An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot
I got to ride in a becak on the return trip to Jakarta. I made sure Martin went first. No one had been willing to pedal him up the hill, but some extra rupiah convinced an especially brave driver to take the risk on the way down and I didn’t want Martin bowling me over. I doubt a becak had ever traveled so fast, or reckless. Martin’s driver rode his brake hard, and still they weaved in and out of traffic, coasting down the hill at breakneck speed.
I kept waiting for Martin’s carriage to break away from the bike. I imagined him flying solo the rest of the way, with sparks and gravel peppering women and children as they screamed and jumped for safety. Then Martin would reach the bottom of the hill and wipe out a dozen cars or half a village, whichever he hit first. Seismic events are pretty common in Indonesia. The outlying villages around Bogor would feel the world shake and assume that’s what it was. No doubt the imam’s son would be pleased with all the carnage.
Well, all of us arrived safely at the mini-buses.
Chyka and Indira rode down the hill together. Chyka wasn’t going to Jakarta with us, but she rode in the becak to delay saying goodbye for as long as possible. Soukpa rode down the hill with Lucy for the same reason. Soukpa held Lucy in her lap the whole way. She held her tight, the way you hold someone you love when saying goodbye means never seeing her again.
I got on the first mini-bus with Indira, Hang and Thao.
We had to wait another minute for Soukpa. She had knelt in the street beside Lucy. They kissed each other on the cheeks. They hugged. They whispered words I couldn’t hear and probably wouldn’t have understood anyway. Soukpa had been wearing a necklace. She gave it to Lucy, and the orphan’s pride at wearing the necklace was obvious, despite the tears falling from her cheeks.
The conference would end in the morning.
I would be in Indonesia for ten more days, traveling around collecting data and doing research with Wallach. Not exactly a holiday, but presumably better than what Soukpa and the other loners would be doing.
Soukpa finally got on the mini-bus.
I had to look away. Her pain was too much for me.
Three confusing transfers later we arrived outside the bus station. Indira said, “We take pretty way for you, Mr. Strange.” Then to everyone else she said, “We can sit on bus. It will take more time than train, but is better to sit after long day.”
No one said much.
I just nodded. It didn’t make a difference to me.
We boarded the bus a few minutes later. It was nearly full and none of us sat beside an empty seat. I was on the aisle. Indira sat in the window seat next to me. Which was fine. I could have been fighting Martin for elbowroom.
The bus got on a busy highway and rolled out of town. I stared straight ahead, as best I could. Indira was looking sideways though, in my direction. You can only ignore someone for so long when you’re stuck on a bus together.
“I wish to say I do not cry…” Indira paused for a quiet beat, and a lone tear streaked mascara across her right cheek. A few more began to chase after it. All week Indira had been a portrait of confidence and composure. She’s such a strong person, dignified and professional, and above all else, good. Indira finally got her words out. “I do not cry because the words you say to the imam’s son make me angry. I cry because I am afraid the words are true. I cry for Islam and my people. That is what I wish to say.”
Maybe it really was the pretty way back to Jakarta. I don’t know. I missed most of it because at some point I had to stick a needle full of migraine meds into my arm. Probably not the most sterile environment to be doing that kind of thing, but I had about a dozen jackhammers hard at work behind my left eye and there was an aura on its way that would add even more searing pain. I took a couple Benadryl for good measure and closed my eyes. A few minutes later I was fast asleep.
I felt the bus lurch and begin to slow. My eyes were so heavy though. I just wanted to sleep. I heard an air brake and then the bus made one last rumble before it’s engine quit and it settled at a complete stop. People began to move about when the door was levered open. The bus tilted a bit to the left, British style.
Indira said, “Sorry I wake you. I need get off.”
I stood in the aisle, oblivious to everything around me.
“Sleep more. We come back.”
I moved to the window seat and rested my head against the glass. It was almost dark outside and the whole world was a blur. I closed my eyes again, but … there was something. Alert now, I sat up and realized I was the only person on the bus. I took a second glance out the window. The only thing I could see was a dirty 7-Eleven … and Soukpa.
