A Country Wedding
In the dirt yard, by the communal sleeping platform her family have built outside their wooden home, Biasri, eighteen years old and five months gone, stands pounding rice in a ripped and muddy T-shirt draped over a little red skirt, her hair pulled back.
She’s preparing cakes for her wedding. It might happen today.
More likely tomorrow, now. Or possibly the day after. She’s not concerned, though. It’s jungle time.
The Togutil people of Halmahera, North Maluku, use little of the houses the government built for them. That’s if they’ll live in them at all.
The other five around here are already cannibalized for firewood, like the church so ceremoniously inaugurated two decades ago and now succumbing to creepers and vines.
It’s partly the noise they hate: that battering of rain on a tin roof. It’s partly that when someone dies their culture dictates they tear the place down and move on.
Also, of course, whenever the government gives them land someone else might want to live on, more sophisticated families offer them a fraction of the market price to spend on palm wine and clove tobacco.
Her mother, though, and her big sister, a mother of five already, are using the house right now. No one knows where the groom is right now. It’s what they call in parts of Indonesia an MBA: a Marriage By Accident.
Will he come?
He’ll get here.
How do you know?
Well, she’s pregnant, you know. And if he didn’t come, it would be serious.
A war. But don’t worry. He likes her. He’s happy to be married.
Inside, in the dark, they’re working on the wedding gifts. Gorgeously patterned, crafted entirely from rattan, bamboo, palms…
There’s eight bamboo whisk brooms, hung ceremoniously on the wall. Four gorgeous woven sleeping mats, patterned in purple and green. Woven tongs, for handling grilled meat. Her trousseau?
They’re beautiful. She’ll take them with her?
No. They’re for the husband’s family.
Oh. A dowry?
They make an exchange. The family is bringing them a machine for grating coconut. These are their exchange. That and the cane syrup.
There is bottle after bottle of sugar cane syrup stashed. All of it hand-squeezed from cane foraged in the wild.
And the cakes! Oh my gosh, the cakes.
They can’t grow rice here. They need to buy it or barter for it, catch parrots and sell or trade them…
The cakes for the husband’s family sit in regal splendour in their woven holders, shaped for all the world like old amphorae. Solid creations, baked a while back and built, like a European wedding cake, to last.
What Biasri is working for, pounding and pounding with that heavy long mallet, are cakes for the guests. Rice flour and syrup. An aunt is grating coconut by hand, mountains of it… They’ll shape them by hand and fry them up like doughnuts.
The wedding won’t happen today, we hear, via the bush telegraph from a village three hours walk from here.
They set out today. Will be here tomorrow.
Biasri will be married then.
For the Togutil of Halmahera, unconstrained by telecommunications, paid work and all the demands that structure our Western lives, time is fluid.
We think the wedding will happen at 4pm.
Yes. They should be here by then.
By 4, they have not shown. A message comes back from the village. The groom’s family reached the village yesterday.
One of the groom’s family walked out to see the bride’s family early this morning, but everyone was gone, out in the jungle.
Or hiding? I speculate. Their preparations, perhaps, not quite complete, the papery woka palm decorations on the cake, cut in their frills and pirouettes like ribbon, not quite elaborate enough for the gift of the machine?
The messenger goes back. A time is fixed. Biasri’s big day will begin at 9am, with music welcoming her groom to the home she will be leaving for his village.
Her mother’s careworn face relaxes. She has broad, succulent features, with ripe lips, run a little to seed: an older, heavier version of her beautiful, nubile daughter.
The reason for her care, we only find out later.
By 8am the little river Waiya is like Piccadilly Circus, relatively speaking. Groups of barefoot guests pad silently upriver to the sleeping platform, take their places by the cooking fire, await the arrival of the groom.
They’ve brought instruments! Duk, little, four-string guitars. A kasteh: like a two string double bass with a square belly, yet played by plucking not bow.
The groom arrives, resplendent in his kampung finery, a new wedding T-shirt, neat dark shorts, grinning, like his groomsmen brothers, from ear to ear.
Biasri looks beautiful. Her short, russet-patterned dress might conceivably be new – she is going to live in a kampung, after all. It’s certainly clean. And it conceals her bump quite wonderfully.
The music begins.
Be careful with the palm wine. Don’t drink anything unless I give it to you.
The husband’s family. They have bad magic. They can put bad magic in their palm wine, makes people sick.
They add something to the palm wine?
It’s the magic. And you can’t taste it. It’s just there.
It sends them blind?
Yes! How did you know?
The roughly distilled palm wine flows from plastic jerry cans. Communal plastic cups are passed around.
It burns the throat a little, an acrid, smokey taste, like home-brewed Mezcal. Even without the threat of wood alcohol poisoning and the pathologically early hour, it’s hard to imagine drinking much of it.
By 9.30am, the guests and family are well away, buzzing on palm wine and fried rice cakes, smoking thick cigarettes heavy with cloves, clustered on the sleeping platform or under the tarp the family have put up across the yard.
The sister of the bride is buzzing, dancing, her youngest on her hip, head bouncing in her sling. Other children watch shyly from the trees.
