Almost heaven, West Sumatra

by Ian Lett

We have traveled with Jurgen and his mates for a few months in Japan. And their journey continues through the mountainous islands of the Far East. But we leave them for a while to take another journey in the East, this time to Indonesia. I went there to follow the trail of my great grandfather, and to see what so compelled my father to visit that he spent a year travelling on his bicycle from Germany to the islands off the coast of Sumatra.

July 30th 2008

I hit the sweaty streets of Padang to find my mobile phone. It was 11 at night when I caught up with Nevu and her friends. Nevu was a cheeky 20 year old who I had met on the street. She helped me buy a mosquito net in the crowded market earlier that day, then told me about her life. We had walked to the shopping mall where I bought her and her friends some lunch. The next morning when I found them on the same street corner where I had met them, Nevu told me that a driver had picked up my phone outside the hotel and had given it to them. This sounded implausible as Nevu had been looking through my bag before I said goodbye last night. When I turned on the phone I found that the PIN had been blocked. Nevu had been trying to guess the PIN and unlock the phone. I wasn’t too upset with her as she was just a kid making the most of an opportunity. I found a wartel (telephone shop) and got a code to unlock my phone.

Greetings from Sumatra'a West Coast

I said goodbye to Nevu and headed for the Hotel Batang Arau, a breezy hotel cafe on the Batang Arau Canal. It attracts expat Australians, surfers and NGO workers and is owned by Christina, a loud American who did not appear to do any work. I booked passage on the overnight ferry to Sikakap, on Mentawai’s South Pagai Island, the last resting place of August Lett, my moyang (great grand father).

The Suruber Usaha Baru was scheduled to leave Padang at 8pm but I was advised by Yulia in the booking office that departure would be closer to 11pm. When I arrived at 7.30pm Edy, AKA Dr Dinul Harbi, Manager of Tourism in Mentawai, was there to meet me. He introduced me to his brother Soehardo, a teacher, who was also going to Sikakap. He helped me find a cabin and a padlock for the cabin door. Then we waited.

The ferry runs from Padang, Sumatra to Sikakap, South Pagai, Mentawai

At 11pm I sat drinking Bintang beer in a gaudy room by the wharf. Bintang is a pale lager, a localised version of Heineken. The Bintang bottle is similar to the Heineken bottle and both have a red star on the label. That is no coincidence as the Bintang factory was set up in 1929 under Dutch colonial rule and renamed the Heineken Indonesian Brewing company in 1949.

Indonesia’s Bintang, a pale lager similar to Heineken

A television lit up a corner of the dimly lit room, smelling of rats and cat vomit, and showed a program of love songs and tragic heartbreak. It took me a while to realise that I was watching karaoke and that the Indo Elvis in the corner was responsible for the last song. And the seven songs before that. The air was a greasetrap, the beer warm and the seats were sticky with desperation. It was the saddest place in the world.

The temple built by gods

by Jurgen Lett

“From now on my descendants shall administer the affairs of state,” said the sun goddess Amaterasu. “You shall cast a spell of establishing good relationship over people to lead them to a happy life “she told the god of the earth and the underworld Okuninushi. “I will build your residence with colossal columns and thick and broad planks.” According to Shinto mythology, when the other gods were gathered Amaterasu ordered them to build a grand temple at the foot of Mt. Uga. That grand temple is Izumo-taisha . We visited and were impressed with its vast scale, particularly as it was half the height it had been when it was built in 950AD. The sacred straw rope at the entrance to the Worship Hall is the largest in Japan and weighs 5 tonnes. Everything was monumental, befitting the gods.

The Grand Shrine of Izumo-taisha features the largest shimenawa (sacred straw rope) in Japan

As we rode into a town at the end of a day of cycling, I asked the local police where we could find Japanese-style accommodation. Invariably they directed us to a hotel or other Western style accommodation, costing two or three times our budgeted price. We found the cheaper Japanese inns, called ryokan, cost no more than youth hostels but had much better service. We searched out ryokan, and were never disappointed.

We began our ryokan stay with a wash in a traditional wooden bath, known as an ofuro. These were either a cedar box like that below, or a large barrel standing on end. Traditionally a fire underneath provided heating, so the water was really hot. Before getting in the ofuro I would sit on a low wooden seat and wet myself all over, using a ladle, with water from a wooden bucket. I would then soap myself, and wash off the soap with more water from the bucket. Only when I was perfectly clean did I get in the steaming bath. In this way many people share the same bath water. In larger ofuro several people can bathe at the same time, but male and female bathing is strictly segregated. It took a while to get used to the heat but when I did I enjoyed having a soak. I emerged from the bath feeling dizzy from the heat and it took a few minutes to feel steady.

