Ever have one of those moments when you’re leaving and can’t help but wonder if you’ll ever be back? But maybe that’s the point. Forward, right?
Ever have one of those moments when you’re leaving and can’t help but wonder if you’ll ever be back? But maybe that’s the point. Forward, right?
To read about Jakarta’s third ring, see this excerpt from The Rainy Season.
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.
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.
Pete shook his head. “No English.”
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.
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?”
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?”
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?”
“And your mom was Christian.”
“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.
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 million acres 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?”
But I didn’t say anything else. If I had tried to speak again, I wouldn’t have been able to stop my tears.
An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot
Indira had said I was “crazy!” to walk alone to the train station—especially so early in the morning—but I’d insisted, and now she was genuinely relieved that I’d made it. She turned to her students and said, “You see now why he is Mr. Strange?”
Ha-ha-ha. I didn’t reply because it was too early for banter.
Maya, Gita, Farid and Ridwan had brought the supplies we’d purchased during yesterday’s shopping excursion. The schools I’d taught at in South Carolina, Florida, Korea and Germany all had large supply rooms. Maybe the shelves had been bare occasionally, but in reality I had never lacked anything important for my students. I also didn’t know the first thing about creating arts and crafts or performing The Lion King. Chyka, on the other hand, obviously knew about such matters. She just didn’t have any supplies. Indira had shared with me after our last visit to Bogor that The Lion King costumes that had been so adorable on Lucy and her classmates had been made from recycled Peter Pan costumes. Apparently Chyka had all sorts of talents. Her students recycled every project, craft and costume and used the same materials again and again.
Farid and Ridwan claimed artistic talents on my level, so we’d given free reign to Maya and Gita. I’d discovered that Maya isn’t nearly so quiet and reserved with a Visa card in hand. Of course it was my Visa. A partial list of the damage: crayons, markers, colored pencils, colored chalk, watercolors, yarn, fabric scraps, thread, burlap, clay, foil, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, string, straws, glass beads, wood beads, ink pads, sponges, stamps, glitter, cotton balls, foam, sequins, floral wire, white glue, glue sticks, fabric glue, wood glue, scissors, paintbrushes, foam brushes, clippers, copy paper, construction paper, stock paper, colored tissue paper, contact paper, cardboard, and sheets and sheets and sheets of fabric.
Maya and Gita’s faces had been lit up the entire time. Gita, in her confusing Aussie accent, had said it was “a most fun adventure.” Farid and Ridwan had been sweating and out of breath just trying to keep up.
Now we lugged our loot onto the train platform.
“This will be fun on the mini-buses,” I said.
“Oh come on,” Indira said. “Becak will be more fun.”
A moment later the platform began to tremble. It took a Herculean effort to get the school supplies on board the train before its doors closed. Some of the supplies were in normal shopping bags. Some were in large duffel bags. The fabrics, mostly. A few bulky items were in a cardboard box.
Ridwan said, “Why did we not hire a car?”
Indira began opening windows as the train left the station. “Ask Mr. Strange. The train is his idea.”
Ridwan is so literal. He looked right at me and said, “Why did we not hire a car?”
“I enjoy the ambiance and the ripe air on the train.”
“He also like to go first class,” Indira said. Then she smiled at me and motioned to a duffel bag she’d placed beneath an open window. “Your premium seat, sir.”
I sat on the duffel bag. “Thank you. When is the beverage service?”
Indira didn’t miss a beat. She reached into her purse and said, “Pepsi and Pocky sticks. Is there something else I can do for you, sir?”
I’m more likely to laugh during a root canal than I am to laugh at anything this early in the morning. Same goes for smiling. But on this morning I did both. I took the Pepsi and cookies and said, “First class. You weren’t kidding.”
I’d worn jeans and a polo shirt today, along with my Braves hat, sunglasses and Nike running shoes. Maybe I was traveling first class, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t dress casual and comfortable. Indira and her students had dressed casual as well.
Indira settled in for the long train ride on a second duffel bag. Plenty of passengers were staring at her. They’d probably never seen such exuberance on a train without seats. The train gathered speed and carried us away from Jakarta. A complex of tall buildings at the city’s edge disrupted the flow of air through the windows. In one instant it was smooth and quiet and in the next it was violent and loud, reminiscent of the thump-thump-thump you get when driving a car through a tunnel with a window down.
It was too loud for conversation. I was okay with that.
The tracks bent hard to the right and the acoustics changed again as we broke free of the city. The train snaked its way right, left, right again. The air became cooler and easier on our lungs as we made our way south through thick forests and across mountains and rivers. Indira’s students were like puppies in a pickup truck. Heads out the windows, tongues lolling to the side, hair flapping in the wind, tails wagging and drool everywhere.
