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The Rainy Season: “Lao-style”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Sleep came, eventually, but it was fitful and foreboding as my thoughts and dreams had too many visitors—and none had been especially pleasant. I wore my Birkenstocks sans socks—or as my oldest niece would say, “the way God intended”—and left the hotel at first light to explore Pakse on foot and dry ground. Pete was already on mechanic duty beneath the front portico. He had borrowed tools again and was tinkering with his bike-with-a-motor.

“Everything okay?”

Pete shook his head. “No English.”

“Bo-ben-nyung?”

Pete grinned. “Bo-ben-nyung.”

The sun was reddish-orange on the distant horizon. It reflected brilliantly against turbulent waters that were once again confined to the Mekong. How long it would stay that way was anyone’s guess, but for the moment it was beautiful and serene.

Lao-style.

The kind you could get used to in a hurry.

Laos is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Communists with a totalitarian mindset rule the tiny landlocked nation, and its people are isolated geographically, politically, and economically from the western world. Or said differently, the nearest Starbucks is in Bangkok. But I found Dao Coffee just up the street from the tourist hotel. I had my favorite breakfast—croissants with strawberry jam and English breakfast tea—and did my best to ignore the French architecture and ambiance. One street over I found the morning market with its stalls of fish, spices, fruits and vegetables. It was barely six a.m. but whole families were hard at work—dads, moms and kids. Cows, goats, dogs and chickens shared the streets with motorbikes, tractors and bongo trucks that ferried goods from the river.

The people were friendly.

I’d heard that about Laos, and it seemed to be true. Kids chased after me in the street, waving and yelling, “Hello! Hello! Hello!”

They mimicked Soukpa’s O when I said, “Sabaidee.”

A girl who might have been eleven or twelve was wearing sandals and shorts and an Angry Birds tee shirt like the one I’d seen in Lucy’s cubbyhole. The girl said, “Mister, you buy fruit. Okay?”

I thought about how long today’s journey would be, and I said, “Okay, show me.”

Her eyes lit up. “Here!” she said, and then took my arm and pulled me into the market. Some vendors had stalls with tables, while others sat on the dirt floor with blankets—but the girl led me to a corner near the back of the market where an older woman sat in a plastic lawn chair.

The woman stood and said, “Sabaidee.”

“Sabaidee,” I replied.

An assortment of fruits, vegetables and spices were in neat piles on a blanket. The girl asked, “How much you want?”

“Enough for three people on a long boat ride.”

“What kind you want?”

“Surprise me.”

The girl laughed, and then she filled three shopping bags with enough apples, strawberries, grapes, bananas and tangerines to feed Noah and his family for forty days and forty nights.

“How much?” I asked.

The girl held up a calculator. It read: 15,000.

“Fifteen thousand kip?” That’s roughly one dollar and eighty cents. I gave the girl 50,000 kip and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”

The girl smiled and said, “Thank you, nice American.”

I noticed a beat-up motorbike against the wall. It was close cousins with Pete’s wheels. “Is that your motorbike?”

The girl nodded.

“How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

Older than I thought. “You know the tourist hotel beside the river?”

“I know it.”

I offered her another 50,000 kip and asked, “Can you deliver?”

Her eyes got big. “Take fruit hotel?”

“Yeah. Can you do that?”

The girl smiled and said, “Doi, doi, doi.” Half-a-beat later she had fired up the motorbike. The girl bleeped the horn, Indira-esque, and then she began to sway left, right, left through the crowded market. She bleeped the horn again and disappeared into the street.

I nodded to the older lady and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”

“Nice day,” she replied.

On the other side of the market I saw a small boy with a bamboo yoke across his shoulders. His arms were outstretched, like he was hanging on a cross. He used the yoke to carry baskets made from banana leaves and filled with fish.

I didn’t need a fish.

But I bought one anyway. A second boy had a rusty scale. My fish clocked in at one-point-two kilograms and it stank worse than putrid water. The boys wrapped it in paper, secured it with twine, and tied it off with a loop for a handle. Maybe ten years old and yet they’d already been doing this for a lifetime, with no end in sight.

