This is to all our Indonesian readers. My book about life in Indonesia (hilarious, as one fan mail said) is now available across the country and almost in every bookshop. So don’t hesitate to buy and read it. Waiting for your feedback!
This time we try to be smart. We give a phone to a local boy and ask him to reserve a hotel room in pure Indonesian, to make sure nobody will want to cheat on us. However many times he calls, the prices are still far more than we expected.
Then a taxi driver appears and chuckles, “This is definitely not the way how to get a good price. Better show your face, that you’re white people, then you will get it at least half the price. Everyone knows foreigners don’t have money!”
I couldn’t believe my ears as usually the myth goes vice versa. But it worked – we got a lovely room on the lake side while our Indonesian neighbours paid twice as much for the same thing. But this is a special island anyway .
Toba lake is one of those hippie magnets where a traveller with the aim of spending a weekend finds himself here still two months later, extending the visa in the immiration office. It is a place where people from ultraconservative Aceh come to drink whisky straight from the bottles, loosing themselves to the magic of other worlds. And a lake where a woman with a jilbab finally uncovers her hear. Just a few hours car ride will take the hedonists from hell to heaven.
An what kind of heaven! It has something mystical and powerful in the crispy winds of the lake. With each part of the body one can feel the shivery excitement of the pre storm moments. The long roofs of the houses bring in the sounds of the breeze. This is where we live – in the bottom of an old volcanoe. Reading books on the shores, spending nights with a guitar, walking on the flowing roads and being amazed by the flying roofs. Sometimes passing the signs „Coffee. Breakfast. Books rental. Magic Mushrooms“. It is definitely magical.
Having spent three days in the woods and gathered material for the film the forest boys send us back to the village. Our feelings are warm. We’ve finally found our forest people without selling our souls or paying extreme prices. And what is even more important – we’ve done something very important for them.
Many of them have gone deep in our hearts. Sidik, who’d glowed with his wit. His brother, who’d had the most charming smile. Darman, who’d always followed us with a canister of river water and two glasses, even this little glittering girl who hadn’t known his age.
Now we stand on the other side of the river and wait for the boat to take us back to the village. Half naked forest boys leave us alone for a moment and dive into the bushes. A moment later they return like city dudes. They wear trendy t-shirts and jeans, they’ve perfumed themselves and secretly they throw their loincloths into the bushes and are ready to enter the Muslim world. If they weren’t so extremely shy I couldn’t tell they’re nomads from the forest.
With one go we get all the questions an Indonesian indoctrinated by the TV knows by heart, not to mention all the myths and stereotypes they’re not willing to give up on. We’re sitting in the car, half sad and with good words we recall the forest people who so little have been touched by money, greed and power positions. But who knows for how long, soon the greedy hands of the government are after their land, too.
Finally we reach a little shed where there’s some boiled river water for us. Electricity generator humming, tv playing we lay there, worn out in the only shed we could see anywhere near us. How far does the forest people live we don’t know yet, but as we’re tired and hungry we ask no questions. The shed people boils the instant noodles we’d brought into porridge, they add some rice and a few roots from the forest. There’s nothing that has tasted better than this.
A little girl in an electric blue costume that is covered with fake diamonds leads us to a place we could wash ourselves and then in her full dress dives into the water. A Muslim girl living in the deep forest and solitude doesn’t take her clothes off to wash herself.
„How old are you?“ we ask her to keep the conversation going.
„I don’t know, ask my dad,“ a girl who’s about 13-15 says to us.
She seems to be the only one excited about our arrival. Seeing that we use spoons instead of hands when eating she takes the cutlery and tries to be like us. Her older sister is scolding: “You don’t have to do everything like the town people does!” But the forest girl with her glittering ear rings doesn’t care. She doesn’t like it here.
Soon there are more people in the shed, until I can count about 15. But to my surprise I don’t here the “who are you, where are you from, what’s your origin? etc.” so common for Indonesians, the men have their own conversations. Of course, here in the forest nobody cares about our projected status of being rich, smart and skilled, because life like that isn’t tempting for most of them. “To move into a village? No, never!” one of them curses and swears when we ask.
Finally we’re taken by the hand and led to the savages (direct translation of how they call themselves). Resting places made of bamboo and roofs made of plastic. A few pots and pans and a few cloths hanging on a tree. Some of them wear t-shirts, some only breechcloths. The moment I take my camera out to change the lens half of the population is gone, swoosh! Namely, women and little children are afraid of recording machines since it’s forbidden to be in a picture (unless the group leader allows, which luckily happened to us). The same goes for washing yourself with soap and sharing bed with your husband. What is more, the women don’t have names – they lose these when their first child is born and now you can call them only using their children’s names.
