Monday, February 28, 2005

From Athens to Indonesia

A Slice of Llife From the Other Side of The World-originally published in The Flagpole (

The day pokes its head in at 7 a.m. I rise, look around and lie back down in silence in my 20-square-meter bed. It's Saturday, too early to get up just yet. A split second later the sounds of Indonesia knock on my ears. Just outside, angkots and bemos speed around clickitty-clack as their worn engines sputter and spit. Introverted light sneaks in through the pink curtains and bounces shyly off the yellow sheets, as if afraid to offend the dawn.
The morning here is soft; it seems to creep in gradually.

Not like what I experienced last summer in Montana. In Montana, the sun makes a bold statement of its arrival. In the big, bluer-than-real-life blue Montana sky light seems to scream, almost shocking you awake. In Bogor, I seem to fade into the day and rouse by degrees. A gentle sort of awakening.

My mouth is dry. I trundle to the water container. Ah, what the heck. I might as well get up even if it is Saturday. I can never sleep once the daylight has made itself known.
My morning java in Java. I love the sound of that. Must be some sort of traveler's sweetness in being able to say that. A badge of honor.

Out & About
My plan is to walk to Kebun Raya for a bit of exploration and birding. Turn left out of Crawford Lodge and you hit another road soon. I did that and came to a crossroads. Next, I turn right and pass by the community soccer fields, a climbing wall, some takraw courts, a jogging track and one of the numerous kampongs. Fumes assault my nose, exhaust haze infiltrates my eyes, the angkots buzz by almost, but not quite ever, hitting me or someone as they swerve erratically through the streets unfettered. The only rule seems to be go fast, real fast. Like schooling fish, they jog back and forth in unison; some esoteric pattern emerges but I can't read it.

"Hello, Mister!" The kids yell, the street vendors yell, everyone yells as I walk by. Cute school girls in white blouses and black skirts giggle and point as I walk by. My rule: grin and nod your head. In doing that, I'm greeted either with a large smile or indifference. I'm not sure how to interpret the indifference. I figure I'm so far outside of their daily reality that I'm inconsequential. I don't know.
It turns out I should have turned left. I walk nearly all the way around the gardens before I hit the Gerbang Utama and am able to enter. I run a gauntlet of guys selling postcards, women proffering cold water and fried tidbits, and folks with wooden carvings. You name it, they've got it. They all greet me, "Hello, Mister!" I politely nod "No," smile and wave my hand downward like a flailing Michael Stipe in concert belting the lyrics to "I Believe." I pay my Rp 5000 (U.S. 60 cents) and stride in.

Suddenly, the city disappears. Peace and quiet inside the sanctuary. A dozen Muslim kids dressed in white sing-scream a song as they dance Ring Around the Rosy-style around a blindfolded classmate. "It's universal." I think to myself and smile. Amazing how kids are alike all the world over.

I tramp around the park, my binoculars whipped out to I.D. a small flock of Javan Munia. I stumble around in a stupor staring up into the trees. My eyes strain, my neck hurts. The problem with the tropics is that the trees are so damn big and bushy way up in the canopy. I can't see the birds I hear calling right up above me. Never mind. A few Spider Hunter-like and Flower Pecker-like birds flit around. They're too erratic. They won't sit still. They all have an olive drab and/or yellow color. I can see the beaks; one is long and curved the other short. But no eyespots, leg colors or other distinguishing characters. Oh well, another day. A flying lizard does push ups on the tree next to me. I laugh at the antics.

Walk a little. I stop on a swinging foot bridge while crossing the river. Now I witness the stereotypical SE Asian scene. A swarm of activity focused in and around the river. My binoculars reveal some guy defecating in the river and cleaning his butt with the water. Less than 25 meters downstream is another guy happily bathing, seemingly oblivious to the e-coli rafting his direction. Recently cleaned clothes are laid out on the bank to dry. A gorgeous little water monitor splashes in just below. And on the next bridge upstream, tired souls find solace in the bridge suspension by sleeping on the shady trusses just beneath the highway.

What A Life!

Ah man, what can I say? I love it. It has a hold on me. I don't want to leave. The grime, the noise, the craziness, the zany weirdness all frame my experience. Anything goes, and does! As my good friend Dustin says "Indonesia is like Malaysia on crack. It's so much more real. Even the dirt is dirtier!"

Then he goes on to relay how he met some folks here who were so proud to have met him they invited him over for dinner. He showed up to share 10 sticks of satay among eight people. So endearing. Closer to life. Closer to something I cannot describe. I well up with emotions. There is no denying it. Southeast Asia is in me. The Mojave Desert is in me. The Big Sky in Montana is in me. The Grand Canyon is in me. The Deep Creek Hot Springs are in me. Athens, Georgia is in me! Hidup itu indah.

