Tales from the Moluccas #2: Happiness on the Riverbank
Lima has just discovered clothes. Three months ago, in fact. Compared to the itchy bark loincloths he used to wear, they’re remarkably comfortable. An excellent addition, he feels, to his eminently satisfactory life.
It would be hard not to warm to Lima. He’s 40ish, he thinks, or thereabouts, with a ready laugh, a happy soul and keen eyes below wiry brows and wrinkled forehead.
A hunter-gatherer from the Togutil tribe, one of four minorities scattered across the crumpled, riverine forest of Pulau Halmahera in Indonesia’s Spice Islands, Lima is, I think at first, the single happiest human being I have ever, ever met.
He wants, he tells me, for absolutely nothing, and desires nothing either.
Lima is living, right now, in a wall-less shelter of fan palm, bamboo and branches, on the pebbled bed of a shallow river which runs through the lowlands of Eastern Halmahera, just off an old logging road.
By day, hornbills flap with a helicopter swoosh between the tall trees that frame the low mountains upriver. At night, a castanet chorus of frogs play percussion to a cricket string section and fireflies flicker in the dark.
It’s just Lima and his three youngest children in the shelter.
Though his oldest daughter — fifteen, they think, though she looks younger to me — has put up a home next door with her husband and baby daughter.
They’ll be here for a couple of months before they return to his home village.
Harvesting wild sago palm, milling it and smoking it in bamboo tubes. Hoovering up the roots and leaves of cassava which grows like wildfire here, a residue, I’m guessing, of logging camps long gone…
Lima is, basically, a hunter-gatherer, living, but for his ragged football shorts, his metal blades and pots, pretty much as all our ancestors lived ten thousand years ago or so.
He lives, essentially, in a perpetual present. He has no memories before his lifetime, no myths or legends handed down from his father. No aspirations for the future, beyond the next spot to hunt.
Nothing written. Nothing carved. Nothing drawn, painted, sung…
My son and I have been travelling the world since January. And one of many reasons for this is to learn more about the different peoples of the world and how they live.
And find, in my so clichéd case, I guess, the beginnings of some answers to a peculiarly Western discontent. I have found something here — I think we both have — but I am not sure entirely what.
This is a very timeless place.
Lima can count. But why count the years?
And, also, how? In the northern hemisphere, we count years by seasons, mark them off with festivals and equinoxes.
Have done, in fact, since time immemorial, celebrating the times when the day stretches from golden mornings into white evenings, contracts into wintry dark, and turns again.
Marking the dark times, of winter, when nothing grows, and the return of spring, when plenty arrives, and the green springs into life.
In this jungle, within a degree of the equator, there are no such markers. There’s a wet season, sure, but stinging rain, steamy heat and scalding sun can alternate year round.
Sago, roots and leaves flourish at any time of year; many trees fruit constantly; most animals have no breeding season.
There is no springtime when baby animals frolic in the fields and buds begin to bloom from the dead earth. The length of the days varies but a fraction from equinox to equinox.
One marker Lima does have is when his wife died. Soon after giving birth to pretty little Ani, who’s four, or thereabouts.
She got sick.
Soon after the baby?
In the way of traditional Togutil people, they put her in the ground fast, destroyed their old home, and moved on.
In the way of traditional Togutil people, she had given birth alone and unassisted.
And in the way of Lima’s people, when she did get sick, the only remedies available were the medicines Lima learnt from his father.
In Bahasa Indonesia, and I think Togutil too, the words for medicine and spell are the same. His medicines?
He breathed on her, and said some words he had learnt from his father.
He was sad for his wife. He believes in neither ghosts nor spirits nor afterlife, so she is gone for good.
But he is happy.
Does he want anything, I ask, contextualizing for the interpreter how much we in the developed West want and crave. I focus on the material things. Though there are spiritual, intellectual, professional, creative, romantic, personal goals we strive for and anguish over, too.
No, he laughs. He talks rapidly, fluently, his eyes alive.
He is here. In a couple of months he will move a couple of hours walk away, to the banks of a smaller stream, cooking pots, parang, spears, hatchet and clothes in a bundle, the ironwood planks he liberated from small-scale loggers for the bedding platform to follow after. He has the place marked out already.
He will go into the forest, each day, with his dogs and his spear thrower, after breakfasting on sago (dried into hard bricks or smoked to a texture like chewy tofu), and hunt and gather, as he always has.
Looking for the same things, nothing new: fruit, roots, nuts, leaves, sago palms, moleyu eggs buried deep in mounds of soil. He boils water in bamboo stems at home. In the forest, he drains pure watery sap from rattan stems.
Bands of rattan encircle Lima’s stomach and hold his waist in, a gift from his father. The magic in them brings pig and deer, maybe as many as one a week, though the numbers aren’t as plentiful as in his youth.
What more could he want? He is perfectly happy. He wants for nothing. There is food today. There will be food tomorrow. All he needs do is go and find it.
Does he ever find new plants, I ask, new species?
He laughs. He knows the useful plants and animals of the forest backward. He’s not interested in finding new ones.
In fact, both Lima and his children seem to exist in a state that is close to the Buddhist notion of mindfulness. I meet the children first, as he is hunting in the forest, huddled on the sleeping platform, gazing over the pebbles to the river.
They sit. They watch. They, well, they just, sort of, are.
They are closer to nature and infinitely calmer than children of the developed West could ever be.
I envy the family, both children and adult, their ability, simply, to be. It’s awe-inspiring.
And, almost in the same breath, their absence of curiosity bewilders me.
