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  • The Black Sarong


    John Michael Gorrindo

    Michael sat at his tiny desk, typing an equation into a graphing calculator.   A calculus text lie open before him, as did a composition book, filled with pages of equation sets, written in pencil.  The sun had set, and he had already strapped on a head lamp, as it was too dark to work with only a twenty-five watt bulb shining down from the lone socket fixed into a ceiling panel above him.

    Having just climbed the steep stairway leading up from the ground floor below, a pair of tiny feet pattered down the hallway towards Michael’s room.  It was not unanticipated.  Ningsih soon stood before him in the doorway, her little face as serious and purposeful as would be an adult’s bearing news to be reckoned with.  

    “Pak Michael, makan malam,” she announced impassively.

    “Terima kasih, Ningsih.  Sebentar.”  Michael smiled, nodding his head.  The little girl scampered off.  Slipping off his headlamp, he put on a clean shirt and wriggled his feet into a pair of sandals before coming down for dinner.          

    There would be another guest eating dinner as well- the first Michael had seen check-in for a couple of weeks.  Michael descended the steep stairway down to the spacious open air dining patio lit only by a pair of weak florescent lights hanging from the joists above two long wooden tables.       

    The dining tables were bare save a coffee and tea tray holding thermoses and a sugar bowl.  A tall, well-built man sat alone at one of the tables with hands folded; waiting and staring ahead into the darkness.  Michael sat opposite him and hesitated for a moment to introduce himself as the man seemed so grimly preoccupied in thought.  Michael extended his hand, powerfully gripping Michael’s own with a short officious jerk that sent a pain shooting up Michael’s arm.

    “How do you do?  My name’s Michael.”

    “Stephan.”  The new guest managed a painful smile- painful because he had been grinding his teeth the moment before.  Ningsih’s mother, Irma, suddenly appeared out of the darkness, carrying serving dishes in both hands from the kitchen which was located in a long shed around the corner of the guest house.  Another younger woman followed her, bringing more food and some plates and eating utensils.

    “Hmm.  What have we here?” muttered Stephan.  He inspected is food carefully.  Leaning forward over the noodle soup and sniffing it, he sat up straight after a moment.

    “The soup smells edible,” he said smugly, sniffing one more time with a forceful twitch of the nostril.  “Oh!  Almost forgot.  Ibu!  Ibu! Bintang beer, please.

    The two men began to eat and Irma brought out the tall, stout bottle of beer, setting it before Stephan.

    “Did you just arrive today?” asked Michael.

    “Yeah.  Took a Kijang in from Makassar.  I was told Bira had the best beaches in all of South Sulawesi.  A bitch of a ride I guess you know.  Fuckin’ driver was out of his mind!  And having to stop for all those police checkpoints!  What’s the fuckin’ story?”  He leaned far forward, hovering over his soup bowl, sucking the noodles up off his spoon.

    “Been traveling long?” Michael ate slowly, studying Stephan closely.

    “Two weeks now.  Flew from Frankfurt into Bangkok.  Stayed for a week or so.  Glad to be the hell out of there now.  The Thais wonder why they’re so poor.  A lazy bunch of bastards the Thais.  The girls just sit around and comb their fuckin’ fifty times a day.  Jesus!”  Stephan attacked the last sibilant “s” with a fierce, snake-like hiss.

    “Where do you call home?”

    “Belgium.  Yeah.  Brussels, actually.”  He squinted involuntarily from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, and his jaw muscles twitched visibly.  “Used to be a nice little country.  When I as young it was alright.  Now it’s gone to shit!  The fuckin’ bleeding heart government is doing their best to give it all away now to the fuckin’ Moroccans.  Firs wave of then came in as invited migrant workers and government policy allowed them to next bring in their families.  Before long they started taking over entire neighborhoods and then showed their appreciation by going on the dole.  The little shits are vampires.  Just suck the juices out of the country’s coffers and spit it back in our face.  Making money on the black market’s their idea of work.  They deal in stolen goods- especially cell phones.  A fuckin’ travesty it is!  The brown-skinned bastards cry like stuck pigs- claiming it’s racism when anybody in the government proposes cutting back on immigrant welfare.”

    “Immigration is a big issue across the EU.”

    “Fuck the EU!”  Stephan snarled.  “We’ve got to follow their fuckin’ policies on immigration.  The EU leaders got together and introduced liberal immigration policy for the benefit of big business.  It applies for all EU countries.  Belgium doesn’t have a fuckin’ choice.”

    “What kind of work you do back home?”  Michael was trying his best to change the subject.

    “Operations technician in a factory.  Bloody boring, but pays well.  But I don’t  go around complaining!  I do my job, pay my taxes, and contribute to society.  Got some good friends at work.  We hang out after hours and enjoy a few beers- and vent our hostility over the Moroccan invasion.  Let me tell you- I’m just one of millions who see it the same way.”

    “I’ve no doubt.”

    “Listen, it’s been a long day.  I’m going to go read a while.”  Stephan excused himself and walked upstairs to where the eight guest rooms were located, four to either side of the long hallway running between.

    Michael tried to enjoy the rest of his meal.  Moments later, the shuffling of sandals alerted him to the arrival of the guest house’s owner, Riswan, who had walked out of the entrance of his home directly into the dining patio.  As was his nightly custom, Riswan appeared at some point during dinner to check-in with his guests.  Wearing only a sarong and sandals, Riswan rested the open palm of his right hand gingerly upon his bare stomach which always gave him discomfort.  The tall Bugis looked down cautiously at Michael as he ate.

    “Selamat malam, Pak Guru,” Riswan greeted Michael solemnly.  “How is your meal?”

    “Fine, thanks.  How are you feeling tonight?”

    Riswan shuffled slowly over to his office desk which was placed near the front wall of his living quarters as set in direct line with the two dining tables.  He sat down in the desk’s wooden chair and gently wiped away dust from the top of his barren desk, running his hand across repeatedly until each square centimeter of the desk top had been dusted.

    “My stomach’s a little better,” he said stoically, cleaning his hand off on a tissue.

    “Glad to hear it.”

    “So you met Stephan, the new guest?”

    Michael laughed sardonically.  “Oh yes.  I’ve made his acquaintance.  He’s already retired.”

    Riswan stared off into the night sky beyond the guest house which stood on a hilltop overlooking Bira’s West Cape.

    “I have some good news.”

    “Oh, really?”  Michael knew this would be of interest.

    “Jesus has chartered a van to visit Tanah Toa next Monday.  You are invited to come.”

    “That’s great news!  Count me in.”

    “Unruh, the driver, wants 100,000 rupiah for each passenger.”

    “Alright.  And for your guide services?”

    “I will not charge anything.  I do this as a professional courtesy for Jesus.”

    “I see.  So what is Jesus’ interest with the Ammatoa?”

    “He wants to negotiate with them.  His plan is to transport groups of his hotel guests to Tanah Toa every month.  He is seeking permission from the village chief to arrange for entertainment.”

    “Entertainment?  You mean some kind of demonstration?”

    Yes, like that.  Like adat- dancing, singing.  Maybe some magic.  Once a month.”

    “I though the Ammatoa were secretive about such thing.  You say magic.  What kind of magic?”

    “The dukun makes a large fire and sits with several village men around it in a circle.  After putting an iron bar into the fire, he leads the group in meditation.  When the right time comes, he touches the iron and show that it has not burned his finger.  The he asks the rest of the men to do the same.”

    “I suppose they aren’t burned as well.”

    Riswan revealed a shadowy smile.  “Yes, it’s supposed to work like that.”

    “Do you really thing the Spaniard can negotiate such a deal?”

    “Maybe.  We’ll see.”

    Michael’s understood the Ammatoa to generally shun the ways of the outside world.  He assumed they would object to sharing their ceremonial rituals as well.  But maybe this was false logic.

    “When is the hotel’s grand opening?” asked Michael.

    “Maybe in three months.  I’m still hauling material out to the site almost every week.  The workers are busy.  The buildings are almost ready.  But the finish work has not started yet.  There’s still a lot of work to do.”

    “So the hotel wants to include cultural tours as part of the service package?”

    “Yes.  And Spanish investors need to make promosi.  They plan to bring in a video production team from Spain and film the Ammatoa performing their rituals.  Amatore has already arranged for this.  But Jesus must negotiate an agreement.  The promosi video will be put on Spanish television.

    Michael shook his head in greater surprise.  “The Ammatoa on Spanish television?  I guess where money’s concerned, even Indonesia’s remote tribes can be bought.”

    “Well, they need money.  The Ammatoa must buy a lot of food from outside the village- especially fish.  And then cotton.  They grow cotton- but not enough to make their sarongs.”

    The conversation was interrupted by a loud rustling in the scrubby vegetation covering the vacant lot just below the guest house.  Michael and Riswan were drawn by the sound over towards the cement railing of the patio, and standing together peered down into the tall bushes dimly lit by way of the patio’s lighting.

    “What is it?” whispered Michael.

    “Babi hutan.  Wild pigs.  They are dangerous.  They will eat anything.  Including dogs and goats.  Hunters come around sometimes and hunt babi hutan.”

    “But this is a Muslim area.  Nobody eats pork here.”

    “The hunters come from outside- from as far away as Toraja.  Sometimes you can hear
    shooting nearby.  And they hunt at night, because the pigs are out.”

    “They hunt close to the village?  That’s wonderful news.  There’s no restriction on that?”

    “Not really.  Nobody seems to mind.”  Riswan seemed disinterested and changed the subject.  “So Ningsih says you teach her class English tomorrow?”

    “Yes.  Kelas tiga tomorrow at 10:30 AM.  Her class is the largest in the elementary school.  Twenty-seven students.”

    “Good.  Ningsih likes it very much.”

    “What about you Riswan?  Have you been studying the materials I gave you?”

    Riswan smiled and chucked.  “No, Pak Guru.  Saya nakal.  I am a bad student.”

    “Homework is a four-letter word in Indonesia.  It goes for adults as well, apparently.  Where else would the kids learn such bad habits?”

    “Four letter word?”

    “Just an American saying.  I mean everyone avoids academic work if at all possible.”
    “Iya.  Malas sekali.  No discipline,” agreed Riswan.
    “Speaking of discipline, I’ve got some preparation to do for tomorrow’s lessons.  Thanks again for the invitation to Tanah Toa.”

