A country of the mind

For Dr. Richard Davy of Chiredzi, Zimbabwe. Bon Voyage, our beloved Richard.

What was once a biped had been reduced
to something less by the time he lay on our gurney.
On the left, the ankle joint had been mined to a drumstick.
Blythe, a self-described mouse with the tennis racket and the
Cricket bat,
grabbed the saw like a champion, and gave that long blink of his to straighten
the air,
while I clamped down harder on the Af’s crotch through his sliced fatigues.
Blythe ground and patched carefully, pulling at the skin as he would a delicate pastry.
When he was done with that left side, maybe three hours,
he moved the right and lanced and cleaned the kid’s botfly boils.

Years later, after most of us had gapped it and the gangrenous land grabs were turning the rest against the place, I found him in the sweaty Lowveld.
They cooked over the fire that night, sandwiches and eggs from the coop at the back.
The garden boy,
a smiley chap with a flattened nose, was bedding down across the front stoop for safety.
We sat out and ate next to a gnarled Baobab, its notches worn by kids grown and gone, and watched the Milky Way’s dazzling curtain pull across.
“Why stay?” I asked, just to hear him say it.
Blythe blinked that blink again.
“I would rather keep some whole country on the mind and
Zimbabwe under my fingernails
than the other way around.”

Love/Hate for Ghana

I’m hating and loving Ghana.

Hating them, because they knocked the U.S. out of the World Cup Saturday, and deflated this balloon we suddenly mad soccer fans had filled up with hope over the last two and half weeks. The dreamy, euphoric world we inhabited after Landon Donovan’s last-ditch rebound score on Wednesday feels a long way away. The team’s giddy pile up afterward, his open weeping, the flag-draped crazies roaming the streets of Portland at game’s end, waiting for me to honk at them — all fading quickly into history. The cut knuckle I opened up twice on low basement ceilings after U.S. goals is scabbing over.  When Donovan took to staring 1000-yards into the distance from the bench after the Ghana loss Saturday, we all stared dejectedly back. I haven’t felt this hung over from the sting of defeat since high school.

But there was a pinch of solace in seeing an African team go forward on African soil. As Rob Hughes wrote, they played fearlessly, optimistically and way beyond their years, just what the continent needed with its other five teams watching from the sidelines.

It was Hayley who coached me to see it as unalloyed victory. “I love that Ghana won,” she said. “They’re lovers in that country. The friendliest people in the world towards foreigners. And that’s where it all started.”

In the summer of 1999, she volunteered with a plucky band of nurses in the small city of Ho in northern Ghana. Her first trip outside the West, she weighed babies, stocked supplies, and filled in records for the ladies as they traveled around to clinics and village meetings. She fell for the women’s courage — they struck for higher wages that summer. She swooned for their dancing and warble-infusing singing with which they’d warm up family planning meetings. (They invited her to chicken dance once)

She slipped into the slow embrace of the sun dipped maize fields she crossed on the way to work every mornin,g of the long hellos, the Jesus-Rests-Here shoe shops in the townships, the barefoot seven-year old who taught her to drum on newly stretched calfskin, the covered pickups which she packed in with 20 other fragrant bodies, and the way everyone wanted to chat about “Moanika Lewinsky.”   The seed of a worldly, pro-poor advocate was planted in Hayley that summer. How could they be blissful and driven amongst all that poverty

A picture of the nurses landed on the cover page of her senior thesis the next year, about the emerging African feminist voice in literature.

And the rest of the pictures came with in an album toted by Hayley to our first official non-date the following year: a mac-and-cheese party with a bunch of other folks at the house I was living in in Trenton, NJ. As Hay walked us through the impeccably labeled and placed photos and their attached tales, I was buzzing with comments and jokes, beset again with some of the Africa fever I’d gotten from extended stays in a then-peaceful and thriving Zimbabwe in ’84 and ’94. I may have even warbled myself.

She would have none of it. She headed straight on through that thick stack of photo paper and all the unseen anecdotes in the folds. At the time I was put off by it. Why was she ignoring my fabulous sense of humor?  All the same, I was drawn to her even more. I think it’s because she had a story to tell, of a place that had moved her. And she wasn’t going to be thrown off by me.

