A Shared Burden

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Monday, August 11, 2008

The world is full of stories. So many to tell, and everyone has their own. It's been said we each have at least one book inside us.     
Sometimes the story needs to be told because there is no other outlet for the expression of pain. The storyteller may simply need to tell it in an attempt to relieve a burden from his heart. The listener bears witness to the story, and if he or she is a good one, may take some of the burden and release it. A shared burden is much lighter to bear.  
The guests of Iboih beach sat around the communal table in the gazebo, bellies full of fresh barbequed tuna, swapping our globe-trotting stories over Bintangs. With no television to numb our minds, we become entertainment and education for each other. It's a tradition that has never stopped in Indonesia, but has been somewhat lost to television and over-busyness in western culture. Here, under the trees and starts, we were talking, and in the ebb and flow of conversation came Papa's story.
I started calling him Papa, because he is Mamamia's husband. But when he told me his story, I found they have been married only a couple of years.

Papa is a soft-spoken man who knows no English, and apologizes for it when he shouldn't have to. He is the perfect compliment to Mamamia, a firebrand with a flare for colourful language. Together they work in the kitchen side by side, or sit on their balcony overlooking the feast they have put out for their guests, drinking coffee ("Coffee make you strong!" declares Mamamia) and sharing jokes. She translates requests from the guests for him, and they laugh often together, in an easy, familiar way. Sometimes he says things in his soft voice that makes her screech and melt into uncontrollable giggles.
While Mamamia is a little wary of me, Papa is always kind and solicitous. There's something about his voice that is very soothing, yet tinged with sadness. He sat with us for a while, his sarong wrapped around his waist. He told us his story in Indonesian, and I did my best to translate, asking him to repeat a couple of times just to make sure I heard correctly because it was so horrifying.

This is his story.
"I lost seven children in the tsunami," he said. "Seven children and my wife. All disappeared." He waved his hand, in a way that reminded me of Felix in another gazebo, already more than a year ago, at Lake Toba, remembering how he lost hold of a young boy who was swept away in the Bukit Lawang flood. The hand of God, fate or random chance sweeping human lives away as if cleaning crumbs off a table, leaving the survivors behind in a continued state of shock.
"My wife, my children. Gone, gone." Papa repeated, still trying to get his head around the magnitude of the disaster. "Only one daughter left." I translated for the others, and we sat in silence. What can anyone say about such a loss? Nothing but sit and share a little bit of that pain, take some of the burden from this man by listening to his story.
He shook his head. "Bisa mau lihat foto?"
The photos already appear aged, though they cannot be that old. Papa holds a single photo of a young woman dressed smartly in a skirt and white blouse, her hair perfectly coifed. She looks ready for her first day of work.
"My daughter," he says. "Gone."
He places a small album in my hands. It has a Japanese cartoon character on the front. Inside, photos of a young child, maybe two years old, with a mop of curly brown hair and big liquid eyes. She is playing on the floor. Though she is just a toddler, she already looks worried about something.
"Cucu saya," Papa says proudly, his voice soft with grief. My granddaughter. "Hilang." Gone.
A wedding photo. "Istri saya," he says. His wife is dressed in her best kabaya (a traditional lacy Indonesian women's dress for special occasions) and jilbab, standing with her family. It is his daughter's wedding, and the family surrounds the couple. "My daughter, no more. Her husband, still alive." He is the only one in the picture who survived. I notice he never says "died." Always it is hilang, the word for disappeared or lost. After two years, Papa married Mamamia because unmarried people shouldn't stay that way and be alone for long.
Oh, Papa. To see photos of his grandchild, playing on the floor with her toys, an angel soon to be caught in the worst misfortune. Even the words I write now feel so empty. Nature can be so cruel. Of the four fatalities on Pulau Weh, all were children who had ran out on the beach of exposed and wriggling fish to save them and put them back in the water.
Nature is impartial. It was in the wave that reared up and took so many lives, then sank to become part of people's livelihood once more. Nature is life and death in one.
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