The Ubi Man

Written by  Wendy Michelle Bone February 3, 2011

A stranger on a bus proves that the simplest gifts can be the most meaningful.

In the back of the bus, bouncing over speed bumps and potholes in the street, the old man reaches into a plastic bag and hands me a gnarled, bulbous root as a gift.

It is rough and dirty in my hands, freshly pulled from the earth. It looks a like a yam but the flesh is crisp and white on the ends, revealing a glimpse of what is inside.

Ubi,” the old man says. He is very thin, his clothes threadbare but clean. His face is as wrinkled as the root he has given me. He is probably not even very old.

I hold the word ubi in my mind and place the root in my bag. My work shoes are in it, but never mind.

Terima kasih, Pak,” I thank him in Indonesian. “Dari kebun anda?

Yes, he says. It is from my garden. 

He instructs me how to cook it. I am to cut the ubi in small cubes, fry it and serve it with mie goreng, fried noodles. It is very nutritious, he says.

I recall a recent documentary about the Orang Rimba, a tribe of forest people in Sumatra, displaced from their homeland due to logging and palm plantations. One day a family, near starvation, has some good luck—they find a cassava root to eat. It will keep them another day longer.

Ubi: cassava.

The old man insists I take two more. He is proud they came from his garden, and I am thankful for his spontaneous kindness towards me, a stranger. I think about offering him money for them because I know he doesn’t have much. But I also know he won’t take it. After almost two years in this land, I have learned about the generosity of its people. The ubi is a gift.

The man presses the button on the roof of the bus and climbs down to the street with his bag. I continue on to work. The girls at school smile when I show them my ubi, and confirm it is cassava. I have never had it before.

Moments like this—the generosity of a neighbour, the smile of recognition from my Indonesian friends when I have gained a new understanding, the opportunity to try something new—that is what keeps me here, a student of the world.

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