Delightful Local Lover (1/2) – Isah in Central Java
Isah was my first Southeast Asian lover. A Central Java rice farmer's daughter with a bunch of five or seven brothers and sisters, Isah was the one child chosen to invest in. She was sent to classes for English, computer and tourism. The family money would not make ends meet, so during holidays Isah also worked as a waitress.
I stayed on Java's south coast in Pangandaran, on the Pantai Timur, just for the Joseph Conrad feeling of it. A sudden afternoon downpour – it was rainy season after all – interrupted my stroll and drove me into a restaurant that catered to domestic tourists. I was not hungry, but I needed a dry space, so I ordered local tea with lemon.
Isah was the waitress. Isah and I were totally alone on the premises.
OMG, I thought, now I’m easy prey. The Javanese’s' "Whereyoucomefrom-Whereyougo" can wreck your nerves, and in this restaurant I sure was exotic.
Isah delivered the tea with a smile and then left me alone with my Jakarta Post for over an hour.
The rain had stopped. "Harga berappa", I called for the bill. Isah materialized out of nowhere, brought the bill, then the change. "Whereyoucomefrom", she finally asked.
Isah was proud of the Central Java heritage. She taught me local JavaTalk, as opposed to the official Bahasa Indonesia, or Java*Script*. She wanted to show me around Solo Surakarta, and not only Borobodur. I took a hotel room for me and another one for her. It stayed like this for a while.
One Sunday a yellow pickup bus took us onto the rim of a drive-up volcano, ringed with snackstalls. We bought freshly roasted peanuts and joined the droves of Indonesian strollers.
"So funny in the restaurant in Pangandaran", I said to Isah. "First you don't talk to me for one hour, and when I’m about to leave, you start to ask."
"Yes", she replied, "I guess all this Whereyoucomefrom-Whereyougo from Indonesians can wreck your nerves, so I remained silent."
She continued: "But you looked lonely, so in the end I wanted to give you some company – after paying, you could walk away easily if you didn't like talking to me."
I was about the only westerner around the volcano rim, so several Indonesians wanted to pose with me for a pic. Among them many ladies with a tchador, the muslim headscarf that locks tightly around the chin. I asked Isah to take pictures with me and those muslim tchador ladies as well; this was no problem. In all our time, Isah herself never showed a tchador, she usually wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Her skirts always covered her knees.
On another day we took a rambling bus with no window panes out into green hills. At the end of the world, Isah convinced two moustached motorcycle drivers to take us even further. On Enduros, we bounced uphill over dirt roads. Paid a few Rupiahs and still had to walk for a while through mist and huge trees, until we reached a decayed Hindu temple. Quite a special place up in the clouds, and not in the guidebook.
Several stone figures exposed huge lingams (penises) and vaginas. "Oh", I smiled to Isah, "are all Indonesians like that?" She smiled back openly.
It was still rainy season, but not yet raining on that noon: A gray sky, not cold, not warm, about no weather at all. We sat on a crumbling wall that must have been hundreds or thousands of years old.
"Nice to come here with you", said Isah, "Indonesian guys would talk stupid things about the stone figures."
As we sat on the stone wall in the misty middle of nowhere between phallic Hindu figures, Isah moved a bit closer to me. Our relationship had been strictly platonic until then. After all I knew she wanted "to be a good muslim" and I had no intention at all to risk our what I soon had found a very precious friendship. There had been no intimacies and no very personal talks either. But we both obviously had similar likings – quiet, natural, serene places like this one, enjoyed in a quiet mood of togetherness. We both avoided the tourist areas of Solo Surakarta except for buying pirated (back then) cassettes, and we stayed away from the city crowds in an old colonial courthouse outside the center. Our landlord there was a thirtyish bearded Indonesian batik artist in sarong who smoked strange-smelling stuff and asked no questions.
