Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Weekend in the Country

The road to Bintuni is its own special kind of hell.

It starts out innocently enough, a reasonably well-paved lane passing through villages and bits of forest, narrow enough that two pickup trucks passing each other each have to put a wheel in the grass but two lanes anyway. Some twists and turns, some cows grazing in the verge, some pigs and chickens crossing the road and dogs lying in the middle, nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, the driver slams on the gas to pass anyone in front of him, but everyone in Indonesia drives that way so by now I’m used to it. And the scenery’s kind of pretty.

Soon enough we get some mountains, some ups and downs to go along with the lefts and rights, the curves get tighter and the potholes get deeper and wider. While we’re at it, the view out over the bay gets better. This being the rainy season, there’s a few mudslides, some patches of dirt to clamber over, but not for nothing are we riding in a 4-wheel-drive pickup. The driver puts ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in the cd player. Celine Dion is inexplicably, wildly popular in Indonesia at the moment, and this is at least the third time I’ve heard this song played. Then some Leanne Rimes and it’s like being at an awkward middle school dance all over again. But things could be much worse.

It’s around hour four when things start to get much worse. We turn west away from the coast and start to head inland, over the mountains toward Bintuni Bay. This is where the Indonesia Tourism Map I downloaded shows the road ending. The potholed paved road and reasonably good gravel starts to intersperse with longer and longer stretches of mud tracks that undulate like sea waves on a windy day, which are far more charming in a sailboat than four hours into a car trip. Occasionally, inexplicably, there will be a stretch of fresh, smooth pavement, giving way to mud again or something you can tell was once paved, but probably last maintained by the Dutch, who left this part of the world in 1960. Creeks cross the road. The ruts fill with rainwater. The driver swerves to avoid the worst potholes or find the firmest path through the mud. We’re still in the mountains, so the hills are steep and slippery. The engine strains as it tries to go up; we fishtail on the way down. Mud splatters everywhere, including into the open window that I open each time the driver lights a new cigarette, which is often. Somebody’s put wooden planks in some of the deeper ruts, which are helpful if they’re recent and still lying flat but just one more obstacle to swerve around if we’re not. Most of the time we’re not breaking 15 miles and hour, more like 3 in the roughest spots and booking it as fast as we (not-so-safely) can in the better areas. Around this point it starts to get dark. No streetlights out here. Somebody in the back starts puking. I thank god for Dramamine. Bats dart across the road as we head through the forest. Something white streaks in front of us – a cockatoo, I think. I put Terry Gross on my ipod and pray.

I’d wanted to go to Bintuni for a while. If Manokwari is on the back of the Bird’s Head, Bintuni is high on its throat, right above the Adam’s apple. Both of my speakers in Manokwari had spent time there, and apparently a lot of Wandamen speakers of various dialects live in the city. (City? Small town. Very small town.) My landlady Ibu Marice suggested that I catch a ride over with her family when they headed back, and when I mentioned it to Juen (her daughter and Gio’s mother, as I finally figured out), she got excited and asked if Saturday was good to leave. Sure, why not? This was Wednesday or so at the time. I got my surat jalan from the police station (see previous post), and was ready to go at the appointed hour of 10am on Saturday. Juen had called around and arranged seats for us in a car over. (The driver, she said, was her boyfriend. In Bintuni I met her husband. Not sure if that was just bad English or what. I didn’t ask.) At 10:45, Juen got off the phone and said she was taking her motorbike to town to get our car. At 12:15, after I’d had a little lunch and watched some tv, it arrived. We drove in circles around town, picking people up, dropping one girl off at the airport, waiting, and getting a load of brooms and sunglasses from the market to bring to a store in Bintuni. At the market a crazy man with dreadlocks and a mouth bright red from betel was fascinated by the bule in the front seat and tried to climb in the drivers side. We locked the doors. He hung around the windows for another 20 minutes while they loaded the cargo in the back. It was 2:00 when we finally hit the road for real.

And at 10:00 we made it to Bintuni. The water was off at Juen’s house, which apparently occasionally happens there, so we stopped at boarding house instead. I paid the driver my Rp 500,000 (roughly $60) for the ride and fell fast asleep. At 2am, Juen turned on the lights and announced that the water was back and we were moving to her house, where we wouldn’t have to pay for the room. A neighbor who drives an ojek (motorcycle taxi) brought us over one at a time. They showed me the spare room and I fell fast asleep.

