This is a true story about one of my adventures over a decade ago. I have taken great care to record things as they actually happened.

In college I would often roam around the old book archives in the basement of the library. One day I found an old book on remote societies. A picture in the book caught my eye. It had a small caption stating that the picture had been taken in Sumba but with no other information. At the time, I had no idea where Sumba was, but I was convinced that, one day, I would travel to that place. Further research revealed that Sumba was an island in Indonesia. Of course, I didn't know then how much of an impact that picture would have on my life.

Several years after college I was teaching at a university in Jakarta, Indonesia. As my Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language) skills improved, I would venture to more and more of the remote islands of Indonesia. I still remembered that little picture that I saw nearly a decade earlier. Finally I decided that I was ready to travel to that distant island.

From my research I knew that the only airline that flew to Sumba was Sempati. I went to the Sempati main office in Jakarta and asked for a ticket to Sumba. Immediately the employee corrected me and said in Bahasa Indonesia, "You mean Sumbawa". I knew where Sumbawa was and that wasn't where I wanted to go. More employees gathered around to try to help. The conversation seemed to be in rerun mode. Each time I asked for a ticket to Sumba, they all said "Sumbawa". Finally I asked them to bring me a Sempati map showing all the places they flew to. I pointed to the island and all heads leaned down to get a closer look. Then, in unison, they said, "oh, Sumba". At last, I was then able to convince them to sell me a ticket to Sumba and away I went.

The plane was to fly from Jakarta to Bali where I would change planes and continue on to Sumba. I waited in the small dirty airport in Bali. The departure time passed. Still I was not concerned since such delays were to be expected. But another hour went by, then another and another and another.

I watched countless people come and go. A few of the faces seemed to be waiting as long as I was and they noticed the same about me. We were all waiting to go to Sumba. They explained that the flight to Sumba is usually delayed and then canceled by nightfall. They then made a somewhat panicked plea with the officials to get the plane off the ground since there was an American waiting. It worked and we quickly entered the plane.

I never saw a plane in such poor condition before. It was small, perhaps 12 seats, and we filled only half of those. As I took a seat the tray fell down. I messed with it for a while trying to get it to stay up. I looked around and noticed that some of the trays were missing and others were screwed permanently closed. The side panels of the plane were either missing or falling off. The seats were dirty and ripped. Big patches of the carpet were worn out. I frantically tried to fasten my seat belt, but found that there wasn't a buckle for the two ends to fasten together. Looking around I saw that most seats were missing one strap while the other seats didn't have any strap at all. I wondered if there was a life vest under my seat as I tried to tie the two seat belt ends together. I felt a little more at ease when I saw the stewardess enter the plane. I waited for the safety instructions which seemed more important to me then than ever before. The instructions never came.

The plane began its take-off, shaking and rattling so violently that I was sure it would never get off the ground. The trays that weren't permanently screwed shut as well as the overhead compartments all flopped opened. I think if there had been any oxygen masks they too would have popped out. I was once told that Australia used planes until they no longer met the Australian standards. They then sold them to Garuda Airlines in Indonesia who used the planes until they no longer met Indonesian standards. Garuda then sold the planes to Sempati who used the planes until they fell out of the sky. I was praying that this wasn't going to be the last flight to Sumba.

After the plane was safely in the sky and we all started to breathe normally again, the other five passengers gathered around me with lots of questions. "Why is an American going to Sumba?" I tried to answer all their questions. One of the passengers in particular was being especially nice to me. He said that he was the son of the owner of the only hotel on that island. From my research I knew that there was only one hotel on the island and that the hotel was on the other side of the island. It was an eight hour drive from the airport with no public transportation. That had me worried since I had no plan to cover that part of the trip.