Soukpa was at the checkout counter with a can of Pepsi. The store clerk held up a calculator to show her the amount in rupiah. Soukpa nodded and took a few coins from a pocket inside her tote bag. She counted the coins twice and then held out a few and made an offer. The clerk waved a hand and shook his head “no-no-no.”
They began haggling over a can of Pepsi.
I’d paid three thousand rupiah for a Pepsi earlier this week. That’s about twenty-five cents. A gut-wrenching feeling began to worm its way through me.
I usually don’t like to be wrong. Right now I’d never wanted anything more. Maybe she just likes Pepsi. Maybe she’s just really thirsty. Or maybe she’d been even more eager than I’d realized during yesterday’s lecture. I’d made a comment about students giving gifts to teachers. I’d said that everyone wants something and everyone has got the same idea how to get it. Parents buy gifts. Kids give gifts to teachers. Teachers buy candy. Teachers give candy to kids. Maybe some of them aren’t doing it consciously, but everyone’s doing it because it works. I’d said the word for it is “reciprocity,” and it’s a genuine leadership strategy when you’re trying to influence other people. You give someone a small gift and it triggers an internal desire to repay it. Teachers repay gifts by giving more attention to your kid. Kids repay gifts by working harder for the teacher.
I’d even said, “You can trigger it with the smallest of gestures. It’s amazing what you can get people to do just by giving them a can of Pepsi.”
Soukpa had been sitting right in front of the lectern.
She’d had pen and paper in her lap and an eager-to-learn facial expression. Now she stood in 7-Eleven with a can of Pepsi. Soukpa handed over all her coins. She took the Pepsi and walked outside. She stood on the sidewalk for a long moment. Probably questioning her sanity. Or maybe she was wondering where her food would come from after her breakfast coupons expired in the morning. Or maybe those were one and the same. I desperately wanted to see her drink that Pepsi. Soukpa got on the bus. She smiled when she saw I was awake. Soukpa said, “Sabaidee. I buy you Pepsi.”
Soukpa said the bus driver had stopped for evening prayer. All of the passengers had either gone to pray as well or they’d decided to wait somewhere other than the bus.
“What about Martin and Will?”
“They go walk,” she said. Soukpa took a seat on the other side of the aisle. Then her eyes got big, as if she was genuinely inquisitive, and she asked, “You need pray?”
“I need thank you for food. Indira say you give me.”
She meant the breakfast coupons. “Sure. You’re welcome. Thanks for the Pepsi.”
Soukpa smiled and nodded, even though I hadn’t opened the Pepsi yet. “How you know sabaidee? You say to me before teach. I really surprise.”
I’m not making fun, but the way she said it was I eel-lee soo-pies. I only write it that way because it’s important to understand how courageous she was. I can go to any foreign country and it’ll take maybe thirty seconds to find someone who can speak English and assist me. Try doing that if your native tongue is Lao. Try having a conversation with a foreigner in a language that’s foreign to both of you. That’s what she faced by traveling alone to Indonesia.
“I had a student from Laos.”
Soukpa smiled. “She in picture from you teach.”
“How did you know?”
“I see the girl goal in picture and I sure she is Lao.”
“That’s right. The girl goalie was from Laos.”
“I like soccer,” she said, as if that explained how she’d known. “You still say her name?”
I hesitated. Misplaced hope is the most devastatingly painful thing you can give someone. I almost gave back the Pepsi. I almost got off the bus. I said, “It’s actually a funny story.”
“You say it. Please.” Peas.
A lady got on the bus. She wasn’t part of our group. I didn’t know if she was a new passenger or if she had gone to pray. I’d taken a lot of long bus rides in Korea with my student-athletes, but I’d never been on a bus that stopped for evening prayer.
I popped the tab and took a long drink, and Soukpa sported a winning smile. I held my hands about two feet apart and said, “No kidding. Her name was this long. I’d never seen a name with so many consonants.”
“I could never say it right so she shortened it and told me to call her Manena. Her mom was Lao but her step-dad was American. She had a younger sister who was half-Lao, half-American.”
A couple more people got on the bus. Soukpa and I both glanced at them. They weren’t from our group either.
“Keep in mind this was my first year teaching in Korea. I didn’t know anyone and I was trying to make a good impression on the students.”
Soukpa nodded for me to continue.
