It was already nightfall. I had entered the cafe eager to escape the darkness that was inching upon the backpackers' lane of Sosrowijayan. There were hardly any streetlamps. The only glimmer of light came from the guesthouses and hostels that flanked both sides of the narrow gangway. That was my first time in Yogyakarta. The whole place was unfamiliar, and I didn’t quite like being out there alone in the creeping shadows.
Growing up, I lived in a village up north of Peninsular Malaysia, with my parents, brothers and Tok, my maternal grandmother. Every evening, my brothers and I would be at the field playing. As dusk fell, we would hear Tok’s loud voice interrupting the muezzin’s call for Maghrib, hollering at us kids to get inside.
“Hantu, setan saja duduk kat luaq senja-senja ni, hampa tau dak?” And believing her wholeheartedly, we would rush into the house - away from the skulking devils and demons, and Tok’s menacing glare.
“Too quiet, too early for a backpacker's lane,” I muttered to myself, looking around anxiously.
Just as I was contemplating to walk back to the entrance of the alley, I saw the cafe. I squinted my eyes to read the signage. Money Laundry?
Menu booklets lay stacked on the counter. Behind the bar, I saw a shelf lined with clear tall glasses, big circular jars; tiny espresso cups and large coffee mugs. Tucked in between the glass jars, a shiny white ceramic maneki-neko, the welcome cat, its left paw moving up and down, beckoning.
I had smelled her fragrance even before I saw her. She always smelled of Sedap Malam, and often her fragrance just lingered on, even when she had left.
I recognized the scent instantly. When I was a kid, I would watch Tok make bedak sejuk, a traditional facial powder made from fermented rice. On its own, the powder had the most disgusting smell. To kill the horrible stench of fermented rice, Tok would put these small, white flowers together with the dried bedak sejuk beads.
And yet, despite Tok liking the smell of Sedap Malam enough to have its scent on her bedak sejuk, we were not allowed to play anywhere near the tree.
Stay away from the tree, said Tok. Pontianak likes to play there!
“Tok, pontianak ni mai mana?” I asked Tok curious to know the origins of the dreaded entity.
She said that a pontianak is a ghost of a woman who died giving birth. It targeted men and fed on their internal organs. But, there was a way to change a pontianak into human.
Tok smiled, she took her time answering while she carefully put a bit of lime paste on a betel leaf, preparing it to be chewed. We inched closer to her, eager to find out.
Then she said, one would need to put a wooden stake into the back of the pontianak’s neck. Then it would transform into a beautiful woman.
“And what happens if we take the stake out, Tok?” Amir, my older brother blurted.
“Dia tukaq jadi pontianak balik la, hang ni pun…” Tok answered impatiently.
I sat staring at my Tok’s red teeth, a result of her chewing the betel leaf and spices. I forgot to ask her why the pontianak did not fight back when someone was about to stake it. Seemed to me, a ghost should be strong enough to do that.
She sauntered past by me. From the back, I could see her straight, shoulder-length black hair swinging slowly to the rhythm of her graceful walk. She walked quickly towards the bar, pausing briefly to join in the conversation there and laughing. Her laughter was bright and cheerful, breaking the monotony of loud chatters.
I saw her reached for the menu, and turned towards me smiling. I returned her smile sheepishly, having been caught staring. I pretended to look at something on my phone.
“Hi, my name is Mustika. Can I take your order?” She asked me in English.
When I answered in Malay, her eyes grew bigger slightly, her smile widened. Mustika leaned her body slightly to hear me better. Unfortunately, I had caught a bad case of sore throat after being stuck five hours in the delayed flight coming to Yogya. Now, in this damp humidity, my already hoarse voice had deteriorated to a pathetic whisper.
Up close, I could see her face fully. She had round eyes and her eye brows were thick and neatly trimmed. Her nose was small and slightly pointed and her lips were the shades of plum. She had coffee brown skin with slight reddish undertones – the most striking thing about her.
Slightly stupefied, I muttered…
“Hitam manis…” out loud, absent-mindedly.
“Sorry?” I heard her say.
Mortified, I quickly said a little too loudly in my hoarse voice the first few things that caught my eyes in the menu - “Minta saya warm water, iced americano and garlic bread!” - I saw her grin as she walked away.
“Abang dari Malaysia ya?” Mustika asked me in Indonesian, when she came back to deliver my order.
“Yes, how did you know?” I smiled and asked her back in Malay, eager to redeem myself.
