It’s been three weeks so chock full of Indonesian experience. Each day new lectures, close encounters with medical and comm students, children, security guards, cooks, geophysicists, random athletes and mop-haired photojournalists and artists. It’s as though I’m being flooded with torrents of images, data, and experiences and I can’t stop the flow.
Surprisingly, at least for me, its been hard to sit down and write about this, too, since it’s all new. This is not China. Not Hong Kong. I can’t really figure out why I feel dizzy, almost reluctant to write. Perhaps because it took me two weeks to stop jumping around to transcribe a recording I had about the hijab and gender equality, the main topic of discussion among a group of avid communications graduate students (the discussion in an upcoming post).
I live on campus in Jatinangor, a small town with shanty storefronts, broken sidewalks, and a few new apartment high rises in what was once a Dutch colonial town. All of Jatinangor frames Universitas Padjadjaran, the public university where I serve as a temporary guest professor on a Fulbright grant. The campus is monied, it seems; the part with new economic and banking buildings (is that an academic subject?) is growing so fast that the area looks like an erector set. Many of the buildings, like the hills beneath them, are sinuously curved: conference centers, new gymnasiums, brand-new laboratories. The university gardens and brick walkways surrounding us seem almost infinite, many of them slippery, coated a red-brown clay color from afternoon downpours.
This morning, a Sunday, I’m sitting outside my guesthouse right facing East, I look out on lush green mountains that mist over almost every afternoon while the central plateau on which my guesthouse rest falls away to the town below. Everywhere are palms, cultivated cassava trees, bougainvillea, rice paddies, grasses, and red croton. The other day I took a morning walk along the road leading north; I made a big circle on hilly roads, passing a sustainable test farm — part of the University’s environmental preservation effort. Lots of squawking chickens and ducks. Two of the scientist-caretakers invited me into their laboratory/sleeping quarters/animal pens to make friends with five lively goats. All were gently raised and exhibited variable personalities and colors (the whitest goat was the shyest, incidentally); and the caretakers, who wanted me to learn Sudanese, explained proudly how carefully they were fed and groomed.
Jatinangor is located just east of Bandung, the main city about 30 kilometers away. Bandung has one of the largest shopping complexes in Asia. It has some very elite areas once occupied by the Dutch; now the middle class and rich Indonesians live there, and most foreigners work for airlines or oil companies; they occupy prestigious sections of the city toward North Bandung, near Tangkuban Peraha, the live (and very sulfurous) volcano. I was to visit the volcano on one of the most blustery and chilly Sundays of the year. The traffic was horrendous, the sulfur smelled like hell — and I didn’t have a jacket, thinking all of Indonesia was HOT, no matter what the elevation.
Fortunately, I was with my fellow lecturer intern Andika, who had just graduated with a masters from the UK. He offered me his sweater. The poor guy said he was inured to cold — and later we found out his cough was from bronchitis! Nonetheless, he persuaded me to get out of the car in howling wind, push past the tourists and the street vendors and children selling the usual junk (everything but an affordable sweater or jacket) to climb up the mountain to survey the nasty smelling pool of ooze and gas brewing up from the last Ice Age. I’m thinking these people are sure to get roasted if the volcano blows (and someday, surely, in a millennium or a decade or a day or two, it will). But no one seems to pay it any mind.
[Incidentally, I bonded with Andi that day; and I hope, for the future, I can keep in touch with him and even help advise him about future career choices or even a suitable female partner ( he’s looking, having just turned 32). He’s extremely intelligent and is considering a broadcast career again. ] One advantage of being a stranger here is that suddenly you assume the role of confidante and share stories and secrets you might otherwise not share with friends back in the States. You feel an extraordinary gratitude that someone wants to talk to you in your language. It’s all part of the storybook sense — that you’ve turned a page and nobody can get back at you for things said or revealed.
The weather here reminds me of Taiwan, although warmer, and since this is March, the heat is more than bearable. Since we are higher in elevation than Jakarta, it’s surprisingly pleasant most days. Sunshine in the morning, clouds and heaps of moisture, butterflies of the most astonishing blue and white flecks, some swallowtails, Malay Zebra, all sorts I can’t place. And lots of birds, which break into song in the mornings and evenings, but seem careful to avoid competition with the wailing singers who call the faithful to pray five times a day. I’ve been to student karate classes where the girls still wear the hijab; I’ve nearly been run off the road by a pugnacious motorcyclist (most are somewhat careful; he wasn’t). And I’ve already had students on campus invite me to ride on the back of their motorcycles from the grocery store at Jatos, a multileveled shopping mall about 20 minutes’ walk away. I think one grad student, Michael, felt sorry for me carrying my sacks of yogurt, fruit, and bread back from the store in the rain.
My daily life is pretty simple here. I check my email in the morning when it is evening in the States. I eat Quaker oatmeal, drink Minute Maid juice or some facsimile and try to avoid the cafeteria food which is pretty greasy and almost always includes fried chicken or fish heads with greens, rice and nuts. I try to keep fit by running on the school track twice a week and swim in an immaculately clean, tear-drop shaped pool at the luxurious Indonesian-style hotel, Puri Khatulistiwa, where I escape as often as possible to taste a bit of Western luxury. Although one of my students invited me to her karate class, I came to realize that there is karate for young people, and karate for people like me; my level of flexibility for high kicks and fancy low ground moves requiring deep knee bends is now quite limited. However, on a break I showed the instructor and a few students some of my “Moe, Larry and Curly” blunt force take downs, especially those that disable the nose, neck and head. They were impressed.
Other than that, I’ve found it hard to find good places to eat within walking distance here. My students Cindy, Lisa, Nadia, Fadia, and Astica took pity on me the other night and asked me out to dinner after we did a photo shoot for two hours in the morning — a wonderful experience despite the heat and humidity. We worked on panoramas, getting to know the tripod, white balance, ISO, apertures, and speed. I inadvertently shot with my white balance off, checking theirs and forgetting mine. When I discovered the problem and changed the setting from fluorescent to daylight, the colors snapped into place; it was a great teaching moment. We worked on the telephoto, and perhaps inadvertently or deliberately, Cindy, I think, shot a great picture of me, Fadia, and the beautiful Lisa. Go figure.
Slowly, I’m learning the ways of Indonesia. I’m trying to find my way and practicing a bit of the language. And my hosts — Dr. Herlina Agustin and husband Dr. Dadang Rahmat — have been remarkably kind. Herlina, titled “the Queen Bee” by her acolytes, is Chair of Universitas Padjadjaran’s journalism department. Her husband Dadang, a stocky, ebullient man with a great SUV and more degrees than I can count, is Associate Chair and wants CNN’s Christane Amanpour to give a lecture on campus to celebrate “using media to do the right thing.” We’re working on that. Herlina invited me here on the Fulbright to give lectures on visual journalism, photography, and print production. I’m doing all that. The kids seem quite receptive (more on that later). However, as my favorite singing teacher, Anna Leonowens rightly used to say (or was it Deborah Kerr channeling Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein?)…
“There’s a very ancient saying, and a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught…”
So true. I must sign off for now. But I hope you’ll stay with me as I struggle with the spotty internet and crappy untoned photos that I forget to balance, then repent in Photoshop. I want to share my journey here, and why the great blessings of life often come in surprising places. This is one of them. AE