East Meets West
Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
48Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
I couldn't sleep, so at 2 am I wandered down the road to Brando's, where the same CD with Bob Marley, 50 Cent and Batak electronica spun for the umpteenth time, echoing through the flower-heavy hibiscus trees and the silent, huddled houses of the village.
The stars, the music, and the laughter of friends drinking together guided me back to the little tavern. I ordered a Bintang.
"Bintang means star," Duan had told me as we looked up at the night sky. Countless stars twinkled, unencumbered by the veil of city lights, free to multiply in the darkness of the country. They were so plentiful that they ran in a thick, milky stream over the glistening lake. "Bintang bintang," he said. "Many stars."
No one drinks alone here, and it wasn't long before a local Batak girl, a waitress named Lily Rose who had just finished her shift, sat down to talk with me. Maybe loneliness hung in the air with the stars that night, because soon Lily Rose began to tell me of her sadness over her Finnish boyfriend, a tourist whom she met in January when she was working at the bar.
"I see so many western boy," she said. "None of them I like but him." She smiled and her eyes lit up at the memory. "When he walk in, I say to my friend, 'Wow! Look at him!' He keep coming and coming in, every night. I like him so much. And he like me too. I can tell."
East meets West. It seems so exotic and exciting to make this star-crossed match. To westerners, Indonesian people are as warm as the weather, with tawny skin and lithe bodies to match. It can be hard to resist their attention. Many local people openly adore western tourists. Tall and fair, with hair bright as sunlight, we step off airplanes from exotic faraway places-places where most Indonesians can never afford to go-as if from the pages of a movie magazine, to dazzle and impress with our worldly western ways, and our money.
But the results can be ill-fated. Sometimes we just don't think the same way, or want the same things. For Lily Rose and so many other Indonesians, life is hard and full of poverty. It can be a major accomplishment to start and relationship with a westerner and make it last; it means a chance for a better future. Some have their heart in the right place, but some don't. When they see fair hair and skin, they also see rupiah signs flashing-a fact of which the Fin must have been keenly aware.
One day, he took Lily Rose with him for a tour of Samosir Island on his motorbike.
"I think he make me his girlfriend," she said. "But he make me confused. He say he like me, but then he say I like him only for his money. But I not like that! I like him with my heart. I try to tell him I see many tourist, but I like only him. He not understand. I never ask for money, though my life is so hard."
Westerners are hardly pure, either. Flattered by the movie-star treatment, they indulge in a holiday fling, make declarations of eternal love in the heat of passion, and, when the holiday is over, promise to return. Then they get on the plane to their old lives in their faraway countries, forgetting they ever had a lover waiting for them with hopes in their hearts and dreams in their heads.
Only 21, Lily Rose has not had much experience with men. The Fin had told her he would come back for her, and she had truly believed he would. But it has been five months now, and he has stopped answering her text messages. Her face screwed up with disappointment. "I give myself to him, too. My first time."
Hopes fade as time goes by. But Lily Rose still harboured one last ray. It glimmered in her eyes when she spoke of him, like the flash of an uncaught fish before it swims away to the bottom of the sea.
Nursing our Bintangs over our girl talk, I tried to toss her a line of fresh hope. I asked her what the local men are like, and if she would be interested in one. She poo-pooed the idea with a wave of her hand. "Oh, Batak men are so serious! Too traditional. They want to get married and have babies. But they have no money. If I married a Batak, life would be so hard."
True love and easy money: it's a difficult combination to find. Lily Rose wistfully observed that it works better for Indonesian men and western women, and from what I've seen so far the mix does seem to be more common. Many local men have long-term girlfriends and wives from Australia, Switzerland, Holland and Germany. One couple I've gotten to know, Annette from Germany and Anto, from Samosir, are married with three children. They've owned and operated Tabo Cottage, a high-end guest house in Bagus Bay, on the other side of Tuk Tuk, for years. It was at their gazebo that my friends and I had recently enjoyed a meal, watching the stars emerge as dusk slipped over the lake.
Popy, my friend over at Popy's Fish Farm, Restaurant and Library, had his own opinions on east-meets-west romance, which he had shared with me recently over an iced cappuccino. "Hati hati, ya," he said as we sat watching his children play on the stone wall encircling the fish farm, trying to make their silver kite fly in the wind. They bubbled with laughter when it dove into the pond nose first, making the goldfish dart in all directions, an orange sunburst beneath the surface.
"The men here want to meet western girls, and many times it works. But some want only money. You must find a man with a good heart."
I assured him I was quite happy to be alone, but promised to be careful. Popy's wife, also Indonesian, came to join in the conversation, followed by little Ito, hugging a squawking chicken. "You must be so busy," I said to her.
"My husband very busy too!" she said with a wink, and we shared a good belly laugh.
They smiled at each other, their love running clear and deep, filling the restaurant and submersing the tables and chairs, the shelves of old books, little Ito and his squawking, muttering chicken, in familial warmth. But with it there also came a sense of deep sadness and resignation, Their sadness runs as deep as their happiness. It's a paradox intrinsic to the Indonesian spirit.
East loves East. They choose to be together, but have a high price to pay.
"Enam anak," Popy said. "Many mouths to feed, and no tourists. Everyone afraid to come. They think of terrorists and tsunamis. But we are good people. Life is hard."
When I told him I was a travel writer, and that maybe my articles will bring more people to Toba, he said, "Terima kasih. Thank you." He pressed his hands together at his heart. "You are a kind woman. I would like to take you to Java and meet my brother. He just graduated from university. He is single, and has a good heart."
He took a long drag of his cigarette, his face etched with the cares of the world, kindness and worry mingling in his eyes.
"And a good job with Adidas, too."
Ay! For better or worse, richer or poorer, it seems the world is conspiring to bring the east and west together. We're not so far-flung anymore. As we rise to the challenge of living together on this small planet of ours, maybe it will bring a greater understanding of how we can peacefully co-exist, being both different and the same. For some, like Lily Rose, the meeting of cultures has brought only confusion and disappointment. Yet a broken heart still isn't enough to quell the desire to look up in the direction of the stars, and wish on them for a better life. Bintang, bintang.