There are certain experiences that evolve naturally and by surprise; they appear on the horizon and slowly come into focus to become extraordinary.
It was such a moment when in Indonesia on a wooden sailing ship called the Jaya it was decided that we would cook a meal on the shores in a remote corner of the island of Sumbawa. A simple enough idea. The shore was empty apart for one tiny fishing boat some way off. The volcanic island of Sangeang was way in distance hovering on the horizon. After several days eating on the boat it seemed a good idea for a change to venture on land. A small group set off first to start the fire and set up our small temporary camp and gradually the rest of our group of about sixteen people joined them. It was a late afternoon of extreme beauty. Unusually calm and clear. No other boats were at sea that afternoon and it could be said we felt we were on our own at the very edge of the world. A rare feeling indeed. A circle of large white stones to frame the fire had been gathered by the time I was on shore and I noticed the tiny figure of a woman had joined our group. She was perhaps in her sixties although it was hard to tell, she had appeared from nowhere on foot and had taken charge of our makeshift kitchen. You got the sense she felt we needed her help and she was perhaps right and although we didn’t understand her language her mimed directions were followed. Advice about the type of fuel to feed the flames, where to place more rocks were accepted. The Jaya’s cook had by then spoken to the one fisherman who had been further down the beach and a brace of glistening silver yellow Snappers had been bought from him; far too beautiful to eat it seemed they were strung up on a tree until the fire was ready. A very joyful atmosphere had gathered among us, excitement at the days events, the weaving moment in Wera (see previous post) had been earlier that day and we were animated and happy.
A small group of local people had appeared to join us. Quite naturally and easily the gathering had formed. The fisherman’s family; his small children sitting on the sand. Some young guys, a radio in their hands, playing some wild Hindu music, more Indian than Indonesian.We were all milling around the fire enjoying the moment.
And then something quite unexpected took place.
The Jaya’s cook was taken aside by one of the local men and a short exchange took place. Moments later some other men joined our group and they were carrying with them a small baby calf. It had been hit by a scooter on the small road nearby less than fifteen minutes earlier and it seemed we were being offered it for our meal. Despite a few of us being unsure about the offer there was little we could do before the small animal was expertly skinned and jointed before us. Rarely have I seen such an extraordinary sight, four men went to work and I watched fascinated as they removed the skin literally in one piece and with supreme respect and an almost reverent silence. What struck me most was how clean the process was, the pale cloudy white membrane between the skin and flesh carefully worked away by all four of them, simultaneously. An act that seemed almost choreographed between them. I have no idea if they knew each other or not, so motley was our group it was almost impossible to tell how we all related to each other. In fact it didn’t matter. The joints of meat were then seasoned with salt, by being dipped in the sea, serving as both a tool for flavour and cleaning and then brought back to the now ashen fire. Large thick lengths of wood were hacked from the shore-side and split down the middle, but not all the way so they became sprung. The perfect device to wedge the meat in-between and then the two loose ends were bound by grass and the pole was slung across the fire with the end comfortably cool for turning the meat over. Yams appeared, their gnarly brown roots clustered together, thrown directly on the fire as they were. The fish from earlier were then also wedged just as the meat had been on the bamboo pole, head to tail in a column. The sun was still lurking on the horizon illuminating the Jaya in its horizontal rays.
I am a fairly omnivorous person, by no means vegetarian, but there was something so visceral and graphic about this meal it grabbed me by the throat but also entranced me. A strange combination of beauty and savage necessity. Although completely practical and straightforward at the same time. It made perfect sense to eat and share this creature. We are all so removed from the reality of the meat we eat it was actually a wonderful experience to watch this ritual of preparation. A meal in its simplest terms, made without prior discussion, shared across a range of cultures and religions. Night fell fast, in an instant as it does this near the equator. We were sitting on the ground in the dark, lit by the fire and sharing a meal. By then a group of about 35 -40 of us communicating in what ways we could. An unexpected group of people from opposite ends of the world, sharing an impromptu feast.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so present; in the moment…. as I was that evening.
(Please note ** Some of these pictures may be unsuitable for vegetarians)