There comes a time, somewhere between a bad break-up and forgetting about a bad break-up, where you do something stupid. Stupid means different things to different people in different places. I instigated a dramatic break-up on a commercial ferry somewhere between Java and Sumatra, and the best version of stupid I could think of in my emotional fallout was to illegally walk up the island-volcano of Krakatoa—which 100 years ago blew itself up in one of the most destructive volcanic eruptions ever. It changed the entire world’s climate for five years. I thought that tempting its seething cone with my arrogance would make me feel masculine, virile, cool.
I ended up terrified, shaking, and bugged out of my last beetle. And not because of any volcano.
We were on the public boat to Sebesi island when I met Abang Fardinand. He was travelling with an older companion, early 60s, and they were passing round snacks they had bought for the journey. I took one of the mung bean cakes, and passed them to the only other cross-legged contingent in the cramped, low hold of the small boat. Bapak Hendri took the mung bean cakes over the slosh of the waves and shared them with his wife and young daughter. The exchanges of nods and “thank you”s became an appetizer for more conversation, and we joked and introduced ourselves in the small talk.
There is a phrase I like: “friends and good manners will take you where money can’t go”. It means that sometimes on a small public boat you may meet the island’s village headman—Bapak Hendri—and get invited to stay at his house, saving you Rp.300,000 a night for a hotel. It means you get to learn about the village disputes of a small island in the Sunda Straits, drink water from the family well, even become an honourary village resident. Of course, we would be paying one of Bapak Hendri’s friends to take us to Krakatoa (he turned out to be one of many spontaneous-tour guides) but that just means the phrase works both ways.
We visited the volcano the next day, but that’s not this story. Trying to share my impressions of a smoking volcano that nonchalant villagers see on the horizon every morning, like a benign grandpa and pipe, consumed a meager minute or two of conversation. As often happened in Indonesia, things only get spicy when someone throws in a good-old ghost story. As outrageous hearsay of magical golems and a commonplace child-ghost called tuyul—who will steal money for its ‘owner’’—were passed around, I didn’t realise I was about to experience one first-hand. It all began with a gecko. And not just any gecko, this was a tokek gecko.
to kek, to kek, to keeek
It hadn’t crossed my mind to consider why two men from Bandung—some 300km away—had come to this tiny island in the middle of nowhere. They certainly didn’t care about another of Indonesia’s 127-odd volcanoes. “We’re looking for a tokek,” said Abang Fardinand. “The World Health Organisation pays millions of dollars for them, didn’t you know? But they only buy up the biggest ones; it has to be over 40 cm long.”
“So, why have you come here, then?” I asked, deciding to mentally address all of this later.
That’s when Abang Fardinand’s solemn older companion piped up. As it happened, he’d just been buried alive for a week in an ordeal to open the ‘eyes of the soul’. He was granted the power to speak to spirits. His first request to one? “Take me to a 40 cm tokek.”
“He had a vision, and that’s why we’re here! Wanna join? We’re going to mosque now,” said Abang Ferdinand, as if inviting me swimming.
This tokek is flaunted as a potent drug to combat HIV—one reptile has enough ‘serum’ to treat over 100 patients. It’s absolute bogus, and I still haven’t found any link to the WHO. But, so what; at a time when you believe your ex will take you back and you’ll live happily ever after, you’ll believe almost anything.
The tokek is a dramatically beautiful thing. It comes in shades of luminescent green, orange, with intense spots and molten yellow eyes that make a plausible case for Avatar being a true story. I tell you this with detail, as Abang Fardinand was handing me tokeks to secure in a plastic bag as he scoured beneath the roof of the mosque with a torch light, sometime around 10pm, at the foot of the island’s silent tropical hill. After an hour of searching, none of them were fulfilling the length-criteria, so to my great petitioning we let the tokeks free and sat down outside the mosque’s outhouse. It’s where they clean dead bodies, and have a small library. The elder companion from Bandung went inside and didn’t come back for a while. I asked what he was up to.
to kek, to kek, to keeek
“He’s chatting to the penunggu [the ‘waiter’, or resident spirit],” replied the mosque keeper, who’d decided this was nothing out of the ordinary at his establishment. “What. There are ghosts here?” I asked, nervously. “They’re everywhere,” he replied, throwing his head back in a laugh. “There are two in that room you just walked through… you want to go back and see?” My heart almost jumped out and ran back to rational Europe. I diplomatically declined. As it happened, it began to strike me that it was getting late. Funny that. The human is an interesting being in that, in the confidence of your own home, and own ideas, you can laugh off penunggu and tuyul and ‘eyes of the soul’ as madness, child’s play. When you’re sat outside a mosque with four Indonesians who are in unanimous agreement that there are two ghosts on the other side of a 12cm wall, and you’re on a tiny island thousands of miles from safe conversation, you freak. Out.
