"A Statue for Bread" by Toke Hoppenbrouwers

Toke Hoppenbrouwers

Toke Hoppenbrouwers

Toke Hoppenbrouwers was born before WWII in the Netherlands. In the 1960's she began her studies of Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She continues research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) at the University of Southern California where over a forty-year career she published more scientific articles than her age and completed the book SIDS with her colleague, Joan Hodgman, M.D. During the past years, she has traveled to Indonesia to study SIDS. Her novel Autumn Sea received a Small Press Award in 1996 and her nonfiction pieces have appeared in various literary magazines.  

A Statue for Bread


1. A Statue for Bread, 1993

"Those sculptures, anybody know about those sculptures?" I ask Jailani, who led my lover Jane and me to the Apo Kayan, part of the rain forest of Kalimantan, the former Borneo. Two days before, we had flown in from Samarinda on the East coast in a ten-seat plane that can land on dirt strips. Our departure had been delayed because the plane was grounded for a few days waiting for replacement parts that had to come from far away. Boxes destined for the interior accumulated in the departure hall, where every passenger and every box had to be weighted in public. I registered an embarrassing 170 pounds. Young local “entrepreneurs”, eager to get their wares onboard, watched intently while an official kept a written tally. They knew that their goods could only get to the interior if the maximum load of the plane had not been attained. I imagined their frowns indicated dread and disappointment when they saw me displace the needle sharply adding considerably to the tally.

Once in the air we flew over impenetrable forests. Although rarely sighted, nomads undoubtedly lived under that canopy. When we arrived at our destination Long Ampung, Dayaks, the indigenous people had come out in great numbers to greet relatives and friends. An elderly Dayak couple, the woman with stretched earlobes, and half a dozen golden rings dangling just above her shoulders, was escorted toward the river bordering the airstrip. After a short while, I saw them glide downstream in a hollowed-out tree trunk, a young Dayak standing upright in the bow; his purpose, I soon learned was to guide them through rocks and strong rapids that lay ahead. 

Jailani took care of our luggage and our boxes with crackers, eggs, sambal (hot sauce), Soya, noodles and a dozen bottles of water. A wall of children stared at us, but as soon as we looked toward them they turned their faces. Jane with her short hair, dyed orange and streaked with more bright colors, almost certainly stirred up a bit of attention. Not that I wasn't a curiosity myself with large heavy breasts that I'm sure they'd never seen the likes of before.

Chickens, two baby ducks, myna birds in woven bamboo cages, a few simple appliances and scores of boxes sat on sprigs of grass that sparsely cover the rocky, reddish soil. Soon, the plane taxied to the end of the dirt strip and we waited to see it turn sharply toward the sky, leaving a string of waving Dayaks behind. It was a clear, sunny midday, a rarity in this rain forest, we would soon find out. Then we walked slowly toward the village, where we would stay in the house of the administrative chief. We two were the only white people. Two white men visited more than a year ago.




Jailani has found three assistants for our first trek, one to carry the water, one for our pack and one for the food. It's an easy hike all along the river upstream. The guide Mathheus has brought six dogs along who when they pick up the scent of a wild pig, start to bark feverishly. He lets us pass and makes an effort to hunt it down.  Apparently the pig escapes. In Long Uro, we talk with a guy who is cleaning a bear's hide. He wonders whether we want some bear meat for dinner. When we come to the hamlet of Lidung Payau, we find the chief has gone for the day. Soon, kids and women surround us.

Now we are sitting in the shade next to the river. Jailani and Uris are cleaning a pineapple and a papaya, our lunch for the day. Jane is reading Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres in which the role of fate functions prominently. I know it will have an impact on her. It had on me. She and I are together some of the time. Having fallen in love with Putuh, a handsome young Balinese man, during last year's trip, she is trying to go her own way. Jane who has often said, “I will never leave you, I'm not stupid,” is now confronted with a huge issue, should she be with a man or a woman?

At night, most villagers gather in the now returned chief's long house. We sit on the floor in a din of talk that we cannot understand. When the woman next to me addresses me, I decide to answer her in English. Might as well try to communicate. Between our holding each other's hands and eyes, I imagine we succeed. When asked about the statues, Jailani translates: “the chief knows where they are but it's not sure we can get there; the river may be too high.”

