Ajo and Susan took leave from office this day to spend the day with me. Ever since being in their home they have found time to exchange notes with me about the families, office environment, life balance and many other subjects that kept us glued together. I had been meeting them only the second time, but I felt as if I have known them all my life. Some people have the ability to make others comfortable in their presence. Ajo and Susan are two such. Within a few minutes of being with both of them in Batam a filial chord was struck and that became stronger with each passing hour. Their daughter, Sania, further cemented that. Her affection and loving demeanour endeared her, in a short while, to me. She became another granddaughter. Sania had told her friends about my journey and they treated me like a celebrity. This day, since the parents were on leave, she suspected that she was going to miss out on some ‘action’. All through the laboured breakfast of poori and baji she went on about wanting to skip school. Finally, a compromise was arrived at – she would be picked up from school at noon, after the core classes were over. With ease I had become part of the household and the relationship was built on over the days.
Susan and Ajo had told me about some stuff that I could pick up in Batam. Susan decided to stay at home to complete chores at home, including cooking. Accordingly, Ajo and I stepped out after breakfast to visit a few shopping centres from where I could pick up a stroller bag and Nescafe Gold instant coffee, besides some other local stuff. We visited quite a few of the malls but the type of stroller bag I wanted was not in stock in any of them. Nor was the coffee. Instead I bought chips, biscuits, car perfume and a few other consumables that would be required for the return leg to India.
When we reached Sania’s school a little before noon she was overjoyed; her friends came and wished. Her popularity amongst her friends was on full display when we were leaving the school premises after due permission from the school management. Susan produced a table full of culinary delights, portions of which only found a fleeting presence on my plate before they were shamelessly replaced by another portion. The chicken roast and fish curry with chammanthi podi were so good that I overate and was stuffed to the gills, as it were. Despite this I did not refuse dessert of ice cream and mango.
After lunch Ajo took Sania and me to the Maha Vihara Duta Maitreya temple in Batam. The temple devoted to the ‘laughing Buddha’, as Maitreya is often referred to, is the biggest in South East Asia. It was built in 1991 in about 5 hectares of prime land. The temple has stone and wooden statues of Miatreya in different postures inside the halls as well as outside. The common feature is the hearty laugh of Maitreya, which denotes universal love and welcome to a loving world. Besides the Maitreya there are large statues of Gautama Buddha – one of the halls is dedicated to him - the goddess Kwan Im and many others. The premises have meditation halls and are used for discourses. The management of the temple also runs a school in the complex.
The heavy meal took its toll on the way to the temple and on the way to the Sport Massage Centre and Spa. I had my share of ‘forty winks’. I was keen to experience a ‘Batam massage’, which would complete my experience of massages across countries I travelled during this expedition. I wanted a session of foot reflexology and Ajo said that the Sport Massage Centre would give me what I was looking for. At the time of booking the one hour session I chose to have the hard pressure massage. The standard massage session cost under Rs 350. The experience was very different from the ones I had had thus far. The youngster who was in charge of my session was evidently an expert in his profession. He used his fingers to deal with the pressure points on the soles of the feet and the knotted muscles on the feet. At times I had to ask him to ease the pressure a bit, when pleasure turned to pain. I felt completely rejuvenated after the session. A cup of ginger tea and cookie followed the session.
There is a large Catholic Church right in front of Ajo’s house. The priest, Aurelious, lived in a house adjacent to the church. Ajo had fixed up to meet with Fr Aurelious and we went there at the appointed time. The jovial Indonesian priest gave me an insight into the activities of the church and the challenges it faced in Batam. The sizeable Christian population of Batam – nearly 20 percent – is well served by the likes of Fr Aurelious. He said a beautiful prayer to wish me well on the return journey to India.
Ajo had invited a few of his friends home for a session of drinks. Ajo picked up a bottle of Double Black from a duty free shop in a Mall. He told me that Batam is possibly the only place in the world where anyone could walk into the Duty Free of the ferry terminal and purchase liquor and other items. I presumed that it was so because the entire city is designated as a free trade zone. Factories could be set up anywhere on the island to enjoy tax and free trade zone related concessions. With the new government in place, however, rules regarding employment of expatriates, which inter alia said that they would have to transfer skills to locals in five years, were most likely to be implemented that would shortly impact continued employment of many expatriates in Batam.
Ajith, Aby, Santhosh and Arun worked with Ajo in the same company. Ajith has been in Batam for over 14 years and the rest for varying durations. The session was so lively, informative and friendly that it went on till the midnight hour. I am one to hit the sack early, but this day I did not even feel the hours going by. Many pegs of Double Black, ably supported by the superb beef ularthu made by Susan, fuelled nonstop conversation. Photo sessions wound up the wonderful evening/night.
Seven weeks of the South East Asian Expedition was over and so was the first leg of it – the India to Indonesia part was complete. Tomorrow I will start the second, and return, leg of the expedition that will culminate in Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh on 13 May.