Chapter Two: Fish Bones
I was in Ternate, Indonesia, sweating balls. Everywhere I went came calls of “Mister!” and “Hey Mister!” Hausian, the expressionless man who ran my hotel, told me that this was a uniform greeting for white people. So I did not take it as a comment on the fact that my feet were twice as big as that of the local women.
On the first evening I asked how I should find a SIM card for my wifi router and Hausian dispatched me on the back of a motorbike, driven by a young man who worked at the hotel. I asked his name and he looked at me very studiously before saying, “Fuck me.” It was obvious he didn’t understand English and this had to be a translation error, even if I had just been clutching him on the back of a motorbike. I tried again, this time indicating my own name.
“LEE – SA” I said, in the style one communicates with a deaf, semi-slow relative, thumping my chest for emphasis.
He gave me a quizzical look and, thumping his chest the exact same way, said: “FUCK – ME”
Some gestures transcend language, like how you can bring your fingers to your mouth to gesture for food. He was naming himself. Fuckme. To make sure I understood, I very casually asked Hausian, as if it were only now occurring to me, oh right, what was the motorbike guy’s name again?
“Fuckme” Hausian said matter-of-factly, nodding. So it was settled then.
Over the week, Fuckme became my companion. When I needed to get snacks: Fuckme. When I needed help opening the door to the terrace (it was blindingly simple): Fuckme. When I asked if someone could take me up the mountain to the villages where I’d heard they dried Cloves and Nutmeg in the street: Fuckme. This task, in particular, bound us together.
We set out early to catch the ferry from Ternate to Tidore. On Tidore, even more rural than Ternate, we must have been a sight to behold: Fuckme and a white lady wound together on a wee little motorbike whipping hard around the bends. As we wove through little inlets with slant houses - not exactly towns, but gatherings of a dozen or so people - I couldn’t help thinking about the banality of it all. For Tidorans, the view was nothing special. The deep, spicy wind coming down the mountain was business as usual. Exotic is really only about relativity, I guess. Meaning when it’s your backyard it’s not particularly exotic at all.
Everywhere, depressingly: trash. The smell of burning plastic hung in the air and yellowed, disposable bottles littered the ground. We passed stalls selling neon plastic brooms and strange foam shapes for what purpose, I can’t imagine. It seemed perverse pay for more disposability when you’re up to your neck in the discontents of it already.
We arrived at the first village and the streets were lined with drying spices. I was massively pleased. Fuckme sat on the bike and watched me sample and frame shots with curiosity, and eventually boredom. We kept down the road and found village after village, each sleepier than the last. At the end of the road the children didn’t run to me, but stayed in the safe shade of their doorways, eyes narrowed with skepticism. The sun was pulling down over the ridge and Fuckme seemed tired. I was too. We loaded up and started back exactly the same way we came.
Hours later, we arrived back at the harbor. Fuckme spoke with some locals and (in charades) communicated to me that the ferry wouldn’t come for another hour. This was unwelcome news, because I was thirsty as fuck and my ass was killing me from the motorbike ride (I am a very refined lady, indeed). Fuckme, perhaps reading my feelings, found a smaller boat that was lashing motorbikes to the top and brokered our passage. We traveled parallel to the swell and I honestly thought we would capsize more than once.
We arrived alive and I used the previously described hand-mouth gesture to see if Fuckme was hungry. I said the name of the only restaurant I’d read about in the guidebook and he nodded. We were off. The interior of the restaurant looked like a vacant airport terminal with tables, but the outdoor section looked over the short stretch of cobalt water separating the peak of Tidore from Ternate, a deliriously beautiful view. We sat together but naturally, did not speak. The trouble started when they brought the food.
My fish came in a rich sauce that simmered like gasoline on water, different shades of iridescent orange turning the curry sunset. I took a big bite and it was like feasting on a handful of pickup sticks. There were so many bones I made a sound. Another bite revealed more of the same: it was as if the fish had been seasoned with toothpicks. I tried to detach the bones from the meat before eating it, but every time some new fragment found its way into my mouth. Fuckme was expertly dissecting his fish in a way that was both practiced and effortless, neatly stripping the white meat from the Lucite skeleton leaving the perfect blueprint of a fish on a plate. I, on the other hand, was reduced to eating my food like a hog choking on bottle caps. While Fuckme and I couldn't speak, words weren’t needed to convey the secondhand shame that flickered what the fuck? in his eyes.
Later that week, Fuckme and I visited a processing and storage facility on the other side of Ternate. We had grown into a kind of cadence with each other that made silence expected and comfortable. When we passed a cow I dumbly pointed and said, “cow.” He turned his head and said, “maa,” which I took to mean Indonesian “moo.” I wish I could have told him how happy that made me.
On the final evening in Ternate I walked through the clove plantations, wondering if I’d ever be here again. It’s such a specific place that it’s hard to imagine I’ll find myself back unless it’s for a painfully express purpose. Some part of me hopes to return. And another part says no – let it live in this memory: Fuckme and me, whizzing through the backroads together, and the tenderness of that “maa.”
In any case, after a week and a half it was time to go. Boarding the plane to Bali, I suddenly realized I left my cherished neck pillow at the hotel. This was a considerable blow to morale, but I kept moving.