“From how you pronounce your words. People from my place speak Malay too, dialeknya pun hampir serupa! That's how I figured you're from Malaysia,” she replied excitedly.
“Oh…kamu bukan dari sini? Where are you from?” She did indeed have a dialect like mine when she spoke. I thought she just code-switched to accommodate to a foreigner like me.
“Saya dari Pontianak. And I am Malay, sama seperti abang. I came to Yogya to continue my studies, and right now I manage the café,” she continued.
Mustika was a Sociology graduate from Universitas Gajah Mada. As I listened to her, my mind reeled quickly downloading old stored knowledge of Indonesia's geography. Pontianak is the capital city in West Kalimantan, Borneo.
“I only know that there are Malays in Bangka-Belitung. Rupa-rupanya, di Pontianak pun ada orang Melayu ya,” I told her, interested.
“Oh yes, we are quite a big community in Pontianak. And there are also people of Madura descent, Dayak, Javanese and Chinese.”
That was my third day in Yogya. I was there for a three-week workshop by Javanese batik artisans somewhere near the Kraton of Yogya. Ever since meeting Mustika, after my work was done for the day, instead of going back to my guesthouse, I would spend my evenings at Money Laundry. The whole of my day was spent fully in the studio, so seeing her was a good break.
When she had the time, Mustika would sit by my table and we would talk about books, art, movies, music and sometimes, world politics. I would tell her about my family, but she hardly ever mentioned hers except that they were in Pontianak.
“So, are there pontianak in Pontianak?” I jokingly asked her one time.
“When Abdulrahman Alqadrie, the would-be Sultan of Pontianak, first set foot in a place called Batu Layang, his entourage came face to face with a group of pontianak. Eager to get rid of them, he ordered his men to fire cannons at the forest where the pontianak were hiding,” Mustika whispered as though she was sharing the world’s oldest secret with me.
“And as the story goes, the cannons apparently drove the pontianak away…”
“But then again, we don’t know if they had ever really left…” She winked at me and laughed.
I went to see her again on my last day in Yogya. Mustika was busy so I sat at my usual spot and started leafing through my sketchbook.
“Abang Adam balik Malaysia esok pagi?”
“Ya, flight jam 11. But I’m coming back in 2 months’ time…
“…and you have my number, so you can text or call me anytime, and I can do the same too, of course…” I sounded a bit too cheerful.
She smiled. Her big eyes looking straight into mine.
“Saya ada sesuatu untuk kamu,” I rummaged through my sling bag, looking for the small leather pouch I had for her.
“Wah, cantiknya! Did you make this yourself?” Mustika exclaimed, admiring the batik pendant made of resin.
“Yes, I did, khas untuk kamu. That’s your flower.”
“Bunga Sedap Malam…” she whispered.
“Come, let me help you put it on,” I hurriedly move to go behind Mustika. As I was about to lift her hair, she swung quickly to face me.
“It’s okay, I’ll do it myself…” Mustika said quickly. “I...umm…I have a tattoo on my neck, it’s kind of embarrassing…” she laughed, nervously rather than amused.
“Tattoo? I don’t mind if you want to share it with me,” I teased her.
Ignoring me, Mustika took the pendant from my hand and swiftly put the chain around her neck.
“It’s lovely! Terima kasih abang Adam,” she smiled, touching the pendant gently.
2 months after, I was back in Yogya. I had not heard from Mustika and was eager to see her.
“She’s no longer working here,” Andi, the cafe's owner told me when I asked him about Mustika.
“Bapak tahu dia ke mana?”
“Maaf, I don’t know where she is now,” he answered curtly. “She left this for you.”
I stared at the chain and pendant that Andi had just placed on the bar. For the longest time, I just stood there, hands in my pockets, staring.
I picked up the chain and pendant off the counter, and turned to leave.
“Forget her…” I stopped in my tracks hearing his voice.
“She is not our kind.”
I turned and looked at Andi’s solemn face, and I left the café.
It was already nightfall. Darkness was slowly inching upon the backpackers’ lane of Sosrowijayan. I walked slowly towards the entrance of the alley, the chain and pendant felt heavy in my palm.
“Abang Adam…” I smelled the scent of Sedap Malam wafting in the air for that swift second.
I turned around and stood facing her.
“Where did you go?”
Ignoring my question, Mustika said, “I have something to tell you, tapi bukan di sini.”
Then, in her gentle gait, she walked past me.
“Abang Adam, will you come?” She called back.
I should have known it then, maybe I did. Breathing in her fragrance, I walked in her steps.