Sebesi island’s electricity, being on a small and insignificant island, runs on a petrol-powered generator that is stopped every night from 12 pm until the following evening. It was 11:45 pm.
“Bapak Hendri? I’m actually getting quite tired, you know. I’d love to stay, it’s been great, but do you think I could just pop home?” I asked, with the distant sound of the generator humming beneath the cicadas.
“You can’t go home,” came from Abang Fardinand.
Spinning from his seat on the outhouse steps, he turned to face me.
I was in a horror film.
“You’ve been touched by the spirits here. If you leave now, we cannot help you if one of them follows you.” My left leg began shaking. Followed obediently by my right leg. “Anyway, you said you wanted to join, and you knew the risks. Joshua, in your life you will always face challenges; would you rather stick with your choices until the end, or would you rather give up?”
The Old Testament, and certain religious persuasions, would sometimes have us believe that God is a cruel, exacting, vengeful deity. Having just given up on a choice I had made to a girl, who was now suffering the wounds of a public, aquatic break-up, I saw the exacting element of this near-instant karma. Yet, I can’t help marveling at the incredulousness of this mode of education.
Blackout. What. Leave. But for some reason I cannot explain, I’d seen dignity in the response of Abang Fardinand. I felt safe. Ish. I felt challenged. The elder companion from Bandung came back to join us and told us about the penunggu at the mosque—a long-haired girl wearing a white dress. It seems too clichéd to be true, but at the time my skin was too goosebumped, my vision was too blurry, and the night was spinning too much to intellectually disagree. Suddenly an exclamation from Bapak Hendri: “I see her!” She was in the bushes. Oh my sandals. I buried my head in my hands. Calm down. Cool off. Count sheep. 7 x 11 = … what the shitzu do I do? It was my first encounter with another world. “Abang, if I stay, how does one act around a ghost?”
What he told me has become one the greatest sources of wisdom I have found since I used a Thomas the Tank Engine nightlight as a kid. “Relax Joshua,” he replied, his smile catching the half-moonlight. “Ghosts have their own world, we have ours. So long as you don’t intend to mess around with them, so long as you have good intentions, they won’t bother you. You have come for an experience, not to cause trouble. Believe in yourself. Everything is fine.”
So I asked him bluntly what was on my mind: “But what about you? You are here to murder a wild animal and make tons of money. How can I trust your intentions?
Abang Fardinand laughed. “Good question!” he replied. “Sure, I am looking to make money, but this money is a blessing not just for me. My family desperately needs cash right now. If I find the tokek I will not just keep it for myself either, Bapak Hendri will get some, my friends will get some, you will get some; the money will go where it is needed.”
As we sat there in the pitch-blackness, nothing but us, the ghosts, the geckos and the stars, a certain peace crept up on me. I had good intentions with my ex-girlfriend too. I had wanted us to be happy, her to be happy. What happened was not my fault. It wasn’t meant to be. I had tried my best—and perhaps even the ghosts knew that. After another hour of waiting the elderly companion with the sixth sense came back with sad news that the penunggu was not willing to uncover the 40cm tokek at the mosque until 7am the next morning. Oh. Somewhat relieved, we headed off home. Unfortunately for Abang Fardinand, he was catching the morning boat home. “It’s okay. We came and we tried, but it was not meant to be. We still must give thanks and move on,” he sighed, with good grace. I never felt so close to a ghost-whisperer’s accomplice.
I rode on the village headman Bapak Hendri’s motorbike back to the house, and we waited a strangely long time for the other two. I got to thinking about my own beliefs that ghosts should not exist, and tried to match them with what had just happened at the mosque. There had been a tipping point: either ghosts were real and I was wrong, or ghosts were fiction and the four Indonesians were 100% bonkers. I would have harboured bad intentions had I been smug in my denunciation of my hosts, advisors and gecko-snatchers. So, when I started tingling all over back at the outhouse, I accepted that perhaps ghosts did exist. It didn’t mean I had to see them, or even ever engage with them again. And by some twist of logic, that made me lose my fear.
This was good because after half an hour Abang Fardinand and ghost-man from Bandung rode in. The penunggu had indeed followed them home—it wanted to sleep with the sixth-sense companion. My relief that I had not gone home alone was a full-body experience. The ghost-whisperer explained how he stopped, told the penunggu that they came from different worlds and so had to go their own ways. They both meant well, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
to kek, to kek, to keeek
Looking back, had I paid attention to his words, it might not have taken me a whole year to move on.
Story by Joshua James Parfitt