“One day I was really embarrassed because I messed up her name so bad. Manena said I should practice her sister’s name first and I could try Manena’s name again after I got better at speaking Lao. Of course she was just being funny. But like I said, I was new and really wanted to show the students I cared about them. I asked what her sister’s name was and Manena never even hesitated. She said her sister was Sabaidee.”
Soukpa literally gasped, and made a big O with her mouth. “She really lie her name?”
“She did. Of course I had no idea that sabaidee was really the word for hello. The next time I saw Manena’s sister I said ‘Hello, Sabaidee’ and the kid looked at me like I was crazy. She was only nine or ten years old. I figured I’d said her name wrong, so I tried again. ‘Hello, Sabaidee.’ The kid ran off. I told Manena of course. She laughed so hard. She still didn’t tell me the truth. Instead she helped me practice saying sabaidee correctly. I must have tormented that little girl for two months, saying ‘Hello, Sabaidee’ every time I saw her. I had no idea I was really saying ‘Hello, Hello.’ Manena had told all her friends of course. The whole school was laughing at me but no one bothered to tell me.”
Soukpa was in stitches. “How you find out?”
“I met the mom. First thing she said was sabaidee. I felt like a total moron, but I never forgot how to say sabaidee.”
“Really funny!” Eel-lee un-ny.
The bus filled up again, and our conversation hit a lull. Evening prayer was definitely over. Soukpa tried to speak a few times. Last night Soukpa told us the part of her story that she had rehearsed—her mother’s tragic death, and her desire to reopen the school—and I sensed she wanted to tell me the rest, but for whatever reason she had a difficult time with it. Maybe she couldn’t find the right words. Maybe it was nerves.
I saw Indira approaching the bus. “Our group is coming back now.”
Soukpa was pensive. Like she was almost out of time.
The thing is, no one travels to Jakarta as a loner just to help a few students back home. Maybe I’m cynical, but no teacher is that good. You don’t literally risk your life for a few kids in your village by traveling to a foreign country with no support, no food or shelter, and no money. If Soukpa could return home fully versed with the collective wisdom of every speaker at the conference, even then, it still wouldn’t have warranted the risks she’d undertaken … and yet she believed there was something in Jakarta that was worth everything she’d done.
I had an idea what it might be. “Can I ask you something?”
Soukpa nodded fast. Like, please hurry.
“What did your father say when you told him about your trip to Jakarta?”
Indira climbed aboard the bus. Soukpa and I both glanced at her. Martin and Will were close behind along with everyone else.
I turned back to Soukpa.
The laughter from earlier was gone. Only sadness remained.
Soukpa shook her head. “I not tell him.”
I nodded, and gave what I hoped was a reassuring smile. I thought, we aren’t so different. My dad had no idea I was going to Vietnam.
Indira said we were already in Jakarta but the hotel was still half-an-hour away. She also said she felt better after evening prayer. I felt better after sleeping for the last hour-plus.
Indira asked, “What is a short-timer?”
“It means Will is moving. He’s leaving Jakarta.”
“Where will he go?”
“I don’t know. I found out when he told Chyka, same as you. He didn’t say where he’s going.”
“You could ask him.”
“I’m a guy, so I don’t care. He’s a guy, so he’s cool that I don’t care.”
“But he is your friend.”
“I’m still a guy.”
“Oh come on, Mr. Strange.” Indira thought for a moment and then she said, “Do people in London all say short-timer? He should just say he is moving. Is more easy, I think.”
“It’s not a British thing. It’s a military thing. If I had wanted to confuse you, then I would have said a short-timer is someone that’s PCS’ing.”
“What does it mean?”
“It also means he’s moving.”
“Oh come on,” she laughed. “Why does no one say plain English?”
“People that work with the military have funny ways to say things.”
“But he is a teacher, not a soldier.”
“Well, he’s a teacher now.”
“He used to be soldier?”
“Not exactly a soldier.”
Indira gave it some thought but didn’t comment. A short moment later she spoke Bahasa to our driver. I felt the bus lurch, slow, and then finally we came to a stop.
Indira said, “We get off here.”