Africa was our first tie. Eventually we could talk about it sans awkwardness. Not only of a place far away, but one that pulled life into a new sort of light, where we saw all that we had and also the beauty of things stripped to their essence. The next year we were steady pen pals while she was in Uganda, working with children on the fringes of a bush war. I’d never been in a war, but at least I’d been a mzungu, a bobbing pale face in a dark sea.

The Lake region’s wars put a bloody stain on that gleaming Ghanaian Africa for Hay. The Zimbabwe I knew, the one that supported the strong, mixed-race government school that taught me my times tables and cursive, crumbled under the weight of  Mugabe’s cynical rule.

But nothing could erase the big heartedness Hay felt that summer in Ho, a life force that ebbs and flows from the Gold Coast to the Swahili Coast, and from the Horn to the Highveld of South Africa. There was no doubt who she was rooting for, without the slightest tug of patriotism, in the game in Rustenberg Saturday. “They are this island of peace, the heart of the Pan Africa movement.” When the Black Stars ran their flag around the stadium after the draining finish, I confess I loved seeing their smiles. “For Africa,” the players called out. That irrepressible African smile buoys the world and coaxes you to shake off whatever is weighing you down, even if it is a crushing defeat.

Lovely Life Raft

On a thin strip of mud piled up in the Kuttanad backwaters of Kerala, India, lie thousand-year-old settlements that show no sign of moving. Locals call them islands, but they looked more like earthen life saving rings to me when we visited over New Year’s on one island called Chennamkary. It forms a thin circle above water, surrounded on the outside by lakes and canals and the inside by sub-sea level rice paddies. Everyday the mud-diggers — once Untouchables now simply the bottom of the economic food chain — scoop out molten sludge from the bottom of the canals and heap it onto the land. And every day, three meters below the houses and schools and churches perched on the island, the bottom layer of earth dissolves little by little back into the water table.

            “You can’t avoid a lean in any house,” said Phillip Antony, one of a group of brothers and in-laws who run the Green Palm homestay on Chennamkerry. He pointed out disappeared steps on the homestay houses. “After 30 years, you have to start again.”

            Phillip was matter of fact about it.  Life floats here, and always has.

 The island got its first Roman Catholic church in 977 (St. Thomas the Apostle first prostelitized in the area just after the Resurrection). Phillip’s family and other landowners who cleared the rice paddies for commercial agriculture some 350 years ago were forced to give up their land to laborers as part of communist reforms in 1964. Since then, islanders educated in English and Malayalam, the local tongue, have flocked to the Gulf states and further abroad for wage work and white collar jobs. Phillip became a financial advisor in Manchester, England. Still he seemed most at home in his white munga sarong, strolling along Chennamkary paths and canals, showing us the freshly-painted pastel stucco homes built as much with Gulf gold as Kuttanad mud these days. He pointed out the avocado-shaped suicide fruit, it’s seeds notoriously used to commit harikari; the jugs set high in the yellow coconut palms, to collect the local tipple known as todi; the church sitting on its own island in the paddies, where the slaves used to worship. “Nothing is kept secret here,” he said, “The place is too small.”  To end a walk one night he and his brother-in-law Mathew led us in soaring, guttural slave tunes and boat race ballads as we floated home in a 15-meter teak canoe similar to one locals race every August.

The next morning, on our walk through the paddies, we passed bunches of school kids hurrying to class, the girls with their pigtails tied in pink ribbons. Some asked in English for money or a photo. Most wanted “one pen, one pen!” a worthy request, from these future world-beaters. Their mothers, meanwhile, headed off to town wrapped in regal, gold-edged saris, fit for a reception with a 16th century Raj. 

            The languid, textured life of the backwaters has been discovered. Travel pubs list it as one of those places to see before you die. Eight hundred houseboats prowl the canals and lakes, carrying foreigners like us. Green Palms’ eight houses were full over New Year’s. That strains the 500 square kilometers of swampland already bearing the weight of 1.8 million residents. Every other year as the monsoon rains descend from the Ghat mountains to the east, the government opens a levee gate at the coast so the backwaters flush out. Meanwhile, monsoons fill the first floor of houses on the islands. Mama Kallakadambil, who kept our palettes singing last week with coconut infused curries and buttery flat breads to soak them up, cooks in thigh deep water during the rains. “We fish in the living room — I’m not kidding,” Phillip says.

