Hidden Treasures: Remembering People through Tragedy
Yesterday I found myself remembering the time an Indonesian guy named Dido, while we were hiking alone and venturing deeper into narrow canyon walls, encouraged me to take my pants off. I was skeptical at first, for in Tennessee we seldom hike this way. But after fording a river for the umpteenth time and knowing that more fords were ahead, I said, “What the heck.” A moment later my trousers, like Dido’s had already been for some time, were atop my head.
Dido came to mind because he lives in the Sumatran town of Bukit Tinggi, about 90 miles from Padang. Padang, home to nearly a million people, hit the news this week after an earthquake struck and left hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead.
I’ve traveled enough that I no longer spend much time digging into the details of every disaster that befalls a place I’ve been. It would take too long. I do, however, find that when I hear bad news the people I met in those places move from my dormant memory into my active conscience. So when CNN or FOX gives me statistics and rubble, I think of voices in the market, the taste of grilled meet outside a mosque, or trousers atop my head.
I think of the fine Muslim women in the market. Their faces, framed by headscarves, shined like artistic masterpieces. I remember how open they were to being photographed, and how unexpectedly close they drew when I would show them the pictures, even leaning into my arm and shoulders.
The day I left for Singapore, these two women in the market (and a couple not pictured) gave me an armful of food to take on the journey. We had come to know each other by name during my three-day visit in town (which often took me through the market), and it was with genuine sadness that we said goodbye.
I remember the employees at the town’s main post office. Here, when I asked to purchase a set of stamps commemorating the national elections, I was informed that this particular issue wasn’t to be released for another four days. Dejected—I was leaving for Singapore before then—I looked on as they spoke among themselves and then invited me to step behind the counter. I was taken to an office and directed to a chair beside a heavy safe, where an administrator twirled the combination wheel several times, opened the door, and pulled out tens of thousands of dollars worth of stamps. “Don’t tell anyone we sold you a sheet today,” he said. I remember feeling elation, and gratitude.
The Bukit Tinggi post office
I remember the street vendor who ran out of chicken while preparing my meal. And so he added some eel. The taste was so scrumptious I ordered a second plate, and a couple bottles of tea to boot. I remember the cost for all this was under a dollar.
And of course I remember Dido. How he would point out “magic mushrooms” growing in buffalo dung, the impracticality of pants in a wet canyon, or the majesty of a tree full of rhinoceros beetles having sex—something the beetles were want to do at the end of rainy season, he explained.
Yes, mating rhinoceros beetles will always remind me of Dido.
Earthquakes shake the ground. But they also, when you’ve been to the area where the quake has happened, shake the memory. They rumble through the busyness of your life back home—even, perhaps, through some of your own troubles and heaviness. They rumble so that for a moment you close your eyes, and with your eyes closed you clearly see the people on the far side of the world. They are leaning on you in the market and perhaps mourning. They are serving up eel and perhaps trapped in rubble. They are hiking and perhaps now caught in the stillness of death.
And for a moment, before you return to the busyness and heaviness and responsibilities of your life back home, you say a prayer.
FOR 60 SECONDS OF BBC FOOTAGE FROM THE QUAKE ZONE, CLICK http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/8286166.stm
Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, follow his weekly photoblog, or purchase prints, visit www.joelcarillet.com.