My great-grandaunt Bert circumnavigated the world on her father’s whaling ship in the 1870s. In 1960 National Geographic published a story about her childhood travels and at her 101st birthday the old Yankee lady related tales of the black-toothed betel-nut chewers of Indonesia and tiger hunter in Java.
The only two other family member to have visited that part of the Orient were my Uncle Dave, who had served on a destroyer during the Battle of Biak in World War II and my grand-aunt Marion, who brought back a statue of a bare-breasted Legong dancer from Bali. Their travels to faraway places sparked my imagination and throughout my youth I dreamed of traveling to Indonesia.
My chance to scratch this itch came in 1990.
That winter I sold a 10-carat diamond and quit my job at the diamond exchange.
Manny, my boss, asked my plans.
"Travel to Indonesia and write a novel." My take on the sales was enough to buy a round-the world ticket.
"You should invest your money in some diamonds. That's how you make more money."
"I want to see the other half of the world."
"Suit yourself, but don't expect a job when you get back." Manny was twenty years older than me and hadn't taken on a vacation in years.
After buying THE ROUGH GUIDE I researched the various islands of the populous archipelago; Biak, Ambon, Ternate, Sulawesi, Lombok, Bali, Java, and Sumatra. Indonesia was a big country and spread 2000 miles from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.
My farewell party was a blur and the day of my departure I rode the subway up to 47th Street to say my good-byes.
"How long are you going?" Manny was at his desk, sorting diamonds.
“Six months? Sei gesund.” Manny wished me well and gave me a hundred dollars. I asked him about my other commissions and he said, “I’ll pay you when you get back.”
Manny was the master of slow-pay.
That evening I flew from JFK to LAX and then onward to the small fishing port of Biak in Irian Jaya.
The Garuda 747 lifted off the tarmac.
I was the only Mistah or white man on the island.
And I couldn’t be happier, drinking a Bintang beer on the veranda of the old Dutch hotel overlooking Cendrawasih Bay.
For the next three months I voyaged through the islands on boats, ferries, trains, and buses. Indonesia had hundreds of language and cultures. Each journey brought me to a new land. The kids shouted 'allo mistah' and Bahasa Indonesian became my fourth language, which I spoke with a Boston accent.
In early April I jumped on bus in a Sumatran coastal market town bound for the Batak Highlands. The seats and aisles were packed with Sunday shoppers and I stood at the back door smoking a kretek cigarette. The clove and tobacco smoke mixed well with the diesel fumes from the bus' laboring engine.
I studied the chattering passengers. Their smiling faces were ethnically different from the dour lowlanders and halfway up the mountain they sang a song which I recognized as BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON.
I loved the Melodians’ reggae version.
When I joined the impromptu choir, the closest passengers stared at me with amusement. At the end of the song an old man rose from his seat to shake my hand.
“Chretian?” He had several front teeth. They looked sharp.
“Christian,” I replied without hesitation. My atheism was a secret better kept from the devout.
“My name is John.” His English was a step above the usual ‘hello mistah’.
I told him mine.
“Where are you going?”
The largest lake in Indonesia was set in a gigantic volcano. I had seen its photos in National Geographic
“That is my home. You must stay at my guest house. Very cheap. Very good.” John motioned for a young man to get out of his seat.
“No.” I waved off the offer. “I like standing.”
“No, you big mistah. Must sit. You my friend. Duduk.” The word sounded more like an order for the two of us and I sat in the young man’s place.
On the climb into the mountains John proudly recounted the traditional fierceness of Batak warriors. saying, "Many of our people serve in the top ranks of the Indonesian military. I served with British against Communist in Malaysia. Good money."
The Irish and Scots had assisted the English in the conquest of the world. John's tribe had done the same for Java.
"My family live Lake Toba. Since before time.”
“It says in my book that the Batak people came to Sumatra 2500 years ago.” The Rough Guide delved deeply into history.
“2500 years before time.”
“This book states that 50,000 years ago Lake Toba blew up and nearly killed off everyone on Earth at the time. Some scientists think the population of the world was reduced to 10,000 and they lived someplace in Central Asia.”
“That book say many things, but Batak people believe world came from Sideak Parujar."
"Yes, goddess leave husband, a lizard-god.”
John told his tale of creation in a combination of Bahasa Indonesian, English, Dutch, and a little Batak. The rest of the bus listened intently to every word and the children shuddered when John stabbed downward with his hand.
“Sideak Parudjar thrust sword into Naga Padoha. He not die. God never die and every time he move earth shake.”
His captive audience applauded his story and John lit a kretek cigarette.
I like the smell of burning cloves.
“As Christian we not believe in other gods, but the old stories too good to give up. Maybe tonight you tell story.”
Nearing dusk the bus descended to Lake Toba and we boarded a ferry to the island on the opposite shore.
John led me to his guesthouse. The Batak Villa was simple and cheap. My room had a lake view. The other guests were European backpackers. Few Americans traveled this far from the States.