            One doesn’t have to use much imagination to see that if seas rise by a meter, the levee opening, combined with monsoons, will make life close to impossible on Chennamkary and throughout the Kuttanad. This scenario was on the tip of my tongue several times as we walked the island with Phillip and others last week. But something kept me quiet. If we drown it eventually, best to let them enjoy the earthy life and liquid sunsets atop the Kuttanad now, and accept a bit of its sweetness — a New Year’s gift — ourselves. Somehow, they may even find a way to ride out the coming deluge as well.


Mountains beyond mountains

This week, Paramesh Banerjee, one of the visiting researchers here at the Earth Observatory, showed a few photographs from his work in the high Himalayas. For many years, he and his Northwest India-based team have been scurrying across the western part of the mountain range and plunking down global positioning system stations on ridgelines and passes.  They’ve been able to show convincingly that the convergence of the Indian Plate and the larger Eurasian plate above it will some day pull all of India into the Himalayas. Banerjee likens it to a table cloth full of sand being pulled under block of wood: as the cloth moves under the block, the sand continues to pile up, until you run out tablecloth. (Naturally, Indian leaders were a bit alarmed, but Banerjee convinced them he was talking on billion-year timescale).

His photos (a few below) and stories, however, show how hard won this GPS-backed thesis was.


There was the time the team spent 26 days on the wrong side of a river, after a flash flood washed out the bridge (luckily they always pack trailers full of food). Or the whiteout Banerjee woke up in one morning; that meant four days in a tent in a snowy valley, waiting for a road pass to clear. Colleagues plunged off a road after a busted wheel, never to be heard from again. Landslides. Faint-inducing climbs. Each season brought its new challenges, to be survived only with mountaineers’ pluck.  The sense you get from the photos is of a place moving to its own economy, completely oblivious to us. We cling to its billion-year lifespan like a rickety road on the back of a soaring range.  And yet it beckons. “I’ve become spiritual,” Banerjee said. In the summers, some of his research areas in the province of Ladakh are flooded with pilgrims.


I thought immediately of Mountain Patrol (or Kekexili as it’s known in Chinese), the movie I’d seen a couple of years ago, about an anti-poaching unit just the other side of the Himalaya from Ladakh, on the wide-open Tibetan Plateau. We watched it again today on a screen in the Earth Observatory lobby today at lunch. It’s lurid landscapes and raw tale seeped into the bones again. There is a moment in it when some of the patrollers sit under a technicolor starscape and one tells a journalist tagging along about a visiting geologist a few years back. The scientist told the patrollers, “Your footsteps could be the first traces of human kind out here.”  The geologist later vanished in Kekexili. Probably quicksand, a patroller suggests. Absorbed by the landscape. How could he not be?

Lights out, take a deep breath


Eight-thirty P.M. on Saturday approached like company towards the door. We scrambled to pull a late dinner together, find the candles and the matches. Bowls of green curry (from a packet, I’ll admit), chicken and rice in hand, the last task was to find the light switches. Flick. Darkness all through the house and out onto the back patio, speckled only by a few tea lights on the table. The family in number 46, two doors down, also huddled around an array of candles in their back yard. “Earth Hour?” I called out to them. One of their young teenage boys came over to the fence, his face in deep chiaroscuro.  “Yes!” he said excitedly. “We’re eating by candlelight.” “Us too.” “Cool!”

Our neighborhood only halfheartedly partook in this the latest worldwide movement to raise awareness about the warming earth: one hour of voluntary darkness at 8:30pm across the globe. The lights were blazing at the nearby sports complex and another house I could see had four rooms lit up and the TV flickering in one. But around Singapore, the hour was apparently a hit. The financial district went dark (see above, courtesy of Earth Hour). About 2,000 people gathered on the waterfront to watch. Colleagues described a candlelit pool and snacks party at their condo in central Singapore.