Traditional cedar bath known as ofuro

After a bath I dressed in a yukata, which looked like dressing gown. Meanwhile our cycling clothes were collected, to be returned the next morning, washed, ironed and folded. This was just one of the many reasons we preferred to stay at a ryokan.

Yukata are worn after bathing

Japanese meals did not meet out substantial energy requirements. After a day of cycling we developed a big appetite and the small quantities served at dinner time were inadequate. After dinner we would go into town to find a restaurant where we filled up on rice, chicken and fish. We wore the distinctively-patterned yukata supplied by the ryokan, so everyone knew where we were staying.

We returned to our ryokan to find the living room converted to a bedroom. Sliding doors in one wall revealed a shallow wardrobe containing our futon mattresses and other bedding. The futons were laid out radiating around a low table where a charcoal fire burned all night. Blankets were draped over the table to prevent heat escaping. With this heat source we only needed a thin doona to remain warm throughout the night, despite freezing temperatures outside.

Our visit to Izumo-taisha was coming to an end, but we had not finished with the temple built by gods. Okuninushi was known as The Lord of the Central Land of Reed Plains, another name for Japan. Young lovers pray to Okuninushi, for he is also the god of relationships, by writing a wish on some paper and tying the paper to a branch of a conifer in the temple garden. They then clap their hands four times during prayer, twice for themselves and twice for their actual or desired partner. We visited the statue of Okuninushi at Izumo-taisha, and I did a lot of clapping.

Statue of the god Okuninushi at Izumo-taisha

Cherry blossom

by Jurgen Lett
Himeji Castle with sakura, or cherry blossom

The cherry blossom (sakura) has been celebrated in Japan for many centuries and holds a special place in Japanese culture. Sakura bloom for just a couple of days in spring and the Japanese celebrate this time of the year with Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties. Friends, family or work colleagues gather and sit on plastic mats under the blossoming trees, to drink, sing, chat or just admire the spectacle.

Location of the city of Kobe, Hyogo prefecture

It was early spring when we left Kobe and still very cold, so we headed for the warmer south. Our first destination was Himeji, 60km away, home to the largest and most visited castle in Japan. The sun was shining and the cherry blossom festival was underway.

Riding west along the Inland Sea coast we passed through Okayama, then turned north to make our way across the island of Honshu. We encountered rough pot-holed roads crossing snow-covered Mount Daisen. The hilly terrain left little room for fields and villages, so the inland was sparsely populated.

Mount Daisen

We stopped at the youth hostel in the village of Yubara, where the hostel father presented me with a bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, which I have to this day. Yubara has hot springs, or onsen, where groundwater is heated by volcanoes. Japan has many active volcanoes, and consequently many areas of hot springs. We enjoyed soaking in the onsen baths outside, and also enjoyed the steaming water inside which is piped to houses and hotels.

Typical onsen, or hot spring bath

The size and shape of a traditional Japanese house is determined by the number of tatami mats it can contain. Tatami are a traditional mats made of rush (igusa) and cloth. The standard tatami is 910 mm by 1820 mm and rooms are measured by the number of tatami which make up the floor area. Tatami rooms have many purposes, including bedroom, dining room and entertaining area. Each morning I would roll up my Japanese mattress, or futon, and store it in a cupboard.

On entering a traditional Japanese house I took off my shoes in the entrance or genkan, and put on slippers supplied by my host. I placed my shoes neatly pointing towards the door, as this is considered good manners. I walked the polished timber floor of the hallway, and left my slippers at the door of the tatami room. It is forbidden to walk on tatami in slippers and nor is it acceptable to walk in bare feet. I made sure that my socks were clean and free of holes, as I walked on the tatami. And when I went to the toilet I removed my house slippers and slipped on toilet slippers.

Toilet slippers are only to be used in the toilet

The Daily News

by Jurgen Lett

On a cold spring afternoon, the French merchant liner steamed into Kobe harbour. On board were my new friends Franz Gruber and Pierre Piroche. We wanted to ride all the major islands of Japan, but we had no bicycles. Franz had a bold plan to get sponsorship for our cycling adventure from a Japanese newspaper. The three of us tried our luck at the offices of the local newspaper, the Kobe Shimbun, where we were fortunate to meet Mrs Morioka.

The newspaper Kobe Shinbun is still operating, but has gone online

Mrs Morioka introduced us to the manager of the Kawamura Cycle Company, who hosted us with lunch of sushi, our first experience of raw fish. The manager then took us to his office and, after a few words of welcome, took out a tailor’s tape measure, and took measurements of my inside leg and height. Three days later we picked up our custom-made touring bikes. These bikes were robust, with brown steel frames and had three gears. They proved to be very reliable on the mostly gravel roads we traversed. Seventy per cent of Japanese roads were unsealed at the time.

