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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: “make room for teaching”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

1

June 2012

I go online, click on Uncle Google. In the search bar I type “education” and then click “news” because I’m not interested in websites. It’s the issues I care about and I’m curious what’s important in the world to which I used to belong. My results are delivered in a mere 0.16 seconds but it’s not Uncle Google’s speed that overwhelms, it’s the sheer volume of results: more than eight hundred million. I could narrow my search by typing “education issues” or “problems in education” or “U.S.+education+sucks” … but what’s the point?

FYI, searching for “U.S.+education+sucks” on a filtered network from my old classroom on a U.S. military installation in Germany yields an ACCESS DENIED banner under the category of “Pornography/Adult Content.”

Just saying.

You probably didn’t need Uncle Google to figure this out, but here’s the deal: we’ve got problems. Probably not eight hundred million problems, but we’ve got more than just a few, and they’re all serious for someone, and some of them are serious for all of us.

Teachers earn on average 17% less money than “other professionals with an equivalent education.” Apparently that’s a problem for teachers. The “other professionals” seem okay with it. One survey claims teachers are “overworked” and another survey shows “the more we spend the less our students achieve.” One article details how school districts are “cutting back on professional development,” but on the next page of my search results is an article with the caption “professional development is linked to student achievement.” Hmm. Maybe we’re not spending our money well? Hardly a unique problem, but there you go. Dropout rates are soaring. Graduation rates are tanking. Don’t even start on math and science scores in Asia. I was a teacher. I’ve heard too much about that already. Oh, and budget deficits. Or is it no budget? Maybe both? You’ve seen the news. You know what I mean.

Educators are in the news, too.

Usually that’s bad. I had a favorite college professor. He used to tell me, “If you make CNN as a teacher, you’re probably going to jail.”

Teachers do things every day that are good and newsworthy. They’re tough to find, though. Apparently the New York principal busted this week for having sex with a teenager is more newsworthy—and when the news anchor reported on further “shocking developments,” he seemed less shocked than he was giddy that both the principal and the student were males. I guess it made for a better story. Last week it was a teacher in New York replying to an online personal ad with pictures of his “privates” from a not so private shared e-mail account at school. In the same news cycle, a teacher in Europe let kindergarten students sample her blood—sample, as in touch and taste. There’s an article about Chicago closing dozens of schools and I should probably read it because it seems important and relevant—but to be honest, the headline about the professor in Florida telling students to “stomp on Jesus” has really got my attention. A lot of people are upset in California. LGBT-themed books are in the public schools. Parents are criticizing teachers who support the policy, but everyone else is criticizing the teachers who oppose it.

There are a lot of issues in education, a lot of problems we need to figure out.

It’s a seemingly endless list.

That’s why I was delighted with myself when an invitation arrived in my inbox to speak at a conference on education leadership being held in Jakarta, Indonesia. I accepted immediately, congratulated myself for being invited, ignored the fact they’d probably exhausted every other option before extending my invitation, and then I jumped right into the research for what I was sure would be the most talked about presentation of the conference.

Don’t worry, the smugness doesn’t last.

The topic was teacher leadership and, specifically, I’d be discussing how certain tenets of emotional intelligence are consistently shown to be present among people considered to be successful or quality teachers … further, I would argue, is that the reason we should care is because those same tenets of EI are not fixed traits. That means they are things we can teach and learn. Old school leadership studies always identified traits that were fixed—you were born with them or you weren’t—which made the selection of leaders a Darwinian process. Well, forget old school. I was ready to show the world—or at least the teachers and administrators attending the conference—that this new leadership paradigm has the power to change schools and solve many of our problems.

I prepared my remarks and tweaked my PowerPoint. I even bought a new suit.

I was still teaching in Germany at that time and my plan was to fly from Frankfurt to Jakarta via Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. I had to make an unexpected trip to the states, however, just days before I was scheduled to leave. It forced a change in my itinerary and by the time my return flight from Atlanta arrived in Germany I had only three hours to rest—inside the airport, mind you—until my flight to Amsterdam. My itinerary change also forced me to make an additional layover in Bangkok, wedged in between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, and by the time I finally arrived in Jakarta I’d been traveling non-stop for fifty-five hours.

