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.

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

August’s story

by Ian Lett

Carolina Lett was born in St Petersburg in 1821, when this port city on the Baltic Sea was the capital of Imperial Russia. She had three children, the oldest being my grandfather on my father’s side, August. He had a sister who was a year older, and a brother, age unknown. Carolina did not marry and nothing is recorded of the children’s father, or fathers*. August took his mother’s surname Lett, and that is how I inherited the name.

August was born in Strasbourg, Alsace, France on 6 September 1861 .
Carolina died when August was nine years old and he was sent to an orphanage. The children were separated and August thought that his sister had died, but ten years later he found that she was living with another family.

August served an apprenticeship and became a baker. He then joined the army, where he learned to play the bugle. August was so righteous and sincere in his religious beliefs that he was teased by his fellow soldiers. He was uncompromising in his views and was not universally liked.

*This data comes from my Ahnen-Pass, or Ancestor Passport, which listed ancestors of citizens of Nazi Germany. It was also known colloquially as the Nazi Passport. While not compulsory, it was a convenient way for those without Jewish heritage to show this to authorities. For those with a Jewish ancestor, the Ahnen Pass showed a “J” next to the ancestor’s name. The primary objective of the Ahnen Pass was to create extensive profiling based on racial data.

Family tree showing Jurgen #1, August #4 and Carolina #9