Tales from Jakarta: (1) Nationality Matters.
as recounted by Joon Wan
It was the colour and diversity of the place that caught my attention. As we toured the place, during our three-day stay in Luang Prabang, I saw wooden traditional wooden houses that blended with modern urban structures and old colonial buildings.
Against a backdrop of verdant vegetation and rugged mountains, the golden roofs of ancient temples gleamed in the morning sunlight.
A river, its banks cloaked in greenery, meandered along a valley and in its shallows, monks took their early morning bath.
At dawn, kneeling villagers in multi-coloured clothes lined the narrow road to offer alms to monks in saffron robes, while curious tourists gazed with interest at the daily ritual.
At an open market women sat before long, low tables piled neatly with a wide range of freshly-picked vegetables and fruits
Young women in brightly-coloured blouses, carrying baskets with bamboo poles slung across their shoulders, walked jauntily with rhythmic steps as they headed home after a hard day's work at the market..
Luang Prabang with its varied architectural forms, rich cultural traditions and multitude of ethnic groups is now a Unesco World Heritage centre and has become the foremost showpiece in Laos. Many hotels have sprung up to cater to the needs of the increasing number of tourists.
|Municipal Council building|
When our six-member team from the Asean Secretariat arrived in Luang Prabang for our meeting at the Municipal Council, we were given accommodation in one of these newly-built hotels. Our team comprising members from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia is perhaps a microcosm of Luang Prabang‘s diverse population and like the town's colourful character, our team too had its fair share of colourful characters.
As I walked into the hotel’s restaurant, the morning after we arrived, I caught sight of my Indonesian colleague, Iko, sitting alone at the breakfast table, a forlorn figure in the dimly-lit room. I took a seat at his table and greeted him casually,
“Hi morning. You ok?”
Iko did not respond to my greeting, but kept staring blankly at his still untouched plate of toast and egg.
Then after a few minutes of uneasy silence, he whispered haltingly,
“I saw something this morning…in my room.”
I sensed he was fighting down an urge to share his experience, but noticing the tinge of nervousness in his voice and his downcast eyes , I decided to give him a little assurance before egging him on. After he had regained his composure, he began to relate the morning’s incident. He said he had risen very early for his morning prayer and was still relaxing in bed when he was startled by the unexpected appearance of a lady and a young girl who had somehow managed to slip quietly into his room.
His narration was interrupted by the sudden arrival of my boss and another colleague who joined us at our table for four. Before Iko proceeded with his story, I related briefly to them what Iko had told me.
Iko then continued with his story. The lady assured him that they were real and not a figment of his imagination. She explained that she and her daughter were accidentally killed at a bus station and needed his assistance to bring them home. As he listened to her , a rising fear gripped him, and he began reciting the holy verses from the Quran, but she seemed unperturbed by the recitation and instead saw her advancing slowly towards his bed. She extended her arms in the customary Muslim greeting and under her hypnotic spell he absently extended his hands in response to her friendly gesture. Feeling her icy hands, he instinctively pulled away his hands, recoiling from the touch. His action must have startled the lady, as both of them vanished into thin air. .
Curious, I asked Iko, "What does the lady meant by 'home'?
"I really don't know," he replied.
I had my doubt, but I kept my silence.
I then asked Iko, “What language did she use when she spoke to you?”
“Oh, she spoke Indonesian,” he replied.
Our team members had two Filipinos and a Thai, who could hardly speak or understand the Indonesian language, while the rest of us had a fair knowledge of the language. It left me wondering how the ghost had the uncanny ability to seek out an Indonesian who could communicate with her.
I asked Iko, “How did the ghost know you’re Indonesian?”
“Maybe, the ghost checks his passport first,” my boss replied with a faint smile.
We could not help suppressing our laughter , except for Iko who was not in the mood for joke, as he was still recovering from the morning's incident and had to contend with the daunting task of going back alone to his room. Behind the facade of calmness and laughter, we were harboring our own growing fear. Iko had, meanwhile, crept quietly to the hotel’s front desk to ask for a change of room, but came back disappointed, as all the rooms were fully booked.
I then asked my Filipino colleague, Joel, who was the only other guy in our team, if he would be kind enough to allow Iko share his room. The bewildered look on Joel's face told me what he thought of the idea. He said,
“ But....what if the ghost decides to bring a Filipino friend and speak Tagalog to me?”
So, we could only watch as a lone figure walked with slow and hesitant steps towards his room, wondering if someone was already waiting for him there.
On the last day, as we prepared to leave for Jakarta, Iko told us he felt relief and glad that on subsequent nights, the uninvited guests did not visit him.
But then .... they too could be busy making preparation for their flight 'home'.
Notes: Some names have been changed to protect the individuals privacy.