Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
48Trip End Ongoing
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Duan is from the Batak Toba tribe of North Sumatra. For two years as a child, he lived here at his uncle's house, in a small village deep in the jungle about 20 kilometres off Sumatra's west coast. He has just returned for the first time as a man, bringing with him his western girlfriend, right now feeling every bit the outsider looking in on an intimate family reunion.
I have been in Sumatra for four months now, and have settled in Medan, the capital, to teach English
It is with this mysterious and beautiful language that Duan's aunt takes him by the hand and leads him to a large mat spread on the floor where several blankets are piled in a heap. His aunt pulls down the covers to reveal an ancient, tiny woman with a snowy cloud of hair and the broad, high cheekbones of a Batak, and lifts her to a seated position. Duan kneels to take her hand. She cries out, her frail arms holding his, and hunches over to rest her cheek on his arm, sobbing loudly, speaking to him in their native tongue. Very still, he holds her, his long black hair tumbling down his back, speaking to her in his soft voice of things I will never understand.
The children play and run around the room, chattering and smiling at me, hiding behind each other when I smile back. The house, made of roughly hewn wood, has one main room with a large, open window where the neighbours have gathered to peer at me as I sit at a table laden with vegetables. An indoor-outdoor house, one of perhaps 15 or 20 that line the road, clinging to the side of a mountain, it has no glass or mortar to stop the cool jungle air breathing through it. Between the open slats of the floorboards, I can see the smooth red earth below, the same earth that makes up half the floor of the house, where Duan's grandmother lies in her bundle on the mat.
Duan asks me for the gift. I take it from my knapsack, a new green sarong covered in batik flowers, and he wraps it around his grandmother's shoulders
It's common practice in Indonesia to have a mandi before dinner. So when Duan's oldest female cousin, Endang, says to me, "Sister, kamu mau mandi?" I am relieved for the opportunity to have a bath after a long day's journey. I accompany her and another cousin, Rumondang, up the narrow dirt road that winds its way through the mountains. Night is falling, and the rains have come again. Like so many teenage girls, Endang and Rumondang are sassy and boisterous, always joking around and pulling faces. We laugh and chatter up the road-they have switched to Indonesian so I can understand better-past the single row of houses, curious neighbours, mangy dogs, bounding puppies, puny cats and squawking chickens running amok. They introduce me to more neighbors up the street, Endang shouting exuberantly, "Bule masuk kota!" ("Westerner enters the village!")
They lead me through the grass, up a hill and beyond a stone wall enclosing a small bathing hole
On our return to the house, Endang spreads another mat on the floor next to her grandmother and lays out the evening meal, a big bowl of rice and another of mysterious, spicy meat. I suspect from its texture that the meat also includes organs and entrails, but I gulp it down without question. I don't want to be rude, and the spice is delicious anyway. The family is catching up with Duan's life, and from the few words I know, I gather he is telling them of his new job in Aceh province with a Swiss NGO, still building houses after the 2004 tsunami wiped out numerous villages as well as more than 200,000 lives off the coast
Everyone is eager to learn some English. As I shake each hand and say, "Hello, how are you?" the grandmother remains still beneath her blankets, curled up like a baby. Occasionally a bony hand or foot pops out. Tika runs over and nuzzles her head against hers, giggling and kissing her through the blanket. Later, the aunt holds her hand and rubs it as she chats to her friends in the room. Duan and his cousins Hatal and Paian sit in a circle beside her, catching up on old times. Then Hatal lies down next to her, stretching his legs out, to have a nap. I see he has only one foot (his other foot was severed in a car accident in Medan, Duan explains to me, which, considering the insanity of the traffic there, doesn't surprise me in the slightest).
The children have completely overcome their shyness-we have a tickle fight and chase each other around the room. They call me kak now, Indonesian for sister. "Kak! Kak!" they shout, clamboring over me, cuddling me and stroking my hair. They are delighted with my sunglasses and pose for photo after photo, passing my camera around. Even the careworn auntie puts them on and smiles proudly. I want to tell them they look like movie stars, but they might not know what a movie star is.
The next morning, Duan, his uncle and I set out for a jungle trek. Batak graves, small stone houses with roofs curved like the horns of a buffalo, nestle in the trees. We come across a clearing, where an entire family is lounging atop a gravesite, talking and enjoying the day
Further out in the jungle, we cross a river several times, then follow a tributary up the mountain. As we scramble over rocks covered in shiny, plastic-like ferns, I can hear the roar of the waterfall. When we reach the crest of the hill there it is, flowing off a cliff about 60 metres high, breathing great clouds of mist through the trees, making them blow and billow. "Say horas oppung," Duan says. So, thigh-deep in the river, I greet the waterfall's spirit. "Horas, oppung." Hello, grandmother.
Just as we cross the river to get a better look, the sun breaks free from the clouds and illuminates countless tiny gold flecks swirling in the water. This place is an open treasure chest of golden water, sparkling rocks and foliage silvered with mist. I am sorry to leave, but we pick up a few small stones as souvenirs and return to the village through groves of wild pineapple, lanzsat trees laden with sweet fruits clustered like grapes, lacy peacock ferns, and past the massive, ancient tree where Duan once hid as a child to avoid working on his uncle's rubber plantation. Following a path marked by Batak graves, we return full circle back to the village.
In the house, the family sits around their oppung on the mat, talking and singing traditional Batak songs. A small dog wanders in, teats hanging low with milk, and from under the floorboards up pops a chicken followed by six peeping chicks. Endang is rolling around on her back like a puppy, tickling her grandmother and crying loudly in a mock wail (Translation: "Life is so hard! Woe is me!"). A chuckle burbles from the blankets. It's infections-the entire household reverbrates with laughter.
Years ago, when I was a student in Victoria, Canada, I used to clean the house of an elderly woman who lived alone in an apartment that yawned with loneliness. Painfully aware that I was there because she paid me, I spent an extra hour each time to talk with her and listen to her stories, surrounded by the stuffed animals that kept her company. Her family lived far away in the Interior, and when she became unable to take care of herself, they sent her to an expensive care home facility to while away her last years. Duan's family, whom he calls his orang asli-original people-have little money, but they take care of each other from beginning to end.
When it is time for us to leave, Duan takes the hands of his oppung, kisses them and lays his cheek on them, speaking softly to her one last time. But it is not really goodbye. Duan's grandmother will pass soon, but she will do so surrounded by life. Her family will build her a Batak house, where they can visit her and have lunch, and talk and laugh. She will continue to breathe life through them as the waterfall breathes through the trees, scattering gold along the river.
"She told me she was waiting for me," Duan says. "Now she can go in peace."