    “Selamat malam, Pak Guru.  Mimpi indah dan selamat tidur.”  Riswan pressed together his raised palms and bowed slightly, smiling.

    Michael climbed the staircase to the second floor and decided to pause and rest on the veranda which lay on either side of the landing.  It provided an expansive view of the Flores Sea above which hung a waxing gibbous moon.  Michael turned off the veranda lighting and sprawled out on top the cushions padding a large wooden lounge chair.

    Under the cover of complete darkness, he gazed into the starlit night. His thoughts turned once again to the Ammatoa.  He had championed the tribe in his heart, as they had so far successfully withstood the pressures of assimilation by Indonesia’s government.  They were one of only a handful of traditional tribal societies remaining in Sulawesi still practicing their original way of life.  Michael saw them as underdogs and admired their spirit of self-determination.

    It disturbed him that a group of Spanish investors- and bankers at that-could possibly negotiate with the Ammatoa for public viewing of sacred ceremonial rituals.  But in order to survive intact into the 21st century, he reasoned coldly, maybe this was the price the tribe had to pay in order to preserve their land and way of life.  They must be a clever lot, he thought, and however primitive their way of life, they must be savvy to the ways and
    means of the outside world.

    And what a terrible force threat the outside world presents, he said to himself bitterly.  It is a world that wants to homogenize everything it touches; slowly but surely leeching the color and life out of everything sacred and unique; transforming it into a bland, controllable commodity.

    Michael hadn’t met Jesus, but he was prepared to dislike him- just as he did most other foreigners he had met in Indonesia.  Meeting Stephan only advanced his prejudice.  One would think travelers afoot in the world would hold greater tolerance for the cultures they chose to visit at considerable time and cost.  It wouldn’t be too much to assume that travelers by nature were drawn to travel in order to cultivate an enlightened sense of cultural appreciation, would it?

    Michael’s experience had taught him that to be the exception, not the rule.  He was still shocked at many tourists’ baser motivations.  What they wanted was adventure and a chance to exploit if it could be managed.  Exploit what?  Whatever they could.  Just another take on colonialism, 21st century style, he thought. 

    Most disturbing was the knowledge that the Ammatoa had conceded to the Indonesian government’s proposal of building schools for their children.  In earlier conversations about the tribe, Michael had learned as much from Riswan.  Introducing reading and writing and the learning of foreign languages- including Bahasa Indonesia- could only aid in the tribes assimilation and cultural destruction.  And Michael was not lost to the irony- for he was a teacher in Indonesia.  Was he not an influence peddler, too?  Teaching poor Muslim children in a remote corner of the Indonesian archipelago- wasn’t that an act of cultural hegemony, however altruistic in intention?  Even though the children were excited and delighted that a native speaker volunteering his time to teach them English- the international language- wasn’t that an act of cultural subterfuge?  After all, it was through educational institutions that the Dutch missionaries had been able to convert the prideful Torajans over to Christianity- not at the barrel of a gun.  Education was a modern tool of colonialism.

    But these delicate issues were a matter of great complexity, and Michael had mixed feelings.  Speaking of the Torajans, hadn’t they successfully incorporated Christianity into their lives while continuing to practice their adat?  Their customs, rituals, and beliefs in ancestral worship were still intact their generations later.  Many tribes across the archipelago had adapted the new to the old successfully as well.  Accommodations to the modern world had often been made without sacrificing the sacredness of past practices and self-identification.

    And in Bira, Michael’s influence had been confined to the classrooms of the dilapidated elementary school where he taught.  No matter how pleased the local Bugis were with his efforts, most had kept him at a distance- not inviting him into their homes, nor showing any interest to fraternize on any basis.  The Bugis in their wooden house-on-stilts still lived close to the land and ignored the growing presence of foreigners attracted to the area.  A foreigner’s welcome was strictly limited, and the truth was their money was the only object of interest to the Bugis.  Foreign culture was still anathema.

    Michael took solace in that.  Personally speaking he didn’t particularly want too much involvement.  His relationship with the school children was nothing but a source of innocent joy and wonder, and it was enough to satisfy him.  And he was busy with his own personal projects.  The boundaries between himself and the Bugis were clear and strictly maintained.  It suited everyone concerned.

    But Michael’s relationship with Riswan was an exception, and thankfully so.  Riswan was Michael’s great provider, local sponsor, translator, and agent.  Without Riswan, chances were nil that Michael could have successfully made the official arrangements to teach in Pantai Bira.  It was Riswan who provided room and board in his guest house; Riswan who had convinced both the school district’s superintendent and elementary school principal to allow permission for Michael to teach; Riswan who had been a constant source of calm counsel when the going got rough.  Every teacher needs a mentor- and in America that was a hit or miss proposition.  But in this most foreign of places, a mentor was an absolute necessity- and fortunately for Michael, Riswan had actively taken on the role.

    Michael’s nocturnal flight of mind was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming up the gravel walkway that hugged the massive rock and cement foundation of the guest house.  Minutes later, he heard Riswan talking with the new arrivals, a young married couple from Holland who were seeking lodging, have arrived late from Makassar.

    Michael arose from the comfort of his lounge chair, stood and turned on the veranda lights.  Without them, it was pitch black and the steep, unsafe stairway would be difficult to negotiate with baggage.  He rightly determined the couple would argue the terms of lodging.  He also predicted there would be an agreement to the rates, and then the couple would ascend to the second floor.  After straightening the cushions of his lounge chair, Michael walked down the long hallway to use the toilet, and then retired to his room.  He would wait until the next morning to meet Riswan’s new guests.

    Breakfast consisted of either banana pancakes or a large bowl of fresh fruit, depending on what Riswan’s wife, Irma, had on hand.  Michael descended to the dining patio at 6:00 AM.  Having already stayed at the guest house for almost three months, he was afforded the privilege of eating an early breakfast as he needed to prepare for school. 

    The special joys of early rising were many in equatorial Bira.  Even at 6:00 AM the sky was fully illuminated, but the air not yet hot and humid.  Most enjoyable for Michael was the ritual of sitting with a cup of coffee and from the dining patio watch species of endemic white and yellow birds wing playfully in a mirthful choreography of twisting, swooping flight between distant clusters of tall trees in the village below.  Arise any later, and one would lose the opportunity to observe the early morning aerial aerobatics. 

    The sea, too, was invariably calm and inviting in the early morning.  If one wanted to swim or snorkel in the great coral gardens situated one hundred fifty offshore of the nearby limestone marine terraces, morning time was also best.

    If anyone had any good sense at all, they would follow the habits of Bira’s people and the area’s wildlife.  The message was simple- morning was the best time of day, so arise with the sun.  How few tourists understood that the Mosque’s 4:30 AM call to prayer was not just a randomly chosen time meant to annoy those who weren’t of the Muslim faith.  4:30 AM was waking time- the beginning of the day.  Michael was hoping he need not inform the three new guests as to this reality.  It was unpleasant being the resident pedant.

    This particular morning, it had been banana pancakes- a breakfast served only guests- as Riswan and his family ate rice and fish- a gastronomic concession Michael could never make.  After eating, Michael sat with a composition book, two dictionaries, and one phrase book while putting the finishing touches on his day’s lesson plans.

    When Michael returned upstairs to bathe and dress, the three other guests were still asleep.  He quietly went about his business, tip-toeing at times as the upstairs walls and floors were constructed of hard wood planks which resonated and amplified sound rather than dampen it.  The hallway flooring creaked horribly loud.

    He had to wear long pants as part of the school dress code and they were uncomfortable.  It was his only pair and he had to hand wash them regularly.  He toted a backpack full of books and a guitar to school every morning.  Instead of taking public transport down in town, Michael chose to walk to school along a crest above the main highway down a secluded back road.  This took him through the heart of an ancient residential area where all the women still wore traditional sarongs and carried large, heavy loads on top of their heads.  Every morning Michael was sure to cross paths with an elderly woman and one of her grand children who together pushed a large wooden cart with rubber wheels, delivering tall Gerry cans of water to each and every house-on-stilts in the neighborhood.  The water had to be collected from a community well downhill and some distance away from the hillside community.

    Each school morning Michael would wend his way down a brick path that led from Riswan’s hilltop location which was the highest point in the surround area.  The upper portion of the path cut through thickets of low montane brush. Its gray concrete bricks were neatly set in interlocking chevrons.  This paved section soon ended, giving way to cobble-sized limestone debris and then that of pea-gravel, white and crunchy underfoot.  Even at eight in the morning the sun had already scorched the ground to the point that the limestone radiated heat enough to penetrate the soles of Michael’s hiking boots. 

    Further on the scrub subsided and on either side of the road were rows of Bugis houses-on-stilts, constructed of local hardwood bleached grayish-white by the sun.  The shutters of their open-air windows were sometimes closed shut but if open allowed the passerby to peer into an obscured, unlit interior.  Some property lines were delineated by fences whose vertical members were crudely cut, meter long sticks- their sharp points fashioned
    by machete after having been driven into the ground.  Nanny goats and their kids scampered everywhere.  They were Bira’s freest citizens- able to go anywhere and do anything they pleased.

    This daily walk to work was a journey Michael took through a part of Bira almost untouched by the rapid changes of the modern age.  As located on a crest of land that casually sloped downhill where it met a steeper road which led directly down to the toll gates of Pantai Bira’s main highway, it was tucked away and out of sight.

    Past the toll gates, there was the community well which served both as a source of water and bath house restricted to the use of women and their smaller children.  Laundry was washed there as well, and bathing oneself while doing the laundry was standard procedure.  The women’s privacy was protected by U-shaped, cement wall- the barrier standing almost flush with the shoulder of the coastal highway.  The walls were just short enough for Michael to see the heads and sometimes the shoulders of the women gathered about the well; their modesty secured by the sarongs they always kept wrapped around them, even while bathing.

    Having now crossed over to the Eastern Cape, Michael’s walk ended a few minutes past the well, at the local elementary school which sat on a long bluff overlooking the East Cape’s harbor and ferry terminal.

