Last weekend I went along with a carload of language center staff to the home villages of two of the guys. I was told the drive would be 5-6 hours but it turned out to be 11-12 hours, including rest stops, over narrow, twisty, horrifically potholed roads for much of the way - the final hours in pitch darkness both going and coming - and often in driving rain ( I taught the guys the idiom 'raining cats and dogs', which they had fun making up variations on ).Much of the drive was along a broad, muddy river which had nonstop rapids during its upper stretches. By the second half of the drive we were high in the mountains, looking down on deep ravines that were almost vertical in places though still totally covered by dense jungle.Often we were stuck for miles behind huge dump trucks or way-overloaded cargo trucks moving at tortoise speeds, and when we did pass it was often an act of faith.At one point I thought I was a second away from death: as we started to pass a dump truck it hit a huge hole full of mud, which splatted over our entire windshield.Not muddy water.Mud.The wipers couldn't clear it. Through the mud I saw bright headlights coming at us, and the guy right behind us was leaning on his horn, probably not realizing our situation.At the last second our driver pulled back into our own lane, though it was impossible to be sure the big truck in front of us had kept moving ( many potholes were so deep that they brought vehicles to a total standstill ).Luckily it had kept moving, the wipers finally did their job, and we lived to tell the story. It all happened so fast my heart didn't even have time to get up to my throat, much less for my life to flash before my eyes, but I did briefly think that I was probably a second away from death.'No more road trips in Indonesia for me!!!!!!!!!!!'was my conclusion from the whole driving experience.
That said, our stay in the two villages was a fascinating experience.We stayed in elder relatives' homes, typical of those we saw by the thousands all around us, ancient rambling structures made from and furnished using local hardwoods, built high above ground, with very high ceilings and lots of hand-carved ornamentation and multi-colored glass windows.
Like all Indonesians I've met, our hosts were super-hospitable and kept putting food and drink in front of us.Since much of our time was spent visiting relative after relative ( the guys only get back there about once a year ) I soon reached the point of just taking token sips and bites to be polite.Still, I must have drunk two weeks worth of coffee ( thick and mellow, served with so much sugar it's like liquid candy ) and eaten double what I would at home, though still less than everyone else (how do these folks stay so slim?I had to let my belt out a notch by the end of the weekend). The food was the same as I've had all over Indonesia, with every meal consisting of a dozen different items including mountains of white rice and two main dishes ( 1 fish, 1 meat, both heavy on bone and the fish heads being the choicest bit ) plus a variety of green vegetables and other side dishes, fiery-hot chile sauces being most prominent and most popular with everyone but me. We sat in a circle on the floor and ate with our hands, using fingertips of the right hand to mash other ingredients into a bit of rice and then make a messy, sticky wad you try to get to your mouth without too much falling off. There are fingerbowls of water and a small cloth to clean your hands from time to time.
Everywhere I went I was told that I was the first foreigner who had ever visited - in fact the first that many had ever met or seen- and I had my picture taken hundreds of times, often using their cell phone cameras. All the guys wanted to pose with their arms trying to stretch around my much higher and too-wide shoulders; some single women stood very close and I got the impression they wanted it to look like we were, shall we say, close friends ( actually the fact that I'm single was often noted and I'm sure jokes were being made in Indonesian about marriage possibilities... ) We took long walks around the villages, so pretty much everyone there had a chance to see me, if not actually shake my hand.As always, I found myself standing head and shoulders above everyone around me, the beached whale amid the seagulls.Excited kids often followed us along, though most suddenly got shy if I tried to take pictures of them - and some babies actually hit the panic button and started wailing if I came close!
Coffee is the local 'money crop' and we passed miles of coffee plantations weighted down with long, dense clusters of red berries - and thousands of places where picked coffee beans were spread out to dry in the middle of the road, so that we had no choice but to drive right over them.Most of the farmland is devoted to expanses of gently-sloping rice terraces - all the rice being for family use I was told, which seemed impossible to me until I reminded myself that families are huge and everyone eats platesful of rice at every meal, every day.They also grow most of their other food - I saw peppers and bananas and melons and eggplants, among many other kinds of produce, growing on plants that would gratify any gardener - though everything seems to grow largely 'unmanaged'.Most people also have fish ponds, and of course keep goats and chickens and ducks, which roam loose ( as everywhere here ).I saw only a few water buffalo, and none being put to work.
On Saturday we spent much of the day visiting a relative's daytime-use house in the middle of a landscape of rice terraces and ponds.Getting there - and out again - was what the guys called 'a Marlboro experience' involving precarious rides on the back of motorcycles down and up a steep muddy hillside so difficult to negotiate that our drivers ( all nephews of our staff member ) needed to put chains on their back tires.We had to cross mini-bridges of bamboo or narrow planks, and at times actually were driving on top of the thin walls of rice terraces, so narrow that I had to pay constant attention even when walking over them to avoid falling.No helmets for anyone. Since I'm so huge and the drivers were so compact I was more than impressed that my driver could even keep his balance, but he did, and made it look easy.Coming back was trickier, so much so that two of our group chose to walk all the way back up to the main road: while we were at the house, a tropical rainstorm came up and quickly turned mud into flood.Still, after it let up a bit the cycle drivers somehow got us back up the hill without mishap. BTW the house had a rusty corrugated-metal roof with dozens of holes, and we had so many people packed inside that there were barely enough spots for all of us to sit that weren't under a stream of water, though like every other little 'hassle' here it was all just another source of entertainment and laughter .