Travel Stories

First Impressions

          I arrive in Sumatra at the provincial capital airport in Padang (pronounced Padong) and grab a taksi to take me straight to Bukittinggi, a town 100 kilometers north, and one of only two towns of any size - aside from Padang - in this region of Western Sumatra.  I’ve chosen Bukittinggi hoping that instead of hopping from town to town on a Sumatra survey tour I can focus on one area and branch out into the surrounding countryside and villages without having to pack, unpack, schlepp, check-in, arrange transportation, etc.  It’s always a bit of a gamble to focus on only one venue, but I seek depth more than breadth, and, remembering my extended stay in Pyin-Oo-Lwin, Myanmar as being very successful and comfortable, I’m hoping to repeat that in Bukittinggi.  I have also been draw to Bukittinggi by what is its reputed astonishing natural beauty, and by the Minangkabau, the matrilineal culture and people who predominate in the Bukittinggi region and are reported to have made the transition into the modern world without losing many of their values and traditions.  My first, second, and even third impressions are that I’ve made a serious miscalculation, but by the end of the first full day I’m feeling that the guides have been good to me, and that I’ve been very lucky once again.
          What humbles and frightens me first, though, is the road to Bukittinggi itself.  You’ve been on these roads in third world countries.  Yes?  There is no highway.  There is only one lane in each direction.  The traffic is snarled and dangerous.  Whole families with two and even three kids under five are zooming in and out of traffic on motorcycles.  No one is wearing a helmet.  Or perhaps the driver is.  Horns are blowing as if one could discern what is being specifically communicated in the cacophony. The roadside is littered with garbage and trash, some burning in small smoky fires.  The houses are tumbledown.  There isn’t a road sign, a traffic signal, or a roadside restaurant.  On the sides of the road are swampy ditches and swampy fields that I’m sure are the traditional homes of millions of breeding mosquitos just waiting to transmit some abominable tropical disease to me personally.  And these conditions are repeated for mile after mile until, of course, they get worse.  
          One side of the two-lane bridge across this only north/south road over a river gorge has crumbled.  
Beyond the bridge live electric wires have fallen across the road and are being held up in the air by a short man with a long bamboo pole - sufficiently high for cars and motorcycles to pass under, but not for buses or larger trucks.  
          There has been a traffic accident.  
          Ambulances with their sirens blaring are going nowhere.  
          Our line of northbound traffic is barely inching forward, but nothing is moving in a southerly direction.  
          There is no other road north or south.  I said that, right?
          My driver doesn’t speak English.
          The guesthouse I’ve planned to stay at is noted in my cell phone, but I have no Internet connectivity.
          It has started to rain.  Hard.
          I need to pee.
          Then, finally, emerging from the muck – well, actually, a continuation of the muck - is Bukittinggi, and then the guesthouse.  Both are initially underwhelming.
          Yet in very short order I’m having an amazingly good time here and think I am a travel idiot savant.
          One small but significant matter is that the internet at the guesthouse is actually fabulous … and I can stream the Pats versus the Colts game in real time … and the Pats win.  Isn’t that why everyone comes to Sumatra? 
          Secondly I have my own bathroom for the first time in weeks.  
          But most of all Bukittinggi is as character filled a burg as any I’ve ever been in, and I do mean its essential character as well as its human characters.  People stare unabashedly at me … and when I smile they smile.  Many speak a smattering of English.  When they ask where I am from and I say the USA, they ask, “Amayreekah, what city?”  And when I say, “Boston,” some say, “Ohhh, where you had that bombing.”  
          There are dozens of horse drawn carriages plying the streets.  The naying, jingling of harness, and clop of the horses’ feet is a pleasure to hear.
          There is so much to see - an old fort, a sad zoo, the pedestrian bridge across the main thoroughfare, restaurants, street food vendors, funerals, weddings, children playing, motorcycles and scooters which go back and forth in either lane of travel and even on sidewalks.  Sidewalks!  A clock tower.  Parks.  One whole block has more than two-dozen peanut vendors competing for business.  I mean, how many peanut purchasers can there be in Bukittinggi?  And besides, at ten cents for a good-sized bag that you’d pay at least three dollars for at home, what can their margin of profit be?
          I eat things I shouldn’t eat.  I drink things I shouldn’t drink.  
