December 29, 2012

Hugging the Gorilla

I stood in the post office, my stack of 48 Christmas cards on the counter as I counted out rupiah for postage.  The young postal worker took my money, nodded politely and pushed several sheets of stamps my way.  Four stamps for each card.

“You don’t mind putting them on yourself, do you?” he asked as he handed me a wet sponge for the stamps (sadly, self-adhesive stamps have yet to reach Indonesia).  I could feel sweat trickling down my back.  It was noon, a bazillion degrees, and no fan circulated in the tiny cramped room.  Off in the distance, a mosque was sounding the call to prayer.

I just wanted to go home and cool off, but thinking he must have asked me because he had some other important postal job to do, I gave Zoe a stack of cards and we started swiping stamps across the sponge and slapping them on the envelopes.  And the postal guy just stood there, a big grin on his face, and watched us the whole time.  He even called his coworkers over to enjoy the show.

I paused and had one of those “I’m not in Kansas anymore” moments that still hit me every so often, even after 11 years overseas.  Life here is just so, so different.  And I wonder how long do I have to do this crazy expat life before I stop wishing, even just a little bit, that it didn’t have to be so different?

I think it’s especially hard this time of year, because I know that back in the states, the weather is cooler (even in my native coastal Georgia), families are getting together, lovely Christmas music wafts through grocery stores stocked to the rafters with all kinds of goodies, and people are putting self-adhesive stamps onto Christmas cards in climate-controlled post offices. 

I want to embrace the culture here in Papua, but sometimes it’s like trying to hug a gorilla – it’s bigger and louder than me, it’s kinda scary, and it’s going to do pretty much what it wants to do whether I like it or not.

For example - Christmas fireworks.   Now I love fireworks.  As a child we had to cross the border into South Carolina to buy fireworks (the thrill of it!) and I loved shooting off bottle rockets and waiting for the big finale – the Roman candle. 

Here in Papua starting the first of December, all day and especially all night, fireworks that we probably couldn’t buy legally in the U.S. have been shot off constantly.  To put it lightly, fireworks have lost their appeal.  David and I decided we’re giving each other a case of ear plugs for Christmas.  When I see the fireworks stands on the side of the road I have to fight the urge to run them over with the car.  It’s hard not to wish that Christmas could be celebrated here in a more peaceful, quiet, “Silent Night, Holy Night” way.

But I’m not giving up on hugging the gorilla.  I will keep on putting my arms around it, brush its fur out of my eyes, and maybe even imitate it (i.e. Today, with my blessing, David went out and bought some fireworks).

Ok, the gorilla analogy has gone far enough.  You get the idea.  Natalie is dealing with a bit of culture shock, which still happens even after years of living abroad.  And she will do what she has always tried to do – vent, breathe deeply, laugh, and move on.

December 11, 2012


My dad wrote and asked me what I was going to do to commemorate today’s date of 12-12-12.  I hadn’t really thought about it, but now that he’s mentioned it, it’s eating me up that I’m not really honoring this rare event.  He is planning to do something like eat a dozen eggs or a dozen doughnuts.  Eggs have been too hard to come by around here lately, and Dunkin Donuts too pricey. He also mentioned running 12 miles, and performing 12 acts of kindness.  Running 12 miles - no.  Acts of kindness? That I can do.

In observing Advent with my family, I have been ruminating on Christmases past.  So in a nod to today's Dozen Date, here are a dozen memorable Christmas moments:

1.  The year my grandfather almost shot us. I must have been five or six, and we were driving from Savannah to Mississippi to visit my grandparents for Christmas.  We decided to arrive a little earlier than planned and surprise them.  I remember arriving in the middle of the night, giggling and shivering as we tiptoed up to the back door to let ourselves in.  We pushed the door open, and there were Mamaw and Papaw, peeping out from behind a wall, Papaw's pistol pointed straight at us.  We learned our lesson - no more surprise arrivals in the middle of the night.

2. The Christmas our dog was eaten.  We went interior in Kalimantan for Christmas, leaving our dog and house helper at home.  When we returned, we noticed the dog was missing.  My beloved helper Orpa came to me in tears, saying that she thought I had been serious when I joked a few weeks back about eating the dog, so she had given it to some friends for Christmas dinner.  

3. Skiing on Christmas. When I was 15 our family went to New York for Christmas - we toured NYC, saw Lake Placid, and on Christmas Day we went cross-country skiing and I fell in love with lentil stew.

4. Snow in Savannah. One blessed Christmas it actually snowed in Savannah.  Three glorious inches.  It shut the city down and it was wonderful.  Dad took us sledding by pulling us behind the van up and down Daffin Drive.

5. Our duet. When we lived in Tennessee, David and I were youth leaders at a local church. For their Hanging of the Greens service, a very solemn affair, we were asked to sing "What Child is This?"  We had barely started singing when something cracked David up and he laughed the rest of the song, while I soldiered on, singing harmony all by myself.  It was mortifying. And yet hilarious.