I thought about Jakarta.

This area wasn’t as forlorn as the slums in Jakarta’s third ring, but it had a desperate feel nonetheless. I would have labeled it third ring, except I hadn’t seen a first or second ring. But maybe my view was too narrow. Pakse is the only “large” city in Champasak Province—and I write it “large” because its population is 80,000 give or take (Jakarta proper has ten million residents, and if you count Jakarta’s greater metro area—which includes places like Bogor—that number jumps to twenty-plus). Pakse doesn’t have Grand Hyatt, Tiffany’s or Gucci … but everything is relative. If Pakse was more economically viable than its surrounding areas, then Pakse was the first ring. If so, then the villages surrounding Pakse would be the second ring. You would need the river to reach the third ring. It would be the island villages downriver, near Cambodia, where Soukpa and Pete lived with their dying father. It was with that somber thought that I returned to the hotel and found Soukpa and Pete ready to go.

Pete’s bike-with-a-weed-whacker-motor was in a sullen and uncooperative mood. Pete yanked the pull cord and the motor spit a plume of misty, pitch-black smoke. He yanked the pull cord a second time and the motor whined for a beat and then quit. Pete was winding up for a third crack at it when the first men began to appear. They wore sandals and cotton slacks and frayed tee shirts like the ones my dad used for rags when he changed the oil in his old pickup truck. I have no idea where they came from. Pete’s shaved head glistened in the early morning light. Incessant rain yesterday, incredible heat today … that’s the rainy season, Lao-style.

Soukpa gave me a “what can you do” smile. “Sorry.”

“Bo-ben-nyung.” The men heard me and laughed in ways that would have made Indira proud. I asked Soukpa, “What does doi mean?”

“You learn new word? It mean yes.”

Pete yanked the pull cord one last time. The motor spit and whined and came to life, and then it quit. Pete and Soukpa had a short conversation, after which Pete took a length of rope and fastened one end to Soukpa’s motorbike. He climbed onto his bike, and held on tight to the other end of the rope.

“We pull him,” Soukpa said, needlessly.

I thought about Tosh.0. I said, “Okay.”

Soukpa laughed. “I think you really surprise what you see in my country.”

I thought about the dirt roads, pickup trucks and gun racks ubiquitous to backwoods Florida where I spent my childhood, and said, “It feels like home.”

Soukpa donned her gloves and mask, and then secured her helmet. “Today you see my home. You ready?”

I straddled the seat behind Soukpa, and said, “Doi, doi, doi.”

“I love fish,” Soukpa said. “Really good idea.” Eel-lee.

We sat on upside down buckets, but my backside had it good compared to the fish. Soukpa had stuck a metal skewer down its throat and out its butthole, and now it was being cooked over an open fire pit on the freighter’s deck. “I think I’ll stick with the fruit. Maybe some rice.” Soukpa had a basket of sticky rice. Whether she’d brought it from home or bought it in Pakse, I had no idea.

“You see mountain?” Soukpa indicated a picturesque peak to our right.

“I see it.”

“Is Thailand. My father family come from that mountain.”

“Your father is Thai?”

Soukpa nodded.

“And your mom was Christian.”

She laughed.

“Anything else I need to know?”

Soukpa thought for a moment, and her face grew serious. “My village is poor.”

“Yeah. I know. I’m sorry.”

“I think you believe me, but I not mean poor like Jakarta.”

It rain soon.

It’s been raining this whole time.

“Worse?”

“Doi.”

“Okay.”

The air was hazy and humid, and dense. Not stupid, but suffocating. The river wended its way through jungle canopy and sleepy villages with Thailand on one side and Laos on the other. Its waters were clear and cool in the Tibetan Plateau, but in these treacherous floodplains its currents were muddy, dark, and with the sun at a certain angle, blood red.

