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The Rainy Season: “this is our life, but we do not give up”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot


I’m not sure who was more relieved—Soukpa, that I was in Laos, or me, that Soukpa was dressed in jeans and a nondescript blouse instead of the traditional skirt and blouse that she’d worn every day in Jakarta. I clasped my hands in front of my face and bowed. “Hello, Sabaidee. It’s good to see you again, Soukpa.”

Soukpa said, “I really happy you come Laos.” Eel-lee.

“Is this your brother?” A young man stood beside her, and if not for the age difference—Soukpa was mid-twenties, he was mid-teens—then he could have been Soukpa’s twin.

“My boy brother.”

He offered a strong grip and we shook hands.

Soukpa laughed and held her hands about two feet apart. “His name more than your student. I think you call him Pete. Is easy for you.”

Pete’s head was shaved. Maybe he was going to be a monk. I shrugged and said, “Okay, Pete. Nice to meet you.”

Pete wore jeans, tee shirt, and sandals. He smiled and said, “No English.”

“Me no Lao,” I said back, and we all laughed.

“You have more bag?” Soukpa asked.

I had my backpack and the carry-on size suitcase-on-wheels. The duffel bag was in a locker inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. “No, this is everything.”

Soukpa cinched a plastic trash bag around my suitcase. “It rain soon.”

I thought, soon? I was nearly drenched just from standing on the tarmac. I smiled and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”

Soukpa made a big O with her mouth. “So good!”

“Well, that’s all I remember. Hello and thank you.”

Soukpa cinched a second trash bag around my backpack. “I teach you more okay?”

“Sure. I’ll try to learn.”

Soukpa gave my backpack to Pete. “We go now.”

The arrivals hall was empty and quiet. No placard conventions in Pakse. Pete lugged both my bags, and I felt naked without my backpack. Just saying. The parking lot in front of the airport was also empty. A lone tuk-tuk was curbside with its driver asleep in the back, and I didn’t see any taxis. The sky was gray and a steady rain fell. I told Soukpa, “Thanks for picking me up. I hope you didn’t have to wait long.”

Soukpa smiled, but said nothing.

I was curious though. “When did you arrive in Pakse?”

“I worry it heavy rain so we come early.”

“You got here this morning?”

Soukpa shook her head. “Three day ago, after Indira call and say you will fly Pakse.”

Three days ago?

Three days ago I was planning painful deaths for Wallach and Mandiri. Three days ago I went to the Monas with Indira’s students. Three days ago … I gave Irma a piece of paper to give to Indira.

Was Indira’s faith really that strong?

I thought, maybe.



Soukpa’s motorbike was a black Honda. It had a few dings, but it was a Bentley compared with Pete’s bike-with-a-motor. Pete’s bike had a large frame—like an adult ten-speed—but his pedals were missing, and in their place was a two-cycle motor with just enough juice to trim your hedges. The motor and wheels were connected by two well-used fan belts. A sheet of corrugated aluminum was welded to the frame above the rear wheel. It made a platform that was handy for transporting items like my backpack and suitcase-on-wheels. Pete used twine to secure everything and then yanked the pull cord to start his engine. It took Pete a good three or four yanks before the engine coughed and spit its way to life.

I gave Soukpa my best “this is normal” face.

Soukpa gave an embarrassed smile in reply. “Sorry.”

“It’s actually kind of cool.”

Soukpa lifted the seat on her Honda and pulled a light jacket from the storage area underneath. “You will see more like it. I think you will be surprise what you will see in my country.” Soo-pies.

“Pakse is a lot quieter than Jakarta.”

Soukpa laughed, Indira-esque. “I almost die when I see Jakarta airport. Oh I feel so scare. I never see life so big. I never see many people or hear loud city. You will not find it here. Lao people are quiet. I think you like it here.”

I nodded and said truthfully, “It sounds great.”

Soukpa had the jacket on now, along with white cotton gloves and a cloth mask that covered her mouth and nose. “You ride with me okay?”

I thought, as if Pete’s bike is really an option…

I said, “Okay.”

