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Obat Batuk Di Sulawesi
(Sulawesi Cough Medicine)

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A few years ago I headed over to Sulawesi for an unstructured tour. Along my random way I found myself in Palopo, a seaport in the south-east. Being a bit of a "Boatie", having locally built boats on my home island, after finding digs I headed to the pelabuhan (harbour) to check out the style of the local boats.

Later, as I left the harbour area, I was hailed by a couple of attractive and brightly dressed women hanging over a rickety balcony in a Bugis kampung of stilt houses built over the water. It turned out these women were two of four daughters of a household that subsisted on catching, drying and selling fish. The men folk were nearly all sea people, having salt water in their veins. The rest of them, two of the women's immigrant husbands, having by then been living in the area for over ten years, were mercilessly teased by Oupa, the women's father, telling several tales of capsizes and sinkings never experienced by true "Orang Laut" (men of the sea). It seems it had taken one of the immigrant husbands about six years to master a dugout canoe to the extent he could stand upright in it without falling out of it or half filling it when it rocked enough to slosh water in, and the other STILL wasn't up to walking around his sampan!

I was invited into the house for refreshments and introduced to the whole extended family and curiosity-driven drop-in neighbours. Basically, there were the old folks, the four daughter/husband combinations, and HEAPS of kids. Strangely, the kids were addressed by colour and number: Coklat Satu, Hitam Tiga, Putih Dua, etc. Very puzzling until I learned that the colour appellation was related to the fathers, a Pakistani (the Hitams), a mainland Chinese (the Putihs) and the local Bugis dads (the Coklats). As there were two Coklat families there was a sub-code to distinguish the two Coklat branch's kids. I couldn't break this code in the time I was there, but it worked for them.

The Bugis are most hospitable people, and it wasn't long before someone mentioned that Om (Uncle), i.e. me, might like to taste the local arak. You bet says I, having the universally expected thirst of my countrymen. A two-liter Hennessey Cognac bottle, full to the neck with a beautiful Cognac-coloured liquid, was produced - tea stained arak - which the men and women alike proceeded to drink with gusto. That is, with gusto 'til I rather ungraciously asked if, as Bugis, they were not Muslims. Of course they were, and that's when the coughing started. One would cough, sip, and say "Obat batuk, Misterr!" (cough medicine) In this way the arak was consumed in short order, leaving us all less than perfectly co-ordinated, laughing at anything, and thirsting for more.

As it happened, I'd brought a couple of Aqua bottles of Balok, one of the local Sulawesi palm "wines", with me from Rantepao, and so I went by becak to my digs to retrieve it. While we drank it back at the house, one of the sons-in-law asked how much I'd paid the becak driver. I was in a pretty good mood by then, and saw no harm in answering the question, let alone querying why it had been asked. Soon after, when I noticed the exodus of the four sons-in-law, I assumed they were off to their boats for a night's fishing. Wrong! Where they were actually going was tracking down the becak driver to give him a severe beating for cheating me. I only found this out by pressing them when they all returned and gave me a double fistful of rupiah - a refund that exceeded by many tens of times the amount I'd (over) paid him. "No problem, Om. No parang, no break bone. OK, OK" (parang-knife).

I felt at once pretty good that I'd made such good friends in such a short time, and pretty bad that the poor becak guy had been beaten so badly for what to me was a bit of mischief. As the beating was sure to have taught him a very good lesson, I suggested that perhaps the brothers-in-law could find him so I could return his cash (and maybe keep them out of jail by doing so). They did find him and literally dragged him to the house, where he arrived trembling like an autumn leaf, absolutely certain that he was to be killed and fed to the fishes. (It's not for nothing that the word for the Boogey man of the Western world's childhood myth comes from the name for Bugis seamen.)

Anyhow, he was pretty pleased to get his cash back and he promised there'd be no repercussions from the beating. Then, when offered a glass of unconsumed glass of arak someone had found in a corner, as naturally as breathing, he coughed, drank it, and said "Obat batuk, Misterr."

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