By Melinda Misuraca
The Javanese don’t like to be alone. To them solitude is a sickness cured by surrounding themselves with people. In Java the only encouraged antisocial activities are bathing and using the toilet, and even then true privacy is not guaranteed. If you find yourself forced to conduct such personal business with merely a flimsy rattan partition as cover, don’t worry. People will pretend they don’t see you, even if they do. You may not have privacy, but you will have the illusion of privacy. At any other time, those around you will make sure you are never by yourself. They’ll tell you it’s for your own good.
This insistence on togetherness might include a spontaneous group discussion about your life. This happened to me often during the two years I lived in Java with my then-husband, Samino. My most obvious qualities at the time were great conversation icebreakers: upon meeting me a stranger would typically say something like, Would you look at that! It’s a Pregnant White Woman! and we’d continue our chat from there. Though back in the States I had successfully carried two pregnancies to term and given birth to my baby girls at home, here I was plied with plenty of advice pertaining to my current condition, wisdom that had been passed down through generations of Javanese mamas: Don’t eat that kind of banana or your crotch will break out in a rash. Don’t consume iced drinks or the baby will grow too big and get stuck inside. Don’t squat for too long or the baby will fall out (if only it were that easy). Don’t go out at the hour of maghreb or some unsavory individual will likely place a curse upon the baby that will cause hideous deformities. My in-laws were especially worried about such possible calamities, and in hopes of soothing them I heeded most of their words of caution. I only squawked about the iced drink ban, due to my unholy devotion to the palm sugar-sweetened drink called es cendol.
I first traveled to Indonesia at the end of a tumultuous period during which I had laid waste to much of my personal life. The year was 1988. On the surface things were fine–I was a 26-year-old single mama with two small daughters, had a good relationship with a sweet man, worked part-time and was studying to be a graphic artist–but the stress of trying to keep it all together had begun to cause tremors of instability that I had desperately tried to ignore. One morning I awoke shaky, disoriented and paralyzed with dread. Everything around me made me nervous: noise, lights, people. This spell intensified over a period of weeks. I lost weight. A stripe of white hair sprouted from the upper left part of my scalp. At the time I didn’t understand that what I was experiencing was a nervous breakdown. I dropped out of college, broke up with my sweetheart and begged my children’s father to switch schedules and keep the girls on weekdays. For a while I lived in my car (a ’67 Volvo Amazon affectionately named Kamikaze Death Boat), avoided everyone, and waited to come to my senses. During the afternoons I’d park near the Russian River and sit on the pebbled beach, skipping rocks and writing “falling-apart poems”:
There’s twice as much as the last time
Four times as the time before
If the current gets any higher
I don’t think I’ll hold on anymore
That vague detached Buddha
Swims with the Devil in the sea
They’re netting for their supper
I think they’ve plans for me
I left my hood by the wayside
Machinery exposed to the sun
If you can handle me junked as I am
I’ll kiss you with more than my tongue
After some weeks of solitude I felt a little better, and in the evenings I would land at Papa Ron’s, a café that doubled as the living room for a patchwork community of painters and poets, loners and misfits, old hippies, punk rockers and one stripper. I fit right in.
Like many of the impulses I’d felt compelled to follow, Asia parachuted in like a secret agent and bushwhacked its way into my psyche. At the time, my idea of the place was an exotic Orientalist fantasy of buddhas, pagodas and geishas, a “there” as counterpoint to the “here” that had become unbearable. I had yet to learn that “here” was more about my emotional landscape than it was about physical geography. This understanding would come many years later. For now I needed to escape, and Asia had suddenly become my wormhole.
After months of carefully guarding my solitude, I landed on Java, an island with a population density of roughly 2,500 people per square mile–one of the most crowded areas on the planet–and a few weeks after I arrived I married a man I had just met in what was the Muslim equivalent of a shotgun wedding. Samino and I spent the long months that followed waiting for his visa to the States to be granted and getting to know each other, and despite all the attention from well-meaning Javanese family and friends, it was a rocky period burdened by hormones and differences in language and culture.