6. My first Christmas as a mom. I remember holding baby Carter, just a few weeks old, feeling clueless, exhausted, and enraptured by this tiny baby. I was able to imagine better than ever how Mary must have felt, and realized that Incarnation - Christ coming in human form - was a messy yet glorious business.
My dad and Carter

7.  "Snow" in Singapore.  Two of our kids were born in Singapore in late November, and the famous shopping street Orchard Road was totally decked out for the holidays.  We took the kids down to stand in front of one of the big malls and play in the "snow" - soap bubbles that were sprayed out.

8. "Merry stinkin' Christmas!" In 2002 we ventured interior to the village of Long Layu to celebrate Christmas with the people there.  We were fed copious amounts of food - including snails and water buffalo and rice in every form imaginable - and serenaded all night by bamboo bombs, dogs barking under the house, loud music, and chainsaws being revved.  After a sleepless night we stumbled onto the porch Christmas morning and were greeted by our MAF teammate with a line that has become a classic in our family: "Merry stinkin' Christmas!"

9. Christmas card photos.  An annual tradition, our Christmas photos tend not to capture us at our best, but just as we are.  Screaming toddlers, big ears, closed eyes, wigs and all.  

Awkward Family Photos, meet the Beams.  

And the Holstens.

10.  Christmas visiting, Indonesian style.  Go to your friend's house.  Sit on the floor.  Eat soto ayam (Indonesian chicken soup), drink pop, eat cookies.  Chat.  Get back on your motorcycle and go to your next friend's house.  Repeat at least 17 times or until you can no longer eat another spoonful.  Really, it's fun!!  We learned our first Christmas in Tarakan that the key is to pace yourself.

11.  Year of the pogo stick.  One Christmas my cousins got a pogo stick from Santa and brought it to our house.  We all had great fun with it, but the best part was when our grandfather Pop got on it.  We staged a video so that it looked like he was doing all these crazy tricks on it.  

12.  Christmas Eve Gift!  Some of the women in my family have a tradition of trying to be the first person to say "Christmas Eve Gift" on Christmas Eve.  Whoever says it first has to give the other person a gift.  I have the definite advantage living overseas because Christmas Eve happens here half a day before the East coast, but collecting my winnings has proven tricky.

Remembering good times together with family is one of my favorite Christmas traditions.  I look forward to seeing what memories we make this first Christmas spent in Papua.

December 05, 2012

7, 15, 9

Oh, November, you slay me every year.

Three of our four kids have their birthdays in the last two weeks of November, right around Thanksgiving, and it makes for a crazy month.

Birthdays are a pretty big deal to me.  I guess it's because they were a big deal growing up, with quirky traditions like sitting on a balloon at breakfast and incessantly asking the birthday celebrant, "What do you think it is, your birthday?"

And so I have made birthdays a big deal for my kids.  We plan themed parties and I cook whatever meal they request.  On Birthday Eve I decorate their chair at the table, complete with a balloon taped to their seat for them to pop.  I like to be up and ready with a camera when they first wake up, and if possible, I like David to be there, too.  We, after all, were there when our kids first entered the world, and I like us to be the first to greet them on their birthday morning.

But sometimes I can be a tad oversentimental and hang on to traditions a little too tightly.  When David told me he needed to fly early on the morning of Zoe's birthday, which was a Saturday and not a normal flight day, I would like to tell you that I, after pausing to think to myself, 'it's only a few hours of the day,'  said, "Sure, babe, no problem!"  

Sadly, this was a case of missionary-pilot-wife-good-attitude-FAIL.  Inwardly I grumbled, and grudgingly acknowledged that David needed to do this flight.  For two days, he had tried unsuccessfully to get into the village of Kiwi with the family of Jack and Corky, a missionary couple who were preparing to retire after 40 years of service.  Their adult daughter and her kids were coming out for the celebration, but weather and sickness delayed the flights in to Kiwi.

 Zoe's 7th birthday dawned clear and beautiful, and as I carried out my silly birthday traditions alone with Zoe and the other kids, David took off for another try at Kiwi.  And inwardly, I was still grumbling.

Mid-morning David returned, downright emotional after witnessing the reception Jack and Corky's daughter and family received at the airstrip.  Men in gourds and ladies in grass skirts danced around the plane, celebrating their arrival.  The daughter had not been back to Kiwi since she was a teen, and it was a tearful reunion for her and the villagers.

I watched the video footage David took and was shamed.  Shame on me for being grumbly about him missing a balloon popping when he had the opportunity to enable and then witness the culmination of years of service for this couple.

And what a great photo opportunity he got!  I picked the most G-rated photo of the gourd men that he took.  As David says, these men are not lacking in self-confidence.
David said Jack and Corky told him that without MAF, their forty years in Kiwi would not have been possible.  Well, now, that just makes missing a few hours of a Saturday morning bearable!!

And now, for the Birthday Celebrants:

Zoe, age 7.  Flower party.  Don't let the bows and flowers and panda bears fool you.  This child is feisty!

Carter, age 15.  Yes, it's official.  He is taller than his mother. I think this look on his face says, "Man, I wish I could see the Hobbit movie when it opens." 

Luke, age 9.  Angry Birds party.  Lego master. Aspiring geologist.