Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

November 1 - 15 2012 / Indonesia: Bali to Australia

In Which We See Our Ninth Total Solar Eclipse
Part 4 - Some Spice Islands, and the Election

Part 4 - Some Spice Islands, and the Election

On board the ship we lost an hour last night and that is fine with me.  At the dinner table, more or less sitting in silence, we waited an hour and twenty minutes to get food.   Excruciating.  I sat next to a nice man who is a doctor, whom I sat with the night John was ill, and he is an extremely pleasant person.  But the person next to John left abruptly shortly after she sat down, and the three people across from us were deeply engaged with each other, and so there was little socializing to redeem the long, boring, noisy wait.

Perhaps in six hours we will know who has won in our election, and so what the future course of our precious country will be for a long time.  Talking yesterday with a firebrand liberal law professor, she said that she thought that if people had taken to the streets at the time of the Bush election robbery, perhaps the Supreme Court would have made a different decision.  John disagreed, as always impatient with any kind of extremism.  I wondered, myself.  But we talked about it, he and I, and we agreed that one of the most important hallmarks of our country is the deep stability of our government.  We don’t do coups.  Our military does not run rampant in our streets.  If Mitt wins, we will just suck it up and work for better times later. 

I am wondering how much more punishment my little body can take!  My bad knee is unhappy after yesterday’s hillwalk on the crushed stone, mostly the down part, and then the long sitting in the hot cramped bus, and then the hour or so on the lumpy bamboo bench, and then the hour and  a half sitting in the uncomfortable dinner chair.  

Well, well, Waiting now, just waiting.

So then the day’s excursion.   Boats line the shore, the locals line the shore, and our captain eases our ship to nudge the crumbling pier.  This is Kisar, and it’s my 97th country, the Moluccas Islands, now known as Maluku, the original Spice Islands. 

There are dancers ashore, with their elegant restrained movements (I hear someone later saying, Oh, you could tell they weren’t professional because they didn’t do elaborate steps—dummy).  A fleet of small trucks waits for us, and in we go, eight to a truck.   It’s hot and dusty but here we are.

First stop is at some kind of government place, where we are seated in rows of plastic chairs and the mayor (I think it is he), has written out a little speech in English which he reads carefully.  It is touching and genuine, and I am beginning to get a sense of how important our visit and our presences are in this place.  We applaud, and he walks along the front row and gently shakes hands.  Ladies in lovely costume dance, tossing green oranges from hand to hand.   Each dancer wears a different design of ikat weaving, many with black and red motifs.  The men play instruments—several tiny ukelele kinds of things, a guitar, a tambourine.  The music is vaguely Polynesian.    After their dance, the ladies also walk along our front row, shaking hands, or clasping hands.

Back into the trucks and to some kind of residence—the King’s Palace?-- where ladies have cooked up a table full of fried things, of which I do not partake, and there is some kind of alcoholic drink which I also do not take.  I can wait.  I can be patient.   I always feel bad when encountering these kinds of things—the table full of food that the women have cooked, and which we mostly do not eat—but then I also know that first they will have been paid for the food and second that they and their families, or someone, will eat it.  So that’s ok.

Outside the building many people linger and watch us, taking pictures and smiling or waving when we smile and wave.  They talk about us.  We are a big event here. 

Three small dark pigs trot along a stream bed amidst hanging bamboo fronds.

We load again into the trucks.  Our truck has a blue covering and there is room for eight of us in it, and Ryan (of course Ryan, the guy who’s  life of the party, I wonder how much that costs him) in the front seat next to the driver.   The two of them play loud dance music which lifts my own spirits if not that those of the other people in the truck.  I hang on tightly as the truck speeds lurching and bouncing on a narrow paved road out of town.

Our convoy has about ten trucks and a bus in it, and we gather lots of motorbikes along the way.  Not sure where we are going but pretty soon we are in countryside. Once there is a brief wonderful smell of slightly overripe banana, and, once, the bitter tang of fire; an entire hillside has burnt away, leaving its few small houses naked. 

Smartly-uniformed policemen block each intersection for us.  I think this is the final, illuminating indication I have that WE ARE REALLY IMPORTANT TO THESE PEOPLE.

After about three-quarters of an hour we seem to be at a place, and the trucks stop and we all slither out.  Shade!  Some large trees on either side, and suspended between two of them well overhead is a very large orb-weaver in her web.  People stop to take her picture.  She is famous!   Her image will go across the world to America and there be seen on a hundred screens!

So with the images of all the people that we capture, or make.  Lots of little kids, mothers or father holding them.  Pictures are being taken everywhere by both groups, each wanting to catch and hold a memory of this place, these people, this day. 

We crowd around a cement platform, where elegant dancers perform, and fiercely-bedecked warriors posture, spar and shout.   One of the fiercest wears a red Jack Daniels t-shirt.  Their headdresses of feathers are three or even four feet tall. 