I was struck by how peaceful it felt. No movies, no computer, nothing to read, and what’s more the darkness seemed to be settling. Our voices lowered, the way they do around a campfire. Indeed, the city’s voice seemed to lower with the lights. I remember how frustrating the nightly blackouts were when they rolled through an Aceh  province short of power during the hot, sticky months of July and August 2007. But now that the hour was chosen, and (somewhat) planned for, it made all the difference.

I have heard a few environmentalists, notably Bill McKibben, say that many of the constraints we will face in the coming decades because of resource scarcity will also present opportunities in the developed world to restore our sanity. During this Earth Hour, I couldn’t agree more.

Under the needle, in foreign lands


It’s no secret that Singapore has some of the best medical care in the world; the rich from places like Indonesia flee here to have their heart bypass surgeries and recover from strokes. Away from the glitzy downtown private hospitals, there’s also a proliferation of cheap, storefont clinics.  In our bustling but immaculate neighborhood market plaza, with its sweet buns and raw squid and salesmen demo-ing the latest and greatest mop, there’s two dental surgeons, a walk-in emergency clinic and an acupuncturist, acumasseuse and herbalist who offers 15% off to taxi drivers. Last week, I had a migraine headache, which acupuncturists have helped in the states, and so I decided to pay a visit to the local cupper.

Inside the front door, the nurse-receptionist turned off her herb-mixing machine and greeted me gently in bemused Chinese. Her eyebrows arched upward. “Acupuncture,” I said poking at my arm.  “ID card?” she said. I handed her my Oregon driver’s license and a few moments later got back a white slip with SROOKS A OAKLEY and the number 522 at the bottom. “Please sit,” she said and pointed at one of those deli counter number machines on the wall, currently reading 516.

However, 521, a taut, salty-haired guy and the only other soul in the tiny waiting room, went next, was in and out in flash, and so there I was in no time at all watching the little digital numbers go to 522 ( you learn to follow such small protocols around Singapore). I headed for the office two steps up the hall.

Rosie-cheeked Doctor Wang Li Hua and I eyed each for a moment. “Do you speak any English?” I said. “A little,” she replied, roughly. She at least looked the part, sporting her white lab coat and poised to fill in a file the nurse had handed her. And she didn’t seem all that worried that a bulek had plopped down out of the sky and into her office chair in the neighborhood full of Chinese and Indians.“I have headaches,” I said, pointing up top. I made the universal sign for “recurring” with my right hand— the same one you make when you want someone to get on with a story. “Eating?”  “Passing movement?” “Sleeping?” she asked. Fine, I said. She checked my tongue, my pulse on both wrists, and my blood pressure.

And then she quickly she led me to a drab, whitewashed treatment room across the hall. She drew the big blue curtain between the cushioned examining table and the door, while I laid down in that time-honored, practice of patients everywhere — submitting the soft side to the healer.

The first one went between the eyebrows. A couple more over the right eyebrow. One on each forearm and a couple of the outside of each shin and ankle, the ones that always pinch. She left me absolutely no time to think about the act — the thinking is always more terrifying than the actual needles. And so I instead was soon daydreaming to the click of the kitchen timer she set, and to the purr of the air-conditioner, and the chatting outside and the occasional whir of the herb mixer.  A whiff of hash spread across the room with the incense she’d lit.

Some minutes later, I opened my eyes and Dr. Wang beside me with a bag full of herbs in one-dose plastic packets.
“Twice a day, with food,” she said.
“What about the herbs I’m already taking?” I asked, looking at her through the needles over my right eye.
“For one week…” she said looking puzzled.
“No..” I replied.

She disappeared, and then returned with a clean-cut guy about my age wearing a dark golf shirt and rimless glasses.
“Can I help?” He asked.
“I’m just trying to see if I can take my old herbs – Butterbur — with the new stuff?”  He translated to Wang, then came back and said yes, that would be fine.
“What is this new stuff?” I asked.
Over to Chinese and back.
“It’s Chinese herbs. She won’t say exactly what. They don’t like to say because it’s their own formula.” We all sort of laughed, as I tried not to jar any needles.
“She says they’re going after the root cause.”  Nice words. “But it might take a while.”
“I’d trust her,” he added. “I’ve been coming here for two months now.” They left, then he came right back. “Don’t forget to take with water. Not dry!”
“Thanks,” I said staring at the ceiling.

