Later that day, we paddled to the Muslim village of Pota. April and I recounted our experience to the village elders.
“Sihir!” one of them hissed. Witchcraft.
More than a hundred people were crowded around us, the faces of the women painted ghoulishly with the white paste Indonesians used for skin bleaching. The atmosphere had been excitable as we set up camp: lots of laughter and whooping, and “Hello Meester! Hello Meesees!” When the elders arrived, the crowd regained its composure.
“Dukun santet,” said another elder. Black shaman. This was Haji, a smiling octogenarian in a blue shirt, purple lava-lava, and Peci, a black fez hat. “Indonesia beeple superstitious,” he continued. “You break promise in village? You make disrespect? They revenge with”—he nodded sagely and wagged a finger—“dukun santet.”
Translating was his son, a pint-sized forty-year-old with the flitting eyes of a blackbird. He went on to explain how someone seeking retribution could retain the services of a black shaman, a witch. First, you obtained a strand of hair from the intended victim’s head, or something they’d been standing on. Then the dukun santet would concoct the spell. The customer had a variety of options to choose from. Fire was one; if you lit a match or a cigarette and pointed it at your enemy’s house, within a few days the building was sure to burn to the ground. Another was to cause their crops to fail, or livestock to die.
“Or snake,” said Haji, raising another finger. Like fire, snakes could be sent long distance, and, after eliminating the target, retrieved the same way. The most crucial ingredient in any of the methods used was for the client to believe unequivocally in the spell they had commissioned. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work. This struck me as an ingenious escape clause for the shaman. If the magic failed—which, presumably, it always did, unless the victim happened to croak anyway—the fault ultimately lay in the client’s lack of conviction, avoiding the irksome business of having to fork over a refund.
Being the target of a grudge wasn’t entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Lourdes and I had had our public spat in Riung, and perhaps I’d further offended the owners of the losmen by refusing to pay full price for a room just for sleeping outside on the grass. But the notion of black magic at play, albeit entertaining, was absurd.
“What a load of mumbo-jumbo,” I whispered to April.
It wasn’t until four days later in Labuan Bajo, another tin-roofed town with an open sewer policy, that the truth was finally revealed. According to the “Fun Facts” of the Sea World website I googled in the town’s Internet café, sea snakes were attracted to light. That explained so many of them entering our camp. The snakes had been drawn like moths to our headlamps.
When I told April, she seemed relieved. After all, it solved a mystery that had been playing on both our minds and had us both badly spooked. Then her face fell, clouding with uncertainty.
“Okay,” she said softly. “But where did they disappear to in the night, then?”
* * *
 In Indonesia, skin lightening is promoted as an “opportunity enhancer” and social indicator of wealth, status, and beauty by a multi-million-dollar cosmetics industry. I’d found the same to be in Central America, where darker skin is considered by the social elite to be inferior, even ugly.
All Rights Reserved – © 2014 Jason Lewis