Non-fiction by Karen Petersen

An Indonesian Story

In memory of Peter Matthiessen


I had only been in Sumatra for a few days when the fever first took over.  I’m not sure where it came from but the sweltering environment was so fetid anything could have been the culprit.

On the plane one person had told me a story that had just appeared in the local news a few days earlier, of a Westerner who had cut himself shaving and three days later had to be airlifted out to a hospital in Bangkok due to a virulent, life-threatening infection which he’d developed as a result.

So it was no surprise that one day I was fine, and the next I wasn’t.

The Northern capital of Medan was a booming oil town, home to more kamikaze drivers on its crazed streets than anywhere else on Earth, except perhaps Bangkok or Cairo. So between the drivers and the deadly humidity it seemed smart to get out of there as soon as possible.

I found Jeksin, my dark-haired Batak guide, at a local travel agency.  He was a good driver, and we drove slowly on the road out of town.  He told me it was not as tortuous as it had been a decade ago, and we passed many colorful tropical fruit stalls overflowing with exotic mangosteens, durian, guavas and strawberries.

We’d decided to head off to Lake Toba, to the lands of the Karo Batak, a proto-Malay people who lived in big raised longhouses whose soaring reed roofs looked like giant ship prows. These Batak were known for their fondness for human blood pudding, and in the 1820s, the Englishman, Raffles, had written that “It is usual for the people to eat their parents when too old to work.”  And for certain crimes, criminals would be eaten alive: “The flesh is eaten raw or grilled, with lime, salt and a little rice.”

I felt my appetite for lunch rapidly disappearing.

“The last time a Batak ate someone was in 1974…”  Jeksin laughed good-naturedly, showing off his gold capped teeth.  “He thought his girlfriend didn’t love him any more so he killed and ate her.  But after going to jail for a few years he reformed and now he’s a Christian missionary!”

He laughed heartily.

This information was creepy enough, and it turned out Jeksin’s idea of amusing himself was to take a short cut and drive us to a longhouse deep in the forest where the oldest inhabitant could remember eating human flesh.

“Don’t you want to meet her?” he said with a wicked grin as we turned down a narrow dirt road.

I felt both repulsed and fascinated, but my rising fever had filled me with a kind of reckless abandon so I said, “OK, sure!”

As we drove deeper into the forest, Jeksin pointed out that some of the longhouses we passed dated back more than two hundred years.  Capped at either end by a set of buffalo horns, the beams and posts of these multi-family dwellings were decorated with mosaics from the alchemy of animism, with extravagant carvings of lizards, serpents, and monster heads—motifs that one finds in most Batak art.

We rolled to a stop in a clearing and got out.  As we climbed up the longhouse ladder out of the bright sunshine into the gloom, I began to have a sense of foreboding. The entry into the dim, smokey interior was through a trapdoor, and inside, out of the darkness, a toothless old woman, eyes rheumy and distant, came and pressed my hand in welcome before fading back into the shadows.  Seeing her aged face, a face that had witnessed an earlier Sumatra of feuding kings and cannibals, it was all I could do to keep from yanking my hand away, convinced she was checking it out for fat content and tastiness.  Although ritual cannibalism was now a thing of the past, even as late as 1990 the worst insult a Batak could say to someone was “I pick the flesh of your ancestors from my teeth.”

Temporarily blinded by the dark and smoky inside, as my eyes adjusted I could see the old woman was dressed in typical Karo Batak style—a geometrically brightly woven wrapped skirt and shoulder scarf, complete with what looked like a large black mushed pillow on her head.  As she came forward again her eyes were burning and red. This was probably from the smoke of the small fire but to me she seemed like an apparition from Hell.

Her face was deeply wrinkled and her hands knobby and arthritic. She had these massive silver earrings called padung-padung, which were attached from her twisted earlobes into her headdress. She peered into my face intently, and suddenly grabbed my upper arm tightly and squeezed it so hard that I cried out and pulled back but she wouldn’t let go.