Herons, egrets, pheasants, pelicans and even a falcon made their presence known. Someone had brought a dog onto the freighter, and the birds sent it into a frenzy. It was a golden mutt—a mix of lab and something I couldn’t identify—and it ran back and forth, bow to stern, barking and leaping at birds that were a hundred meters away. Beneath the surface was nearly one thousand species of fish—including dolphins, snakeheads, stingrays, perch, featherbacks, bass and catfish that tip the scales at seven hundred pounds. The Mekong has created two hundred millionacres of biologically diverse habitats and is home to twenty thousand plant species, twelve hundred bird species, eight hundred reptile and amphibian species, and more than four hundred species of mammals—including elephants and the largest tiger habitat in the world.

I kept my feet in the boat.

Something I don’t always do in Florida.

The freighter delivered bulk cargo up and down the river. It was like a long haul trucker, with daily runs up and down I-95—but it also served as the Mekong’s version of a local courier service. The ship’s captain would sound a loud air horn and maybe thirty seconds later a canoe would sprint out from the shoreline and pull alongside to collect items someone had “ordered” from Pakse’s morning market. Money and small bags of goods were exchanged, and then we’d be on our way. Today the freighter had only seven passengers: me, Soukpa and Pete; a diminutive old man in bare feet, cotton drawstring pants, and a tattered tee shirt that billowed in the breeze; and a young mother who looked exceedingly sad, maybe mid-twenties, with her children, a boy and a girl.

Soukpa blanketed an area on the foredeck with banana leaves. She peeled tangerines and bananas and then used a bottle of water to wash apples, grapes and strawberries. We could’ve been on a beachfront lanai in a tropical paradise, that’s how spectacularly she arranged everything.

“It looks great,” I said.

Soukpa was as radiant now as Indira had been that night beneath the Chinese lanterns. “I really like food.” Then she used a knife to flake the fish meat into a woven basket. She got every bit of meat, and then went to work on the rest of the fish. Nothing edible was wasted.

“You cook every day?” I asked.

“Doi.” Soukpa laughed and added, “If I not cook, my family not eat.”

“Is this a good fish?”

“Really good.” Eel-lee. Soukpa placed the fish and sticky rice in the center of the banana leaves, then she gave me a big smile, and said, “Okay, we eat now.”

Pete had been tinkering with his bike. He used a ladle to draw water from a large barrel beside the enclosed cabin and washed—well, rinsed—his hands. The old man was asleep beneath an awning. The young mother sat quietly a few feet away. Her kids were playing with the dog, but they had also been watching us anxiously—hungrily—as Soukpa cooked the fish. Soukpa gathered the children and helped them rinse their hands. She woke the old man and spoke with the mother. The old man stood and stretched and rubbed his belly. The young mother hesitated at first, but finally she relented.

Soukpa asked me, “You can sit Lao-style?”

“I thought the bucket was Lao-style.”

Soukpa laughed. “Like this.” Think butterfly stretch from grade school gym class. Only Soukpa pulled her right leg so it was tucked in tight behind her—one leg in front, one in back.

I thought, this is gonna hurt. I said, “Easy.” I sat beside Soukpa and contorted my legs until I had one in front, one in back.

Soukpa made the big O. “You do good!”

I grimaced. “I love Lao-style.”

Soukpa laughed again, and then caught me completely off-guard. “We pray now.” She held out her hands the way my family had always done at Thanksgiving dinner. We joined hands, all seven of us. Soukpa spoke solemnly, “Thank you God, you give everything we need.” For a long beat everything was still and quiet. Even the river seemed to pause. Then Soukpa let go of my hand, and said, “American-style, right?”

“It is where I come from.”

Pete took our conversing as a green light and reached for the fish. Soukpa popped him in the shoulder. The old man laughed, Indira-esque. Pete shrugged rather sheepishly, and let the young mother and her kids go first. The girl grabbed a fistful of sticky rice, and I thought about Lucy.

The mother said, “Khawp jai deuh. Khawp jai deuh.”