The son of the hotel owner made lots of promises to me while we were on the plane. He said that there would be a car waiting for him at the airport and that he would take me to the other side of the island. He also promised to give me a discount on a hotel room, a jeep and driver once we got there and ride back to the airport when I was ready to leave. I thought this was too good to be true, but it was the only thing I had going for me. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but it turned out that he actually did keep every one of his promises.
We safely landed at the airport in Sumba. The passengers were taken to a crowded one-room building which served as the terminal. The walls were cinder blocks with little open slats to let the wind blow in. Looking through those slats, I noticed that it was just as busy outside as it was inside. There were military police officers everywhere. I suppose this was normal. When the plane arrived, everyone came to watch.

A pickup truck brought our luggage from the plane. My new friend set his duffel bag next to mine and asked me to watch it so he could look for his driver. Several minutes later he called to me through the slats in the wall. "I found my driver, grab my bag and come." he yelled in Bahasa Indonesia. I picked up my bag and his and walked past the numerous military police officers.

I sat in the back seat of his car with his duffel bag by my side and we began our eight hour journey. It was dark by that time and I was exhausted. The duffel bag made a good support pillow for me as I slipped in and out of consciousness. The narrow road followed a path that resembled the sine curve and the driver navigated it as fast as the car could possibly go with the horn blowing the whole way. It was amazing that we didn't crash with all those blind curves, in the dark, and on a road only wide enough for one car. We did, however, hit three dogs, a dozen or so chickens, and burned out one horn.

The hotel had a friendly atmosphere. It consisted of several one-room, somewhat modernized, huts. It was such a relief to get there that any hotel would have seemed great and, since it was the only hotel, it was perfect.

The next morning my jeep and driver were waiting. I had the most recent and probably the only map made of Sumba. That side of the island had many blank spots on the map.

"Is there anything in these blank spots?" I asked my driver in Bahasa Indonesia.
"Don't Know." he said.
"Lets find out."

That's how it went every day. In the morning we studied the map and picked another blank spot to explore. The driver seemed to be enjoying our adventures as much as I did. He pointed to another spot on the map and said that he had noticed a new road in that area and away we went.

We drove a couple of hours on that new road when we saw several large rocks lying in a straight line across the road. We got out of the jeep to get a closer look. The driver had no idea what it meant. We talked about the rocks and what we should do. After a while we agreed that we had traveled too far to turn back now so we rolled the boulders off the road. Several miles later we again encountered more large rocks neatly placed in a line across the road. The driver and I had a much shorter discussion this time and rolled them off the road. A few more miles down the road we found sticks stuck in a straight line across road. The sticks were about one foot apart with sharpened ends pointing at an angle in the direction that we were coming from. Without a word the driver and I jumped out, pulled the sticks out of the road, and continued on our way.

Soon after that we saw some children playing, the first people we had encountered on that new road. When the children saw us they ran away screaming. The driver said that was because they had never seen a car before.

We arrived in the first village we had seen that day and were stopped by a man wearing a military camouflage hat. Other men started to gather around our jeep, all wearing various articles of military clothing mixed with their civilian clothes. One had the hat, another wore the military boots, another the military shirt. Between them there was perhaps one full uniform. They didn't worry me much, but I did see three M16's stacked in tripod fashion a short distance away.

They brought me to an open walled hut while my driver was taken somewhere else. I waited for what seemed like a long time. I talked to friendly kids all around me so I wasn't too nervous though I was a bit worried about my driver.

Finally one of the men that had stopped us came to ask for my passport. I had learned long before never to take my passport with me when traveling around Indonesia. A US passport was worth too much on their black market and if I gave it to someone, such as the man who stood in front of me, I would probably never get it back. I told the man that I left it in Jakarta and he went away. A minute or two later he returned and asked for some other type of ID. "I left my wallet in the hotel" I replied in Indonesian. He left again but quickly returned. "We need some ID!" he demanded.

