Extraordinary People

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The wind, angin, shakes my bungalow and booms through the trees like a waterfall. I am sheltering inside at the moment, beneath my canopy of pink mosquito netting complete with embroidered zig zags. The rain is light, pattering on the palm thatched roof, and the water sloshes beneath the stilts, glowing an almost impossibly clear aqua blue through the slats in the floorboards.
The wind is so fierce and strong I wonder if it will carry my bungalow away like the tornado did to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. It feels like I am living in some kind of strange movie, so it wouldn't surprise me. The characters here are so vivid they are beyond fiction.
The local massage lady, cackles something in Acehnese from the path. She's small and thin as a bird, cheekbones jutting at mad angles beneath her bejewelled fuchsia turban. She wears a yellow tunic. Her feet are tiny and her voice is huge. She is always trailed by two dogs, her minions, whom she orders around. When I first arrived at my bungalow, she was beneath it with her dogs, poking around in the dirt. "Anda suka anjing?" she croaked from beneath the floorboards. "Saya sukanya, tidak apa apa." No problem, I said, wondering what she was doing there. How can she give massages with such tiny childlike hands? "You would be surprised," a woman from England had told me earlier. "I had the best massage ever from a tiny old woman in Thailand, and I wouldn't have thought it possible."
Then there's Mamamia, not to be confused with the other Mama who runs Mama's Restaurant on the beach. Mamamia owns the bungalow where I'm staying (number 9, next to the big twisty tree overhanging the water), and her own restaurant further up the hill. She has a voice like a parrot, high and wavering. "Halloo!" she squawks, coming out of the cookhouse as I enter the restaurant, a communal table under a singular thatched roof, open to the elements and to conversation from guests who gather here from around the world. She has a sweet but no-nonsense grandma's face, and her long silver hair is brushed back into a bun. She wears fuchsia mumus. Yesterday her mumu was covered in batik flowers; today, colourful daisies. She thinks that I had Andy, another Canadian from Quebec, over from bungalow 8 last night.
"You sleep with Andy?" she asked, point blank, taking me aback. "I see your light off. He sleep in your bungalow." It was a statement more than a question.
"Of course not," I replied. "Andy is just a friend." But she only looked at me sternly, disbelieving. The most exciting thing I did last night was lie in my canopy bed with a Barbara Kingsolver novel, but I suspected it would be difficult to convince her of this fact. Maybe believing otherwise was her own form of entertainment.
Such a nosy enquiry was a little shocking. But this land is governed by Sharia law. Unmarried people could be, and have been, whipped publicly at the mosque for illicit behaviour. As a westerner, I may be exempt from a whipping, but not from harsh scrutiny during my stay. Others will be watching me, a single woman, in a bungalow next to a single man, like a hawk. I feel a little resentful that my good behaviour (I came to Aceh fully aware of Sharia and have kept covered, for example), was not enough to shield me from prejudice based on my blonde hair and single status.
It gets stranger. A local man, Diar, short and balding, keeps coming to my bungalow, making me acutely uncomfortable. (I won't say his real name, though any single women travelling to Pulau Weh should contact me and I will give it to you. Be warned.)   I'd seen him before in the restaurant, and of course I was friendly like everyone else was. But friendliness from me is different from friendliness from a married woman or other man, as I have to constantly remind myself. It's a fine line between being sombong (if you are not friendly you may be accused of being arrogant) which runs counter to natural Indonesian friendliness, and inviting unwanted attention from what in the west would be considered normal conversational behaviour.
Diar told me he is a former GAM (Free Aceh Movement) rebel who fought in the mountains against the Indonesian militia. The fight for an independent Aceh has lasted more than 30 years the province, and many hundreds of years against other invaders, including the Dutch. After the tsunami, a peace treaty with the Indonesian government was signed. As part of the deal, GAM relinquished its firearms. But there is still talk of fighters hiding in the mountains.
Like a 12 year old boy, Diar demonstrated his military prowess by miming that he was holding a machine gun. "Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat!" He was grinning and his eyes rolled at imagined, or remembered, foes. During the conflict, Diar's family sent him out of Aceh for his own safety, and he travelled the world working on container and cruise ships. He's travelled to Thailand, Malaysia, India, and South America.
The writer in me is fascinated by such stories; sometimes I forget I am a woman and must act accordingly, to protect myself. Then my womanly instincts wake up.
He frightens me. His eyes are unmoored, wandering too freely, or fixed on me too intently.
One night he came to my balcony. I tried to shoo him off without aggravating him. What would Mamamia think? I said. "Ah, tidak masalah!" he laughed and shrugged it off. No problem! And continued to remain seated on my balcony chair. I finally got him to leave by telling him that I had to go up to do some laundry in the shed (all by hand, with water from an old oil drum with a sticker on the side that says "Danger: Irritant.") For my own good, I will have to learn to be more of a bitch.
Kadang kadang orang gila sedikit. Sometimes people are a little bit crazy.
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