back from behind the bushes and parked it under the hut. The pink ribbon had been tied in the baby’s hair. Family life was back to normal, for at least two weeks, until the tourists returned.
Jennifer walked to the bar at the end of the resort dock. Alice was already there, red wine in hand and enjoying a bowl of cashews. The other divers, who had missed the tour to the stilt village, were firing off questions about the excursion. Jennifer told the details of the trip. She ended her tale simply.
“It was moving.”
The six tourists who had traveled together that day, all agreed how lucky they were. Thanks to good fortune, they were born in the US. Fate had smiled on them. Jennifer was happy that her hat was now living on Lintea Island. She wondered how her gift might affect the child in the green shirt. Perhaps one day, he might come to the United States for school. She knew that her gift had affected her. She would remember this child forever, and pray for his future.
“Let’s head to dinner.” Alice put down her empty wine glass. “I want to see if anyone has heard how the Yankee game turned out. This is about the only news I miss out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Sjarif and the other guide smiled from the bar. Their mission had been accomplished. The tour was successful. The anaconda, the python, the cell phone, and the flat screen had all been avoided. The tourist had enjoyed the jungle and a native Indonesian village. The two guides would have a beer when the resort guests left the bar for their gourmet dinner in the dining room. It had been a good day for almost everyone.
La Ane threw the blue cap in a large carved wooden box in the corner of his hut. It fell on top of a pile of other baseball caps. He now realized what he really needed in life. He needed a new pair of sunglasses. He would dream of Oakley sunglasses that night and make offerings to the gods in the morning. He felt sure that on the next tourist visit, the gods would bless him. Good fortune would come his way. Sunglasses would be in his future.
In the background, the Red Socks were losing to the Yankees on television. The black chicken hid beneath the hut, grateful that it had not been the evening meal. On another part of the island, the python slid from the tree and headed toward the beach and the waiting rooster.