This week a poor Indonesian fisherman will become rich. The two brothers say it happens to someone every year, so they’ve left a bowl of sticky rice on the ground, hoping their offering to the gods will make them the lucky ones. The dingkis fish are running now, and if they swim into their trap, the pair may catch hundreds of kilos of them, worth a fortune in nearby Singapore.
I hear the fishermen’s story through my interpreter Idaman, as I sit cross-legged and uncomfortable on the floor of their rough wooden stilt house over the sea, drinking sweet tea. The setting is unfamiliar, but the people are like any other fishermen, dreaming and lying about the big catch.
I’ve joined the end of a two-week trip organised for American college students and a group of friends from New Jersey. Island Connections International (ICI) runs these ‘ethno tours’, bringing visitors to stay in fishing villages in the Riau islands, south of Singapore.
Tonight we’re on Pecong Island. Pecong normally has no tourists, being just a few hundred metres long, with no visitor accommodation, no restaurants and no souvenir shops. It’s also beautiful, with brahminy kites soaring above coconut palms and mango trees, and the South China Sea lapping gently at its shores.
But we’re here to meet its people. We divide into small groups to live in village houses for 2-3 nights. Men stay with one host family and women with others, even married couples being split up. My host is Pa Udin, son of the village leader and assistant to the government administrator.
He has hosted six ICI groups over a period of three years, so although Pecong people are used to visitors they’re certainly not overrun. ‘We were nervous about foreigners here,’ says Udin, ‘but now we know they are interested in us, so we are excited and proud when they come.’
It’s a two-way street. ICI tourists work on community development projects, which in Pecong has meant digging a well and building garbage incinerators. Host families are paid small amounts to cover guests’ food, but not enough to give up their day jobs to become B&B operators.
ICI interpreters stay with us. They teach us basic greetings and polite phrases, as well as cultural etiquette like pointing with the thumb rather than the finger, using the right hand when eating and sitting with legs tucked in (not easy for flexibility-challenged westerners!)
We sleep on rubber mats, wrapped in sheets or sarongs. Meals are taken sitting on the floor and eaten with the hands. We men eat alone, served by Udin’s wife Ibu Melati, while his children watch shyly through the doorway. They’ll eat after we’re finished. ‘Back home we only get fish without bones,’ a student from Ohio tells me, ‘and kinda breaded. But this is great.’
Our food is indeed good – rice with spicy prawns or coconut fish curry, green beans and hot sambal on the side, and slices of green mango. There’s a touching incident when one host fisherman, having caught no dingkis fish all day, buys some at great expense for his guests to try.
Any awkwardness is broken when tourists join the locals in raucous games of soccer and badminton. Wrestling coach Tom and his friend Mike give a demonstration of their sport, which causes much amusement.
Wearing shorts or sarongs, we take open-air ‘mandi perigi’ showers with buckets at the communal well. Toilet facilities in the houses are just a small hole in the floor over the sea – tricky for all of us, and especially for corporate executive Callen, who somehow drops his passport down there. He has to dive into the water to retrieve it and comes ashore with a soggy passport and an excellent story.
In the village there’s no shortage of people wanting to talk to us. A mother thrusts her children at me – ‘Photo! Photo!’ I line up a shot and the kids immediately burst into terrified tears. It’s a knack I have.
The warm sense of community is obvious and impressive. No doors are locked and there is no police force. Pecong is a relatively prosperous village for the area and is changing, says Pa Udin. A new concrete road, paid for by the government, runs around the island and already seven motorcycles use it; surprising to us, since the road is barely a kilometre long. A teacher proudly rides his motorcycle 200m to school each day, ‘To save time,’ he says.
Mrs Ajiza’s shop sells snacks, drinks and household items. She tells how she teased a tourist last year – ‘He was 33 years, with no hair, and you know, he was not yet married!’
At night a band performs with the volume turned to levels endangering eardrums and sanity. A keyboard player and singer belt out Indonesian joget music, while eight bored girls brought from Sumatra sit in a row on plastic chairs, waiting for a daring village boy to pay 40cents for a dance. The bands know fishermen will have money when the dingkis run and it is considered unseemly for local girls to dance in public.
Next morning we’re woken at 4.30 by the roosters and the amplified call to prayer from the village mosque. After breakfast of chilli noodles we pile into a long flat-bottomed ‘pancung’ boat to visit fishermen working out at sea.
Pecong fishermen build a ‘kelong’, a funnel of poles and nets, which corrals fish towards the narrow end. We help to haul up the traps and find that no-one is rich yet, though most have caught enough dingkis to keep them smiling. They smile easily on Pecong.
Too soon we have to leave these generous people with heartfelt thanks and a few small gifts, and ride the boat to a debriefing session at ICI’s resort at Telunas Beach, an hour away. We’re still in paradise because the white sand is backed by hillsides of dense jungle (‘just like a screen saver!’ says a student). In the thatched huts are comfortable beds, flushing toilets – and chairs!
Chatting about what we’ve learned, the man from Kentucky sums it up, ‘Our lives are about what we’re doing and where we’re headed; village life is about who you’re with.’
Richard Tulloch was the guest of Island Connections International
Ferry from Singapore to Batam Island takes one hour and costs $S40 (about US$30) return.
Further information: ICI group ethno tours cost about $150 a day for 10 days or more, including transport from Batam, and all meals, guides and accommodation. School groups, families and individuals can stay at Telunas Beach Resort, from which shorter village visits can be arranged. www.telunasbeach.com.
First published, Sun-Herald. Sydney