Suddenly reality hit me. No one in the world knew I was there. I was in a country which most Americans couldn't find on a map, on an island that most Indonesians didn't know existed, in a blank spot on the map, completely ID less, and being held by some self-appointed police officers. I searched for something, anything with my name on it. All I had were my Marine Corps. dog tags. I had worn them for ten years, rarely taking them off. I handed those to him and away he went one more time.

He returned a few times to see what I would give him to get the dog tags back. I acted like the tags meant nothing to me although it sure felt strange without them. Feeling that he was getting nowhere with me, he brought me to see the boss. Inside a room sat a real military police officer in his best dress uniform. I was shocked. That was the first time that I had seen such a dress uniform and here it was the middle of Sumba. Perhaps that explained my long wait, he had been changing into it for my benefit.

He handed my dog tags back and said that I was free to go anywhere I wanted. I thanked him and went out to the jeep. The driver was waiting but there was a slight problem. Two of the men who had originally stopped us were holding our jeep hostage. I explained that I had no money and reached into my pockets to show them. My pockets were stuffed with small individually wrapped pieces of candy. That was my usual practice. Whenever I traveled in Indonesia I would first stuff my pockets with these candies. Then I would hand them out to the children as I walked from village to village. When the adults saw how happy the children were with me, they would invite me into their village. I pulled several pieces of candy out of my pocket. The two men got very excited when they saw it so I handed each of them two pieces. They accepted and gladly released our jeep, shook our hands, and waved us a cheerful good bye as we drove away. Later my driver told me that they had never had candy before.

A short distance further up the road we entered a traditional village where a large funeral was going on. I've seen many of those in Sumba. They are more like a party rather than a funeral. The family of the deceased would have to save for years after the death of their loved one before being able to afford a great funeral. The driver and I joined in on the festival. They traditionally slaughtered five pigs that day. The pigs feet were tied together and a long stick was placed between the feet. Two men held the ends of the stick. The religious guru chanted in the local dialect for a long time, apparently blessing the pigs some how. He then pushed a sharp stick into the pig's heart. After he finished with all the pigs they were placed on the ground and lit on fire. Once the hair was burned off they started to scrape the skin off. The party, and thus the deceased, would be remembered for a long time.

An old man sitting on the porch of a nearby hut called me over. He wanted to talk. He spoke in the local language which my driver translated into Bahasa Indonesia, and which I in turn translated into English. Back and forth we talked. What an amazing conversation we had.

It turned out that he was the father of the deceased. Questions and answers flowed fast. He explained that it was his 12 year-old daughter for whom the funeral party was being held.

"How did she die?" I asked.

"She was shot in the back by a military police officer."

My heart stopped for a moment thinking of the tripod of M16's and the military police just down the road. "Was it them?"

"No. She died in Bali."

I relaxed a little. "How long ago did she die?"

"Five years."

"Why did you wait so long before having the funeral?"

"We just received the body on the plane from Bali." was his reply.

"I was on that plane and watched the baggage being unloaded. There was no coffin aboard." I insisted.

"The son of the hotel owner put her in his duffel bag." he said.

"The duffel bag! The duffel bag?" I gasped. "No chance. That bag was too small for a 12-year-old girl."

"He had to chop up the bones first," the old man explained.

What had I done? Had I smuggled the body past the police officers at the airport? Had I used it as a pillow for the eight hour drive? Had I done something wrong? I thought for a moment. I noticed how happy the father and the whole village was. Then I too was happy with what I had unknowingly done.

Read more of "My Adventures" on the top right of this page.


Jim said...

Fascinating story!

I'm getting a chance to read your other stuff here, and you've had some interesting travels.

I need to go to Sumba!

roger coutts said...

the story about the alaskan panhandle i have heard before, from your father william. i married your father's sister,marjorie johnson. i was in colorado in 1976 for a visit. at the time he was near boulder in a place called laffiette(not sure of the spelling. the pictures are very nice and the stories great. roger coutts. email pennsylvania

EW Johnson said...

Thanks Jim and Uncle Roger.