Woke at 7 (lots of early starts on this trip!) and had breakfast in the Chinese style banquet hall: tea, soup, rice, rice noodles, spinach. Met by our guide, Nessi, a pleasant looking chap in his 40s, carrying a small bag and a big belly, and sporting a strange half-moustache. He seemed nice, well-informed, and spoke good English. We explained our program, and told him we wanted to go by bemo, and it was all sorted out over that breakfast. Except, the Italians had heard us. We’d spoken to them the night before, a group of 4, all in their 50s or early 60s, 2 men and 2 women. They’d told us their itinerary, and that they planned to go by public transport to Niki-niki, Oinasi and Boti. Now, they saw us talking to the guide, and they wanted a piece of the action. Charlie brokered the deal, I didn’t want anything to do with them; they complicated matters, but we travelers must assist one another, that’s the unwritten code. Nessi’s eyes lit up with the promise of more money for guiding his newly-swelled group of 6. I had no problem with that. We agreed that they would pay him 250,000Rp too, which made a tidy days profit of 500,000Rp for him. They would have to follow our itinerary though – we weren’t changing it for them.
Now, getting a public bemo would be more difficult. We had to charter one. Nessi found one for 750,000Rp for the day. It arrived, soaked in neon paint, silhouette signs, and complete with thumping bass soundtrack. We hopped in and sat on the benches, and told the 15 year old kid driving and his 2 mates to turn the music down. We set off to None, 17km to the east of Soe, and a former Headhunting village. Before going in, we had to stop to buy betel nut to give as an offering to the village chief to allow us passage. After buying the villagers drug of choice, the bemo drove a little further and dropped us off on the roadside, and we walked down a dirt trail towards the village. Children darted away in front of us, chirping excitedly, their curly hair bouncing up and down. We stopped by an old woman’s house, a beehive style dwelling, who turned out to be the Chief’s wife, her mouth bright red from chewing betel nut. She had skin creased and darkened by years in the sun, and a fuzz of wiry white hair bunched on her head, and was with a grinning granddaughter, with long wavy hair. The Chief’s wife gave us permission to enter the village. We passed beehive huts with great thatched roofs, and by now a crowd of children had gathered around, excited to see us. We came to the centre of the village, to a large circular shaped area covered by a thatched roof, bound together by straw and binding – no nails. The village chief was here, and he wanted to welcome everyone officially. A large group of people, young and old, gathered in the centre of the circle, with us at the edge, facing in. The chief, his face old and wizened, gave a speech, and much chanting followed, roughly translated by Nesi as: ‘Welcome to our village. We are very happy to see you today, and we hope you enjoy our company.’ And thanks for the wonderful betel nut too, I could here them thinking, as the betel nut box came out, and everyone was invited to take one to get their fix. I accepted. It would have been insensitive to say no. I crunched my betel nut, ate the stick, and licked the powder, chewing the potent mixture for around 15 minutes until I my head was spinning. I spat out the blood red mix, and looked around me, trying to focus on all the dark, grubby village faces, most smiling, others looking in awe or surprise; which was all a bit overwhelming. Someone thrust a visitors book into my hand, which I signed as though in a dream, and slipped our ‘donation’ of 100,000rp in and closed it before handing it back to someone blindly.
We all had a good look around the small village, but then it started to rain so we had to rush back to the van, followed by kids holding huge leaves over our heads as umbrellas. We waved our goodbyes, and left them to their simple lives in their little village, so happy and smiling. We headed to Niki-niki, to see the Royal Palace and a few graves. The palace itself resembled an old farmhouse, and graves were in disrepair and of little interest, even to the locals presumably. We hopped back in the van and went for lunch at a local padang place. Food was good – all padang food is – though always the same no matter where you eat it. It was just Charlie, Nesi and me eating – the miserable Italians didn’t like the unhygienic look of the place, and refused to join us.
After eating, we got back on the bemo and down to Boti. The last 15km was a mountainous dirt road, full of large potholes and deep, muddy, sticky puddles – no place for a top-heavy city bemo. It got stuck numerous times, and we had to jump out before the deep puddles and at the top of huge drops. It was an adventure getting there, and a relief when we finally arrived. The village was quiet. Apparently, the king and the rest of the royal village compound inhabitants were at a meeting with the Soe government. We were ushered to the kings house, and sat on his porch. We were served tea, and fried bananas as a welcome offering by the kings beautiful niece. We walked around the small village, full of smoky beehive huts, but nothing was happening. We watched some people weaving, then all too soon, the Italians had to go on their way. Thank God. They were annoying me with their cultural insensitivity and bad English. I had no idea how one of the women could get by – all she knew in English were ‘beautiful’, ‘guide’, ‘how far boti?’ and ‘we go now’. She was saying ‘ciao’ to all the villagers in None. Nobody knew what she was on about. Speak the lingua franca woman!