Although in the beginning we’d planned to take a few photos and record a sad interview for a few minutes then now Sidki has new plans. We’ve barely taken a breath when he wants to start working. Already there’s someone sent to the previous resting place and told to catch the forgotten tripod. For us it’s a total chaos, of course, the situation is absolutely absurd but yet intriguing. All of it for the fact that we have three days and they’ve still haven’t got to explain the whole problem. Nevertheless we set the camera and let those who wish speak.
We also give them a little advice. “In the beginning you could chop some wood, then it’s seen what job you do,” we guide the forest witch. The man takes a knife and cuts a tree, moves to the next one and cuts that. But the third three is far away and our witch, we’re supposed to film with a camera that is put still in one place, runs far far away. Ten minutes later we catch him from bosk. We ask him to stand still and talk about his problem. The man stands still as a rock in front of a tree and with his glassy eyes he tells his story.
„Wakil, hey, if you stand like that it’s a bit weird. Look, the camera films from here to here,” I show him the conture around the tree. “You can move freely in this frame,” we try to explain it to the puzzled witch. Suddenly Wakil stands up and starts talking, running around the tree at the same time. Behind us there are 40 people from the village and they’re all whispering Wakil right answers. Suddenly the silent people have so much to say.
At first we tell Sidik to lead the interviewing process, since he’s no doubt sharp and understands what has to be said and how to do it. But when shy village people are around our interviewer is the only one speaking. Thus we understand we have to write a scenario.
This is how we pass our first night. Two white women and 15 men from the village are writing the scenario and coming up with questions. They’re working on the content, we create a structure. And in the morning, when we’re ready to continue filming, we realize we’ve forgotten the charger into the village, because when we came to the forest we didn’t know what was going to happen.
By this time the forest people have started to enjoy shooting and thus everything is really quickly organized in the way it has to be. The first forest boy walking by is told to take a half a day journey to get the charger from the village. We take a torn paper to write a letter for the village elder: “Dear village elder, with this paper here…etc“.
Half a day later we have the charger, the boy is dripping from sweat and we’re ready to continue. We propose, they find solutions. “There should be a kid in the shot, so it could be seen that the problem matters for the next generation, too,” we barely say this when a kid who’s running around with a tinkler is caught, his grandmother telling: “Hey, off you go to a film!” Then we mention to Sidik that we’d need a young man who’d tell he’d like to live in the forest and half an hour later when I’m walking between the terraces I hear our friend convincing a young boy: “Hey, you have to look at the camera and tell you’d always like to live in the forest.” A boy who’s wearing a Dior shirt, sitting on a tree stump and sadly playing with his phone that has no reception, doesn’t seem to like to repeat his father’s words. Luckily he doesn’t have to, we find another sincere boy.
„Now, tell into the camera how old you are.” We ask him to convince people about the existence of the younger generation. The looks startlingly at his father and a great discussion begins. “How old is he? 20? 22? 25?“ What we finally caught on the tape I don’t remember. But I can tell that the boy who so surely tells his age just came up with it a minute before. And there are sentences that so naturally come from a shy man’s mouth that actually took a couple of hours to film. But it finally is one of the most exciting experiences ever – to co-operate with the forest people and film their story on their request. Now we have to hope that the video reaches right places and it could help the people.
The men introduce their companion to us. Sidik used to belong to the forest people tribe, too, but when he was 15 and his father died he went to live in a village. The village elder gave him a place to stay and now he’s living there with his wife and child and once a month he goes into the forest to visit his folks. Sidik is brought before us and his role is explained to him in local language, we’re are sent to the kitchen to eat rice at the same time.
There’s no electricity. We sit in candle light, on the wooden floor and eat rice an eggs. We haven’t eaten since our arrival in the village. There are rats everywhere, they’re running on the tables, rattle in the middle of the tin cans. Before us in the dim light there’s a lady in white bowing and mumbling something on her own. In the next door the forest tribe representer is talking to the village elder and if we usually hear any tropical language as bumba-mumba-djumba we now understand almost every word they say. We sit in the dar, hours away from any bigger village and a half-a-day walk away from an ancient tribe, everything seems so usual. One day in my weird life in Indonesia when exotics has become an everyday thing.