I tried to relax again. The incense and cold air from the AC washed over me. When the timer dinged gently, I stayed put, eyes closed, soaking up life as number 522 in this little cell block of a room with the gongs and pings of Chinese dialects sounding out from down the hall.

Bleeding Red and White

A middle aged Dutch guy around Banda Aceh urged me to “stay in and keep your head down” on Independence Day recently. I was pretty sure we were safe, being non-Dutch and it being 63 years on the day the Indonesian booted their colonizers out. Still, I put on a red soccer jersey with white trim, so as to have the national colors merah and putih amply represented before we headed out to one of the village fields for some freedom hoopla. We were hoping to see the “greasy pole.” That’s where a couple of local yahoos climb a coconut trunk lubed with motor oil to win prizes tied at the top — everything from a mop to a kid’s bicycle (village elders hang the prizes before they prop up the trunks, on the night before). But greasy pole wasn’t on yet. First it was time for the tug of war.

Two different sections of Lamlagang’s men set up at either end of the rope. I started to get a little jumpy. In this case, unlike every other on the other side of the planet, I was pretty much the biggest human being in the crowd. A friend from the village worked on me “Come on, we need you.” I demurred, then at the last minute ran back out toward the rope. “Ya bulek!” the guys were clucking on the line. They were shedding their sandals to get a better grip on the woodchip-lined field. So I took off mine as well.

When the whistle blew, I don’t remember it being any easier than a good tug o’war up in the American north. I got the sense that the whole thing was happening below my center of gravity. I slid along the woodchips. I dug in and pulled back. My feet started to burn, but my arms were aching more. The middle flag danced toward us and away. Finally, mercifully, we won by a hair. And I looked down to see that I’d lost two layers of skin right on the ball below my big toe. The rest of the crew was running to the other end of the rope for a rematch while I ungracefully limped to the sidelines. Bulek, one and done. Now it was the ladies clucking at me, with their simple, elasticized headscarfs shading  them from the searing heat. My wife asked quite gently why I had thought to remove my sandals.

Bound up and hobbling I sat with the kids to watch the greasy poles later in the day. But a group of guys in torn clothes conquered all in roughly two minutes. One after another they climbed over each other, stood on the lower man’s shoulders and hugged the grease. The fourth guy reached the top, and, grabbing a paper mache` flag, gonged the event kaput. I wanted to see how they got the bikes down but they guys at the top were in no hurry to move them.


Instead, we caught the tail end of the military exercise at the parade ground downtown. Civil serveants in their khaki uniforms standing near us gabbed away as the honor guard silently passed the governor’s entourage in full, white officers dress on what looked like an old Dutch veranda across the field. Soon, droves of fatigued army rangers and dressed up police cadets exit marched out onto the street just next to us, only to jam up as they ran out of real estate and turn every which way searching for a new direction to march. They finally gave up, set their machine guns down and started smoking.

Maybe it’s a sign of a maturing nation, that, even in a restive province, independence day is more pomp than circumstance. We’ll take the tug of war, over a real one. Mundane is something to strive for. Sometimes you need a little flesh wound, though, to remind you of that. Passing by the Lamlagang village celebration grounds that day, another guy was having his foot wrapped up from the tug’o war. “Pahit!”  It stings, he said. And we won’t soon forget it.

