At this time of year, when so many of us are preparing to open our homes to friends and family, my mind keeps going back to an experience that I had in an unlikely place this past September.
With eleven other passengers and a crew of fifteen, I was motoring through some of the remotest islands of Indonesia on a traditional two-masted phinisi schooner. We’d been making slow headway through our two-week sailing trip, hampered by a cranky engine and stormy seas that had us reconfiguring our route on a daily basis to avoid the worst of the swells.
As darkness settled over the deck on Day 7, the captain decided to make for Serua by morning. This tiny volcanic island had once hosted a community of five hundred people on its saddle ridge – until a 1968 eruption caused villagers to be evacuated to Seram, some 400 kilometres to the north. Over the decades, about a hundred of the villagers had trickled back to the island to rebuild a scanty village near the shore – their numbers limited by the lack of a school or medical clinic, but the green fertility of their island making a homing call too loud to ignore. The ruins of the church were still visible on the ridge – offering a destination with which to stretch sea-weary legs for those of us able to tackle the steep trail.
Before daybreak, our ship radio crackled to life. “Phinisi! Phinisi! Are you coming our way?” Ships were a rare sight in these parts, and in the pre-dawn light we’d been spotted on the horizon by Seruan fisherman. Before we’d even announced our presence, the village kepala (headman) was extending an invitation to come ashore.
No sooner had we dropped anchor than several village men approached in wooden canoes, bearing the gift of a grouper for our dinner, and offering to motor us safely to the slip of a gravel beach. Here a dozen other villagers waited in welcome and curiosity.
At the kepala‘s house, plastic chairs were pulled out for us under a tarp stretched across bamboo poles. A tiny cloth-draped table offered drinking water and banana chips. When we expressed concern about making the ridge before the heat got unbearable, the family waved us on, with promises to return when we’d finished our climb.
We followed the villager assigned to lead us up the trail, past gardens of cassava and sweet potato and papaya, and through the biggest banana forest I had ever seen. As we rested near the ruined church, shouts from the forest let us know that some of the men had taken a break from the clove and nutmeg harvest to pick young coconuts for our refreshment. The sweet coconut water restored us in the soaring heat like no sport drink ever could.
We got our formal welcome to the island when we returned to the kepala‘s house, and the kepala‘s wife plied us with fresh, hot pisang goreng (fried bananas). Our enthusiasm for the cooking meant the pisang goreng kept coming – and with it, photos and stories and smiles and laughter. With our sketchy Indonesian, much flapping of hands, and some translation by our crew, we talked together of food and family – universal things. At some point, the conversation devolved into gentle bawdy humour (another universal tendency, it seems).
When the time came to leave, the kepala‘s wife produced a big jar of banana chips for us to share on our onward voyage. We dug into our packs for reciprocal gifts – Canada flag pins and gently-used clothing. In a shower of hand waves and terima kasihs (thank- you’s), we climbed back into the canoes and headed for the ship.
Although I’ve been treated many times to Indonesian hospitality, this was as genuine and generous a welcome as I’ve experienced anywhere – and I tried to describe it to those who’d been warned off the trail and had stayed on board. But it was a fellow traveller named Geoffrey who said it best: “This is the place you go when you need to restore your faith in humanity”.
It’s those thoughts and images that are forefront in my mind this week. The gift of opening one’s home unreservedly to others. The recognition that the opportunity to connect is valuable and fleeting and we should drop everything to embrace it whenever it turns up.
This is where I’m supposed to vow to follow the lead of those Seruan villagers – to shelve time, ego, and image for the higher principles of spontaneity, connecting, and community building. But I’d be disingenuous if I did. Perfectionist that I am – prone to introversion – with a streak of competitivenes… yeah, it’s not going to happen. Irritability seems my go-to reaction to the unexpected. The best that I can do is to prepare thoroughly and lovingly for the arrival of my extended family this weekend – and make detailed plans for hosting friends in the new year.
But I did want to take time to offer kudos to those whose doors are always open wide. You have my utmost respect and admiration – and I am truly blessed to call some of you my friends.
My thanks to the villagers of Serua island. And my thanks to those of you who are of a similar ilk. Yours is the generosity of spirit that would prove the undoing of so much that has gone wrong on our planet – if only more of us had the selflessness to do the same.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all – and may 2018 bring as much to you as you give.
Text and photos © 2017 Catherine Van Brunschot (except where noted)