Chapter 3

We ate two meals a day, one in the early morning before I left for school, and the other in the evening at about six or seven o’clock. In between those times we children got hungry, of course. Sometimes there was leftover rice from the morning, and we ate that when we got out of school at one in the afternoon. But often there would not be any rice left over, so we were forced to search for edibles from the garden: various sorts of ripe mangoes, kecapi ,[1] and petai beans[2] that could be put to use filling up a growling belly. We brought salt from home to put on the sour fruits. Often we were unable to find very many fruits, and children who were still hungry would ask for a few extras from their friends. We had a method for dealing with this: we spat on our fruit so that others would not want any. But some children ate them anyway. We never brought a knife (we were afraid it might get lost), so we took turns biting into ripe mangoes. We also had seed-swallowing competitions; whoever could swallow the big sour kecapi seed was the champion. It absolutely never occurred to us that we might get a bellyache. Grownups tried to frighten us by saying that the seeds would sprout in our bellies and come up through our chests and necks and out our mouths, but of course we paid no attention.

Because we ate so much fruit, sometimes we really did get bellyaches and that often meant loose bowels. Going to the bathroom in the village was difficult because there were no proper W.C.’s.[3] We were forced to look around for a somewhat secluded spot, but even then the dogs and pigs soon came snuffling around. You could only conclude your business by brandishing a cane in your hand. There was no water for washing up and paper was hard to come by, so we used castoff stuff or dry leaves and such to clean our behinds. Often we would rub ourselves against a big housepost, and the posts in the village got to looking sort of yellow. If two children were defecating near each other, they would have to throw something (a rock, a branch, a handful of sand) at each other and say, “On ma holang-holanghu tu ho” (Here’s my distance from you). If you did not do this, it was said that the nipples on you mother’s breasts would close up.

There was an H.I.S.[4] kid we played with. Every morning he took a horse and buggy to school, about seven kilometers from our village. We were a bit resentful and standoffish toward him, since we knew that they studied Dutch at his school. Sometimes we would ask him what this or that was in Dutch, but he always kept silent . . . I don’t know why. He was only in the first grade, but one time he was feeling boastful and wanted to show us how good his Dutch was. He said, “In Dutch, our names change to something else.” Immediately I thought of my own name and had to agree; my name at home was Djohanis but in school the teacher called me Yohannes.


When we asked him what his name was in Dutch he answered, “My name is Maningar, but in school I’m called Manginar.” We just kept mum. Maybe what he said was true, we thought.[5]

When it came to games I was not entirely incompetent. For instance, when we played ball I was generally chosen to be goalie because I was the best at kicking and stopping balls. But I was skinny, so if I got bumped even slightly I tended to fall down. My mother always chided me for being so skinny. She would remark, “Indahan diallang ho, ranggas tem” (“You eat rice, but your stools are nothing but dry sticks,” a saying directed at children who ate a lot but remained skinny). A soccer ball was expensive for us—a rubber ball cost at least fifteen cents—so usually we just used a big citrus fruit. Our feet got all red from kicking it.

Sometimes we played other games, such as the candlenut game. We would arrange a bunch of candlenuts in a circle on the ground. Then with another candlenut (called a panuju , a shooter) we would try to shoot nuts out of the circle. The nuts that went out we could take, while the nuts that stayed on the edge, or on the line, would have to be redeemed with a nut. If the shooter nut stayed inside the circle or landed on the line, it would have to be redeemed with two nuts. This game was called marpinse (pronounced “marpisse,” that is, marbles). The shooter nut had to be heavy so that the candlenuts could be knocked out of the circle easily. It was also more fun to shoot if it was heavy. So the insides of the shooter nut would be emptied out through a little hole. It was hard to get the insides out, no matter how much you scraped it with a palm fiber. So instead, you found an anthill and placed the candlenut there with its hole pointed down so the ants would clean it out. They you filled the empty candlenut with little broken pieces of a ceramic cooking pot, and close the hole with tar, asphalt, or forest rubber. Another candle nut game was markaulu . Several candlenuts were placed in a row, and you tried to hit them one by one with your shooter. If the candlenut at the head of the line was hit, you had the right to take all the others behind it. Each time you hit a nut, you took the others behind it.

