We couldn’t take in the whole world anyway, but we thought we should see what we could while we could and didn’t have the responsibilities of a family. July 1970
We let them convince us to quit their road.
From what we understood, the next stretch would be something like the last stretch: beach, travelable at certain hours, but very dangerous after that: with 20 meter high cliffs and the ocean and crocodiles below. They told us we’d have to hire at least four men to get our loaded bicycles through. Ropes would have to be used to hoist our belongings to the top of the cliffs, but we never figured out how we would get ourselves up and across. For us it would’ve been at least five more hard days of agony. The clincher was that the year before, along there, an Austrian traveler fell to his death.
So we waited for a ship. We waited for one from Padang that wouldn’t turn around but would head south to Benkulu. All the time we were there I don’t remember one coming the opposite way. They all came from the north and Padang. For almost two weeks a ship came every other day, but they all turned around. Time after time we were disappointed, but we were assured one day the right ship would come. On that day we’d go with it. With time running out on our visas, we felt we needed to push forward. With each passing day and always the wrong ship, our anxiety grew. Imagine our panic if we’d known that the last ship going to Benkulu came in May.
We needed the time to rest and for our feet to heal. Without a doctor, we had a dilemma. We couldn’t have traveled much further without seeing one. No doctors, nor a single nurse, yet people had access to medicine. More specifically powdered penicillin. Everyone had it and used it in the same way. For our feet they gave us powdered penicillin and told us to pore it directly on our sores. It seemed like everyone we met had sores like ours, which caused us to question the effectiveness of so much penicillin.
The Police Commander took charge, and soon we had the front room of his three room house to ourselves. The Commander and sons gave it up and moved across the road, while his wife and his daughters kept their room. Their room and a small kitchen area remained their domain. They did the cooking, while their men fished and hunted. They fed us well: fresh venison and fabulous fish, cooked specially for us without chili. But the only fruit we had was bananas. Vegetables were almost non-existent, so we enjoyed the meat and hoped our systems could do without the other for a while. A while turned out to be even longer.
A job on the side, hunting occupied the commander and his sons. Each night so that we’d have fresh venison, they went hunting. Every night, with lights on their heads and rifles in their hands, they left the village and before morning lugged in a fresh kill. Yes, venison, a deer, maybe two, but sometimes something else, and it would be something, something much more valuable. Later, finally once on the ship, one of the Commander’s son showed a tiger skin he intended to sell in Benkulu. He too waited for the ship that seemed like it would never come.
This family never once objected to our invasion and our taking over more than half of their house. All of them were incredibly friendly and nice, but not knowing much of the language, we couldn’t ask questions or carry on meaningful discussions. So we didn’t know what they really thought of us.
They wouldn’t accept our money, which if we hadn’t been careful it could’ve been awkward. We did give them small things. From the market, we bought the family a can or two of evaporated milk, and Peg gave the girls some shampoo, but with knotted tangled hair and polluted river water, it seemed a waste of soap.
And so early in the morning we sat on the porch, watching a procession of men pass by, each with his sail, paddle, and fishing equipment. We noticed the tranquility of the place, for us an anomaly. No motors to disturb the quiet. No traffic noise to put up with. I wondered how long it would last.
Peg, by then, had got caught up with the laundry and mending and did some reading. I had gone through four books, almost exhausting our travel library. With time on our hands now, we had a chance to absorb life in a small fishing village, a benefit we wouldn’t have had had we not become stranded.
Once we got use to it, we enjoyed the peace and quiet, and we were secretly pleased everyday that our ship didn’t come. Except for feeling isolated, we were perfectly happy; and if it hadn’t been for our visa problem, we wouldn’t have minded staying there much longer than we did. With no news except for the death of Sukarno, the former Indonesian president, and a badminton match, we felt really cut off from the rest of the world, and were in fact more isolated then than we had ever been before.
We spent the Fourth of July in Bantal writing letters home. We knew we wouldn’t hear from our families until Djakarta, and neither of us knew when that would be. Before we would get them, our letters from home would often sit in post offices for weeks on end. In a real sense we had lost contact with much of what we’d known before we left our country. It meant that there would be huge gaps in the memories we had in common with our families.
We surely missed as much as we gained. Maybe missed more. Missed the marriage of a sister; the birth of a niece…the death of a grandmother and the death a school chum in Vietnam…the first divorce in the family…all the riots and assassinations…years of movies, soaps and songs. Don’t even have the titles. All gone, never had them, gone.
Not only did the people of Bantal celebrate different holidays than we did, their weeks looked different too. We had grown accustomed to people worshiping on Fridays rather than Sundays. Fridays meant a break in their routine and, like Wednesdays for the market, a break and an influx of people. On Wednesdays, the women and girls went to the market. Fridays, the men and boys congregated in the mosque to worship. Everyday they stopped five times and prayed wherever they were.
Most of the men of Bantal fished individually from small boats. There were also nets around big enough to require several men to handle them. At first we thought they only fished for local consumption; we thought that until we saw a group of men head into the jungle with a portion of their catch.
On the inland side of the village were a good many rice plots. Right then the plots lay bare. Our impression was they grew only one crop a year. We wondered what percent of what they ate the villagers grew. It took an awful lot of rice a year when it was eaten two or three times a day in the huge quantity that an Asian ate. They obviously needed a good crop, and we wondered how often they got that.
The rice came with husks. On hot, dry days mats were laid out in the sun in the roadway, and the unhusked rice was spread out on the mats. Then the women and girls began coming around and more mats, mortars and pestles appeared. T he pestles were lathed out of wood, about five feet long for the women, somewhat lighter and shorter for the girls. Then the pounding started, with two people generally pounding in one mortar. Peg tried some pounding. You could see that it was really back-breaking work! To the amusement of every one she never did get quite the right motion. It seemed to come naturally to them.
The pounding broke the husks open. Then cupful after cupful was taken from the mortar and allowed to fall back in from a height of three or four feet. As it fell, the lighter chaff blew away. When the process was completed, there was nothing left but the product we knew.
On July 16 our host gave hope by saying the captain of a small ship that stopped at Bantal told him he would be going to Benkulu that week. For three days we got up extra early in the morning. But nothing came, and on Thursday of that week we learned that the last ship from Bantal to Benkulu had come sometime in May. So I guess we were pretty lucky that one came that month.
Our ship came exactly two weeks after we arrived in Bantal. When we learned that it was it, we gathered up our things (including still wet laundry) and went to the beach to board a small boat that would take us to the bigger one that had to anchor out some ways.
Fortunately the rowers were skilled at navigating the giant waves and we didn’t drown. But I was sure we wouldn’t make it.