Orang Indonesia

12/16/2009, Kumai River, Kalimantan, Indonesia


An Indonesian cargo ship at anchor near the town of Kumai.

We’re learning some Indonesian. It’s a fun language that fits together in buildable units. Like this:

“Apa Kabar?” How are you? (Litterally, “What news?”)

“Kabar baik.” I’m fine. (Literally, “News good.”)

“Selamat malam.” Good evening (Literally, “Greetings afternoon.” )

“Kabar malam.” The evening news (Literally, “News Evening.”)

“Tidak” means “not,” and thus “I understand” is “Saya tahu” and “I do not understand is “Saya tidak tahu.”

It’s so unlike Turkish, with its innumerable two-letter suffixes tacked onto starter roots that cause words to grow, like unruly weeds, into dozen-letter behemoths without breaking a sweat. It confuses even the Turks, as demonstrated by the following real-life student/teacher exchange.

Paul, Turkish children’s book in one hand, Turkish/English dictionary in the other, pen behind one ear, and hi-lighter behind the other: “Sima, what is the meaning of ‘unutmadiklarini?'”

Sima, pausing, and squinting into the distance: “Well, ‘unut’ is the root of the verb of ‘unutmek,’ to forget. And ‘ma’ is negative. And ‘di’ is past tense. The letter ‘k’ is just a connector. ‘Lar’ makes it plural. ‘N’ is another connector, and the letter ‘i’ at the end is the pronoun ‘the.’ So it means “those things that he did not forget.”

Paul, nodding: “OK. Thanks. Funny, it doesn’t make much sense in this context.”

Sima: “Hmmm.” Another, longer, pause. “You know, maybe the endings here translate differently. I think it actually means “they did not forget anything.”

Paul, trying to find the eraser on his pen: “Uhhmm, OK.”

Sima, several minutes later: “Wait a sec. You know, maybe the first translation was correct after all . . . .”

Paul, putting the book down: “Selamat malam, Sima.”

But we’re in Indonesia now, and so we get to speak the local language. One of our favorite words is “orang,” which means “people.” You see the word all the time. “Orang laut” means “people of the sea,” and is a reference to the sea gypsies who later became the famous marauding pilots of the Malacca Straits. “Orang Asli,” means “original people,” and refers to the area’s indigenous tribes.

We’ve liked the Orang Indonesia.

But perhaps our favorite orang are the “orangutan,” the “people of the forest.” How apt.

Last week, on Thanksgiving Thursday and the day after, we traveled up the nearby Sekonyer River into Tanjung Puting National Park.

We had read about the human characteristics of orangutans, and were somewhat prepared. But we were still awed by it all.

This orangutan crawled onto the walk way soon after we passed.

Orangutan are so expressive. We could see melancholy in a new mother’s eyes (or was she just having us on, trying to sucker us for a snack?), nervousness on the brow of a smaller male as he moved near a larger male adult (that was real), and a “don’t mess with me” scowl of a nearly-mature male.

A pensive proboscis.

And it wasn’t just the orangutan. We saw proboscis monkeys, one looking utterly lost in his thoughts, and gibbons looking preoccupied and bored.
We think we’ve seen excitement in the eyes of dogs, reflexive fear in the collective movements of fish, utter lack of thought on the faces of sheep, and watchfulness in the eyes of deer. The expressiveness, however, ends there. Maybe if we were dogs or sheep or deer, we could read the expressions spread across the rest of their faces, but we aren’t and we don’t.

But the apes and monkeys we saw expressed emotions that we could feel. Some pictures we took capture a little of this.

You can probably see a lot of the same things in the zoo. But it was nice to visit them in their homes. The park also helped us understand their strength and grace.

Trees would rustle in the distance as an orangutan approached. We watched them move from tree to tree, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but always with an ease that belied the strength needed to move like they did. We watched one climb to the tippity top of an old tree, the trunk whittled thin. Why? There were no nearby trees close enough to grab. But then, at a dizzying height, the orangutan began to rock the thin upwardly-thrusting branch, using its weight to bend it slowly in the direction it wanted to travel. When it was close enough, it reached out to finger the leaves and twig tips of the next tree over, pulling the trees together until it could grab handfuls of leaves and branches from the neighbor. One arm, then a leg, then the other arm shifted from one tree to the next, seemingly without effort. It then let the original tree go, which sprang back to its original position.

