Fak Fak, in Papua, Indonesia is a hotbed of religion and temptation. The author is lured in, will he get out?
It is generally agreed among the angels that I will burn in Hell. And good riddance to that one — meaning me. With the fires of everlasting perdition licking at my ass I humbly submit this melancholy tale of how I was led astray into the grasping, outreached clutches of Jesus in Fak Fak, in faraway Irian Jaya, Papua.
In the beginning: Slipping into a leaden harbor aboard the chaos and tumult of an Indonesian ferry in the small hours of an infernal night, the time when demons with hard-ons and licentious faeries congress and howl out their carnal delights, into a dark town on the edge of an immense jungle that is at the edge of the world fills me with a cold apprehension. Even at this evil hour the port is a carnival of hucksters and porters, reprobates sulking home into the critical folds of family, wayward lovers begging forgiveness, bent old women selling desiccated fish snacks on sticks, grim faced soldiers well armed with automatic rifles ever ready to mow down the crowd should anything overly rowdy erupt, and me, a wayfarer without a clue as to where I will bed by rent carcass.
I always find a room. Everything is open for business when the ferry arrives.
In the morning, sunlit and scrubbed by the dawn’s dew, the night’s demons and faeries sated and exhausted from their copulations and now retired to their hidden nooks and crannies, I wander Fak Fak’s steep streets. The missionaries and mullahs have been busy here: churches and mosques are choc-a-bloc, all are selling the promise of paradise and immortality and for a lucky few a selection of ripe virgins waiting to be plucked from God’s fishbowl. There look to be as many flavors of salvation as a Baskin Robbins: Protestant, Catholic, Baptist, Jehovah Witness, Pentecostals, Mormons, there is even a Hindu temple but it is fortified and does not welcome visitors.
In this corner of the world tensions between Christians and Moslems erupt every six to ten years. An innocuous spark, contested favors of a woman, or a disputed grocery bill can ignite a frenzy of murder and genital mutilation.
This morning all is at peace, all is harmony. Rarely do foreigners come here. Only the hard case traveller and glad handing missionaries. I am met with both joyous welcomes and suspicious stares. Fak Fak is surprisingly clean. It is not buried under the horror of plastic garbage like most Indonesian towns.
It is a hundred metre stroll from my hotel to the edge of town. I am strolling alongside a small glittering tropical inlet inset with incongruously colored clapboard houses. My heart overflows with happy beats. This is why I travel, it is for these hidden gems unsullied by a postcard’s pretensions.
A tall, young woman is walking toward me. She smiles and asks for my name. Everyone in Indonesia wants to know my name. It gets tiresome after the hundred millionth time. ‘Brad Pitt. I’m from Hollywood in America.’
She looks at me: ‘Okay if I walk with you, Mister Brad Pitt.’
It is better than taking a rock in the head so I assent. Her name is April. I stick with Brad, changing to my real name now is complicated. April is almost my height, I figure her to be about 5’11”. Unusual for an Indonesian. She wraps her slender hand around my elbow and leads me down the garden path. I cannot quite believe my luck; accosted by a maiden on a lonely jungle road. A conflict arises between Big Brad and Little Brad. Big Brad worries that this is a set-up; Little Brad commands that we soldier on.
April invites me to her house for tea. Despite Big Brad’s expressed doubts and a tepid excuse for declining April’s hospitality we nevertheless beetle onward.
April’s house is a room with a mattress on the floor. Little Brad is ecstatic, Big Brad is near hysterics — convinced that at any moment a brute wielding a machete will burst out of a closet and murder him.
Tea is served. We chat amiably. It has been a long time since a bule, a foreigner, has come to Fak Fak. April remains clothed. Little Brad is disappointed. He sulks. Big Brad is his usual charming self. I compliment April on her excellent English. She was taught by missionaries.
The afternoon melts away and April invites me to stay for dinner. It will be chicken and rice prepared in a common kitchen and eaten on her mattress. She has no chairs. Her clothes are stored in a plastic box. A small television and DVD player squat in the corner. Her rent is $38 a month.
The sun dribbles onto the horizon of the sea before splattering into golden dramatics. Months of loneliness flake from my shoulders. I am blessed with a South Seas maiden. April is 19, a ripe young woman, sassy and nubile. I am lounging on her mattress in her lair nibbling a chicken bone.
At night April walks me home, my elbow again entrusted to her gentle guidance. She fears that I may stumble on the uneven road and stub a toe. She delivers me safely to my hotel door and bids me a sweet good night. We shake hands. There is no kiss.
Come early morning’s vague promise of another day alive I wonder if yesterday was a dream. There is a knock at my door. April has brought me a cat’s breakfast of cold fish and rice topped with an egg. I am not a breakfast person and today is no exception. Politeness decrees otherwise. ‘Delicious,’ I grin while picking a fish bone from my teeth.
‘You did not pray,’ she scolds me.
‘Huh?’ I nearly choke on a fish bone.
‘You must thank Jesus for this food.’
‘I don’t believe in …’
‘I cannot love a man who does not love Jesus.’ A dark cloud’s shadow slants across April’s virginal and angelic face. A vertical line of disappointment knits her brow. The wetness on the fullness of her pouting lips evaporate. Her plump breasts slump.
‘Thank you Jesus for this wonderful breakfast.’ I pray fervently. Joyous. I hear a church bell tolling and the whirring of angel wings. April is beaming. I plot a carnal strategy.
Papuan Christian culture dictates a visit to her family’s home. I assume this is part of the deflowering ritual. I am dragged up the steep inclines of Fak Fak like an overeager bouncing puppy.
April’s family greets me warmly. I am directed to a plastic chair in the living room where I sit erect, an idiots grin plastered on my face. April’s father introduces himself to me. He does not speak English.