The warriors and the ladies dance again, and a warrior takes his little boy into his arms and into the dance.  We are invited to join, and of course some of our people do, and good on them indeed. 

After the dancing, there is milling about.  I want to show my family pictures but somehow that does not work out this time.  A woman is boiling some dark brown substance in a large metal bowl over a fire; she keeps adding some kind of powder or grains of something to it, but I never do find out what it is.  It all seems a fine miscellany.   But when it comes right down to it I am pretty shy in these kinds of circumstances.   And since there are no trails to hike on, I’m not in the element where I am not shy.

We’re all herded then up a small hill on a wide concrete path.  Ahead and below is the sea; I keep forgetting we are on an island, but there is the sea.   Children perch on the hill laughing and watching us closely.   I imagine it’s going to be yet another village to wander around, but no! it seems it’s just the view, down there, of a pretty tiny inlet, some ponds, some fishing boats, a few people and goats in the pond.   Word circulates that this is where the Dutch first came ashore, not that that is anything so good.  But the view is good.

I stand next to one of our men.  Hmf, he says shortly.  They certainly don’t take very good care of their environment!  What do you mean? I ask in puzzlement.  Just look at that trash there! he says.   This kind of complaint being one of my big pet peeves, I say, sharply, What do you expect them to do with it?  Put it in their pockets and take it home of course, he responds.  And then what?  I said.  You know, there is no “away” to throw it to.  He seems befuddled and I leave it there. 

Right, they should just put their trash outside the hut on Monday mornings and the trash truck will come along and take it away to the recycle.  Where the hell do you think you are, man?

Back along the road, back through the bananas and the blackened hillside, past the small houses half-hidden in the bananas, into the chaotic mess of motorbikes and past the school and the mayor’s office.  Some of us opt for a short market visit.  The market isn’t very big, and seems a bit difficult to navigate, but I’m game.  One woman holds up some kind of fruit and a knife and with her eyes queries do I want some? At least I think that is what she’s asking.  I smile broadly, shake my head and pat my stomach.  She looks displeased.  She’s offering hospitality and I have turned it down.  Oh well.

It’s quite wonderful to see how body language and facial expression are, at least in this part of our world, universal.  It’s easy to read each other. 

The waiting is over, and the news is good, at least for us Democrats, the news is so good.

At the return from the shore excursion, I rushed into the reception area and the television, my eyes on stalks ahead of me.  Not good: Mitt ahead by one electoral vote.   We ran to our cabin and turned on our tv.  At least thank God we HAD tv, a great liberal station, so at least I felt in company.  Every word important to me, nourishing and comforting as a virtual hearth, with my village around me. 

It seemed nothing would be decided soon—I took a shower to wash off the sweat and dirt and we went upstairs to lunch.   I ate cheeses and bread.   We had friendly people at the table. 

Suddenly somebody’s shouting over the engine and talk noise:  Won!   People cheer and shout.  I jump up, rush to where I heard the voice.  What!?  What!?  What!!!?   Who said that!  What did he say!  The captain—did you say that?  Who said that?  What happened!!!   No, not I, the captain says; it was Glenn the entertainer, he said that Obama reached 270.  270’s the magic number of electoral votes needed. 

Yes!  YES!   Joy, joy joy!   At our table we all raise glasses and huge smiles.  The woman next to me says, well there are some people here who are not happy.  Oh?  Who?  Well, that one over there, and her husband.  Rabid Republicans?  I inquire.  Oh, worse, she says. 

We are safe now, for another four years. 

Back at our virtual hearth in the cabin.  Sure enough, the screen is anointing Barack the winner.  I read the words over and over.  276 to 203.   Some big states are in question, but the math does not lie, and no matter how you cut it or rearrange the numbers, Mitt’s toast and hopefully all his henchies with him. 

Our afternoon is free and so we can lie luxuriously on our big bed and just watch and watch.  The numbers creep up.  Pennsylvania seems not be for us but the votes still out are mostly in blue counties.  So it’s okay. 

John goes a talk but I stay by the hearth.   Confusion about Mitt—is he going to concede?  Are his lawyers going to find something to challenge about Ohio?  Why can’t the networks access his hq?   Why did John McCain appear there and now has disappeared?  What was Ryan doing when he drove up and then drove away again?  One of the commentators says that apparently Mitt’s people never even prepared a concession speech.  That is certainty misplaced beyond reason.

But he does concede.  Comes out, subdued, none of the big goofy grin, no family with him, and although the modest crowd applauds him, they aren’t wild for him.  He thanks some people, including, peculiar to the last, “surrogates,” tells the crowd to support Barack (graciously they do not boo) (hell, they probably half of them already support Barack), then his long-suffering wife comes out, and all the tall sons and their wives and families.  Some restrained hugs, a few more minutes of applause, and that is the end of Mitt. 

