Screaming at me silently in large clear letters. Warning me or welcoming me. A message, or harbinger? Or just a simple hello? Whatever it is, it’s a shock.
In the middle of South Sulawesi lies a shallow body of water. Tempe Lake is the remnant of an ancient gulf, now landlocked. It’s about an hour across in fast longboat, roughly 50 square miles of open water dotted with mats of water hyacinths, reeds, water vegetable gardens. Herons, cranes and ducks share this aquatic paradise with traditional fishermen and their ingenious bamboo framed nets. The water level and lake size ebb and flow with the seasons.
Here and there are floating houses. Built on bamboo rafts and tethered to an anchoring pole, they swing to and fro with the wind. Simple structures, assembled piece by piece on the rafts from bamboo poles and slats, corrugated iron sheets or woven matting for walls and roofs, timber floors. Wide verandas and rudimentary kitchen and toilet facilities.
Fish, eat, sleep. Dry the fish, inhabit for a month or two a year and then go back to terra firma to sell the fish and to your other house and another job, a real one, farming perhaps, or laboring of one sort or another. There’s tourism. The lake is a star attraction. It’s about eight dollars for a fast, comfortable longboat across from town to the floating villages. Some enterprising fisherfolk supplement their income by offering tea and refreshments to visitors.
We drove from the other side of town to a muddy bank by the side of a fast flowing river. Against the current, through a riverine cityscape of warehouses mosques, workshops on one side; homes on stilts in the mud, sheds for boat repair and barges for fuel and fishing supplies on the other.
The river opened up suddenly to the wide expanse of the lake.
An hour of fast driving later we pulled up to one of these floating homes perhaps a tiny bit less ramshackle than the other dozen or so in the village.
Of the 4 people on board the only defined role seemed to be that of the woman in the kitchen aft. She made the tea and fried the bananas.
The men just sat and smoked, talking. We were on the foredeck verandah in the breeze, watching the birds and absorbing the serenity of the lake.
The walls of this particular craft were made of unpainted corrugated sheet metal. As we were leaving I noticed in one corner was a word, like one would spray as a graffito on a brick wall. Yellow-red, in large clear letters was the word “Randi”.
It didn’t register right away but unconsciously I pulled out my camera and snapped it. Then a minute later it hit me. My first thought; it’s an Indonesian word. I asked what it meant. Heads shook. Not Indonesian. I went to my online translator. Confirmed. Not Indonesian. Randi was the name of my wife, properly capitalized and spelt, now dead 18 years. What was that uncommon in English let alone non-Indonesian word doing on a piece of tin wall on a lake boat in the middle of Sulawesi? Why did our driver pick that boat for tea amongst two or three others? Why did I happen to look up at that section of wall just as we were about to leave?
Some events spur one to action. Others freeze you in fear. Yet others are just ineffable, insoluble puzzles. Setting aside the incredible, the impossible, the unbelievable and the unlikely, what am I left with?
There isn’t an explanation … except.. except… a message from the other side….
July 31st, 2014, Sulawesi Selatan, Indonesia.