Soukpa secured her helmet and asked, “You ready?” Her eyes were big and alive, and her voice was filled with excitement—the way she had been on the train to Bogor, as if this was a big adventure.

“I’m ready, but where are your bags?”


“You came three days ago. Where’s your stuff?”

“Oh, here.” Soukpa indicated the storage area beneath her seat. “Okay?”

I straddled the seat behind Soukpa. “Okay, let’s go.”

Soukpa sped onto the main road. Pete puttered along in our wake. The rain fell with slightly more urgency and the wind buffeted Soukpa’s jacket. In the distance I glimpsed the Mekong, and I thought about my dad. Maybe this felt like a big adventure, but in reality it was a struggle between life and death that began beside this same river more than four decades ago. Maybe it would end here as well.

The asphalt road gave way to red clay and we could have been in rural Georgia if not for the rice paddies and nón lá hats made famous by Vietnamese farmers and now ubiquitous to Southeast Asia. We shared the road with peasant farmers who used tractors to pull flatbed trailers piled high with fruits and vegetables. An open-air bongo truck filled with women and children sped past, going in the opposite direction, and I spun to take a second look because I didn’t believe it was possible to fit so many people into one vehicle.

“You okay?” Soukpa asked.



I hadn’t eaten a full meal since yesterday afternoon with Indira’s family. “Yes, a little.” Up ahead was a roadside canopy with wooden tables, plastic lawn chairs and a fire pit. A few older women stood in the road and waved meat skewers at passing vehicles. No one seemed bothered by the rain. Fast food, Lao-style. “What are they selling?”

Soukpa began to slow the motorbike. “Meat.”

Well, okay…

Soukpa’s lack of specificity was a bit troublesome. I thought, chicken, beef, pork? Mystery meat? I said, “Maybe I can wait.”

“You sure? Can buy if you need.”

I noticed a man tending the fire pit. He was also urinating. I said, “It’s okay. I’m not that hungry.”

Soukpa sped up. “We almost there. Can buy food beside river.”

A few minutes later Soukpa left the main road and we began to bounce along a poorly grated clay and gravel secondary road. It led to an elevated berm with tall, wispy reeds, wild grass … and the Mekong.

“Here is river. We go boat now.”

There was a staggering amount of commerce taking place. A wooden U-shaped quay jutted into the river and tied alongside it were dozens of boats—square heads, freighters, fishing—and nearly all resembled the traditional wooden boats synonymous with French Indochina. A dozen smaller, flat-bottomed canoes with long-tail outboards cut swiftly through the Mekong’s turbulent current. As we got closer, I noticed little kids were piloting many of the canoes. A market of sorts was set up alongside the river. A lot of cargo was being carried back and forth between boats and bongo trucks.

Soukpa barely slowed.

She navigated through a crowd of people, down a steep embankment, and then eased the motorbike onto the quay. A freighter was moored at the far end. It might have been twenty meters long—about sixty feet. A wooden plank about fifteen feet long and maybe two feet wide led from the quay onto the freighter’s aft deck.

“Hold on.”

I thought, what else would I be doing? I could already picture us on YouTube. We would definitely go viral. Maybe even earn a Tosh.0 Web Redemption.

Soukpa accelerated…

Halfway across the plank began to sag. In front of us the freighter began to roll with the current. Or maybe it had been rolling already. I wasn’t sure, but I was a little worried. I glanced down, but I barely glimpsed the water because by then we were safely aboard the freighter.

Soukpa said, “I go pay.”

Soukpa climbed from the motorbike and made her way to an enclosed cabin where the ship’s crew was conducting its business. I took a deep breath and began to look for some shelter. A moment later Pete caught up to us. It sounded like he was riding a Weed Eater. He never hesitated, just drove right up the plank. I cringed, because my backpack held all my electronics … but Pete and my luggage arrived safely on the deck. I told him, “Different way of life.”

He smiled. “No English.”

Soukpa came back and I could tell something was wrong. “You okay?”

“I so sorry.”


“It rain soon.”

I laughed. “It’s been raining this whole time.”

Soukpa shook her head. “It rain soon. Cannot take boat today. I so sorry.”