That night on the deck I narrated the story of the Evans Mountain ghost. His family gathered around our table, as I introduced the Batak clan to a haunted house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
John struggled to translate my tale, but the little children shivered with the old man's eyes. At the end John said, “Good story. Everyone like. They think Mistahs not have ghosts. Only have one god. Good story. Now go sleep.”
I spent the next few days sightseeing around the island. The equatorial sun flayed the skin off my shoulder. John’s wife salved my burnt flesh with a healing clove oil.
Every evening I ate with John’s family. They asked questions about my family. I lied about a dead wife and showed photos of my nieces and nephews, claiming that they were mine. A man my age without a wife or children was considered strange by the Bataks and all Indonesians. They had big families.
The day before my departure to Medan John invited me to a pig roast in a mountain village. We arrived at a compound of wooden houses before sunset. The thatched roofs were curved like the horns of bulls.
Dogs tried to steal the offal. John beat them off with a club.
"Angin no good."
"They like people."
"Because people give dog food. I no trust dog, but everything have tondi, man, pig, dog.”
“Tindi.” I nodded my head figuring tindi meant soul.
The two younger men tended to the cooking. Pig fat sizzled onto the coals. We had finished the beer and drank arak or rice wine from plastic bags.
“Tindi lives many places. The first in body. The second in birth bag from woman.”
“I was born with the placenta wrapped around my head. In the land of my grandmother the Irish think that gives the new-born the gift of sight.”
I searched for the right word from a small Bahasa-English dictionary.
“Penglihatan, but with mind.”
“Ah, ESP.” John rattled off an explanation to his friends.
Batak people understood the shadow worlds.
"In old days every Batak men have birth bag buried special place to protect tindi.”
“Not the same as in America.” Doctors chucked the placenta out with the trash.
"America have no tindi."
"Too much tindi."
Spirituality in the West was the domain of priests, ministers, and rabbis and I almost told John and his friends this, except they believed every man was in touch with the world beyond our senses.
Once the pig was cooked, thick slabs of pork were sliced with the long curved kris. We ate with my right hand, since the left hand was for wiping the ass. John called his right hand ‘Adam’s Spoon’.
A young man broke out a bamboo flute and bags of arak were passed round the fire.
It was a fiery concoction.
“You like pig.” John swayed to the music.
The other men were entering a pig flesh trance like Americans after gorging on turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
“Saya sekali mak mak.” I had never tasted better.
The older men nodded in appreciation of my compliment. We smoked kretek cigarettes to the filter and I felt one with them enough to muster up the courage to ask John a question, which had been nagging me for days.
"Islam came to Banda Aceh almost seven hundred years ago. Most of Indonesia submitted to Allah, but the Batak and other mountain tribes resisted Mohammad's call. Why?"
“I had read that.” The Rough Guide covered every aspect of a culture without recrimination.
“We drank blood and ate heart, palms and soles of feet. They were good eating and rich with ‘tindi’ or the life-soul of eaten. In old days we ate man with his family. We suck the bones dry. The meat we eat last and we store bones in cave. If man stranger, we ate him cepat. Fast fast. You know what we call these men?”
“No.” The fire was flickering low. The horned houses were giant buffaloes. I could have been Marco Polo. The year was 1231 AD.
“Babi Bisa,” he spoke the words in a hush.
The other men woke from their stupor to mutter the words in unison.
I recognized the words from my guidebook's extensive dictionary, but I didn’t like the way John had said the words.
“Yes, and that why we not Muslims. Because pig taste like man. We killed them on stone.”
The elder explained our conversation to his tribesmen. They nodded with laughter and stared at me for a response. I tried to hide my shaking. They were looking at me funny and not in a funny ha-ha way.
“I like pig too. Not because it tastes like man.” No one in my family had ever eaten another human being. “I like pig, because it tastes good. Even the oink.”
I snorted several times in my best imitation of a pig.
The party chuckled in convulsion and toasted me with warm arak. The pig was gnawed to the bone. The snarling dogs had their way with the carcass. We snacked on the crispy ears. The fire died out and John walked me to the hotel.
At the door of my room he said, “I tell story to many Mistahs. It is joke. No Batak eat man in 100 years. Many westerners run away, not you. Why?”
“Because I like pig too.” Bacon was my favorite meat.
“Nothing taste like it.”
“Not babi besa?”
“I don’t know, but I think not. Man is not as clean as a pig and not as smart. Dumb men can’t be good eating.”
John lifted his head to the stars and laughed aloud. I clapped me on the shoulder and fondled his muscle.
“You not good food. Too tough.”
His wife shouted at him to come inside. John ignored his wife’s entreaty and walked over to the restaurant. His friends greeted him. John's right hand surveyed the flesh on a fat man. He turned and mouthed the words.
“Makan bagus.” Good eating, because a young pig was always better than an old pig even with babi bear.
“Sama sama. I not here tomorrow morning. Selamat jalan.” John wished me a good trip.
“Selamat tingaal.” I wished him a good life. It was the best thing to do with someone who hadn’t eaten you.
And everyone who has a taste for pig knows the truth.