When we had finished tea, we went down to the beach. My host untied an outrigger canoe and pushed it out into the shallows. I rolled up my trousers and followed him, my backpack on my back. I tossed the backpack into the boat and climbed in. Soon we were out in the bay, the sea floor falling rapidly away beneath us, the water sparkling and clear. We paddled away from the land, and then he turned the boat to the north, following the line of the coast. It was a beautiful day, and it felt good to be out on the water.
‘You are going to Alusi Krawain on business?’ he asked as he rowed.
‘More or less. I’m here for a research project, studying sculpture.’
He frowned. ‘You must be very careful in Alusi Krawain,’ he told me. ‘It is very hot. A witch in the village paralysed my father. Back then, I was a teacher in a school, but I had to leave my job to care for my father.’
‘Did you find out who the witch was?’ I asked.
‘I know who he was. I know him very well,’ he said.
‘But you haven’t done anything about it?’
‘We are afraid of such people,’ he said. ‘There is nothing we can do.’
As he was saying this, the wind started to blow. First it was a soft breeze, but then it stiffened, coming in stronger off the sea, stirring up the waves so that that water became choppy. I looked away from the land, towards the horizon. Grey rain clouds were racing towards us.
‘A storm,’ the boatman said, frowning just a little.
The wind grew stronger. The surface of the sea started to churn, making our little dugout buck and sway. Then the clouds caught up with us, and cold rain began to fall. The landmass of Yamdena to our west disappeared in a haze of greyness, and in only a few moments we were soaked. For the first time since coming to Indonesia, I remembered what it felt like to be truly, miserably cold. I hunched down in the bow of the boat, waiting for the storm to pass.
The wind continued to pick up strength. A heavy swell rose beneath us, and the dugout lurched. The boatman tried to turn the prow of the boat into the rising waves, so we were not side-on. The waves broke over the bow. I grabbed a plastic bucket from the bottom of the canoe and started to bail out water. The waves were becoming taller, and the wind was biting. Then the prow of the boat was wrenched upwards and the boatman fell backwards, almost letting slip his oar. He grabbed on to the sides of the dugout. For a moment I thought we were on the brink of capsize. It was then that I realised this seasoned sailor was afraid, and I felt a shudder of terror. The canoe was lifted by the high crest of a wave. It teetered for a moment, pointing towards the sky, then plummeted into the trough below. The strong current was tugging the boat side-on to the waves. The boatman kicked another oar towards me. I let go of the bucket and grabbed the oar, and together we turned the nose of the boat back into the next wave as it rose in front of us.
Then the rain started to ease, and the wind fell. The horizon cleared as the clouds receded away from us over the island. We could see land again – the villages of Lorwembun and Alusi Batjasi. Beneath us, the swell of the waves subsided. In a few more minutes, the sea had returned to a flat calm. The sun shone. Our clothes started to steam. I bailed out the last of the water. The boatman didn’t meet my eye. He started to row again, steadily heading north up the coast. He seemed spooked. I thought it wise not to continue our conversation about witches.
Not long afterwards a small bay opened up on the coastline. There was a cliff sheltering the bay, and steps leading to the village above.
‘Alusi Krawain,’ the boatman said. Then he lapsed back into silence.
By the time we were pulling the canoe up the secluded little beach, my shirt was almost dry. We tethered the boat on dry land, and the boatman turned to me. He took a deep breath, then he smiled.
‘Masih hidup,’ he said. ‘Still alive’.
I followed him along the steep path that led up the hill to the village. When we reached the top of the hill the boatman asked for my letter. I handed it over. It was damp from the storm, but not irredeemably so. Then he strode into the village, indicating I should follow.
Near the open space at the heart of the village was a tree, and underneath the tree a number of people were sitting on a bamboo platform, sheltering from the heat of the late afternoon sun and chatting animatedly. They fell silent as we approached.
The boatman stopped, and read very slowly from the front of the letter, ‘Ibu Lin and Bapak Rerebain?’
‘That’s me,’ snapped a large and rather cross-looking woman in a white floral dress. ‘I’m Ibu Lin. What do you want?’ She glared at us mistrustfully through the thick lenses of her glasses. The boatman handed her the letter. Then, shaking my hand, he went off for whatever business it was that he was attending to in Alusi Krawain.
With the letter in hand, Ibu Lin heaved herself from the platform and strolled off up the street. When she had taken a few steps, she looked back over her shoulder and gave a curt nod to indicate that I was to follow. As I left, I heard the people gathered on the bamboo platform discussing my arrival in the village: What was I doing there? Did I speak Indonesian? Where was I from? Why had I arrived with a letter for Ibu Lin?
My hostess led me into a house facing the village square, stooping as she passed through the door.
‘Sit down,’ she ordered when I had entered, pointing with a pudgy forefinger to a chair at the side of the room, and thrusting out her lower lip in a pout. She did not look the slightest bit happy to have me turning up on her doorstep. I began to question Suster Astrid’s judgement.
I put down my bag, and sat down.
‘You speak Indonesian?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said.
Ibu Lin flopped down into a chair opposite me. She pushed her glasses up her nose and, with a laboriously theatrical sigh, opened the letter. She read it through once, mouthing the words. By the time she had come to the end, her face had softened a little. Then Ibu Lin turned the letter over in her hand and started at the beginning again. She read it three times in all, glancing at me from time to time as she did so. I sat quietly, waiting for her to finish.
