Friday, April 15, 2011

Sumba: Horses, lances, and satellite dishes

The red light blinks “max” again. Hoping desperately for it to be just a blink, I’m disappointed when it persists in staying on, defiantly glowingly on. I’m staring at the dashboard of the motorcycle, glaring over the shoulder of my driver. When I tried to rent it, bluffing that I knew how to drive a motorcycle, the owner insisted that I take him on too as my driver, the whole family laughing at my clumsy attempts to navigate a bike for the second time in my life. The road speeds under us like a fast gray current. The scenery of Sumba passing by is my only distraction from immanent death, which looms up at me with every dog or pothole. Other vehicles, the rare 4x4 from the resort, the mini-buses, other bikes- they are no danger. Neither are people, children or buffalo. Cats and chickens aren’t very brave and dart off the road as soon as the hear the ubiquitous squawk of the deadly “ninjas” and other two-wheeled assassins zipping up and down the roads of Sumba. The danger, the ever-present adversary of the motorbikes, is dogs. Dogs are brave, and they are stupid. Rather than dart off the road, they seem to be attracted by the prospect of death. This wouldn’t bother me too much, I believe in free will, libertarianism, taking responsibility for your actions, even when it comes to dogs. Except for the fact that the dog’s death will also likely lead to me flying over the handlebars and possibly leapfrogging over my driver too. Every canine potentially being fatal, I try to block out the thought, but instead, my eye alights on that red light. The red light is on due to the fact that our motorcycle, in relatively good condition compared to some of the dilapidated clunkers I’ve seen, has hit its highest possible speed.

Some people might read this and think to themselves “What a wuss! I once…” and recall something foolhardy they did. But, I had the added pleasure of also paying a visit to the medical facilities provided in Sumba. When a travel companion had the misfortune of wiping out on some sand, which sadly cohabited a rather sharp curve in the road, I was his bridge, speaking French and Bahasa Indonesia. My French was abysmal to say the least, a relic of 5 weeks spent in Quebec, where I went from a 9% on the placement test to 21%, a victory of sorts, and a few years in the school. After he wiped out, we first took him to the nearest clinic, where they disinfected his wound and suggested he go to the nearest hospital for an x-ray. Of course, in keeping with local custom, we couldn’t just go directly to the hospital, we had to stop and share a courtesy coffee at the homestead in front of which the Frenchman crashed. Now, the family had rendered a service, providing a young man to drive the injured party to the clinic (and as it would turn out, the hospital too). The head of the family was wearing a bright batik shirt, and I was just able to catch a glimpse inside his house of a large picture of the Virgin Mary, bestowing her blessing on the occupants. Despite his pain, profuse bleeding from knee and elbow and slight panic, there was no rushing the Sumbanese custom of a shared coffee. My driver, eyes red from betel, was somewhat panicked and I presumed needed some time to gather himself. So, we sat sipping our thick, black gritty coffee as Joel made eyes at me to hurry up the proceedings. I tried earnestly, but knew that there was no hurrying ancient tradition here on Sumba.

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