“What should we do then?”

“We find guesthouse okay?”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry.”

Soukpa and Pete had a brief conversation and then we made our way back across the plank and onto the quay. A fast-minute later we were on the main road toward Pakse. I could see buildings ahead in the distance. I thought, a kilometer, give or take. Maybe three minutes on Soukpa’s motorbike. A steady rain had been falling, but now the sky had different plans. A brilliant cascade of electricity lit up the distant horizon. Fiery red streaks fell from the heavens and shook the earth. A far-reaching arc lit into a magnificent shade of blue as it danced across the Mekong’s turbulent waters. The sky had been gray, but now it shone brilliantly in reds, blues and pinks until finally, and suddenly … everything went dark. The world around us was eerily quiet, and ominous. It stayed that way for an exceptionally long beat. After which it began to rain.


The Mekong itself could not have been more turbulent than the waters that flooded the road. Its clay surface was pulverized by raindrops the size of cherry bombs that fell with devastating velocity. If I had blasted the clay pointblank with a shotgun, that’s the image you need to understand how intensely the rain assaulted the earth. A streak of lightning gave us a reprieve from the darkness. It was reddish-orange, and close by, and the thunder chasing after it shook the whole world around us.

In that brief moment of light, I could see Pakse, maybe a hundred meters ahead … but I also noticed the water had nowhere to go—

“Soukpa, watch out!”

—and it swelled and gathered strength until it had only one option left: the water cascaded violently toward us and I feared we would be swept into the river and never be found or seen again. Soukpa struggled mightily to remain upright as the motorbike shuddered and its engine quit. In a matter of seconds the road had been transformed into a riverbed. My feet were under water. In fact the water was halfway to my knees. Soukpa desperately tried to restart the engine. It whined and spewed a mix of smoke and water. But it didn’t start. I quickly climbed from the motorbike and grabbed hold of its frame. I planted my feet in a wide, strong base, and lifted until the engine was fully clear of the water.

I said, “Try it now.”

Soukpa flipped the key and the engine sputtered to life. It raced for a quick three-count, and then it died again.

My feet began to slip, and I was losing my grip. “Hurry!”

Soukpa flipped the key a second time. The engine clicked, but wouldn’t start. She flipped the key one last time. Nothing at all. Soukpa jumped from the bike and we began to push it furiously against the oncoming and rapidly rising deluge. Soukpa glanced anxiously behind us. I did too. No sign of Pete. For ten long minutes we trudged toward Pakse. Maybe one hundred meters. For sure the slowest time anyone has ever run a hundred-meter race. And believe me, it was a race. The storm gave no sign it was abating.

Soukpa said, “You see tourist hotel?”

Ahead and to our right was a modern western-style hotel. It had a circular drive and a covered area for curbside drop-offs. “I see it.”

Soukpa and I began to push harder, but I don’t think we went any faster. All we did was breathe heavier. But at last we made it to the circular drive and higher ground. A slow-minute after that and we were safe beneath the front portico. Soukpa secured her helmet and motorbike and immediately went back into the storm.

“Soukpa, wait. Call Pete’s cell before you go back out there.”

Soukpa shook her head and kept walking. “He no have phone.”

I left my Birkenstocks on the sidewalk and peeled off my ruined socks, and then I chased after Soukpa.

The earth beneath my feet and a violent storm were not new experiences—after all, I grew up outside and barefoot in rural Florida with sixty lakes, forty churches, a solitary stoplight and a devastating hurricane season … and after surviving adolescence I’d gone to college in Oklahoma where new student orientation included a session called “Sirens & Shelters.”

And yet I was unprepared for Pakse.

It was difficult to see more than a few feet in any direction. The water stirred the clay, and as it flowed relentlessly through the streets it was shockingly cold and disturbingly blood red.

“Soukpa? I won’t be able to see you if you don’t slow down.”

“Please go more fast.”

“I can’t see anything and the electricity is out in these buildings. If there’s a live power line in the road, we’re dead. If there’s a curve in the road and we walk into the river, we’re dead.”

“Please.” Peas.