The driver said, “She’s checking you out. She wants to feel how much fat you have. Fat makes the meat much tastier. Your cheeks, upper arms and thighs are particularly good. I’ve heard that we taste like a nice cut of pork. They call us long pig.”  He laughed.

A chill ran down my spine. I was on the slender side so I hoped the old woman was disappointed. “Very funny,” I replied. “I think it’s time to go!”


On the way to lunch in the small highland Karo Batak town of Brastagi, situated in a fertile area noted for abundant flowers and lush vegetation, we drove past some distinctive large wooden stilt houses that dotted the countryside—simple structures topped by high, sharply-pointed, curved bow roofs made with sugar palm fiber or corrugated iron.

When we arrived at the spacious and comfortable Bukit Kubu Hotel in Brastagi, a waiter dressed in a striped Batak “ulos” fabric of dark blue, red, and white offered us a welcome drink of marquisa fruit, a sweet, thirst quenching orange-colored passion fruit found here and in Sulawesi.  “Let’s go take a look at the pasar,” Jeksin said.

Only a ten minute walk away, the local pasar, or market, of this charming town was filled with booths offering small appetizing cakes made from coconut, rice flour and palm sugar, and many colorful examples of ulos, the woven rectangular cloth worn on festive occasions and traditionally used to bless the bride and groom with harmony, unity and fertility.  Jeksin pointed out many rumah makans, small eating places which served a regional cuisine that was simple but tasty.  He enthusiastically recommended babi pangung, juicy roast pork, washed down with a good swig of tuak, a popular drink of fermented palm sap that he said made him feel like Superman.  For $1.50 I could also eat various fried rice dishes (nasi goreng), fried chicken (ayam goreng), or Chinese food.

Although I was badly in need of a nap, we left soon after lunch only to find that the winding road from Brastagi to Prapat, the main tourist town on the northern shore of Lake Toba, had more twists than a corkscrew.  We kept ourselves sane by singing the tongue-twister Jeksin had taught me in Batak: “Batak Botak Bakai Batik Bintik Bintik Batuk Batuk,” or in English: “The bald-headed Batak man, wearing a sporty batik, is coughing.”

After a dizzying two hour descent through mountain forests of pine trees and glimpses of brilliant blue water, we finally came face to face with the vast lake of Lake Toba, the largest in Southeast Asia. The local town had a seemingly endless array of hysterical vendors and their souvenir stalls.  Having read the travel brochures earlier I had somehow expected Prapat to be a rustic lakeside town, not an Indonesian tourist trap.  Although legend has it that all Bataks are descendants of Si Raja Batak, a hero ancestor of supernatural parentage who was born on a holy mountain next to the lake, he’d roll in his divine grave if he could see the place now.

However our time in Prapat was thankfully short, for the real gem of Lake Toba lay in its center, on Samosir Island.  Here the fierce heart of Batak culture had been preserved in small villages like Tomok, Ambarita and Tuk-Tuk, all a half hour away from Prapat by ferry or motorboat.

But it became immediately clear that rampant souvenir mania was not restricted only to Prapat.  The shopkeepers of Tomok eyed our approaching ferry with all the care of a spider approaching its victim, and their rush towards my wallet was unfortunately even more hysterical here than in Prapat.  It was in Tomok that I experienced the only ugly event my entire time in Sumatra, when, without asking, a wizened shopkeeper snatched a large rupiah note out of my hands, screaming at me all the while in pidgin English and Bahasa Indonesian to let her keep it.  She refused to give it back until another shopkeeper tactfully intervened, but only after giving me a push for good measure and snatching my cheap souvenir out of my hands and flinging it contemptuously on the ground.  This display of bad manners is especially rare in Asia, where keeping face and a sense of Confucian decorum is valued highly.  And the entire incident seemed all the more nightmarish because of my rising fever.

