In 1990, after three days in Bali, Jean and I flew to the island of Timor. There, we joined twenty others on a catamaran for a cruise of the Spice Islands of Indonesia and back to Bali.
We did not see any other tourists on these islands. At each of our landings we were met by smiling natives. Their leader was usually the oldest man of the village. Quite often, he was not as old as I was. At some of the landings, there would be singing and dancing on the beach. At some of the least populated areas, we would just visit with the town folk.
At the larger communities, we would walk or be taken in the bed of a truck to an entertainment area where we would join in the fun. Most of the people were dressed in itaks draped around their bodies. The women would spin cotton into yarn and dye this yarn with natural dyes and weave it into cloths large and small, which were called itaks. We bought a few of them and enjoy having them around the house. There is a large one framed on a wall of our local Neiman Marcus store with a pattern like one of ours.
In the entertainment areas of some of the larger gatherings, lengthy dances and songs would be performed. Itaks would be hanging in the background obviously for sale. At one of these gatherings, I spied an interesting article hanging from a sash around the waist of an old man walking around the area. It appeared to be a small container made of bone, perhaps from the leg of some animal. There were etchings on it and it was topped with a wooden carved stopper which resembled the head of a man. I was determined to try and buy this from the old man. He was receptive but determining a price took a lot of hand motions and facial expressions. I didn’t know what he used it for but it contained a white powder which turned out to be lime.
We made a several landings, all of which were different, but they all had one thing in common. All of the inhabitants had blackened teeth and their lips and mouths were extremely red. We were told that this discoloration was caused by beetle nuts which everyone chewed. The beetle nut is from the areca palm and it is a mild stimulant. Then we found out that chewing this nut causes the mouth to become extremely dry. To remedy this, everyone carries powdered lime with them and they place some of it in their mouth to return moisture to their mouth and throat.
There was one island on which the inhabitants did not have red mouths and lips. That was Komodo Island, home of the famous Komodo dragon. The only human we encountered there was a ranger. We were inside a fenced in area while we watched the dragons eating meat furnished them by the ranger. If there would have been red on any of the dragons’ mouths, we would have called for a head count of our group.
During the performance at one of the larger communities we were deep into the dancing and singing when we were each given a beetle nut to chew. I was nervous about putting the nut into my mouth since it was a light narcotic and it looked a little unsanitary to me. Since I was being watched, I put it in my mouth and chewed. The natives watching seemed to be pleased. My reaction was okay. I didn’t get wild and my mouth didn’t turn red but I didn’t chew anymore of the nuts.
The water around these islands was the most beautiful I have ever seen. I would describe the color as that of a clear blue sky with a hint of green. Looking into it, we could see coral, beautiful rocks, plant life and fish in the shallow waters without a snorkeling mask. Many of the beaches were pink because they were a mixture of crushed coral and sand.
On one the deserted coral beaches, we landed with swimming and snorkeling gear. Everyone but our guide, Susie, and I soon disappeared to do their thing. I got my kicks just walking on the beach. I grew up in dry country and did not feel safe in more water than could cover my toes. Susie, and I were enjoying walking around and talking when suddenly we noticed that we were surrounded by natives.
Susie knew their languages and began talking with them. The next thing I knew, Susie and I were sitting on the beach encompassed by about thirty chattering men. All I could think of was “What is a boy from Snyder, Oklahoma doing in a place like this.
I soon realized what was going on. The men wanted to trade anything they had with them for United States dollars. Soon, they placed a lot of small gourds with carved wooden stoppers on the beach in front of us. I soon found that the gourds held powdered lime and I knew what they were for.
Susie agreed to bargain with only one person in the crowd to represent all of them and soon a price of 50 cents each was agreed upon. Every time she rejected one of the gourds, there was an uproar of unhappiness. Finally, she purchased about twenty of them and she later gave half of them to me.
Soon the swimmers returned and some of the native women appeared. The bargaining really began and itaks and other items were literally sold off the bodies of the happy local residents.
We got home with our lime pots and they are displayed on the mantle of our fireplace. We look at them every day and relive our happy time with the wonderful people of the Spice Islands.
Our trip through these Islands was the experience of a lifetime. We came away with the feeling that people all over the world are much the same. Our differences are imposed on us by the circumstances of our birth – climate, gods, governments, ethics and culture.
Thank goodness we were born in a moderate climate with the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ and under a government of freedom and rule of law.