I woke up around 8:30 the next morning. It was grey out and raining hard. There’s no electricity in Bintuni from 6am to 6pm unless you’re in a hotel, which I wasn’t. The room was dim. I opened the curtain, but the window glass was frosted so that didn’t help much. The bathroom was even darker, with one high window paned in green plastic, an Asian-style squat toilet, and a wet floor. I understand now why feet are considered unclean in this part of the world. After a while I decided it would be less miserable to put on some clothes and go out in the front room, where there were more windows and more light. So I sat out there and worked until 10, when Juen and her husband, Haykel, got up and he went to get breakfast – yellow coconut rice with chicken, fried noodles, a boiled egg, and sambal, wrapped in a banana leaf. Delicious.

I hadn’t talked to Juen much in Manokwari; didn’t even know her name until I asked for her cell number before we left. I had pegged her as roughly 16, still with the full compliment of baby fat (my Manokwari album on Picasa has a picture of her and Gio), but it turns out she’s 22 and studying linguistics at Unipa. She and her husband have been married for a year; Gio is 9 months old. You do the math. Whoops. (As the Haykel told me with an embarrassed laugh one later evening in Bintuni.) But she was a wonderful hostess and he seems like a good guy. He works in a beer store in Bintuni. Gio mostly stays with mom & grandparents in Manokwari, but every so often goes back to Bintuni for a few days to see his dad.

After breakfast and a nap Juen showed me the battery-powered emergency lamp so I could shower in less than total darkness, and we went over to Polres (a branch of the police station) to show them my surat jalan and register me. We’d stopped by the night before, but apparently whoever they needed to call about my travel letter wasn’t in at 10pm, so they’d told us to come back. This time they were all set, but when I reached in my bag to get my surat out of the notebook where I was keeping it, I came up empty. Apparently last night in my sleepy fog I’d stuck it into a different notebook, one which was now at the house. I felt like an idiot. They told us to come back at 7 that night.

From there we hopped a pair of ojeks to a kampong on the other side of town, where native Bintuni people live. So we sat around eating bananas steamed with rice flour dough and chatting, and I was taken into a house (hut?) to see a baby who’d been born there just a few days before. But the Wandamen speakers were all out for the day, so we headed home.

So we hung out til the lights came on at 6, took me to register for real this time at 7, and then the three of us (Juen, Haykel, and me) went to a café for dinner and karaoke. I ordered pisang keju coklat (fried bananas with chocolate and cheese) because sorry, I love the stuff, and sang Cole Porter badly. Juen sang ‘My Heart Will Go On’ well (that song again!). I met a friend of theirs, about my age, who speaks some Wamesa (a dialect of Wandamen). around 10:30 we headed home.

The next morning was just as dreary, but by then I knew enough to head straight out to the living room to get some sunlight. Another 10am breakfast of yellow rice in a banana leaf and far-too-sweet tea. (I saw later that she filled the cup a sold half-inch deep with sugar before pouring in the hot water, and on the third morning was able to reduce that to a reasonable quarter spoonful for my morning cuppa.) Around 1:30 I was lying in the living room working when a policeman knocked on the door and asked if I was ready to go. Policemen everywhere make me nervous (too much illicit night swimming at summer camps, I suppose), even more so in Indonesia, and particularly the Indonesian police in Papua, who aren’t exactly known for their gentleness. It took a while for me to realize it was Aco, the Wamesa friend from the karaoke café, who happens to work at Polres. Juen & I got in his car, and he drove us around to the houses of Wamesa speakers until we found one who was at home, Ibu Amelia. A group gathered to watch as I spent 45 minutes recording a wordlist with her. I’d hoped to do a good recording with minimal pairs for phonetic analysis, but with the motorbikes outside and the children gathered at the door and the chickens and the soccer game out front I’m just hoping I’ll be able to make out her voice on the recording. Welcome to fieldwork. Before I left she gave me one of the traditional Wamesa bags she weaves as a kenang-kenangan (parting gift). Or as traditional as you can get with a handle made from plastic cords. It’s pretty sweet. People here seem happy to talk to me about their language, though whether it’s because of the language or because I’m a westerner I’m not entirely sure. But more on that in a later post.

