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The_Rainy_Season_cover

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.

Ten Things I Learned on the Other Side of the World

Half-a-lifetime ago I boarded a Delta flight to Tokyo with an official passport as a U.S. government employee and a pamphlet titled “Good American, Ugly American” that I’d been instructed to read during the fourteen-hour journey.

I hadn’t even left U.S airspace yet when I had my first strange cultural encounter: footprints on the toilet seat. My pamphlet had a section on squat pots, but it never occurred to me that someone might not know what to do with a western toilet.

Since then I have visited schools in more than twenty countries and four continents, and along the way I’ve had more than a few strange cultural encounters. Here are ten things I learned on the other side of the world.

  1. “New York City taxi drivers are the best.” You might disagree, but consider: I fell asleep in a taxi in Seoul and woke up at the morning fish market as my driver was loading the trunk with the morning catch … and my luggage was in the trunk. In Jakarta, my taxi driver stopped at a mosque for evening prayer … and left the meter running. In Tashkent, my driver picked up multiple passengers, ran a few unrelated errands … and then delivered everyone in random order.
  1. “Ants cost extra.” In any American restaurant, if you find ants in your soup you’ll get a sincere apology and a free meal. In Laos, you have to pay extra if you want ants in your soup. Seriously.
  1. “Please do not stand on the toilet.” If you see this sign, then you’re probably in Central Asia. I think most travelers know it’s a good idea to carry a tissue supply and multiple bottles of hand sanitizer … but you might be surprised to learn that as tourism has opened up in Central Asia the number of western toilets in hotels and restaurants has also increased. Thus necessitating this sign for locals.
  1. “You need a passport for everything.” And I don’t mean the tourists. In many former Soviet republics the citizens are still unable to travel freely and they literally need a passport for even the mundane and routine: take a train? stay in a hotel? legally exchange money? visit the hospital? You need a passport. Many of these same countries also have “disputed” territories where citizens can’t go regardless of their travel documents—Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to name a few.
  1. “Run from the police.” I was taught to trust teachers and cops to help me if I was in trouble, and to be afraid of them only if I’d done something terribly wrong … but in many countries the only reason people strive to become police officers is so they can extort money from impoverished citizens.
  1. “Motorbikes are not allowed.” I think the word “ubiquitous” was formed just so we’d have a fancy way to talk about motorbikes in Southeast Asia where they are a necessary part of everyday life. But it’s a different story in Central Asia, where many cities have banned motorbikes because they’re too dangerous. Maybe that sounds reasonable, but instead of a cheap and convenient form of transportation the people are forced to flag down strangers in passing cars. These unlicensed cabs usually have unlicensed and unskilled drivers, who navigate haphazardly on poorly maintained roads with little or no regard for pedestrians, traffic laws or other vehicles. That’s much safer.
  1. “Welcome to the Land of the Not Quite Right.” King’s Burgers. Old Army. Veronica’s Secret. Lucci. CFC (Colonel’s Fried Chicken). Five-dollar Polo shirts. Three-dollar RayBans. There’s a reason the DVD you bought from the guy on the corner only cost thirty-five cents. It’s because every time someone stood up to get popcorn the guy filming with his Sony Handycam couldn’t see the screen.
  1. “Let’s grab lunch sometime.” I was visiting an orphan school in rural Vietnam and the teacher said “okay everyone let’s grab some lunch.” Some students ran into the fields, while others went to a nearby pond. They came back with potatoes and turtles, and the teacher made everyone soup. I think I learned to appreciate American schools a bit more than I used to.
  1. “Customer service hasn’t quite caught on yet.” In the heyday of the Soviet Union, people stood in long lines at the market to buy even the most basic items. Somehow the command economy mindset hasn’t completely let go in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Fun fact: some stores in Armenia still reserve prime parking spots for employees. In many former Soviet republics the currencies are so weak that coins are non-existent, bill denominations start at a thousand, and workers have little or no incentive to be customer-centric. A cashier who rings up your groceries and takes your money is doing you a favor. Would it surprise you to learn that some of the governments in these same countries use Gmail for their official e-mail accounts? I didn’t think so.
  1. “You can buy hepatitis-on-a-stick.” Seoul, Jakarta, Bangkok … find a market, and then find a street corner. Someone will be selling mystery meat. Maybe it’s chicken or beef. Maybe they just call it chicken or beef. But regardless they’ll cook it over hot coals on wooden skewers, and then sell it very cheaply to passersby. The people will eat it, and then very naturally they’ll drop the skewer sticks on the ground … so why do you suppose you never see skewer sticks on the otherwise rubbish-filled streets? But hey, you recycle at home, right?