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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.

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The Rainy Season: “like toughened, battle-tested men”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

The picture.

I was impossibly young. I look back now and barely recognize the gaunt figure with the hard face. He is a stranger with a clenched jaw, dark, swollen and hollow eyes … until I see that I am flanked on either side by Sami and On-nee.

Then I remember everything.

Will jogged across the field and congratulated me. We shook hands like toughened, battle-tested men. After which Will had cracked a smile, and then he congratulated me a second time with half-a-man-hug, like friends do when they are done pretending to be toughened and battle-tested.

Our quest for trophies and Far East had begun ingloriously three years earlier with a spectacular thrashing from Will’s team in my first-ever match as varsity soccer coach, but I had promised Ray this moment would come …

Far East. Japan.

… and now Ray sprinted onto the field, bursting with pride and emotion. He shook my shoulders and proclaimed, “We did it! We did it!” For emphasis he tossed in a few colorful expletives. My student-athletes—including Ray’s daughter—were in earshot. But as Ray would say, they’re military kids. They were already familiar with the vernacular.

Our boys and girls teams gathered for a celebratory picture. I can still feel the icy Gatorade. It rained down on Sami and me. It’s one of the few times I can remember hearing On-nee shriek in laughter. Sami had loved it. She thought it was the single, most amazing thing she had ever experienced. I had acted annoyed. But late that night I stood in the middle of the field, alone, long after everyone else had gone home. I thought about my team, and I relished the orange stains on my jacket and jeans. I felt tremendous pride, and so much love, and my whole body began to shake with joy and trepidation. Joy, for our great achievement; trepidation, for adding three weeks to our season.

Far East meant two additional weeks of training followed by a weeklong trip to Japan with more than forty military students—all during a time in which analysts offered daily assessments that mutilating American military families was at the top of al-Qaeda’s wish list.

On a good night, I was sleeping three to four hours. On a bad night, I was taking two to three migraine injections.

On the day before 9/11 I had weighed 165 lbs and ran twenty-five miles a week—but eight months later I weighed 147 lbs and ran thirty-five miles a week.

Only I wasn’t healthier.

In fact, it was the opposite. I rarely ate real food. My diet was Pepsi and Maalox. My health was deteriorating rapidly.

Fatigue.

Stress.

But I didn’t take any sick days. I didn’t complain. I didn’t make excuses. My students’ parents were at war. I got up each morning and worked harder.

The Sunday after we clinched a trip to Far East, I met Sami and her mom outside the Post Exchange. Julie was Sami’s mom, and I think she was the quintessential military spouse—confident, unflappable, and resilient no matter the crisis. In an evening gown she’d be elegant and flawless, but give her a gun and cammies and she could pull that off, too. Julie was tall, blond and athletic, and Aaron—Sami’s dad—had by all accounts won the lottery.

On that Sunday afternoon, Julie bought fifteen kids meals from Burger King and I bought a case of grape soda from the Exchange.

Sami asked me, “Where’s On-nee?”

My phone beeped before I could answer.

“Is that On-nee?”

I checked the incoming text and told Sami, “Someone should really buy you a phone. Yes, it’s On-nee. She’s going to meet us there.”

Julie said, “She’s not getting a phone. You driving or am I?”

“Actually, I was going to walk.”

“Me too, mom.”

Our military community had four posts—one was thirty minutes away, but the main gates for the other three formed a loose triangle. If you used back alleys—and Korea is the world capital, I think, for back alleys—then you could navigate between any two points within that triangle in less than ten minutes. A large apartment complex facetiously referred to as the DoDDS ghetto was inside that triangle. I lived in the ghetto, along with many other teachers. Also inside that triangle was a tiny two-story house with a narrow yard, rusted swing set, and a beat-up ajumma cart.

Julie shrugged. “Easier than finding a place to park.”

Sami raced ahead, toward the pedestrian gate that led off-post.

I told Sami, “Stay close.”

I carried the grape soda and half the Burger King bags. Julie carried the rest. A fast-minute later we reached the pedestrian gate.

I told Sami, “Hold up.”

Sami jogged in place and talked smack. “Hurry, old man.”

“Bench warmer,” I said back.

