Matur, a smidge of a west Sumatran village on the road from Bukittingi to Lake Maninjau, comes briefly to life on Thursdays, when traders and customers arrive from all directions for the weekly market.
We made the journey from Maninjau village, hitching a ride on one of the many rickety buses that ply the route from Pariaman, a small city on Sumatra's west coast, to Bukittingi. By the time the bus reaches Maninjau it's well into its journey, which means it's also near to bursting with passengers - standing room only. If you want to get where you're going there's nothing to do but squeeze in, find a handrail or the back of a seat to grab onto, and hang on for dear life.
The fifteen or so kilometers to Matur stretch on for 45 minutes, as the bus weaves its way around the forty-four switchbacks that mark the road up from the lake to the hills of Sumatra's Agam region. A collective sigh rises from the passengers as the bus throws itself into each sharp turn; those without a seat struggle to keep themselves upright. When the rattling vehicle finally heaves itself over the last hill there's spontaneous clapping, accompanied by jokes and smiles.
It's the Thursday before the Saturday start of Ramadan and, for some reason, the market is quiet. A good half of the stalls are barren and some of the pondok kopi are closed. Still, at least 6 vendors peddle a Matur specialty: kacang goreng (fried peanuts in the shell).
After two circumnambulations we've seen it all, and head to the street to catch a bus back to Maninjau, or on to somewhere else. And that's when a helpful local tells us that on Thursdays in Matur the real action is at the pasar lembu - the cattle market.
Following his directions, we amble down Matur's one street and then, at the first intersection, head right, towards the hills. We're in a neighborhood of neat wooden houses with bright, intricately patterned textiles hanging in their windows. After five minutes we arrive at the cattle market. We know it by its frenetic activity - not.
The market takes place in a great grassy field watched over by one of the village's mosques. On the green, cattle and water buffalo wander, graze, and nap, mingling with owners and prospective buyers.
This is a man's world - other than myself, there's not a woman in sight. An 'L' of pondok kopi and warung serving food sit to the side and rear of the area, and the benches outside each shop are sprinkled with a variety of smoking cattle rustler types sporting jeans, leather jackets, and felt hats,
and wizened old characters whose faces hint at a thousand stories.
Not a one of them can figure out what the guy with the camera is doing out in the field, gingerly picking his way around piles of dung to get close-up shots of the livestock.
For a market, the place is strangely hushed. Low murmuring, accompanied by the sounds of grass being ripped out by its roots and busy jaws working cud, is broken only by occasional moo and the amplified, singsong reverie of an animal pharmaceuticals dealer. Where's the action, we wondered? Is anyone actually selling or buying anything here?
They are. But not with words.
Prices, we learn later, are worked out on the sly. When a buyer and a seller negotiate, they do so by grasping each other's hands as if to shake and then tapping out a sort of morse code into each other's palms. Nothing is written down, no words are spoken, and the selling price isn't revealed to anyone. This way, a seller parting with his livestock under duress isn't publicly shamed if he accepts a lower-than-average price, and a buyer less-than-skilled in judging the true value of an animal never need worry that someone will find out he's paid too much.
A six-month old bull might fetch anywhere from five to six million Indonesian rupiah (about U$650-750); another two and a half years of life will add another million or two rupiah (U$125-250)to his or her price. Water buffalo - bought, at least in this part of Sumatra, only for their labor (by tradition, Minangkabau do not eat water buffalo; when an animal has died it's buried as thanks for its contribution to the family's livelihood) - are pricier.
Matur cattle market, Thursdays from 6 or 7am till about noon. Matur, Sumatra (between Bukittingi and Maninjau).