Westerners don’t fit easily in buses designed for more efficiently sized Indonesians. I was in my seat but couldn’t have moved an inch. Both sides of me my fellow travelers were displaying signs of motion sickness and the chickens were getting restless. Not to worry though, all part of the rich experience of budget travel. So much more cultural contact with the real country than if I’d been in an air conditioned tourist coach.
I was traveling west across Northern Sumatra to Lake Toba. We stopped in a small town and I was relieved that the unwell passengers got off. My new neighbors were a mother and her 8 year old daughter. The girl smiled shyly at me then looked at her mother, pointing and giggling. I guess they didn’t get many westerners in these parts. After a while she got braver and reached out to pull at the hairs on my arm. She was fascinated by them, and also my relatively enormous nose… I don’t think that when I’m in Europe but realized she had a point as she reached out to give it a squeeze and check it was real.
A couple of buses and an overnight stop later, as we approached Lake Toba I was stunned. It had been worth the journey.
I checked in to one of the traditional wooden houses by the lake side and within half an hour I was swimming in the largest volcanic lake in the world. Apart from a couple of fishermen there was nobody for miles. The late afternoon water was flat and smooth and luckily it didn’t even cross my mind to wonder about what might be in the lake, so I was relaxed and happy.
Later that night though things got a bit less relaxed. I awoke to hear a rustling sound and turned on the light to see the source of the noise – a rat tail curling out of my bag. This was my first rat. A creature of legendary threat found mostly in Room 101 of my mind. My first instinct was t scream, but even as that rose up my throat I realized the futility. I was on my own, who did I think was coming to save me? The all night rat police? Probably not.
I took a breath. I was going to need a better plan. As I racked my brains for rat facts I found nothing useful. Go for your throat, carry disease, climb anywhere… no help there. I threw something at it and it leapt out of the bag. That was progress. Then ran under my bed. Not so good.
After a few more quaking minutes I got more logical. It was obviously after food and had found the bag of nuts in my bag. So all I needed to do was convince myself it wouldn’t attack me if I hopped out of bed and grabbed the nuts from the bag. Deep breath, come on girl. Carefully I laid a trail of nuts leading from the bed to the (rat sized) gap under the hut door and threw a few outside for good measure. I leapt back onto the relative safety of the bed and waited.
It took the rat a while to pluck up courage too it seemed, but eventually it made it’s twitching way along the nut trail and out under the door towards the lakeside. Brilliant! Cracked it. Now I could turn the light out and get back to sleep. Except of course five minutes later it was back for seconds. I was lucky it didn’t bring all its mates.
In the end I had to resign myself to the idea of sleeping with a rat under the bed. At least by this time we had evolved something of an understanding. It was less a terrifying threat and more a creature with its own needs. Maybe that is a way to encounter any perceived enemies. To be forced to share some space for a while, both sides unarmed. In the end, the more we observe a fellow creature, the harder it becomes to despise it – that requires some distance, some detachment. Since then I have occasionally ‘met’ my adversaries on the far side of the universe. It is less awkward than meeting in the physical realm and I often find it generates good shifts in behavior from both sides. Peace might be restored, or at least mutual understanding improved.