Next I am introduced to Ruthie. Ruthie is flamboyantly gay. His hair is trussed up with a ribbon like Carmen Miranda in that old Chicita banana commercial. He is wearing florescent green hot pants; the kind that wedge up the backside crevice like a suicidal mountaineer and sport a cowboy riding shotgun up front. I am taken aback for a moment: Fak Fak is predominantly Moslem and extremely conservative. There are not many small towns in America where one can openly prance in the glorious fashion of their choosing without attracting a mean beating.
Ruthie owns a beauty shop. That is the assigned occupation for women like Ruthie, I am told. Ruthie looks happy and completely at ease. She sits down across from me beneath a picture of Jesus.
Jesus is everywhere in this room. His dopy, dew eyed expression of sappy benevolence irritates me. Perhaps it is because I have the same dopey expression.
In turn I am introduced to a multitude of sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles. I am exhibited and remarked upon like an exotic varmint bought on impulse at a discount pet store. This visit drags on for eternities. I long to escape. My idiot smile is beginning to hurt. Jesus scrutinizes me from every corner of the room — this bearded, blue eyed, hippie wannabe knows a bad seed when he sees one. I am a virus inserted into this happy home.
Thankfully April takes her leave and we traipse back to her room for an afternoon of fish and rice snacks and zombie movies: Warm Bodies, Zombies in Love, Revenge of the Zombie.
‘Tonight we go to church and pray.’ April is ecstatic and enthusiastically rummages through her clothes box assembling an outfit. She tosses a brilliant red bra and skimpy black panties onto the mattress. I note with silent glee that there is not a room divider in sight. With great sorrow (mine) she scoops up her delicates and repairs elsewhere.
The afternoon of chastely imbibing sweet tea has filled my bladder to overflowing. I impatiently wait for April to dress and return. She does and is a spectral vision of loveliness. There is a communication error, she does not comprehend my urgent need. I do not know where the bathroom is in this rabbits’ warren of rooms. I point to my zipper. April looks down at it with disdain. ‘Bathroom,’ I ask, ‘where is the bathroom?’ She understands now and leads me down a hallway to the communal bathing room. There is no toilet in here. April notes my confusion.
‘Do you need to defecate?’ she asks.
I am a man of exquisitely refined and delicate sensibilities. I can only shake my head in response.
‘We pee in here,’ April explains.
‘On the floor?’ I require further instructions.
‘Yes. You defecate in there. Okay.’ April shows me across the narrow hallway and before I can utter a gasp of horror she nudges me inside a decrepit little room and closes the door. I am alone in Satan’s toilet.
This squattie does not flush well. Remnants of excrement from long ago, the remainders of thousands of expurgated dinners of fish and rice co-mingle in an odious orgy of bubbling brown froth. My eyes are cleaved to this apocalypse.
‘Are you okay?’ April inquires.
‘I just want to pee,’ I whimper, ‘not this. Not this!’
‘Sorry.’ April apologizes.
Deep in the jungle on the far outskirts of Fak Fak a light shines. It is a Pentecostal revival meeting. There are many more women than men. Quite of few of these women are hot. I always thought that church was for the unattractive and gullible; I need to recalibrate my bias.
A band composed of two guitarists, a drummer, and a keyboard player strike up a jaunty tune. Within the first few bars everyone is up and swaying and waving their arms in the air. Joyous Hallelujahs pierce the jungle night. Booties shake and breasts quiver like cups of mocha pudding. I, too, cry out Hallelujah! This ain’t no dour Protestant murmuring of hymns begging forgiveness for trite indiscretions. Rivulets of sweat run wild in this heavy heat.
April is consumed by the gospel rhythms. Tears stream down her cheeks. ‘I love you, Jesus … I love you, Jesus …’ she chants ‘…Brad is here. I brought him to you Jesus … Brad loves you Jesus …’
Sweet Jesus. I’ve been pimped.
From the troubled heartland of America congregations of holy rollers fund these faraway churches in an effort to win converts to their team batting for the favors of an imaginary savior.
Prayers and sing-a-longs seem innocuous enough. What harm can they do now? We crushed these indigenous cultures long ago. The savages have been leashed and saucy bosoms covered. It is a neat trick: perpetrators teaching forgiveness to the aggrieved. Hell, I don’t even mind being honey trapped by Jesus. God knows, church attendance is suffering and you got to do whatever it takes to get bums in seats before you can sell your goods.
I like the tolling of church bells. They remind me of simpler times that never really were but the thought comforts me. The muezzins’ piercing, never-ending call to morning prayers at 4:30 is another matter altogether. Like banks in the West the grandest buildings here are those dedicated to worshipping an abstract nothingness.
There is a casual cemetery on the side of the road. The graves are bricked up above the ground like little jacuzzis, like Moslem graves with slapped together wooden crosses plopped on top. They speak of an eternal ambivalence — neither fully Christian nor Moslem. There are plenty of little graves.
Malaria, the worst kind, the sometimes fatal v. vax strain, is endemic in Papua. More little graves will be squeezed into this informal gathering of dead Christians. Perhaps instead of more churches Jesus could better save his little lambs with a few malaria clinics. An improved sanitation infrastructure would not hurt either. We could sell bumper stickers: ‘Jesus is for shit.’
My visa expires in five days time. It will take three days aboard the Pelni ship, Nggapulu, to reach Makassar from where I will fly to Kuala Lumpur.
April weeps openly at my departure. She wants to go with me to America. I tell her I will try to come back to Fak Fak. I do not know when. This is an innocent culture, words have meaning here. I am relieved that I did not indulge in conjugal merriment with April. As travellers we sometimes forget the impact our adventures have on those who are left behind.
I say good bye to April. And to Jesus. And return to my chosen wont: a ghost without a home to haunt.