SYNOPSIS:  An evening and a morning at Gemri’s house.  About Gemri’s family and about a morning at the village church. 

Gemri’s house was only 200 meters down from the church.  Church service was scheduled to start at 8 AM and groups of well-dressed villagers, some of whom had walked quite far, had been streaming by the house since after 7 AM.  Church on Sunday was one of the occasions to socialize, exchange news, listen to the priest, and just hang out. 

Everyone looked at the red car that was parked in front of Markus and Juliana’s house.  They were poor but one of their son’s had made it!  Gemri was the only one in his entire village who now owned a car.  That means a lot to the family.  Gemri had parked the car prominently, practically touching the front door with his bumpers.

Markus grew up without any formal education.  To this day he does not even speak Bahasa, the lingua franca of Indonesia, only his local language.  Many times in his life he had been listening to people not understanding a word of what they were saying.   He vowed that at least one of his children would someday speak a language that nobody else could understand; a little revenge on his fate. 

He started to raise pigs, then cows in order to sell them for his son’s education.  He was able to send Gemri to study English and Tourism in Java. It must have been his pride and joy to see Gemri moving up from a local guide to one of the most respected senior guides of Timur and to be one with his own car.  At school Gemri met an equally educated woman from a middle class family, Elda, also an English speaking tourist guide, who is now his wife and mother of two girls.

After Markus’s first son’s education was paid for, most of his wealth was gone.  His second son Hanki was able to continue some higher education and a complete a few English classes.  Now he is an English teacher at a primary school (with very, very little knowledge of English by any native speaker’s account).  For his youngest son Sius, there was only enough left to locally finish a primary teacher’s education.  He now lives right behind his father’s house and teaches at the village school, but does not speak any English.

Markus’s was 20 and his wife Juliana 14, when she bore her first of four children.  That was Gemri who is now 37.  And after three boys, and 20 years later, there was a late-comer Gemri’s youngest sister who is only 12.  I am older than both of Gemri’s parents but you would not know it.  A hard life has wrinkled their faces.  But both radiate warmth and strength and determination.  And you could tell how proud they were not only of their son’s car, but that visitors from as far as America were staying at their home.

The family lives in one of the typical local compounds:  A square straw-covered house for living and sleeping with a few smaller structures behind:  one beehive-shaped smoke-filled roundhouse for cooking the traditional way, and several sheds for the animals.  Gemri was behind the division of cooking and living quarters – following the government’s recommendation (contrary to chief Anin about whom I wrote in the Fatumnasi blog).  The square hut is divided into a public front area with living room and guest room.  The rear of the house has beds for the family and a kitchen area with pots and pans.

In the last town, Gemri and Elda had stopped to buy some food for dinner.  I waited in the car and did not watch any of the bags that were piled up next to my suitcase.  Picture my surprise when we took off and all of a sudden a loud chicken sounded from the back!  I don’t know what I thought “dinner” would be, but of course, it is customary to slaughter a chicken when guests arrive and since we were unannounced, we brought the chicken along with us.  I was amazed how fast that live chicken turned into a delicious, eatable meal after we arrived.

Again and again it strikes me how little “stuff” people have and how well they do without all the crap we deem necessary.  The living room is empty.  Some newspapers and a photo of Jesus are pinned to the wooden walls along with some family photos.  A solar-powered torch along with some kerosine lamps are used to provide some light after dark.

There is no furniture – a sign of the family’s poverty – only wooden and plastic chairs which move around to where the people are; inside in the evenings, outside in the mornings.  The guest room was a small square room with a bed, a very thin straw mattress with an age-old sheet, and a pillow.  That is standard equipment.  Sheets are not changed after one or even many uses as nobody takes off their day clothes for sleeping (except me).   A curtain shielded the room from the living area.

I have gotten quite used to sleeping on thin, hard wooden village beds and actually am sleeping quite well.  But Gemri’s village was cold and I had to pull out a few layers in addition to my sleeping bag to sleep at all.  It always amazes the locals that I take a “shower” in the cold mornings.  No matter how easily water is available – and Gemri’s village is near a large river – people do not wash as often as we do.  But they also don’t perspire as we do.  Their skins seem made perfectly for this kind of climate and habit. 

But as I happily endure a lot of cuts in comfort, I will not skip washing myself entirely regardless of the temperature; to a point, of course.  As always in this environment, I woke up with everyone else at the crack of dawn.  A delicious breakfast was prepared from freshly pulled tubers off Markus’ land.  His daughter brought a steaming bowl of the potato-like vegetable to the table we had set up in the shade behind the house.

We all had put on our Sunday fineries and were waiting for the final church bell.  One had sounded around 5 AM in the morning already.  And there it was:  8:30 AM.  The sound of a metal cylinder (was that a re-appropriated part of machinery or actually cast as a bell?) was struck by the young priest; the final call to gather for church.

It only took us 2 minutes to walk to the church were parishioners began to file in.   The church was packed.  Lots of women, children, men, a few dogs and even a chicken had entered the hall.  Even this early in the morning it was hot.  Windows had been opened but there was hardly any air flow.  1.5 hours of this – I took a deep breath, looking around for the fans.  But I had forgotten that there was no electricity in this village.  Therefore, no fans. 

I mentally prepared for a sweat session and lulled myself into a half-slumber listening to readings and words which I did not understand.  But Indonesian church-services are filled with music.  Everywhere else, especially in Tana Toraja, I had listened to people singing to the rocky accompaniment of electric pianos.  But without electricity, there were only guitars for several small groups who performed individual songs.   The congregation needed no help.  I have rarely heard such a full-throated group of people.  Everyone knew the words, everyone sang as loud as their voices allowed.  The result was stunningly beautiful; a heart-felt service to the glory of God and the joys of life.