Hello Mister

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Somewhere between Sumatra’s Pasamah highlands and the Indian Ocean. Somewhere beyond the beautiful Islamic mosques and Hindu-Buddhist temples, we were lost.

Between serrated fronds and megalithic statues en route to a surging waterfall. I could no longer see the lucid lines of the horizon where lava once glowed orange like the ritualistic burning of coconut husks our neighbour, Mah, ignited each night at dusk. I could no longer hear her joyous cackle or the distant calls to prayer in town. 

The father holding his angelic daughter (whilst openly wishing to solicit me for sexual favours) had gone, and so had the gangly local surfer I’d been watching from the reef. This island is a real mosaic. Cracks cut through the most beautiful pieces, making it all the more rich and resplendent. Nothing is hidden. Sumatra bares all. 

Incongruous scenes of life and death bled into the past as I looked behind our speeding motorbike. Kittens being kicked away from mongered fish at the market. Disease encrusted dogs birthing puppies in the shade. Contrails of intermingling fabrics in the wake of running children, seemingly dressed for an occasion. Motorcycles stacked with fresh harvests dare to break through the wooden slats of old swing bridges. 

Photo by: Jake Elms

Photo by: Jake Elms

Women in lotus position armed with machetes to dissect fruits glimmering against purple tiles. Barefoot builders balanced upon bamboo scaffolding with the same precariousness as the lit cigarettes on their lips. The free will of life is unrepressed, and in constant displays of growth, trade and rot. This unrestrained culture catches the eye from first light to starlight. It’s tempting to close my eyes and feel the warmth and the breeze, but unctuous scenery tempts me more and they stay wide open.

Lush banana trees fruiting layers of green half-moons mottle the light above us, adorned with homemade lanterns made from cut plastic bottles. Women in long embroidered skirts carry goods on their heads, floating gracefully uphill. Shacks lay open like oyster shells with pearls of children magnetising our gaze. “Hello Mister!” Their faces lit up. It was the same welcoming feeling as having rose-petals thrown before our tyres, as the laughter of silky-haired kids bloomed behind us. I tried to take a photo of a girl smiling in her pyjamas. She vanished back into the open doorway. Her eyes an earthy hue, similar to the green edamame beans offered from a roadside rickshaw. 

The architecture of the higher mountain villages grew a little more opulent, although no more private, with prayer flags of laundry strung between the rooftops, meant to resemble curving horns of the sacred water buffalo. I clung to Jake as he rode us through dreamlike towns giving way to panoramic jungle. Tiers of rice paddies lay like broken mirrors. On my left, lucrative harvests of tea and other botanicals are spread over tapestries between brass-plated gates while workers moved in a sea of green on my right. 

Beauty and freedom exist in aloof omnipresence here. They beckon no reaction. In the timeless way people live, in the unimportant spaces, the breaths between breezes where buffalo meditate and the elderly stare from their home steps, every moment is fulfilling because there is no pressure to be perceived as beautiful. Whether or not I can describe this wonderful land with dignity, its loveliness will remain as fact, unaffected by opinion or perspective. 

After attempting to find the nameless waterfall ourselves, tracing and retracing our tracks through sparsely scattered housing laying low in the valleys, we pulled over by the papaya trees. A Sumatran boy with perfect English stopped and squinted through the beginning rain. A smile carved across his face. A few pimples signalled his youth. We exchanged pleasantries. Apparently waterfall is the same in English and Indonesian. He was on his way to buy chickens for his family and it was his pleasure to help us. His name was, is, Adi and we followed him to find the way.

Waving down a white-browed local looking to confirm where to go, all three engines hummed under the rain. Jake and I listened to their sweet singsong voices. I held onto Jake and thought of an Indonesian proverb I’d read:

“Asam di gunung, garam di laut bertemu dalam satu belanga.” It translates as ‘Tamarind on the mountain, salt in the sea, meet in one pot’ and it means that when things are destined to meet, time and distance are overcome. 

Across eight provinces containing the earth’s rarest flower, over thirty active volcanoes, large rivers, humble towns, and luxuriant ecosystems that dwarf the biodiversity of South America’s renowned Amazon, this Indonesian island lives in harmony as a conjoined home of opposing landscapes, religions, architecture, customs and languages. Everywhere is the unlikely meeting of tamarind and salt, but now it was so tangible because of the contrast between where I thought I’d be and how I thought I’d get there. 

Photo by: Jake Elms

Photo by: Jake Elms

We all thanked the salt and pepper haired elder and sped off into the mouth of the cold jungle. After a fair climb through slippery forest, past a few wide-eyed men congregated around a gazebo, past a broken down temple and up mossy stairs hidden under forest growth, all the colours of the rainbow spread out as light hit the mist of a white horsetail rushing from great height. Maybe ten stories, maybe less, but enough to crane our necks in awe. Adi was wearing jeans, wet from the weather, and sandals turned brown by the trek. He had spontaneously changed his plans, to grant our wishes and take us to swim, and this is what he said when we offered him a few rupiah:

No, please I don’t want it. I am only happy to show people my beautiful country.

Maybe he had girl troubles, and wanted to escape for the afternoon by clambering about that pristine fall with us. Living in a predominantly matrilineal society in west Sumatra, where the Minangkabau ethnic group believes two Malays appeared atop of Marapi volcanic peak before 1000 B.C, means following the tradition of the one Malay that followed a maternal line of descent to form the Minangkabau. This means property is passed down through the female line and wanderlust is instilled in the men who have ‘visiting status’ in their matrihouses, the homes of their wife, her mother and sisters. Maybe Adi had been looking for a reason to put distance between him and his return to his matrihouse, perhaps fed up with making fried tempeh for himself and then being asked to share until all that was left was a few crumbly pieces swimming in the fryer. Was this a man who needed a little peace and quiet or a genuine soul connecting with the present? Maybe his shaver had gone missing for the last time, but, more likely, we’d met a sincere representation of what it means to be Sumatran, surrendering to the joy of giving, unaware of his own to-do list in the face of our helpless expressions under those papaya trees.

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