Around nine the next morning, Madi arrives to pick us up and take us to shore on the Kumai side of the river. We park next to an enormous wooden boat, the scale of which boggles the mind. Imagine the trees required to build those beams!
Madi takes us to his sister’s house where she cooks us breakfast. Fire roasted fish (with more fine bones than any I’ve ever tried in my life), fried tofu, fried tempe, a green curry with tofu, and what we’ve all been waiting for: Chicken Foot Soup. “Eat, eat, please!” Madi says as I sniff the soup. The broth smells delicious, and it all looks good except…the foot. The foot looks just like you might think a foot would look, only more pale and more swollen than I expected. The texture of the skin looks a bit like a handprint, with the same shape. It’s like it’s reaching out toward me from the soup bowl, threatening to claw my eye out.
You can do this, Leslie. People love this stuff; they all say it’s the best part of the chicken. You don’t want to miss out on the best part of the chicken, do you? I tentatively pick up the foot.
“Are you going to do it?” Andrew asks me in disbelief.
“Down the hatch!” I tell him. “You have to at least try it.” Andrew wrinkles his nose. His sense of culinary adventure has left him in the lurch today. Not long thereafter, Andrew is distracted by one of the fine fish bones shoved deeply in the gums between two teeth. I think he is feigning distress to avoid having to eat the chicken foot.
I turn the foot sideways as to avoid the toes and hold it up to my mouth. What exactly am I supposed to do? Do I eat the whole thing or do I peel meat off bone? I examine my Indonesian Friends' soup bowls to determine what I should be doing: bone, but no toes leftover. Okay, here goes nothing. I sink my teeth into the meat around what would be chicken ankle and pull, ready to chew something tough. To my surprise, the meat is soft and falls away from the bone easily. The texture is a bit like the soft fat that layers between chicken skin and meat. It’s nothing like I expected. The flavor is indeed very rich with chicken. If I close my eyes and forget I pulled the substance in my mouth from the foot of a chicken, I can imagine it is part of my paternal grandmother's Chicken Noodle Soup broth she always made from scratch.
But, my eyes are not closed, they are open, and all they can see in their periphery are toes. There are toes dangling just to the left of my mouth. In fact, as I took my bite, I feel like one toe dabbed my cheek. Eiiigighhhhhwwwww….. Everyone is watching me so I smile and say “Not bad! This is my first chicken foot!” They laugh. I pass the toes toward Andrew who rears up and tips himself away. Everyone laughs again. He tries to explain that in America, we don’t eat chicken feet.
“But why not!? They are delicious!” Madi laughs.
After lunch, Madi’s brother-in-law brings out a red and black knife with intricate weavings on the sheath, a carved horse as the handle. He pulls it out of the sheath and shows Andrew the blade. “This particular pattern is the blade pattern of the Dayak culture." He points at the metal tip, pieces missing in a jagged, mountain pattern.
Andrew turns the knife over in his hands, inspecting. Dayaks are a fearsome tribe that live in the mountains of Borneo. They are more commonly known as the “Headhunters of Borneo”. In earlier times, headhunting was a ritualistic part of mourning, harvesting, dowry, to add strength to their buildings, protect against enemy attack, and take revenge for wrongs committed by their enemies. Power and social status for warriors were measured by how many heads he had taken from his enemies.
A second Dayak knife, bearing the same horse shaped handle, with bristles of hair at the top. Horse hair, or...?
“The first time I went with my brother-in-law to visit his family in the mountains, I was very afraid.” Madi explained.
And, this makes a bit of sense. Our next stop on our tour of knives is at Madi’s brother’s home. There, Madi explains his family is from Madura, a different island South of Java. For centuries, Madura was known as pirate territory. The soil of the island is not fertile, and thus the people there had to look for other means to feed their families. With competition fierce for resources, they turned to piracy of Dutch ships. In the 1970s, Indonesia realized they needed more people to build infrastructure and work the palm oil fields on Borneo/Kalimantan. With too many Madurese struggling to feed their families on their island, it seemed a simple solution to move some of those Madurese to Kalimantan. The government paid to resettle thousands and thousands of Madurese on Kalimantan. This decision had difficult consequences, though, as the Dayaks and the Madurese did not get along. In early 2001, a conflict sparked between Dayak and Madurese allegedly because a Madurese killed a Dayak man over a gambling conflict. While the Dayaks largely ceased their headhunting practice over the course of the last few hundred years, the ritual renewed itself to exact revenge, and as they hoped, clear Kalimantan of all Madurese. The Dayak warriors hunted, beheaded, and ate the hearts of an untolled number of Madurese, including men, women, children and the elderly. Dayaks say they can “smell” a Madurese person.
Like the Dayaks, Madurese are not only pirates but fierce fighters. Honor and competition mixed in their culture to form a method for solving disputes: the Honor Duel. Unlike in the Wild West of America where our “duels” were fought with ten paces, turn and shoot of a handgun, the Madurese Honor Fights are completed with knives or whips. “My grandfather was an honor fighter,” Madi explains as he pulls a family knife from his brother’s cupboard. This knife has a curved blade, thick on the back side, tapering inward to a fiercely sharp blade. “The shape of this blade is good for cutting bone.” Madi explains.
It’s not hard to imagine a fight between Dayaks and Madurese spreading bloodshed. Today, though, these people live in peace. Indonesia's national motto "Bhinekka Tunggal Ika," meaning "Unity in Diversity" is a hopeful standard by which the government and its people work day to day to stay united in peace despite having so many different religions, histories, cultures, and languages mixed across its islands.
It takes about two hours to finish a distance we could walk in five or ten minutes but for the great hospitality we encounter on the way. Everyone invites us in for a snack or a cup of "kopi" (coffee, served sweetened with a ration of 2 parts coffee 1 part sugar.) Everyone wants to take photos with us. Madi shows us medicinal plants of import, and a method the Madurese developed to grow vegetables in Madura, brought here to the city of Kumai. One woman invites me beneath her shade hut built of palm fronds to learn to build roofing materials. We stop here and there upon request to let someone squish my nose to see what happens. "It's good you are willing to stop in to visit," we are told, "In Indonesia, if someone invites us in, we must stop and have at least one grain of rice, otherwise, it is bad luck."
We are back on Sonrisa for sunset and dinner. Just when I think Shaman has forgotten his task, he arrives again with his canoe pulled to the side of Sonrisa’s hull. He drops a handful of pink berries in my hands and plastic bag filled with meatballs wrapped around egg yolks with a delicious smelling sauce.
“I prayed for you today to have babies. Now, you must eat these.” Indicating toward the berries, he turns to drop a collection into Andrew’s hands, too.
“Okay, and what’s this?” I ask, peering into the plastic bag.
“Oh, that’s just a snack I thought you might like to try. One of our local favorites here in Kumai!”
For a brief moment I wonder if The Shaman is trying to poison me.
“Did you eat these berries so you can have your six babies?” I ask.
“Yes, absolutely, they are medicine.” He takes two or three from my hand and pops them into his mouth. I don’t really think he’s trying to poison me.
“Cheers!” I say to Andrew, laughing as I tip the berries into my mouth. “Down the hatch!”