2008-12-19 The Chocolate Bar, Niang Niang, Mentawai Islands, Indonesia
I always wandered about whatís it like to be left alone on a deserted tropical island with not much more to do except marvel at how clear the ocean water is, walk on the while sand beaches and read a book while gently swinging in a hammock. Turns out, marveling, walking and swinging are only the ďfillerĒ activities around the main event, which is preparing food. The religiously important ceremony of cooking is performed, as expected, 3 times a day, with as much care as it could possibly be put into adding boiling water to a bowl of Ramen noodles Ė the only dish on the menu. Fortunately, I also brought a packet of cookies, some tea bags and one chocolate bar. After every meal, I take out a few cookies, have them with tea but the chocolate bar has to last a week. So, secretly, sometime during the day when itís not a meal time, I sneak into my room, count the number of squares left, recall which day of the week it is today, which becomes harder and harder when you are on a barely inhabited island with nothing to do, and then check if itís OK to have another square.
Like a bum with only 4 cigarettes in his pocket that must be stretched out across multiple days till there is enough money to buy another pack, I carefully count the squares again, just to be sure, then break off 1 square and eat it in delight, savoring every molecule of its sweetness. I donít have it with tea because there isnít enough chocolate to have with every tea cup. Plus, I already put sugar into tea, so the sensation of eating chocolate would be less appreciated since the tea washes off the taste too quickly.
By the way, I came to this island, called Niang Niang Ė part of Mentawai islands Ė in search of surf. And actually, during the first couple of days of my stay, there were waves and there were also people. But December is generally known to be the low season for surfing. The swell has gone away and there havenít been any waves over the last 3 days... Plus, given the fact that Christmas is just around the corner, everyone left for the mainland.
There are 3 or 4 locals still here, but they are on the other side of the island, doing their thing Ė harvesting coconuts and fishing, both of which are hard work as they are done without any modern equipment. Fishing, as you can image, involves paddling out on a canoe and then throwing the net out repeatedly in hopes of something getting stuck in it. Harvesting coconuts is a bit more complicated. First, you collect the fallen coconuts Ė they have to be ripe enough so that the white meaty part is thick, while the juice has been completely absorbed. Next, the soft outer shell is pealed off with the use of a pole, which is stuck vertically out of the ground. You jam the coconut on the pole and then twist it such that a portion of the outer shell breaks off of it. This needs to be done several times before the inner hard shell is revealed. After that, the hard shell is cracked open with a machete and the meat of the coconut is shaved off, to be left to dry under the sun. One kilogram of dry shavings is worth about 2K Rupiah, which is about 20 US cents. This job earns about $300 US dollars per month, which is about the average for Indonesian peasant workers.
Itís a simple life, not at all stressful, but deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, evidence of which is the consistent lack of teeth amongst local islanders. Mainland Indonesians, on the other hand, have exceptionally good genetics when it comes to teeth. Everyone has a remarkable line up of perfectly shaped, dazzling white teeth. And of course, most people never see a dentist in their whole lives. As or me, my teeth arenít perfect, but none are missing yet, so I donít feel guilty for sneaking into my room for another chocolate square.