“You are going far away, my son. I have no advice for you. You do not need it. Please go and take care of yourself.” That is all that my mother said to me at our home in Padang as I bowed my head down on the floor without uttering a word to listen to her judicious voice. Then, I stepped up on a bus bound for the harbor in 1981 where I boarded a ship that took me to the promise land, Java Island.
As the second son of four siblings, including an older brother and two younger half-sisters, I frequently helped my mother by sweeping the floor, cooking, and doing other household chores. Since she was busy as an elementary school teacher and my step-father was on the road as a truck driver, they did not have enough time to take care of my much younger sisters. I often took care of them, especially since my older brother did almost nothing to help. His existence around the house was like an extraterrestrial being, as far as I was concerned.
Even though I was a diligent child who liked to do many things around the house, I strongly shunned anything that was against my principles and frame of mind – even advice from my own parents that went against my ideas. So, it was not strange that my mother’s lightning frequently struck. Gradually she realized my stubbornness, which was like a wide-based mountain, was impossible to abolish and accepted it as a matter of course from a super-independent hominid. Consequently, when my departure day came to go study far away, she had refrained from producing the following traditional words from her lips as advice to me,
Karatau madang di hulu
babuah babungo balun.
Marantau bujang dahulu
di rumah baguno balun.
This old adage mentioned here urges young Minangkabau men to go away from their hometown since they are not unusable yet. This concept is like the tip of a sharp sword pointed to my throat, like other males who are born in West Sumatra, too. This is part of our matrilineal society, a society that forces young men to stay far away from their mothers and leave their home region as soon as possible. The tradition is to make them go to as far away as possible, obtain success in that foreign land before returning. The time was ripe for me to cany out the mission of the “ouster”.
Under a heavy cloud that was hanging from a gray sky, the old little bus that I got on roared down the road with an exhausting sound eventually faced the face of the harbor. Upon arrival, my mind was still dim about the fact that I had to leave my own birthplace, even though leaving is embedded deeply in my culture. When I was about ready to board the ship, a heavy drizzle began that made people feel gray. With burdened hearts, everyone got soaked to the skin. The sea birds that grew reluctant to fly dimmed the atmosphere much more.
The ship that would take 3 days to get to Jakarta was very big for that time. I wonder if it was about 50 meters in length. It did not seem to be old yet. A great number of passengers with their big luggage moved very slow to step on the only stair to board the tall ship enduring a drizzle that had turned into a rain that continued to get heavier. I had a trunk and a bundle full of clothes, books, and food.
Needless to say, walking on the stair without luggage would be quicker. One of my friends who I was departing with sparked electricity in his brain with the idea to get on without our luggage and then throw down a rope that was hanging at the side of the ship to retrieve our things. Those who stayed on land, he thought, would tie the luggage to the rope and we would pull it up. It was “a thumbs up” idea, so we began to work on this. Three of us were quite exhausted to pull up the heavy luggage. However, it took only about I0 minutes to do it rather than slowly bring it up the stair. After we finished, other passengers grabbed up on my friend’s idea and did the same thing, too.
About three hours later, the ship weighed its anchor and gradually receded from the harbor accompanied by the “Teluk Bayur” song that was sung by Ernie Djohan. “Teluk Bayur”, which is the name of the harbor. The song was so popular at that time, so it certainly never faded away from those who left their homeland.
Goodbye lovely Teluk Bayur.
I will go across the sea.
I will pursue the knowledge of a foreign land
as for a foothold in my life when I am old. …
By the way, my mother was very strict to educate us, her children, and hated to see someone be a crybaby. Men have to harden their hearts against self-pity. Even though she looked sad at the harbor, she shed no tears. A few years later, a family member told me that my mother cried hard after arriving back home. I think she did not want to pour out her tears to my heart, the one who was leaving for a far away destination.
It seemed the ship was monopolized by graduates of senior high school, Iike me, who would pursue studies elsewhere. Everyone’s faces reflected their sadness and uneasiness mixed with hope for success. Most of us were busy to read books earnestly to prepare for university entrance examinations. There was a silhouette in my brain that some of these young men who were the same age as me will someday be great people, common people, Iower class people, and even thieves. Certainly all of us would be thieves, namely to steal someone’s goods, office supplies, or at least steal a woman’s heart.
Many of the seamen were still young who came from many prefectures in the Indonesian archipelago. One day, a seaman who was already close with us took us to the machine room that was situated in the lower part of the ship. It was a courtesy since the area was private and forbidden for any passengers to enter. There was a water pump working 24 hours a day to suck out water that ran into the machine room from a crack in the wall. If the pump broke, surely the scenario of our life would be broken, too. In spite of realizing that death is a natural process of human beings’ lives, anxiety arose across my face, especially when I thought about the major obligation to my parents to be successful in a foreign place was not repaid yet.
Unwritten information on the ship was flowing from mouth to mouth, and it was not strange that the information would change along the way. The further away the firsthand information went, the weaker the accuracy of reality it became. Water which sometimes leaked out at given times from the shower spouts suddenly stopped altogether, and many passengers were screaming while their bodies were still full of soap. My friend and I could not help but laugh whenever screaming came from the public shower room. During the entire trip, I never had the guts to take a shower and endured a stinking body until we got off in Jakarta.
The toilet tank was full of human excrement and urine which was smelly yellow and chocolate colors. At certain times, a seaman would come to pour water into it. Of course, there was no toilet paper available. Usually I brought a cup of water to the toilet with me to wash my small buttocks.
When I was a senior in high school, I was confused about what kind of road I would have to choose to make my dreams come true. There was no plan to leave for Java Island which is so far away from my hometown. Moreover, I did not have any relatives there. (It is in our culture to try to go to a place where we have some sort of relative living there.) Fortunately, one of my friends strongly encouraged me to go together with him and stay with one of his relatives in Jakarta. Also, when we arrived in Bandung, the city where we would take the university exam, alumnae from our high school let us stay with them until we completed our exam and found our own apartment.
I was stunned into silence pondering with blind jealousy toward friends who had brains that rotated like quick discs to easily accomplish complicated calculations. I suffered from an inferiority complex that made me feel distant from those around me. When I was still in high school, my grades were in the middle range. So, I convinced myself not to choose a department in the university that was allocated for bright students. There were three departments I could choose from in the same or different universities but I chose only two departments. As expected, I could not enter the Economic Department at the Pajajaran University that I really desired due to my entrance exam results. However, the Bandung Institute of Education accepted me for the Japanese Language Department, which had less examinees at that time.
Actually, before boarding the ship, I swore to myself I would never step foot in my hometown again unless I could enter a university on Java Island. So, I felt like I was canying a heavy load on my shoulders when the ship gradually floated further and further away from land. After I passed the university exam, I told my parents I would not go home until I graduated.
Even though I succeeded to graduate, I did not want to show my face in my hometown until I began a job in the big city of Jakarta. This was a matter of honor. After working there for a few months, a study program brought me to Japan for two weeks. Then a few months later, my office sent me to attend a symposium about Japanese education that was held in West Sumatra. It was a golden opportunity for me to see my hometown again after six years.
This new age gave birth to a new breed of Minangkabau males who are developing somewhat different characteristics from the older generations. Most of them still leave their hometown, but most of them become weak-spirited. They tend to return to their parents at any available time before obtaining any substantial success. They are indeed a fountain of emotions. It might be unavoidable that the hegemony of this new age will remove the old tradition entirely one day. These young men whose spirits are fading away through and through as they leave their home to make a way in life is a disappointing phenomenon.