Padang is a gateway to surfing sites west of Sumatra.
Padang is a gateway to surfing sites west of Sumatra.
Kirsty Motion

In Indonesia

These Minangkabau girls in Bukittinggi, Sumatra, are part of the world's largest matrillineal society.
These Minangkabau girls in Bukittinggi, Sumatra, are part of the world's largest matrillineal society. (John Auchard)
By John Auchard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 28, 2007

"There are a hundred ways you can die on this boat," the captain told us. The South African surfers squeezed their beer cans, and I recalled Samuel Johnson's judgment that being on a boat is like being in jail with a chance of being drowned.

When I'd met Chris McCarthy at the bar of the Hotel Batang Arau in the West Sumatran capital of Padang, he'd told me about his Laut India, a big wild boat modeled on a vessel sailed by the old Bugi pirates. (It is from them that we get our word "boogeyman.") The American expat said that in two days he was taking world-class surfers out to the Mentawai Islands west of Sumatra, to the best barrel waves in the world. He spoke of animist tribes and of old men with ferocious full-facial tattoos. He said that if I came along, I would eat fish that did not have names.

At the outset I wish to state that aside from McCarthy's advice not to fall into the sea at midnight, I felt no vibration of fear or any threat anywhere during my month-long stay in the largest Muslim country in the world. I was welcomed wherever I went. Although the first thing I learned to say in Indonesian was "Saya orang Amerika" ("I am an American"), when people asked my nationality, I sometimes made them guess. Only one man guessed right, perhaps because American travelers are now rare in Indonesia. The morning I made my way to McCarthy's boat, the schoolchildren (many Indonesians speak English, and children generally try) who surrounded me were thrilled to meet someone from the United States. When they asked if I knew "Little Bush" or his father, "Big Bush," I shook my head. They shot me tender, pitying smiles, slumped their shoulders in terrible disappointment, waved and walked away.

During a summer month when very bad news kept coming out of the Middle East, I was hit by an anti-American slur only once. Yes, it was only possibly a slur, but it really hurt. Standing at a busy Yogyakarta intersection, I was wearing a rock-and-roll T-shirt and super-cool baggy shorts from a local vendor. I had just put on reading glasses to check the map, and a salesman was on me. We chatted in English about nothing, and then the topic changed to batiks. Once he started, he wouldn't let up, and he kept at it until I made it clear I was not going to buy anything.

I was way too tough -- five weeks earlier, an earthquake had shattered his city. He looked me over one last time, gave up and turned away. "Oh, do what you like," he said. Then he stopped, turned back and delivered his heartless and pitiless attack: "Yes, do what you wish," he hissed, "Mister David Letterman!"

Outcast Islands

Bali is the Indonesian island most people know, but there are more than 17,500 other islands in the 3,000-mile archipelago of the fourth-largest country in the world, which has a population of about 250 million. A city boy myself, I mostly wanted to see Yogyakarta, on densely populated Java. Indonesia's intellectual and artistic center, the city -- pronounced Joe-Jakarta, often called just Jogja -- is the home of world-class ancient monuments, theaters, dance, museums, music, many universities, and hip-hop bars. But since I recognized that a visit to Indonesia needed at least a stab at nature, I decided to start my trip on wild Sumatra, where in the local language, "orang" means "person" and "utan" means "jungle."

I did not get far with the nature plan. I regret that. At my hotel in Padang, a businessman from London summed up his month-long trek (with a great guide) in the Sumatran rain forests: "I was bitten on the bum -- twice -- by everything that can bite you on your bum. But I saw astounding things and it was the time of my life."

A Henry James scholar in my day job, I had not planned for anything like a surfing trip with eight sunburned South African men and a stunning South African woman named Charmaine. That first night, I was odd man out as everyone downed beers and stroked their surfboards. McCarthy, a generous, charismatic American who could manage to put heart into just passing the salt, noticed me sitting apart (I was reading and had just learned that 19th-century sailors used pieces of rope as napkins, and when the ropes got thick with grease, they lit them as candles). He glanced down at my book and said he was really going to have to find me a boogie board.

That first night and then each night, after the fish were grilled and the dinner was done, after McCarthy's Indonesian crew had cleaned the kitchen and had tossed the stray bones into the sea, they had a few hours to themselves. While the surfers hunkered down over beer and talked about pig-dog barrels and 20-meter-high roof-riding floaters, the Mentawai Islands crewmen emerged on deck. A few of them had ancient animist tattoos traced on their backs. As the Laut India sliced through the Indian Ocean, they reclined on the cabin roof or climbed the masts, and they talked and laughed, and then sang almost forgotten island songs to the moon. The sea was infinite, the sky black, the stars amazing and the songs haunting. They all said they wanted to marry, and they all said, "But not yet."

The nine South Africans, and even McCarthy and his crew on their 39th voyage, knew such idyllic nights were precious, as did I. But when I got back to port in Padang, I was corrected on a couple of points. A travel agent there turned out to be the fiancee of McCarthy's Indonesian navigator, and she told me that not one of the crew was a Mentawai islander, and none of them knew any ancient songs. They were, Sheree said, probably singing lazy Indonesian pop. All of them, she said, were Minangkabaus from the Sumatran mainland, and all of them were Muslim. Since tattoos are forbidden by the Koran, the tattooed ones, the ones with the long floral ribbons burned into their backs, had sinned against Allah. They do it, she said, because surfers have them. They want to be cool, like them.

The Minangkabau

Sheree recommended that I leave the steamy coast and visit Bukittinggi, a hill town famous for the unique Minangkabau expression of Islam. Two hours by car from Padang, its main streets are lined with restaurants, jazz bars and fast-food joints. There were constant calls to prayer from the great mosque, and behind them persistent tunes from ice cream trucks. Otherwise, since the 2002 bombings more than a thousand miles away in Bali, this once-thriving and still-fascinating tourist center has been far too quiet.

Yusmarni Djalius, a professor at Padang's Andalas University, had spoken to me of Bukittinggi as the heart of the world's largest matrilineal society, the Minangkabau. "High property" among the Minangkabau -- the land and the long, buffalo-horned houses that best establish cultural identity and authority -- is always inherited by women. And Djalius said Minangkabau husbands are in fact considered invited guests in their wives' homes. They can earn money and buy "low property" for themselves, but they understand it will rarely approach the pedigree, or the bulk, of what their wives have inherited and will pass down to their daughters.

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