Bed and Breakfast in a Batak Village
In 1979 I rented a house in a Batak village in Sumatra for a dollar a day, breakfast included. It was an ideal place to rest during my trip around the world. I was able to converse with many of the villagers because they spoke English, maybe because Christian missionaries.
The very next morning I came face to face with three little girls standing outside my door begging for food. But the Batak people were not beggars. They were poor but generous. Michael, who I met at Edison’s Restaurant, insisted that I join him, his wife, and their young baby for dinner in their home. Like many village houses, their tiny home was primitive: there was a place to sit, a thin mattress, and a flimsy box/cabinet. The meal was prepared over a fire in a recess in the dirt floor, like you might see in a wilderness shelter in early 17th century America. The meal consisted of rice, a few greens, and tea. I sat on the floor with them and watched Michael’s wife mash rice into a pulp to feed their baby. That was all the nourishment the baby received during the meal and, I suspected, many others.
With as much delicacy and tact as I could muster I gave them money, telling them they should use it to invite another traveler for dinner. Of course, what I wanted was for them to spend the money on food for the baby. They had not asked for money; Michael had not invited me to eat with his family so that I might make an offering. The invitation was an act of sincere, unblemished hospitality: he really liked me and wanted me to be a guest in his home. Walking back to my place, stumbling in the dark, I realized that I had never had a more poignant meal with anyone in my entire life.
By comparison, my Batak house was luxurious. Elevated from the ground, across the road from Lake Toba, I looked out on the lake and watched men struggle to fish in their tiny boats. Since there was no electricity in the village and burning candles brought on swarms of insects, most activities took place in daylight.
In the early morning, before breakfast, I witnessed the daily parade of children on their way to school. I often saw them cleaning the white shoes they wore.
Children approached me in Edison’s Restaurant, questioning me about America or my presence in the village. Pointing to the over-the-shoulder bag that I carried, one asked me if I was a soldier. The bag was olive green. I smiled and replied that I was a schoolteacher. He smiled, left the restaurant, and returned later–with his homework!– asking me to go over it with him. Thus began a routine that soon had many other participants. All were eager for me to look over their lessons. At first I was annoyed at having to “work” (I was on sabbatical for rest and travel) but I began to enjoy it because of the pleasure it gave them. The men who hung around the restaurant took note: they liked what I was doing so they began to offer me glasses of the awful liquor they drank. It was impossible to refuse them.
The headmaster invited me to the school after the children told him about me. It was a delight to see the children at their school and meet with their teachers. When I learned that parents had to pay more than they earned in a year for their children to continue beyond the early grades, I was deeply saddened. The carefully cleaned shoes, the long walk, the effort and enthusiasm were not enough. I thought about the number of voluntary drop-outs in American schools and felt even worse.
Edison’s Restaurant was my favorite place to spend time. Located across the road near the lake, it was like an outdoor cafe. There were no walls and it was sometimes possible to enjoy a breeze from the lake. It was strictly a males-only preserve along with plenty of cats, puppies and children of all sizes, along with swarms of irritating gnats. Edison liked me and did things to please me. During a heavy downpour he took me for an audience with a local medicine man. The house of this frail man was set off from everyone, tucked in a copse of banana trees that looked as if they were going to overrun his tiny garden. Old and feeble, the medicine man received us in semi-darkness, in the midst of odd-looking objects, with his legs folded beneath him. He looked me over while Edison spoke words of introduction; his expression never changed. He did not understand English so I could only guess what Edison was saying. After Edison finished speaking we sat in silence until the medicine man spoke. He raised one of his frail arms indicating that he had an offering for me as he handed me a boiled egg, telling me (through Edison) to eat half of it on that day and the other half the following day. Ancestral laws of Africa will provide the wisdom and direction needed to live a full, meaningful life, he said. He then gave me a cocoanut hair explaining that it was important to use it to cut the egg in half. I thanked him for this. Back outside in the pounding rain I thanked Edison for bringing me to this man. The men who hung out around the restaurant spent most of their time exchanging stories and gossip, playing cards, drinking, or complaining about their lives. There was a lack of evidence that any of them worked. Edison often complained that there was little work to be done. Most of the work that was done was in the rice paddies. This was considered women’s work. And the women did it.
I created quite a stir when I announced that I was going to go and work with the women in the rice paddies to see what it was like. The men in the restaurant reacted as if this was one of the most unimaginable things they had ever heard. They liked me; they accepted my presence among them; they didn’t fear that I was trying to disrupt the social order. Their reaction was mainly one of disbelief mixed with large doses of bemused humor. Most of them thought of the idea as naive and unmanly. But, then again, I was a schoolteacher. And I was a foreigner. And a rich one at that.
The women were amused when I showed up at the rice paddies. The water, rice, three infants bundled against the rays of the sun, odd-looking implements; I took it all in. One of the women placed a cover on my head to protect me from the sun before she patiently showed me what to do. I hunched over in water to my ankles and began to arrange the rice the way she had showed me.
What started out as warm became very warm. Then it became hot, oppressively hot. The blood rushed to my head; I felt something unpleasant in the small of my back. I quickly realized that I couldn’t continue. The women saw this; they understood it when I gave up and called it quits. They had known all along–and now I knew–that I could not do this kind of work: I had managed to last less than an hour. They gave me something to drink, smiled all around, and sent me on my way.
The men back at the restaurant were all smiles as well. They were not surprised and they didn’t gloat over the fact that I couldn’t do the work. My curious adventure was quickly forgotten: nothing was said about it and nothing changed between us. I was sure that these men were just as incapable as I was; what I was not sure of was whether or not the men resented the women because of this. They had to be well aware of the fact that they were not on the same level as the women. And that this made their lives even more bereft of substance and value.
In opposition to my pathetic sojourn in the rice paddy, a small crowd gathered to witness my triumphant bargaining with a village woman considered to be a very shrewd businesswoman. I was as amazed as they were when the woman relented and conceded that I had gotten the best of her over an object she knew I wanted to buy. This, along with other, less dramatic episodes, along with what the villagers could see in my relationship with their children, earned me high praise and respect. When I started out on the road again many villagers were sorry to see me go. The time I had spent with them was about more than having a bed with breakfast among such kind, gentle people.