    The school was a sekolah negri- or public school.  Nearly one hundred percent of the enrolled students were Muslim.  Female teachers wore uniforms made of heavy materials that covered their entire bodies save their hands and faces.  Two of the male teachers along with the kepala sekolah regularly wore white kopia, which in Indonesia is reserved for only those men who had made their pilgrimage to Mecca.  Michael especially liked the teacher who taught religion and Arabic to the young children.  His dedication was far superior to the rest, and the results could partially be seen in the students’ notebooks which were filled with neat, hand written Arabic script.

    “Heroes without Medals” is the term of deference used in Indonesia in reference to their teachers.  But this noble appellation is also code for the teacher’s economic plight, as they are dreadfully underpaid.  This brand of Indonesian hero suffers the indignity, and survives as part of a larger economic unit- their family.  Not surprisingly, the low wages inspire a lackadaisical work ethic which forms part of a greater ethos common to ranks of Indonesia’s civil servant.

    In Bira, the primary expression of this was “work slow down.”  As Michael walked onto the school grounds he was usually met with the sight of teachers sitting together outside their classrooms chatting away, abandoning their students to their own devices.  Teachers might arrive for a class period on time but leave well before it was over- joining their colleagues to share food and conversation.

    Initially this was a shock to Michael, ignorant to Indonesian school culture.  But over time, his harsh judgment had to give way to acceptance- otherwise his own teaching would suffer.  He also grew to realize that shoddy work ethic could not be held as symptomatic to a unilateral factor.  In greater point of fact, the teachers could justify their inaction as just an “approach” that was in tune with a more highly valued national ethos- that of casual sociability.  Casualness was Indonesia’s modus operandi; its purest expression of enjoying life; its proven way of promoting social harmony and maintaining social identity.

    It was but one expression of a culture whose educational standards and values concerning individual accomplishment were relatively lower than those of developed countries.  But as nature abhors a vacuum, Indonesia placed its higher values elsewhere.  To sit and take inordinate time to share food and laughter was of much greater importance.  How better to live well and be happy?

    Michael quickly realized from the beginning of his tenure as volunteer teacher that he needed to cater to the Indonesian love of casual fun.  So he was quick to incorporate music as a major teaching tool for language learning.  Music is the universal language, and as a musician, he had learned this early on in life.  The medicine of learning always tasted so much sweeter with the sugar music might provide, and after teaching vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, he always reserved a large chunk of time for teaching songs whose lyrics were in English.  What he lacked as teacher of English- for his métiers were mathematics and music- he made up for through group singing.
    And the Indonesians- for all their personal shyness and modesty- were great lovers of music and rarely so reserved as to not join in song at a moment’s notice.  Michael exploited this fact to the fullest possible extent, and with huge success.  Music was the center of gravity which drew many good things into surrounding orbit- the rhythm of the English language, its pronunciation, and the huge benefits that come with interactive teaching.

    Michael was satisfied with his situation.  His only great discomfort was physical and it came at the unmerciful hands of the torpid equatorial heat.  His ninety minute teaching periods took place in classrooms which baked in the heat, leaving him drenched in sweat.  It streamed down his face, arms, and hands, covering his guitar and quickly rusting its strings.

    As part of the school was under renovation, the fifth grade had been moved into an abandoned building on site.  It would be more accurate to describe it as a cement bunker. Completely unsuited for teaching and learning, only one of its three rooms was big enough to seat more than a half dozen students comfortably.  All fifteen fifth graders were wedged into the airless space which baked in the direct rays of the sun all day.

    The sixth grade had also been displaced, and convened class across the street in the open air tucked beneath a neighbor’s traditional house-on-stilts on a patch of shaded ground the students shared with chickens, goats, and mouser cats that could be seen catching, torturing, and eating their prey underneath the classroom desks while the house’s occupants- including their wandering, naked children- looked on while lounging in hammocks.

    It was a colorful existence set in an oppressively hot and drab environment.  By 1:30 PM, school was usually let out- that time of day when the sun’s furnace baked the limestone bedrock of Pantai Bira to full measure.  Michael’s return home was an exercise in trial by fire.  He could have taken transport back, but would have missed out on the crowning ritual of the school day.  A gaggle of twenty children chose to accompany him- or was it the other way around?-  as they all walked home together.  Dressed in their red and white school uniforms, the children begged Michael to lead them in songs he had recently taught them.  They shared songs and laughter.  As long as Michael lived he would treasure these after school moments.   Like a pied piper he would lead the children in song as they strutted up the coastal highway, passing the community well where their joyous noise would prompt the bathing women to pop their heads up over the top of the cement barrier and stare at the group as they walked next through the toll gates into Pantai Bira proper.

    Marching up the hill to the left as a right turn would have taken them down to the hotel and beach areas, the children entered their neighborhood with Michael, ascending the steep, rocky path.  As they came upon each their own respective homes, they would wave goodbye with a smile and peal off from the group until the last one was gone, leaving Michael alone as he moved on to the hilltop and the end of the line- Riswan’s Guest House.
    Once he arrived, someone from the kitchen would bring him a tall 1500 milliliter bottle of water- cold if he were lucky.  Drained and dehydrated, he would quench himself; sometimes sitting for an entire half-hour, gradually reentering compos mentis from a state of near heat prostration.

    Michael slung his backpack on to his shoulders, grabbed his guitar, and was off for the day.  The Dutch couple- Tun and Anna- were awoken by the sound of Michael’s short exchange with Riswan at the back gate which was below their second story window.  Tun got out of bed and peered out the window as Michael shut the gate behind him and walked away down the path.

    “What is it?” asked Anna, still languishing in bed.

    “There’s a fellow walking from the guest house carrying a back pack and guitar.  He seems to be headed out into the bush.  Rather odd.  Wonder what that’s all about?”

    Anna stretched her long, slender arms and yawned.  “I’m famished darling.  We better get dressed and go down for breakfast.  I believe they stop serving at nine, isn’t that what Riswan said?”

    “Oh, they’ll serve us alright- no matter the time.  I’ll make damn sure of that.  We arrived late last night.  They have to serve us breakfast.  Otherwise, I won’t pay.”

    “If it comes to that- pleas don’t make a fuss, Tun.”  Anna arose and immediately got dressed.  “Don’t worry.  Relax.  They’ll give us breakfast, silly man.” 

    Anna and Tun came done for breakfast soon after and found Stephan drinking coffee in the dining patio.

    “Good morning.”

    “Morning,” said Stephan.

    Irma brought out banana pancakes to Stephan as Anna and Tun sat down and poured themselves tea.

    “The pancakes look good!” said Anna.

    “Hmm.  Tell you after the next bite,” said Stephan moodily.

    “So what’s there to do around here besides the beach?” asked Tun.  “When did you arrive?”

    “Yesterday.  Like Yourselves. Here, Riswan gave me a local tour map.  Take a look if you’d like.”

    Tun snatched it up and studied it intently.  “A monkey forest,” he muttered.  “I wouldn’t have guessed.”

    “Really, Tun!  Please show me where!” said Anna excitedly.

    “They live in the rock cliffs and tree across the valley on the big hill over there,” said Stephan, pointing.  “Not my favorite animal.  Always get the gut feeling they’d just as soon bite your head off.  Probably too late in the morning for a good sighting, though.  And it’s already a scorcher.  Riswan tells me it’s best to start the trek before dawn if you’re interested.

    Irma arrived shortly with pancakes for Anna and Tun.  Stephan poured himself a third cup of coffee.  “Like dish water this swill.  You’d think they could make it a little stronger.  False economy!”  Stephan gloomily stared into his cup, swirling his spoon inside and watching the vortex it created.

    “So there’s another guest here as well?” Anna asked Stephan.

    “Yeah.  I met him at dinner last night.  Didn’t have much to say.  Nice enough from what I can gather.  Riswan tells me he’s a volunteer teacher.  He’s been living here a couple of months.”  Stephan scraped his plate noisily with his fork.

    “Oh, that’s interesting!  Where is he from?” asked Anna.

    “He’s a Yank, and on his own.”

    “I’m sure the children are thrilled to have him.  Hopefully we can all meet over dinner tonight,” said Anna cheerfully.

    “I’m sure his efforts are wasted,” interjected Tun with harshness.

    “Oh, come, Tun, how can you say that?” objected Anna.

    “It doesn’t take long to see how lazy these Indonesians are.  They just sit around all day and sleep.  It’s the same wherever you go.  Education’s lost on them.”

    Stephan grunted in the affirmative.  “Reminds me of the Muslims back home.  A useless lot these brown skins.  So, where you folks from?”

    “Holland,” said Tun.

    “So you now what I mean.  You’ve got your hands full, too.  The Islamic fascists are pursuing their murderous ways in your country as well.”

    “They’ve a right to their opinions- it’s a free country.  But to go around killing people for it?  It’s got to fucking stop.”  Tom’s voice began to rise in anger.
    Stephan finished his coffee and snapped his cup down hard on the wooden table.  “Of course it’s got to stop!  Like what they did to Van Gogh.  Cutting a man’s throat wide open on the sidewalk in front of his house!  What’s Europe coming to?  And the EU just stands by and allows the Muslims to continue to stream into our small countries!”

    “Then they just sit at home, connive on how to import all their relatives, and have babies.  They don’t care a shit for work, content to collect welfare, and if anyone complains they cry ‘Discrimination!’  It’s fucking insane,” agreed Tun.

    “Yeah- that’s exactly how it is!  The Europeans have got to wake up before it’s too late,” said Stephan.

    “Human nature is predictable. You extend a helping hand to people and they turn around and bite it!  Hand outs do no good- they only corrupt.” said Tun.

    Oh, there are many exceptions,” said Anna.

    “But it’s the rule, Anna, and you know it!” retorted Tun.  “The trend is there, and it’s only getting worse.  It’s a global crisis- a war is what we’ve got, and mercy can’t be shown.  Our way of life is at stake.”

    “Well, while you gentleman discuss geo-politics, I’m going to get ready for a swim.  Just
    look at the ocean and that beautiful beach stretching for kilometers down there!”  Anna said, turning her head to look out over the Flores Sea.  “Are you coming, Tun?”

    “Yes, I’ll come with you.”  The couple arose and returned to their room to change. 

    Stephan sat alone with a fourth round of coffee; his broad shoulders slumped over his cup.  The coffee was tepid, and he gulped it down, hoping he’d come a little closer to imbibing an acceptable morning dose of caffeine.