I was relatively smug-free by that point.

I was also somewhat amused by the friendly reminder on the Indonesian immigration form that drug smuggling is a capital offense in the world’s most heavily populated Muslim country. You see I get frequent migraines, and the only medicine that’s really effective for me is delivered by way of a needle. My bags had been searched a thousand times in airports the world over and not once had any airport employee taken a second glance at the injection kits I carry in my backpack, but I still had this brief image flash in my mind of an Indonesian customs official seeing a needle and then detaining me for another few hours while he “sorted things out.” I needn’t have worried. The immigration and customs process in Jakarta proved to be relatively fast and painless—unlike the traffic and the heat that was waiting outside the colossal, sprawling mass of humanity that was also known as Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. There were people everywhere and, despite being winter on this side of the equator, the humidity was suffocating.

I’d been given instructions to exit to the right.

The arrivals hall felt like a placard convention. The frenzied mess included a smallish Indonesian man dressed a bit more professionally than most of the other drivers. He held a placard that read: MR. TRUCKER. I guess the first sign that I really wasn’t so important after all was a literal one. Maybe the driver would be embarrassed if I told him. Or maybe we’d share a good laugh. I had no idea if he would be disappointed leaving the airport alone. He’d likely be worried about it affecting his job in some way.

Department of Defense civilians have access to a secure government travel agency for official business—but in this situation it was the conference that had covered a portion of my airfare, and my itinerary had come from a Jakarta-based travel agency. The huge downside to that is an untold number of complete strangers had access to my itinerary.

I had never been to Jakarta, but I had been a teacher on U.S. military bases in Korea and Germany long enough to know there’s a legitimate reason the DOD inundates its employees with training and PSA’s on force protection and operational security and anti-terrorism. It’s because there actually are bad people in the world, and sometimes they try to hurt us.

Vigilance isn’t a part-time job.

It’s not about being nice. It’s about reality.

I made a terrible mistake once. I saw monsters in black and white, and was ignorant to the fact true monsters often lurk close to home.

That’s my reality.

In the arrivals hall, I wore my hat low, but my head was up and my eyes forward and alert. I slung my backpack across my right shoulder and rolled my carry-on and checked bags right past my would-be driver.

My shirt was drenched by the time I reached the taxi queue. It clung to my back, and I felt about as nasty as a traveler can get. High nineties, high humidity … and it was nighttime.

I ignored several men who tried to take my bags and lead me to unlicensed cabs. It’s a scene that plays out the same way at airports the world over, but in a foreign country where I was at least six inches taller and a whole lot whiter than the average male, the unwanted attention was a reminder that blending in with the local population was going to be a real challenge. I finally settled into a random cab with a driver whose name was Hadi.

“Where you go?” he asked.

“I’ll show you.” Hadi didn’t know I had never been to Jakarta, and my odds for a hassle free ride were greatly improved if he thought I was already familiar with his city. “Just stay on the highway toward the city,” I said, because large airports always have a highway toward the city. The traffic was a nightmare though, and we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. There were car headlights and brake lights as far as I could see, in every direction. Motorbikes were weaving in and out of traffic with reckless abandon.

Hadi glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “You are USA?”

“France.”

That caught him off-guard. “You are France?”

“Oui.”

“You not USA?”

“France hates USA.”

We sat in traffic, unmoving. Hadi scratched his head, thinking. Finally he laughed. “You are USA. You test if I hate USA, but I do not. I love USA. Very good USA.”

“Oui,” I agreed. “Very good, USA.”

The traffic yielded for a few minutes, we made some headway, and soon the outline of tall city buildings lit up the night sky. Hadi said, “I pass test. Now where you go?”

“The JW Marriott.”

The Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton were the Jakarta hotels that had been hit by terrorists a couple years earlier. The Marriott had been targeted because it was hosting a breakfast for CEOs affiliated with the United States Chamber of Commerce. The Ritz-Carlton had been targeted because the Manchester United Football Club was going to be staying there. Apparently the terrorists thought United had some Christians on its team, though as a Chelsea fan I wasn’t so sure. It was a devastating attack by suicide bombers that killed seven innocent people and injured dozens more. It also made life even more difficult for Indonesia’s overwhelmingly tolerant and non-violent Muslim population.

