SYNOPSIS:  About being a guest of honor at a traditional Minang Wedding and about crossing the equator. 

Colorful cloth tents were dotting the landscape when I drove from Padang to Bukittingi — the sure signs of impending weddings.  The Minang are a matrilineal culture and weddings as well as marriage traditions are some of the most emblematic expressions that remain.  It was a weekend in the month following Ramadan.  That is holiday season for all Muslims, and wedding season for the Minang.  I was pretty sure that by just walking through town the next day, I would stumble on a wedding somewhere and would be able to take a few pictures.  But it came even better than that.

It was already dark last night when I had found the Minang Hotel.  Should I move in the dark?  Should I just get through one night at that horrible place where my luggage was now, at the other end of town?  I was debating just those questions when the familiar “Hello Miss” tuned in from across the street.  I nodded and smiled as I usually do, and continued walking.  “Wait!”  A young man tried to cross the road fast enough for me to not get away.  This was clearly going beyond the “Hello Miss” part of the conversation.

It was Billy — why they all have these ridiculous Western names is beyond me, but Billy was actually written on his business card which he promptly produced.  Could he do anything for me?  Well, just when I needed to make a decision on my whereabouts for the night, somebody with a motorbike popped up who spoke some English!  I guess, my question was decided.  I explained my situation and asked him if he would first take me back to my original homestay, transport me, my camera and computer bags back to the Minang Hotel, and then return by himself to fetch my suitcase?  Of course, he would.  We negotiated a price and did just that.

I know you are shaking your head or are rolling your eyes, or even both, as this would be impossible in the US.  Ask a stranger you have met 3 minutes earlier, in a town you are not familiar with, and in the dark to pick up your suitcase — which, by the way contains things this guy will never have — and be certain that it will arrive intact, untouched and for sure.  In the States the guy’s card would be fake and this would be his age-old trick to rip off people; right?  Here, Billy did exactly what we agreed on and I did not even doubt it for one second!

Could he do anything else, he asked after pocketing his money?  Work around here is scarce, especially for young people.  I knew that and had already planned on contributing to the local economy by hiring somebody here or there.  Why not ask Billy to drive me around tomorrow to find a wedding?   When I expressed my plans to attend a local wedding, his eyes lit up.  His divorced father’s second wife’s youngest brother was getting married tomorrow in a village just one hour from here.  We could attend that wedding. 

Wow, I had not expected to be at a second-wife’s youngest brother’s marriage somewhere, just at any marriage in town.  But why not?

The “hour” Billy had announced clocked in at three hours on my watch, but after that we arrived in the village of Lubuk Sikaping.  The village may only be 60 or 80 km from Bukittingi as the crow flies, but this is serious mountain area.  A road of 1000 curves took us there which alternately hugged the mountain cliffs or snaked around the deep valleys in between.  Take your hand, spread out your fingers and imagine a road leading you from your thumb to your little finger, except that you have about 500 little fingers. That’s the road we were on for three hours leaning left and leaning right and left again and right again…  I won’t describe any of the passing maneuvers that were part of it but leave them to your imagination.  I am just glad we got there in one piece and without me getting road sick. 

A small fabric door in a side street indicated that we had arrived at our destination.  It was the entrance to a cloth tent that had been erected in the corridor between two small houses.   Except for a few people tending a food buffet, it was empty!  Where were all of the 300 guests who Billy told me would attend? 

To put the punchline first:  Minang weddings are the most arduous, boring, trying day for any newlyweds!  Having just attended one of the most fun and spirited weddings in the US, this became obvious within minutes.   It is nothing like any wedding we know.

The newlyweds were decked up in colorful, heavy, embroidered costumes — way too thick and uncomfortable for the hot weather — and seated on a “throne” under an equally colorful canopy at the end of the tent.  About twelve tables with four chairs each were set up for dining.  I was told that first, I had to eat before I could greet the couple.  I found that rude, but did as I was told.  They watched me from afar.  The food in this region is way too spicy for my taste, so I only nibbled on the various meat and vegetable dishes, all spiced up with loads of chili peppers.  Two bottles of water and loads of plain rice helped me to get through it without losing face. 

After eating, I was directed to the guest book and the gift table and a box for monetary donations.  With a golden pen, I put my name and place of origin in the book.  Billy told me that I would become the envy of the rest of the family who could not show up for a guest from America.  Since I had come with him (a family member), I would be claimed as a part of the extended family.  It was almost the same concept I had encountered at the funerals in Tana Toraja.  Complete strangers are more than welcome as anyone attending — the more the better — is testimony of the importance of the deceased, in this case the newly-weds.

After my entry in the book, it was time to greet the couple.  We made a bit of small talk and then it was picture-taking time.  And that, as I found out, is what this entire day is about:  Taking pictures with all the various guests.  The couple literally sits there the entire day posing with and for all of the attending guests.  Since I spent about two hours at the wedding, I saw other guests coming and going.  They eat, put their donations down, have their picture taken and leave…  The poor couple is stuck at their throne with zero air flow due to the fabric surrounding them.  I could not get out of the tent into the open air fast enough! 

The pride and joy for the couple for the rest of their wedded life will be the wedding photo book showing them with this or that relative and this or that friend and this or that group of people, or this or that famous guest in attendance.  That’s what wedding books look like. I know, as Billy later showed me his.

As a guest of the family, I was presented to everyone behind the scene.  There were the dozens of women cooking for the wedding at the back of the house; no such thing as “catering”.  There were the girls of honor, dressed in coordinated clothes who greeted and oriented the newcomers.  They were delighted to show me around all the way to the rice fields behind the house.  Despite their ability to move into the open air between guests, they were hot, too, their makeup running down in streaks. 

In the olden days, a wedding couple in their heavy clothes — particularly for the bride with her heavy crown this poses a challenge — had to make the rounds through the village to visually announce to all and everyone their new union.  These days, the village often comes to them.  But the highlight of the party is when around midday or early afternoon, the family of the bride arrives.  The couple gets up — their only chance all day for moving around — to greet the arriving family and to form a parade.  With pomp and ceremony, and with some specific traditional tunes played at that moment, they arrive at the tent.  In the olden days, and for the wealthier even today, the wedding would be accompanied by live music. For this wedding, there was canned music, a guy with an electric piano and a singer.  After the arrival of the bride’s family, there might be some dancing.  But the couple sits.

After two hours observing this wedding, and after the parade, I had enough.  Taking a slight detour on the way home, we passed through Bonjol, a village through which the equator cuts.  This would be my second time crossing the equator.  🙂  I vaguely remember having had the honor once in Peru. 

The road of 1000 curves took us back.  It was a long, hot day!  I was exhausted.  I can’t even imagine how the couple made it through.  In all likelihood they were still sitting there — or had they collapsed by now? —  by the time I was falling into bed. 

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. Love all the color – and did the bride’s family carry more food on their heads or was it part of a dowry?

  2. What a wonderful face Billy has…no wonder you felt you could put your trust and faith in him. The eyes and face…ah, the soul is revealed.