2008-10-26 Higiah, Lombok, Indonesia
We were greeted by about 14 or so smiling faces. All kids, curious about the latest local attraction – me. While Sony, my surf guide, made his way into the debts of the housing cluster, I was exchanging hellos with the kids, overcoming the language barrier with generous smiles and hand gestures. This was the neighborhood/"extended house" where Sony grew up – houses, consisting of nothing more that 4 walls, without any furniture, stacked so close to each other that everyone shares each other's backyards, which also function as passage ways. That is, passage ways for people and animals - chickens, ducks, severely malnourished dog and cats with short tails (I still haven't established whether it's a weird genetic mutation or some strange sadistic tradition to cut the cat's tails). Sharing the living space with animals seemed kinda fun, until I saw on of the chickens walk by and squirt something from behind just by our feet. "Oh... I think I know what that is..."
When Sony's grandma came out, I saw a face full of kindness as well as confidence. Her eyes were a little murky, as often happens with age, but there was also a bright spark of energy in them, full of life and vigor. She invited me to take a seat on what looked like a table, attached to the side of the house (called "brugaq", which translates as conversation place). She took off her slippers, climbing on top of it and I followed her lead. There were no pillows or any sort of carpets – just plain wooden planks to sit on. But somehow it was comfortable to be there, above the ground where the chickens were doing their thing. Perhaps it was due to the planks being perfectly polished and splinter free due to years of service, or perhaps it was the abundance of various pieces of trash on the ground, such as plastic drinking straws, candy wrappings and empty cigarette boxes, that made our seating arrangement more comfortable than it really was by the virtue of contrast. Never the less, we sat there bunched up together, just hanging out.
The kids, meanwhile, still curious as ever, were gathered all around us. For some reason, they were all very shy – whenever I would make eye contact with one of them for more that just a few seconds, he/she would immediately giggle and run to hide behind some other kid's back. The rest of the kids would laugh but perform the same exact act when I would look at them.
One of the women came out of the house and offered us coffee.
"Is that your mom?" I asked Sony. He explained that his mom has gone to Saudi Arabia in search of work, as there was nothing to do here. His dad, having divorced, wasn't living here either, so it was Sony's grandparents who were raising his siblings – 7 in total. Sony himself, 24 years old, had married and moved out of the house, living in Kuta – a nearby village. He did his best in supporting the family, but still, his 9 year old brother was not going to school because there was no money to pay for it. Lack of education being one thing, but what Sony complained about was that his brother's friends would come by the house on their way to school, wearing book bags and t-shirts and he was sorry that he could not provide that for his brother.
Let me step back for a second and mention that Sony and I met the day before. He offered his services as a surf guide and we ended up spending the evening together at a local restaurant. What struck me about Sony was that he would not state a firm price that he charges for his time. "Pay however much you feel like" he said. It took me several approaches to fish out that for a half day, people usually pay him about $5 while a full day is around $8. The following morning we went to Ekas – a famous spot about 2.5 to 3 hours away by motorbike. Having met up in complete darkness of 4:45am, we headed out on one motorbike, him driving and me trying not to fall off as we zoomed by village after village, doing our best to avoid the larger potholes of the semi-paved roads. But the drive was worth it – the waves at Ekas were 6-8 ft and longer that any that I have ever seen. Not to mention the gorgeous surroundings of lush greenery of the hugging cove, warm, crystal clear water that showcased the reef & its fish in perfect visibility and the fact that we were the only ones there to enjoy all of this.
It was after surfing that Sony invited me to visit his family. He knew that it would be interesting for me and for sure, I could not stop bombarding him with questions, such as "Is that a real well?" There was a woman pulling on a rope that went through a pulley hung above he well. By the time one of the buckets reached the top, the other bucked, attached to the other end of the rope, reached the bottom of the well. She then emptied the bucked into the "plumbing system" – a pipe that lead to a larger container inside of the bathroom. Shortly after she was gone, we heard splashes of water coming from inside of the house – "she is taking a shower" Sony added with a bit of a smirk.
To the side of the well there was some sort of a grain being dried.
"What's that?" I pointed and asked.
"It's leftover rice" Sony replied. "The rice that was not eaten, we first dry under the sun, then fry it – it's really good with coffee" (I had actually tasted it once without realizing what it was).
I went up to take a closer look. From far away I wandered what the larger black grains were. But soon they transformed into hundreds of flies. I did not notice them immediately because they were sitting still. There was perhaps one fly for every square inch of the tarp with the rice spread over it, and the flies, tranced by the abundance of food, did not bother to fly off even when my hand came very close to them. With the second look, I noticed smaller white insect that blended with the color of the rice. They looked like larvae but also had little wings that allowed hem to quickly scramble off. These insects were far more numerous than the flies.
As I moved back from the tarp to take a seat next to Sony, a curious chicken jumped up, landing smack in the middle of the rice. But grandma was quick to react with a warning yell. The chicken immediately jumped off and I could swear that it had a guilty look on its face. I am not sure which facial muscles were involved here but the chicken KNEW that it should not be near the rice and its body posture and head movements projected the guilt just as well as dogs and cats do.
It was becoming clear that the tight quarters leave no space for privacy. Another woman came out and sat on a bamboo box in between the houses. With children running around us, she began to breastfeed an infant. Even though the Islamic culture has a very conservative influence on women (most wear long sleep shirts and dresses that cover their ankles), there was no place for her to have a corner to herself and her baby.
A little while later another boy came up to her holding a razor blade. Having finished breastfeeding, but still holding the infant on her lap, she took the razorblade and began to trim the boy's fingernails. It seemed like a rather dangerous procedure to me so I was careful not to disturb the woman. But the infant had little regards to my worries and was soon sticking out his little hands to have his fingernails trimmed as well. There were hands and fingers coming from all possible directions, but both the woman and the boy remained calm. The woman took each of boy's fingers one by one and with a few careful strokes did the job without any bloodshed, while the boy simply stood there, waiting patiently.
The grandma went into the house and in a few minutes came out with a tray carrying tea. There was also a cup with sugar along with a soup spoon that had "Higiah" etched on it. "It's someone's name" explained Sony. "You write your name on the spoon so that you don't loose it". Being offered tea in a house where people marked their utensils, slept in the same room laying side by side on a bamboo mat, had no electricity or running water and used razorblades to trim fingernails, was incredibly humbling to me. These people were being generous and hospitable with a stranger who could not even speak their language and would probably never be back to see them again.