Wednesday, November 16, 2005

39 ARRANGED MARRIAGE


Somewhere beyond Sindangsari, south of Bogor, I took a Saturday morning stroll. My path was prettified by Rangoon Creeper, Frangipani and Morning Glory. The sun was making tiger patterns on kampung walls and reflecting off the wings of orange dragonflies and specks of floating dust. Blue smoke was drifting heavenwards from wooden foodstalls. Children with the faces of angels were tending sleepy goats.

Hearing dangdut music coming from distant dreamy woods, I crossed fields of rich brown earth and tall papaya to find the source. Hidden in the trees was a hamlet in the centre of which a crowd had gathered for some kind of festivity. On a temporary wooden stage, three girls in tight trousers sang and danced, their sensual movements being copied by a host of small children assembled beneath. The girl taking centre stage had curvaceous lips, a pretty belly button and a tendency, from time to time, to touch certain parts of her body.

"A celebration?" I asked a stoop-shouldered old man who was leaning against a tree.

"It's a wedding," he said. "Come and meet the bridegroom." He took my arm and pulled me towards a group standing under a green canopy.

"Hi. I'm the groom," said a broad-chested young man whose relaxed face seemed full of self-assurance. His dark silky shirt and gold rings suggested a degree of prosperity. "That's my bride over there beside the food tables." He pointed nonchalantly in the direction of a grey faced woman who appeared less than ravishing.

"You're very lucky," I said.

"I've got two wives now," said the groom. "Today's marriage is an arranged one. It's about money. Not love."

I felt and probably looked embarrassed. "I see," I said. I avoided drinking the potion in the glass brought to me by a pretty girl.

"In Indonesia we don't have to be in love all the time," said the groom. "An arranged marriage is best."

"Different from my country," I said.

"A man only fancies a woman for a short time. But marriage should last a lifetime."

"So you marry a woman who'll be your best friend," I suggested.

"No. Marriage is about money and about producing children."

"What about physical closeness?"

"That comes from my family and my pals." As he said this he put his arm around the man standing next to him. I presumed this was a brother or a former schoolmate.

"You must get some food," said the old man.

I wandered over to the food table but had no wish to risk eating anything. When I had had my fill of listening to the music and watching the dancing, I sneaked away through the trees in the direction of the neighbouring village.

I had walked quite a distance along a narrow path before I realised I was being followed by a short-skirted girl, aged about fourteen, and a boy aged about thirteen. "Mister, where are you going? Looking for your hotel?" asked the impish boy.

"I want to get lunch," I said.

"My mother works in the local hotel," said the boy. "Come with us. We'll show you."

"Thanks."

"My name's Hassan," said boy, who had a packet of cigarettes sticking out of one of the pockets in his blue school shorts.

Off the main road, beside a sign saying 'Motel', stood a disappointingly dull villa in a large grey garden. Hassan accompanied me into the entrance hall. The girl vanished.

"Mister wants to eat," announced Hassan to the attractive looking woman behind the reception desk. He muttered some additional words to the woman in Sundanese, and then, turning to me, said, "This is my mum." Mum smiled without much conviction.

"Through there," said the woman pointing to a shabby room with a bar, small tables, some arcade games, and one large table being used by two schoolboys to play snooker.

I thanked her, went to look at a menu, and ordered chicken and chips and a beer. Hassan played electronic games while I chewed tough overcooked flesh and took the occasional glance at a sulky, sickly girl who had arrived at the bar.

When I had finished my meal, Mum came over to my table and sat down. Her hair was immaculate and her eyes shone with good health.

"Mister is staying in Bogor?"

"No. I'm going back to Jakarta. I've got a house there."

"Here is no good," she said, winking. "Around here there are preman. Hoodlums."

"Hoodlums?"

"Smuggling, protection rackets, drugs." She looked serious.

I had read that smuggling was big business in Indonesia and involved such things as oil, cars, timber, sugar, parrots, primates and people. "You're not frightened?" I asked.

"We are protected."

Two men wearing army-style trousers and T-shirts came in and sat at the bar.

"I think I'll go for a walk," I said.

Hassan insisted on following me along a canal path that ran through the local village.

"Up there," said Hassan, pointing to a smart little white bungalow, with a neat garden, at the top of a wooded slope.

"What's that?"

"My house. Come and meet my sister."

"Is your father at home?"

"He works in Jakarta."

We entered what seemed to be an empty house, the front door of which had not been locked. My emotions were a mixture of pleasant excitement and guilt. What would the sister look like? Should I be entering this house without a chaperone?

"Want a drink?" asked Hassan, moving towards an expensive fridge from which he extracted two cans of cola.

"Thanks." My eyes surveyed the Islamic pictures, the TV, the video and the music centre. Mum was earning good money.

"Istirahat. Have a rest," said Hassan.


I sat in a comfortable chair to sip my drink. Hassan entered a side room and returned wearing a Liverpool T-shirt. Grinning, he held up a poster showing the football team.

"You play football?" I asked.

"In goal." He sat on the floor.

"Where did the T-shirt come from?"

"The market. Who do you support?"

"Arsenal." To be honest I don't even know which part of London that team comes from.

"There was an incident down at the river last week," said Hassan, as he lit a kretek cigarette.

"Ah? What happened?"

"A man tried to steal a motorbike. He got caught by some of the local people. They beat him up."

"He was seriously injured?"

"The police came along just in time to save his life and took him to hospital."

"Anyone get arrested?"

"No."

"How did the local people know the man was stealing the bike?"

Hassan sucked on his cigarette. "Everyone keeps an eye on things. Everyone knows what's happening."

"At night?"

"There's a patrol."

"Anyone ever go the police?"

"People don't usually go to the police. But every village has someone from the army."

Now I could understand why it was safe to leave a house unlocked.

"I think I should be continuing my walk. I've got some people to see," I said.

Hassan lay back on the floor with his hands behind his head. "Relax, mister. Too hot outside. You haven't met my sister."

"Is she at work?"

"She's behind you."

I turned my head and my eyes stared. Sat behind me, near the door, was a cute young lady, exhibiting lots of eye shadow, nail varnish and slim leg. She must have been there for some minutes.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi," she said, flashing her eye lashes and adjusting her seating position. She had the sweet gypsy look of the Sundanese and must have been about eighteen years of age.

"My sister was ill last week," said Hassan. "Dysentery."

An old woman waddled into the room. Behind her, in the hall way, was a bare-chested yokel with a machete in one hand.

"I really must be on my way," I said. I had a fear that the entire village was about to come and stare through the windows.

"Mister, relax," said Hassan, scratching himself.

"No. I must go." I got up and headed for the exit. Hassan escorted me to my van, near which stood a military policeman and his motorbike. My heart jumped. I shook hands with Hassan and slowly got into my vehicle. Mo and I drove off.

"What was the military policeman doing?" I asked Mo.

"He said we shouldn't be parked there."

"Did you give him any money?"

"I had to."

"I wonder how he knew you were parked there?"

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