Often we sat on the ground playing margaja . The first game of this sort we learned was Hole Margaja (margaja lombang ). A circle would be divided into four equal parts and a quarter of the arc would be rubbed out; this was the hole, the space in which no one was allowed to step. The game was played by two children. The playing pieces were bits of branches, stones, or really anything just so long as you could tell your friend’s playing pieces from your own. The game was over when one player lost by having his pieces crowded along the edge of the hole, unable to move forward. There was also the game of markansuhi . In this one, a square would be divided into sixteen tiny squares. Each player had eight pieces, four on his left and four on his right, placed in the square located on the farthest edges. You


moved your pieces from square to square, but if you were going to “eat” your friend’s piece you had to step on it by moving alongside it or standing right next to it, and you could not jump over two pieces at once. You lost when all your pieces had been eaten by your opponent. There were lots of other margaja games such as Dutch Margaja, Tiger Margaja, and so on. So we really had no lack of games to play, waiting for mealtime.

When evening came we returned home to eat and often would not bathe beforehand. Sometimes I did not bathe for an entire week, but just washed my face in the morning before I went to school. My chest and neck would get all black from the sweat and dirt, but I still had no desire to bathe; my mother would sometimes drag me to the riverbank and give me a bath there, saying, “Anggo nisuan lasiak diandorami manigor do tubu” (Chili pepper seeds would sprout on your chest). That’s how dirty I was. I also used to wipe my runny nose on my shirt-sleeve. The snot dried and my sleeve got all stiff, and my nose got red from all the wiping back and forth. As far as I was concerned, handkerchiefs simply did not exist, and even if I had carried one I probably would not have used it. Wasn’t it easier just to use my hand?

We had only one water buffalo, which pulled my father’s cart. When I was not collecting firewood for my mother I watched over the water buffalo. I was always happy caring for that animal because he always won when matched against another buffalo in a contest. His horns formed a circle with the arc open at the top, which meant he was called a sitingko in our language.[6] Sometimes when Dad was not looking, I paired the animal off against another water buffalo and hugged him happily if he won the contest. We also used our buffalo to pull a plow in the rice paddies. We really loved him. With me, he was always good. He let me sit on his back, or stand on his neck or on top of his head; he let me do anything. When he became old and was no longer so strong we did not have a heart to sell him to be butchered for meat. My Dad arranged for him to be cared for out in a village on a mountain slope and I never saw him again. Later on I heard that my buffalo had fallen into a ravine and died. Apparently he was just too old.

My father tried another line of work. He left our cart in its storage shed and became a blacksmith. When I came home from school in the afternoon I worked the bellows. I did not like this task, especially if any of my pals were playing nearby. Every moment or so, while my father was forging a piece of iron we had heated to a nice glow, I would go over to my friends. I would say to my Dad, “It’s too hot near the fire,” and fan my body with my shirt as I walked away. But then I would enjoy playing so much that I forgot my duties. My Dad would get angry with me and, thoroughly irritated, I would return to my work at the bellows.

Anyway, blacksmithing did not suit my father for long. He bought a cow


to pull our cart. Cows are able to pull carts faster than water buffalo, but they are not as strong. Again I was the one who kept watch over our cow, but it was different from watching a water buffalo. I was not allowed to spoil the cow, and I was not supposed to ride her. What is more, the cow smelled positively rancid, probably because it was never bathed.

The death of our old water buffalo had apparently been a sad event for my father, too; he did not seem to want to hitch up the cart very often anymore. The cow cart was not used for long. He sold it and used the money to buy the car we took to Sibolga. My Dad drove it from Medan to Bukittinggi and back again, as a hired driver. But after a year of driving, he asked for his money back because, he said, “The automobile has made me forget my obligations as a church elder.” But perhaps that was not the real reason my father asked for his money back. A life of driving an automobile truly had no structure to it.[7]



Me and Toba




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