Oka rides again

These past few weeks we’ve seen more of Oka out on the lane in the front of the house, slowly cranking the pedals of his blue mountain bike. Readers might remember Oka, our charming, ill-fated Navy vet who stood in as gardener when we arrived at our house last June. He always showed up on time and tried to teach me Indonesian, until I finally decided we didn’t need a gardener and handed him a pink slip.
That was November.
Today I found Oka, shirt off and wielding a hammer in a finely-crafted wooden bungalow just up the lane. The house is built on the square, pre-fab frame of a model that the Red Cross shipped out here after the tsunami. They had a bunch left over when everybody moved into concrete homes and now sell them for $800 a piece. It comes with treated Swedish pine boards and a tin roof. Some Acehnese claimed the design didn’t have enough ventilation and was too hot. But the house Oka was in had been built around this problem. Half of the little floor plan — maybe 300 square feet in all— was given over to a wooden porch. In the enclosed room in the back, they’d installed extra windows and an air conditioner. A roll-down rattan shade shielded the porch from sideways glancing afternoon sun. The house had electric sockets and a faucet from a well along the side. They’d finished it off with gutters, hip orange paint and some shuttering around the door. I wanted one.


“Who made this?” I asked, pacing the wooden floors.
“I did,” Oka said.
“This is amazing,” I said.
“I’ve been sleeping here every night,” Oka said, shooting his toothless smile.
“What does your wife think?”
“No problem.”
Oka was building the little house for his nephew, who used to live down by the harbor but lost his house in the waves.
He said he had a little carpeting to lay down on the porch and then they were done.
He looked well, if still rail thin. I was thoroughly impressed, by the house and Oka. People here make something of what they’re given.
You should make more of these, I said. I’m too old, Oka said.
I offered him some compost from our backyard for his forthcoming garden around the house. He handed me a mango from a nearby tree and said he’d be around to take a look.

Neighbors, strangers

The other evening at sunset I rode my bike through the winding gravel paths and newly paved lanes behind our house. Some kids raced me on their brakeless dirt bikes, while mothers lounged in the shadows on makeshift wooden benches. Men headed to the mosque for prayers, their sarongs swishing against their ankles. The calls of “Hey Mister!” were more muted. This is the rhythm we’ve come to expect at the end of the day. A pause, to catch up with friends, to rest, to pray. And yet riding around, I also thought that nearly a year into our stay here my understanding of what goes on in the neighborhood and all around the city is only skin deep. I am a passerby, still, maybe always.


At dinner the other night, I was doing my best imitation of the ubiquitous local prayer call when one of our only Acehnese friends turned and said sternly, “Don’t do that. You can do that when I’m not around, but not now.” Growing up in the house of an Episcopal minister, we used to look at big salad and say “Lettuce pray” spontaneously. Here I was caught by surprise. Out of my depth.

It’s not that the Acehnese are cold or stand-offish. The opposite, in fact: looking back, I’m amazed by all the homes and games and benches I’ve been beckoned to by total strangers in remote villages and even the streets of Banda Aceh. “Silikan, duduk!” Please, sit down.

But what makes them tick? That’s an often-futile pursuit.

A few months ago, we pulled out our domino set at a local coffee shop and were five minutes into a game when the owner waved his hand and told us to pack up the tiles. We’re right across from a mosque and religious police could come and shut me down, he said. Why? Wherever there are dominos there is the remote possibility of gambling, which is punishable under Shariah law. To our ears this rings especially loony. But it’s just kind of accepted by the Acehnese, including a friend who was with us that night. They willingly spend whole concerts standing on one side of the room with only members of the same sex: the Shariah police insinuate that mixing with opposite sex is akin to pulling the dominos out of the box. Something untoward must be going on.

The Dominos Incident led to some serious soul searching. If we can’t reckon with something as simple as a game, Hayley said, how to fix the bigger problems in Aceh that the aid community has tasked itself with? To which I offered deafening silence.

What makes it frustrating is there’s a rich identity to know here. The Acehnese repelled the Dutch and then the Indonesian state repeatedly; they have such close kin with Islam that they call this place the Verandah on Mecca; they have lived in the company of elephants and tigers for time immemorial, they were once ruled by a succession of queens; and now, as always, they sit at the crosswinds of Southeast Asia, India and Arabia — before the Sultans adopted Islam and received Western trading emissaries around the Middle Ages, there were Hindu and probably Buddhist communities here.
The past is as little known as the present, “poorly served” by Western literature and academia, as Australian Aceh expert Tony Reid puts it.