They do not question. They seek no answers. They are, I don’t know, uninterested? Disinterested? They have no interest.
Lima has no idea where the world came from, nor does he care.
He has no jinn. No spirit. No shaman. No guardian angel.
He just… Well, he just, sort of, is…
And when the time comes to move he will just, sort of, be. Just in another place.
His daughter and grand-daughter? They’ll head back to her husband’s village, a day’s walk, if you walk like Togutil do, striding barefooted and horn-nailed through the jungle, breaking neither step nor sweat for savage gradients and utterly immune to thorns.
Then they will not see each other for – well, who knows? He’s in touch with two of his eight brothers and sisters. Others – well, they could be dead or alive, who knows?
Like other Togutil people we meet, Lima may well never make it to the sea, not far from where he is. He has no desire to see it.
The river is shockingly low: at the tail end of Maluku’s rainy season, it winds a little course that occupies, possibly, the central third of its pebbled width.
Any idea why?
Lima laughs. No.
And it is the incurious nature of the traditional Togutil we meet on our six day walk that really throws both me and Z. (His word for it? “Vulcanoid. Like the Vulcans in Star Trek. They don’t have enough emotion. No wonder it’s so bad when they do get angry.”)
In the settled villages we pass through as we walk we’re, well, a curiosity, a novelty. Crowds of curious children gather to see the bule; adults cluster at the windows; one woman brings out an albino child to meet the other white folk to general hilarity.
Some logging workers, more sophisticated than their peers, enquire whether we are on a mining survey – the main bule pastime on this volcanic island with its rich deposits of nickel and gold.
Here? Well, we wander up to the family’s wall-less hut – a sleeping platform with a roof, essentially.
Is your father in?
No. He’s in the forest.
Is the dog alright with us?
The oldest boy lobs a rock, follows up with a big stick.
Down we sit, and wait.
These beautiful, bright-eyed children have no suspicions, no sense of danger, no fear of strangers, even funny-coloured ones with weird hair, speaking a gibberish language they have never heard, brandishing shiny machines that do strange things.
On the negative, they have no, well, no curiosity.
In practical terms, this absence of curiosity is a major plus. Aged four or five, when an English child would still be “into everything” and a danger to life and limb, Togutil children are trusted to stay home alone for the day while their parents hunt and forage, without drowning themselves in rivers, cutting themselves (or their siblings) open on razor-sharp parangs, setting the hut on fire or wandering off into the forest never to be seen again.
But it’s weird. Discomfiting. This affectless living seems, somehow, wrong.
And I wonder whether the ambition and acquisitiveness I grapple with and the curiosity I love and value are part of the same spectrum, whether the highs and the lows of Western culture come from a very similar place.
Though I wouldn’t want to say that greed for experiences, for art, for invention, for creativity, for love is part of the same materialist maelstrom as the drive for a bigger, badder, better HD telly or fertile womb and unwrinkled forehead into your fifties, we do call it greed or thirst for a reason.
And yet… And yet…
The family’s serenity, in its strange, calm way, is not dissimilar to the super-human “gods” of Michel Houllebecq’s Atomised.
Yet it sits at the opposite end of the evolutionary spectrum, almost as far in the past (yet close to the present), as Houllebecq’s cloned deities are in the future…
The nine year old and I talk about Lima and his family till late in the night, long, long after the family has curled up to sleep, under a sky so crystal clear and in a world so far from light that the Milky Way forms a delicate misty spiral over a sequined coat of stars.
What do we talk about?
Whether the happiest man I have ever seen is actually happy.
Straight off the top, the nine year old thinks not. “He’s not happy. He’s contented. Being happy is when you like doing something. It doesn’t mean you’re content. It means you’re actually enjoying your life.”
He warms a little to his theme. “I don’t think it’s a good thing to be content with what you’ve got. Look at the great empires of the east. The Assyrians. The Egyptians. The Persians. They wouldn’t have gone out and created everything they did if they’d just sort of sat there being happy with what they’ve got. If the Athenians had been contented, we wouldn’t have theatre – or cinema for that matter. They’d just have stuck with poems.”
I let the poetry issue lie and interject feebly instead, “But there would be a lot less wars if people were content with what they’ve got, wouldn’t there?”
“True,” he says. “But when you’re content with what you’ve got there’s no need to invent anything new.”
“But is it a good thing to invent new things?” I ask. “Look at cars and what they’ve done to the planet.”
Yes, he says. The urge to invent is a good thing. Full stop.
We talk about Aristotle’s notion of happiness, involving a purposeful motion towards a beneficial goal.
Essential to Aristotle’s idea is that the goal one works towards is one in progress. Not complete.
A goal, I guess, not too unlike the simple and essential one of hunter-gathering. Go out. Find food. Feed family. Repeat…
But I think Aristotle had rather larger goals in mind… Though what could be more meaningful than feeding a family?
Back at the riverbank, Z is in full flow, “I think happiness is different from contentment because when you are happy you can want things. And when you are content, you don’t. Look at me, for example. I want…”
He pauses. I wait, with bated breath. He wants – a settled home? To stop travelling? A normal life? A normal mother? His old life in Hackney back . . .
. . . More DragonFable points? At this age, it could be bloody anything.
He continues, with a note of mild embarrassment at his vaulting ambition, “. . . Well, I really want the power of telekinesis. But that doesn’t stop me being happy. I’m not content. But I’m certainly happy.”
When we get up, the family have eaten their breakfast – chewy smoked sago, sliced into chunks from the bamboo tube, washed down with boiled river water.
The men have gone to the forest, hunting. And the children sit on the sleeping platform, watching the river flow.
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