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.”
“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.
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.