The next morning, after Jailani has made us breakfast with fresh cooked eggs, rice and sweet juicy pineapple, we set out for the search. The twenty something chief leads; Uris, the assistant guide, Jailani, Jane, and a protestant Dayak missionary round out our team. In my fifties, I am the oldest one. Immediately we leave the trail and begin to climb up and down hills right through the thick underbrush. The men use their machetes; we proceed the crow's way. Every time we get to a little stream they cut down two or three small trees that conveniently make a bridge.  It's all done in minutes. Hands are everywhere to assist us. And then we come to a sudden halt, stymied. 

“It's on the other side, “ the chief points out. On my right, I am now looking at a wide river full of boulders between which the water finds its rapid course. In front of us is calmer water, a broad offshoot. We are standing in the dappled sun between shoulder-high green bushes. High over our heads are tall trees. Far to the left, a large mahogany tree has fallen over and a big branch hangs over the water.  An old woman, hearing our voices appears; she has been fishing.  It is she and we, the only women.  I feel protected by her.

“The river is too wide here, the water too high,” Jailani translates for us. 

“No other way to get there?” I inquire. 

“No.... they're right across from here, on that little island in the distance.”

“You are sure the sculptures are there?” 

“Absolutely,” we hear. The chief walks off to the left to inspect the Mahogeny branch suspended high above the water. That wouldn't work. A lot more thinking and talking follow.

“Well, we better turn around then,” I venture after a good ten minutes of deliberation in Dayak and Malay, the content of which has escaped me. 

“They are still thinking,” Jailani tells us. The young chief, bare-chested now, has cut a thick branch, way in excess of his body height and glides into the water. He is measuring the depth.  Water is reaching his nipples, and the current is pulling him toward the rapids. He uses this long branch to keep his course, more or less. He shouts back: “It's passable,” Jailani translates.

Passable for him perhaps but is it passable for us? I know immediately that nothing is going to happen unless we are willing to get wet.  

“What do you think, Jane; we could strip to our underwear?”

The sun is shining. It's fairly warm. 

“No way,” Jane retorts. I look around me at these men.  Hesitate. 

“What do you want to do?” Jane asks.  

“I would really like to see these statues. We came this far. I'm willing to try it." Jane shakes her head in disbelief. 

The word is passed on and the strategy laid out. The two strongest men will take me between them and escort me to the other side. The third guy will carry my pants and boots on top of his head. I get out of my pants and decide not to look at their faces lest they make me change my mind. My resoluteness bolsters Jane's courage. They help me down the steep embankment, and at the side I feel slippery stones under my feet. Then we wade deeper, and deeper while I am suspended between their strong hands. Even in suspension, the water reaches my chest. I feel a strong pull of the water right under the surface, but the two guys hold their ground and me. On the other side they hoist me up the embankment. I get my wet feet into my socks and boots so that I can safely negotiate the underbrush while they return for Jane.

Jane has also stripped and given her clothes and camera to Uris to carry above his head. Once they have reached us, the chief takes his machete and cuts a path along the steep side and up a hill. We follow him expectantly for about ten minutes and then he stops. “Here it is,” and he bends over to cut away the underbrush. Severely eroded by rains, but unmistakably sculptures. One is flat and shows a stick figure-like humanoid carved in sandstone; some rounded stones support the slab.  The other statue has the shape of an animal with hooves and a trunk. The young chief places his hand protectively on the animals' flank with a gesture of “it's ours.” A smaller, fallen block shows a tiny human face and several diminutive forms, only faintly visible. The chief has been here before, perhaps many times. 

“These are not the gods of the people that brought us here. They are from an earlier era,” Jailani translates, upon my query. He looks relaxed and proud that we achieved our goal. Perhaps, we are standing opposite a sacred and mysterious sign of the original Dayak religion, an animistic one. We linger for a while in silence, each with our own thoughts. Jane takes pictures. Then we return via the same torturous road. 

Once on the other side we take off our wet clothes and get into our shirts and pants. Pride makes my step lighter, the climb easy and the hike to the cozy longhouse a short one. Thank God these sculptures have not been schlepped yet to a Museum in Jakarta or to some wealthy collector's living room. Thank God I see the pictures of myself only weeks later. What a sight, the wet underwear clinging to my skin. I can, but won't imagine what these guys are saying about two crazy white women, an old and a young one, a Belinda (Dutch) and an American.