    Finally done with breakfast, Stefan stood from the table and directly left the guest house, descending the hill into the resort area and down on to Bira’s magnificent beach.  He trudged through the pure white sand as fine as baby powder.  The sun’s reflection was blinding.  Several small boats lie anchored offshore in the glassy calm of the morning high tide beyond which could be seen Liukang Island, spreading out along a north to south axis a few kilometers out to sea.

    Stephan was ambling, not sure what he’d find.  Deciding it was too hot on the beach and with no intentions of swimming he turned up a narrow draw inland, and climbed a rough hewn set of earthen stairs shot through with the roots of nearby trees.  Soon he found himself in a heavily wooded area where he stumbled upon a dirt road.  He was now at the base of the monkey forest which was so thickly wooded it was impenetrable to the eye.

    Following the road, he came across a large, solitary red brick building set in a clearing.  A neon sign advertising beer hung over its entry way.  Three young Bugis men sat on their haunches; smoking in sultry silence near the doorway.  They looked up at Stephan blankly as he walked by.  A distance past and Stephan could see behind the building a dreary, low slung row of boarding rooms.  Young women were washing their clothes out front of their rooms and hanging them up on lines to dry.  Stephan stopped and stared.

    Well, what have we here he thought.  A fucking whore house.  How convenient- and secluded, too.  There’s more to these woods than just monkeys, he mused, a wicked smile crossing his face.  Moving on, he came across a second like-establishment.  A crude wooden hut housing an open air bar and restaurant stood alongside the dirt road, garbage strewn around the surrounding grounds.  Again, out back was a grim cluster of sheds serving as living quarters, lifeless save for two young women who sat motionless on plastic chairs set before one of the rooms darkened door ways.  Stephan continued on, wondering at the incongruity of the man he saw out front, tending a few potted plants as he watered them from a plastic bucket.  The man looked up and smiled, saying good morning.  It was the first friendly gesture Stephan had experienced on his walk.

    Stephan thought he’d come back that night if there wasn’t anything better to do.  He hadn’t had a woman since Thailand.  He was due.

    Riswan sat eating a plate of rice with his fingers while he talked to his driver in Buginese.

    “So today our only business is to deliver water to the hotels,” he said.  “Tomorrow we will go to Tanah Beru and buy a load of sand.  So after the water delivery, you and Aji need to roll the empty water carriers off the flat bed and store them in the back.”

    “More sand for Jesus?” asked the driver.


    “Has he paid you for the last load?”

    “I’ll worry about that.  He always pays eventually.  You’ll receive your pay either way.  You know that.”

    “I’m just thinking about the way he does business,” said the driver.  “His group is filthy rich.  They show no respect by paying late.”

    “Sabar, sabar.  Who else do they have to turn to?  They have no choice but to make good,” said Riswan calmly.

    “I don’t like it- these foreign investors and their greed.  They want everything for nothing.”

    “In business, you cannot let these kinds of thoughts get in the way.  Yes, they are greedy foreigners, but they must pay their way.  You know what the government will do if they don’t.  They have to go along.  In their country accounts are not necessarily settled on the spot.  It is their way of doing business.”

    “But this is our country.  Why shouldn’t they have to do things our way?”

    “You know how we all negotiate as Indonesians- for most everything we buy.  The fact they pay late is just another form of negotiation.  Try to think of it that way.  The payments are just spread out in big lumps.  That’s business European style.  I can manage the money properly in between time.  Like I said, don’t worry about it.”

    Riswan set down his plate and patted his bare stomach, burping.  “Aji!  Aji!  Are you ready?  It’s time to deliver water.”  He was now speaking in Bahasa Indonesia.

    Aji, a short Sasak from Lombok with a beaming smile, emerged from his small room next to the kitchen.  “Yes, I am ready.”  He joined the driver and headed out the back gate to where Riswan’s large truck stood parked in the driveway.

    Riswan walked around the corner from the kitchen area to the guest house dining patio and sat at his desk.  Everyone was absent save his wife, Irma, who was busy preparing hunch for the guests in the kitchen.

    Alone with his thoughts, Riswan considered current business conditions.  In three months time my hauling contract with the Spaniards will be up, he thought.  Well, I’m the only hauler in the area; other jobs will come my way- even I they are on the order smaller.  Lebaran is coming- and local tourism will pick up.  Even if there aren’t too many foreigners to be had, I’ll manage alright.  But I need another source of income.  I’ve got to look into the cost of food stuffs for making terang bulan and martebak.  The concession has got to get off the ground soon.  And the stove.  I’ve got to travel to Bulukumba and find one in the next coupled of days.

    Yes, if I am to even seriously consider buying Akhmad’s land, I will need another steady cash flow, thought Riswan.  It’s a great deal- he’s truly desperate to fund his son’s wedding- but I have some time.  No one else local is capable of coming up with fifty million rupiah.  It’s a great location, even if it is next to a karaoke bar, but they will be forced out in a couple of months.  The local hotel owners have pushed hard on the authorities- a new ordinance is sure to be passed soon.  The only problem is it’s across the street from the Spaniard’s hotel- a view of the sea has been spoiled by the two story bungalows they built along the cliffs.  It’s too bad.  But I have to be careful.  If Akhmad approaches the Spaniards, they may snatch it up.  I’ll have to keep a carrot dangled out in front of him for the time being.  He’d rather me have it- on old friend- than a group of foreign investors.

    Riswan felt a twinge in his stomach and grimaced a little.  It’s time to pick-up Ningsih now, he thought.  He walked over to his motor bike parked on the dining patio and wheeled it out past the kitchen and through the back gate.  Starting the engine, he traveled down the brick road and then turned left onto a steep, little-used road full of gulleys and pot holes that descended sharply and connected with the highway that ran through the valley below.  Turning right at the paved highway he motored slowly towards the toll gates and as he drove through past the kiosks he saw Michael up ahead surrounded by a group children.  They had just left school and were heading back into Pantai Bira.

    “Pak Guru, apakabar?  I see you have many friends.”  Riswan stopped his motor bike.  “Oh, I need to tell you.  We are going to Tanah Toa tomorrow instead of Monday.  Is that OK?”

    “Yes, I can manage that,” said Michael, wiping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.

    “We leave at 7:00 AM.  It will be a long day- we have to go to Arah first.  There is a man we’ll be dropping in to see.  He has a collection of books and manuscripts concerning local history and about pinisi as well.  Jesus wants to purchase a few.”

    “Sounds very interesting.  I’ll be ready at seven.”

    Riswan’s four guests assembled together for the first time at dinner that evening.  Michael introduced himself to Anna and Tun, and the four dug in hungrily, as the fish served was of unusually high quality given the guest house’s common fare.

    “So I hear you are here as a teacher.”  Anna said to Michael.

    “Yes- for about three months now.”

    “That’s wonderful of you!  Did you take a leave of absence from your job back home to come here as a volunteer?”

    “It wasn’t exactly planned as such, but it’s turned out that way, yes.”

    “What do you find so compelling about Indonesia?” asked Tun.

    “Originally, its religious performance art- the gamelan music, wayang kulit, and wayang golek of Central and Western Java.”

    “I’ve heard of gamelan.  The others are…?” asked Anna.

    “Forms of shadow puppet performance.  The puppets are iconic figures that act out epic tales from ancient religious scriptures such as the Ramayana.  The kulit puppets are made from animal skin, and the golek are wooden.”

    “Where can we see such performances?”

    “Yogyakarta and Solo in Central Java.  You can’t fail in those two cities.  And then there is magic,” added Michael.  “The supernatural phenomena specific to the greater Indonesian archipelago.  That part of the culture holds interest for me.”

    “What do you mean by magic?” asked Tun.

    “It’s difficult to capsulate,” said Michael.

    “You mean superstition, don’t you?” said Tun wryly. 

    “Best I give you an example or two.  For instance there is a village high up on the slops of Gunung Agung in Bali where the bodies of the dead are laid out under a select group of trees and their bodies never decompose.”

    “Oh I can’t believe that!  Bodies not decomposing.  That’s a crock!” said Tun.

    “It’s well-documented.”

    “Oh, hell!  That goes against all scientific reasoning.  It must be a trick.  They probably inject them with embalming fluid beforehand.”

    Well, think of it this way.  The East and the West are like the two opposing poles of a battery- one charged positive; the other negative.  They lie on opposite sides of the world.  Multiply one by a negative 1, and you get the other.”

    “I see,” said Anna.  So one’s rational is the other’s irrational.”

    “That’s false analogy.  Pure gibberish,” said Tun smiling with a snarling grin of condescension.  Stephan could be heard grinding his teeth.

    “I am not trying to appeal to your rational sense- at least not conventionally so,” said Michael.

    Tun howled in laughter.  “Obviously not!”

    You’ve heard of Atlantis, of course,” continues Michael.

    “Yes,” said Anna.  “Of course.”

    “It’s a civilization that possessed specialized, advanced technologies, right?” Michael asked rhetorically.

    “If you really believe it existed to begin with!” said Tun incredulously.

    “But its technologies were more akin to those produced by the current scientific age- focused on external control- such as harnessing the power of water, or the atom,” said Michael.

    “And?’ prompted Anna.

    “And Atlantis’ counterpart in the East was Lemuria- a mythical civilization you may rightfully excuse away if you will.  Lemuria had its own special bent on harnessing power, too, but the focus was on internal control.  In other words, humans learned through techniques such as meditation to develop their own internal powers.

    “And what does that have to do with magic?  Isn’t that what we are talking about?” asked Tun impatiently.

    “Magic has to do with harnessing powers from within.  The action happens in the invisible world- a world that can’t be seen nor measured.  It’s beyond the reach of the scientific- beyond the understanding of the rational.”

    “I don’t believe any of what you’re saying.  Your logic is based on mythical civilizations’” said Tun.

    Michael ignored his protests.  “You see, it is the invisible world that matters in Indonesia.  And that preoccupation with the supernatural practices found all over the archipelago has descended from the Lemurian model.”

    “Atlantis!  Lemuria!  There’s no proof they existed!  Why do you persist in speaking as if they did?” asked Tun shaking his head in disdain.

    “They are a point of reference he’s saying,” said Anna.