Finally Sidik asks us to go with him. He very seriously keeps a bit away from us. He walks a few meters before us and talks to us only when it’s necessary. Having reached a shop he starts piling up things. A few blocks of cigarettes and tea, sugar and instant noodles. He piles the things until Marie and I look at us with fear in our eyes. I wonder if he knows how little money we have on us? We then explain Sidik the situation that if we buy food for 150 there’s only 50 left for him. Sidik gives us a look even more evil and takes a few things out of the basket. Finally he says we’ll certainly find somebody from the forest who we could follow to get out of the forest, so the fee is smaller.
Feeling ourselves absolutely uncomfortable and not awaited we spend our night wandering the streets. Nobody is staring at us with a nice look, instead people are drilling their evil eyes through our hearts. The phone in our pocket still has no reception, the last message from Hoira tells us to be careful because the tribe we’re heading to are also known as cannibals. With our hearts heavy as stones we finally fall asleep and hope the protective hand of fate will help us.
At 5 in the morning Sidik is at the door. We throw the clothes on and try to make as little trouble as possible. But the man is cold as ice. We march behind him to the forest and wait for the moment the unpleasant relationship between clients and assistant ends. Sitting on the river boat realizing we’re really going we understand we haven’t eaten or drunk anything, we even didn’t have the time to grab a water bottle with us. This is how our journey to the deep forest begins.
We’ve been on the track for a few hours already, we’re carrying heavy backbacks and presents for the village people, Sidik is carrying next to nothing, suddenly Marie’s sandals break. We sit down and our handyman quickly repairs it. At the same time we’re still trying to break the ice and make jokes because if our only contact is against us the journey to the people who’re afraid of the outer world cannot be much of a fun. Finally we start talking about the artificial village we’d been to before, and about the forest people who’ve been forced to leave their former living space. And how sorry we’d felt for the locals who cannot do anything about the government and corruption. I take my camer out and show a few pictures.
This is an important moment. In half a minute Sidik turns from an ice-cold service provider into an open friend. He makes himself comfortable and starts talking emotionally.
„Do you know what’s the problem here in this area? Nobody has told you? We’ve lived here for years, the forest people and the village people, and our only source of subsidence are the trees. The rubber trees we cut and from where we gather rubber. And now the government has come to our land, built the roads and houses for the builders and plans to make money from our trees. But we have a law here, a traditional law that tells if the land has been owned by a community for years it’s the community’s land. Of course the corrupted government doen’t want to hear anything about it.”
Then he looks at us, as if he’s been enlightened and shouts: “You’ve got cameras. Please take some pictures of our forest and let’s sent them to the government. Maybe this would help us to get our land back.”
Being so involved in Sidik’s story and being so astonihshed by his skills we of course agree to help him. And when we take our video camera out there’s a snowball of thoughts that starts rolling in Sidik’s head.
It’s almost dawning when we’re hitch hiking on the road that isn’t even marked on our maps. The further we get the emptier are the streets. There’s no cracked asphalt, in fact there are paths where there’s never been any asphalt. Some motor bikes stop and offer to take us half a hundred kilometers even deeper into forest, for money of course. We have the 200 000 the police had given us a day before and we had decided to bring it to the forest. Fortunately the men’s hearts soften and they agree to take us a bit further. Just like that we dangle in the disused roads in the middle of forests and plantations and hope that there would be somebody taking us on, although there’s only one motorbike in 30 minutes passing us.
Finally we reach a village that enchants us momentarily. Decaying wooden houses have been built on high docks and the rooms are a meter above the ground. There’s nothing but two parallel sandy main streets. The whole village stares at us upon our arrival and once we enter the village elder’s quarters, half a hundred bewildered children gather behind his windows. From somewhere appears the village elder wrapped in a towel, and asks us to sit on the floor of the porch. We then begin with our usual speech.
So we sit there, five of us, around the map and try to find where the nomads are currently about. A few groups are on the shores of one creek, some more are on the shores a bit further away. Choose whichever you’d like to visit! Our hearts were crying of joy inside, but we kept our adrenaline hidden under cold faces. Its never a good idea to hooray before the night as an old Estonian saying goes and it all seemed to be going impossibly well, considering that just a few hours ago we didn’t have the slightest idea how to reach our goals. And now we are here having this trip planned for us.
How many days? Three nights? Okay.
Can you cross the river? You can. Okay.
Can you hike half a day? Yes? Okay.
Tomorrow morning we’ll start at 5. Okay? Okay.
It takes ten minutes to plan everything. It’s 3 pm and we’re exhausted. We’d like to wash, rest and celebrate our success. Now we’d only have to wait for the magic words “Would you like to go and wash yourselves?”.