“Hey, that’s low.”

Korean soldiers and police officers manned the gate, along with a few American MPs. I paused a beat to look around anyway. Inside the perimeter wall was our safety zone, but outside the wall the “buddy system” was in effect—and the reason the “buddy system” was in effect is why I paused. The threat to Americans was very real.

I saw nothing unusual, so I told Sami, “Okay, stay close.”

Sami took off again, like a boisterous puppy freed from its leash.

Julie said, “This works better anyway. It gives us a chance to talk.”

“About what?”

“You know all about Sami’s incentives, of course.”

I nodded. “Sure.” Sami’s parents had made plans to travel to Japan for Far East—and they had also bought tickets for the 2002 World Cup, which was being played in Korea and Japan only a few days after Far East.

“All year we promised to take her to the World Cup. A once-in-a-lifetime chance, right? I mean it’s being played in our own backyard, practically. We told her maybe Far East. If she kept her grades up and did well in school. Well, she’s been spectacular. It’s her best year ever, and not just academically. She’s never fit in or belonged to anything so special. She’s never been this excited about school or anything else for that matter.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Iraq is next. You know?”

“That’s what everyone is saying.”

“I’m not just saying. It’s a fact. Aaron already got orders.”

“Orders? To where?”

“Sami and I are going back to Tampa. Aaron is going to Qatar to plan Persian Gulf The Sequel, coming to a desert near you in about a year’s time. Maybe less. Aaron says next March. It’s really not something I should joke about. It’s important, I know that, and no one needs to explain it to me. But Sami is going to be devastated. She’d be okay if it was only the World Cup, but it’s going to kill her to miss Far East.”

“You can’t stay until the end of the school year? Or go back separately?”

She shook her head, and her voice broke just a little. “Aaron is going to war. He needs us, and we need to be with him every day we can.”

“When do you leave?”

“The same week you go to Japan.”

We caught up to Sami at an intersection and she jogged in place again. “Why are you out of breath, old man?”

I wasn’t out of breath. Or old. I said, “Practice squad bench warmer.”

Sami popped me in the shoulder with a left jab and a right cross, and when the green man lit up she hit the crosswalk at a full-on sprint.

“She’s going to be devastated,” Julie said, again.

“When are you going to tell her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow. Aaron thinks he can get us orders to Germany.”

“Germany? What for?”

“As we build-up to Iraq he’ll be in and out of Germany. We could see him maybe once a month. If we stay in Tampa then we won’t see him for a year or more. I should be grateful Aaron’s career is fast-tracked. Most spouses don’t have options.”

“I’m sorry.”

Up ahead was the front entrance to the market. Sami held up, but Julie called out, “You’re fine. Go ahead.” Sami raced headlong into the teeming market with its warren of dirty stalls and rancid smells.

I thought, Sami, wait … but Sami and her mom had visited the orphans every week for months. The market was safe enough. I said nothing.

Julie said, “You know about her friend Angel?”

“Sami talks about her all the time. Angel’s mom is pregnant.”

“Angel’s family is in Germany. Maybe God has a hand in all of it.”

Julie and I entered the market just as Sami jetted around a corner and into a narrow alley.

Julie said, “Sami tells you everything, doesn’t she?”

I gave her my best noncommittal shrug.

“Of course she does. So you already know that Angel’s family isn’t the happiest. I’ve been bitter lately to be stuck in Korea with Aaron off God-knows-where half the time—but Angel’s mom is in a worse situation. At least I’m not pregnant.”

Julie and I made it around the corner and into the narrow alley. Sami’s red hoodie was a blur in the distance. She broke left and out of sight into yet another alley.

“Sami tell you Aaron and I had a big fight?”

“No,” I lied.

“He’s already been to Qatar two or three times. I thought he was in Tampa.”

“I know it’s been tough,” I said, wishing she would change the topic, and suddenly feeling anxious about Sami being out of sight.

“Angel’s mom—”

Julie never finished her thought. We heard scuffling and a loud clatter in the next alley, and then a man began to shout angrily in Hangul.