I began to recognize landmarks as Hadi drove us into Central Jakarta. The towering National Monument came into view. It’s called the Monas by locals and it was built to symbolize their independence from the Dutch. It looks like someone inverted a pyramid, stuck it into the ground, and then pinned it there with the Washington Monument. The inverted pyramid houses a museum and the entire site was one I looked forward to visiting on this trip. I also recognized Istiqlal Mosque. Kind of hard to miss it, considering it’s the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. In person I was taken aback by its beauty and size. The pictures I’d seen beforehand didn’t do it justice. Hadi drove past the mosque and into a large roundabout and finally the hotel came into view.

The security checkpoints and vehicle inspections outside the major hotels in Central Jakarta came as a result of the suicide bombers, and they made arriving outside the JW Marriott an interesting and time-consuming experience.

“You stay here?” Hadi asked, just to be sure.

“Yes, this is it.”

He obviously didn’t want to deal with the security hassle, especially if I was lying to him, which I was. A gate lifted and Hadi parked in an inspection area that was essentially a secure “lock.” Security guards carefully examined the cab’s undercarriage and trunk, my luggage, and even my travel documents.

Hadi’s fare meter was north of 200,000 rupiah.

It might sound expensive, but the Indonesian currency had been devalued so much in recent years that when I’d exchanged two hundred dollars before leaving the airport I’d been given an incredibly thick wad of bills that totaled nearly 2.5 million rupiah … so in reality, I only owed Hadi sixteen dollars for the pleasure of sitting in his cab for the last hour-plus. A second gate lifted and Hadi was free to pull up in front of the hotel.

I gave Hadi 400,000 rupiah. “You’re a good driver.”

“I love USA,” he said.

“Me too.”

I climbed from the cab and a bellman already had my luggage. The bellman said, “I take you to check-in.”

“Wait, please.” I wasn’t going anywhere until Hadi drove away.

Hadi sat for the longest time, though. He shook his head and held his hands in a questioning pose, palms up, as if to ask, really pal? He finally stepped out of his cab. “Where you go? I drive you, please.”

I shook my head. “I made a mistake once.”

Hadi was thoroughly confused when he drove away. I’m sure he thought I was the strangest American he’d ever met. It’s not a part-time job though, and it’s not about being nice.

I gave the bellman some rupiah and said, “I changed my mind.” I took my luggage and headed for a shopping center adjacent to the Marriott. I went inside, walked its floors for twenty minutes, and then I exited the other side and found my hotel exactly where Uncle Google said it would be.

That night I had a hard time sleeping, despite the long journey.

My room was on the fifteenth floor and I sat outside on the balcony to take in the view. Jakarta’s skyline was stunning. I could see the Monas and Istiqlal Mosque bathed in brilliant yellow and white lights and a dozen other places of cultural and historical significance. It’s an amazing, beautiful world we live in … despite Uncle Google’s abysmal view of American schools, the security checkpoints and vehicle inspections that seem to be everywhere, and the need to be vigilant because of the things we do to each other.

I’d have to sleep, eventually.

Finally, I did.

In my dreams I was back in Korea, inside the school where I spent my first overseas assignment. I was standing on a staircase beside a scared nine-year-old girl. She was tall, but her hair was short and dirty blond. She carried a backpack, she was jetlagged and tired, and she was trying desperately to tell me something.

I could see her lips moving, but I couldn’t hear anything.

Or maybe I just wasn’t listening.

2

The following morning I noticed a green arrow on the ceiling above the bed. I’d also seen a prayer rug, along with a white cap and a robe in the closet. It didn’t take long to discern the arrow was a not-so-subtle reminder for the Faithful.

I’m an infidel.

I don’t care which way it is to Mecca … although I did take a picture so I could show my friends back in Germany. All flippancy aside, the green arrow was a useful reminder—I was a guest, and it was important to show respect for the culture and religion of my hosts. I tried to imagine how successful my own students would be if I was as faithful and committed to teaching as my hosts were to praying. It was something to think about as I prepared for my first full day in Jakarta.