Our bikes were custom-made by the Kawamura Cycle Company

Kawamura Cycle Company had shops all over Japan where we could get our bikes fixed for free. The only price we paid was to advertise the company with a small flag on our bikes sporting the Kawamura name and logo.

Back at the Kobe Shimbun office Mrs Morioka took a photo of us with our new bikes and we appeared in the very first edition of the Daily Look newspaper.

Photo from Daily Look sports paper
Article and photo in the first edition of the Daily Look. L to R Franz, Pierre and Jurgen

Then the manager of Kobe Shimbun invited us into his office and made an offer. The company was starting a national daily sports paper, The Daily Look, and they needed stories. The offer was that we write an article about our travels and take photos, and they would be published each day in the new paper. We would be paid a modest amount, enough to cover food and lodgings. The first edition was to be published on 1st May 1961, giving us one month to get organised.

Franz wrote most of the articles, although Pierre and I also contributed. As we wrote every day, we quickly ran out of interesting material, so we created stunts to make good copy. On one occasion we rode non-stop for 27 hours, covering 372 kilometres. Another time we ate noodles from the handlebars of our bikes using chopsticks . We were being challenged not just by the rough mountainous roads but by the need to develop novel stories every day.

The land of the rising sun

by Jurgen Lett

I was intrigued by the mysterious land of Japan but I knew little of the country and its’ people. I knew that it was mountainous and I loved the idea of cycling around the many islands.

I had been touring around south east Asia on my bike, including Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and had arrived in Singapore. I was sure that this was the end of the road, and that I must turn my wheels back the way I had come. However I felt that luck was with me when I heard that a liner from the French merchant shipping company Messageries Maritime was in port. It was heading for Japan, the land of the rising sun.

Poster for Messageries Maritime

The French liner accepted passengers on a tight budget, with accommodation on stretchers in the hold of the ship. I had just enough to pay for the ticket, but not enough to bring my bike. I took my bike to the police headquarters in Singapore with the intention of picking it up on the way home. But I never returned to Singapore.

Onboard I met my future cycling companions Frenchman Pierre and German Franz. They were friends who had been travelling and working together for years, including working at the Wittenoom Gorge Asbestos Mine. Wittenoom, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, is now a ghost town, but in the 1950’s was the Pilbara’s largest town. Franz worked underground mining blue asbestos, while Pierre worked in the processing plant. Illness from breathing in asbestos fibres often takes years to develop and causes a long and painful death. I shudder to think how these two men have been affected by the fibres.

Asbestos mill, Wittenoom

Together with the other 20 passengers in the hold, I had the run of the aft section of the ship. Simple but adequate food was served at a little window. As the weather was good we spent most of our time on deck. We docked in Hong Kong, then steamed on to Kobe, Japan, arriving in the afternoon of 29 March 1961.

How to find a long lost friend- Google it

by Ian Lett

It is December 2018 and my dad Jurgen has come to visit. He is 80 and lives in rural Victoria, Australia. He made the 1,300 kilometre trip by car and plane on his own. He has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease resulting in shaking, but this has been managed with medication. He has early stages of dementia with some memory loss. So it was important for me to ask lots of questions about his life and particularly his travels around the world.

I asked Jurgen about his travels in Japan. In 1961 he rode his bike across all of Japan’s major islands, with a French man, Pierre, and another German, Franz. Over 6 months they traveled 10,000 kilometres, meeting many welcoming people. Friendships were formed that persist to this day and Jurgen kept in touch with many of his Japanese friends. As a child I remember the many Japanese students that stayed in our house, hosted through the Japan Australia Friendship Association (JAFA). Twenty five years later I visited one of these students, Satoru, at his home near Osaka, and was welcomed like family.

Jurgen with loaded bike

While visiting me in Adelaide Jurgen said to me, with a tear in his eye, I would love to get in touch with Franz and Pierre. “Okay” I said, “I’ll Google it”. A few moments later I asked Jurgen how to spell their names, and any other information which might identify them. Armed with this information, I started searching. I started with Pierre, as his surname, Piroche, was less common. There were few results, but one was a nursery in Canada, Piroche Plants. I also found a flyer for an art exhibition of work by Setsuko Piroche in British Columbia. I knew I was onto something. Pierre had married Setsuko after they had met on the cycling trip. (Jurgen was keen on her sister, but left after many sad farewells).

