The Village Traders
Trading has been part of the Indonesian way of life since before the birth of Christ. The Indians were trading pepper plants and spicing up Indonesian cuisine as early as 600 BC and then followed the Chinese, Muslim traders from Arabia, the Portuguese and the Dutch. The latter founded the famous or infamous Dutch East India Trading Company and their impact was huge. Indonesia had an abundance of three particular spices: nutmeg, cloves and mace and these were sought after by people around the world for the simple fact of improving the flavour of food. I suppose anything that enhanced the flavour of salted beef, dried beef or partly rotten beef would be worth sailing half way around the world for. Interesting that it was only the rich who could afford these spices. So, the simple act of selling and buying is inherent to Indonesian culture and to their psyche.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2012 and there is a new trader on the scene and these sailors have travelled up from the south aboard the famous sailing vessel, The Doctor, 12 months out from the port of Fremantle, somewhere on the Indian Ocean. They don’t have much in the way of gold, silks or ceramics to offer but do have fine pens and clean white exercise books from exotic K Market and newish garments from selected Op Shops that seem in hot demand.
We dropped anchor in a bay outside the village of Sagu and it didn’t feel good. The boat sat back on her chain, the depth was 5 m and you could see coral bombies looming up from the sea bed. Two young fellows in a dugout came over shaking their heads and with a few Tidak Bagus thrown around (no good) we decided to move to where they were obviously paddling. Anchor down we paid them back with a cap for one and a fishing line and bag of hooks for the other. Two young boys appeared on the scene and the spirit of generosity took over and I handed them each a near new OP shop shirt which fitted and probably would for the next few years. So, our trading extended to no more than a safe anchorage in exchange for a few small items. But this, dear readers, was only the start.
Two young chaps silently appeared a little while later and we heard the plaintive Booku, booku rising from somewhere on the waterline. They wanted exercise books and it was now time to get into serious trader mode. Bananas we said, book for bananas and with looks of despair( yes we have no bananas we have no bananas today) hanging from their once smiling faces they paddled off. They were back a bit later with a bunch of bananas that were so soft they had only minutes left of being edible so we sent them off with new instructions of GREEN bananas. Back they came with a bunch of green bananas and back they went with a new exercise book and blue pen tied up in a plastic bag and.........with the biggest smiles you have ever seen.
A little while later we hear the same soft chant of booku, booku and there, on the water line, paddling solo in a junior sized dugout and being no more that 5 or 6 years old was another young trader holding up a bag of home cooked biscuits. Over went another exercise book and pen in a plastic bag and as he paddled back in he held up his loot like some kind of trophy.
The next day we anchored in another bay in front of the village of Gedong and this is real tropical hideaway. You anchor quite close to the steep sided mountain that is a thick jungle of vegetation and the water is crystal clear. Coconut palms line the shore and lazy tendrils of smoke rise up from random spots along the shoreline. We went ashore in search of a market but there was not much on offer apart from a steep climb up a rocky path. Diana did the climb and while there were no fresh vegies in sight she did get invited into the house of a villager who, after introducing her to his father, went out the back and harvested what paw paw he could from his own trees. The same fellow appeared later that day with his son in their dugout and this was a no trading moment, just a father proud to show off his young son.
We were leaving the next morning, early, and had just started the ritual of departure preparations when the same bloke appeared in his dugout alongside the boat. He held up two paw paw and we couldn’t really take any more. Then he quietly handed over a pair of reading glasses with a broken frame and one lens missing. These people live on 1-2 dollars a day and you had the feeling he wasn’t really in the position to duck down to his local Amcal and buy a replacement pair. I had bought a pair in Darwin as a spare and thinking I lose these things with painful regularity I had a dilemma. I eventually handed over the $27 pair of reading glasses and those paw paws will go down as the most expensive we have ever bought. But the look of joy on his face as he tried them on was priceless and to be able to give the gift of sight, a real Fred Hollows moment, was equally joyful.
So, while we didn’t come bearing rich silks and fine ceramics we did have things of value for which we received payment in kind. And, as our friend paddled back to shore with his new glasses safely in hand, I had a feeling it was the givers who came out on top in that deal. Till next time, Rob.