May 17, 2018

The Beautiful Ordinary

Yesterday morning I realized something – Wednesday night was our last ‘normal’ suppertime in this house.  From now on, there will be guests and special events and grad dinners, then packing.

Our last supper happened without any fanfare – we ate our soup and cornbread and passed the salt and Tabasco and discussed the minutiae of the day, and then it was done. 

And now I feel a little bit sad that I didn’t ‘mark the moment’ so to speak, but let it pass unnoticed.  I’m a little bit disappointed in myself, because I am in full Sentimental Mode right now as we wrap up our time in Indonesia.  I could give Hallmark Channel a run for their money. They would cower in my sentimental presence.  Everything is special. Everything is memorable. Everything deserves to be photographed and cried over. Let’s just say it’s a bad week to run out of waterproof mascara.

I wish I could face these last few weeks in Papua insouciantly, without a care, without the need to stop and take stock of each moment, each ‘last’ – but I seem incapable.  I’m doing well with the big things – the kids’ last band concert, the last prayer time with our Indonesian MAF coworkers, my last writers group, etc.

But it’s the day to day moments I also want to remember, the ones that often go overlooked - the small tasks and conversations that make up a life, so beautiful even in their ordinariness.

I’ve had people say to me ‘Your life must be so exciting’ and there are certainly times like that. Mountaintop, euphoric moments, the ones we put in frames around our house and talk about in newsletters. 

But mostly life is made up of ordinary – even boring - moments, one after another – a trip to the pasar, walking down the hill to see my kids off to school, hanging the laundry and watching jets take off, shooing the dog off the porch, sweeping ants (yes, I sweep ants),  helping with homework, coffee with a friend. And a million others.

Have you ever had an existential moment where you stop and think, “I am living in the ‘good ol’ days’ right now”? That some day, some future you will look back at your present and say, “That time – those were golden years.” I have felt that way from time to time about our years in Indonesia, that these are the days we’ll look back on with fondness when we’re 90 and in our rockers.

So here are a few photos of our beautiful ordinary from 'the good ol' days'...

Waiting for the school taxi
The taxi takes off, with Zoe in the back. The kids gripe about it, but I tell them they need something to tell their kids about one day.

Charley on my favorite stretch of road

The always-colorful pasar
Hiking with friends

May 07, 2018

What about Indonesia?

In a few weeks, our family will be leaving Indonesia, this time with one-way tickets.  Someone sent me a color-coded ‘feelings wheel’ that shows the range of human emotion.  I think this upcoming move has produced every one of those feelings in me, from red angry to blue sad and everything in between.

This blog, Borneo Mama, will soon shut down.  I don’t yet know with what, if anything, I will replace it, but for now I still have a few posts in me.  Here is today’s…

Recently, I was reading a Reader’s Digest article about the ingredients of apple pie and how un-American the origins actually are. Wheat flour from Russia, apples from Kazakhstan, the recipe itself from Great Britain and Germany, and spices and sugar from Indonesia. After reading the article, I studied the article’s accompanying graphic, a picture of an apple pie with flags representing all these countries contributing to the iconic apple pie.

Seven flags were shown, and not one of them was Indonesia’s.

Grrrrr, I thought. How hard would it be to include the Indonesian flag? I mean, it’s a major contributor to apple pie – what would apple pie be without sugar and cloves and nutmeg???
The offending graphic

I had those same thoughts again when I sat down with our family’s page-a-day calendar, which this year is Atlas Obscura Extraordinary Destinations.  I thought for sure that Indonesia would be represented at least once.  But by mid-March, when the closest the calendar had come was Brunei (Brunei! Little ol’ Brunei!) I sat down and flipped through the whole calendar.

Not one day out of the entire 365 days featured anything in Indonesia, a country full of weird and wonderful places. But there was Italy hogging all the glory in June with three days alone.  And Antarctica – Antarctica! – where hardly anyone will visit, merits two days.