Social settings aren’t my thing, but I went to a welcome breakfast on the mezzanine because I needed to check-in with my point of contact and let her know I had arrived and was ready for the conference.

“I worried so much,” she said in near-perfect English. Her name was Indira and it was her boss who was in charge of the conference, which meant she was the one doing all of the work. She was Indonesian, of course, tall and professional, probably late twenties or early thirties, though I’m terrible at guessing ages. She was dressed modestly—which you’d expect—but she also had her head covered, which surprised me. It’s not something adhered to as stringently in Jakarta as it is in other Muslim countries. “I am so sorry the driver make a mistake.”

Hmm, I thought. “It’s fine,” is what I said.

“I call the hotel to see if you make it. They say you never check-in.”

I shrugged, like, what can I say?

“You stay here?”

“Yes.”

“Strange,” she said. Indira spoke Bahasa and had a short conversation on her BlackBerry. She translated, “Really strange. They still say you are not here.” Indira said “strange” one more time and I got the sense that she was really bothered by it. Maybe she was worried that I’d be upset. Maybe I should have told her I ditched the ride so she’d stop saying “strange,” but she’d probably find that even more strange, so I let her fidget in awkward silence until finally she handed me a blue folder with the conference logo on front. Indira explained the hotel map that showed where everything would take place, which forums I was expected to attend and which ones were optional, and she made sure I knew when and where I’d be giving my presentations. She also gave me breakfast coupons that could be used all week in the hotel restaurant and she told me how to find the Starbucks closest to the hotel in case that was something I’d want for later. She finished with, “Please wear your nametag all the time.”

I took everything and said, “Thanks, Indira.”

“I am sorry again that everything started so wrong for you.”

“It hasn’t,” I assured her, thus concluding the longest conversation I’d had in a month. Indira walked away to attend to someone else and I stuck the nametag in my pocket. I found an empty table in a back corner of the room where I sat and drank tea, did a lot of people watching, a little thinking and some listening, and I found some irony in the idiocy of a colleague that left me feeling the task of solving even half the problems we have in education to be insurmountable.

The colleague was a stateside professor that I’d agreed to accompany to some local schools for observations and data collection in support of an ongoing research project. He’d published multiple papers and lectured hundreds of times on social awareness—and whereas my invitation was essentially a fluke, he’d been invited because people would actually come to hear him lecture. Helping him would be a good experience and it might even get my name associated with a published paper at some point in the future. Well, he’d found the bacon bin that had been placed at the end of the breakfast buffet, in the far corner of the room, as far as possible from our hosts and the many teachers in attendance who were also Muslim. I noticed him loading his plate about the same time I noticed Indira crossing the front of the room, and this wasn’t the “beef bacon” or “beef sausage” that would normally be used by Jakarta hotels—a placard on the buffet warned it was the real thing.

My colleague approached Indira on the way back to his table.

Maybe there was a pressing issue he needed to discuss with her. I guess it’s possible. They were too far away for me to hear what was said, but I could see plenty. He put a hand on her shoulder to stop her, then leaned in close to talk to her, and he began wafting his plate full of bacon to and fro, right in front of her face.

Jackass.

Was it possible to be any less socially aware?

Indira’s composure was both remarkable and commendable. I was curious which was more offensive—was it the touching and invasion of her personal space, or was it assaulting her senses with a sight and smell that’s repulsive to many people in this part of the world? This guy is here to teach social awareness as a leadership strategy … and we wonder why there are so many problems in education? I’m not normally so enlightened, but it also occurred to me that someone had to cook the bacon for the invited infidels, and he or she had almost certainly been Muslim. I’m guessing that wasn’t a pleasant experience either.

I was scheduled to be on a Q&A panel later that evening, but since I hadn’t given my first presentation yet and no one knew who I was, no one asked me any questions. I made it the entire ninety minutes without saying a word—which, if you knew me, would not surprise you. Professor Jackass was also on the panel, and he talked pretty much non-stop—which, if you knew him, also would not surprise you.

The panel was all western and all male.

I didn’t choose it. I’m just telling you how it was.