Once the gauntlet of stalls was run, however, I came upon some fine old Toba Batak houses and carved megalithic stone coffins embellished with grotesque three horned, bulging-eyed gargoyles.  Both Ambarita and Tuk-Tuk were more easy-going places than the desperation of Tomok, and Ambarita was famous for a group of stone chairs and a table several hundred years old, popularly known as the cannibal king’s dinner table.  It was here that serious offenders to the village adat, or custom, were dispatched by beheading, and the locals thoroughly enjoyed recounting to me how the body was carved up and eaten al dente.  Politely listening to them, I could feel my stomach roiling and lost all appetite for dinner.

Perhaps the most unusual of the Batak traditions that still survive today is the Si Gale Gale puppet dance.  Although its origins are unclear, one story has it that a lonely, childless widow from Samosir Island had the puppet made after her husband died, and hired a puppeteer to make it dance for her and recall the husband’s spirit.  The puppet, a life-sized likeness of a Batak youth, is carved from the wood of the sacred banyan tree, the tree of life.  Draped in a red ulos and turban, the puppet wears a blue sarong and dances before a mesmerized audience to the music of a gamelan orchestra.  Its real-life gestures such as weeping or smoking a cigarette are produced by an extremely skilled puppeteer, called a dalang, who generally performs at funeral or wedding ceremonies.

But this was just one example of the rituals of daily life that went on throughout this region, regardless of the tourist.  It was refreshing to see, in the hot afternoon sun on a small hill near Tuk-Tuk, a young Batak child in an ulos fabric t-shirt, romping through the grass catching dragonflies and singing.  He had been clever the way children of all centuries have been clever, and tied a palm leaf into a circle and allowed a spider to build its web in it.  With this natural insect net he was amusing himself and for a minute time stopped.  This could have been the twenty first century, or any moment in the island’s history.

I spent the night at a small hotel nearby, where in the evening, local musicians, famous throughout Indonesia for their powerful operatic voices, came to sing beautiful, melancholy songs and play carved reed instruments, two-stringed violins, and small gongs, not unlike those found elsewhere in Asia.  It was soothing to listen to, and in my delirium I was transported, and suddenly felt very, very far away from the West.


We left very early the next morning since I didn’t want to push my luck and miss the feeding of the orang-utans at the Gunung Leuser National Park. The Bukit Lawang orang-utan feeding station on the eastern side of the park was about 5 hours from Lake Toba. Other than small monkeys, I’d never seen any of the larger primates in the wild, and was very keen to see these, especially since they were becoming more and more endangered as the years went by.

Orang-utans were called people of the forest by the Indonesians and were almost 5ft tall and about 200 lbs. Cheek flanges for a mature male made him look like he got hit in the face with a big black pancake with two little holes for eyes. These fellows could be quite terrifying, especially when you realized they can rip you apart in less than a minute.

Jeksin decided to hang out by the car and smoke a clove cigarette so I went down the marked trail by myself. I’d been walking into the rainforest for about 10 minutes and hadn’t seen or heard any orang-utans. But this park had all sorts of wildlife and was a good place for gibbons, pigtail macaques, and hornbills.

I came around a bend and found one of the orangutan feeding platforms up in the trees so I stopped and waited.

Suddenly, one by one, they began to appear, quite silently, all sizes and ages, nimble trapeze artists casually swinging through the canopy highway, heading for the platform.  Watching these ancient primates in awe, I knew to stay put, out of their way, especially when they were hungry and somewhat aggressive.

The forest rangers came up from another path and began to toss large bags of fruit onto the platforms. Then they moved on, deeper into the forest to another platform, and I was quite alone.  I watched the orang-utans for a while and as I turned to go I heard a noise behind me.

Coming up the path was a very large, very old, mature male orang-utan. He had splendid russet-colored fur and a white grizzled face. His small eyes looked at me with deep hatred and I felt a kind of deadly violence emanating from him.