We trudged onward as debris raced by and brushed against our legs. I had a few thoughts about rats, diseases and tetanus. But mostly I thought about the Mekong, and how its muddy water had been blood red many times in the past. Soukpa began to shout something incomprehensible. It sounded about two feet long, and must have been Pete’s given name. No response. We came across a bongo truck stuck in the road. Three men sat in the cab—one was asleep, and the other two were smoking cigarettes—but the open-air bed was filled with women and children. Lao-style, perhaps. Though I didn’t see any better options. Soukpa spoke with a woman, but seemed discouraged by what she heard. No one else had seen Pete either. We came across an abandoned motorbike. No sign of its driver. The motorbike was on its side, and like a mighty boulder it made the muddy floodwaters into rapids. We left it untouched, and trudged onward. The rain fell in blinding sheets. I had no sense of time or distance, and no bearing for the road or hotel—and yet the river had a presence all its own. It was just out of reach, a few steps into the darkness.

Soukpa yelled her brother’s name.

No response.

An onslaught of debris pummeled my legs. Soukpa yelled some more. Then in the blood red waters we came across a bike. It was built like an adult ten-speed but without any pedals. It had a platform made with corrugated aluminum and a long strand of twine was twisting in its rapids.

Soukpa was seized with panic.

She yelled her brother’s name again, and again, and again.

Ahead in the distance a wispy shape took form. Pete emerged from the storm. He was lugging my backpack above one shoulder and my suitcase-on-wheels above the other. He waded toward us, against the current.

I lifted Pete’s bike.

We secured my luggage once more on the platform, and the three of us began to push.


The tourist hotel had a generator and its lobby was our lighthouse. It was surrounded by darkness, and water. My shoulders ached and my lungs burned. I had a rip in my jeans but no idea what caused it. My feet had a thousand cuts and scrapes and the rain beat against my face with such ferocity that I could not look skyward.

The world lit up again.

For a brief moment I could see Soukpa’s face. It was remarkably passive. We trudged onward, through a blood red river that should have been a road. I don’t know how long it took us to reach the hotel for the second time, but when we finally made it beneath the front portico I felt like collapsing onto the sidewalk beside my Birkenstocks. I shivered, and my legs and feet were numb.

“You are okay?” Soukpa asked.

I doubled over, hands on my knees. “I think so. You?”

Soukpa shrugged. “This is our life.”

When I asked the desk clerk for two rooms, Soukpa said, “We no have money. You stay here. We go guesthouse okay? Is more cheap.”

“Wallach is paying for it,” I lied.

Soukpa hesitated a beat. “It is okay?”

“One hundred percent.”

“Khawp jai deuh.” For lying and the room.

“How do I say you’re welcome in Lao?”

Soukpa laughed. “We say it bo-ben-nyung. It mean everything is good.”

“Bo-ben-nyung? It’s all good?”

Soukpa nodded. “It is Lao-style, our life. Bo-ben-nyung. Everything is good.”

“I like that. I’ll try to remember it.”

The rain was steady now—more melancholy than violent—and the sky had lightened considerably. Pete was on mechanic duty beneath the front portico. He had borrowed some tools and was tinkering with Soukpa’s motorbike, but so far the engine had made a few clicks but was steadfastly refusing to start. A group of men had gathered around to watch him work. They didn’t look like hotel staff or guests. I had no idea where they came from, but the scene was reminiscent of Jakarta. How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?

“Is Pete going to be okay?” I asked.

“He fine.”

“You rely on the motorbikes for a lot, don’t you?”

“For everything.”

“Pete looks frustrated. What will you do if he can’t fix it?”

Soukpa spoke confidently, “He will not give up.”

“I’d offer to help but…”

Soukpa laughed. “I think he have too much help already.”

“Is he good at fixing things?”

“It is his job in our village. Do not worry okay?”

“My grandfather was a great mechanic. He knew everything about engines.”

“He teach you?” Soukpa asked.

