I caught the morning fast boat to Sabang. I guessed Eko would go to find work -- it was a favourite R&R destination for local Aid Agency workers, many of whom accompanied me on the crossing -- and it seemed a better bet than the uninhabited Pulau Banta Island.
Weh Island, as the tourists called it, catered for their pre-tsunami Western needs: diving and snorkelling through the coral reefs off unspoilt sandy beaches during the day, followed by a relaxing sundowner sipping beer or locally-brewed banana brandy at a few select hostelries.
Now, few tourists -- only laden trucks carrying building materials.
I’d packed a bag; enough for a few nights stay and I eagerly awaited this trip with rising optimism. The shuddering swell and cool salt spray felt exhilarating, and I recollected a poem by Alexander Pope -- “hope springs eternal”. This time I was convinced I’d find Eko.
At the harbour, I disembarked and hurried to a local shop for a quick breakfast of coffee and cakes -- thinking I’d catch up on the local cuisine (mouth-watering noodle dishes) when I located Eko. By mid-morning I’d covered the immediate locality by foot. To go further afield I needed transport, so I flagged down an old Toyota sedan taxi that had seen better days.
The tsunami after-effects were quite apparent -- wrecked fishing boats added to an air of helplessness — although (according to the Jakarta Times) Sabang was fortunate to avoid the devastating impact that decimated the lower half of the island, mutilating swathes of mangrove plantations and damaging the fragile coral reefs’ ecosystem. My talkative taxi driver spoke pigeon English, mixed with common Acehnese phrases I recognised, and -- best of all -- he appeared eager to help me locate Eko.
We made frequent stops, but to no avail, and my initial fervour faded to despondency with every shake of the head. By mid-afternoon, incarcerated inside the tin-can with air-conditioning that sometimes stuttered open, as if having a life of its own; later, with the humid evening approaching, I decided to call it a day, return to Sabang city, and find overnight accommodation.
I settled for a single room in a home-stay resort near the beach. Air-con worked and an adjoining bathroom; basic, with worn towels, was adequate for my needs -- especially when Tevfik, the obliging owner, brought me a “mie jalak” noodle dish sprinkled with pieces of diced chicken that tasted sublime, and lifted my spirits again.
In bed at night, under the protective cover of a well-worn mosquito net, I contemplated my next move. Clearly, I grossly underestimated the scale of my mission; at my current rate of progress it could take weeks to scarcely skim through the populated areas. With over a hundred thousand inhabitants, a daunting task lay ahead.
That’s if Eko had travelled there.
Angelique, it’s hopeless.
Don’t give up, Papa. Pray we’ll find him.
Of course. Eko’s faith couldn’t be questioned. Surely he would seek spiritual guidance from Allah at the Grand Mosque. Wouldn’t he? I decided to commit the whole of the next day -- maybe also the following day — staking it out.
I fell into an uneasy sleep, so much so I was pacing the room before the first rays of light shone through my bedroom window. I needed to be outside the mosque by six a.m. when the Fajr prayer ended at sunrise. I extracted a page out of my notebook and scribbled a message to Tevfik — an educated émigré from Turkey — telling him I would return mid-morning, but I needn’t have bothered; he was manning the reception desk. He glanced up from a handwritten ledger, surprised to see me awake.
‘Mister Richard, you’re up early.’
His informal address was more of a question; eyebrows raised to emphasise the uncertainty. I felt obliged to answer him.
‘I’m visiting the Grand Mosque.’
Outside, the first chants of the call to prayer. He raised a finger and crooked it at me.
‘I can take you to Fajr prayer,’ he said, eyeing my smart, but casual attire, ‘but you’ll need to change into more traditional Muslim garments...long-sleeved shirt and pantaloons.’
I nodded to show that I appreciated his offer. ‘It’s very good of you, but there’s no need, I’ll be outside searching for my...’ I hesitated, ‘my…companion.’
He waited for me to clarify -- above the mantra outside, Angelique whispered “Papa, let him know”. It was enough -- and I told him about Eko.
I finished up describing Eko’s most notable features: he had shorn his head and inserted a gold ring in his right earlobe; also the tsunami’s raging torrent had ripped off the index finger on his right hand.
At that, Tevfik’s eyebrows converged like two fighting caterpillars. ‘I will seek divine guidance from Allah,’ he said with a toothy grin on his face. ‘But I will also ask around my community. After the tsunami, many young men came from Aceh seeking work -- it is possible Eko was one, Inshallah.’
God willing. I thanked him although I didn’t hold out much expectation, but it was another lead worth pursuing. I didn’t change clothes, but at first light Tevfik still accompanied me to the gates of the Grand Mosque. I sat on a cold stone bench and began my vigil, scrutinising a steady stream of males entering. Some elders simply stared at me without speaking, but younger men were more childlike, pointing and giggling at the outsider in their midst.
I acknowledged their interest by smiling, hoping after prayers, a few would be bold enough to engage with me -- if Eko was not among them, possibly someone had seen him. Much to my dismay, I didn’t spot Eko, but at sunrise the prayers ended, and many men made their way over to stare at me. I attracted an audience -- some lit cigarettes, some stood motionless. Whispering was prevalent as though I was a new species. I discarded that thought -- they must have seen many Aid Agency backpackers -- and replaced it with their natural curiosity at meeting an unusual dawn visitor, wearing an open-necked tailored shirt and laundered slacks cut to the knee. Maybe it was my hiking boots -- I catered for all eventualities.
I thought nothing of the bites as a couple of young men held my full attention. They sat on the seat beside me, and when I mentioned Eko’s name, their faces lit up; they conversed in Indonesian until one turned to me and spoke in broken English.
‘Where is he?’
The shy one said something I didn’t understand and pointed to the sea, but the other translated.
‘Oh, bloody hell. Where?’
I was answered by blank faces, head shakes, and arms gesticulating at nowhere in particular. I stood up and saw Tevfik waving to me at the edge of the crowd. My frustration must have showed because he shouldered his way to my side.
‘Need help, Mister Richard?’
‘These young men say they know Eko.’ I used the word ‘know’ because it didn’t seem like coincidence. ‘What happened to him?’
Tevfik put an arm around my shoulder. ‘Be patient…we will find him, Inshallah. Now, we take the young men for coffee and cakes.’
I looked up to see Angelique. She was dressed in white. My spirits rose again.
‘Inshallah,’ I said.
My right leg started to itch.