When I told Jurgen that I had found Pierre, he was stunned. He couldn’t believe that Pierre was still alive, as both Pierre and Franz had worked for a year in the blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Many of the workers and their families succumbed to respiratory failure due to asbestosis, and Jurgen thought his friends may have been fatally affected. So he was thrilled to be presented with not only details of Pierre’s whereabouts, but with contact details. He rang the number for the nursery and was connected to the receptionist. She asked Jurgen to hold the line. Then a voice came down the line, breathless and deliberate. It was Pierre, excited to be talking to his cycling mate. Pierre said he couldn’t talk for long as it was hard to talk. The asbestos had affected him.

Pierre Piroche

When Jurgen said he would like to visit, Pierre invited him to come and stay. So Jurgen is planning a trip to Canada in May 2019. He will travel on his own, and will stay with Pierre and Setsuko in their house just out of Vancouver.

And that is why my next series of posts will be about Japan in 1961. I want Jurgen to take printed copies of these posts to give to Pierre. The rest of the story can wait. Like Jurgen, Pierre does not use a computer and does not have a smart phone. They grew up with print, and that is how they prefer to read. So the Japan posts will be printed and collated. And together, they can read about their adventures, half a century ago.

A child’s life during wartime

by Jurgen Lett

In 1944, at the age of ten, my sister Iris was old enough to be expected to join the Hitler Youth. My mother was not happy about it but was afraid of the consequences if Iris did not join. Iris was attracted by the activities, such as sport and camps.

The period of Nazi Gleichschaltung (forced coordination) began in 1933, where all German institutions and organizations were either Nazified or disbanded. Hitler Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach sought to eliminate all 400 of the other competing youth organizations throughout Germany. Consequently the Hitler Youth, League of German Worker Youth was the sole official youth organisation in Germany from 1933 to 1945. Although partially a paramilitary organisation, they also ran sports like athletics, skiing, cycling, fencing, swimming and soccer, plus summer camps and field trips. Iris joined and participated in some peaceful activities.

At the same time the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth was deployed in the Battle of Normandy against the British and Canadian forces near Caen, France, suffering eighty per cent losses. Nearly 20,000 Hitler Youth participated in the 12th SS Division. Over 3,000 died while attempting to repulse the D-Day invasion.

Hitler Youth, Germany’s sole official youth organisation 1933-45

While we enjoyed our childhoods in Hohensolms Castle, the war was never far away. One morning Tante Rikele called the children together but did not explain who the men in suits were, or why they had come to visit. However she made it very clear how dangerous it would be if anyone knew about them or what they were doing. Later we learned that one of the men was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, spy and uncompromising opponent of the Nazi regime. The suited men had come to talk about anti-government actions. In April 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested by the gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel, near Berlin. Accused of plotting to kill Adolf Hitler, he was tried and found guilty. He was executed on 9 April 1945, as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

My Life in the Castle

by Jurgen Lett

Moving to Hohensolms Castle was a journey of nearly 200 kilometres from my home in Wuppertal. It was 1943 and the castle was managed by my Tante (Aunty) Rikele as a church youth centre . During the World War II it served as emergency accommodation, away from the bomb-ravaged cities. Built in the 14th century, this Medieval castle is now an international language school.

Hohensolms Castle

Fuel was in short supply and a solution had to be found to take my mother Martha, sister Iris and I to our new home. Our neighbour, who owned a trucking company, agreed to take us in a truck which had been modified to run on timber. A wood oven behind the cabin heated the wood without burning it, producing gas which fueled the motor. These wood gas generators were not uncommon during and immediately after World War II, as Germany produced Holzgas kits to retrofit to cars, trucks and even tanks to preserve the limited supply of fuel.

Truck running on wood gas

I remember stopping to gather more timber from the forest, before continuing on our way. The truck had insufficient room in the cabin for our little family, so I traveled in the back amongst our belongings. I found a space between the furniture, and made a nest of straw. A spare tyre was fastened on top of the nest and I popped my head up through the tyre to watch the view. I felt pretty special.

Living in the castle was like living in a commune. The meals were taken communally, starting and ending with prayer. Tante Margarete and Tante Amanda managed the kitchen, with the older children helping to prepare the meals. Finding food for so many people every day was a constant struggle. We kids collected bucket loads of stinging nettles, which were made into a delicious spinach. We were careful to avoid touching the leaves, as the sting from them lasted for days.