But no one says those words. There’s only the awkward silence. There’s nothing we’d say and they seem to have nothing to add, too. Although the silence is so unpleasant, everybody seems to be waiting for something. We come up with random questions to stop the silence, but every answer is followed by silence again. “Tomorrow then?” – “Yes, tomorrow at 5.” We fidget. They keep quiet. “And it’s half a day away?” – “Yes, something like that, if you can hike. The road is tough.” The children behing the window are bored and they disappear one after another. Again the silence. About twenty minutes later I cannot bear it anymore. “Is it finished now or is there’s something you’d like to add?”.
The village elder looks at us and starts twirling, until he reaches the key word.
„See, it’s quite far away. You don’t know how to get there. Somebody has to come with you. Be absent from work… And you’d like to spend three nights there. See, it’s dangerous in the forest. Elephants and hippos… He also has to eat. Say, you’d cover it with 200 000 rupees a day… 800 000 all together.”
Sure. All our beautiful dreams a shredded. We have exactly 200 000 from the police and this is all we have until the end of the trip. But if we’ve come so far we cannot give up. And now it’s time for a real mental chess with the village people.
Everybody’s sitting in utter silence, we’ve revealed our striking secret – we don’t have so much to give. The five men on the floor are quiet for the first five minutes, the next five minutes they keep discussing. At the tenth minute the village elders says a sentence.
We listen to his sentence and think. We analyse what he’d meant with the sentence and where is he sailing with his thought. Which steps does he have in his sleeve and how we could respond to his steps. It’s a game where no mistakes are allowed. We take some time to think, mumble something. Marie finally says her sentence.
The men thus take a deep breath, the smoke goes into their lungs and then they slowly let it out from their throats. They’re not satisfied with Marie’s sharp move and they’re thinking how to improve their situation. They circle the pen above different places on the map and come up with a new solution.
No matter what move they make at the end, no matter how much cheaper they make their offer it’s still too expensive for us. But the air is getting more tense, having spent two hours playing chess both parties know that somebody has to lose. And it’s very probable that the two eager white girls, after they’ve hitch hiked through the forest, are very unlikely to step back.
No matter how humiliating the situation is, no matter how nerve tickling it is we let the things go their way. At one moment early in the evening a old man finds us a solution we could be satisfied with. The men stand up, they don’t say a word and leave us sitting on the terrace. We feel how the tense chess game has culminated into boredom and tiredness, and the friendly village people are ready to show their resentment towards us, just like in another Dogville.
We’re on our way back to Jambi, to this awkward village where the forest people have been put into the box-houses, renamed as Muslims and who’re now wearing shirts in Indonesian colours. The same village from where we’d been supposed to enter the forest to meet their friends who live there, and the same gates for which we’ve been waiting so long to get the authorization. But the thing we miss the most was our local dad Najib, in whose guest-bedroom we could lay down and be taken care of. No more annoying truck drivers and confusing Indonesians, if only there was Najib who’d take care of our wellbeing.
But the closer we get to Muarakilis the darker it gets, the more we understand that Najib isn’t interested in us going there, the situation seems to be upside down. It’s midnight when we arrive in front the police house, we have no money, we haven’t slept and we ask to be put up. We do something I’d promised never to do again – be tied with the militaristic lifestyle of policemen.
There are five men sitting in the street and they all think: where to put those two girls who speak Indonesian, who’ve come out a truck in the middle of the night. One policeman stands up, circles around a bit, the other stands up and lags in his thoughts, clicking some buttons on his phone at the same time. Another two stand up and start going somewhere. They are walking in the same rhythm and their hands move in parallel. We could see the handcuffs shining in the darkness. It appears they are two illegal deforesters who’ve been arrested in the middle of the night. The police starts organising: “You come with me,” he points at us. “And you go into the cell,” he points at the criminals.
The night passes on the floor of the policeman’s house. We wake up to the national anthem of Indonesia and militiamen marching at 7 am. Our door is opened and a woman who’s nine months pregnant enters the room. Although it’s Saturday every family in the police ashram has to wake up at the same time and start their day with sports. Pregnant women sit in front their mini concrete buildings and look at their husbands running along the court. From another perspective, but this standard military village is as awkward and weird as the one we’d seen a month ago deep in the forest.
When we’re leaving the police boss’s office, an officer puts some money into my hands – “For you to have some lunch at the market,” he tells giving a sum that would usually be our budget for a few days. We are utterly confused cause as far as we know, here it is usually the other way around. We suspect the money had come from the illegal deforesters who’d bought themselves out from the cell, so we accept the present and promise to ourselves to take the money back to the forest.