Now we’re back on the boat, and it is our last night in Indonesia, probably. We’ve been anchored on the Kumai River, near a town with the same name.

The boat has swung with the bow pointing towards the ocean, eight miles away, as the tide is flowing in. From our starboard side come the bright lights and noises of Kumai, a bustling if geographically small dock town. Can a place be scruffy and charming at the same time? To port, much closer, and as different from the lights and noise of Kumai as night from day, is the enveloping darkness of the National Park, from which the sounds are usually only the regular rhythm of animal and insect life.

But just now, somehow, from the darkness of the uninhabited jungle, music is floating out across the short distance to our boat. Where can it be coming from? Maybe a local boat has pulled into the mangroves, fishing. But the quality is pretty good for just a local boat. The sun has just set, and the music is calming, a mix of reggae, afro-beat, and trance, maybe. An easy but noticeable drumbeat underlies the music.

It makes us realize how un-peaceful the five-times daily calls to prayer is, the most recent of which ended just before the sun went down. The uneven fifteen-minute calls blare from the loud speakers of more mosques than your ear can sort out. Five? Eight? Ten?

Remember in Casablanca, when Rick and Elsa are in Paris, and the pleasant-sounding French announcer reports the approaching Germans? And then they come, the announcer changes, and the voice becomes staccato-sounding, German-accented French. That’s what some of the callers sound like. Not harsh or militant, but strident, perhaps. A sort of urgency that says, like the German in Casablanca, “you’d better follow along if you know what’s good for you.”

It’s not like we are forced to run below when the calls start, and, actually, for the most part we don’t pay the calls any mind. But it’s just that the nice music we hear now has been juxtaposed so close to the calls, it makes us wonder what it is all about.

A woman sells hot snacks at a night-time stall.

We’re only nipping at the edges of the Muslim world, geographically and ideologically, and a good portion of Indonesians are ambivalent about their beliefs. They play poker at night, rely upon Shaman for guidance, and have a beer with friends. One friend we made told us that he’d like to go to Las Vegas some day, but would probably instead go to to Mecca for his Haj. Talk about travelling in different directions!

One common theme among the Orang Indonesia is friendliness and curiousness. Being here gives some sense of what it is like to be famous. When Paul goes out for runs, many of the people whom he passes on the crowded streets yell or wave. “Hey mister” must be the first (and perhaps only) English that many learn.

Many do speak some English, none very well, and most none at all.

Some of the printed English we find is downright hilarious. We saw a small child riding on the back of a motorcycle (80% of motor vehicles are two-wheeled), clinging to his head-scarfed mom, with a t-shirt emblazoned across the back with two four-letter words. Neither he nor his mom had a clue what the words meant.

The Bahasa Indonesia instructions for our new stairmaster warn “should be nobody or far away from the danger place when exercising” and “suggest old folks to use it in the same time every day.”

We watched an English language lesson on broadcast TV, during which the teacher worked through a translation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” with the English lyrics scrolling across the screen, describing Frank’s steps along the “bay way” (byway),” his seeing it through without “examption,” and his “to” few regrets.

But any language flaws are made up for by how nice Indonesian orang are.

Now we’re off to Singapore. We’re traveling late in the transition season, between the Monsoons, which means that what little wind we get will probably be adverse. There are also some uncharted reefs and hundreds of local fishing boats, some of which move to and fro with navigation lights that blink, quite randomly, white and red and green. The fishing boats supposedly leave quite a few nets. And this is also supposed to be the time of year when thunderstorms are most severe. When we get to the Singapore Straits, we’re supposedly to be rewarded with the world’s busiest shipping channels, where huge ships are supposedly spaced two minutes apart and moving at quite rapid speeds. And they have the right of way.

Right then! Off we go!

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