I was lonely. I was living across the globe from my two little girls, Vee and Looby, and I missed them so terribly that at night I’d have nightmares, always the same: The girls and I are on a boat. A wave washes over us and they fall into the sea. I dive after them and reach out to grab them but they drift away, calling Mama, Mama! I always woke up from that dream crying. I cried so much that Samino took me to see a dukung far up in the mountains. When we arrived at the dukung’s house we found a little boy sitting on the front porch, puffing away on a clove-scented cigar like an old man, a look of serene contemplation on his face. I showed the dukung a picture of Vee and Looby. He mumbled something over a chunk of fragrant resin, then told me to break a piece off every night and burn it at the hour of maghreb. He explained that if I did this, my father would bring the girls to Indonesia. I didn’t really believe him, but I did what he said. It was something to do.
On days that I wanted to be by myself, I would bind my pregnant belly in a sarung, take a fishing pole and some cooked rice wrapped in banana leaves and walk to an isolated stretch of beach that is haunted by Nyai Loro Kidul, a goddess who lives at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Nyai Loro has a beautiful face and a voluptuous torso, while her lower body is that of a sea snake. She is known to be moody. She loves the color green, but doesn’t want anyone else to wear it. Every year the village fishermen hurl a buffalo head into the sea to soothe her temper and ensure a bountiful season. Nobody liked to go to Nyai Loro’s beach, which made it the perfect place for someone who craved solitude.
To get there I had to take a short hike through the jungle. It was populated by shy black leaf monkeys with slender fingers and pale faces who would watch me from their high tree perches, and stocky grey monkeys whose bad-boy cuteness–crew cuts, quizzical expressions–turned sour when they went after my food. These guys were mercenaries who would have happily killed me for a banana. It was no use hiding anything; they could always smell it, and they’d drop from the trees and surround me like gangsters. The cockier ones would make running drive-by attempts to grab my bag, scolding me if I didn’t give it up. Once a grandaddy monkey with formidable sideburns jumped on my back, but somehow I shook him off. I didn’t want them to think I was easy, or I’d never hear the end of it. Recently I had complained about the troublemakers to my father-in-law, Pak Selap, a wise man whose word was universally trusted. He gave me a couple of monkey skulls hanging from a piece of rope and instructed me to tie them to my bag.
Nyai Loro’s beach was scattered with ivory-hued coral, glistening seashells and a galaxy of smooth pebbles that reminded me of afternoons spent with a friend in Southern California. Chris had mentored me in his unique beach rock taxonomy, cataloguing finds into Stripers, Pills, Junior Mints and One-Eyed Mexican Fighting Rocks. Since my move to Indonesia I’d developed my own categories, like Deadpans, Sardines and Broken Hearts.
I liked to wade in the tide pools and gaze at the green waving arms of the anemones and the stiff orange arms of the starfish suctioned to the rocks. I’d catch my lunch, a buttery fish that I roasted over a driftwood fire and ate with the rice and hot chilies I had brought with me. I’d spend the rest of my time choosing treasures to send to my far away daughters. I was always as thoroughly alone as I could be. There was nobody to tell me not to cry.
One day I went to my beach with the monkey skulls dangling from my bag. I entered the jungle, and this time the wannabe snack-snatchers eyed me bitterly but let me pass. I arrived at the beach to find an outrigger canoe and some fishermen sitting and smoking on the sand nearby. I was instantly annoyed. What were they doing here? Didn’t they know this beach was haunted? I put on my fiercest don’t-talk-to-me face and walked by without looking at them.
I could feel the fishermen’s stare as I baited my hook and cast my line. They watched me wait for a bite, watched me shift the weight of my big pregnant belly from one leg to the other. They watched me bring in a fish, gather driftwood, light a fire, cook my catch and eat it. I ignored them the whole time. I would have my solitude. After lunch I found a nice spot under a tamarind tree, dug a hole in the sand for my belly so I could lie face down, and fell asleep.