Later that afternoon Juen took me back to the kampong, but the Wandamen speakers were out again so we went to the park instead, which is a stretch of boardwalk through the mangrove forest behind the market and out to the river, where I’m told the crocodiles are. I didn’t see any. Dinner was babi rica-rica, a Manadonese pork dish, with Juen & Haykel & his cousin Christopher, aka Dompel. At home afterwards I wowed them with pictures of this winter’s blizzards and colored fall leaves, and talked about what America is like and why on earth I would travel this far to write a thesis. The Hall’s Vitamin C citrus cough drops were also a big hit. I promised to bring more back next year.

And it was raining again the next morning, though by now I’d got the hang of it. I was also finally getting good at the Asian toilets. (Whoever said girls don’t need to aim obviously never came to Indonesia.) Better than a thighmaster those things are. After breakfast Aco came back again and drove me out to meet a family of Kuri speakers. Kuri, it turns out, is most definitely not a dialect of Wandamen, contrary to what everyone insisted, but there were enough similarities to make it interesting and I recorded a wordlist anyway.

When Juen got back from fixing her motorbike, we went out for papeda. Papeda is a traditional Papuan staple food made from sago flour. It’s often compared to jellyfish – the local word for jellyfish is ‘papeda laut’, or ‘papeda of the sea’ – but though I’ve never actually eaten jellyfish that doesn’t seem quite right to me at all. What it’s like really is a gluey, grey, translucent, gelatinous mess, most commonly eaten with a yellow fish stew on top. The flavor isn’t bad at all, and I made it through a reasonable-sized serving before the texture started to get to me. The fish actually tasted Italian, with strong notes of garlic, at least until I squeezed half a lime over it. Glad I tried the stuff, probably won’t do it again.

The plan was originally to head home on Thursday, but that quickly got pushed back to Wednesday because of some planned political event. Then on Tuesday morning Juen asked if I was okay leaving that afternoon, since the gubernatorial election was on Wednesday and meant there were no cars available. Sure, why not. Then it was Wednesday morning again, and when we got home from Papeda it was ‘right now’. So I shoved my stuff in my bag and 20 minutes later the car came, and by 5:30 or so we were leaving Bintuni.

The ride home was far worse than the ride there. It got dark not too long after we left, and three days of rain had made the roads even slipperier than before. Maybe htree hours in we stopped at a roadside shack for dinner & coffee for the driver. Juen had already puked. The rest of us ate noodles. I asked about a bathroom and was directed to the back, to a room where an old man was washing dishes. No, you don’t go out the back, this is the bathroom. The guy left and closed the door behind him. Not even a squat toilet here, not even a hole, you just pee on the slatted wood floor and toss some water over it when you’re done. The house was a few feet above the ground, sitting on stilts, so everything falls through. Lord only knows what happens if you need to go #2.

And while we were resting there, the rain started up again. When we finally got back in the car, around 9:30, the windshield was fogged up and for the first five minutes the driver decided not to use the wipers. I couldn’t see a damned thing. Instead of three girls in the back like last time, there were two guys alongside Juen, all chainsmoking along with the driver. Nerve-wracking is an understatement.

My biggest piece of advice to travelers anywhere is to bring plastic grocery bags with you wherever you go. They can keep your dirty clothes separate for a few days away from home. They can hold your wet bathing suit and leave everything else dry. And when the two Dramamine you’ve taken prove unequal to seven hours of swerving along a muddy mountain road, you can puke into them. I’ve never in my life been happier to see a house than I was to see this one when we finally pulled up at 3:15 in the morning. As far as I’m concerned, it was glowing. I don’t care how much Susi Air charges for a ticket (roughly $120 each way, 45min in the air), next time I’m flying.

And this morning I slept til 9, then went into town to use the ATM and some internet. Nobody’s expecting me on campus yet, so it’s a lazy day at home of typing and hanging out. I stopped at a café downtown for lunch, was handed three menus of food and drink, and was told when I tried to order that they didn’t actually have any of that. Not quite sure what was up with that, but I left rather than sit around and pay too much for a plain cup of tea. And now it’s dinner time, and I’ve typed four pages, and Ibu made a rockin' cucumber salad, so goodnight.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome. Two things made me laugh out loud: Halls cough drops and the "bathroom" on the way home. Again, awesome.