Malay speakers call female vampires, "pontianak". If we were to compare the pontianak to its Western counterpart, the vampire, one thing is obvious, both possess similar mesmerizing and attractive physical traits - their modus operandi to charm and lure their victims. What's different is that the pontianak is always female, and originates from a woman who had died while in labor.
I first saw her at twilight. I had entered the cafe to escape the heat, and darkness that was slowly enveloping the backpackers' lane. There were no streetlamps. The only glimmer of light came from the guesthouses and hostels that flanked both sides of the narrow gangway.
Things were kind of too quiet too early for a backpacker's lane, I thought. I had only passed by another person as I walked down the alley. The whole place was unfamiliar, and I felt a tad nervous being out there alone.
My croaky voice had deteriorated to a pathetic whisper. I realized that I had spent a good 40 minutes or so talking to the lady manning the secondhand bookshop a few doors away, as I browsed and flipped through the books on the shelves and the floor.
Unfortunately, I had caught a mild case of flu and sore throat after being stuck 5 hours in the delayed flight coming over. In all the humidity, my throat felt extra dry and stinging. Some water would be good.
Entering the cafe, I passed by a group of twentysomethings having coffee and busily chatting away. They sat on a sort of elevated wooden patio in front of the cafe. I was instantly grateful for the company of others, the cafe's bright white wash interior, and of course, the air-conditioner.
At the far back, there was bar high enough to hide the kitchen from view. 2 teenagers, a boy and a girl, both dressed in uniformed black t-shirts and blue jeans stood leaning casually against it as they talked to a tall Caucasian teenager in the local language. From their posture, I supposed he often frequented the cafe.
I sat down and turned my attention on the doodle-like graphics by the door. And just then, she walked in, looking stunning in black and white.
She looked to be in her late twenties. From the back, I could see her long, black hair held neatly by a sparkly banana clip. Her white baggy blouse was loosely tucked into her flowy long skirt with bold white and gray floral patterns. Its lacy bell sleeves bounced as she walked quickly towards the bar, briefly joining in the conversation there and laughing. In her high heeled shiny black boots, she stood a head shorter to the Caucasian teenager.
I saw her reach for the menu, and turned towards me smiling. She greeted me in English. When I answered in Malay, her round mascaraed eyes grew bigger slightly out of acknowledgement maybe, and her smile widened. She then continued to take my order in Indonesian.
Up close, I could see her face fully. Her eye brows were thick and neatly trimmed. She had a small, sharp nose and her lipstick were in the shades of plum. As she talked, her mouth revealed slightly crooked white teeth that actually enhanced her smile.
She had dark coffee brown skin with slight reddish undertones. And that was the most striking thing about her. Slightly bedazzled, I could only think of the Malay expression "hitam manis" (literally translated as black sweet) to summarize her coloring.
It didn't take long for my order of warm water, iced americano and churros to arrive. The warm water gave immediate relief to my sore throat. I forgot her temporarily as I savored the toasty, freshly-made churros and its chocolate dip. I took out my secondhand copy of Michelle de Kretser's "Questions of Travel" and began to read it.
"Kakak, are you from Malaysia?" She asked me in Indonesian, and pulled a chair to sit.
"Yes, how did you know?" I smiled and asked her back in Malay.
"From how you pronounce your words. Folks from my place speak Malay too, and in quite similar dialect to your Malay, you know. That's how I figured you're from Malaysia," She replied excitedly, her round eyes twinkling.
"You're not from Yogya or Java? Where are you from?" I admitted that she did indeed have a dialect like mine when she spoke. I thought she just code-switched to accommodate to a foreigner like me.
"I'm from Pontianak. And I am ethnic Malay just like you. I came to Yogya to continue my studies, and right now I manage the cafe..." she continued.
As I listened to her, my mind reeled quickly downloading old stored knowledge of Indonesia's geography. Pontianak is the capital city in West Kalimantan, Borneo.
"I only know that there are Malays in Bangka-Belitung. Didn't realize there were Malays too in Pontianak," I told her, interested.
"Oh yes, we are quite a big community there. And there are also people of Madura descent, Dayak, Javanese and Chinese too," said the intriguing Pontianak girl.
As the story goes, when Abdulrahman Alqadrie (the would-be Sultan of Pontianak) first set foot in a place called Batu Layang, his entourage came face to face with the undead pontianaks. He then ordered his men to fight and drove the pontianaks away by firing canons at the forest where they hid. And that is how Pontianak got its name.
