Sumatra’s landscape shocks one into the present moment. Here hobbling, knobby dogs share the road with mud-slicked water buffalo and discarded juice cups and little schoolboys with clip-on ties. In the day the clouds swell warm and heavy over the rice paddies; at sunset they turn the strange and fantastical colors of a childhood lava lamp. Coffee bubbles and pours, roosters cry, children greet one another in Batak. For a first-time visitor like me, this is terrain that demands constant attention from all the senses.
Rain pounded the roofs of Nagasaribu the afternoon we arrived. After a coffee-heavy welcome to the village, the group piled into the car to depart, one by one, into our individual homestays. I was eager to break from nonstop travel and settle into family life — finally no more living on top of each other, finally my clothes could exit the musty confines of my hiking pack!
Once I was seated alone, though, with my ibu and bapak and the sound of the pouring rain, I felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety. I had exhausted my Bahasa within about twenty minutes. I longed for the ease of conversation, wanted desperately to crack a joke or hear a story or ask a question (beyond favorite foods and colors) that might bridge our cultural divide.
While I was lamenting the loss of my pocket Indonesian dictionary, my bapak suddenly turned to me, grinned, and stuck his thumb out. His long, yellow nail was so different from my own, pale and bitten to the quick. Cautiously, I lifted my thumb to meet his. Boom! Our flesh met, and as if zapped by some shared electrical force, we pushed away. I smiled. I had made a connection.
I’ve learned here to savor these moments where I can connect without language. Hunting around the kitchen with my ibu, because I’m showing her how to make guacamole and neither of us know the other’s word for “salt.” Walking into a house packed with the whole community, where a new mother and her baby lie wrapped in blankets on the bed. Being ordered to “makan!” (“eat!”) each time I enter a friend’s house.
As someone who loves words, both writing and gabbing, possessing what amounts to a preschooler’s vocabulary can feel frustrating. But there is so much in Sumatra to see and hear, to marvel and wonder at, and to connect with, that I almost don’t mind.