It set me to thinking, why is Indonesia often unrepresented on the world stage? Why is it I stand in front of a mural in a large airport, one that has the word ‘welcome’ on it in a dozen languages, and I search in vain for ‘selamat datang’ – a phrase that would be understood by almost 200 million people?

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation. The world’s largest Muslim nation. And yet, most people don’t seem to know where it is, or much about it beyond the island of Bali.

Granted, I used to be sorely ignorant about this country. When we learned we would be moving to Indonesia, I had to pull out a map to see where exactly on God’s green earth we were going.  The only thing I really knew about Indonesia was that there had been political upset in the late ‘90s. I was sadly uninformed. But as I educated myself I was able to educate others. “South of China, north of Australia,” I would say, like I was giving directions.

I wonder if it’s because Indonesia is an archipelago – a nation of islands, and people often know about individual islands such as Bali, Java, and Sumatra, rather than the nation as a whole. I also wonder, are places in Vietnam and the Philippines better known because the U.S. had conflict there? Or because they’re easier to get to?

If people have heard anything about Indonesia, it’s likely to be about the tsunami of 2004, or volcanic eruptions, or terrorist attacks.

But if that is all you know, you miss so much! 

After almost 17 years of living in this country, I have come to love and appreciate so many things about Indonesia.  Its lush jungles and beautiful beaches. Its diversity of language and culture and traditions. Its many forms of transportation, like bajai and becak and ojek. All the amazing creatures, like rhinoceros beetles and green tree pythons and gibbons and fruit bats and sugar gliders. Food like nasi uduk and soto ayam and sate and gado-gado and jus aplokat. And es buah!  Oh, how I will miss es buah!
Watch out, becak coming through!

Luke participating in a traditional Papuan bowl ceremony at his 8th grade graduation

Isn't he the cutest?

The beautiful Baliem Valley
All my favorites

All the holidays – Idul Fitri and crazy Christmas and New Year’s and Chinese New Year – all celebrated with noise and food and friends.

And the people themselves, with their beautiful smiles and musical language and the wonderful ability not to take themselves too seriously. 
Papuan women at a bakar batu (photo by Grace)

So I promise you, Indonesia, not that you need me or necessarily asked for this, but I promise you I will do all my best to represent you well to those I meet in distant places, those who say, “Indonesia, now where is that? What’s it like?”  I will tell them all about you, and how I grew to love you.  Because you are a place and a people worth knowing and loving. 

March 22, 2018

The Dog

For almost our entire time in Indonesia, we’ve had a dog. It started out for security reasons.  When we first arrived in Tarakan, we were shown around our house then handed a puppy.  “Here’s your dog,” we were told.  A bit baffled – not having requested a dog – we took it and in time grew to love Sydney.
Carter and Sydney, aka "Christmas Dinner"

Sydney, unfortunately, was not very bright.  The whole point of a dog was to provide security, but instead she barked at us and wagged her tail at strangers.

So we weren’t too sad when – through a misunderstanding – Sydney was eaten one Christmas. Which is a whole other story.

Our next dog, Sandy, was an improvement.  She was a wonderful guard dog, and even alerted us to snakes and other critters in the yard.  She was great with the kids, and gave us puppies when we forgot to give her birth control (one of the weirdest moments of my life – me, about seven months pregnant, at the apotik, buying birth control pills and trying to convince the gal behind the counter they were for the dog).

Good ol' Sandy (photo by Tripp Flythe)

Sandy grew a little snippy over the years so when we left Tarakan in 2011, no one really wanted her, so some friends of ours helped put her to sleep.

When we left Tarakan and moved to Papua, I swore off all mammals.  I was done. I was done with the smell, the hair, the making of the dog food (rice mixed with sardines – yuck), the barking, etc.

Then an email went out that the local vet had a litter of beagle/golden retriever mix puppies available for purchase.  The kids begged.  I said we’d go look.  I wonder how many people have ended up with a dog after just going “for a look”?
The most beagle-looking one in the bunch captured the kids’ hearts.  The vote was 5-1.  Guess who dissented? Charley was ours.

