Charita to Prapat

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Batak Houses

June 28



last night: talking talking

and Johnny: drinking drinking

in between: waves crash

white line in the darkness

only know it's a wave because of the context 

the sky is moonless.  starless


can't see anything


talking talking 

getting nowhere


his arm reaching out to circle my shoulders

me rolling away

toes stirring up the sand


& waves crash

getting nowhere 

in they come

out they go


Today:  The sun shines & I am sitting at a table in a tiny outdoor capong.

Western Sumatra
  talking talking.  This time with an Indonesian guy, sitting across from me, taking a break from hustling customers to guide.  Sometimes his hand runs thru his black hair, searching for an English word.  "There is.  Must be.  Religion " he tells me--an election just completed and the Muslim party having made it's presence felt the context of our conversation. "Not one religion only. No.  But one must have god.  No person can not have god.  It... wrong.  Impossible.  And Indonesia, it Moslem.  But we have here...tolerance?--good word?  Bali it is Hindu. Yes.  And in Sumatra is many Christian.  Indonesia is good country.  democracy.  We have many people.  Many islands.  We learn the past in school.  I am just finish school.  We must live together and work.  Work for ...harmony... yes?"


"Yes. I am here," I think. "This is his Indonesia.”  The coffee is strong.  His hands more sure as he fingers the details with feeling.  His words have a fabric, woven for touch as much as sound.

Ox Grinder, Indonesia
  Generously, perhaps unconsciously, he is pulling back the curtain of absence. An absence that consumes.


    how many people drown each year in those oceans?

         food for the thots of fishes.


"So.  Today I am getting somewhere,"  I think.  "With everyone else gone off to Krakatau, I am finally beginning to understand something of this country, something of one man who lives here."

...until  the conversation turns:


"Do you have Nirvana?"  ????? (Later I gather he was hoping to bootleg a copy or two of the popular American grunge band.  At the time, I admit, I was completely at a loss. Indonesia--Borobudur?)  "Nirvana?"  I respond, my hand running thru the tangles of my hair.



       ...& in a moment he is gone...




"Where are your friends?"  a young girl asks.

They have gone to see Krakatau.  I did not go to Krakatau this morning. Its absent presence loomed too big.  BANG. & then everything's gone.  Waves really crash until there's only waves to crash.  Mountain gone; people gone.  Literally and figuratively.  No, I am sitting out the day.



ping pong in front of me now

the women giggling when they miss a shot

their Indonesian conversation replete with information I cannot access. 

& in the silence.  between their words. 

the ball bounces hollowly

back and forth

back and forth

going nowhere


July 3



Cruising the West Sumatra countryside:  monkeys in the foreground, mountain shadow in the mist behind.  Trees broken only by a road thread, or the chlorophyll clearing of a rice paddy.



... & along the way there was a woman grinding sugar-cane. A domed thatch umbrella protecting her from the sun.  Her children, working all day to keep the fire burning under the vat that boiled the syrup; helping to carry away the ground cane husks, to be put to use later.  She does not stop as we approach. Periodically she voices soft words, coaxing the ox that drives the heavy toothed gears of the pressing machine.  Labourous beast, that ox;  banana leaves over its eyes.  Plodding endlessly.   Round and around in a circle...



July 5

on the road


He was dressed in military fatigues.  & that alone was enuf to dispel the lost-Eden image this landscape often inspires.  We are on who knows whose property, having pulled off the road to set up a quick camp just long enuf to consume a meal before continuing.  & we are each standing white skinned, Euro-centric around the canopy of the truck. Scuffing sneakered toes in the soft earth. Shuffling uncertainly before his gaze.  Before the polish of his gun... After all even, Johnny's Indonesian isn't perfect, and one wrong word...


Yet the man seemed friendly enuf to quell some of the fear that jumps to mind when one thinks of East Timor and Indonesian soldiers.


I gather he is asking where we are from.  When Canada comes up in connection with me, the soldier assesses my blondness and volunteers some information from the latest local newspapers. A news junkie, I am not quick enuf to hide my sudden curiosity.


"Something about Canada falling apart"  Johnny translates.


what! had Quebec really done it?


"I am an orphan. Homeless," a silly girl voice in my head plaintively intones... making me smile at the absurdity of the very notion of "home"  ...the impulse to weave a sweet Anne of Green Gables story around my country's struggle for identity.  Home and heart(h).  This, despite the overwhelming guilt I carry around with me on my solipsistic journey. Having abandoned the cause... like a sinking ship.  Can Canadian politics follow me?  Even to the other side of the globe?  Am I to be ambushed by my country's petty squabbles?  Even here?


...but no. It seems the soldier has never heard of Quebec.  That's not the story.  They try again to push the message thru the language barrier:


      "apart"  "broken"  "rip"  "sky"  "air?"

       the ozone

Ah, so: instead of a quaint little orphan story like Anne-of-the-turn-of-the-century, I am left with a science fiction extravaganza:


Gayle, the world traveler extraordinaire, returns to Saskatchewan to find that the beautiful prairie sun, the sun that had always turned the autumn wheat fields to gold, has this year transmogrified into a monstrous nuclear weapon, having burned the land until it had a bubbly brown crust (resembling nothing so much as the top of one of my grandmother's baked custards--she wasn't the greatest cook), the sun set to work on fragile flesh. My family coming to greet me at the Saskatoon airport are the hairless hollow victims of thermonuclear holocaust. Their pathetic grayness rivaling even late-late movie visions of the great and gloomy end to the cold war drama.  My mother and brothers shedding strips of scabbed over skin like so many old snakes.


For the first time ever, the ozone layer has developed a fissure over a non-polar region:  Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.  & here I am, in Indonesia. Some call it a tropical Eden. A garden. Fueled fare, a fecund fantasy. A paradise.  "The other side of the world." & I am here.  I am standing among these palm trees, listening to the speculative glee of this man in fatigues. ...Even the Asian newspapers ran the story.   He opens my  passport to check: "Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada,"  it says.  Place of birth.


July 6

Prapat-Lake Toba


I found a Batak calandar to take home for Jeff.  Fragile and mysterious piece of an enduring past.  Some twenty wooden slats hang from a fragment of bone.  Tattooed everywhere, inscribed with what seems to my romantic ignorance a magic code.  The calendars recorded the movement of the stars for these people centuries ago. Their purpose both  medicinal and logistical 


       health = place + time


& the faces of Western tourists loom like pasty pink weather balloons all around us.  Vague sense we don't belong here, now that I see so many others like myself. Desecrating. But there's no way of reading the Batak characters on my calendar.  No understanding of where we are.



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Batak Houses
Batak Houses
Western Sumatra
Western Sumatra
Ox Grinder, Indonesia
Ox Grinder, Indonesia
photo by: iramalama