So this is where it will all end, I thought. Killed by a damn orang-utan.

I couldn’t move forward because that was towards the feeding platform where I would definitely be asking for trouble, and if I moved towards this old thug he would perceive it as aggression and hurt or kill me.

So I slumped my shoulders and tried to look smaller, and looked away in a posture of non-aggression and deference. Seconds passed and I awaited my fate, trembling and sweating in fear.

He rapidly came up to within about 20 feet and then without warning abruptly turned off the trail into the forest towards the platform.

I didn’t move. Submission and patience was the best approach in this situation, but only for a while.  I waited too long because some of the younger orang-utans were now done eating and rather curious, had decided to take a relaxed passeggiata towards me. Shit!

I slowly began to back away, faster and faster, and when I came around the bend out of sight of the troop I never ran so quickly in my life. I knew they could outrun me and I kept on expecting one to land on my back and rip my head off but they didn’t and I burst out of the trail like a comet and begged Jeksin to drive off immediately, which he did.

Back in Medan it took hours for the adrenaline to fade away.  I found myself feeling very fluish and felt it was time to get out of there for good. However, I’d come halfway around the world and wasn’t ready to go home yet, fever or no fever.

Hoping to rest and recover quickly I got out of there the next day and hopped on a plane to the lavish home of a friend of a friend in Bali. When I arrived I found my host was a wealthy pirate from Sulawesi, a Bugi who owned a fleet of Macassar schooners, and he was one of the most exotic, handsomest men I’d ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Long black curly hair, soulful kohl rimmed eyes, gold earrings and a muscular smooth brown body clad only in a woven textile loincloth—I just stood there gaping before composing myself and thanking him for his hospitality. He was amused. He knew he was gorgeous but as a devout Muslim he was nothing but a proper host.

I wasn’t much of a guest though, because I spent a week in bed overcome by fever and pirate fantasies and was still feeling poorly when he knocked on my bedroom door and suggested I consider returning to America for treatment. It was clear I had some kind of rare virus and needed more help than a local doctor could give me.

So I reluctantly said goodbye and booked a flight to Los Angeles via West Papua. After all, although my fever was soaring by this point, I had come so far around the world I just had to see some of West Papua, especially having read Peter Matthiessen’s book “Under the Mountain Wall” a few years earlier. There, men killed each other easily and warred constantly in dark petty feuds where women, little children and pigs could all be stolen or contested.   Anything was fair game in the haunted and hidden landscapes of the Baliem Valley—a warning in hindsight that I should have paid more attention to.


I arrived in Jayapura, the hot, humid capital, late in the afternoon, exhausted and dripping in sweat. On the way into town from the airport I’d had the driver stop at a small lean-to selling carved, rather somber-looking, wooden figures from the Asmat. I bought two long, slender male ones, each about two feet tall, both prominently featuring an erect penis.  The Asmat were a phallocryptic culture so this was to be expected, and they were strong and powerful looking figures.

There was only one hotel in town, old and moldy-looking, but thankfully I had a small room with an air conditioner.  Almost collapsing from fatigue, I lay down to sleep, and just as I was drifting off I felt the bed begin to move.

I sat up with a start, coughing, and looked around. Everything seemed fine. So I lay down again, feeling even sicker than before, and just as I was drifting off the bed began to move again.

I lay perfectly still and tried to think scientifically. Fully conscious, I looked down at the end of the bed and it was moving back and forth by a few inches.

I tried to think this through rationally. What the hell was going on?

I looked up at the light fixture on the ceiling. Perhaps we were having a slight earthquake. This region was in the Ring of Fire after all. Was it moving?


I looked around the room. Was anything else moving?


I got up and felt the mattress. Perhaps the bed springs were loose and the bed was shaking ever so slightly from my weight?  But it was fine. Solid as a rock.

Maybe there was a snake in the mattress? I’d heard of them slithering into the stuffing in these mattress factories in the Philippines and then popping out at some point. Jesus Christ.