    “But not in fact- in fiction!” said Tun.

    “Neither,” replied Michael. “Neither.  In myth.  Myth is the interface between the visible and the invisible; between the real and the imaginary; between fact and fiction.”

    “So you have been drawn here for that reason?” asked Anna.  “As an initiate-in-seeking; or maybe more like a cultural anthropologist?”

    “A very good question,” said Michael, smiling.  “I’ll opt out and say a little of both.”

    “A lot of good magic has done Indonesia, Mystical Mike,” Stephan weighed in.  “Look at the poverty and corruption in the country.”

    “Magic is not prescription for national health.  It’s strictly a spiritual phenomenon as practiced along with ancestral worship by most of the archipelagoes tribes.  It operates within small groups of people.  Magic craws upon the spirits that inhabit the immediate, natural environment of a specific geographical place- that place where a tribe actually lives and dies.  The idea of “nation” is much too abstract and diffuse.”

    “That makes it pretty useless then- just a left-over from the stone age,” said Stephan.

    “It has managed to survive in pockets- amongst certain individuals and certain tribes.  Take the Badui people of West Java.  Many of them have the power of astral travel.  The power doesn’t reside in jut one magic man, or dukun.  Many of the Badui possess the power.”

    “You’re now trying to tell us these people can fly?” asked Tun.


    “Oh, now you’ve gone too far!” Tun cried.

    “And then take the traditional daggers of Javanese warriors- the sacred Keris.  If they are not taken care of properly by their owner- ritually cleansed periodically- they will disappear, taking flight in search of another guardian or owner,” continued Michael.

    “All very fascinating, Michael.  You have a lot to share.  I would love to do some reading on the subject- or better yet, visit some of these tribes you mention,” said Anna.

    “Myths and fairy tales from an age dead and gone, Anna.  Just a waste of your time,” chided Tun.

    “Why are you so intent on spoiling the conversation?” she shot back.

    “I’m simply playing out my role here- as the skeptic.”

    “No Tun- it’s rather the spoiler.”

    “Anna- Riswan is an immediate source of information on local matters as I have been discussing.  Now he is an interesting character, Riswan is.  Very much an entrepreneurial capitalist in the modern sense; yet he will not make an important business decision without first consulting his dukun.  Indonesians tend not to replace old systems with new- they layer then syncretically.  It’s the modus operandi of how they reconcile the influences of past traditions with the introduction of the new,” said Michael.

    “Well, Mystical Mike, you can talk all you want about the invisible world- but what I see all around me is visibly distressing.  Take the beach here for instance- there’s garbage everywhere- and on the streets and in the woods, too.  It’s a fucking blight,” said Stephan.

    “I agree with you wholeheartedly,” Michael said.  “The Indonesians in general do not understand the notion of ecology.  Their sanitation systems are rudimentary at best- and often nonexistent in underdeveloped, remote places such as Bira.  They are fifty years behind in many regards.  Ancient traditions are no remedy to pollution, war, or social injustice.  Again, I’m not trying to suggest that.”

    “Then we can agree that in the face of global problems magic holds in place- as Stephan said- it’s useless,” said Tun.

    “I suppose that’s true- but it’s outside the proper context.  Magic occupies a different domain and serves a different purpose.  It’s no panacea to modern ills.  And neither is it inherently good, nor evil, obviously,” concluded Michael.

    “We’re not talking about solving the world’s problems,” agreed Anna.

    “But listen,” said Michael, suddenly inspired.  “Tomorrow I am going along with Riswan to visit a local tribe that does practice the supernatural.  Maybe there is room enough for all of you to come along.  It would be a great opportunity.

    “Not me,” said Stephan.  “I’m leaving tomorrow morning.  Had enough of Bira.  In fact, I’m off to a little karaoke bar I found today.  Hope you all have a good evening.”  Stephan stood from the table, stretched and walked up to his room to ready for the nocturnal hunt.
    “Oh, that sounds fascinating, Michael!  I’d love to come!” said Anna enthusiastically.

    “Hey- wait a minute, Anna.  Did you already forget?  We have plans for tomorrow,” said Tun, his face souring.

    “Plans to go to Liukang Island, I know,” replied Anna.  “But that can wait, can’t it?  Michael’s invitation is something really special.  What about it?  Wouldn’t you like to go?”

    Tun’s face hardened, looking at Michael and then Anna with resentment and perturbation respectively.  “We came here to enjoy the ocean,” he said coldly.  “It’s getting late.  Let’s go to our room.”

    Anna stood her ground.  “No.  I want to talk to Riswan,” she said, a spark of resistance in her eyes.

    Tun slammed the palms of both his hands down hard on the table.  “Damn it all!”  Filled with impotent rage, he bolted from his chair and marched towards the stairs.  “I think I’ll go see if Stephan wouldn’t mind if I accompanied him to the bar!” he yelled back at Anna.

    Anna and Michael sat alone for a moment of silence, both watching Tun climb the staircase out of sight into the dark.

    “I imagine the platitude of not discussing politics or religion at dinner should have been observed,” said Michael.  “I’m sorry if I caused a stir.”

    Anna put her finer tips up to her temples and squinting, held her eyes tightly shut, a grimace deforming her once serene face.  Tears developed in the corners of her eyelids.

    Michael looked on with concern.  “Her, I’ll pour you another cup of tea.”

    Composing herself, Anna dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.  “Thank you,” she said in a quiet and subdued tone.

    “I don’t suppose it’s very timely to ask, but in all due respect to Riswan, I need to know if you might still want to come along tomorrow morning.  We leave at 7:00 AM,” said Michael gently.  “He’ll be going to bed soon.”

    Anna took a sip of tea, and plaintively stared at her cup.  Then with renewed resolve, she looked up at Michael.  Her piercing blue eyes gleamed with a teary sheen.  Sweeping away one long lock of drooping blond hair from her face, she cleared her throat to speak.  “Of course I still want to go, Michael.”

    Michael looked searchingly at Anna.  “Alright,” he finally said.  Getting up, he took a few short steps over to Riswan’s front door and knocked.  Ningsih answered.
    “Hello, Ningsih, mau bicara dengan Pak Riswan, tolong,” he said.  Ningsih nodded and skipped into the backroom of the house through a curtained doorway.  Riswan appeared a minute later.

    “Hello, Pak Guru.  You want something?  I was actually on my way out to the patio.”

    “Yes, Riswan.  About tomorrow’s trip- can you squeeze in one more person?”

    Riswan peered out at Anna.  “Yes, I think so.  Who wants to go?”

    Michael indicated by looking back at Anna.

    “I would love to come if there’s room, Riswan,” she said.  Suddenly, Tun and Stephan could be heard trundling down the staircase from the second floor.   They turned down the pathway and disappeared together around the corner of the guest house.

    Riswan did not answer presently.  Michael backed away from the doorway and Riswan emerge.  Walking slowly over to his desk, he sat down deliberately.  Michael followed, returning to take his seat.  Riswan could sense something had gone awry.

    “I hope the food didn’t upset anybody’s stomach,” Riswan said with a half-smile.  “What about your husband,” Riswan asked Anna hesitantly.  “Will he be coming, too?”

    “No, just me.”

    The prospects of being party to a marital disagreement didn’t sit well with Riswan.  He weighed the situation carefully and in silence.

    Anna took the initiative.  “Don’t worry about my husband.  We’ve been traveling away from home for a long time and though we do most things together, sometimes we enjoy the sights apart.  A break now and then is called for.  Really, Riswan, it would be greatly appreciated.”  The characteristic cheerful optimism returned to her face and she smiled pleasingly at Riswan.

    Riswan folded his hands in front of him on the desk, and returned her smile.  “Alright, there’s a seat for you in the van,” he assured her.  “I’ll call Unruh, the drive, and tell him.”

    Both Anna and Michael smiled approvingly.  Riswan then stood and walked over to a nearby hutch and opened its glass doors.  Rummaging through some papers and a paperback books he kept stored for the reading pleasure of his guests, he secured three photographs and closing the hutch doors, walked over and handed then to Anna.

    “These are photos of the Ammatoan people,” he said, standing at the head of the dining table.  We will be visiting Tanah Toa, the land of the Ammatoa.  You can see they only wear black.  And in the one photo you see then in the hutan asli.  Some of their land they farm.  The rest is hutan- full of tall trees which are sacred and protected.  They are not allowed to cut them down by laws of tradition.  The is part of their adapt.  Sacred spirits live in the tall tress.  To cut down a large tree would bring bad fortune to the entire village.  Maybe disaster.”

    Anna studied the photos carefully, and with fascination.  “Their hair is beautiful,” she whispered.  “As black as their clothing.  So they wear only sarongs?”

    “Yes, black sarongs,” replied Riswan.

    “Have you seen these photographs before, Michael?” asked Anna.


    “You can only enter Tanah Toa with a guide who speaks Konjo.  I have visited the Ammatoa many times.  The village chief knows me well.  When we enter, we must report to him immediately,” said Riswan.  “I’ve guided many groups there.”

    “They insist the guide speak their language,” said Michael.

    “I will go to bed now,” said Riswan.  “Come down for breakfast at 6:30 AM.  Unruh will arrive at 7:00.”  Riswan gave his customary bow.  “Selamat tidur.”  He turned and quietly walked back into his house and closed the door.
    “Anna set the photographs down on the table and looked up at Michael.  “I want to thank you, Michael.  You’ve really put yourself out for me.  Your generosity is appreciated.”

    “Not at all.  I only hope these good intentions don’t portend for anymore trouble.”

    “I don’t know, Michael.  Tun’s anger comes and goes with the changing winds.  That is his choice.  My conscience is clear.  I have done all I could accommodate him during our travels.  Hopefully he’ll return the favor this one time.  Actually, you see, this trip of ours is really a honeymoon- a wedding present we gave ourselves.  We married only a month before we left Holland.”

    “How long have you been on the road?”

    “Maybe too long, Michael.  Three months now, with another month to go.  Things have grown tense lately,” she said.

    “I see.  There’s not much more challenging for a couple than to travel together for extended periods.”

    “Yes, I imagine that’s true.  But sometimes I think…I…I think maybe it will continue to be difficult.  I thought Tun would mellow after marriage.  But he persists in outbursts like the one at dinner.  He’s so damn prideful.  But he’s never run off like this before.”  She looked worried and distressed.