But all is not a knowledge pothole. Last week, I met a local man who’d written three different theses about Acehnese art and culture and who helped me fill one of my notebooks with a blow-by-blow account of some recent political history. An American teacher told me that Acehnese women have begun to confide in her about their exasperation with cultural taboos. There’s a nascent idea afoot among some friends to start a café — a joint bulek-Acehnese venture — where books and ideas and coffee would flow freely back and forth across the cultural divide.

And yesterday afternoon, we went to a wedding reception of one of Hayley’s colleagues. Buleks don’t gain entre into the ceremony, but at the grand fetes that follow everybody and their uncle are invited, literally. In a tiny village back in the rice paddies, we ate big plates of spicy food — complete with succulent curried jackfruit the consistency of artichoke heart. We clucked at the bride and groom in their opulent traditional garb. (A sickle-shaped dagger sat in the groom’s belt, should things get unruly in the mounting heat). We drew few stares of our own, a feat in itself. “What do you think of Aceh?” the groom’s religious teacher asked as we sat together in the men’s section. “It’s fascinating,” I said.

Shaking hands with the father of bride on the way out, his glistening face scrunched with happiness, I thought he must have a zillion questions for me. Some day we may sort them out, his and mine. Today, he opened up his home and offered a seat at the wedding feast. That’s something to know.

Lost and found

You could read a lot of things into the fact that my hat went missing in the island village of Melinggue, off Banda Aceh. Maybe it was retribution for the unfinished aid work promised to the remote settlement. Or maybe it was a sense that I could simply get another one, wherever I’d come from. But I’d have foregone any good explanation for the actual hat. Melinggue, stripped of its trees by the tsunami, was scorching hot. And my khaki ball cap, with a smiling kayaker on the front, had traveled almost every mile with me in Aceh and the rest of Asia.


I’d come to Melinggue because I’d heard that the village had yet to receive any aid from tsunami donors. I rallied two friends looking for a weekend adventure, Ente, a Dutch ecologist, and Zamzam, an Acehnese aid worker. We filled up on instant noodle packets and cigarette to ply various boat captains and village hosts, and left Banda’s harbor Saturday morning on a 13-meter cargo boat that was missing a few boards along the rails and belched black smoke out the back but held up fine in the swells. By 3 pm, after some steady negotiation by Zam throughout the trip, we bobbed just outside the surf zone at Rinon, a village about an hour’s walk from Melinggue. The crew shot down a drop on village dock — too rough. But Zam, feeling ready to toss his noodles in the swells, convinced the aloof captain to deposit us on a rock on the sheltered, if farther, side of the bay. We exited at the top of one swell, grabbed our gear from the crew on the next crest and were on our way. In another hour or so we’d reached Rinon, and ate cookies with a villagers who were filling in massive potholes in their lone dirt road with loose coral from the beach. They told us to follow the road to the saddle behind the village, and turn right.

And climb. The afternoon heat added all kinds of weight to our little packs. We kept seeing giant black squirrels the size of beavers in the trees. For an hour, we didn’t see a human soul on the path, once a road but now grown over with grass. At the top of the hill, thoroughly drenched with sweat, we spied a bay. It was heading toward perfect. The twilight sun cast a mesmerizing shimmer over the water. On nearly all sides, save a narrow mouth, bright, coral sand beaches and steep forested ridges surrounded the water. We picked up our pace and dropped down through a coconut grove. On the other side of the grove, we could see clearly the red and blue synthetic roof tiles of aid houses: Melinggue, rebuilt after all.

Just short of the village, we fell into the bay for a nourishing swim. A thick guy in swim trunks plopped down on the beach to say hello. He worked with a Red Cross mental health program in the village. He said four or five aid groups had helped the village with everything from well cleaning to new water buffalo. But there was a dispute with the contractors of new houses, which is why 50 or so cement homes sat empty all over town with no doors or windows, some without roofs.