Most of the people in the castle were cousins, uncles, aunties or extended family, with only a few families who were not related to me. Most of the men had been recruited to the army, or, like my father, who was an architect and a master builder, to essential services. Consequently there were only two men at the castle, Onkel (Uncle) Theo and Onkel Paul, who were too old for military service. Occasionally other uncles came to visit while on leave from the army. They were happy times. My favourite was Onkel Gustav, Tante Margarete’s husband. Sadly he was killed in the war.

Debt Collector

by Ian Lett, based on a booklet sent to parishioners by the United Evangelical Mission (VEM) circa 1909

On the morning of the third day, the prau reached Mentawai. The cool air of the morning sent a shiver through the crew as they entered Sikakap Straight, the narrow passage separating the islands of North and South Pagai. They had reached their destination. It was unusually quiet along the shore. “Strange”, Feng Lei said to himself. “Usually at this time of day people are out in their boats fishing. There is something going on”.

Traditional Indonesia prau

Fung Lei had come to the village of Taikako on business. He had sold the local villagers bush knives, and had come back to collect what he was owed. Payment would be in rattan, a tropical vine which grew in the rainforest. The Dutch warehouse in Padang paid good money for every load he delivered. Rattan had become a popular material for making furniture in Britain and Europe. Indonesia was one of the main suppliers of this versatile fibre.

Vintage rattan furniture

Fung Lei had found the Mentawai villagers slow to pay, but he had never waited this long. The last time he went to collect his debts the rimata (sacrificing priest) threatened him with a poison arrow if he didn’t leave immediately. This time he was determined to get what he was owed. “I am rowing to the village now, and will be back by sundown” he said to his crew.

They lowered a dugout into the water and dragged it through the shallows to the mouth of a creek. Fung Lei and his Malay companion got in, and with a few paddle strokes they started their trip inland to Taikako.

Uma or longhouse, Mentawai Islands

Outside the uma (longhouse) villagers were relaxing. The priest (rimata) had declared a punen, or religious festival, which meant it was a holiday. The women exchanged their old palm leaf skirts for new ones. Children played with their mother’s big hats, while the women adorned each other with flowers in their hair, around their necks and wrists. Men sat and talked in the shade. Work could wait.

The happy noise died down as the priest, Si Manu, appeared at the entrance of the uma. Heads were lowered respectfully as he descended the log stairs. He walked amongst the crowd, swinging his ceremonial staff over their heads in blessing from the gods. He held a dead chicken, onto which he would transfer the people’s sins, and in its blood, all their wrongdoings would diminish.

In Search of my Moyang

by Ian Lett

A sub-woofer the size of a truck tyre pounded my leg like a shopping mall Chinese masseuse. Indo pop (Indonesian pop music) blared from the multiple speakers of the minivan-taxi, with massive guitar riffs washing over my fellow passengers. Seven school girls wearing hijabs sat opposite, managing to communicate to each other, despite the deafening music. The Manager of Tourism in Mentawai, Dr Dinul Harbi, sat next to me, as we travelled to his home outside the city of Padang, Sumatra. It was August 2008, and I had come to see the grave of my moyang (great grandfather) on the Indonesian islands of Mentawai.

I had met Dinul, or Edy as he preferred to be called, while walking along the Padang riverfront. “Hello. Are you Australian? I’ve come from Sikakap” he said cheerfully. I stopped, wondering who this well-dressed man with a gentle smile could be. Wearing patent leather shoes and a large gold ring, he stood out from the traders and travelers at the city’s main port. How had he guessed my nationality? Was it a coincidence that he had come from the tiny Mentawai village I was booked to sail to the next day?

My moyang (great grandfather), missionary August Lett

I revealed my intention to visit the grave of my moyang, missionary August Lett. Edy’s demeanour changed as he solemnly told me that it had been a misunderstanding that led to the killing of August Lett. The missionary had used the word ‘father’ in a way which was forbidden in the Mentawai culture. August was referring to the Holy Father, but the Mentawains thought that he was evoking the ‘spiritus’ of the late father of a local man. The misunderstanding led to August being stabbed multiple times while visiting a village in Mentawai’s South Pagai Island. He died many hours later, in the arms of his wife Dora.

Edy took my hand, and we walked along the river, hand in hand. It was a friendly gesture, but it felt strange to be holding the hand of a man I had met just moments earlier. An hour later we arrived at his house in a rural village where roosters crowed in the street, and where I met his wife and four children. Dishes of chilli-encrusted carp, rendang and nasi goreng were placed on the table in front of me. I was embarrassed to find that all this food was for me. The familiy waited while I ate, but I realised that the remaining food would be eaten by the family later. As I ate Edy wrote a letter of introduction to his uncle in Sikakap. His name, Mr Gunter, is also my second name. I knew I was in the right place.

Beef rendang