‘Miss! Come in and meet my granny!’ The invitation came some twenty years ago from a smiley young man who had spotted me tramping along a dirt road in the obscure south-eastern Indonesian island of Sumba. It was skillet hot and ashtray dusty, and I was very thirsty. His granny probably had tales to tell, and she’d certainly be good for a glass of tea or two. Why not? I had clambered up a ladder onto a bamboo veranda where other youngsters were making unrestful noises with gongs and drums, then ducked through the low doorway and blinked into a windowless darkness. Eventually, by the tiny grains of light that sprinkled through the bamboo-weave of the walls, I made out a poster of Jesus and the Sacred Heart. There was a bag of dirty laundry on a bamboo chair. But the room was otherwise deserted; no sign of granny.
‘Just a second!’ The young man fiddled around with the laundry bag, untying it and peeling back the napkin on top to reveal Granny. She had died the previous day, and would be receiving guests each day until her funeral four days later, as was the local custom. ‘It’s an honour for her to meet you,’ he said. And we sat and drank tea.
Twenty years after taking tea with a dead grandmother, I dumped my bags in a dispiriting hotel room, asked the staff to sweep away the dead cockroaches and set out to explore…
When you first plop into a rice paddy off the bank, you feel like you’ll be sucked in. The mud squishes up between your toes and covers your ankle; water sloshes up your calves but your foot continues to sink. Then, suddenly it hits bottom, not hard exactly, but bouncy-firm. You stop worrying about the quagmire, and start schlurping your foot up and squishing it down a little further on. The mud oozes between your toes again. It’s slow going for a beginner, but fun. No one else at the Central Java field school was a beginner, of course. They had all grown up in the rice paddies and they had the squared-off feet of people who see shoes as an encumbrance. They were there to learn about bugs…
At some point I told myself that, if I did survive, I should stop obsessing about things in life less important than survival.
…in the second incident, my New Guinea friend Malik and I were on an island off Indonesian New Guinea and wanted to get ourselves and our gear to the New Guinea mainland, separated from the island by a strait a dozen miles wide. Around 4:00 P.M. on a clear afternoon, slightly more than two hours before sunset, we joined four other passengers in a wooden canoe about 30 feet long, driven by two outboard motors mounted on the stern and with a crew of three young men. The four other passengers were not New Guineans: instead, they were a Chinese fisherman working on the New Guinea mainland, plus three men from the Indonesian islands of Ambon, Ceram, and Java respectively. The canoe’s cargo and passenger space was covered by a plastic awning about four feet high, stretched over a framework, loosely attached to each side of the canoe, and extending from about 4 feet in front of the stern forward to 10 feet behind the canoe’s prow. The three crew sat in the stern at the motors, and Malik and I sat just in front of them, facing the rear. With the awning over us and at our sides, there was little outside that we could see. The four other passengers sat at our backs, towards the canoe’s prow.
The canoe set off, and the crew soon had the engines up to full speed, through waves several feet high. A little water splashed into the canoe under the awning, then a little more, and the other passengers began groaning good-naturedly. As some more large quantities of water splashed in, one of the crew began bailing water immediately in front of me out the loose sides of the awning. More large quantities of water came in, soaking the luggage stored towards the front of the canoe. I put my binoculars for protection inside the small yellow knapsack that I was holding in my lap, and that contained my passport, money, and all of my field notes wrapped inside a plastic bag. Over the roar of the engines and the crashing of the waves, Malik and the other passengers began to shout loudly, now no longer good-naturedly, at the driver, telling him to slow down or turn back. (This and all the rest of the conversations during this whole incident were in the Indonesian language, the official language and the lingua franca of Indonesian New Guinea.) But he didn’t slow down, and more water splashed in. The accumulated weight of water was now causing the canoe to ride so low that water began pouring in over the sides.