The audience was an even male-female mix, but divisions were evident when they’d introduce themselves prior to asking questions. The male Asians were college professors or administrators but the female Asians were overwhelmingly secondary or elementary teachers. Most of the Indonesian teachers had come in groups of three or four. A number of foreign nationals were also in attendance. They were a mix of English-speaking westerners from the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, along with some Asians and a few Australians.

The westerners and Australians were all teachers or administrators who worked in Jakarta’s large international school community—but the rest of the foreigners were “loners,” for lack of a better word, because they’d come alone from other countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam or Laos.

The questions were a bit tentative at first. When did you decide to become a teacher? What made you want to become a teacher? Is it hard to teach in the USA?

I tuned them out because Professor Jackass was telling a long-winded story about his early days in Wherever, USA, and I had discovered that there was a problem in my head. No, not like that. Not a problem with my head. I mean “the problem,” as in I’d clicked on something that Uncle Google had missed that was right there beneath the surface, and I was trying to kick it loose, to figure out what was bothering me so much. It felt like I was circling a big idea, but for whatever reason I couldn’t latch on to it. I began to focus on the Q&A again when things got more specific—less “where are you from” and more “how do I fix it.”

Occasionally they were heartbreaking.

I listened as a teacher described how teenage girls from impoverished villages were being lured on Facebook to go and meet strange men, thinking it was a chance to find a better life only to be kidnapped and trafficked for sex. She wanted to teach her kids English and she wanted them to be able to experience the benefits and wealth of information that the Internet can provide, but the more English she taught and the more access her students had to the Internet, the more her students were at risk. “What should I do?” she asked.

A teacher from outside Jakarta said about half of her students had access to clean drinking water. She asked, “Will my students do better if I can find them all good water?”

There was one teacher who came all the way from Laos. “My village is far from school,” she said. “No one send kids, is too far. I want make room for teaching.” You could see how nervous she was, that she was a “loner,” and I think she was waiting for a reply—but since she hadn’t really asked a question, no one answered. She quickly gave the microphone to someone else and sat down again.

You flew all the way from Laos for a school that doesn’t even exist?

That’s what I thought at the time … as if this teacher had committed some great act of folly. In the coming days I’d be humbled by the truth.

That night I walked around Central Jakarta. It’s not a city made for walking. Not like New York or London, although the traffic is British style. Cars drive on the left, but there aren’t any “look right-left-right” curbside reminders like the British helpfully give foreign pedestrians. The infrastructure is terrible, the sidewalks nearly non-existent, and the elevated pedestrian crosswalks at major intersections are nothing more than Erector Set-quality deathtraps. Plenty of Starbucks, though, including one right where Indira said it would be. I actually don’t drink coffee, but I assumed Starbucks had AC and Wi-Fi. True, I had both those things in the hotel, but I’m also not the kind of person to sit in a hotel room all night.

This type of conference, it’s common for groups to congregate in coffee shops, bars and restaurants. I don’t like the inherent stuffiness at formal gatherings, but impromptu groups are closer to my comfort zone.

My colleague whose behavior at breakfast had been so annoying was sitting with one such group inside Starbucks. His name isn’t really Professor Jackass, obviously. It’s Wallach. Imagine an aloof college professor with a New England accent, early fifties, whose clothes are never tailored well enough for an exact fit. That’s Wallach. He is brilliant in a lot of ways. He studied under Howard Gardner at Harvard and he is in fact a highly regarded professor … he’s just clueless sometimes.

Anyway, Wallach was blathering on about something.

To his credit, several teachers were intently focused on every word he said. Indira was also with the group. I bought a bottle of water and found a table where I could sit alone, with my back against the wall, and with a clear view of who was coming in or going out of the coffee shop. It’s not that I don’t want to trust people, really—but not too long ago, a suicide bomber had self-detonated on his way to hell about a hundred meters from my table.

The jihadists had chosen targets they alleged had brought harm to Islam by allowing Christianity and western cultures to influence Indonesian society. The jihadists would argue everyone at the conference was doing that as well. In reality, every person at the conference was a potential target. It would have been naïve to think otherwise.

I settled in and spent a few minutes online. Important things, like fantasy baseball. I also did some work, drank water to combat the heat and humidity, and tried to focus on my notes for the presentation I’d be making first thing in the morning. There was a lot of laughter coming from Wallach’s group.