Folk have been taking their turn on the instruments, jamming democratically. Like so many people here, they’re natural musicians.
Then the music stops and the drums begin.
The family are notionally Christian, but priests, one feels, need not apply right now. The dance is clearly a very old one, its rituals very clear.
The groomsmen dance, one by one, parang and shield festooned in trails of part-withered woka palm and fresh leaves. No kasteh now, no duk.
Just the steady pounding beat of stick on metal jerry can and stones on slabs of metal salvaged from an abandoned truck. This family cannot afford gongs.
It’s an old Togutil war dance, with a message of peace. Bare feet pound the dank earth. Parang and shield judder above the head, trailing their jungle banners.
The groom’s father is high as a kite, and his rhythm’s fantastic. Throwing the ancient shapes, which vary from culture to culture here, his arm muscles glisten to perfection as he slashes imaginary trees to demonstrate his strength.
Out of the house, comes the bride’s mother. She too is dancing. Above her neat print shawl top and sarong, her face is alive.
No blades here.
She’s carrying tray of sweet rice patties, glutinous rice turned golden brown with cane syrup.
She dances towards him, with her cakes. He blocks her, with his parang and shield.
They are loving this moment, don’t want to let this go.
The audience are applauding, laughing too. The joy is intense.
She pushes the cakes towards him, right in his face. He blocks.
It’s a rhythm that reminds me, incongruously, of the way girls dance with their gay friends deep into the dawn in techno clubs in Berlin, London, NYC. (The nine-year-old? He finds it hilarious.)
And, finally, he takes a bite.
She has given her daughter away, conquered her with hospitality. They do not need to take her by force. The bride is coming freely to his home.
Biasri’s stepfather’s brother, a dour man from the jungle, is roaring his appreciation, wreathed in smiles.
There’s an edge on him, though. It looks like he could switch at any time.
I think we should go soon. The local guide is concerned there could be danger.
An hour or so more, I think. None of our guys are drunk, right?
They produce the wedding breakfast. We sit on the sleeping platform among the bride’s side, edged up to the groom’s party, nodding and smiling, speaking pidgin Indonesian with those who speak it.
It’s a banquet. A cornucopia of riches.
Riches produced, here in the Spice Islands where nutmeg grows wild, without the benefit of any flavouring but cane syrup. Not even salt.
Z and I share a bowl. They fill it up.
Five grey sticks of powdery dried sago which, even with Western dentition, is a challenge to break, let alone chew, though eminently gummable should you like the soapy taste.
Tiny pipefish smoked till all that remains once you peel away the shiny flecks of skin is whiskery bones and slivers of imperfectly gutted flesh. Three different types of rice.
I don’t know whether they’ve used the sugar we brought, though the clove tobacco’s going down a treat.
I do know that, in culinary terms, I’ll be taking this one for the team.
It’s very kind of them. Do we really need to eat all this?
Eat as much as you like.
No. I mean, do I need to finish the plate?
No, no. Just eat enough.
The sago goes down more easily than the fish. Z has some rice.
All of a sudden, a gale of laughter quite literally rocks the platform. Everyone is howling, beating hands on legs, like a 1920s cinema audience at a knockabout comedy. Not just the bride’s family. Groom’s side, too.
The stepfather, Biasri’s stepfather.
What about him?
He asked for more food.
He asked for more food.
The matron of honour, her responsibilities relieved, is seventeen sheets to the wind or more. She takes up an unscheduled, gender-inappropriate war dance, waving the shield and parang, beckoning the groom’s brothers to dance with her.
She’s a good dancer, as wedding dancers go. And, hell, why shouldn’t she have her turn in the limelight, play the man for a while? In many cultures here on Halmahera, everyone can dance.
She throws her arms around me. I, using our guide’s camera, am to be wedding photographer. First him. Then her. Then these two. And them again.
Well, here’s a job opportunity for me, sweetheart.
I could move to the jungle and become photographer at Togutil weddings. What do you think?
The mother’s face is now relaxed. It’s good to see. She’s a kind woman. A big heart. Which makes it all the more shocking when we hear about her son.
We just heard about Romi.
What happened to him?
He killed a man. A man from the village downriver.
No one knows. He just did it. He was walking on the river and Romi killed him with a spear.
How do they know?
He made it back to the village before he died.
Where is he now?
In prison. In Ternate.
Didn’t he hide in the jungle?
There were a lot of police. They came, fifteen of them, with guns. People were scared of the guns. They gave him up.
Christ, I think. No wonder she looks so, well, so defeated… Some of the Togutil in the forest had never heard of police, or law.
The groom’s party regroup. They process, ceremoniously, bearing the coconut grater on its little platform, garlanded in papery woka and fresh leaves.
More palm wine is drunk. More photos taken.
I extricate myself from the embraces of the sister, who’s bidding fair to make us Best Friends Forever, we collect the guides who’ve been guarding our belongings, and we paddle our way up the rocky riverbed.
Our destination? The bare earth hilltop where old Luobo sits in his loincloth like an Indian sage, playing music of his own devising on his little violin, and waiting for the call of his jinn.
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