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

Four million Minangkabau live on Sumatra. Strict Muslims who find no conflict with the Koran, they claim authority for their tradition in nature, where the female is everywhere seen to protect her offspring, and therefore the larger community, more fiercely and with more care than does the male. Frequently given better educations than the men, Minangkabau women seem to run most offices and banks in West Sumatra. When Djalius was completing her own graduate degree at Michigan State University, an adviser recommended that she take a women's studies course. She responded that she would much prefer to take a course about men. She had been raised, she said, to think of men as rather insecure.

(Back on the Laut India, McCarthy's Minangkabau cook had called a Minangkabau husband "a fly on a buffalo's tail." Although he has married a non-Minangkabau woman, he is proud that because of his Minangkabau upbringing, he and his wife have not fought once. He likes making most decisions, even financial ones, and yet he admits that things generally go better when women control the money. He was kind enough to offer me another bit of Minangkabau wisdom, that if mama's not happy, nobody's happy.)

Sheree had recommended a day trip to the volcanic lake Danau Maninjau, two hours west of Bukittinggi. When I hired a cab, Ilhu, a friend of the driver, asked if he could tag along. During lunch on the shore of the splendid crater, a restaurant owner wore a porcupine-quill necklace and handed me a business card identifying him as "Mr. Porcupine." When he spoke of cooking monkey and porcupine, it unsettled Ilhu. After our meal, Mr. Porcupine gave no warning when he uncovered a vat of squalid whiskey in which a deer fetus was half-submerged. I flinched at the sight of the slimy waxen thing, but Ilhu, who had just announced that his favorite food was KFC, was horrified by it. When it was time to head back to Bukittinggi, Ilhu said he felt sick and asked for the comfortable front seat. As I slumped down in the beaten-up back seat, I doubted that Ilhu, now chatting happily, was sick at all, and so when the car lurched through a cloud of bats, I asked him if he ever "ate bat." "Only when I get hungry," he answered after a moment. "KFB," he added.

This sharp young man spoke of moving to Chicago and of swimming in Lake Michigan. When I asked what would happen if people like him left Sumatra, he insisted that "Minangkabau will never die!" He lost patience when I assumed that Minangkabau women might have ceremonial power in a Muslim society, but nothing real.

I paid the taxi driver and thanked Ilhu. But before I headed back to Padang for my flight to Yogyakarta, I sought him out at the restaurant he had said belonged to his aunt. Smiling, coy and pretty, the aunt greeted me warmly as a customer, but when she understood I was only trying to locate her nephew, she lost interest. Still, she remained vaguely courteous and giggled at almost everything I said. But it became clear that she understood no English at all, and soon she was off doing numerous clanging things. When I tried to explain that Il had been an excellent guide, she did not get it and laughed and fluttered off to set another table.

To her back, I futilely explained that I had wanted to thank him . . . and give him . . . some money. She stopped setting the table. It took time before her head began its turn, and now the eyes that slid over my face were cold. "Tell me," she said in crisp, clear English, "how much money."

The Earthquake

The day after I bought my ticket to Indonesia, a devastating earthquake hit Yogyakarta, and that night I e-mailed my contacts to ask if at such a time it would be inappropriate for a travel writer to come. They said that they needed people to write about their city now more than ever.

Earthquakes are brief hells, and the one that hit south Java on May 27, 2006, killing 6,000 people, destroying 100,000 homes and leaving 400,000 homeless, lasted less than a minute.

On my first day in Yogyakarta, Alaster Thomas, an English expat, told me how he had become an aid worker "in 54 seconds." I had just arrived from the airport, where I had been handed a pack of dust masks, for although the aftershocks were mostly over, there were still moments when the air went gray with ash and dust.

Alaster related how, minutes after the earthquake, his Indonesian wife, Rani, had left their infant son with her parents and had tried to get home. Rani believes but cannot recall that she was struck twice by motorbikes as she ran through the streets. Just north of Yogyakarta, the Merapi volcano had been threatening for weeks, and so panicking crowds began fleeing south. In cartoons you can run a few feet ahead of lava, but Indonesians know that volcanic debris and poisonous gas can scorch the air at 2,000 degrees and can travel up to 90 mph.

Even in this Muslim city, old beliefs do not die, and soon word spread that the spirit of Merapi had kept its peace, but the jealous Queen of the South had brought an earthquake under the sea. So, then, to escape a tsunami, people whipped around and began running north. Fleeing in opposite directions and passing each other on the streets, members of the same families got into arguments about which way to go to stay alive.

On my third day in Yogyakarta, Alaster took me around Bantul, a kampong, or village, where 95 percent of the houses had been destroyed. A family who had taken refuge in a warehouse thanked me for coming and introduced me to a smiling young woman who held up her day-old son. Although I knew that many people in Bantul had lost relatives, it was not until later that day I learned that the young woman's husband had been killed in the earthquake. When I got back to my hotel and looked over my pictures, I erased the ones of her and her child. I had missed what I now saw: that her smile was an exhausting attempt to convince me, her family, her child and herself that in some way she was happy.


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