Stories Left Behind in Indonesia

THERE ARE LITTLE THINGS that slip between cracks when trying to keep up a blog. V and I have met a lot of genuine people, some for even just a few moments, who made an impression on us but whose stories got left behind after we moved on; they felt too short to justify full-length blog posts, or we were rushed and simply forgot. I’ve decided to do a retrospective collection of them upon leaving each country or region. We’ll start in Indonesia, from Bali to Jakarta.

1. Nyoman, our Balinese driver

Nyoman is a driver and friend of the Jati Homestay. On his days off, he still shows up to the place, probably to escape the troubles of his own house for a bit — he lives with his wife, two parents and two children in a modest traditional (read: poor) Balinese abode. He is the only one in his family who works, he told us, since his father has no skills except rice farming, which he has since been forced to retire from, and the women keep busy with daily ceremonial preparation (more on that below) and caring for the children. He didn’t tell us all this like a sob story — we had to press him a bit for interesting tidbits of info — and looked surprised when we offered a sizeable tip.

2. The owner of the Sari Wangi Guest House, also named Nyoman

This Nyoman (the Balinese “Smith”) runs a quiet guest house with a perfectly lovely but perhaps not often used pond and pagoda in his backyard. We stumbled into the convenience shop he operates out front on a whim during a bike ride through north Ubud one afternoon, intending only to buy water, but ending up buying small kid-sized packets of tapioca chips and rice crackers. His English is startlingly good (“I read books,” he told us with a semi-toothless grin) but his place is so out of the way it’s a wonder anyone could find it at all.

3. The happiest girl on the train

On the train from Surabaya to Yogyakarta, we sat opposite a young family of three, beside a mother and her daughter, diagonal from an older woman and a row behind two other families. Everyone stared at us as we sat down, peering over their seats, unblinkingly, probably confused at these two reasonably well-off looking white people sitting in the cheap ekonomi seats. The ice remained unbroken until the toddler daughter beside us, whose giant eyes and unbridled smile would cause Kim Jong-un to put down his nukes, began approaching everyone and laughing, sticking her tongue out and generally being adorable. She tried to make friends with another toddler boy, pictured above, but he was not as easily endeared. She later gave me the gift of a sticky fruity rice bar, and I helped her peel a snakefruit in return; upon first taste, both she and I made “Yuck” faces and exchanged no more gifts during the rest of the trip.

4. The island of ceremonies

Okay, so this isn’t really like a singular person or thing, but it seems like every week there’s some ceremony that only happens once every five years, and we as tourists have arrived just in time to catch it. I’m being overly skeptical, sure — these ceremonies are probably the real deal — but there are just so goddamn many of them, like the one photographed above, which is a parade leading to some major temple to bless the town every six months. Then again, with everything Bali’s got going for it, maybe those blessings are working.

5. Hadi and his foot masseuse

I met Hadi in Jakarta’s Masjid Istiqlal, Southeast Asia’s largest mosque, while he was lying down, receiving a foot massage he paid a dollar for. (It’s common to see people, mostly men, hanging out or sleeping in the Istiqlal to escape the midday heat.) Hadi’s been working in a huge gold mine in northeastern Java (“More big than Freeport,” he boasts) for around a year. I made a coal-mining gesture like with a pickaxe and he gave me a funny look and said, Um, no, I use a machine. I felt kind of dumb, but not as dumb as when he noted that I was very fresh-faced, which I thanked him for saying but corrected him by pointing out this scraggly beard I’ve been growing, to which he replied, “Yes, you cut your face hair. You look like Osama bin Laden!” I really had no idea what to say after that.

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