The walls of Ibu Lin’s house were pasted with newspaper articles and photographs. Just above her shoulder was a photograph of John Major. The caption, in Indonesian, read: ‘John Major, Britain’s handsome Prime Minister’.
When at last she put the letter down and looked up at me, every trace of her former belligerence had evaporated, and tears were beading in the corners of her eyes. She shook her head, and took off her spectacles to dab them away. Placing her glasses back on her nose, she handed me the letter.
‘May I read it?’ I asked.
‘Yes, read it,’ she said.
It was a formal letter, asking that Ibu Lin and her husband Bapak Rerebain look after me as best they were able while I stayed in Alusi Krawain. It mentioned their daughter, and made explicit reference to the debt of gratitude the Rerebains owed to Suster Astrid. When I handed the letter back, Ibu Lin smiled for the first time.
It was an extraordinary smile. Her jaw dropped and she drew back her lips to reveal gums that had receded through years of compulsive betel chewing, and an incomplete set of teeth, stained red. As she grinned at me, she rolled her eyes in a fashion that was at once both charming and terrifying. In both charm and terror, I was later to realise, Ibu Lin excelled.
She continued to beam at me, muttering, ‘Good, good,’ and looking me up and down. I smiled back stupidly. ‘This is a letter from Suster Astrid,’ she said, as if I did not know already. ‘She says that you are here to study. She says that you are here for the pursuit of knowledge, to understand our lives here in Tanimbar, and that we should look after you.’ Ibu Lin spread her palms and opened her eyes wide. ‘And so you may stay here as long as you like. You will be as a son to us.’ Ibu Lin leaned towards me, and patted me proprietarily on the arm. ‘Of course,’ she added, ‘I will have to ask my husband. He makes all the decisions here. But he is bound to agree with me. He is a good man. He always agrees with me.’
I thanked her, and she excused herself to make tea. She returned with a glass of hot, sweet tea and a pile of sandwiches made from stale white bread, smeared with margarine and sprinkled with mounds of sugar.
‘I have made you something to eat, as you are very thin,’ she said. ‘You must eat them all.’
I started to work my way through the sandwiches.
‘Delicious?’ she asked.
‘Delicious,’ I agreed. ‘Very sweet.’
Ibu Lin smiled in satisfaction. ‘You see,’ she said, ‘I know what Westerners like. I can make food for Westerners, not like the other people in this village. If you stayed with them, they would not know how to serve you. It is lucky you have come here.’
When I was finally done, she took the plate away.
Ibu Lin’s husband came home later in the day. After his initial surprise at seeing me, as his wife had predicted, he did not voice any objections to my staying. Bapak Rerebain was a gentle man with a furrowed brow and a serious air. He lived, I guessed, somewhat in the shadow of his formidable wife. Ibu Lin spoke of him with a dismissive affection, saying repeatedly what a good husband he was, how he never disagreed with her. ‘He does not even beat me,’ she said, play-acting a husband beating his wife, her enormous arms flying. Bapak Rerebain smiled with embarrassment.
Ibu Lin and Bapak Rerebain made fine and generous hosts in Alusi Krawain. Thanks to their not inconsiderable kindness, I settled into the village quickly. For the first time since arriving in Tanimbar, I found myself having fun. Visitors came to the house to chat and joke. I felt relaxed and at ease. In the evenings – there being no electricity in Alusi Krawain, and thus no television or radio – people crowded into the house to see me, and Ibu Lin exhibited me with a fiercely protective pride. When anybody asked what she deemed to be too many questions, she snapped and growled at them.
‘Leave him alone!’ she said. ‘Do you think he came half the way across the world just to answer your stupid questions?’
On the first evening that I was in Alusi Krawain, as we were sitting and chatting, with a group of villagers crowded into the house to watch, Ibu Lin – who knew a bit about anthropologists – asked if I had a cassette recorder with me.
I told her that I did. It was a small, portable, battery-operated machine that I had bought to record interviews. I had not yet used it.
‘Bring it to me,’ she said.
I went to fetch the cassette recorder. She studied it closely.
‘Do you have any English music?’ she said. I had only one cassette with anything on it, a taped copy of a Tom Waits album. Ibu Lin did not know who Tom Waits was, but she was keen to hear it. I took it out of my bag and inserted it into the cassette recorder. When I pressed play, Tom started to sing Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard. And then, in front of an audience of astonished villagers, Ibu Lin started to dance. She strutted, rolled her eyes, swung her hips and gestured to me to join her.
Her husband gave a shy smile. ‘Go on,’ he said.
And so, there in Alusi Krawain – as Tom barked and yelped about Mean Mother Hubbard, about bloodhounds chasing the devil through the corn and about how he’d come to Baton Rouge to find himself a witch – Ibu Lin and I swaggered to and fro, and the people who had gathered to watch this peculiar spectacle laughed and clapped.
When we came to the end of the song, Ibu Lin insisted we go through the whole performance again. I pressed rewind, running the tape back, and once again pressed play. There in the hooligan night, Ibu Lin and I preened and prowled, singing along, whooping and rolling our eyes. We danced until we were exhausted, and the villagers clapped and stamped their feet. For the first time since coming to Tanimbar, I felt uncomplicated and at home.
Excerpt from Stealing with the Eyes: Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia by Will Buckingham (Haus Publishing, July 2018). Reprinted with permission.