March 17, 2015

Keramah Tamahan - Life on Tanimbar Kei

Let me begin by saying that Tanimbar Evav (the name for « island », in the local language) is one of the most incredible places I have ever been to. I was tempted not to say anything about it so I wouldn't risk more people finding out, but I loved it too much not to share.

I almost didn't make it to Tanimbar, southernmost point of the Kei islands. I got to the harbour to try and find a fisherman willing to take me there, and five minutes later, rain started pouring down like God had decided that one flood wasn't enough after all. I waited for a couple hours while chatting with the locals (good thing about indonesians : even when your language skills don't allow you to talk with them, they will talk at you anyway). After a while, the rain stopped but it was too late to make the crossing. I felt a bit disappointed, but then one of my new friends, a woman named Bon, who was by that point wearing my favorite blue sweater, told me to come to her house. Her husband was from Tanimbar and would take me there tomorrow. Stammering with gratitude (and also because I am very cold from my soaked clothes) I climbed on the motorbike and we drove home. I spent a lovely evening with them, being generally overfed and dragged to three different houses to entertain their relatives.

The next morning, we drive back to the harbour, where I find three friends first encountered a few days before, also trying to get to Tanimbar. There are Tessa and Bartek, from Poland, and Adrian from Romania – all living in Java on a scholarship (add this to the bucket list). The four of us get on the boat – and that's how the adventure starts. The tiny boat makes an unbelievable noise and the motor (a metal monster held together by rubber bands and swimming in the green water of the cale) shakes me to my bones. The rain starts soon after we left and we endure it stoically for two hours. Then the sun shines again and by the time we get to our destination, our clothes are dry.

Our arrival on the island feels surreal. As evening approaches, a family of huge fruit bats come out and fly above us in circles. Simon and Ibu (grandmother) Ona, our friends and hosts, lead the way. There are only two settlements on Tanimbar and this is the smallest one. We sit on chairs outside a house made of wood and straw and introduce ourselves to the elder, Ona's mother, who smiles at us gently. After a while, a streak of red across the sky catches my eye and I make my way to the beach, soon followed by the others. Our first sunset in truly incredible, and we smile at each other, not ready to believe our luck. We are hosted in a local home and unroll our sleeping bags on the hard stone floor, excited like kids about the day ahead.

On our first day, Ibu takes us to visit the main village. People from Tanimbar have a ancient and unique way of translating the rules of their community into physical space. There is a high village and a low village, the houses placement is dictated by the family status, and at the back of each house, there is a zone considered taboo, a zone devoted to the spirit world, where you are not allowed to gossip, gather food, or engage in any physical activity (if you see what I mean). We first go to meet the kepala desa (the chief and representative of the community) and as we write our names in the logbook, we realize that there are very few names on it, and virtually none from outside Indonesia. Mostly people coming to make statistics, or test the water. It's an incredible feeling to be allowed to explore a place, when you know that you're among the only ones. Our being here is greeted with polite curiosity. No one speaks english, so my three friends and I share our knowledge of bahasa to communicate with everyone else. Visitors are rare here, but the welcome we receive is incredible. Houses are open to us, and our well being is a constant worry : « Are you tired ? Are you hungry ? » and whatever the answer to the last question is, we are very often persuaded to sit down anyway and eat.

Food here is plentiful, although limited to two staples : rice and seafood. The rice cooked in coconut milk is sweet, and the seafood is, well, amazing. You won't find fresher anywhere. Our meals are simple but delicious, and we are bullied into taking seconds. And thirds. I always feel a bit awkward when it comes to receiving food in small villages, as their values dictate them to give us everything they have. They won't eat at the same time, to show we are honored guests, and I worry that I am eating too much, that there won't be enough left for them. In short, I worry about outstaying the welcome ; maybe everything that is offered is not to be taken. My friend, who has been here longer, tries to reassure me. He says : Jeanne, it's not about you being well fed, it's about pride, about them showing how well they can take care of their guests. Now shut up and eat the freaking fish. And so I do. Damn, it's delicious. I learn how to say hospitality in bahasa : keramah tamahan.

The island is all beauty and wild ruggedness. The days go by in a blissful blur. We take a boat around the island, spotting the dark gleaming back of dolphins. Children walk with us through the jungle. They catch tiny crabs in the cracks of the rocks and we cook them right on the beach, tearing them apart and sharing the tiny bits of rosy flesh. We sit in the sea while the rain comes, the water being warmer than the air. Our friend climbs to get us fresh coconuts and we sip on the sparkly juice, before eating the white flesh with a spoon fashioned out of the shell. In the high village, we find a book written fourty year ago by a french anthropologist about the island, and I translate passages to my friends. We want to learn everything about this place. It entrances us. One village is catholic and the other, muslim, but when I ask my friend Simon about what he believes, he shrugs and answers : I believe in my gods. The old ones. And I smile, thinking that cultures are not easily rewritten.

Watching the sunset becomes a ritual. We sit on the pier, beaming. Children gather around me as I try to capture the colours on the water and I show them the images I took of their island, and they laugh and call the name of everyone in the pictures. At night, small crabs crawl out of the jungle and in the village, entering houses – we have to sweep them out before going to bed. Fires are alight everywhere and the generator makes a funny noise – we only have electricity from evening to dawn. On our last evening, we plot together and manage to force Ibu Ona into accepting a donation for the village – she argues that she wants none of it, but we are being firm. Then, she tells us that we are her children now, and I promise her that I will come back.

We leave the morning of the 25th of December. Our Christmas breakfast is composed of rice cooked in palm leaves and a cup of tea that vibrates violently with the boat. It's the best Christmas ever. We look at the island until it faded away. A few hours later, trying to find solace in the movement of the plane taking me away, I think that this is the most precious part of my trip : knowing that there are people, all over the world, living a very simple life, that will open their home to you no matter who you are or where you're from. And my lips form the words again. A lesson I want to keep, a song we should all learn by heart : Keramah tamahan.

(Needless to say, Bon kept my blue sweater. I think she earned it.)

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