Do you believe in ghosts? Well, I wasn’t brought up in a society that does, so I don't believe in them. But I do believe that some people have the capacity to perceive supernatural phenomena more than others. Whereas in western countries, a medium who can listen or talk to deceased people is often regarded as scam, in Indonesia they are part of many people’s beliefs. And as different as the various regions of this huge country may be in other aspects, when it comes to ghosts and paranormal phenomena, they all have some. Javanese stories and beliefs may differ from Balinese or Papuan stories, but the common denominator – believing in spirits and strange things happening, especially at night – is the same for most of them.
Soon after I started working here, I heard stories about some of our staff seeing ghosts on the island at night. Hot spots for ghosts seem to be our logistics jetty, the staff area or the building with the generator/compressor. At night, our employees often go to the end of the logistics jetty to call their families, as this is one of the few places on the island with a phone signal. This seems to be the time they encounter ghosts. Iwan, one of our dive guides, told me that he sometimes sees a family with a small child around the compressor area. They open a dive tank and play with the escaping air. But apparently, the parents don’t like the sound of the compressor between 8 and 10pm, which is the time our compressor men fill the tanks for our guests’ dives the next day. So they wait and only come afterwards which is why other people usually don’t see them.
Desmon, another dive guide, had an experience in the staff area near the hot water tap. It was around 3am and he was on his way to the logistics jetty to call his wife, when he saw a woman with long hair and a white dress facing her back to him. He thought it was one of the employees on her way to the toilet and went to make his phone call. When he came back, the woman was still standing there, so he started wondering, but didn’t dare to ask her what she was doing. He remembered that one of our staff had told him earlier that she sometimes hears a woman crying at night. He was convinced that this must be the woman standing there and quickly made his way to his room.
Another time, he was sitting on the logistics jetty talking on the phone once more, when he suddenly felt someone pulling his legs from underneath the jetty. This gave him such a fright that he dropped his phone to the floor and ran away, believing it was a ghost too.
Some of the Papuans also told me that they never see ghosts themselves but that in their villages there are people who can communicate with the dead. They call it witchcraft and explained that these people use a spell to bewitch the water they spray on their face in order to see the dead. Apparently, these women feel when a deceased person wants to communicate with them, which keeps them awake until they are ready to receive the messages from the deceased.
Another interesting story was brought to me by Beti from our housekeeping team. One night at around 4am, she woke up and saw Wiwi, our cook, who sleeps in the same room, praying outside on the stairs. First, she thought nothing of it, because Wiwi, being a Muslim, does this every morning. Beti said she saw Wiwi from the front and was convinced it was her, but when she turned to check Wiwi’s bed, Wiwi was still lying there, holding her mobile phone and checking the time! When Beti turned back to look at the stairs, the «other Wiwi» was gone.
And there's more. My Javanese office colleagues told me about a legend from their area which was also made into a horror movie. Sundel Bolong is the soul of an unmarried woman who died when she was pregnant and gave birth in her grave. The baby was born through her back, creating a hole that is covered by her long black hair. She is said to be a vengeful spirit, which is why her victims consist mainly of men and children, especially newborns, to replace her lost child.
In Java, they believe that spirits live in the large Banyan Trees they have there. On sacred days, a specific Thursday night, they give offerings to these spirits in the form of various flowers, such as Magnolia, Jasmine flowers and also a special type of white and red roses. These are meant to keep the spirits happy and friendly.
Believing in spirits and supernatural phenomena doesn’t seem to be a matter of education, because many of my work colleagues are well educated. It is more a matter of traditions and upbringing. If you grow up surrounded by stories of spirits and ghosts it seems natural to believe in them. And to be a little scared of them too, as they are often described as ugly or suffering and therefore vengeful creatures.
Of course, you may say this is all just a coincidence of events, not ghosts. The woman standing in the staff are may have been a ray of moonlight on the branch of a tree, making it look like a white dress. Or the supposed Wiwi sitting on the stairs outside her room was just Bety’s imagination because she wasn’t really awake and Wiwi always sits there praying at 4am.
But doesn’t it make life a lot more interesting if you can’t always explain everything?
Just as people from this area have a big knowledge about nature, plants and animals, they have also kept a stronger sensitivity for many other things. It has helped them sense danger and thus to survive in the earlier days. And sometimes, it still does today.
I never even dreamt of working on a remote island in Indonesia, but life has a way of taking care of itself…