Coconut Milk

My friend and her husband invited me to stay with them in Indonesia where he was working in the Italian embassy. She and I sat in her sitting-room overlooking the garden where banana plants seemed to sprout as we talked. She introduced me to the local fruit and vegetable market, picked two young boys from a crowd of children and handed them baskets which she filled with fruit and vegetables – an array of deep reds, browns, greens and yellows saturated by sunshine. Women especially were desperate for work and our garments were eagerly taken away to be washed.

‘They’re fanatic about ironing,’ my friend told me, ‘but it ruins elastic waistbands – with unfortunate consequences.’

There were no first class tickets left when I tried to book my train journey to Bandung, east of Jakarta, so I travelled in the only class available – third. The way to deal with the perspiration running off my body was to ignore it. Instead my eyes explored the hillsides furrowed by numerous terraces one above the other, narrow strips hand-farmed by men and women in conical hats. Gazing out of the window freed me from the eyes of other passengers crowding round me, friendly and curious.

Indonesia is a former Dutch colony. My lecture was to take place in a hotel. A kind American woman married to an Indonesian was looking after me.

‘Avoid coconut milk,’ she advised, ‘unless it’s very fresh.’

There was time to spare before the lecture so she took me to the park. I remarked that I would like to taste some fresh coconut milk so she bought me a glass at one of the kiosks. I was fascinated by the way Indonesians crouch on their haunches when there aren’t any chairs or benches. Some were even perching on the park benches! Back in my hotel bedroom we tried to squat in the Indonesian manner but rolled over. ‘Lack of practice,’ I said. ‘Too heavy bottoms,’ she replied, though she was slim.

She told me she was setting up a programme to combat rickets which was prevalent in the poorer parts of the city, by promoting milk products. This set me thinking. When I left Greece to travel eastwards into Asia, I noticed that in Turkey they ate a lot of yoghurt but milk consumption decreased the further east I travelled. In the Hong Kong university campus shop I had searched in vain for milk – even a carton of the UHT version! That’s why I accepted the glass of fresh coconut milk in the park.

That evening I was to deliver a lecture in the hotel on the English Landscape Garden before a dinner in my honour. The lecture hall was vast with raked seating. It soon filled with Indonesians and a smattering of western faces, all looking up at me in expectation as the hotel director led me on to the rostrum. I stood by him for what seemed like an hour. At last he stood aside. I moved to the microphone, opened my mouth to speak, felt a surge in my stomach, gasped, turned and fled from the podium. Miraculously a neatly-dressed woman appeared to guide me to the ladies’ cloakroom. Ten minutes later I returned to the podium. The faces were still there. Relieved by their patience, I began speaking as the first slide came on to the screen and I talked everyone into the lush green of the landscape gardens.

Dish after dish appeared at the sumptuous banquet afterwards. Wan faced, I politely toyed with each one while regretting that deliciously refreshing draught of coconut milk in the park.

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