The first stations along our route hadn’t awakened yet. A few passengers got off the train, but we didn’t pick up any new passengers. I was alert, of course. A fiftyish man in dirty work clothes had a pretty intense scowl. Maybe it was for me, or maybe not. His scowl didn’t overly concern me because I usually have one this early in the morning, too. He eventually left for a connecting car. That wasn’t the case with an older lady who took a noticeable interest in our group. Her hijab was olive green and it reminded me of army fatigues. A long, hard life had wrinkled and weathered her face—at least the parts of it that weren’t covered. Something about her made me wary. Her eyes, I think. They screamed disapproval.
Not at me.
The train began to slow and Indira stood and spoke Bahasa to her students. She’d done her own shopping, apparently—though for what, I had no idea—and now she gave bags to each of her students. Indira also kept one bag for herself.
Some daily passengers took notice of the movement.
The older lady with the army fatigues hijab was no longer content to send nasty thoughts our way. She said a few harsh words to Indira. To her credit, Indira merely bowed and gave the lady a polite smile—and it struck me how effortlessly she moved through two vastly different worlds. Indira’s home was in Jakarta’s third ring, but her professional life was in Central Jakarta—and for that she was resented in one world, and dismissed in the other.
“What are you doing? Why is this woman angry?”
Indira didn’t reply.
Then the older lady began to shout at me, all belligerent. Now Indira replied. She and the older lady had a tense back-and-forth but when it was over the lady turned away from us with a disgusted humph. Score one for Indira.
“What was that about?”
“She think you are cute,” Indira said, straight-faced. “But I tell her you get the ugly face sometimes and I do not think she will like it.”
Maybe she fibbed with the translation?
But I didn’t need to ask again. I glanced out the window and immediately understood. Up ahead I could see low, crude structures with flat aluminum roofs held in place with piles of rubble. Kids sat on the rooftops, feet dangling in the air. They held long poles with sacks tied to the end. I’d seen this a few days ago, and the indifference of the daily passengers had affected me in a powerful way. Now Indira leaned out the window and waved both arms at the rooftop kids.
When I was ten years old my parents bought me an official NFL Electric Football Game that came with plastic players affixed to metal bases. With the flip of a switch the players would move haphazardly up, down, left and right across a vibrating metal table that was painted to look like a football field. I thought about that old game after Indira waved at the rooftop kids. It was like Indira had flipped a switch. Kids swarmed in every direction, trying to find the best possible position to reach Indira. The sheer number of kids was staggering. I counted five, ten, fifteen … and then quit counting.
I glanced at the older and now belligerent lady. Her face twisted with rage.
My reaction was to stand up, to position myself between Indira and anyone that might try to stop her from giving to the rooftop kids. I needn’t have worried. The daily passengers didn’t like what Indira was doing, but they weren’t going to try to stop her.
The train shuddered and its brakes screeched. Above it all I heard kids screaming from the rooftops. The kids had maybe a minute, and they knew it. One good minute in a day with one thousand four hundred and forty minutes they had to survive.
Indira had brought bags full of Pocky sticks—lots and lots of Pocky sticks—which are chocolate-coated cookies, shaped like the sparklers my nieces play with on July Fourth. Maybe they sell them in America. I’m not sure. They’re everywhere in Asia. In Korea they even have Pepero Day—a Valentine’s Day-esque holiday where people exchange the chocolate-coated cookie sticks.
Indira had planned her own version of Pepero Day.
The long poles assaulted the train. The sacks tied at the end of the poles fought each other and some broke off and fell to the ground. Indira and her students did what they could. They filled the sacks they could reach, as fast as possible, with as many cookies as they could fit … but a fast-minute later the earth trembled and the train rumbled relentlessly forward.
Indira said, “No-no-no!”
The kids were even more desperate. They all screamed. Some cried when their poles could no longer reach the train. Indira began throwing the cookies.
“Give me the bag,” I said.
Indira’s shopping bag was still half-full of Pocky sticks. It had just enough weight that I could lean out the window and toss it onto one of the passing rooftops. Which set off a mad dash free-for-all. All the commotion attracted even more kids. Some had been sleeping amongst the rubble. Some had been sleeping in the houses below. Now they were scrambling to get cookies. I slung Maya’s bag onto a passing rooftop as well. Another free-for-all. Gita gave me her bag, but it was too late. The train was moving too fast. The kids were too far away.
Indira said, “Oh my god.”
A naked boy was running alongside the train. He’d probably been in bed. And when I say bed, I mean he’d been sleeping somewhere on a dirt floor. Maybe he was five or six years old. He heard the commotion on the rooftops and came running, literally. He was twenty meters behind us, but fading fast. I had Gita’s bag of cookies … but now the boy was forty meters behind us. I thought, it’s too dangerous to drop it beside the tracks. But the boy was running alongside the tracks already. He was at least seventy-five meters behind us when I let the bag fall. He was so far away, but he ran so hard. I leaned out the window until I couldn’t see him anymore. I don’t know if he ever made it to the cookies or not.