“He taught a lot of people—my mom and uncles, my brothers and cousins—and he even taught auto mechanics to high school students. He tried to teach me, but I never learned. My grandfather loved engines though. He had a big shop beside his house with engine parts everywhere. He would take old cars and restore them like new. The bodies, engines, interiors … everything. He also taught me to drive.” I thought for a moment, and then added, “I wish I had listened more. Maybe I’d be able to build or fix things.”

“You are okay?”

I nodded. “Jetlagged, not sad.”

Soukpa was confused. “What?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“You are hungry?”

“A little, but mostly I’m just tired. I think I’ll go upstairs now. I’ll get cleaned up and probably just sleep.”

“I ask they send food to your room, okay?”


“I also ask they take your clothes and clean.”

“Even better.”

“Your computer is okay?”

“Don’t worry. The clothes inside my suitcase are wet but my computer and everything inside my backpack are dry. That reminds me though. I have a gift for you.”

Soukpa’s version of oh come on was the wide O her mouth made when she was surprised or excited. She made it now, and her eyes lit up much as the sky had done when electricity was dancing across the Mekong. “A gift?”

“It’s from Lucy.”


I gave her the Ziploc bag from my backpack. “Open it.”

Her eyes welled with tears. “Oh Lucy, Lucy.” Soukpa’s hands trembled as she unzipped the bag. When she saw the necklace, the tears fell freely across her cheeks. “It is so beautiful. I not have something so beautiful before now.” For a long moment Soukpa held the necklace tight against her heart, and then very carefully she put it on.

“Lucy still sings the song you taught her.”

Soukpa made the O again. “Really?”


“She sang it for me in English, too.”

Soukpa began to sway back and forth. She was dancing with Lucy again.

“Where did you learn a Christian song?”

Soukpa brought Lucy’s handmade cross to her lips and kissed it softly, and then she began to sway some more. “My mother teach me many song to help learn English.”

“The necklace you gave Lucy also had a cross.”

Soukpa nodded.

“Was it a gift from your mother?”

“My mother give to me when she come home after learn English in Vientiane.”

“I thought your family was Buddhist.”

“We are.” Soukpa wiped away her tears. She hesitated for a long beat, and then she added, “But my mother was Christian. Are you surprise?”


“Maybe a little, but it actually explains a lot.”

“You are Christian?”


Soukpa fidgeted with her necklace. “Lucy and Indira are Allah.”

“I know.”

“I am Buddha,” Soukpa said, though this time she didn’t sound too sure of it. Soukpa swayed with Lucy one more time, and then she told me, “Thank you for come to Laos. My father will listen for you.”

“Soukpa, that afternoon at Starbucks—”

“No, no. It is okay.”

“Thanks. I am sorry though.”

“Bo-ben-nyung. Everything is good.” Just then Soukpa’s motorbike roared to life. The men that had been watching Pete work began cheering and clapping him on the back. With a triumphant smile, Soukpa added, “This is our life, but we do not give up.”



The Rainy Season: “it was only a couple of chickens”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

We made our way outside the station and past vendors selling fruits and vegetables. I even recognized some of the fruits, which sometimes can be a real challenge. One old lady was selling ice cream, and another was selling popcorn. People on the opposite side of the street were cooking and selling fish and assorted meats.

“Chyka waits up here,” Indira said.

There was even an old lady selling hepatitis-on-a-stick. That’s what we called it in Korea, anyway. It was mystery meat cooked over hot coals on a wooden skewer. People would eat the meat and throw the stick on the ground. Then the old lady would pick up the stick and use it again … which is why we called it hepatitis-on-a-stick.

“Chyka will bring students to meet us. They will greet us traditional way.” Indira held her hands about three or four inches apart. “They will offer hands like this. Put your right hand inside. They will take your hand and bow, and touch your hand on forehead. You understand?”

“Not even a little bit.”

I was too distracted, because along with the skewering, cooking, and selling, there was a cage of cute, furry, bunny rabbits. It confused me for about a second. Then I saw the fire pit and a lump of meat in a familiar shape. I cringed, and I’m not even all that sensitive. Soukpa was also staring at the fire pit. She didn’t seem to be upset, though. In fact, her mouth was watering and she was licking her chops.

“There she is. Just watch and do like me,” Indira said.