2. My search for the sacred, June 1993


When Jane told me about Putuh last year, we sat opposite one another at our breakfast table, two women of good will, trying to understand the feelings that wash over us. For the first time in our nine-year life together our needs differ. In the shock of recognition we scoop frantically, deep into ourselves, hoping to excavate the words and gestures that we know are still there. Here in the Apo Kayan, we are sitting in a 6 by 6 feet wooden partition and feel rich, a space for ourselves. Two chairs and a table, a miniature hotel room in the rain forest. We have been gone for eleven days, but it could have been eleven years. We are so far away.

A tropical outpouring has just ended. Before I arrived here, I tended to think about the Apo Kayan as an area dominated by huge trees; less as one pelted by powerful rains that spawned these trees. The rain clouds continue to pass over us. A blue strip of sky hangs hopeful in the distance. I am itching like crazy. This morning I fell through one of the planks of a bamboo swing bridge. It didn't hold me and I fell into a shallow body of water with a ghastly stench. I went to the river to wash. Now I feel myself again, untouched by the dirt.

It is good to feel my physical stamina, my mettle and know-how. Of course I'm in great hands with Jailani, an incredible guide. But just the same, I like to be able to handle this extreme in physical discomfort: no plumbing, no electricity, no beds and no faucets. Just the river, the artery on which everything depends, that streams by, fierce and refreshing.  People are mostly healthy although the cold is rampant. I caught it when I set foot on this soil. I gave my cold tablets away to two mothers in two different villages, mothers unquestioningly anxious about the health of their toddler sons. 

We are getting a sense of what it is to live in this jungle. Several people are on their way to church this morning. Jane and I had planned to join them were it not for the intervening bridge. Ever since I fell through the bamboo bridge, fortunately in fairly shallow water that did not come any further than my breasts, I have become bridge shy. Should there be any loose board with this high bridge I will fall to my death. I reverse my steps after a few yards.

“I have changed my mind,” I call out to Jane who has already reached the other side. A mutt, lying in the middle of the shaky bridge, blocking my passage is the ultimate straw. Jane stops and returns as well.

The title, a statue for bread emanated from a place of unconsciousness. It burst forth and never changed, even though it has puzzled me. One reason for the statue search is mundane. I recall my disappointment upon arrival in the Apo Kayan that a Christian veneer effectively covered the Dayak's original religion. This is more true here than for the Dayak close to the Mahakan river, whom we had met the year before in 1992. I had read in a guidebook about these statues in the Apo Kayan, and how the author of that article encountered resistance from the people who seemed awed and fearful to approach the statues. That must have included the current chief or his father who had recently died.

In retrospect, that title probably reflects an important narrative about love relationships. In the Catholic Liturgy, bread and water represent the blood and body of Christ, where by a process of transubstantiation Christ materializes and becomes actually present. Other religions, including pagan ones, have bread symbols, food for the soul. I hoped to find remnants of the original Dayak religion in the Apo Kayan. That unbidden title, however, reflects perhaps an attempt to counteract the fear of losing the relationship with Jane. 

Jane and I do not encounter resistance. On the contrary, the young chief is more than happy to show us the statues against considerable practical odds: the high water level. He knows the statues do not represent the god of Christianity of which several images hang in his part of the long house that he shares with his wife and five children. He exhibits little fear that the wrath of a pagan God would descend on him. A protestant Dayak missionary in our search group may have offered further protection. As for me, in this time of relationship crisis, I welcome other sources of soul food derived from beauty and authentic human encounters.  




Back in Long Ampun, waiting for the plane back to Samarinda, I find a willingness to sit and stare, just think or hum along with the birds and the insects. Indonesians like birds. Several cages hang on the front porch. A bunch of six mina birds sit huddled together above a portion of rice. Last night when the torrents began they were taken inside and this morning a young boy is cleaning their cage with some water dipped from a barrel. In the bathing area  (mandi) inside the house, I have noticed the two ducklings that flew up with us. Every once in a while they are getting a forced bath. Wading through water, sitting, doing my laundry in the river, I am content, even if I have to wait. 

We plan to go to Bali from here.  I don't know how it will turn out to be around Putuh; I don't know what I can handle. “I am committed to making it comfortable for you as well,” Jane tells me. That sounds re-assuring. Obviously, she doesn't want the time on Bali cut short. Now Jane is crying. We have just discovered that the plane is not coming today. Will we fly out tomorrow or Wednesday? Will we fly out next Sunday? We really don't know. Again clouds are forming and even if the plane had left Samarinda to come here, would rain not have prevented it to land? 

