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.

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