Chyka was dressed in a coral batik tunic with long sleeves and a skirt. She also had her head covered, something she hadn’t done in Jakarta. She obviously had dressed up for the occasion. I felt bad for coming in jeans and a polo shirt.

The real sight was the boy and girl she’d brought with her.

They were nine or ten years old and all smiles. The girl wore a sarong and the boy wore pants and a vest. Both outfits were cut from the same coral batik as Chyka’s tunic, like the whole ensemble had been one big class project.

Chyka held out her hands, three or four inches apart. Indira offered her right hand. Chyka clasped hold of it, bowed, and touched her forehead against the back of Indira’s hand. The whole thing was repeated, first with me, then with Martin and Will, and on down the line. Chyka greeted every member of the group, all in the exact same way.

Then the kids greeted us.

Chyka had been reserved and quiet, but the kids couldn’t stop giggling.

The girl touched her forehead against the back of my hand. She had long black hair pulled back in a ponytail and brown eyes as big as saucers. She held on to my hand, furrowed her brow, and leaned close toward me. “Are you pak guru?” she asked.

“Does pak guru mean teacher?”

She nodded emphatically.

“Well, yes, I guess I am.”

Her face lit up. “My name is Lucy. I am from West Java, Indonesia. I am nine years old. Thank you for come to visit my school.” Lucy giggled and smacked her forehead against the back of my hand a second time.

“It’s very nice to meet you Lucy.”

Then the boy took my hand and banged his skull against it. He said, “My name is Davi. I am from West Java, Indonesia. I am ten years old. Thank you for come to visit my school.”

They’d rehearsed just like Soukpa. It was cute, sad, and impressive, all at the same time. “Thank you Davi. I’m happy to be here.”

Lucy and Davi went down the line, smiling, giggling and banging hands against their foreheads. They even got a few hugs from Soukpa and some of the other teachers.

We left the train station on green mini-buses that were close cousins with tuk-tuks. They had space enough for seven or eight Indonesian passengers … the equivalent to three or four foreigners. Maybe only two foreigners, if one of them was Martin.

The mini-buses would make a great roadblock on The Amazing Race because the whole system functioned (or not) on local knowledge. The mini-buses had numbers—presumably indicating routes—but no corresponding maps or signs had been posted along the city streets. I boarded with Chyka, Lucy, Davi and Indira, plus a couple random Indonesian passengers. We sat on benches that faced each other in a space smaller than the boot of my Jeep. The rest of our group had to wait for the next mini-bus with the same route number.

A few minutes later we got off the mini-bus near a school with beautiful architecture and landscaped grounds. “Is your school here?” I asked Chyka.

Lucy and Davi laughed at volumes worthy of Indira. Chyka said, “Here is very good school. We take another bus.”

Three confusing transfers later, I told Indira, “There’s no fast way to get anywhere in your country.”

“This is fast way, but we take pretty way back to Jakarta just for you.”

“First class?”

“Oh come on, we did first class on train already.”

The last mini-bus left us beside a becak stand. A becak is basically a rickshaw, only it looks stranger, is less reliable and more dangerous. The carriages are in the front, and the drivers navigate on bikes that could have been imported from Amsterdam during the heyday of the Dutch East India Company.

Chyka spoke Bahasa and pointed at a steep hill. Indira translated, “We go this way, one more kilometer by bike.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Chyka take this trip every day to come Jakarta for conference.”

So then I shut up and got on a becak.

Chyka, Lucy and Davi shared a becak. Indira, Soukpa and the other teachers all followed suit, pairing up to share rides. Martin stood in the street and laughed. “There’s not a driver in Indonesia that can pedal me up that bloody hill.”

I decided to forgive Martin for deriding my coaching skills last night. It was potentially an embarrassing predicament, but he had the good humor to laugh at himself. He was also right. The becak drivers all waved “no-no-no” when they saw him. I climbed from the becak and said, “I’ll walk with you.”

Will shrugged and said he’d do the same.

