One morning several weeks ago, as I walked through the front gate at school, I noticed one of my students, Albert, loitering by some parked scooters about ten feet to my right. His class was starting in ten minutes. I was on my way to retrieve a whiteboard marker before going to it. I knew, however, the instant that I saw him, that he would not be there, and passed wordlessly by.
Of the three boys in that class whose attendance on any given day is a toss-up, Albert is the most boisterous, liable to crow the first words in English that come to mind, whether relevant to the situation or not. Yanus has only ever said to me, “I lapar” (“I hungry”) and, on one occasion, something about “banyak cewek” (“many girls”) which I did not understand fully but which seemed lewd. And Godris, I have never heard say anything. On the days that he comes to class, he sits in the back of the room with a quizzical smirk on his face, as if after five months he still hasn’t decided what to make of this bule trying to teach him English. Or he just falls asleep.
Another day, not long after the morning I saw Albert by the front gate, I lost my patience with the class, cut the lesson short, and asked each student to write down on a slip of paper what he or she really wanted from me. Godris wrote that I should be more tegang (strict) and further explained that if I was too easygoing in the classroom, then the students would be too. At the time, I didn’t know what “tegang” meant, so I pulled him aside after class and asked him. But before Godris could answer, we were interrupted by Ibu Fauziah, my counterpart, who smacked him shockingly hard across the backside with a ruler and sidled out of the classroom, muttering something that would translate roughly to: “Strict my ass…”
I never got an answer from Godris and later looked up tegang on my own. Both my surprise and my relief upon learning its meaning were immense. I should have been able to figure it out simply based on context, but hadn’t the presence of mind to do so. I’d been so sure—so dreadfully afraid—the moment I read “Mr. Riley harus jadi…” (“Mr. Riley should be…”), that he was about to tell me to relax.
Earlier this month, I accompanied a colleague from school and two of our students on a trip to the district of Amfoang Utara, right on the border with the East Timorese enclave of Oecusse. One of the students is originally from that district and her parents still live there in a beachside village called Bakuin that she last saw three years ago when she moved away to attend high school in Kupang. It is no more than 60 miles away from the city, as the crow flies. But the circuitous, inland route there, which, for much of the journey, constitutes nothing more than an unpaved donkey path over mountains and involves multiple river fordings, takes 14 hours to traverse. At times, the bus must groan along while tilted ten or twenty degrees to one side or the other, forcing the flip-flop-clad, betel nut-chewing baggage attendants to climb up onto the roof and sit on the opposite side in order to provide counterweight—so rocky and uneven is the ground underneath. Even when the bus is upright, the way is so bumpy that you are constantly banging your head against the window or against the head of your fellow passenger and being jolted out of your seat and your sleep. During the rainy season, the rivers flood and the road becomes impassable, leaving the coastal villages almost completely isolated.
We stayed with my student’s family for three nights. On one of them, I snuck away from the house with a flashlight and my camera and jogged 400 meters down the path to the ocean. I was in search of a man whom I had seen passing in front of our gate at dusk with a bucket, headlamp, and spear, and had assumed was going fishing.
The moon was bright and the tide low, revealing a wide swathe of craggy boulders and mostly-dead coral, stretching at least 100 meters out from the edge of the beach and into the shallows. There, I found him with his spear raised overhead, approached tentatively, and asked the obvious: “Bapak memancing ikan?” (“Mister is fishing?”) He replied in the affirmative and gave something in the water a couple of quick pokes before moving onto the next big rock. I pocketed my lens cap and metered for exposure by shining my flashlight at some exposed coral and focusing on it. In my viewfinder, everything surrounding that one, glistening spot of squishy, green-gray sponginess (it looked like a brain) was pitch black. My own eyes fared little better.
I kept up for what felt like hours. Him—wading steadily and methodically along, poking and probing with his spear, illuminating patches of sandy seabed and nooks and crannies in the coral with his headlamp. And I—20 feet further ashore, taking a couple shadowy, underexposed photographs (except for a lamplit foot here, a ghostly hand there), splashing awkwardly after him, trying to stay abreast. The water, though shallow, was not calm. It was lapping restlessly against the boulders and was murky with sand and silt. I glimpsed a couple of crabs slinking out of the beam of my flashlight and a few minnow-sized fish darting into crevices. But besides these, there was no trace of anything big enough to spear and eat, which I assumed, given the time of day, was the man’s objective.
At some point, I stopped deliberately trying to anticipate his next move and angle myself into position for a decent composition. Instead, I let my instincts take over and my mind wander. I would hop precariously from one slippery ledge to the next, looking only at where my feet were going and listening only to the whoosh of the waves. When there was a pause in the sound of his sloshing, I would pause along with it, raise my camera to eye-level, and press the shutter almost immediately after finding focus, content to let luck, the camera, and whatever, hypnotic sense of synchronization I had achieved with the man and with the night itself capture whatever they wished to capture.
In the meantime, I wondered. What was there to catch among these boulders? Was this a good night or a bad night? Was he feeling patient and clear-headed or as fuzzy and benumbed as I was? How late would he stay out? How often did this man go fishing? And for how many years had this been his nightly or weekly (Could it be less frequent?) routine? Was he, by local standards, skillful at what he was doing? And if so, how long had it taken him to achieve this level of skill? Who, if anybody, had taught him? How many times, along the way, had he returned home with an empty bucket? And what then? Would he or his family go without a meal? Did he have a family? Were they waiting for him right now?
I was startled out of my reverie by a sudden, violent movement in my periphery and a hollow *thunk*. The man was now crouching waist-deep in the water and had plunged one arm beneath the surface, reaching for something. With the other, he gripped the shaft of the spear tightly and drove it downwards. Then, having gotten a firm hold with the reaching hand, he relaxed the other and stood up. At the end of the spear, pierced straight through its fleshy mantle, was an octopus—pink, wriggling, and as big as a soccer ball.
As he proceeded to remove it from his spear tip, I clambered forward for a better look. He was trying to pry the octopus’s tentacles off of his forearms. Once he had gotten them all off, he gathered the tentacles in a bunch, swung the octopus around like a sling, and bashed it several times against the rock he was standing on. It was still writhing, so he pinned it down and struck it between the eyes with a sharp piece of coral, before finally dumping it into his bucket. This last step he performed by the light of my flashlight, for his own lamp had slipped off his head and gone out while swinging the octopus. I was sure that it had gone out for good and offered to light the man’s way home. But he simply plucked the lamp out of the water, gave it a couple of whacks until it flickered on again, and waded back out into the waves.
Presently, I noticed three more lights approaching us from the opposite direction. Their up-and-down, bobbing motion indicated that they too were worn on the heads of fishermen. Feeling spent, I watched, but did not follow, as the one light and the three lights crept closer towards each other, met haltingly, swiveled this way and that, and then, all together, continued bobbing and pausing, bobbing and pausing their way down the beach.
I stood still in the enveloping darkness, feeling the waves licking at my ankles. A light breeze was blowing and I shivered a little. I watched them for a long time before turning back—watched them recede into the distance, twinkling and fading like stars.