Goodbye, Mitt.   We do not love you.  And never did.

Barack’s to say his speech.  There’s an enormous screaming flag-waving crowd in Chicago, so many people I can’t see the end of them in the darkness.   He comes out, his great family with him.  People are  in a frenzy of love and joy.   He allows the family to be appreciated.  The daughters are so pretty and lovable, and we love them and Michelle.  Then he sends them away, and delivers a majestic speech, pitch-perfect, passionate.   He tells everyone who voted, everyone who worked for either side, you did good for the country, thank you, that is what our country is about.   People love him, love his words and most deeply, love his ideas and his connection to them.  

People long to love and be loved.  

To sleep, in peace at last.

The sea—or seas, we have been passing through many of them—is filled with islands.   Indonesia has 17,000 islands, give or take a few thousand, and it’s a strange thing that it is actually a country, whatever a country is.   All over the world people have found it valuable to unite themselves into larger units.   But the elements of those units are not always very congruent, and troubles come.   Even in our own country, where we are so powerful in our stability, there is discongruity.  But we have our elections, and even if our favored people do not win, we are still a country.   Anything else is unthinkable.  We will not have another uncivil civil war. 

What am I to make of some of our guides asking us where we are from?  We are so aware of our nationality, of the name of our country, that it seems amazing they should not recognize us.   How provincial I am!

Today we come to Yamdena, in the Tanimbar group of islands in Maluku.

The zodiacs take us across the bouncing water to a sandy beach shaded with palms and other trees and filled with the folks, using their phone cameras and watching everything we do, which includes removing our wet-landing shoes and putting on our land shoes.  Many pictures are taken of a man with a pretty red and blue parrot-type bird riding on his shoulder.  The bird turns here and there to watch us, now and then gently biting the man’s ear. Or perhaps to whisper into it.

There’s a welcome been organized.    A vaguely English-speaking man translates our welcome in general terms, and then a headman of some kind, I think from “the government” (which government), wearing a brown uniform, reads another welcome.   A small dark man wearing a beautiful shell necklace gravely anoints the heads of one of our women and one of our men, by sprinkling some sand on them.  

Ladies dance.  Their costumes, on this very remote place, are simpler and less uniform than the others we have seen.   Some men accompany them in dancing; three of the men carry what appear to be non-functioning rifles, and they execute perfect manual of arms, and smartly turn in synchrony.  But if you do not have a rifle? You can use a length of bamboo instead, as three other men do, and present your arms exactly, too.  Somehow this seems very touching to me—rifles into bamboo, swords into plowshares—and for the first time on this trip, tears come to my eyes. 

At last I realize, finally, that these dances and ceremonies are as important to them as to us, and probably much more real than to us.  For us these are quaint, exotic, interesting displays of local culture.  For the folks, I think, it is their chance to show themselves off, to be proud of their people and homes, and a wonderful chance for them to see a quaint, exotic, interesting culture: ours.

But now we’ve got to do The Staircase.   The Staircase leads to the real village, up on the hill top.  It’s an extremely, intimidatingly, steep affair, of stone, with either 75 or 300 steps depending on what story you believe.   At the top is a line of the folks, waiting for us.  Kids run up and down it.   I have brought my stick.  The going up I can do, but it’s the coming down that is worrisome.  I’m wearing my knee braces, too.   

At first I more or less decided I wouldn’t even try, but the sight of our group slowly ascending, one steep step at a time, is reassuring and so I set out, my stick in hand to help me.  It works out fine; at the very top the pitch is possibly over 45 degrees, and the risers are enormous, but I haul myself up ok, refusing offers of help.   Everybody is going slowly and so I am fine. 

At the top is a neat very white square, with shade pavilions on stilts, the stone “boat” with its handsome prow at head level, some houses round about.  It seems we are free to wander around.   The concrete underfoot, and the dusty dirt on top of it, are blinding white, and in it are patterns of sweeping; they have been hard at work here, making their place beautiful and tidy for us.   Some women must have been out early this morning, sweeping, chasing away kids and making all ready, for us.

The stone “boat” commemorates the arrival from the sea of the ancient inhabitants, and most communities here had one in the central square.  But when the Dutch arrived and made the islands part of the Dutch East Indies trading empire, in 1599, they “encouraged” villages to move from the high mountains to the shore, where they could manage their new possessions more conveniently; stone boats were abandoned in these moves.  Our village, though, was already at the coast and so the boat remains. 

There’s a tall church steeple up one of the streets.  It draws me because I want, suddenly, to be churched; to give thanks for the election results, and to pray for our daughters and family, and for Barack and his family.  Some of us gather at the church but although we can see in—it’s Catholic, we all decide—we can’t seem to open the front doors.  I go to inquire: can the church be opened?  A local person seems to be telling us: pull! Pull! On the door!  We try that but no result.  Finally one of our guides goes to fetch someone, who comes up and PUSHES the door open.   Interesting, and do we ever feel stupid..   Our doors all open outward, for safety reasons. 