It's a good thing he was so cute.

I will admit, he was a very cute puppy.  “I almost can’t handle the cuteness!” one of the kids exclaimed.  But then there was the puppy-training, the whining, the messes.  And the bigger he grew, the more the beagle in him came out.  He was a master of escape.  Our yard is fairly large with lots of fence to escape through. It became a two-year project to get our fence escape-proof. I about lost my mind in the process.

"What, me escape?" -- Note barbed wire on bottom of fence. 

Because of his constant escapades out of our yard, everyone on Pos 7 knows him by name. The neighborhood kids love him.  Sometimes we let kids come in the yard to play with him.  Once we saw a little boy bury his face into Charley’s back while hugging him, saying, “Oh, you make me so happy!”

It’s not like there’s a shortage of dogs for these kids to love on.  There are kampung mutts all over the place, but they’re always scurrying around with their tails tucked between their mangy legs, casting furtive glances, and yelping at all hours.  They live a hardscrabble life.  They don’t exactly invite play and affection.

I think that is Charley’s appeal.  He’s happy-go-lucky – doesn’t have to scrap for food, doesn’t have to fight off would-be rivals.  He can afford to be friendly and lovable.  He’s never met a stranger.  As a guard dog, he’s not worth much.  He’s just a presence.  He just loves people too much to be a threat. Maybe there’s a lesson there for us.

The kids have about a dozen nicknames for him, including Charles, Beaglicious, the Sleek One, Pharaoh, Charley Chumbles, Chumb, and their favorite, the Beag.

I admit, he’s grown on me over the years.  We take regular walks around the neighborhood, or I should say we go out for regular sessions of Charley pulling me up and down Pos 7.  He is always my buddy anytime I’m out in the yard. Every now and then, the kids catch me petting him and they say, “See! You do love him!”

As our time in Indonesia draws to a close, I’ve been contemplating all the goodbyes we’ll be saying.  I would not have said this a few years ago, but I’m saying it now: I am going to have a hard time saying goodbye to Charley.

March 12, 2018

Sniff the Butter

This past week I helped watch my friends’ four kids while she and her husband were on a getaway to Bali. One morning I had the three-year-old with me and we ran into a store to buy some vegetables before we had to do kindergarten pickup.

I was just hoping for some carrots or maybe some green beans, but on this auspicious day, the store happened to have broccoli, which is quite a treat here.  I was in a hurry, and the broccoli – individually wrapped in plastic wrap – looked decent enough (i.e. no visible bugs and not too much mold) so I grabbed four and checked out.

When we got to school to pick up the kindergarten boys who live on Pos 7, I noticed the car was starting to smell weird.  The boys confirmed it for me when they hopped in the car.

“Ew, what’s that stinky smell?” one exclaimed, pinching his nose.

I glanced to the back of the car, where my groceries were, hoping it wasn't the broccoli I just bought.  “Ah, who knows.  We’ll just ride with the windows down.”

“But – but – there might be drunks!” one boy protested.  Our neighborhood is known for drunks and even our kids know the "windows-up" protocol for driving up our road.

“It’ll be ok,” I assured him. “I just came from Pos 7 and there were no drunks out today.”

When I got home and finally dealt with the groceries, the first broccoli I unwrapped released a terrible rotten smell into the kitchen.  Into the pig bucket it went.

‘Maybe it was just that one,’ I thought hopefully, gingerly opening the next one.  Nope, all four stalks were rotten – they looked fine on the outside but were positively nasty once opened.

I related this story to some friends this past weekend and they laughed and commiserated with me and we started to share rotten food stories.  One friend had just bought some cream cheese that was all crumbly – if cream cheese is frozen this is what happens.  Another friend recently had a UHT box of milk explode on her at home, just after buying it from the store.