As we sat on the wall, now I could feel Isah's arm along my arm. And she came even closer. Her leg touched mine. Now – a shy sniff kiss on my cheek.
It was the very first time I came to enjoy an Asian girl's sensuality. I had her almond eyes up close. I smelt her almond skin. Her jet-jet-jet-black hair in super-macro.
But all this had nothing erotic, nothing calculated, nothing demanding or promising about it. It felt more like… brother and sister… or dear friends, enjoying sunset on the beach. Theses touches were so… flowing… so… natural… so… self-evident like the stone wall we were sitting on.
Slowly we walked back down – hand in hand, as long as we were alone.
Back on the rambling bus to town the special mood was gone. This was a public situation. We discussed where and what to have for dinner.
Finally back in the hotel, you might wonder what happened after the magic moments up in the clouds. Nothing. Isah said "Good night, Hans" and went to her room. This "Hans" from her mouth was the biggest intimacy I could expect from my muslim lady, a good Central Java rice farmer's daughter after all. And it was ok.
Each room had a door straight into the garden, with a small verandah out front; more like a row of bungalows actually. I stayed a bit on my verandah to read Joseph Conrad in the gloomy verandah light. I tried not to listen for sounds from Isah's room, but then I heard her steps and Isah came out. She was not surprised to see me on my verandah. Maybe she had listened for sounds from me.
"Hans, I forgot: Your pictures have been developed and printed, I have them here." She had brought my films to a lab she found more trustworthy than the usual Fuji minilabs on every corner.
We agreed to look at the pictures right then. As the light on the verandahs was somewhat dim, we went back to my room. Was there a little tension? It was the first time that we spent more than a few seconds in one enclosed bedroom. I must say that in those weeks I always kept my room especially orderly, underwear tucked away, just in case Isah might pop along.
There was no other seating, so we sat down on the wrought-iron doublebed and leafed through the prints. The prints were well done on Kodak paper and the negatives stored professionally. But I didn't really care for my pics, instead I tried to steal more breathtaking close-up looks of Isah's young, infatuating skin, her silky hair and those BIG BIG eyes. I had had my share of delightful western ladies, but reader this was something else altogether.
As if nothing special, Isah came close again. Our bare arms, our legs (in jeans) would touch casually. Our hands would touch when we exchanged the prints. The contrast of her bronze fingers and my white fingers almost blew me away, a sight that has thrilled me ever since. Isah… For her it seemed all nothing special.
We came to the pics from that drive-up volcano, me ringed by muslim Indonesian ladies in a tight tchador.
"This tchador must be very hot", I said.
"No, it's not", she claimed happily as if a tchador was something desirable.
"Some wear it, some not", I went, "what's all about it?"
Isah: "The tchador is only for ladies who are" – and then she used an Indonesian word I have forgotten, but she explained it as "clean in a religious sense". As she talked more about the meaning of islam for her, she got a low, trusting voice I hadn't heard from her before. I felt kind of honoured to hear her speaking straight from her heart. And I was very aware that we were still very close to each other, our arm hair exchanging little electrical strokes now and then. Or didn't she feel so?
"Would you like to wear a tchador too", I asked?
"Oh yes!" She beamed.
My Isah in a tchador next to me? What a scene.
"So, why don't you wear a tchador then", I asked?
Now she gave me new looks like – I don't know – reader I really don't know how to describe them, not even in my own language, but I felt those were looks of a wanting to surrender. We never had talked personal things like that before, and even on that my first trip to the region I was aware that one shouldn't interrogate a local so much on deepest personal matters. Play it light and easy.
"I think it's not ok for me to wear a tchador", she finally said.
"But why? I think you are a very good muslim lady! Fully 'religiously clean'."
More amazing looks. Air on fire.
"See… Hans… yes… I want to be a good muslim so much! But… I…"
"See… but I also want to try more of a western lifestyle."
She stood up and locked the hotel room door from the inside.
A really enjoyable story!!