I got up and went to the closet and got my camera monopod. I extended it and poked all around under the bed. Fearfully I lifted the mattress up but nothing was there.

I was truly perplexed.

I lay down again and tried to sleep. I was coughing more and more and felt a bit like I was drowning. The whole thing was weird. Finally, I began to drift off and again the bed began to shake.

This was ridiculous! I called down to the front desk and told the young Javanese clerk what was going on. “I’m not nuts, but can you come up and have a look around?” I asked him anxiously.

The poor fellow came up to the room and apprehensively looked around but found nothing.

“Can I change my room?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said, backing out slowly. “But all we have left is a small room.”

“That’s ok,” I replied, thinking anything to get out of here.

So I got all my stuff together and traipsed off to another room where I collapsed onto the bed, relieved. Now I could sleep at last!

As I began to sink into a deep sleep this new bed began to shake also, ever so slightly, but shake it did. And I woke up.

Nothing else in the room was moving but I was feeling horribly ill.

Was I hallucinating? I lay perfectly still and watched the bed trembling, my mind perfectly clear.

Suddenly it hit me. I had to get out of that hotel. I could barely breathe and desperately needed fresh air. It was the air conditioning!

I looked up at it and it was filthy. Black and grimy, filled with dust, it obviously had never been cleaned. Who knew what kind of horrible microbes lurked in there? In my compromised medical state that thing was making me sicker, much sicker, and I felt it would kill me unless I got out of there.

I left my things in the room and raced down to the front desk.

“It’s your air conditioning—it’s making me sicker! Has it ever been cleaned?” I gasped at the clerk. He shrugged.

“I’ve got to sleep outside somewhere,” I was frantic.

Outside the dank hotel the night was cool and very humid. I looked around and the street was totally deserted. It was around 1am. The young clerk had followed me outside and stood looking at me in astonishment.

There was a taxi minibus in front of the hotel. “Is this the hotel’s?” I asked, gulping in the fresh air. He nodded.

“Can you open it and let me sleep there?” I said. “I can’t breathe and must have fresh air.”

He went inside and came out with the keys and a small pillow and sheet. He unlocked the taxi and I got into the back seat and lay down. He locked the cab and said “I hope this works for you” and by the time he was back through the hotel’s door I was deeply asleep.

The next day, the morning heat was positively pyretic and I knew I had to go back to America then and there for medical help. I got my things and the hotel’s taxi took me to the airport where there was a melee of people all wanting to get on the incoming, over-booked flight.

I stood there swaying from exhaustion, too weak to fight the crowd for a seat, when an elderly Dutchman came up to me with a look of concern on his face.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

I shook my head no. “I’ve got to get on that plane,” I said weakly.

“I don’t think so,” he said, looking at me intently. “You are too ill to fly. The plane’s closed air system alone will do you in and you might not make it…”

He had my full attention. “What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Because I’ve been a doctor here for forty years and I’ve seen it all,” he said. “I trained at Johns Hopkins and came here to work for The Summer Institute of Linguistics International.”

My head was spinning.  The appropriately acronymed SILI was a bunch of crackpots who believed Christ would return once the Bible had been translated into all the languages of the world. Papua New Guinea was the perfect place for them, as there were over 850 indigenous languages present thanks to the endless impassable valleys and mountain chains all over the place.

So he worked for SILI but had attended one of the best medical schools on the planet…these were completely opposite concepts and my feverish mind jammed.  Well, as long as we stuck to medicine I supposed everything would be okay, I thought desperately.

He touched my arm and said, “Look, what you need right now is rest. You are not strong enough to fly. You need to stabilize your system.”

I sat down, completely defeated. The orangutans hadn’t gotten me in Sumatra but now I was convinced I was going to die in Jayapura.

I could hear him talking to me but I was in a daze. He shook me slightly and I refocused.