You never know what you'll find in the grocery store

We shared all the things we have to do at a grocery store. Sniff the butter (recently David and I were at a store and saw a friend by the refrigerator - David sidled up to me and said, 'Did you see her? She was surreptitiously smelling the butter.' I shrugged. 'What's the big deal? How else will you know if it's good?'). Squeeze the flour to make sure it’s not got a hole in the bag (that means bugs). Make sure something is still vacuum packed if it’s supposed to be. Squeeze fruits and vegetables for freshness. 

We learn these things the hard way. Some things we can catch before we buy them. Others are truly a gamble – like meat.  Once I bought ground beef that smelled like a donkey when I cooked it up. 

But we soldier on – because, well, we gotta eat.  And we laugh, too. And we don’t judge each other when we see one another sniffing butter at the store. 

March 04, 2018

No Graven Image, and other books

I love to read, and last year I read some great books.  If you know me in real life, you probably heard me go on and on (and on and on) about whatever my current read was. Sorry about that.  I’m sure I drove my family nuts last year talking about the books I was reading, especially The Last Great Walk about the decline of pedestrianism and Mayflower about early settlers in America.

One of the more thought-provoking books I read, and one worth mentioning here, especially for global workers and anyone working cross-culturally, is Elisabeth Eliot’s No Graven Image, her only work of fiction. A friend told me about it, and that it was not well received.  A book by Eliot, whose writing I love, not well received? I had to read it and understand why.

No Graven Image, published in 1966, is set in the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains and tells the story of Margaret Spearhawk, an idealistic young woman embarking on her career as a missionary to a group of Quichua Indians.  As her story unfolds, she is forced to reconcile her preconceived ideas of what missionary life would be like with the mundane and sometimes tragic reality she faces in Ecuador. 

As I read the book I thought about the title, a reference to one of the Ten Commandments, and wondered what the “graven image” would be? Something that the Quichua worshiped? Turns out (spoiler alert), it was Margaret’s own presumptions about mission work and how she viewed the people she came to serve. 

Margaret has some interaction with an older missionary woman who challenges her thinking on what it means to serve God overseas.  What if you don’t see the results you were hoping to see?  Can you still call your work ‘good’? What about how you view the people you are serving?  Do you see them as people, or as your project?

At one point this older woman says to Margaret: “Gradually I came to see that the results which can be called good are few.  And they cannot be the criterion for whether or not what we do is worthwhile.  It is hopeless to try to weigh up the good, the bad, the futile, and the merely harmless, and hope there will be enough of the good…to justify all the rest…Jesus told us to do what is true. I think the truth needs no justification, no defense.”

I haven’t been able to find much background on the writing of this novel, but I imagine it was inspired by Elliot’s own experiences in Ecuador.  I wonder if she remembers herself as being idealistic like Margaret, and the older woman is perhaps herself as an older, more seasoned missionary.

Eventually Margaret comes to the point when she says: “The Indians had become people to me – they were no longer my ‘field.’ While I had once declared them to be my equals, I now regarded myself as theirs. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, you are as good as I – let me help you,’ I now said, ‘I am as poor as you. God help us all.”

I remember being brand spanking new in language school, in Bandung.  The first Lord of the Rings movie had just come to the local theater, so David and I went. There was quite the crowd there, and not much of a line, more of a mass of bodies crowding the ticket counter.  At this point in our overseas life, I was not terribly familiar with how Indonesians queue.  I was very much in “go with the flow” mode, trying not to do anything too terribly stupid or culturally inappropriate.  We stood near the back of the mob/line, and near us was another expat couple I recognized from language school.  The woman was all in a huff, and kept gesticulating at the crowd.  At one point I could hear her say, “We’re never going to get in because of these people!” This woman – who had left her home country to come serve in Indonesia - was miffed at the very people she had come to love, and for the simple reason that they weren’t lining up according to how she would in her home culture. Her outward display of frustration made me feel embarrassed to share a nationality with her. 