Soukpa said, “Doi, doi, doi.”

Pete finally got his turn with the fish. I was the only one not eating.

Soukpa smiled at me. “You are surprise?”

I nodded.

But I didn’t say anything else. If I had tried to speak again, I wouldn’t have been able to stop my tears.

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The Rainy Season: “give me money and I will teach your student”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Ask Uncle Google for “Korean Peninsula at night” and you get eerie satellite images that show South Korea all lit up while North Korea sits in the dark, literally. Jakarta has that same feel. Central Jakarta is lit up and vibrant, but the third ring is dark and even the air feels thick, heavy and desperate.

Indira warned, “This place is not safe.”

I thought, in general or only—

“For everyone. Muslims also,” she said, apparently reading my mind.

“Any radicalized madrasahs?”

“A few.”

“Wallach’s driver should be picking him up right now. It’s not too late. Make a phone call. Get him dropped off.”

“Oh come on Mr. Strange, how do you know I am not doing that to you?”

I glimpsed the Monas in the distance. It was built to memorialize a hard-fought war for independence, but here on a decaying street littered with rubbish it seemed impossibly far away. On this street the people were still at war.

The motorbike hit a pothole and we nearly found out who was right. God or Allah.

“Sorry,” Indira said. “Up ahead. You see green wall?”

“Yes.”

“We stop here.”

It was a T-intersection. Turn right, left, or crash into a green cinder block wall that was maybe ten meters across and two meters high. A roll of razor wire was strung along the top. Alleys ran at obtuse angles from either side of the wall. Indira jumped the curb and drove into the alley on our right. The wall continued on our left, running deeper. On the right side of the alley was a decrepit graffiti-rich building. Up ahead a steel barricade on wheels was ensconced into the wall. A gate, I guess. Indira killed the engine and called out in Bahasa. I heard movement on the other side of the wall, and then someone wrestled free a chain and very quickly the gate rolled open.

“Hurry,” Indira said. “Go inside.”

A young girl had opened the gate. I climbed off the motorbike and brushed past her. Indira pushed the motorbike inside and then the girl rolled the gate shut just as quickly as she had opened it.

It took a moment to process everything.

In truth, I hadn’t expected much … but some sort of building, surely. Instead I found something akin to a campsite. Or flea market stalls. In the center of the compound was a rectangular pavilion-type structure. It had a few columns made from cinder blocks. The four corners were supported with wooden posts. The roof was aluminum. It was built low and flat. The pavilion was partitioned horizontally and vertically with plastic sheeting to create stalls that might have been four meters deep and five meters across. Inside the stalls were people.

Families.

They used car batteries for electricity and fire pits for cooking. They sat on benches made from cinder blocks and two-by-fours. Clothes were strung on lines. Trash was strewn about. No sign of plumbing.

The young girl stared at me.

I thought she might be eleven or twelve years old. She wore shorts, tee shirt and sandals. Her hair was long and simple. I gave half-a-smile and said, “Hello.”

The girl took a step back. Afraid, I thought.

Indira said, “Her name is Rose. She never see foreigner before.”

This time I smiled with effort. “Hello, Rose.”

Rose bowed slightly and then ran off.

Indira said, “Follow her.”

The pavilion ran north to south and was partitioned lengthwise straight down the middle, with four stalls facing outward to the east, butted against four stalls facing outward to the west. A well-worn path made an oval track around the whole structure.

Rose went right, and we followed.

At the top of the oval a mother was outside bathing with her kids. They used ladles and urns and were unashamed to be naked. But I felt ashamed. On the west side of the pavilion was a small courtyard area. Maybe courtyard is the wrong word though. A fire burned in a steel drum. A few men sat around it, smoking cigarettes. A few tarps were secured to wooden posts and people slept beneath them. A step down from the stalls, as if such a thing was even possible. In the same area a handful of kids chased after a soccer ball. They saw me and were startled. Maybe they’d never seen a foreigner either.

Rose darted into one of the stalls.