Inside I do what I need to do, and leave a 100,000 rupiah offering tucked into the cloths on the lectern.  That’s about US$10.  I know I will not buy anything here but perhaps this will do.  I hope the right person finds it—but then really I don’t care who finds it.

In front of the church, which is very large and has a sort of barrel vault inside, one of our men (possibly the tut-tutter about the trash the other day), says flatly, somebody else built this, these people couldn’t build this.  I haven’t really got the foggiest idea what he means.  I say, Well, this is the idea of what churches are supposed to look like.  It doesn’t say anything in the Bible about how churches are supposed to look, he responds scornfully, twitlike in the extreme.  Missionaries obviously built it, he says authoritatively.

Do people like this get nothing from their expensive travels???

Not everyone is down below gawking at us.  A couple of women with some little kids stand in the road near the church, under the plumeria and bougainvillea.  I smile and make over the kids, and show them my family pictures.  They are not very responsive but they do look closely.  One of the kids has a stick and I show how mine telescopes, and then get him to hold his so I can make mine just that size.   The concrete streets lie in a grid, and there’s a pink truck-- how did it come here?

An elaborate array of food has been laid out in the square amidst the intense white heat.  But I’m ready to go back down the stairs and so is John.  I don’t want to be crowded or rushed.  So I pick my way down, never looking out into the alarming amount of space ahead of me.  There is lots of scratched graffiti along the way.

Safely down and at the beach now,  I’m sitting just near a little girl who’s hanging around to be near us.  I hear, faintly, “1 2 3 4” a couple of times.  “Five Six Seven Eight!” says I.  “Nine ten” she finishes with a big smile.   Delightedly the pair of us begins to run through it again, this time together.  “1 2 3 4—“  An older boy comes by.  “12345678910” he crows triumphantly.  Ha!  So there!

Finally, as an end to this little expedition, all of us must wade very carefully through the hot sea water  and across the reef to where the zodiacs have had to retreat  as the tide goes out.  It’s a long way, sandy, mucky, grassy and rocky, but it’s kind of fun too—at last we get to DO something instead of just standing around staring and being stared at. 

Showers, clean clothes, wash the wading shoes and the knee braces, and lunch.  The captain repositions the ship to a beach area and many go to swim there but I don’t.  Wish I had, I guess they had a wonderful time and margaritas were delivered by the crew, a fun time which I did not have.  Snorkel  equipment is to be collected tomorrow.   I came all the way to Indonesia and never snorkeled, what a waste. 

I am still worried about where the hell to stand for the eclipse.   Another northeaster has struck New England and we have no idea whether our daughters have power.  Horrible, horrible being so out of touch for so long.  We watch video of Komodo and dragons, which is virtually unrecognizable in its green and the active dragons. 

Another sea day today.  Some talks, writing in here. 

There’s nowhere to escape to on this tiny ship, and I am mightily worried about where I will find a space to watch the eclipse.  A directive came out this afternoon about how the prime outdoor space,  one of two places where there is any sky overhead, is to be “reserved” for the first-time eclipse viewers, and the other of these is for “the serious photographers.”  What that leaves is the railings, all roofed over, and a tiny space in front of the bridge, and that’s it.  I actually dreamed, last night, about not being able to find a place to see properly from, and how others had carved chairs of snow.  I myself have a notion to highjack at least one of the four straight chairs I have noticed out on deck.  I could get it today, or even tomorrow morning before everybody is up, and hide it in my closet.  I’m just not sure what I am going to do, but within the first half hour of getting on this ship I realized it was not going to work well for eclipse viewing. 

So it’s a sea day, and I have a few unnoted notes.    I stupidly did not attend the lecture on Indonesia as a whole, and so can only observe that each island we visit is different in its religious character.  In some places, like Sumbawa that we went to first, many women wear head coverings (though not all—it definitely is a personal choice here).    On Sumba, with its funerary “village”, it’s a mixture of Christianity and animism (hm, I wonder if Christianity is especially well-suited to incorporating such beliefs—one is always hearing about that, in Mexico, in Africa, and now here).   Of course in Bali there are Hindu temples everywhere—and yet a call to prayer.   Yesterday I think it was mostly Christian.

Whatever they are, our body language and gestural language are mutually comprehensible , even to slight liftings of eyebrows.  This is interesting.  Of course there have been various studies done, of gesture or at least facial expressions—you know, show the folks a face and ask what emotion it is displaying, and respondents world-wide see the same.   Austistic people cannot read those expressions, that are apparently so universal.  What a dreadful affliction.