    Michael- tell me.  What is this karaoke bar they went off to?  Is it…is it…”

    “It’s not a place dignified for ladies such as yourself.”

    “So it’s a brothel.”

    “There are several karaoke bars on the outskirts of Bira.  I’m not sure which one Stephan had in mind.”

    “Please answer me, Michael.  Then are they all brothels?”

    Michael’s look turned to one of resign.  “I can’t be sure, but in probability, yes.”

    “And this Stephan.  What is he like?”

    “You know as much as I do.  An angry fellow from what I can tell.  I spoke to him only once before tonight.  But he’ll be gone in the morning.”  Michael sat back and sighed.

    “I don’t like this,” said Anna suddenly.  “I don’t like this at all!”  She covered her face for a moment, and then regained some control.  “I’m sorry you got mixed up in this.  I apologize.”

    “Sometimes things like this can’t be avoided,” replied Michael.  “It will resolve itself.”

    “Yes.  Let’s hope so.  I guess we should be retiring.  Thanks again, Michael.”

    “Agreed.  Time to follow Riswan’s lead.”

    Michael awoke with the 4:30 AM call to the sholat subuh, or morning Muslim prayer broadcast by tape recording over the loudspeakers of Pantai Bira’s mosque.  Normally he returned to sleep once it was finished, but this morning he could not.  Strapping on his head lamp, he sat at his tiny wooden desk and wrote in his journal.  During the night he heard no stirrings in the hallway nor next door to him where Stephan stayed.  He wondered if Stephan or Tun had returned at all.

    After bathing at 5:30, he packed away his camera, water bottle, head lamp, binoculars, Swiss army knife, small towel, a pen, and a notebook in his day pack.  He quietly walked down to the dining patio, and taking out his binoculars stood at the railing overlooking the valley and busied himself sighting the birds of morning roosting in the crowns of the trees below.

    Irma appeared some minutes later, said good morning, and refreshed the coffee tray with fresh thermoses of hot coffee and tea.  As Michael poured himself some coffee, he heard Anna descending the stairs to the patio.  He braced himself for what news she might bring. 
    Looking up from his seat he could see she looked wan and tired, but her statuesque beauty struck him the harder.  To see her in the morning light- tall, slender, and small boned; walking towards him with delicate grace- arrested his sense of time and place.  Long blond hair spilled over her shoulders.  She managed a smile when their eyes met, her perfectly symmetrical face with its high cheek bones, pointed chin and nose, and high brow a vision of classic, if not sullen beauty.

    “Anna; how are you?” he asked apprehensively.

    “Good morning, Michael.  How am I?”  Anna paused, sat, and poured a cup of tea.  “I could be better, my friend.  But I’m ready for a day of novel surprises.  It will do me good.”

    “Yes.  I’m excited as well!  By the way, first we’ll be traveling to a seaside village to visit a scholarly man who has some books and manuscripts Jesus the Spaniard has in mind to purchase.”

    “Who is this Jesus?”

    “Jesus oversees the building of a new resort here in Bira.  He contracts Riswans’ truck for hauling building materials out to the construction site.  I’m told he’s a banker from Barcelona, and part of the investment group who has bankrolled the project.”

    “Have you ever met him?”

    “No.  I gather from Riswan he’s all about business.  A rather stressed-out personality, apparently.”

    “Lovely,” said Anna with delicate facetiousness.  “Sounds like someone else I know.”  Setting down her cup of tea on the table gently, she looked up at Michael grimly.

    “Michael, I need to tell you…Tun did not return last night.”

    “Oh, I’m so sorry.”  Michael did not know what to say.

    “He’s intent on ruining my day.  He can be childishly spiteful that way.”

    “Maybe a little time apart will help.” 

    “I doubt it.  He’s gone too far this time.  Episodes like this are always orchestrated by him- according to his needs, and meant to inflict pain,” she said ruefully.

    Irma appeared with bowls of fresh fruit. “I will give Riswan box lunches for later,” she said smiling.

    “That’s so sweet of her,” said Anna.
    “Yes, she’s up cooking at 5:00 AM every morning.  And it is Irma who is primarily responsible for my good health- keeps me fed and the food is strictly halal- selected and cooked according to Muslim rules of cleanliness.  Irma is the lynch-pin of the guest house.”

    “I’m sure she is.”  Anna paused and looked at Michael, her eyes vulnerable and tinged with emotion.  “Michael- today; please… I need a friend.  Look out for me.  Stay close by, won’t you?”

    Riswan interrupted the couple’s conversation and ushered them out the back to where Unruh stood next to his parked van.  Before getting inside, Michael inspected the tires, and noticed they were bald.  “Oh Christ!” he muttered to himself quietly.

    Once everyone was seated, Unruh backed the van out of the driveway, and in the process of turning around, drove off the shoulder of the brick pathway, embedding one tire in the limestone gravel down off the lip of the road.

    Everyone got out to push while Unruh stayed behind to steer.  The van was surprisingly light, and it was soon righted back onto the road.  Michael couldn’t help but think this small incident boded for problems to be experienced later in the day.

    From the front passenger seat, Riswan directed Unruh to Jesus’ unfinished hotel, where the Spaniard lived in a cottage.  Overlooking the sea from high atop a cliff, the hotel was enclosed by thick, sloping cement walls studded with large stones that gave one the impression of European medieval ramparts.  From near the front security gates it looked more like a military fortress than luxury hotel.  Riswan called out at the locked gates, and Jesus soon appeared.  A large man with long, thick, curly black hair, his face was broody and unshaven.  He obviously hadn’t been near a bank in a long while.

    Jesus climbed into the back of the van, sitting alongside Anna and Michael.  After exchanging customary greetings, he sat taciturn, preoccupied in thought as the van rumbled down a dirt road eventually connecting with the valley road below.

    After the van was well on its way to Tanah Beru- the famous Bugis port and ship building center- Riswan turned to the three foreigners in the back seat.  “In Tanah Beru, we will turn off into the kampong and drive to Arah, which is a seaside village.  It is Bira’s sister-city.  There we will meet Hadji Hakim, a retired school headmaster.  He will show us books from his library.

    “Sister-city?” asked Anna.

    Until a generation ago the entire region’s economy was based on ship building.  Arah was famous for its shipwrights who designed the pinisi and penari, and Bira supplied the expert builders.  The two villages had a close relationship.”

     “It’s rare to run across a scholar with a library in this area,” said Michael.  “We can thank Jesus for providing us with the opportunity,” he continued, attempting to break ice with Jesus.

    Jesus acknowledged Michael solemnly and in silence.

    Reaching the crossroads at Tanah Beru, the van turned east and headed for Arah and the sea on the other side of the cape.

     “Arah has beautiful coastline,” said Riswan.  “There are tall limestone cliffs and many caverns with fresh water pools deep enough to swim in.”

    The van sped past orchards of cashew trees surrounded by fields of tall grasses; dry and browned by the unrelenting hear of musim panas.  Horse drawn carts filled with hay or local produce rolled down the dusty road shaded by long colonnades of trees.

    A half hour later the van arrived in Arah which sat back up high upon a crest of land overlooking the ocean.  Unruh let off his passengers at the side of the road, and the group walked up a dirt road to the house of Hadji Hakim. 

    Hadji, a man in his early seventies, answered the door and welcomed everyone in.  He was at first shy and retiring, sitting quietly while the young woman who kept his house disappeared into the kitchen to prepare some tea and fried bananas for the guests.  Given his appellation, the retired educator had long ago made his pilgrimage to Mecca.  Dominating one of the living room walls was a giant framed photograph of the Grand Mosque of Mecca taken at night during the hadj.  Untold thousands of supplicants bowed prostrate in prayer around the sacred kabala stone, planted square center in the mosque’s courtyard.

    After the refreshments, Hadji warmed to his guests’ presence.  “I will go get some books for you now,” he said quietly.  He stood from his chair with considerable difficulty, and stooping a little at both the hips and shoulders, walked insecurely across the living room and through a half-opened doorway into his library annex.  A few minutes later he appeared with a handful of both hard bound books and various manuscripts.

    The library materials were set down on the coffee table in front of Jesus.  He chose one and distributed the rest to everyone else.  Jesus opened up his choice- a handsome, hardbound edition which detailed the designs of the pinisi and its grander cousin, the penari.  These were the two basic styles of Bugis schooners which were the finest examples of traditional boats ever built in Indonesian archipelago.  For the first time during the trip, Jesus expressed emotion.

    “Ahh- this is incredible,” he said softly and in great delight.

    “Why are you so interested in these Bugis ships?” asked Anna.

    “Our hotel needs to publish a brochure which includes local cultural attractions.  These will be made available to our guests.”

    Michael skimmed through the photocopy of “Seafarers of the South Celebes”- a National Geographic Magazine article written in the late 1930’s, but published during World War II.  It detailed a life now vanished from Pantai Bira.  The beaches of the East Cape were shown some three-quarters of a century ago- their expanse burdened with over one hundred pinisi beached hull-to-hull.  Most able-bodied men of Bira were employed on these sailing vessels which hauled cargo to distant points in the archipelago, following the East and West monsoons according to season.

    Jesus chose to purchase two books and Riswan borrowed two other manuscripts.

    The stop would be the Kepala Desa’s office in the small Indonesian village which adjoined Tanah Toa.  It made for a long ride through the low montane forests of south Sulawesi, the van penetrating deep into remote farming communities, driving across large tracts of flat land shrouded thick in vegetation offering no view other than the trees and shrubs directly alongside the two land road.

    Negotiations with the Ammatoa would first have to be made through the local Kepala Desa, who was an official representative of the Indonesian government.  He would then communicate the results of the negotiation to the Ammatoa chief.

    Upon arriving, Anna and Michael looked on as Riswan explained Jesus’ proposal to the Kepala Desa, a small stylish man of impeccable manners and superior looks.  Sporting the best hair cut and mustache trim in all of Indonesia, he comported himself with regal bearing, dressed in a tan uniform immaculately clean and crisply pressed.  Courteous but shrewd, his concessions were limited to approval of Jesus’ basic needs.  But he refused to budge on the fee, leaving Jesus only partially satisfied.  The Ammatoan chief’s final approval still stood in the offing.

