Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
48Trip End Ongoing
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I knew that the way he was looking at me was dangerous, and chose to remain courteous but distant. I avoided looking him in the eye, which could signal either interest or a challenge. But Diar got it into his head that he would have me anyway, and made hints at what a beautiful family we would make. "Just friends," I replied, more than once. "I don't want to have a boyfriend, or to be married."
This may have been the truth, but to declare my freedom, even in the most casual way, felt quite dangerous. It meant that I would not be owned. And that is just not the way things work here. A woman who declares herself as free is a woman who is inviting trouble. Freedom, a value so cherished in the west, can take on a more sinister connotation. Fired up by western culture's over-the-top slutty behaviour in movies, TV and music videos, the generally held belief of people here, and one cooberated by my English students in Medan, is that westerners (also known as bule, orang barat or orang asin) are into "free" sex. If westerners are into it, then western women are always available for the taking.
As an addendum to this narrative as I type it months later in November, I remember a scene that illustrates why men get this idea. Later, when I went to Takengon , a small village in the mountains of Aceh (not to be confused with Tangkahan, in the jungle of North Sumatra and Aceh border), I made friends with a family there. After spending the day at the traditional horse races, we had a communal lunch on the rug at their house. At his mother's urging, her 14-year-old son donned his peci hat and rolled out his prayer rug to face the living room wall in the direction of Mecca. Meanwhile, tired from a day at the races, bellies full of home cooking, the rest of us sprawled on the rug, getting an eyeful of Miss Britney Spears on the boob tube. The contrast was striking: in the background, a young man, respectful of his mother and his religion, praying quietly on his rug. In the foreground a crazy blonde chick gyrating her buns off, encased in black leather pants. When he was done his prayers, the boy rolled up the rug and scampered back over to the television, watching intently. How can I blame this boy for getting the wrong perception of western women later in life? He's never met a western woman in person before me. All he knows about the west is from TV. And what he sees is Britney looking like she's gagging for it, even if it is just for show.
I've found that a higher amount of men in Indonesia, so far the most in Aceh, will take more freedoms with women than men do in Canada. Some, like Johnny the becak driver who told me my fly was open and made a grab between my legs, act like women's bodies do not belong to themselves. Today in the port town of Sabang, walking on the sidewalk in the broad light of noon, I received a smack on the butt so hard it stung for an hour, from a passing motorcyclist. Not more than 16 or 17, he looked pretty pleased with himself, hanging on to the back end of his friend as they smugly sped off down the road in the direction of the big breakers on the beach.
I walked in the sunlight, shaken, trying not to get upset. My big mistake in dress: my knees were uncovered and I was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt, though I had thought it was conservative. I should have been completely covered from head to toe. Lazy men lounged around like snakes, draped over rough wooden benches in front of the warungs while their wives were inside doing all the cooking and cleaning and caring for the children.
"Pssst!" they hissed, smoke drifting from their lips. "How much?" These things have happened to me in Medan, but here there is a different feeling; a real undercurrent of menace so intense it makes my flesh crawl.
Which leads back to my story about Diar. The next day I went canoeing with the English fellas around Rubiah-a long, arduous process of going against the wind and tide at every turn, but fun all the same; we were rewarded for our efforts by a turtle, a prawn with long white whiskers sticking out of a rock, and masses of fish, like flocks of birds in the sky, including some flashy blue ones that looked like neon signs. We came back to my bungalow to have a beer, and who would appear but Diar.
He lept out of the darkness onto my patio, as if he has caught me in the act for something.
"Good for you! To go around the whole island!" he said, his puny body looming black under the patio light. It was already dark, and I was uneasy. Then suddenly he turned.
"Fuck you! Fuck you!" he shouted. "You have bad heart! You liar! You have bad heart! You just watch. You be sorry. You be careful around here. I have friends.You be sorry."
"Hey wait a minute," said one of my English friends. "You'd better get out of here right now."
We were left, stunned by the threats. I was shaken to my roots. They told me that on Thursday night, Diar had gone on a rampage about how he hated Canadians. Apparently a Canadian guy stole his Indonesian-English dictionary once and he has had a hate-on ever since.
We went up to Mamamia's for dinner. As we ate, Diar sat in the darkness by the kitchen, his cigarette glowing fiercely with each drag as he muttered more threats. Mamamia and Papa told him to be quite, but not much else, beholden to him by familial or some other mysterious ties. An ill wind was blowing strong through the trees.
Suddenly all the lights went out. Great. Mati lampu. Dead lights. I looked down at my bungalow enveloped in complete darkness and imagined this lunatic ambushing me on my way back. Maybe he still has a rusty old machine gun from his GAM days under his bed. He'd been going off again, talking about how he traded weed for guns with Muslim rebels in southern Thailand. Who knows if he was telling the truth, but I could see him as being just the type that would be in an extremist group, all shifty eyes, sketchy, half crazed.
Mamamia fired up the ugly lights with the generator, and I went back to my bungalow in the dark, feeling solitary and vulnerable. My English friends advised me to leave, and it's probably for the best that way, but I am disappointed that my little island getaway has been so tarnished with hatred and fear. I must go, because even if Diar doesn't make good on his threats, I will spend the time afraid that he will. A bit like Lord of the Flies, innit? Or The Beach. Beautiful island paradises bring out the best and the worst in people.
Unable to sleep, swinging in my hammock, holding onto the side of the railing as I tentatively peer into the water below. The electricity came on for a short while, then was turned off again around 1 am, as it is every night to save money on electricity. I was edgy lying in complete darkness on my bed with the door closed and latched for safety, but I didn't want to be cooped up. I went outside to seek some light from the moon.
The fish sparkle and flash like diamonds. The Milky way flows. Such beauty and such menace. In my mind's eye, I imagine that crazed man to appear in the night, an ensuing fight to prevent myself being thrown in the water, or worse. I feel tense, waiting for a fight. He is the darkest side of Aceh, the worst of Aceh.
The sky is bristling with stars, so full of them there's hardly room for any more. Shooting stars flash in the corners of my eyes, as if I had imagined them. Like fireflies on a two-second trajectory before they switch off and disappear. Like the fish below, mirroring them perfectly. Flash, glint, then gone.