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The Rainy Season: “the only truth that matters”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

In my mind I’d placed rings around the hotel. The high-end shopping, restaurants and other luxury hotels were in the first ring—Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and dozens of other brand names fit for Fifth Avenue. Not that downtown Jakarta would ever be confused with Manhattan, but persons with substantial means could certainly pass time in Jakarta without any major inconveniences. In the second ring were places like Chili’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, 7-Eleven, Circle K and Dunkin’ Donuts.

We’d left the first and second rings behind after five minutes of driving … in traffic.

In the third ring the streets were narrow and dark, almost sinister. People lit fires on sidewalks to burn trash or cook food, or both. There were steel barricades with heavy padlocks in front of every doorway, and they made every residence look like a prison. They probably felt that way, too. The motorbikes that weren’t playing Frogger on the streets were chained to the same barricades that fortified the houses. Half-naked kids were panhandling in traffic. The first ring glowed in the distance, lit up by consumerism that was brought to Jakarta courtesy of western cultures and Christian nations, and it influenced impoverished Muslims in the third ring, who wore Manchester United tee shirts with “Rooney” on the back, twisting further the attitudes and perceptions of those who were bent already toward radicalism.

Maybe we should build a McDonald’s on every corner and declare victory. Or did we try that already?

The traffic got worse and soon we were at a complete standstill. There were four or five local men in various states of undress standing in the road, but the only police officers in sight were sitting off to the side and seemingly unconcerned about the situation. The locals were ostensibly directing traffic to alleviate the jam, but it was pretty clear they were in fact causing it to further the panhandling efforts of the kids.

Indira said, “Soukpa, close your window.”

Soukpa had barely registered what Indira had said when a hand slammed loudly against the van. Soukpa cried out in surprise and nearly fell from her seat, but it was only a boy, maybe eight or nine years old.

The boy cried through the window in English, “I hungry!

Soukpa quickly reached into her tote bag.

Indira grabbed Soukpa’s arm. “No,” she said. “You must not give the boy money. You see the men? The boy work for the men. The men will take anything you give the boy.”

Soukpa was horrified. “Who give boy food?”

Will said, “It’s difficult to say no, but Indira’s right.”

Soukpa’s hand came out of the bag with a banana. She had no money to give the boy, but she was prepared to give away the food she had pinched from the breakfast buffet.

Indira shook her head sadly. “I am sorry.”

The boy banged his hand repeatedly on the side of the van. Soukpa was obviously torn, but she put the banana back into her bag. I’d never seen a face with such a pained expression. The boy just banged away, again and again, and his antics drew unwanted attention to our van from the people on the street, sidewalks, and other cars. He screamed, “I hungry! I hungry!” It was uncomfortable, to say the least. Indira spoke Bahasa to our driver, who then climbed out of the van and chased the boy away with a few harsh words.

“I am sorry,” Indira said again.

The city assaulted us with its hellacious cacophony, but inside the van it was eerily quiet.

Indira finally gave everyone a big smile, and then she asked, “How many Indonesian men does it take to direct traffic?” I didn’t say anything because I had no idea if she was being serious. No one else said anything either. Indira laughed and told us, “All of them. The women work and cook and clean and make babies and pray five times a day, but the men have nothing better to do.”

“How long are they going to keep us here?” I asked.

“You do not like my joke?”

“It’ll be funnier after they let us go.”

“They let us go soon, I think.”

The police officers finally stood up. They blew whistles and chased the men and kids from the street. Our van began moving again and a short moment later I saw firsthand how completely the filth and squalor of the third ring had enveloped the train station. Wallach had the right idea, avoiding this place. The van had barely slowed when a crowd of men descended on it, waving and motioning our driver to park in twenty different places.

Indira said, “How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?”

There was a chorus of “all of them,” and this time it probably would have been funny if not for the women, children and street vendors waiting for us in all twenty different places we were being directed. It was a relief when finally we parked and climbed out of the van, but immediately there were countless people staring at us—specifically at me, Will and Martin—and while most were simply curious, others were outright hostile. My ideal for blending in would be for no one to see or hear me, ever. Good luck with that. Not here, not in this scenario. Sometimes blending in means acute situational awareness and the right attitude. Act as if you belong. Which is why I approached the ticket office the same way I’d left the airport the other night: no big deal.