“I will have one of my boys take you to a small hut near the airport. It is very simple but there is a fresh straw bed and a toilet. He will bring you clean drinking water and fruit every day and after a few days you will be strong enough to get on the next plane if you wish. But you absolutely must rest now.”

I nodded, and realized I was becoming delirious.

The last thing I remember him saying to me was “I would stay and help you but I’m finally retired and going home to Holland. It’s all arranged. But don’t worry, you will be okay, my boy will care for you…”

Then it was a blur. So many people at the airport, and the plane had arrived. Someone came for me, pulling me toward the door, and I fell asleep in an old car and woke up in front of the little hut the doctor had told me about. I went inside and collapsed on the bed, unsure if I would ever wake up but too weak to care. The bed did not shake.

I slept for a very long time, more than a day, I’m sure, and awoke to a West Papuan teenage boy standing over me with a bottle of water and a plate of fresh fruit. I drank and ate ravenously, then fell back asleep.

This went on for several days until I finally began to feel like myself again.  The boy was always there to care for me and I felt like an angel had come to save me and suddenly I was overcome with emotion and wept.

“Miss,” he said anxiously, “Is everything all right?”

“Oh yes, I am just so happy to be feeling a bit better,” I said. “Thank you so much for your help.”

“I try to serve Christ in any way I can” he said solemnly.

I smiled. “Well, I thank you.”.

“Would you by any chance know how I could get to the Baliem Valley?” I asked.  I was feeling better enough to try and see the area that Matthiessen’s book had talked about years ago.

“The military runs a plane there once a week,” he replied. “It’s tomorrow. You just have to go to the small airport and they might give you a lift.”

I couldn’t believe my good fortune, especially when he offered to take me there the next day. As we said goodbye I realized I didn’t know his name.

“My Asmat name is Jupri,” he said with a shy smile. “The Javanese here gave me a Muslim name but I don’t use it.”

I waved farewell to Jupri, an unknown teenager from the far side of the world who had helped save my life. I’d tried to give him some money as I left but he refused, looking embarrassed, so I gave him a paperback I was reading, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which I’d hoped might influence him as he grew older. Maybe he will be Prime Minister one day, who knows.


The giant C-130 was incredible. I’d never seen an aircraft so large. The inside was almost completely stripped, except for long narrow seats lining the interior that had rather uncomfortable looking seatbelts. The plane took off like the giant monster it was and during the short flight to Wamena in the Baliem Valley, it flew over some of the wildest, most unspoilt jungle I’d ever seen anywhere on the planet. It was an Eden of tropical waterfalls, mountain tops, exotic flowers and birds as far as the eye could see. I knew I would dream about it for the rest of my life, because with this flight I’d stepped back and time-traveled thousands of years.

Wamena itself was a grubby, muddy little town with an uncomfortable tension to it. This was because most of the small homes were for the occupying Indonesian military, mostly Javanese Muslims, whose ill-concealed contempt towards the local West Papuans was hard to miss. Many of the dark Papuan women worked as domestics for them, wearing badly-fitting, old worn-out dresses while carrying a brown Javanese child on their back. The child often held a plump white doll with blond hair, so the entire effect pretty much summed up the hierarchy of the world in one image.

I found a simple hotel with no AC, just fans, and the front clerk recommended I use a Dani trekking guide called Semu. He said he would take care of arranging things, and Semu would come and collect me tomorrow at 8am.

The next morning Semu was there. He was a young, slender fellow, about 20, with a nice smile, and dressed in rags. Off we went, towards a narrow jungle path at the end of town, briefly stopping at a small store for some bottled water. I waited outside, and had my camera lenses and passport in a red fanny pack, which was quite heavy.  I watched as a grizzled muscular tribesman from another time came walking down the street, wearing only a koteka, or penis sheath, and carrying a stone ax. His feet were extremely broad and looked almost leather-soled, the skin was so thick. I was fascinated by him and tried not to stare, even though we were not only worlds apart but millennia.