With them gone, Nessi led Charlie and I on a stroll around the rest of the villages in Boti. We headed out of the gates and down the rutted dirt road. A pig was walking up the road with a long wooden pole tied to a collar under its head, to stop it wandering into gardens through the gaps in the fences. “The King!” whispered Nessi. I looked behind the pig, expecting to see an entourage of villagers surrounding a man adorned with gems and jewels, perhaps with a gold crown on his head, a troupe of trumpet-blowers behind him. I was disappointed. Barefooted, simply dressed in a shirt and sangkat woven in Boti, and carrying a long umbrella, the king, with a wispy moustache and tied-back hair with with flecks of silver, was alone. He greeted each of us, a simple man with a nice smile, his red teeth and lips unable to hide his betel nut addiction. He was delicate and graceful, thin and humble of appearance. He hasn’t chosen a wife yet, despite the many fish swimming in Boti’s sea. I knew why. So did Charlie. He was as queer as the king of a gay pride march. In fact, he wasn’t a king, he was a raging, mincing queen! He opened up his umbrella upon Charlie’s request, and held it over his head, smiling at us camply. We laft him to go back to the village, where he would later meet us on his porch to chat.
We walked on, and stopped at a friendly, old-as-the-hills looking chap’s place to get a thirst-quenching coconut to drink. He thought he was the king I think, as he kept putting on bells, necklaces, bracelets, and an elaborately bejeweled belt for our photos, dolling himself up, his lips and teeth red from betel nut. The coconut guy arrived, and shinned up the nearest tree with a machete to cut steps into the slippery trunk.
It was amazing to watch him scaling the tree like a monkey, grasping it tightly, cutting steps into the trunk. Incredible.
He sliced some stems, and the coconuts came crashing down. He slid down carefully from his dangerous job, and sliced open the coconuts for us to drink. It was delicious, and all the village kids seemed to be watching us slurping them. When we’d had our fill, coconut man sliced the coconuts open, and we were handed them back on a tray with silver spoons, carried by one the kids, who bent low in humbleness when offering them to us. They were such kind, simple people, and seemed delighted to have Charlie and I in their presence. When we offered to pay for the cocnuts, they declined, saying it was nice enough that we had visited their village, and they requested copies of the some of the photos we’d taken . We bid farewell, and walked slowly back to the king’s hut compound, via a protestant church in disrepair.
Back in the village, we took a cold mandi ‘shower’ in a wooden shack by kerosene candlelight – a first for me. Changed, and headed back to the kings’s quarters. We sat alone on the porch and waited, the king and his cousin smoking on the other side and chewing betel nut – surely the 2 greatest village pleasures. Soon enough, we were invited into the house, where the king’s thrown was, and a jumbled assortment of memorabilia, and a dining room, where a simple buffet dinner had been prepared. The king’s neice stood by watching us, holding our plates, elegant and graceful and beautiful. We ate the rice, vegetables, chicken and soup in the dimly-lit throne room. It was a beautiful, simple affair. Afterwards, we adjourned to the porch to enjoy a translated chat with the king. He is a simple and rather boring fellow, so Charlie and I tried to suppress our giggles when the king claimed his hobbies were: ‘playing the guitar and playing bells.’ Surely not. His hobbies were tending to his garden, posing for pictures, and chewing betel nut!
Charlie asked him many, many questions, like a political journalist, and we found out a lot. Nesi patiently translated most of them to the king. We found out that Boti men can’t cut their hair after marriage. Bed is 7 or 8pm. The king is a stout traditionalist, carrying on from his late father. The Soe government wants to build an asphalt road past Boti, but the king is strictly anti-modernisation of any kind, preferring them to fix the dirt road instead by perhaps filling up the potholes that could take a jeep out. We also found out that if the king chooses a wife, she has no choice, and must marry the king without even going on a date. The king wants his whole family to only marry with those who follow and respect traditional values, and that number is dwindling in Boti.
The king tool more betel nut from the royal betel nut box, and chewed it happily, spitting it out rather unregally from time to time, his spit joining the other red splotches on the floor. He seemed perfectly content with his life. His cousin soon came to join us, a guy we’d met in the village earlier, comically looking like the spitting image of Snoop Dog. Some long periods of silence followed, each man contemplating his thoughts, plans. The day gone. The lulling sound of cicadas, geckos and other forest creatures creating a symphony of lullabies, soon rendering me sleepy. Such a peaceful people. They enjoy silence, it doesn’t make them uncomfortable. When they speak, they do it softly, almost whispering to each other. No brashness, arrogance, boasting…no personality defects caused by the trappings of the West’s capitalist bravado here. This was a kind of paradise. Most people never get to experience that. I felt at peace.