    It was also in the Kepala’s office that all those seeking entrance into Tanah Toa need report and rent the proper black clothing which was the required dress code.  It included a sarong, shirt, and head scarf.  Once this was taken care of, the group proceeded by foot, leaving the office and walking nearly a kilometer to the entrance gates of the Ammatoan enclave up a dirt road.

    Past the gates, Riswan showed the way to the Ammatoan chief’s house on stilts.  Few people were about, and the village quiet.  Over two thousand people lived in the enclave, their houses all very similar in design and spread out in location between clusters of tall, thin trees alongside several meandering roads that intertwined.  Most conspicuous was the near silence- as there existed no motorized vehicles- all of which were forbidden.  The wooden stilts which supported the houses were often curved members rather than straight as they were collected from the forest floor as fallen branches from massive virgin hardwoods.

    Riswan approached the village chief’s house, climbing a small set of stairs, and entering through a darkened doorway.  He returned shortly and called for Jesus, Anna, and Michael.  The four walked into a dimly lit living space with a separate kitchen to the rear.

    The Ammatoa chief sat in the far corner by an open-air window with one man sitting to either side of him.  The customary guest register was handed the guests, each of whom supplied in writing their name, nationality, and address.    Once the formalities were over, the guests were allowed to converse with the village chief with Riswan serving as translator.

    Michael had met many Kepala Desas and village chiefs- also Indonesian preachers and Imams.  But none had inhabited their special offices with a benevolent authority so naturally becoming as did the Ammatoan chief.  Gentle and wise in manner, he showed no hint of discomfort at being in the presence of foreigners.  Rather, he was at special ease belying a serene soul that beheld only peaceful visions.

    His eyes shone with a light that could only be attributed to the love residing in his heart- a love so pure and direct as to be immediately transcendent of anything remotely connected to time, place, circumstance, or culture.  In that special moment, Michael was in the presence of a man whose love had the power to cut through every veil of separation that usually keeps human beings at a distance from each other.  That such a man was his tribe’s leader seemed a testament to the wisdom of the Ammatoans themselves, Michael thought.
    Behind the wood plank wall against which the chief and the other two Ammatoan men sat was the kitchen.  Through the doorway and on the kitchen floor the chief’s wife lie resting comfortably with her head on a large pillow.  Clad in a long black sarong, she looked out at the four visitors, her face exuding the same serenity and peaceful love as did her husband’s.  Their smiles were in fact interchangeable.  This extended to the look in their eyes as well.  So uncanny was this that Michael could only conclude such eyes and smiles would be those found belonging to any transcendent being no matter their cultural background.  For an instant the world melted away; the only thing remaining the two faces of the chief and his wife- melded as one.

    A Christian state of grace or a Buddhist sense of Nirvana- might these be similar states?  Michael didn’t know, but in the couple’s presence he knew he felt transformed.  It was not a case of addition- as in receiving a special gift.  It was subtraction- purification from instantaneous contact that cleansed and rid the soul of oppressive weight resulting in a newborn lightness of being.

    If the soul were a head of hair, they were the comb run through the strands unknotting all its tangles.  If the soul were likened to the face’s skin- they would be the penetrating agents that purged and cleansed all pores.  If the soul had power over one’s thoughts and memories- the chief and his wife were the electrical pulse that uncluttered and reset all neural pathways.

    In this moment, Michael’s natural urge to apprehend the knowledge of all things new surrounding him still played a powerful hand over his temporal soul. But the chief and his wife had appealed more strongly to his eternal sense.  The best reason for visiting the Ammatoa turned out to be neither expected nor the least bit suspected.  The higher value was to be found in qualities these two people shared as being in-tune with attributes universal- not with those of a provincial mind.

    But the meeting left no one speechless- especially the chief- who was quite interested in his guests.  He asked what their names meant, where they were form, and what their travels had been like.

    It wasn’t long before one of the two men who sat next to the chief took out his silver sirih box from a long, black, drawstring bag.  Popping open the lid, he started the process of preparing a chew of betel nut.  The large green pod of the areca tree contains a brown seed that when chewed produces a mildly narcotic effect.  Michael knew of its wide spread use across the Indonesian Archipelago.

    The conversation suddenly shifted its spot light to the old man as he commenced to prepare a wad of chew.  The chief claimed the man was over one hundred- possibly as old as one hundred twenty.  Being an oral culture, the Ammatoa kept no records.  His age was anyone’s guess- including his own.  Given the old man’s long chin beard, thinly drawn face, sunken cheeks, and prominent cheek bones, Michael thought he looked rather Vietnamese.  In fact he bore an uncanny resemblance to Ho Chi Minh.
    What made this all the more remarkable was the chief- a man of seventy who looked no more than fifty- had facial features similar to those of a Mongolian, and one would be hard pressed to reckon he and the old man next to him were from the same, small tribe.

    Preparing betel nut was a labor intensive activity.  The old man produced a long silver tube into which he plunged a mixture of crumpled a handful of leathery sirih leaves, limestone powder, and shavings of the betel nut.  The tube was capped at the opposite end against which the ingredients were plunged repeatedly with a long rod until the mixture was pulverized into a chewable consistency.  Upon popping off the stopper cap, a rich magenta plug of chew was withdrawn as stuck to the plunging rod’s saucer shaped end plate.  None of the original three ingredients had even the remotest hue of red.  The coloration was the byproduct of the chemical reaction as brought on by the presence of alkaline in the limestone.

    The preparation now ready, the old man held out the stopper to which the sticky substance clung.  Anna, Jesus, and Michael all took a pinch and stuffed it into the pocket of their lower lip as one would chewing tobacco.  There were two immediate reactions; one- the onset of growing irritation to the gums due to the lime; and two- the production of lots of red saliva.  The three had no other choice than run to the door every couple of minutes to spit outside.  But none of the three felt the mind-altered state that the nut allegedly produces.

    The sharing of betel nut is an expressed symbol of peace and unity in many parts of Indonesia, but the Ammatoan chief chose not to partake.  That may have been for health reasons.  Prolonged use not only stained the teeth indelibly red, but attacked the gums, resulting in tooth loss.  The chief had very nice teeth in deed.  The third man was a study in contrast, as he had few teeth left to call his own.

    Once the chief had satisfied his curiosity concerning his guests, he was open to answering questions.  Based on his empirical knowledge of the tribe and its chief, Riswan chose to accept or reject the questions posed by the three foreigners.  Some Ammatoan beliefs, customs, and ritual practices were not open to discussion, and Riswan found it best to err on the side of caution if he found a topic potentially sensitive.  His priority was to protect the source- and himself.

    “How many generations of Ammatoa have lived since their birth as a people?” asked Michael. 

    The chief thought for a moment, as if counting.  “There are twenty-one that we know of, but there were generations prior,” he finally answered.

    “Why is it you only wear black clothing?  What is the symbolic importance of the color black?” asked Anna.

    “The first Ammatoans descended from the heavens.  The heavens are where we came from and upon death, where we will return to reunite with our ancestors.  While we are here on earth, we wear a piece of cloth that mirrors the color of the night in order to constantly remind us of and to remain close to both our ancestors and our origins.”

    Michael proceeded to ask for the Ammatoan creation myth, but Riswan deemed the question inappropriate, giving no explanation.

    Riswan limited the question and answer period to a few exchanges.  He said they were short on time, and it was best to proceed with a walking tour of the Ammatoan village.  Michael was particularly disappointed by the curbing of conversation, but there was nothing that could be done to reverse Riswan’s decision.

    Riswan led the three foreigners past several houses-on-stilts along the road passing by the village chief’s own home.  Michael stopped to ask one friendly man standing on his porch if he might be allowed to take a photograph of his house.  To his surprise, the man invited the group up to come join him and his wife.

    It was a great piece of luck as the wife happened to be in the process of dyeing black a large rectangular piece of cotton fabric.  She did so while kneeling on the wooden porch planks, holding an applicator to a dyeing board which she ran repeatedly along the length of the flat fabric in long, straight strokes.  The applicator was a select sea shell whose void was filled with the black dye.  The shell was connected by a line to the end of a long, flexible whippet.  The woman held the shell while running it out straight in front of her, which pulled the whippet forward, applying more tension to the connecting line.  This helped in maintaining the proper pressure, direction, and speed at which the sea shell ran its course.  The dye fed properly out of the sea shells convoluted mouth, and the result was perfection.

    It was perfection in blackness whose uniformity of saturation was absolute throughout the body of dyed fabric.  Ammatoan black is completely absorbent of light- like the black of an intergalactic black hole- non-reflective with no hint of midnight blue or trace of purple sheen.  But neither it was not dull or opaque.  It was the a priori black present just prior to the big bang and the birth of light; the matrix of black beholding of the void; a black that would become a piece of heaven in the form of a sarong.

    Michael busied himself with photographing the woman at work.  A few minutes later, Riswan had finished his sociable chat with the husband.  The group moved on and strolled along the intertwining network of dirt roads, taking in the sights and sounds of Ammatoan village life.

    Still, what pre-dominated was silence.  Save the gentle thumping sound of bamboo culling sticks being pounded into a deep basket of rice by two women in their fenced yard, all that was to be heard was the breeze rustling through the tall, pole-like trees growing all around.  Neither the sound nor presence of any electrical appliance or internal combustion engine or talking or singing or even clucking chickens could be heard on the streets of the village.  Those few people that could be seen in the street- some of then women furtively carrying heavy loads atop their heads- walked in graceful barefooted silence. It was afternoon, and many villagers were resting.  A few bathed at a well which had been dug in a depression at the bottom of a draw between two hillsides of large trees.

    Soon Riswan insisted it was time to leave, as evening was approaching.  The return trip would be a long one.  Unruh had stayed with his van, and met Riswan and the others near the entrance gates.  Once everyone was inside and seated, Riswan was moved to tell a story.

    “The Ammatoa are a peaceful people, but can be moved to great violence as they are fiercely protective of their land.  Our present location with the van parked here on their road is cause for caution, actually.  Unruh has chosen out of courtesy to drive up this road on approach to the entrance gates in order to save us from having to walk down.  But this is not a good choice, as I have just finished telling him.