He walked on by and I found the heat was already starting to bother me so I unclasped the fanny pack and lay it on the ground next to me. Semu came out of the store and gave me my water, and as we were about to leave, I turned around and saw the red fanny pack was gone, and the four foot high Stone Age bastard was scampering down the street with it. I ran after him and started to pull it away. His ax came up and Semu suddenly appeared in front of me saying something to him tersely in Dani and they talked back and forth for a bit.

Semu turned to me shaking his head. “We have a tradition here I do not think you know. It happens to foreigners all the time. It’s what you Americans call ‘Finders Keepers.”

“WHAT?!” I said in alarm. “My passport is in there and my lenses! I need all that back.”

“Well then we have to go to his village and negotiate with the headman.” he said. “I cannot guarantee anything.”

“Are you kidding me?” I was shocked and angry but knew I had to keep my cool as Mr. Stone Age was looking at me intently. “Okay. I give up. Let’s go.”

“You are lucky I was here to help,” Semu said. “It would not have been against the law for him to bash your head in, and believe me, he was about to, because you were trying to take what was rightfully his. You should know that the men here value their pigs above all else, and have the right to kill you should your car accidentally run one over. You must be very careful. Next are their children and last, the women. One can always get another woman.” He laughed.

Great. Just great. I thought.

Three hours later, after endless walking and the occasional dug-out canoe, we eventually got to the right village. The headman was there and Semu went up to him and they talked for a while.

Finally, he turned and said, “If you give him $50 and your NY Mets baseball cap you can have your fanny pack back.”

I tried not to smile, and bowed down, with my hands crossed over my chest in submission. I gave him my hat and pulled the money out of my pocket. It was all the cash I had and I was relieved he hadn’t wanted more.

On the way back, Semu stopped off in a village that had a smoked, leathery black mummy curled in a chair which he pointed out to me proudly. It was a bizarre object but clearly of great meaning for the Dani, who were known for doing this.  Some of the mummies were apparently hundreds of years old.  Semu wanted to show me another, but I thanked him and said it was time to return because I wasn’t feeling so well. I really didn’t want to cause offense deep in the jungle, especially when I was alone and ill.

On the way back I asked him to tell me a bit about himself since he’d seemed somewhat sad and melancholy. His English was better than most and I asked where he learned it.

“Jakarta,” he said.

“Really?” I was surprised. “How did that happen?”

He looked at me oddly. “When I was small, an army Colonel gave my parents some money to adopt me, or so we thought, and he took me back to Jakarta to live with his family as a kind of house boy. They taught me Bahasa Indonesian and English, and I ate and played with their children in addition to going to an Islamic pesantren school for a few years. They gave me the Muslim name of Usman and told me never to call myself Semu again.”

I felt badly for Semu. He seemed lost in some way and now I was beginning to understand why.

He went on. “I had come from a small village deep in the forest—you saw several like it today—so Jakarta was an incredible place for me. I learned a lot and stayed with them for almost 15 years. But last year on my 20th birthday, the Colonel came into my room and said to pack up all my things, that we were going on a trip, and we got on a plane and flew back to West Papua.  When we landed at Sentani Airport in Jayapura he gave me a tourist guidebook and fifty dollars and told me that I was now going to make my living as a guide for tourists who spoke either Bahasa Indonesian or English. Then he left, and I was all alone.”

I stood there in total shock. I’d never heard of anything so cruel. Taken from the jungle to the city and then dumped back in the jungle again—taken mentally from the Stone Age to the Modern Age and then back to the Stone Age again, with no way out—who does that?  And all the while obliterating what was left of his Dani identity. It was amazing that poor Semu had not become insane.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I got a ride on a missionary plane back here to Wamena, and then I went to find my parents. It took awhile but when I eventually arrived at my village, the headman told me my parents had died.” He shrugged, struggling to be philosophical. “In a way it didn’t affect me that much because after all those years, the people in Jakarta had really been my family and I still miss them.”