We found the local keuchik to ask him if we could spend the night down by the beach, and we located the local coffee shop, a newly built wooden shack that two kids unshuttered after sunset prayers. Eventually, they brought some fried fish, curried eggplant and rice made at someone’s house; in a place so isolated from trading routes, clearly a gracious offering to a couple of travelers. As we ate, the warung and its front yard filled up with people seeking a little TV: a teenage soap opera beamed by satellite from Java. Near us, a few toddlers squirmed happily while their mothers caught a few moments of the soap. The little ones, including one 5-year-old who couldn’t turn off his laugh, tried to sit still while Ente took a picture. We were a novelty but not harangued as much as you’d expect being this far from the city; the town had a good vibe that way. Even Zam felt it — “I like this place.” Farthest from the TV, he noticed five teenagers packed onto a bench also squinting at the TV. “They look young, those are workers are think. Not from here.”


It’s here in the warung, as we snapped up our bags to go, that my hat escaped me. I didn’t realize it until the next morning, after a firm night in the community meeting house next to the beach. By 9:30, the sun started to beat down on us. The dinner spot was shuttered, so I walked next door, between two empty concrete shells of houses to a lean-to in the back where a woman was washing dishes. She hadn’t seen any hat. Ente and Zam asked around on the main lane, where a bunch of older men gathered in the town’s alternative coffee stand. No hat.

A man found us at the stand and took us back to his house for breakfast. As we ate square omelets, some rice and salty eggs, the mustachioed, sarong-clad village head, 50-year-old Dahlen, showed up. With Zam and Ente both translating, I asked him how the character of the village had changed since the tsunami, which killed about a sixth of the 600-person village and he’d only escaped by running up the ridge behind us. A group called the Jesuit Refugee Services had put up up temporary homes and supplied food to the village, “right down to the smallest chili if we wanted it,” he said. Nine months ago that stopped and the more industrious citizens had gotten back to growing their own food and fishing. But the “lazier” folks, as he put it, were having trouble finding food. Maimun, the Red Cross worker, also said he’d noticed some lack of intiative around town. Dahlen had also discovered that when he tried to gather villagers for community clean-ups and building projects — gotong royong — they now asked to be paid, because the NGOs paid for similar work.

The wife in this house made a sambal as we talked, grinding chilies, garlic, white pepper corns and coriander seed with a pestle against a flat mortar. I asked her if she was happy. But she’d been listening to the conversation about aid and wanted to throw her two cents in. “If you want to give me tools, I’ll take them — it’s nice!”

I told Dahlen that coming over the hill yesterday into the bay, it looked like the most beautiful thing we’d seen in a while. He lit a cigarette and nodded and looked at us like, What am I supposed to do with that? “I think he’s a little embarrassed,” Ente said.

We mulled hiking over to a lighthouse built by the Dutch on the opposite side of this peninsula. (The lighthouse had survived the tsunami despite an enveloping wave that Melinggue residents said had almost swept over the 30-to-40 meter high neck of peninsula.) But we decided to stick around (and not expose my noggin to the sun) so we could tender offers for a trip to the main harbor to the south, and a connecting boat to Banda. The first offer came from a young guy with scraggly long hair who appeared in our new friend’s kitchen: $50. Steep. He came down five. Zam said, “I’m not sure I like this village anymore.” We went to the Dahlen’s house. He could take us for about $40, adding that he was using more expensive gasoline instead of diesel in his new outboard engines.

“They have us here. They know we need to get off the island today,” Ente said. By this point we were drawing close to the hour we needed to catch the boat to Banda. And so we decided to pay the village chief 400,000 Indonesian rupiah or close to half of a basic month’s wages in Banda Aceh to take us one hour on his fishing boat.

I would have stewed a little bit longer about being gouged if we hadn’t spied, on the way down to the beach, a certain khaki hat with a little orange kayak on the front. It rested on the head of a skinny construction worker who was working in the searing sun to finish the roof of an aid house. He’d been sitting near us while we ate dinner the night before. He knew right away what we wanted because we were cackling, and he passed it down quickly. I took it and turned to go in one motion, to keep from asking why he’d chosen not to return it. Also, to fight off the urge to leave it with him.

The boat trip around to the main harbor was a scenic feast — secluded beaches around every corner, headlands covered with windswept shrubs that looked like Scotland, islets with strange dwarf trees. “Species found nowhere else!” Ente dreamed. Meanwhile, the spray at the back of the boat soaked Dahlen right through his cotton jacket and pants. He shook it off, grinning. Our end of the bargain didn’t look so bad.