I glanced that way and felt a good vibe, as if what was going on at the table was a positive experience for everyone involved. I recognized a few of the teachers from earlier in the day—including the “loner” from Laos—but as I looked closer there was something I couldn’t reconcile with the vibe and the laughter, a part of the image that didn’t fit.

I asked Uncle Google to search “education in Laos.”

I was still processing what Uncle Google uncovered when Indira realized I was in the coffee shop. She quickly got up and walked to my table.

“What did you think about the first day?” she asked.

“It was good.”

“I hope you had no more problems.”

“Stop worrying,” I said. “There were never any problems.”

“I am happy then. Will you join us?”

“Actually, I should go. My first presentation is really early tomorrow.”

Indira let loose a tremendously loud laugh, as in loud enough to turn heads our way. It caught me off-guard because it seemed so out of character. “Oh come on,” she said. “Can I sit?”

“Sure.”

Indira sat across from me and said, “It is funny because I make the schedule.” Then she shook a finger at me, as if I was a kid being scolded in school, and added, “But it was your fault.”

“My fault? How’s that even possible?”

“You change your flight schedule so close to conference. I was worry you would not be here on first day so I move your time, and early tomorrow was only space.”

“That is funny.”

“So come to other table. The teachers want to meet everyone, learn everything. I will say who you are and you say about the schedule so everyone can laugh.”

I glanced across Starbucks at the group of teachers. Maybe I’d have gone over and talked with them if Wallach wasn’t already at the table, or maybe not. I shrugged and said, “Another time.”

Indira thought for a second. She said, “You look sad.”

“Me, sad? No, it’s jetlag.”

“I do not think so. I am not blind, you know.”

“It’s jetlag.”

“You think about something, when you look at the teachers.”

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” I lied. I’d been thinking about what Uncle Google had just told me regarding education in Laos—specifically, teacher salaries and the poverty level.

“I do not think so,” she said again, clearly not buying it.

This conversation wasn’t on my list of things to do tonight, but I said, “It’s not so much what I think. It’s more about what I see.”

“I do not understand. I see people with coffee and good laughs.” Then with a humorous smile Indira asked me, “Do you need to examine your eyes? I will be happy to schedule you an appointment.”

“Oh you have good eye doctors in Jakarta?”

“We do,” she laughed.

“I guess it’s hard to explain.”

“Try.”

I shrugged and said, “I see one professor and eight teachers.”

“Good. You can count.”

“Five of those teachers are Indonesian and they’re all from the same school here in Jakarta.”

“How did you know that?”

“They’ve been walking around together all day.”

“But how did you know they are from the same school in Jakarta?”

“It says so on the nametags you gave them.”

“Oh come on … you make fun of my nametags,” Indira said, teasingly. “I also see you do not wear the nametag I give to you. You wish to hide your name from my teachers?”

“No.” Yes.

“If you do not wear nametag, then you give me no choice.” Indira smiled and made a face like she was deep in thought. “I think Mr. Strange is good. Do you like it?”

“Good? Like? For what?”

“I must call you something. You hide your name from my teachers so I give you new name. I will inform all my guests as soon as possible.”

“I’m guessing strange is the first English word you ever learned.”

“You do not like your new name? We can discuss it later. After I see you wear the nametag I give you. But now I need explanation about the teachers because I still do not know what it is you see.”

I shrugged, rather amused. “Look over there. You see the teacher from Laos?”

“Yes.”

“She’s a loner. What I mean is she came alone to the conference. The two teachers at the table from Vietnam are also loners.”

“They came a long way and alone, so you are sad? Really, so strange.”

“Jetlagged, not sad.”

“Sad,” Indira said, and again she was smiling, perhaps teasing … but her countenance took a hit when she glanced at the “loners.” Maybe she glimpsed the picture in my mind. The one stirring jackhammers behind my eyes. “Tell me more.”

“What is Wallach drinking?”

“A latte, I think. Why?”

“The teachers from Jakarta all have coffee or whatever, too, but look at the loners.”

“They do not drink anything.”

“They can’t afford anything. A cup of coffee here costs more than what they make in a day of teaching back home.” Uncle Google had shared that tidbit when I was asking about Laos, and something along those lines is why the image hadn’t jived with the vibe and laughter.