I’ve had my own “these people!” ugly moments through the years – and I’ve found this can happen anywhere, among any people – even in your own passport country.  When we see people as a group and speak of them in generalities, we can fail to see them as individuals, created and loved by God.

I love a happy ending in a book, or at least, a satisfactory ending. However, No Graven Image does not have one. I can understand why this book was not well-received in its time.  It messes with our preconceived ideas of what the missionary life should look like, and presents a less-than-newsletter-worthy version. But I prefer this version, because it meshes better with our reality – that some days I feel defeated, my faith is small, the challenges feel insurmountable, but we keep going. As Eliot says, "...anyone who tries to help people in any way soon becomes overwhelmed with the endlessness of the task. So he has two choices. He can give up at the start, or he can accept his limitations and go on doing what he can."

I think it should be required reading for any global worker.

Other noteworthy reads from last year: Eagle of the Ninth and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – two of my all-time favorites that I re-read with Luke and Zoe; Wonder; Food: A Love Story – Jim Gaffigan is so funny; A Long Letting Go helped me with my grief after my mother-in-law passed away; Boys in the Boat – took me a while to get to this one, but I’m glad I did; The Reason for God; and bird by bird, a wonderful book on writing.

What about you? What did you read last year that inspired you, or made you laugh, or made you stay up too late reading?

February 01, 2018

What's the Word for Whistle?

Last week I learned the Indonesian word for a whistle – peluit.  I learned it because I needed one.  I needed one because I’m coaching Zoe’s basketball team, which is another story entirely.  You can’t be a coach without a whistle.
So I set out for a store that I thought might have one, but I didn’t think to look up the word beforehand, and, having Luddite tendencies, I did not go ‘to the cloud’ and thought I would just wing it at the store. I knew the verb for ‘to whistle’ and I figured I would start there.

I walked around the store, scanning the shelves for a whistle but I couldn’t find one.  So I faced the three employees who’d been watching me do circuits around the store and started the I-Don’t-Know-The-Word game of charades that I often get to play here.

“Hi, I’m looking for a thing, and it’s small and you use it to make a whistle sound,” I said as I pantomimed the act of using a whistle, which must have looked like I was sucking a lemon or possibly kissing a toad. 

They openly laughed at me, then one of them got all bright-eyed and said, “Oh!  I know what you mean. But we don’t have any.”

And she told me the word for it, which I promptly forgot and had to look up again at home.  So the next day I headed out to another store, one that I was told would have my whistle.  I approached one of the store workers, who looked bored out of her mind, and considered briefly if I should repeat my pantomime of the day before, if for nothing else for the entertainment factor.  She could tell her friends later about the crazy white lady who was so stupid she didn’t know the word for ‘whistle.’ But I played it cool and asked if they had a peluit and they did. Two minutes and 70 cents later I was a legit coach with a whistle.

Peluit - pronounced sort of like "I blew it"

I can’t even tell you how many times I repeat this little exercise, and every time I do I am amazed (and more than a little embarrassed) that I went so long without knowing certain words.  In over sixteen years of living in Indonesia and attempting to speak this language, have I really managed never to need the noun ‘whistle’? 

It happened to us again just last night, when we were outside marveling at the super blue blood moon eclipse (side note on the eclipse: with all those adjectives, I was expecting a bit more than a hazy-looking  moon). David took our binoculars over to our night guard so he, too, could view this wonder.  When David walked back to where the kids and I stood, he said he explained to our guard how the eclipse happens.

“So what’s the word for ‘shadow’?” I asked him.

Bayangan,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, impressed that David knew that.

“Yeah, I had to look it up on my phone.”

So, there’s another word I’ve managed not to know all these years.

Language learning can be an arduous, at times humiliating process, and, as clearly demonstrated by my anecdote above, it may take a lifetime.  I may never be fluent – I know that now – but I try to maju terus – keep moving forward, one word at a time.

And now, I can easily tell someone, “When I saw the shadow on the moon, I blew my whistle!”