Being with Indira obviously helped. She made all our arrangements. On that account, Wallach had been right on target. The listed price was 7,000 rupiah per ticket. Indira haggled and finally agreed on 5,000 rupiah. Our group of sixteen would travel for less than ten dollars. Indira had knocked a buck-fifty off the total, which I found incredibly amusing at the time.

I don’t have a lot of experience with trains, but the “train station” picture I had in mind had been formed by Seoul Station and London Liverpool Street. My picture was off just a bit. Well, in truth, I wasn’t even on the right canvas. In Seoul and London the train stations have concourses with high-end shopping and fancy restaurants. The train station we departed from that morning had a dirty 7-Eleven with about half of its shelves stocked.

I bought a bottle of water and sat quietly on the platform.

There were only two tracks, but after a few minutes Indira realized we were sitting on the wrong side. We climbed an escalator that didn’t work, crossed over to the other side, and found benches dirtier than the ones we’d just left.

I decided to walk around the platform. It was elevated and I could see a long line of people standing outside a small grocer across the street from the station.

Indira walked over and said, “It is really sad.”

“What is?”

She pointed at a sign I hadn’t noticed: Western Union. “It is the same in every city in my country, a long line every morning to get money family member send from overseas. It comes from your country, Dubai, Europe, but not from my country. The people will not even take the money in rupiah because they no longer trust it. They will take U.S. dollars from the Western Union.”

“I had no idea things were this bad. If all I had seen of your country was the area around the hotel then I would think everyone in Indonesia is rich.”

“Indonesians believe all Americans are rich.”

“Trust me, they’re not.”

“Indonesians believe American schools are the best in the world.”

“American schools have eight hundred million problems. At least.”

“You can see Central Jakarta from here. See how tall my city is?”

She was right. The skyscrapers and luxury hotels could easily be seen in the distance.

“It is very easy for the people to see, but almost impossible for them to afford. We believe every American is rich because every American that come to my city can afford Central Jakarta.”

“The ones who can’t afford it don’t come. You know it’s that simple.”

Indira nodded. “I know. But here the only truth that matters is what the people can see. The city grows taller, the people here live in the shadow, foreigners shop in stores that are not Indonesian so your money will not stay in my country, but your money will make life more expensive for every Indonesian with no choice but to stay.”

“You’re not going to self-detonate now, are you?”

Indira smiled wryly. “My sister is secretary in Central Jakarta.”

“Is that a good job?”

“If you work for foreign company. My sister is secretary for Indonesian company.”

“What’s the difference?”

“She has not been paid her salary in six months.”

“She hasn’t been paid in six months, but she’s still working there?”

“Yes.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“I get half my salary in U.S. dollars. I am very lucky because I can help my sister and my parents.” She thought for a second, and then added, “The only time I think to self-detonate is when I have to work with people like Wallach.”

“He has that effect on people.”

“You are lucky to be American. Do you know why I work so hard for this conference? I will help Indonesian teachers. The teachers will help Indonesian children. The children will help my country.”

“Then I came along and said nobody you invited to the conference had any answers. Sorry about that.”

Indira let loose her outrageous laugh. “Oh come on, Mr. Strange. I tell you many times already that I am not blind. I can see you do not trust easy. I also think you forgot how to trust yourself. But I trust you, and I know today you will help Chyka.”

I really had no idea how to respond.

“You wish to change the topic. I can tell.”

“No, we can talk about Chyka. Is it a good job to be a teacher here?”

Indira shrugged. “A government school is not good. I think maybe four hundred U.S. dollars a month is normal salary. Better than my loners, but still not good. Private teacher is good, and international teacher is rich, but only if you are foreigner.”

The train to Bogor finally pulled into the station.

“Thank you for doing this,” Indira said.

“You’re welcome.”

“I need one more favor.” Indira reached into her purse and came out with a nametag identical to the two she’d given me already. “Please wear your nametag all the time,” she said, struggling mightily to keep a straight face. She clipped it to my shirt before I could protest.

“Did you at least get me a first class seat?”

Indira laughed so hard, she could barely catch her breath. I saw why when I got on the train. It didn’t have any seats.