Nothing in the area resembled a bus station. Or a bus stop. I hadn’t expected the bus to take us to the hotel, but I also hadn’t expected … this. If anything, we were beyond the third ring and in an area of Jakarta that was more forlorn than I could have imagined. The buildings were low, flat structures with sheet metal and padlocks guarding windows and doorways—and it was impossible to tell if they were commercial or residential.
Indira said, “This way.”
No one asked any questions. We followed Indira.
We had a lot of company on the sidewalk. Plenty of people were staring. A lot of small fires were burning. A lot of kids were running around and chasing each other. Some even wore clothes. People were cooking food under tarpaulins. Maybe they were selling it. Hard to tell. We had to walk around a pile of trash. It moved.
I thought a dog, surely.
Only it wasn’t.
A few meters more and we reached an intersection. Halfway up the cross street to our right was an area glowing brilliant orange against the night sky. It must be this way in the desert when you see a mirage. There was a single tall post in the middle of a small courtyard. Chinese lanterns and multicolored lighted balls were strung from the top of the post in every direction. There was pleasant music, tables, chairs, a crowd of fully clothed people, and best of all, the smell of really good food.
Indira’s face was glowing, too.
She led us to the courtyard entrance where she was greeted by a swarm of kids. They gave her hugs and kisses and ran circles around her. Indira lifted a small girl and spun her until they were both dizzy. “Here is my niece. The other kids belong my cousins. We will have dinner here. It is gift from my family to all of you for the kindness to Chyka and her students.”
Indira’s joy was infectious. It had been an incredibly long day, but we gathered around to listen as she told us about her family.
“See mosque across street? My father is imam. He and my uncle also make this restaurant many years ago. My cousins all work here. My family home is above restaurant and I stay with my sister, niece, and my parents. My aunt and uncle and cousins also stay above us.”
Will said, “This is really marvelous.” He didn’t even have to lie.
“Thank you.” Indira was positively beaming.
The idea that Indira could be one of the people living in the shadow of Central Jakarta had never occurred to me. It should have. The way she’d talked at the train station this morning. The way she’d been so passionate about helping Indonesian teachers. Maybe Wallach isn’t the only one who can be clueless from time to time. People who had given up hope and blamed their own misery on the influence of Christianity and western cultures surrounded Indira … and yet, literally in the midst of squalor, her family had created a place of real beauty.
It really makes you stop and think.
Uncle Google should be spitting out eight hundred million things American schools have done right. The fact things are so screwed up makes no sense. If you believe Uncle Google, then we’ve done the exact opposite from Indira’s family—in the land of hope and plenty we’ve created a place that’s ugly.
We have so much. Can things really be so bad?
Maybe we can’t fix our schools because as individuals we’ve never truly been broken. Or maybe Chinese lanterns make everyone wax philosophical.
For sure the lanterns created a great atmosphere. We sat outside and Indira’s cousins served us fish, rice, bread, fruits and vegetables. It was an unbelievable amount of food. It smelled great. Most of it looked great. Some of it just looked back at me.
Indira said, “What is wrong? You do not like fish?”
“I do. I just wish it’d stop staring at me.”
Soukpa reached over and plucked the eyeball right out of the fish and ate it. Then she covered her mouth and shyly said, “Sorry. I really like.” Eel-lee.
“I don’t mind. Promise.”
Indira’s parents and sister joined us. Indira told them about my sambel challenge with Lucy. Of course she told them in Bahasa. It took a minute for me to catch on. The first clues were pointing and laughing. The final giveaway was Indira imitating me dying from sambel.
At one point I excused myself to use the restroom. Everyone greeted me with a chorus of “Hello, Sabaidee” when I got back.
I thought, good for you Soukpa. It can’t be easy, being a loner. It took a relentless act of courage for Soukpa to travel to Jakarta … unfortunately, I also knew it didn’t matter. It would be impossible for her story to have a happy ending.
I’m not a social guy. I generally don’t have a lot to say to my friends, let alone strangers. The only time I enjoy loud music is when I’ve got the top down on my Jeep. For sure I don’t like parties. But that night under the Jakarta sky and Chinese lanterns was different. We were sixteen teachers from five different countries, and though our time together was short, it had been meaningful. We used it to share experiences that most people never get in a lifetime. You really can’t ask for more than that.