It had a tarp draped from the roof for privacy. I could hear excited voices, but all I could see were furtive shadows against the tarp. A small group of men and children gathered around us. The men were just curious, I hoped.

“Is there a plan?” I asked, because I had no clue what was going on.

“We already talk plan. I give you to radicals,” Indira said, straight-faced. Then she smiled and added, “Trust me. You will see the plan. Okay?”

The tarp opened like a tent and a woman emerged from the stall. Unlike the men that had gathered around us, this woman had put considerable effort into her appearance. As if she’d been expecting company. She wore a modest dress and a hijab. Petite, attractive, maybe early forties. She smiled demurely and it felt familiar somehow. She folded her hands together and bowed, and then she embraced Indira. But Indira was much, much taller, and the woman had to stand on her toes.

Suddenly, everything clicked.

“Indira?”

Indira turned to me with a grim smile.

“Maya’s sister is named Rose.”

Indira nodded. “We go inside now.”

I used the word stall, but in fact this was Maya’s home. Maybe two hundred square feet, with a tin roof overhead and a tattered rug to cover the dirt floor below. “Is Maya here?” I asked.

Indira shook her head. “She stay my home.”

Tian and Faye were Maya’s parents. I shook hands with Tian. He was wiry, with coarse hands and dark skin from long days laboring outside. Rose was Maya’s only sibling. A family friend was here as well. Her name was Istira. Fortyish, I thought. Modestly dressed with a white hijab … but she was also pensive, and stressed. The adults sat on the rug and Rose served us tea.

“Terima kasih,” I said, to a chorus of oohs and aahs, as if an American learning exactly one expression of gratitude in a foreign culture was an impressive feat. Rose didn’t offer to serve any food. I was grateful for that as well. I didn’t want to take from people who had so little.

A radio blared from an adjacent stall. K-Pop. Weird, that I could understand the chorus. Kajima, kajima. Don’t go, don’t go. Weirder, that it was playing on a radio station in Jakarta. A lifetime ago I’d gone to see a Korean pop concert. I hadn’t understood a thing, and not just lyric-wise. The gyrating, rave-ish nature of it all had been lost to me. But now I longed to be in that time and place again, when the rapidly growing fascination with upbeat nonsensical millennials had been the greatest threat to American culture.

On the floor, I sat facing in, not out—and I felt anxious, exposed. A thin tarp was all that separated me from the curious onlookers who still hovered three steps away, but there was nothing I could do about it.

We sipped tea and made light conversation with Indira translating. It was interrupted when someone in the stall opposite Maya’s took a hellacious piss. He made tall arcs that hissed back and forth, beating hot contrails into the plastic that split the pavilion lengthwise. It left a pool of urine that seeped into Maya’s home.

Nothing I could do about that, either.

Istira held out a framed picture.

Indira said, “She would like you to look. Then she will tell you a story. I will translate for you after she finish.”

I nodded at Istira. “Sure.” I took the photo and listened as Istira told her story in Bahasa. I’d seen a thousand same-but-different photos. You have too. Your own, or your kids. Probably both. I found Maya pretty quick. That shy smile hadn’t changed. She was in the front row, because the back row is always for the tall kids. The photo was dated September 2003. Maya would have been thirteen back then. The teacher had been a very young woman. Mid-twenties, I thought. Like Chyka. I counted forty-three students, and I knew one of them had belonged to Istira. Some things are easily understood no matter the language.

Grief, for example.

Istira trembled as she spoke. I listened carefully. The words were lost to me, but I understood the pain. Istira took the frame again, and then showed me her daughter. Second row, third from the left. A tiny smirk, a bit confident, like she knew something no one else did. A beautiful girl, really. Istira finally grew quiet, and then Indira began to translate.

Istira’s daughter was Danisa and she had been missing since November 2003. But the story of how she went missing begins in 1997, with the crippling financial crisis that hit Asia—the same crisis that had led U.S. based flag carriers to discontinue flights to Seoul and made my first overseas assignment a no-joke GSL. Indonesia, Korea and Thailand had been the hardest hit countries. The Indonesian currency was in free fall as world markets dumped rupiah for U.S. dollars.