          On Sunday the main town square is filled to the brim with bands of roving students from outlying villages and towns here to find tourists, especially English speaking ones, to practice their English on.  To say, “Excuse me sir, may I disturb you?” “May I ask, sir, what is your name?” And “What country is sir from?”  The answers to thesequestions they dutifully record in little notebooks and then request I sign my name beneath their entries, which I do, once, twice, a hundred times, two hundred times. I’m not exaggerating. No baseball player leaving any American major league ballpark has ever been more thronged … or more cooperative I expect.  Every one of the students wants a picture with me. Two young girls are so charming I invite them for ice cream sundaes outside the square ... and when their teachers find them an hour later, it leads to a round of delightful conversation, ending with an invitation from the teachers to visit their village, which I accept, and to sleep over their house, which I decline.
          On the next day I have arranged for a guide, a driver, and a car – all for fifty dollars, 9 to 6, gas included. We visit half a dozen outlying villages where we walk around as my guide points out coffee and chocolate trees, cassava, mango, jackfruit, and papaya trees, long beans that are really really long, corn, hot red and green peppers, fish ponds, the biggest spiders you have ever seen, rice paddies, traditional house styles, oxen and baby oxen, butterflies the size of sparrows, and medicinal plants. We talk with people.  They want to know where I am from, am I really travelling alone, why, and how old am I?   We visit tapioca chip and manioc “factories” that are really just long, hot, dirt floor sheds with squatting workers who earn six dollars a day, a noodle factory, a sawmill. It is all very engaging, very revealing, the architecture unique, the enthusiasm of the people contagious. I am having a grand time.
          On the second morning, before I set out to visit even more remote traditional villages, I am chatting with my guesthouse host and casually mention that my interest in visiting Minangkabau villages - more let’s say than waterfalls, which surprises her - grows at least in part from the fact that I was once an anthropologist and that I lived for a time in a Moslem peasant village in Bosnia in the early nineteen sixties.  Upon hearing this, a older gentleman sitting nearby gets up and introduces himself to me, saying he couldn’t help overhear my comments and of my interest in the Minangkabau, and that he is a retired anthropology professor emeritus who has studied and written about the Minangkabau for half a century.  Okay. I know that most westerners will take this as only a random synchronistic event, no matter how opportune or nice it is.  But for me it is a clear example of the further involvement of the guides, no less a sign that a snowy owl or crows my path.  I love the guy instantly. His name is Karl Heider. Google him. And not only has Karl studied and written about the Minangkabau, but he has also lived with, filmed, and written about the Dani people who live in the highland valleys of Indonesian New Guinea - you know, the folks you see in National Geographic running around mostly naked raising pigs and yams - and he’s flying from here in Bukittinggi back to the New Guinea highlands – to Wamena explicitly - to see how the Dani are doing.   And I’m headed to visit the Dani - in Wamena - in less than a month, although we won’t overlap.  And I cannot begin to say how exciting this encounter is for me, how magical and affirming it is to be chatting in a manner I haven’t chatted with anyone since leaving anthropology and the academic world in 1967.  I have almost total recall of names, scholars, theories, anthropologists who studied Indonesian peoples, scholars interested in personality, culture, emotion, childrearing practices, all things Karl is interested in and is as knowledgeable about as anyone on the planet.  We talk about Mead, Bateson, Kluckholm, and Geertz, all of whom we both admire.  We talk about theoretical anthropology versus observational ethnography.  I tell Karl how much I love the film about the Dani, “Dead Birds,” which I own a copy of and Karl tells me he was on the expedition that filmed it.
          I feel as if I have met an alter ego of mine, a manifestation of the person I might have become had I stayed on the anthropology track.  We are both in our seventies.  Anthropology excites and informs us.  Only Karl is the real deal and I am a “what might have been.”  It all intrigues and excites me.  I regret I won’t get more time to spend with him. I pepper him with questions.  I ask him for a synthesis of his findings and beliefs.  We talk about the Dani, the Minangkabau, post-partum sex taboos, even peanut vendors.  I ask him the broadest deepest questions I can.  And good ethnographer that he is Karl tells me he deals on the micro and not the macro level.  (He has published a text on yam planting among the Dani!)  And after I can hold Karl no longer I dive into Google seeking all I can about him and about his work.
          Later that day I’m out in the field again, visiting villages, thinking about which ones Karl visited living here in the sixties with his wife and three young children, seeing more than I saw the first day, eating even stranger foods, holding babies, having real and deep conversations, or so they seem to me.  I'm in fucking Sumatra!!  Did I say I was having a good time?