I'm sure some day a plane will come and take us out of here. I expect to be flying into a storm of sadness. I cry occasionally, but know that I have run out of Kleenex. That seems a trifle. I'm looking for larger messages from this world around me.

During the last two days, three children between one and three, whose mother is waiting for the plane as well, have been wailing off and on. It must be torture for the mother. The chief's house is being used as a drop-in hotel. Besides us, there are at least ten people staying here. Bedlam. Kids running around on the wooden floor, two radios playing simultaneously. Suddenly a torrential rain that drowns both out. In the morning we typically get up from the hard floor, stiff, pained, happy that at least we have been able to sleep; that we haven't needed to go out in the pelting rain at night to the river. We look toward another day of nothing to do. We have been good about it Jane and I; we have lost our temper rarely. Only the kids hiding in the bushes, peeking at us when we are washing ourselves or relieving ourselves in the river, have made me protest loudly.

“Go away,” I scream, waving my arms. 

I came to see big trees, wild, untouched land, and found people eking out a living, their animism driven underground by missionaries. The torrents are fierce. I sense torrents inside me are fierce as well; when will they crash? Perhaps in Bali, perhaps here in Kalimantan, more likely back in the States when everything will have become clear and certain. Here the weather seems to hold our fate, now entirely given to air currents, an undertow of huge forces. In mysterious Bali, Jane surrendered to equally large forces. How will I walk away from this land? Has the time of reckoning come? 

Despite the wait, we have eaten very well. Now and then Jailani and Uris leave for a walk (jalan jalan) and return with a life chicken and some eggs. It is the age of the chicken that determines how chewy the meal will be and on several occasions we have had a juicy one, fried over wood with a crusty, spicy skin.

A dark cloud hangs in front of the sun. That's all the warning; suddenly rain comes pouring out of the sky. It hammers on this tin corrugated roof, relentlessly. Inside we listen to the ominous sounds, lie on our thin foam mattresses and feel safe, knowing that this roof has withstood thousand of these storms. Some day we will get out of here. One Wednesday, one Sunday, one day when the supply plane comes, we will be able to leave. But in truth, we will probably never be able to escape again. Why is it that Jane after this fascinating Indonesian trip last year decided to sleep with Putuh? Everything seems to have to take its course. In Jane Smiley's book large shadows are cast over ordinary lives. Jane had a terrible nightmare a few nights ago. Screamed out “help, help me.” People sleeping on the other side of our partition came running. She dreamt that she was being caught in the jaws of a piece of earth moving equipment.

While I was crying by myself yesterday, I was thinking how this place where we both feel edgy, is not one to speak our truth. But in Bali I have to speak my truth. I know that I am immensely sad. “Will the center between us hold,” as Yeats phrased it? I have had the joy of seeing you grow stronger, become so much more self confident, so much more self possessed, Jane. These characteristics seemed to culminate in last year's trip to Indonesia. And then you suddenly parted from me during your three days alone in Bali. You trusted me with your secret and your secret seems our kiss of death. Am I trying to avert what fate has in store for me? Am I deluding myself? Have the dice already been cast long ago? Last year perhaps or several years ago, when we first met? Are endings inevitable between us women?


3. Los Angeles, 1994


With surgical precision she removes her items from the closets: four plates with an English motif that lasted 10 years without breaking. Many of her spoons and forks have vanished during those years. I see her pack a tomato presser, a bread stone, a multicolored Italian pitcher, a large bag of brown rice and her “Greens” cookbook. Gone are the days of homemade olive bread. At the end of the day closets have more space. The cuts have been clean. Complete disentanglement of our worldly possessions cannot as yet undo the bond between us.

In the evening, we watch athletes compete for the gold. They are tough and determined, their exposed muscles taut and balanced. On the stand, the National Anthem pierces their fierce armor and even the eyes of the strongest moisten gently. Later when Jane's body has stretched out next to mine and her breathing has become regular, I pay homage to the dignity in her staccato moves, her single-minded, methodical steps to disengage, the certainty in her gestures. To sit next to me at the dinner table so that she can run her fingers through my hair is not of minor importance to her, even now. “This afternoon I will get you a large supply of vitamin C,” says a note on the kitchen table.  Before I fall asleep, I see her standing tall, wearing the gold.