Until the crisis, one dollar bought 2,600 rupiah. In only a few weeks that same dollar bought 14,000 rupiah. Or said differently, 2,600 rupiah had been the equivalent of one American dollar—but now it was worth nineteen cents.

In real terms, everyone in Indonesia was getting poorer. And the crisis was exacerbated by the fact Indonesian companies with foreign debt had to repay loans using American dollars. Imagine if all your debt increased five-fold overnight. Essentially that’s what happened to Indonesian companies, but it was the people already living in poverty that suffered the most. In an effort to stabilize the rupiah, won and baht, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued $35 billion in “financial support … for adjustment and reform programs in Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand.” Another $85 billion was pledged from “multilateral and bilateral sources.” All total, nearly $40 billion went to Indonesia—but in less than a year the rupiah lost sixty-five percent of its value.

The Indonesian Bank governor lost his job, and President Suharto was forced from office. Suharto’s home had been one of the first stops on tonight’s itinerary. Apparently it hadn’t been random.

Emergency stores of food—including rice—were delivered to Jakarta and distributed throughout the country. But with IMF and foreign aid came mandated reforms and oversight administered by western officials from predominately “Christian” nations. For a Muslim populace already in political and societal upheaval, to label such oversight as “unpopular” is a vast understatement. A multitude of crises—inflation, failing banks, food shortages, catastrophic unemployment—made Jakarta a breeding ground for extremism and ripe for recruiting young jihadists.

Terrorist bombs hit Central Jakarta three times in 1998 and early 1999. A shopping center and the Istiqlal Mosque were among the targets. Then in August 2000, a terrorist bomb killed two people outside the official residence of the Philippines ambassador. Only six weeks later, fifteen people were killed when the Jakarta Stock Exchange was hit by a car bomb. Most of the dead were Indonesian chauffeurs waiting to drive their bosses home for the night.

Then came al-Qaeda.

That same year a coordinated attack against churches in Jakarta, Bandung and other cities left eighteen people dead on Christmas Eve.

In October 2002, Jemaah Islamiyah—a radical group affiliated with al-Qaeda—killed more than two hundred tourists in Bali, including seven Americans.

The JW Marriott was hit for the first time in 2003.

The list goes on and on. Self-detonating radicals. Car bombs. IEDs. Bombs at concerts, hotels, nightclubs, markets, shopping centers.

“The big one was of course your country,” Indira said. “I will not lie to you. I told you a man come to the mosque to celebrate what happen. It is true, my father ran him away. My father forbid the man to return. But it is also true the man was not alone. I am very sorry to say it, but I will not lie. Many people were happy to see your country suffer. I tell you what I think. I am strong Muslim. But the men who do this Nine-Eleven are in hell. They will never see paradise. And the men who take our innocent children in the name of jihad? There is a special hell just for them. I hope they will burn in it forever.”

“Is that what happened to Danisa?”

Indira nodded angrily. “Yes. She was taken. Danisa was Maya’s best friend since early years in private school. It was not the best school, but it also was not the worst. Then the money crisis and IMF make everything change and people could no longer afford private schools. Danisa and Maya had to go to public school. It had only one teacher for every seventy students. Can you believe it? Sadly it is true. How will they teach? How will the student learn? You know what the teacher tell the parents? ‘I cannot teach everyone. Would you like your student to learn something? Then give me money and I will teach your student.’ She do this because the teacher salary is nothing. The teacher is also poor. But the parents cannot pay. If the parents had money they would not send student to this school in first place. Many students just quit school because there is no reason to go. But Danisa and Maya go school every day.”

“Until they were thirteen.”

Indira nodded. “Then the imam come.”

“Imam? From where?”

“Hell,” Indira hissed.

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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.

Understandable.

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?”

“Yes?”

“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.