When I was eleven, my family moved from the Seattle area where I was born, to Bandung, Indonesia. My dad took on a contract job through the UN working with a fledgling airline company in the area. My parents love to travel, especially my dad, and for him, this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
I was terrified. I’d been outside of the country only twice before. Once was Canada, as we lived right near the border, and the other was a trip to England when I was nine – both English-speaking countries, both relatively similar to our own. My knowledge of geography at the time was limited, and so I’d never even heard of Indonesia; and we were going to be living there for at least a year, maybe more (two, as it turned out).
It was an amazing experience. I think it’s one of the best things my dad could have done for me. It introduced me to, not just one new culture, but many, as I attended an international school there with students from all corners of the world. I learned tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. I saw so many aspects of humanity, both ugly and beautiful. Those two short years shaped much of who I am today, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.
But it’s funny, I don’t talk about it much except in passing. I’ve never written about it at all. Whenever it’s brought up, whoever I happen to be talking to is interested, but I don’t really know what to say. My family’s lifestyle there was so different. Where does one even begin to explain?
My school had a reunion a couple of weeks ago. I was unable to attend, but I saw all of the talk about it on Facebook, and the pictures, old and new. It stirred up so many memories. It’s been twenty years now since we returned to the U.S., and I know I’ve already forgotten so much. So this year, I’m going to start writing it all down: just random memories, snippets of time, sights and smells, and little details. And although it makes me incredibly nervous (why, I can’t explain), I’ll occasionally share some of them here. The following is the first. It’s a bit disjointed, but that’s how memories often are, aren’t they?
Our house was built on the side of a steep hill. Across the dirt road, below the houses on the other side, was a vast valley filled with lush, green rice paddies. After that, another hill covered in trees. The towers of a University poked out above them, and sometimes we could hear music from the occasional celebration that took place there.
Noises traveled all up and down the hills and valley. Five times a day, we were treated to the hauntingly beautiful sound of five or six calls to prayer, emanating from minarets scattered throughout the area. The first would start up, a lone voice singing loud and clear – the closest. A moment later, another, and then another, all out of sync and melting together. It was comforting somehow, and one of the things I miss the most.
We had a small covered porch at the front of the house, where we would often sit in rattan rocking chairs and chat, or read, or just look. The best time was in the early evening, just before the sun went down and the mosquitos came out. It was fun to watch the fruit bats swooping around, darting after insects.
Another preferred time was during the rainstorms that occurred every afternoon for half of the year – the monsoons. We just called it the rainy season. It was a different kind of rain than what we usually experienced in Seattle – warm, thick, and pelting – but it reminded us of home just the same. And it cleansed and cooled the air, ever so slightly. So nice.
The dirt road that we lived on was called Cisitu Indah (the “c” is pronounced like a “ch”), which means “beautiful lake.” There was no lake around that we knew of, but there was a huge pothole in front of our driveway that would flood, all brown and muddy, during the rainy season. We often joked that this must be the lake the road was named after. There was a narrow walking space around it, so the occasional pedestrian or food cart owner – shouting out their dish at regular intervals, “Saté! Saté!” – could still get by. Cars and buses splashed on through without a second thought.
It sounds like we were on a high traffic road, and indeed, many people passed by, but it was just a neighborhood. A strange neighborhood, where each house was surrounded by high walls with barbed wire on the top, and a metal gate at the base of each driveway. Each household had a night guard too – a Jaga – because gangs of bandits were a rare, but real threat. And the police? Well, one would prefer not to have to deal with the police, no matter which side of the law one was on. So we had jagas, and all of the jagas in the neighborhood got to know one another, and shared reports of suspicious activity or encounters with the others. As a result, the “bandeets” mostly stayed away.
Our jaga, Y—, not only kept watch on the house all night, but also helped my dad get the neighbor’s horde of mangy guard dogs to stop barking – no small feat. But that, my friends, is a story for another time, and a strange one at that…