Travel Stories

Jungles and Monkeys

         My guide, Armando, insists we go on at least one short walk in the jungle.  He takes me to Harau and the Harau Valley, which is stunningly beautiful.  The jungle he picks is relatively tame, basically running along the base of the steep valley cliffs.  Nonetheless the footing is slippery and wet with roots and vines impeding steady progress and the “trail” is very narrow and uneven.  Armando is hacking away with a stick at brush and branches much taller than I am.  In places the trail disappears and at one point running along the edge of a stream I have to make my way 10 feet above the stream by grasping branches with my hands and placing my feet very cautiously on roots exposed by erosion, as if walking across a narrow ladder. 
         There are monkeys, of course, and beetles bigger than marshmallows, and red dragonflies.  I recall that somewhere on this voyage there might be leeches.  Flying leeches I think.  I’m hoping this is not that place.  
         We’ve been out in the jungle nearly two hours as we start to walk out by approaching a knee high clearing on the other side of which is a stream and then rice fields.  It is clearly the end of the trail and I’m starting to rejoice when I see racing across the clearing directly towards us a toothless man screaming wildly with a machete raised in the air.  The man is running erratically in a zigzag manner.  As he draws nearer it is also clear he is laughing hysterically.  Armando starts to run away while I stand shocked and still.  The man is running hard.  He’s yelling, or swearing as he nears me and a then a small striped wild brown pig emerges from the field running straight at me, the man not far behind.  The pig zigs.  The man zigs.  The pig runs past me within inches of my toes and is lost in the jungle.  The man reaches me and surrendering the wild pig to the jungle waves hello with his machete, then squats breathlessly, lights a cigarette, and offers me one.  I shake my head no and now laughing myself walk to catch up with Armando.  
         “I’m scared of pigs,” he tells me. 
         “You knew?” I ask.  
         “What else could it have been,” says Armando.  
         What else indeed?     

 armando leaving me behind

armando leaving me behind

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 waterfall

waterfall

 the end of the valley

the end of the valley

The Blacksmith

 the blacksmith

the blacksmith

         I tell my guide I’m interested in people, culture, and village life – not mosques, museums, or churches - and he gets it.  An example of this is his decision to take me to see the only blacksmith still working in the area, not something I specifically asked for, although I did say I wanted to see real traditional village life.  
         The blacksmith’s shop is really just a shed with a forge, anvil, and bellows set up years ago outside the smith’s very modest house on a small hill off the road.  When we get there the smith is working on a sixteen inch long by eight inch wide hoe blade.  The owner of the blade is seated on a bench with his wife watching the smith and the supporting cast strengthen and extend the blade. The forge bellows are being operated by the smith’s wife standing on a four foot high platform located a foot or two behind the forge where she alternately raises and lowers two huge homemade “plungers” on long bamboo poles into two twelve inch wide tubes that the smith has crafted by cutting the tops and bottoms off one gallon metal buckets and then welding the buckets together to form eight foot long bellows pipes.  The smith’s wife raises one plunger up in its tube as she lowers the other, then lowers the raised plunger as the raises the lowered one.  Her stroke is long and steady, her arms lift up from her waist to above her head and back down again, first left then right, in a graceful rigorous dance, the cotton sleeves of her shirt fluttering, her head bobbing, the embers rising in flame as one plunger descends in the tube and air is pushed from the back of the forge across the coals.  And as the other plunger is raised in its tube, air is sucked in from the front of the forge.  The embers burn brightly.  The tip of the blade turns red.  The smith lifts the blade from the fire with a pair of thongs in his left hand to rest on the ancient anvil.  He holds a two or three pound hammer in his other hand.  When the blade is lifted from the fire the smith’s two teenaged sons rise from a nearby bench with their twelve pound long handled sledge hammers and the three of them rain alternating powerful blows onto to the hot blade, shaping it, flattening it, stretching the steel, sending out hundreds of sparks in fiery arcs, their rhythm fast, precise, powerful, tympanic, the blows seeming to fall as fast as the sparks fly, the men’s coordination a thing of beauty as the metal yields to their will, the eternal wife and mother resting, the embers cooling, until the smith returns the iron to the fire and the bellows worker breaths life again into the coals with her stokes.  
         I watch this dance mesmerized.  The smith is a small man, at least sixty years old, his wife no younger.  And they are working hard, really hard, and fast.  And along with their sons they render a most ordinary task into a thing of poetic and choreographic beauty, seeing the mother’s arms raising and lowering, the fire enflamed, the rhythmic pinging of the hammers, the shower of sparks, the cats crawling around my feet.

 

 blacksmith and sons

blacksmith and sons

 the blacksmith's shop

the blacksmith's shop

 woman working bellows

woman working bellows

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? 

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