About time to head back. Not before I I.D. the Sooty Headed Bulbul with its black cap, white rump and yellow vent. With two new bird species on my list, I turn left. I pass by makeshift barber shops set up on the side of the road. A little board leaned up against the fence of Kebun Raya for shade. They have a chair, a mirror and some scissors. Men selling fruit, cigarettes and bottles of unlabeled liquid litter the sidewalk. A man sits with a funnel and two five-gallon drums of gas - a make shift gas station! Little boys jump off and on of angkots playing toy guitars and homemade drums. Give them Rp 1000 for their serenade and they'll be happy.
I pass by the durian ice cream man and think of my friend Harold and smile.

As I'm walking a profound thought hits me. With my U.S. $250 binoculars, U.S. $500 digital camera and U.S. $200 Eagle Creek backpack, and Rp 100,000 in my pocket, I'm sporting more valuables than many of these people will know in a dozen years. I don't know what to make of it.

Home Ties
I write this from the comfort of the Crawford Lodge, downtown Bogor, Indonesia. I have recently moved here (two weeks ago) to this suburb of Jakarta to teach science at the International School of Bogor. R.E.M.'s Tourfilm plays in the background as I type these words.

For the past three years I have been living and working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The island of Java, where Jakarta is located, is only a hop, skip and a jump over the Straits of Melaka from Malaysia. It wasn't too much of a stretch to move here from Malaysia, and it's turned out to be one adventure after another. I am not sure I will ever truly be able to communicate how blessed I am to have had these experiences.

I write because a few incidents of late have stirred me into a nostalgic whirl of emotion like the turbid eddies of the Oconee River.

Yesterday, as I walked around town sporting my Blue Sky Coffee shirt, I realized how lucky I am to be here. I wish I could share this with all Americans. I wish I could help them see how our stereotypes about Indonesians and Muslims are so incredibly wrong, so far off base as to be an embarrassment to our sensibilities.

After my brief walk in the park, I stopped in a food stall and ordered up a bit of tempeh and rice. The employees cried out "Hello, Kenny!" exuberantly in "Cheers"-like fashion (Norm!) when I entered. As I ate, memories of The Grit flooded my mind. The Grit is where I first discovered the virtues of tempeh and tofu. Here in Indonesia, those culinary delights have long been known. Add soy milk to the list as another of the treats I find so abundant in SE Asia and learned about as a novice in Athens. Not to mention the incredible coffee found here in Java. I had my first lattÈ in the Espresso Royale Caffe in the mid '90s. I remember it well. Before then, I had only had convenience store coffee or Waffle House coffee. Learning about coffee at an Espresso Royale Caffe seminar was one of the best things I did in college! Now the coffee I drink here is the quintessential experience for a java lover such as me.
Later that day I met a young Indonesian woman at the pool here in Crawford Lodge. I am still uncertain how the topic of Rumi came up, but it did. It turns out she is a fan of the poetry of the 12th Century Sufist. I first learned about Rumi in Athens when my roommate Don Gooch gave me a copy of Birdsong translated by Coleman Barks. He changed my life with that simple act.
She pulled out her book, The Essential Rumi. Sure enough it's a book translated by Coleman Barks. Where she got it or how she ever came to know about it, I will never know. But here I am connected to someone half a world away through a mystical poet I learned about in a town she's never even heard of. I rushed back to my room and pulled out the same copy of Birdsong that Don gave me over 10 years ago. That book has traveled around Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and now Indonesia. It is now signed by Dr. Barks. I met him sometime in 1999 or 2000 in one of those big corporate bookstores you can now find in Athens. He signed my books and wished me luck in Malaysia.

Four years later, I get to traipse around the SE Asian rainforest in my free time. I first studied these ecosystems as an undergraduate biology major at UGA. I learned even more about ecology as a field technician working at the Institute of Ecology and then later as a naturalist at Sandy Creek Nature Center. Since then, I've had close encounters with Orang Utan, reticulated pythons, hornbills, flying lemurs, cobras, barking deer, Tokay and one of the smelliest plants on Earth. I can honestly say I would have never gotten so far if it were not the education I received and more importantly, the people I was lucky enough to meet, learn from and work with.
Every Thai, Malay, Indian, Chinese, Orang Asli and Indonesian I have met here, every Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist I've encountered has been friendly, encouraging and helpful.

The people here are warm, caring and loving just like my friends back home. I am not sure why I have been so fortunate and why I have had so many pleasant encounters. Perhaps it is because that is what I look for. So here's to looking: and even better, to truly seeing.

No comments: