Where I live on my school’s second campus is not really within the city limits of Malang, the city associated with my placement, and so where I live does have its fair share of rice and sugar cane fields, carving out small pieces of open space in the otherwise heavily populated area in which I find myself. But even outside of the city, the traffic can be daunting and the blaring white noise of human existence never seems to cease. I have tried to associate where I live with the word “rural,” since there is a strong agricultural presence, but the curse of living on the world’s most populous island is that I can only ever think of the word “crowded.”
Don’t get me wrong: there are many advantages to living on Java. The best infrastructure in all of Indonesia is found on the island I call home, which means that there are working streetlamps on my street, my road is paved (if not free of deadly potholes), and I have almost-consistent access to cell phone service. There is even a train system on Java, something that does not exist anywhere else in Indonesia. And living near Malang gives me access to the higher education system of Indonesia, as well as magical places such as Lai-Lai’s, an international super market. I am thankful for all of this, but some days, especially the hard ones, this born and raised country girl would trade all of that in for a bit of peace, quiet, and open space.
I found that open space in Flores.
Labuan Bajo, a small harbor town in the west of Flores, became a stop on my friend’s and my holiday travel not so much for its own sake, but because it is a convenient launching point for day trips to Komodo Island and to smaller islands that offer incredible snorkeling opportunities. But in our short stay there, the most western tip of Flores stole a little piece of my heart.
On our last day there, after my friend who had accompanied me for much of the trip had left for the airport (her flight was much earlier than my own), the other ETA friend with whom we had met up with in Labuan Bajo and I rented a motorbike from the hotel where we were staying, picked a road leading out of town, and went.
I have been on the back of more motorbikes with more drivers than I care to count since coming to Indonesia, and yet it still never fails to bring a smile to my face. I spend most days dripping with sweat in stagnant classrooms, frustrated at an education system I am unable affect and flustered by cultural disparities that somehow still surprise me, even after being here for four months. When I am the passenger on a motorbike, inevitable language bumbles and social slip-ups are fleetingly not at the forefront of my mind. I have one very simple job: don’t fall off. I may not be able to communicate effectively in my slowly-developing second language, or get through a day without being laughed at for some confusion or another, but holding on to the seat of a motorbike is something even I can manage to do.
There is also the further advantage of being able to take so much in from the back of a motorbike. I have always enjoyed watching the scenery fly by from vehicle windows, and this is something that for one reason or another is continually commented on here in Indonesia. I am not sure if looking out the window is uncommon, or if their constant concern for my happiness here makes them wonder if I am bored, but I cannot enjoy the view without being asked either what I am looking at, or what is wrong. When I am on the back of a motorbike, I am free to observe the world in which I find myself without any commentary.
If there is one word to describe the way I feel as a motorbike passenger, it is just that: free. Technically, I have absolutely no control over my destiny when I am being driven about on motorbike, and I am putting my very life into the hands of someone else, sometimes someone I just met. I probably should not be as comfortable with the experience as I am. But letting go of all control is, actually, rather analeptic. In my daily existence, it is those things which are almost in my control that plant the most self-resentment in the corners of my soul: I know that having auditory processing issues only adds to the difficulty of language learning, but why can’t I learn Bahasa Indonesia faster?; I am not the person who created my insane teaching schedule, and I did my best to start an English Club on my one campus, but why can’t I manage to see my kids every week like every other ETA? It is most often due to outside factors, and not a lack of trying on my part, that I find myself failing (or at least failing to reach my somewhat ridiculously high standards) again and again and again, but I find myself placing all of the blame on my own head regardless. As a passenger on a motorbike, I cannot even pretend to be in control, and this removes a pressure so ingrained into my experience here that I sometimes forget it is there. On the back of a motorbike, even amidst the exhaust and dust of crowded Malang streets, I physically breathe easier.
In Flores, on the back of a bike being driven by someone I know and trust, weaving up mountain roads (sometimes paved, sometimes not), I felt lighter than I have since coming to Indonesia. The higher we ascended, the farther the jungle stretched out below us, seemingly endless until it reaches the perpetual blue sea: greenery is never so uninterrupted where I live in Java. The jungle was punctuated by tiny villages, rice fields, and the occasional cow, but shouts of “Mister!” were infrequent and there were stretches of time during which we seemed to be the only people on the road, an experience I did not even have in Gorontalo. The world had not felt so empty since I left my modest Central New York home town to come to Indonesia, and I stretched my hands out to capture the freedom of it all, having the space to truly spread the wings of my smile for the first time in months.
I am fairly certain that my fellow ETA did not have the borderline religious experience that I did on our mountain motorbike ride, but I feel confident that we both enjoyed the raw, mostly-untouched beauty that is West Flores. The jungle there is among the most lush I have seen since coming to Indonesia, and I doubt there are many on this Earth who could resist its magic.
We ended our day at a restaurant with a rooftop bar that we had fallen in love with earlier in our visit. And as the sun set over a glassy sea spattered with islands, I took one last deep breath, and wished I could carry its fresh scent with me into the new semester. It is impossible for me to do so, but I can carry the memory, and with it perhaps I can somehow create, in a small corner of my crowded mind, my own space to breathe.