Indira took another look. “Now I feel jetlagged.”

I went back to her original question and said, “It was a good first day. You did a great job organizing things.”

Indira nodded her appreciation. “Do you have loners at conferences in your country?”

“It’s different. In my country, most teachers go to training so they can renew or add categories on their teaching certificates. They go because it’s required, but the training is usually close to home and can be finished in one afternoon. If they go to a conference that requires travel and lasts more than a day, then it’s more like a holiday than it is work. I don’t mean any disrespect to your city, Indira, but your loners didn’t come here on holiday. They aren’t out exploring the city or enjoying your culture. They’re sitting in a coffee shop where they can’t afford to buy anything because they think the stranger they’re sitting with has got answers to the problems they have back home.”

“Jakarta eye doctors are good, but if only color you see is sad I do not think they can fix it.”

“Jetlagged, not sad. You know what else? Wallach doesn’t have any answers for them. None of us do.”

Indira took out her BlackBerry and started hitting keys in an exaggerated manner. “One moment, please. You have no answers so I must delete your invitation for next year.”

I drank some water and gathered my notes. “Anyway, I should go.”

“Oh come on,” she said. “I was kidding. You can come again next year but no more sad talk. Tell me something else, like, why did you change your plane?”

“My grandmother died. I went to her funeral.”

“Oh my god,” she said, palming her face with both hands. “I am so sorry.”

“You mean Allah?”

“No, I mean oh my god why are you here? You should stay with your family.”

“It’s okay. My mom knows this is important. She told me to come.”

“When you leave here you will go see your mom again?”

“No. Eventually, sure, but not for a while.”

“You should be a good son and go to your mom.”

I was going to be a good son and go to Vietnam, actually. I didn’t say that, of course. I’d have to explain about my uncle, my name, and the flag my grandmother had left me—and even if Indira’s first language had been English, best-case scenario I still would have sounded like a “headline” from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

I thought:

COPS MAKE ARREST IN BATHROOM AFTER SMELLING CRACK

In my case:

MAN’S GRANDMOTHER DIES, TRAVELS TO VIETNAM

“You know what my problem is?” I asked.

“Oh come on. Only one?”

Maybe I hadn’t kicked it all the way up, but the thought that had been bothering me most of the afternoon came out as: “I’ll fly halfway around the world to humor someone else’s problems, but back home, I’m not sure I’d walk across the street for a solution to my own.”

“I have no idea what you said.”

“The teacher from Laos earns three dollars a day. Do you really believe her school paid for her plane ticket? She was eating raw string beans in the hotel lobby during lunch. She probably brought them from Laos. I know you’re not supposed to bring that kind of thing through customs, but my point is she’s not spending money on food. I have no idea how she could afford a plane ticket or a hotel, and yet she traveled to a foreign country to sit in Starbucks with a social awareness professor who hasn’t even realized that she can’t afford a cup of coffee. She came here because she wants something. Whatever it is, she’s desperate.”

I took a deep breath, slouched a bit in my chair, and tried to decompress.

We sat in silence for a long moment. Maybe Indira was trying to kick something loose in her own mind, or maybe she was just grateful for the respite. Finally, she said, “Now I am curious, too. How did she get here? Why did she come?”

I dug into my backpack and took out the breakfast coupons that Indira had given me about twelve hours ago. “She’s relentless,” I said. “That’s how she got here. That’s why she’s here.”

“Relentless?” Indira repeated. It was the first time she’d struggled with an English word. “It means what?”

I thought about a staircase in Korea, a hacky sack, and a girl who used to be a soccer prodigy. I said, “It means she’s a better teacher than I am. Will you give her my breakfast coupons, please? Tell her … something, whatever.”

“I will. Do not be sad, Mr. Strange.”

I stood and said, “Watch this.”

Indira and I walked over to the large group of teachers. Indira sat with them again. I said hello and introduced myself, and then I said, “I’m sorry I can’t stay. Maybe I can join you all tomorrow night.”

They all nodded happily, saying, “yes, yes, we will come back” and “you come join us.”

I looked at Indira and then touched the corners of my mouth with my index fingers, pushed them up slightly, and asked her, “You see?”