He stared off into space. “But I will never see them again. I cannot begin to afford the airfare back and will never make enough from tips. So here I am for good.”

I said nothing. I wanted to cry. His was the saddest case I’d ever seen. That military man, in bringing him back to West Papua under those circumstances, had put him in a kind of mental jail. Who deserved such limbo? It was dreadful.

We walked on and after a while Semu took out a small bamboo mouth harp and began to play.  It was a beautiful, plaintive melody that clearly showed how he was feeling.

“That is so lovely,” I said, clapping my hands together in joy.

He turned around on the path and handed me the little instrument. “I made it. I can always make another. Please take it to remind yourself of me and my country.”

I stood there staring at him for a moment. This poor fellow dressed in rags had virtually nothing to his name but because I’d admired his playing he wanted me to have what was probably his one personal possession.  All the things I owned as an American paled in comparison to this one humble gift. His small act was extraordinary, and a moment of true greatness of spirit.

I was utterly overwhelmed.

We walked the rest of the way in silence. When we got to my hotel I asked him what I could do to help him?  He hesitated and said, “I would really like a very good dictionary. Perhaps you could send me one from America?”

As luck would have it, before leaving New York I’d spent a lot of money on a definitive Bahasa Indonesian-English dictionary which was very large, and which I’d lugged all across the country without ever opening it. I just don’t know what I had been thinking, but clearly, that book had really been meant all along for Semu.

“Wait a moment,” I said, and went into my room. I came out with the dictionary and gave it to him. “I want you to have this. Perhaps you will be able to build up a real business for yourself one day.”

He was astonished and took the book gingerly.

“But Semu, I have a question for you before we say goodbye,” I said. “How did you pick the number 50 as the amount I had to give to the headman?”

He smiled. “Oh, that’s my lucky number. That’s all the money I came here with. So I figured, why not?”

Semu and I shook hands laughing and he vanished into the murky night forever. The next day I flew back to Los Angeles and then got on a plane to New York. I was still not well and the flu-like symptoms and weakness continued for months. I had all sorts of work-ups done by various doctors in New York but the best they could come up with was that it might be some kind of variant of the Hanta virus.

The odd thing was, each feverish night I would wake up with a start because I had the distinct feeling Death was watching me. In the darkness I could vaguely see two long shadows, one at each end of the bed, and they seemed to resemble the two Asmat statues I’d brought back from West Papua. I would turn the light on, and of course nothing would be there.

It was the strangest occurrence, and it kept on happening.  They visited nightly and it was deeply unsettling. What was the connection, I wondered?

One night, my drunken neighbor was screaming at his drunken lover as he often did, and suddenly there was silence and then a great pounding on my door.

“I think Mark’s dead,” his lover was screaming. I ran out quickly over to next door and sure enough Mark had shouted himself into a fatal coronary.

There was nothing to be done and the ambulance came and took him away. The whole thing was rather gruesome and left me exhausted.  I went to bed and slept deeply. That night no shadows came and stood at the end of my bed nor did they ever come again. The next morning, I awoke fresh and strong. My mysterious illness had passed for good.

Over time I thought about the meaning of all of this. As far as the shaking bed was concerned I think that my subconscious knew that if I had fallen asleep in that mildew-infested Papuan hotel I would have died, probably from pleural effusion, so my body literally shook me awake as best as it could each and every time I started to fall asleep. As for the statues, death had certainly followed me back from Indonesia as a warning—anything was possible coming from the land of flying kris daggers, trances, and the shadow puppet world—but in the end it had decided not to come for me but for my neighbor.


Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications.  Most recently, her poems, flash, and short stories have been published in the Peacock Journal, The Bosphorus Review, Antiphon, A New Ulster, The Saranac Review, The Curlew, and Idiom 23. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish.  She lives in Santa Fe between two mountain ranges with her cocker spaniel and four cats. She has a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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