hex and sex in
JOHN M. EDWARDS
John M. Edwards middlenamed his daughter after his favourite
travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. His work has appeared in Amazon.com,
CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Michigan
Quarterly Review, Escape, Global Travel Review, Condé
Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets
and Entertainment Weekly.
Toba is the penultimate in penis envy.
to say, you are here to flop down like a fetus and utterly relax
at the legendary Tuk Tuk (a place not a taxi), a Christian/Pagan
entrepot purportedly rife with white and black magic and reputedly
better than St. John’s Wort at curing the blahs.
ripple on the edge of time, Lake Toba is certainly a proverbial
prime meridian of ecotourism versus narcissism -- a place for
travelers to kick back and make snap judgments about its personified
inhabitants, such as the wealthy losmen (guesthouse)
owner, Mr. Bullshit (his real name translated from Bahasa, the
official language of Indonesia), who likes to corner the market
on impecunious dirt-bag backpackers.
though Heaven has the most expensive real estate in our cosmology,
this largest lake in Southeast Asia is an outstandingly good
runner-up, consolation prize.
No other tourists, though. Save one.
counting all the pretend travelers, descendants of Dutch neocolonialists,
here was a complete stranger whom nobody had ever met before,
wearing a JanSport backpack with a lame Maple Leaf flag on it
-- always a sign these days of a candy-ass American disguised
as a Canuck, fearful of international terrorism and upscale
the American was me.
It was only in the cheaper losmen -- artistically decorated,
near-nailless Batak houses on stilts -- where you could meet
not only frisky fellow and feline budget adventure travelers,
but also could wash everyday from a mandi (a box of
water with a plastic scoop and the occasional evil rat swimming
around in it).
Toba, a pagan animist retreat filled with intrepid treats, including
some of the best euphoria-producing coffee on the entire damned
planet, was a perfect place to indulge your sex drive.
snack carts were filled with impressive small booster plates,
including a dicey dish misnomered Beef Rendang, available also
throughout the Malay peninsula if not everywhere else in Indonesia,
and which was made with Alpo-like meat chunks flavoured with
coconut and a hot sauce called Sambal Oulak.
the bus in the ersatz capital of Medan in Sumatra, the American
(I and I in the 3rd person) spots the Swiss babe he had already
met. She obviously was freaked out about how male Medan was,
with not another woman in sight.
a lengthy trip, the bus landed at a ferry terminal to take everyone
to a charmed spot on the shores of Lake Toba, Sumatra’s
largest inland lake.
the boat ride over the American also bumped into the Belgian
mercenary who had forcibly turned a difficult trip into a free
vacation. There was a WANTED poster for him in Bangkok’s
famous Kho San Road: he did not pay for his hotel and restaurant
bills. The American wonders idly if there was some reward money
young Indonesian boys kept trying to get everyone to promise
to stay at the various hostels they represented. One young boy
tipped the American off, “We are the best. If you agree
to stay at my hostel, no one will bother you.”
was sage advice, and the American accepted.
American wondered if Toba towns were going to turn out to be
nightmare hubs of overdevelopment, which always gave him rollercoaster-stomach
heebie-jeebies, like having a catheter stuck up your shonk.
some of those dreams you had which seemed almost real? Well,
some of them were. And this was one of them.
at night in a Xanadu-like town the American wants to keep secret,
stuck in a crunchy hostel (which begged for anonymity) like
an overdue cable bill without a stamp on it, the American bumped
into a Dutch handler with whom he became fast and furious friends.
was partly because the American was the only person there with
an enormous bottle of duty-free whiskey from Malaysia: (Malay
Muslims don’t regard Scotch as alcohol, and often drink
it on special occasions such as weddings, and sky funerals,
wherein the corpse is left out in the elements for vultures
to peck at).
American also said, with anti-Darwin force majeure, “If
Man were descended from the Apes, then why are the Apes still
very clever,” the Dutchman allowed.
friendly Indonesian waiter looked mightily impressed, too. But
then the Dutchman made a disparaging comment about Germans.
American looked over at a neighbouring table full of suddenly
silent Germans drinking oversized bottles of Bir Bintang with
disappointed faces, one of whom resembled a department store
mannequin of Dr. Phil, with an antique Himmler moustache.
forking his burned Ayam Sate (chicken skewers with peanut sauce
resembling black bile), which Sumatrans claim is their invention,
the American decides the plate looks like the volcanic blasted
ruins of a bombing campaign, a Pompeian plate frozen in time,
gorgeous Dutch girls with witchcrafty Hester Pryn tresses seemed
absolutely thrilled to meet a real Mayflower descendant and
were convincingly overwhelmed.
girl said she was studying foreign affairs. The American bragged
about how he used to work for the spy caterers Emerging Markets,
covering world development bank meetings.
American then heard someone behind him spit the word out, with
contempt: “Cyclops.” But nobody knew what that meant.
a little late in the game, the American discovered in his excellent
guide book (Lonely Planet Indonesia) that in 1783,
the explorer Marsden discovered a “cannibalistic kingdom”
here in the banyan-treed interior of Sumatra: The Bataks.
of this warlike tribe, whose name translated in Malay as ‘robber
or blackmailer,’ were more Malaysian than Indonesian,
but with a shared ethnicity if not culture and language.
all of the Bataks near Lake Toba are Protestant Christians,
many of them proud members of The Dutch Reformed Church. But
at the same time most of them are also Animists, who worship
an omnipotent god named Ompung.
among Toba’s artists and craftsmen, the American procured
an Indonesian lingam (for sexual potency rather more
extended than Viagra) and a magical augery book called a pustaha
(for protection from evil spirits, not only domestic but international).
course, hypnotic gamelan music tinkled everywhere in the background,
while native orangutans peeled back rainforest fronds for a
here at Toba was really an aphrodisiac, even though I didn’t
have a clue half the time what I was eating: bull sperm, monkey
brains, barbecued meat. A safe bet was Gado-Gado, which is Bahasa
for salad with peanut sauce. Even safer is the aforementioned
international Sate, which they say is a Malaysian dish, not
Indonesian -- even though that is where the native Bataks originally
jalan jalan ku bulan,” the American says to a passing
pilgrim dressed in an expensive Ikat shirt.
speak Indonesian,” the pilgrim says with a surprised,
elastically easy smile betraying perfectly white teefers, probably
a user of the popular imported teeth cleaner from India called
Darkie Toothpaste, which is also advertised on the tube for
“sparkling white teeth.” Seriously.
no, just a few words.”
the American had said was: “I walk walk to the moon.”
In fact, Westerners coming here are known as Moon People.
later, a handicapped Batak guitarist, with a malformed mitt
missing several digits, launched into a mesmerizing song none
of us had ever heard before, which was so beautiful the American
felt fatalistic tears welling up on the edges of his eyelids.
song, of course, was “Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton’s
eulogy to his dead son: “Would you know my name/ If I
saw you in Heaven?”
the American wasn’t arrested for trying a Happy Pizza.
Or a special Nasi Goreng made with psilocybin magic mushrooms.
American walked over to the lake with an expensive pungent cup
of Kafe Lewak (coffee made from the scat of wild civets) and
skimmed a rock across the surface and watched the ripples spread.
also by John M. Edwards:
Hora and the Chapel of Bones
Art of Sol Bolaños