I awoke to a loud THWAP! and the cacophony of hysterical monkeys.
A gigantic python had flung itself from a tree and landed right next to my head. Had it swung just a few inches to the left I might not be writing this now. At its widest the python was thicker than my thigh, with skin bitmapped in grey and black, a head shaped like a shovel, and the cold eyes and flickering tongue featured in anybody’s worst snake nightmare. I’d heard stories of pythons stealing village chickens, some even sneaking into houses in the middle of the night and making off with babies. Monkeys were also a favorite python treat, which was probably why at this very moment all those little grey thugs were losing their minds and climbing on top of one another in terror.
I scrambled to my feet and ran down to the sea. I hadn’t yet learned that pythons are excellent swimmers, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. There was nowhere else to go. I turned to see the creature surging into the water after me. You know that cliche, My blood ran cold? I could feel it freeze solid in my veins. My brain was like a block of ice. I struggled to swim away. I did not want to become just another completed task from a python’s to-do list.
Then for some reason the snake changed its mind and retreated back to the sand as casually as if it were on vacation.
A crowd of fishermen and monkeys had gathered. The men were armed with bamboo poles, and they began to beat the python with the detached focus they might have had while digging a hole or hauling in a net full of fish. The massive creature hoisted itself as tall as a man, ducking and swerving with the grace of a prize fighter. The noise of the beating was gruesome—the thwack of bamboo upon reptile flesh, the grunts of the fishermen, the snake’s enraged hissing and spitting, the monkeys shrieking their approval like a lynch mob. The python grew tired, the effort to lift its head and avoid blows increasingly difficult, until it could only lie on the sand and sigh pitifully as the last moments of life were beaten from its body.
The monkeys had watched the killing from a safe distance. Once the snake was dead they rushed forward, assembled along the corpse’s length and dragged it away into the jungle, bickering all the while. The fishermen squatted on the sand, lit up their kretek and recounted the event, finessing the details with hissing and slithery gestures.
I’ll admit to a giddy chemical rush while witnessing the death of the snake. Now that it was over I felt spent and ashamed. I gathered up my things and started home, nodding at the men as I passed. They returned the nod, one of them murmuring, “Isteri Samino.” Samino’s wife. Then I heard somebody call after me, “Jangan pakai hijau, Ibu.” Don’t wear green, Missus. I was wearing my favorite batik sarung, decorated with green fans against a black background.
The hour of maghreb was approaching. Time to get on home before my unborn child fell victim to bad magic and sprouted an extra head. I walked through the village and from the houses I passed I smelled food frying and heard water splashing. I felt suddenly burdened with an amalgamated loneliness made up of many lonelinesses stacked one upon the other. There was the one I was born with that always had me running, running, running, recklessly trying to fill a bottomless hole. There were the twin lonelinesses of loss and regret. There was the one that likes to shuffle in on the heels of death and lie down on my heart. All around the pile of lonelinesses rose the kinds of questions that don’t have question marks. How does one fashion grace in a world filled with cruelty, destruction and death. What, if anything, happens after we die. What is love and how can one become better at it while wearing a thick cloak of sorrow buttoned to one’s soul.
The Indonesians I knew didn’t seem to worry about such things. They thought a lot about food. They laughed at overturned buses. They refused to let tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions keep them down for too long. They chose not to be alone. Perhaps they were not always content, but they allowed what is to be. I walked the rest of the way home, picturing the monkeys gobbling their python dinner. Eat or be eaten. I wondered what they would do the next time I passed by them on my way to the beach
Melinda Misuraca likes kisses, sugar, skipping rocks and conversations in parked cars. She holds an MFA in creative writing from New College of California, where she formally taught, and her work has appeared in such publications as Best Travel Stories 2006, Salon, Natural Bridge, Alternet and others.