This story is purely fictional. Rest assured, neither humans nor pontianaks were harmed in the midst of writing this piece.
My family moved sixteen times when I was a little girl in Malaysia. Back in the 70s, in those days and country, moving homes more than once was considered strange, so moving sixteen times and each time to a different state was really bizarre.
My “abah” (father) was a policeman. When abah brought the wooden crates out of storage, we understood that he had been given a new assignment, and we would soon be moving to another place.
As a kid, news of moving made me jump up and down gleefully. As a teenager, the news made me cringe because of the packing and unpacking that needed to be done…again! As an adult, I discovered that changing your house sixteen times in twenty years could be an intriguing conversation filler.
In between the rush, sweat and stress of packing up and moving homes – there were always picnics at the sandy beaches of Penang, road trips to cool green hill resorts, visits to old Portuguese forts and night trips to mosquito laden fruit farms to satisfy cravings for durians.
When we lived in Johor, the southernmost state in Peninsular Malaysia, my parents took us across the border into Singapore – the first time we kids had our very own passports.
We made weekend trips back to my grandparents’ to catch fireflies and grasshoppers at the vast golden paddy fields. Let loose in the wilderness of the village life, I had been chased and almost bitten by Wan’s (grandfather) newly widowed and deranged rooster.
My brothers came back one evening caked in mud, having plunged face down into the paddy plot while riding pillion. When we were old enough to be left in the care of my grandparents and wise enough not give them heart attacks by pulling outrageous stunts – abah would whisk my mum off to Istanbul, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Chicago. I travel because I inherited my parents’ travel itch.
India was the first place I traveled to as an adult. I went to India with 5 girlfriends and the intent was exploring Goa. We had become besotted with the coastal state after watching “Dil Chahta Hai”, the box-office Bollywood movie that was shot on location there.
We traveled southwards in the 12-hour Mumbai-Goa train. Feeling outrageously daring, we bought tickets for the three-tiered bunk compartment. Yet, all of us chose the lowest berths once we boarded the train and saw how high up the topmost bunk beds were. The thought of climbing up and down the berths throughout the journey was totally unappealing.
Locals called us bold for taking the train considering stories of thefts and molestations in the sleeper cars.
Ignorance was bliss, I was more occupied with my discovery of the delectable “Masala Doodh” (Masala Milk) than with anything else. A hot glass of Masala Doodh was comfort flowing down my throat in all its creamy sweetness, with an aftertaste of spices, cashew nuts and almonds. It was unlike any other glass of milk I had drank before.
There were quiet moments when we would rest by our window seats, lost in the changing brown and green landscape and our thoughts. I did try scribbling notes in my travel journal during those moments – my early feeble attempts at travel writing.
I took my writing much more seriously after I got to know “The African”. We met in Tokyo while doing our master’s degree. He is a free-spirited Mozambican Portuguese; an atheist, ancestor worshiper and at six feet, the tallest person I would come to know.
When we met, it was winter. His curly black hair was long and unkempt, covering the sides of his face already hidden by untrimmed beard.
One fine summer day, he shaved off all his beard and cut his hair short. As he stood grinning down at me in his blue soccer jersey, his fair skin just glistened under the Japanese summer skies (no, his name is not Edward Cullen).
We talked constantly. Yet, the relationship truly flourished through our countless email exchanges. Love transformed me into Maya Angelou, and The African was my muse. I realized then that I enjoyed writing and could even have a knack for it. This insight drove me to start blogging stories of my Japanese life.
The love got lost one day as unexpectedly as when it came. The correspondence turned sporadic and what was left of its content grew increasingly bitter by the day, till it finally ceased. I stopped writing for myself as The African and I stopped writing to each other.
About 10 years and 6 countries later, I had the sudden yearning to revisit the stories I had stowed away in my blog. As I sat revising this piece, my mind traveled to Imran, the “auto wallah” (auto driver) in Hyderabad, India. He ran with me in the rain amid the busy Indian traffic just to make sure that I got across safely, so I could try the newly baked bread at Karachi Bakery. I write to give voice to all the strikingly beautiful people I met in my travels.
north of your birth land, in unhurried solitary walks, while locking heavens in tiny photographs, waves breaking in the background and the smell of sea drying on your skin, breathing in the essence of your people, an african dreaming in the paradise of blue and green, storing memories of those met in lone journeys with wishes of 'salaam' heard in every actions and deeds, stories heard and retold over a hot cup of brewed tea...
i am envious of your clear skies where the stars and sun are different from mine