My best friend Fahez gave me an opportunity to experience village life in Blakang Padang (Field Behind), also known as Pulau Penawar Rindu (Island of Remedy for Longing Hearts), a small island 15 minutes away from Batam by boat. This little island of Indonesia houses not more than 20,000 people, sits no malls, supermarkets, hotels, or any four-wheelers. Locals own motorbikes and if need be, there are becaks (rickshaw) around.
Electricity is available but when lightning attacks, it might admit defeat. The day before we arrived, lighting struck Fahez’s aunt’s house, killing the telephone; thankfully, she has a handphone. Television, radio, washing machine, fan, aircon and refrigerator are available, only if you have the means to get them.
Bottled water is only used for cooking and drinking. Water for washing and cleaning are collected rainwater stored in containers of varied sizes – as small as a 3-inch basin to a 1.5-foot pail to a 3-foot barrel to a storage tank. Because water is stored in countless of pails and they are used one at a time, the stagnant water is a playground for mosquito larvae. Being the survivors that we are, it wasn’t one of our concerns. Fahez was the one who realised and alerted me, “I saw mosquito larvae in the water. Lots of them. I just continued brushing my teeth, using the water.” With raised eyebrows, I replied, “Well, I used water from pails in India, no Delhi belly. I’ll be fine.”
Drought begins in April and ends around July; therefore locals need to collect as much rain as possible to sustain themselves. The government ought to do something about this, instead of leaving some of their people to struggle/suffer during drought. Flushing system is non-existent, you have to just scoop water and pour it into the toilet bowl, a few times. For houses on stilts, wastewater flow directly into the sea. One morning while having breakfast, I saw brown stuff splashing into the sea before a strong PLOP. What a view, eh?
Houses are either made of wood or brick. Despite the short getaway, I managed to stay in both type of houses, on land, above water, as well as atop a hill. All thanks to Fahez’s family who housed us. There are bedrooms in the houses we stayed, though we slept in the living room in one of them. Some houses which we passed by are really small, some double up as provision shops and of course there are super huge ones, two-storey with gardens and whatnot. The type of houses varies and one can tell which income level the family is from. Riding around the island, we saw some houses soaked in flood when water level rises, others stood tall, boasting their strength like a knight after defeating his enemies. Interestingly, the flooding is pretty much a norm in December, from the 23rd to the 27th.
Kids play all day. Well, it’s the school holidays right now. Even if it’s not, I bet they’d be playing all day as well. They play card games, marbles, football, and even swim in the flood! Thank God technology is not widely available there (just handphones), it’s nice to see kids outdoors, not glued onto gadgets. Generally, the men work while women stay at home. Locals are painted with layers of tan, their sun-kissed skin glow like a firefly in a moonless night. The sun fries their black hair to a shiny shade of latte, almost camouflaging with their skin. They wear clothes made of cotton – typical choice of islanders.
People in Blakang Padang are friendly, the young or old, male or female. Everyone knows everyone, everyone greets everyone with a nod, a handshake and at times, a short conversation. Their native language Riau Malay is a mix of Bahasa Indonesia and Malay (my mother tongue). Both languages share similar grammar, with slight tweaks in vocabulary. Personally, it is easier for me to switch to Bahasa Indonesia than switching to their language. Because it is a cross between the two, I am confused at times – which words or pronunciation to use. Despite that, we can understand each other well, as Singapore and Batam share the same roots – we were once a part of the Riau Islands Province. It’s not bad at all, I just speak my Malay Language with a bit of Bahasa Indonesia here and there.
Beautiful is an understatement, for every place is beautiful. My eyes were fond of views of wild green plants lining the roads like rugged stubbles on a man’s jaw, dilapidated houses, quaint mosques, rustic shops, bridges connecting islands together, sunset resting on top of houses sitting on stilts, the glittery reflection from the cyan mangrove, kittens running around everywhere… I could go on forever. Beautiful is the smell of frying dried fish, smoke from kretek cigarretes, thick black coffee, salty sea breeze, rubbish-infested mangrove, fresh air on top of the hill…
Blakang Padang is beautiful in her own way. I can’t wait to share my journey, stay tuned for more. This island is not only a remedy for longing hearts, it is for every heart!