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September 9, 2009

Vignettes of West Sumatra

Tom McLaughlin

Padang, Sumatra Indonesia – They reminded me of Dad. I could see him in their eyes and faces. Soldiers who had fought the Japanese in World War II and then the Dutch for independence had gathered for ceremonies and stayed at my hotel.


Old warriors wearing a muted batik shirt with medals and ribbons attached with a proud daughter or son by their side, wives long since passed away. Women honored for preparing food and hiding the revolutionaries on this Indonesian Independence Day.


I stood in the deep background as speeches were made, the flag presented, the memorial music played and heads bowed. I guess it’s the same everywhere, vets gathering to receive the much deserved honors of a grateful nation.



Padang, Sumatra Indonesia-Drop dead gorgeous and Miss West Sumatra among them, the three students were all from the local university trying to improve their English skills. Two were majoring in physics and Miss Sumatra, a communications major who will work in the tourism industry. I met them through the teacher who insisted on telling me about his trip to the United States during the earthquake.


We held a conversation where I would gently correct their English. Thankful I could speak American, they had been used to the guttural Dutch tourists who, even for me, were hard to understand.


The next day, at their insistence, they accompanied me on a three hour drive, all of us laughing and having fun on the trip through the mountains to Bukit Tinggi. We stopped and saw a Rafflesia about to open. It is rare to see this huge flower once in a life time, let alone twice. Wondering why I was hovering over it, very excited and taking many pictures, I tried to explain the significance of the event, but I don’t think I was successful. To them, it was just a big flower.



Lunch, an amazing affair, as each of us was presented with a huge plate of rice. Then 10 or so tea saucer plates were served with different foods heaped on each one. Chicken, vegetable, fish, beef curries, fried kampung (what we would call free range) chicken, satay, roasted fish and other items I could not identify. We were charged only for what we ate, not per dish.


I bit into a particularly hot chili. The spittle in my mouth reached the boiling point and changed into a gas. The vapors, at very high temperature, caused my nose to run, my eyes to water and then my ears to ring. I turned a bright fire engine red. We all laughed although I faked it because I was really in pain.


On my return from Bukit Tinggi, I met with one and we sat on the sea wall and talked about various things, practicing English. Violating Islamic law, one must have three people together and never a guy and girl alone, one young male on a motorcycle stopped and watched us the whole time and made me very uncomfortable. I assume he was from the mosque. The girl told me not to worry about it.


During the fasting month of Ramadan, the custom calls for the visitor to give a small gift. I walked through the wet market looking for something different. I scanned heaps of vegetables, fish arranged neatly, three together and fruits forming pyramids where removal of the bottom one would cause the whole thing to collapse. Nothing caught my eye until I espied a box of individually tissue wrapped apples with a Washington State sticker attached. Expensive by local standards, I found something from the United States and would serve as a treat after the fast. Each lady received three fruits.


I am firmly convinced the future of Indonesia is secure with young people like these, who will soon take their place in this developing nation.



Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra Indonesia – Women rule here. The culture, matriarchal, requires the land pass to the daughters. The single men live in the mosque or surah (smaller mosque). They may also leave to seek their fortune in the cities or abroad, usually returning every Hari Raya Puasa (celebration of the ending the fasting month) to tell of their adventures and maybe settle down and marry a local girl. The custom predates the arrival of Islam and no number of Saudi Arabian missionaries, whose job it is to ensure pure Islamic tradition is being observed, are ever going to change it to the Moslem required patriarchal system. They have tried. Local customs and religious belief coexist side by side.


I wandered into one particular village and stopped at a house and chatted with the owner. She was lovely lady in her 40s with two teenagers, a son and daughter. She informed her husband had divorced her and left. I teasingly asked her if I could marry her and move in but I think she thought I was serious. She looked me over, considered the idea and said yes but everyday I would have to work in the rice fields. There would be no freeloader man in her house, I surmised.



Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra Indonesia – I got lost in the Japanese tunnels. During World War II they had carved an elaborate system into a cliff near the city. Rooms for dining, sleeping, a hospital, ammunition, offices, and others created a bewildering underground maze.


Not realizing the extent of the complex, I entered and happily wandered, enjoying the feeling of history. It wasn’t until about an hour or two later I realized I was lost. I spotted a sign that said keluar, (exit) but that tunnel led to a wall. I then walked around some more and realized I was really lost. I used my scientific mind and moved the green trash cans into the center of tunnels to designate I had already explored it. Of course, if I had any scientific mind at all, I wouldn’t be lost.


I finally heard voices and walked quickly toward them. I interrupted the guide (I should have had one) and the students were stunned to see a white guy, sweating, speaking Indonesian (a rarity here) coming out of the darkness asking for the way out. I thought one of the teachers was going to have an angina attack.



…life is good


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