In the end it was less than a kilometer. We climbed the hill and on our right was a beautiful mosque. A stream cut through the middle of the expansive property. We crossed it on a small footbridge, and on the other side we followed a well-beaten path to the outmost corner of a picturesque field and a cluster of utilitarian buildings.

Indira was waiting for us. “You have your notecards?”

“Yes.” I’d asked her to translate some simple sentences into Bahasa so that I could read them to Chyka’s students.

“Any question for me?”

“No, let’s go meet the kids.”

There must have been five or six buildings total, all roughly the same size. Not that any of them were big. I can estimate square footage with roughly the same accuracy as I can guess ages … but what I can say for sure is that my classroom in Germany (largest class size: 29) was roughly twice as big as the building where Chyka was teaching her orphans.

All forty of them.

The students came outside to greet us. Apparently their outfits had been a class project. All the girls wore sarongs and all the boys had pants and vests. The same basic outfits with a few variations in colors and patterns. All forty students greeted us exactly as Lucy and Davi had done at the train station.

I’ll never forget it.

The door to the classroom wasn’t typical. It was thick and heavy wood-on-wheels, and it rolled open just like the barn door on the farm where my grandmother was raised. The windows in the classroom weren’t typical either. They were square holes. No screens, no glass, no shutters. Just open squares.

The students filed into the classroom.

Along one wall were wooden cubbyholes. Kind of like bookshelves. The room didn’t have any desks or chairs. The kids took mats from the cubbyholes and sat on the dirt floor.

The room was clean. Tidy, anyway. For a room with a dirt floor and holes for windows, it was spectacular. It was organized, cared for, and obviously important to its occupants.

I glanced at the ceiling. It had a blue arrow and the word “Kiblat” to show the orphans the way to Mecca.

Chyka and Indira spoke to the students in Bahasa.

Maybe one of them introduced me. I don’t know. Martin and Will stood near a hole-in-the-wall window. Soukpa sat on the floor with Lucy on her lap. The rest of our group did the same with other kids.

I stood in front of everyone with my notecards. They’d been a great idea last night at Starbucks. Not so much this morning. I managed to get through a few words when I heard a hybrid tsk-clucking noise and thought Wallach had stormed the classroom.

It was only a couple of chickens.

Real chickens.

The kind that walk around clucking and pecking. Which is what they were doing. Only no one else seemed to care, or even notice. This is normal? Obviously I had a little hiccup reading my notecards.


I was talking to forty orphans who had to share a dirt floor with two chickens. No one in college had ever prepared me for this scenario. I stumbled through a few more words, but it was getting ugly, fast.

Lucy raised her hand. “Pak guru?”


“You can talk English.”

Well, okay. “Will everyone understand me?”

Lucy gave an ultra-serious nod. “More than you talk Bahasa.”

The chorus of laughter and bobbing heads settled the matter. What do you say to that? I’ve no idea. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring.

You see it, right?

How was I supposed to go back to Germany and life-as-normal and teach? How was I supposed to pretend I’d never seen these kids, or experienced this moment? It would be impossible, of course.


The Rainy Season: “for every war there is a hero”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

We rode in silence for the rest of the trip. Somewhere along the way Maya and Gita fell asleep. A large shopping center alongside the highway had “Indah” in its name. I thought, it’s got nothing on Chyka’s orphans. In the distance a train was heading south. I thought about the rooftop kids.

I felt helpless.

At last a highway sign indicated we should stay left for the airport or merge right for Jakarta. Far to our left I could see a commercial airliner on final approach to Soekarno-Hatta. Far to our right I could see the outline of tall city buildings. The imagery was hard to ignore. In the midst was an impoverished world filled with dangerous radicals. Some believed it was God’s will to crash airplanes into buildings. Some recruited children to self-detonate on buses and in coffee shops. It must be incredibly difficult to hold fast to hope when you live in such a world. It’s also hard to keep faith with humanity when religious ideology is used as an impetus for war. But I believe that for every war there is a hero … and for me, Jakarta will always be Indira’s city.

The traffic snarled and soon the streets became narrow and dark, almost sinister. Our green mini-bus made its way deep into the shadow of Central Jakarta, and I knew we were almost home.