Jetlagged, not sad.

Right.

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rainyseason_header1

The Rainy Season: “an indiscriminate giver and taker of life”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

Prologue

Its headwaters flow out of the Tibetan Plateau along with the Huang He and Yangtze rivers in an area that is part of Qinghai Province, China. Its name is Lan Xang Jiang—literally, the “Turbulent River”—and it flows southeast through Yunnan Province and the Hengduan Mountains for more than fourteen hundred miles before it turns fully south and takes on a different name for the rest of its journey: the Mekong.

The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot. Cover design by Holly Walden Ross.

Its currents are no less turbulent in Burma or Laos where the river is a line of demarcation, the place where China ends and Southeast Asia begins—but here its name has a different meaning, given by peasant farmers in Laos who depend on its waters for fish, transportation, irrigation and life.

Mekong is the “Mother of Water.”

It’s an appropriate name given that the river crosses nearly three thousand miles on its journey from the mountainous terrain of Tibet to its delta in Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea—and at various points along that path you can stand in Laos and look north across its waters into China, south into Cambodia, east into Vietnam, or west into Burma and Thailand.

No matter the border, the Mekong has been an indiscriminate giver and taker of life in Southeast Asia for thousands of years.

It’s a paradox like civilization’s other great rivers—be it the Nile, Indus, Euphrates, Ganges or China’s Sorrow the Huang He—for without its waters life is a daily struggle for survival; yet with its waters life is a daily bet that natural disasters and diseases will visit someone else’s village, because it’s not if, but when it’s going to happen that’s the relevant question.

My first glimpse of the Mekong came from the window seat of an MA-6 at about three thousand feet as it was on final approach to Pakse International Airport. The twin turbo-prop engines and narrow fuselage fitted for about four dozen or so passengers weren’t designed to instill one’s confidence in flying—and the plane being manufactured in China was no help in that regard, either—but for someone who has never had a fear of flying the one thing that was a very real concern as the plane descended through clouds and banked hard to the right was the weather. It was summer, the beginning of the rainy season in this part of the world, and for the last ten minutes the plane had been buffeted up, down, left and right at the behest of high winds and torrential rain—but then the river came into view, and whatever worried thoughts I’d had were pushed from my mind. I stared out the window, trying to take in as much as possible, because this river, more than anything else, was a visible symbol that represented why I’d embarked on this journey in the first place: my dad survived a war that he fought beside this river; my uncle died in that same war; and now I was here because of a war, too—that other indiscriminate giver and taker of life.

This new war began before my nieces were born but it continues today, even as they prepare for middle school, which means the only world they’ve ever known has been one that’s at war, and they can’t picture it in any other form. I belong to the other group—the one made up of people who not only remember how it was before but who, because of this war, have lost something along the way. Not a spouse or mom or dad or brother or sister, like so many others, but a small group of society that lost a part of our humanity all the same.

When you’ve lost something that important you go searching for it.

I did, anyway.

The MA-6 descended rather smoothly, all things considered—though we’d been so low flying over the river that it felt like we were making a water landing. I could see villages, boats and people whose way of life I’d known and experienced only through books, pictures, and videos, but one I’d soon walk amongst. The runway was an elevated strip of asphalt cut through a rice paddy, and the terminal was built to resemble a Buddhist temple. The plane landed and I disembarked with the rest of the passengers onto a tarmac area that was considerably lower than the runway. No doubt it was meant to facilitate the runoff of water during the rainy season. It also meant sloshing with carry-on luggage through seventy-five meters of ankle deep water.

But I didn’t care about that.

I stood on the tarmac as the other passengers scurried to the terminal. The sky was low and gray and I braced myself outwardly against the rain and wind. Inwardly I steeled myself for what was ahead. The first flight on this journey had been more than three weeks ago, but in reality my whole life had led me to this place. I had seventy-five meters left to cross on foot, one final passenger terminal to navigate, and a rendezvous with destiny on the other side—for at that point I would have gone as far as possible by all other means. For the rest of this journey I’d be relying on the river.


 

Add The Rainy Season to your Goodreads shelf!

Add The Rainy Season to your Goodreads shelf!