    “Notice the Ammatoan men working down the road just ahead.  In fact, we saw then when we walked up earlier.  They are making road repairs.  Automobiles and other vehicles are foreign to the Ammatoans, of course, but they must maintain this one piece of access road.  Still, it is best to walk up and approach the gates on foot, as it is a sign of respect and peaceful intentions.

    “Long ago I rode up here in a van driven by a reckless man who chose to speed with no thought of safety.  A road crew of Ammatoans, much like the ones we now see ahead, saw the van approaching at high speed.  They all grabbed their digging tools and planted themselves fearlessly across the road, forcing the driver to slam on his brakes.  The van spun around, momentarily out of control, and then came to a stop, nearly tipping us over.  The road workers ran straight for the driver’s side of the van, with the intention of pulling him out forcibly.  I had to quickly beg for then to back down and apologize for the driver’s ignorance and explain that we had no bad intentions.  Without my intervention, the workers probably would have killed him.”

    So Unruh proceeded down the road with great caution.  The van entered and then exited the Indonesian village below.  Ascending the hill taking the van outside the village, the mechanical trouble Michael had feared would happen became manifest.  The culprit was a failing fuel pump, located just under the driver’s side of the van.  Unruh initiated the ritual of banging on the fuel pump, jangling its electrical connectors, and then turning over the engine, hoping it would start.  Start it eventually did, but after fifty to a hundred meters of driving, it would cut out once again.

    For more than an hour, Unruh repeated the thankless process, hoping the fuel pump would eventually right itself.  As the sun sank low in the sky behind the trees in the sparsely populated area in which they found themselves, the van finally limped into a tiny hamlet which just happened to have a mechanic’s shop.  While Anna, Michael, and Jesus sat on a bench outside a tiny warung, Riswan and Unruh went on a search for the mechanic whom they found resting at home.

    Thus began the repairs.  The mechanic lay on his back under the van in the middle of the dirt road.  Quickly a throng of locals surrounded the van, watching the unusual event taking place.  One particular man- either mentally deficient, drunk, or both- decided it would be of interest to reach into the van and turn over the key which Unruh had left in place in the ignition.  This sent a wicked current straight from the battery into the fuel pump wires which the mechanic was handling.  He lurched in painful surprise and his thigh jerked, slamming into the under chassis.  The result was a nasty puncture wound.

    Scrambling out from under the van, the mechanic stood and quickly identified the guilty party.  In a scene quite unusual to Michael’s Indonesian travels, the mechanic attacked the other man- yelling, pushing, shoving, and slapping him around.  The man slunk cowering in fear and resignation, making no effort to defend himself.  The mechanic’s anger finally cooled, and gathering himself, returned to work.  Minutes later he announced that the fuel pump needed placement, but he didn’t have the part.  Someone would have to travel to the nearest town and pick it up.

    Jesus, who had remained phlegmatic throughout, suddenly showed great agitation, sensing they would all be stuck in this outback overnight.  Unceremoniously, he announced his imminent departure, telling his fellow travelers he would proceed alone by foot in hopes of flagging a ride back to Bira.  Grabbing his back pack, he simply turned and walked away down the road, soon disappearing around a tree-shaded bend.

    Slightly stunned, the usually implacable Riswan was moved to complain.

    “How can he just walk away and leave us here?  A friend would not do such a thing,” he said to Michael.

    “I’m not sure he is our friend, Riswan.”

    “Yes- he abandoned us,” said Anna matter-of-factly.

    “There is no cell phone signal out here,” said Riswan.  “We can’t contact Bira.  And he didn’t even offer to try and send any word or offer any help at all.”

    “I will flag down a passing motor bike and ride in to the nearest town.  The mechanic directed me to a part’s shop,” said Unruh.  “I’ll call Irma from there.”

    “”Alright, Unruh,” said Riswan.  “I’ll find a place for us to stay.”

    The sun had already set, and night was descending with earnest.  Michael, Riswan, Unruh, and the Mechanic pushed the van off to the shoulder of the road, and the crowd dispersed.  Riswan inquired as to a place to stay for the night, and the mechanic accompanied him to ask around, leaving Anna and Michael alone as Unruh took the faulty fuel pump in hand and waited by the roadside for a passing motorist.  Soon he waved one down and hopping on back of a motor bike sped away towards the nearest town.

    “Oh, Michael, Tun will be furious- and worried,” said Anna.

    “He’ll eventually get word.  Unruh will make the necessary call.”

    “But will there be a part’s shop open this late?”

    “That’s not a problem.  In these small towns you simply fine the owner and he’ll open up, no matter the time.  Unruh will return sooner that you might imagine.”

    Riswan soon returned, and led Anna and Michael to a neighboring house.  Bedding had been set out for them in an empty room.  Dinner was served as well.  However strange and uncomfortable the circumstance, tiredness overtook then all and sleep came easily.

    Waking in the early morning, the three found that Unruh was amongst them, having returned with the new fuel pump sometime after they had fallen asleep.  Soon the mechanic installed it with a bit of Gerry-rigging as it wasn’t a perfect match, and after a few misfires, the fuel lines purged of air, the new pump was primed, and the engine began to be fed fuel from the gas tank with the proper flow.
    Unruh drove the revived van home in silence for nearly three hours, taking a different route back to Bira.  Anna and Michael were dropped at the guest house after paying Unruh, and Riswan accompanied Unruh in search of Jesus, who still owed Unruh van fare from the day previous.

    It was nearly noon, and Michael retired to his room while Anna sat drinking tea in the dining patio, hoping Tun would arrive.  She had found their room empty.  Tun was nowhere to be seen.

    Michael decided to go snorkeling before taking lunch, and after lunch returned to his room to rest.  By the time he had returned, Anna was gone.  Michael fell asleep while reading in bed, and was aroused by Ningsih for dinner.

    Descending the stairs to the dining patio, Michael found he would be the sole diner. 
    Anna had yet to return.  When Irma arrived with the evening meal, he asked if Anna and Tun had checked out.

    “No, there is baggage still in their room, but I haven’t seen them since Anna left earlier today.  I have food prepared for them.  Do you know if they’ll be eating dinner?”

    “I have no idea.”

    After dinner, Michael decided to take matters into his own hands.  Returning downstairs with a flashlight from his room, he walked down the hill from the guest house and then on to the beach, scanning the small restaurants and warungs along the way for signs of Tun and Anna along the straight stretch of road that ended in a cul-de-sac by the observation deck overlooking the sea.

    The couple was nowhere to be seen.  Michael descended the long cement stairway that led down to the beach from the observation deck.  The powerful flash light beam scanned the shore and cliff sides as Michael stopped every few steps to search all around.

    Walking through the sand down to the water, Michael followed the shoreline.  Two hundred meters along he spotted a lone figure sitting on the beach up ahead.  Stopping for a moment he turned off the flashlight.  He waited, allowing his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness of night aided only by the light of the half-moon hanging high, shining brightly in the starry night.

    Slowly approaching the lone soul, Michael could see it was a woman.  Stopping once again, he called out.

    “Anna!  Anna!  Is that you?”

    There was no answer, and the woman remained motionless.  Michael paused to consider,
    and then decided to move ahead.  Finally reaching the spot where the woman sat, Michael looked down and recognized it was indeed Anna.

    “Hello, Michael,” she said softly.  “I was hoping you might come looking for me.”

    Michael sat on the white sand next to her.  “I though I’d lost you there for a minute.”

    “I’m feeling quite lost in fact, my friend,” she said sadly.

    “So Tun.  Where is he?”

    “Good question, Michael.  You wouldn’t happen to know, would you?”  She turned to Michael and smiled glumly.  “He’s gone, Michael; along with his baggage.”

    “Have you checked the local hotels?”

    “Yes.  That’s what I was doing for most the afternoon.  I gave up and came down to lick my wounds here at the beach.”

    “I’m sorry, Anna.”

    “He left me just like Jesus left us yesterday.  When the going gets tough, the heartless just get up and walk away.”

    Michael sat in silence, looking up at the half moon.

    “Is the moon waxing or waning, Michael?”

    Michael was not happy to reply in truth.  “Waning, Anna.”

    “Just my luck,” she said with a quiet laugh.  “And to think I had to ask.  To think I hadn’t been following the phases of the moon.”

    “Keeping track of heavenly bodies requires one to pay regular attention.”

    “Yes; like the Ammatoa do, right?  In fact, they wrap a piece of heaven around then all day- every day- don’t they Michael?  In order to remember.  Remember where they came from, and to where they will be returning.”

    “They take no chances.”

    There’s more to the night heavens than there appears,” said Anna wistfully.  “We see the scattered points of light- the moon, the stars, the planets.  But that darkness in between.  All that blackness.  What is it all, Michael?”

    “It is what the Ammatoa wear wrapped around them,” answered Michael.  “They keep it close to them.”

    “But what is it?”

    “All that came before, and all that will come after.”

    “Did you see what I saw yesterday, Michael?”


    “In the village chief’s eyes.  And his wife’s.”

    “Yes, I did.”

    “Could there ever be such another couple?”

    “I don’t know, Anna.  They do inspire.”

    “If only Tun could have seen them, too.”

    “Yes, he should have come.  Maybe he would have cared to see.”

    “He’s wrapped himself in his own cloak of darkness,” said Anna.

    “There is darkness; then there is darkness.”

    “Would you ever leave me, my friend?”

    “No,” answered Michael quickly but softly.  “Never.”

    “Friends don’t do such things.”

    “Not if they’re friends.”

    “You are my friend, aren’t you, Michael?”  Anna was like a child speaking to another.

    “I have always been.”

    “And so this piece of heaven above wraps around us from horizon to horizon.”

    “Our black sarong,” said Michael.

    Anna and Michael lied back on the sand and stared off into the night.  The Milky Way was now visible, cutting a broad swath spanning the horizons.  They both knew that it was only as the land grew darker and the world spun further away from the sun that such a wonder as this could be seen.

    “The darker it gets, the more I can see,” said Anna.

    “Life is suffering,” said Michael.

    “And knowledge, pain,” said Anna.

    “But oh, what a sight.”

    “Look where we come from,” sighed Anna.

    “But let us not return so soon.  Let it just remind.  For now it shall just be our black sarong.”