The Search for Bahagia

Due to a confluence of personal reasons in no way pertinent to this blog, this past week was rough. I slept far too little, I called home too many times, and I arrived to school late on two consecutive days.[1]  It wasn’t pretty.  I won’t go into the details, but I will say that sometimes the most difficult part of being in Indonesia isn’t being here, but not being there.

I’ve had a few low points during my grant thus far, and this was definitely one of them.  But as it so often does, Indonesia provided a series of small joys to counterbalance the negative feelings that were infiltrating my day-to-day existence.

A group of Indonesians, predominately from one of the many universities in Malang, comes together to play badminton for a few hours every Friday, and I have become a semi-regular attendee.  Badminton is single-handedly the greatest stress reliever I have found in Indonesia, save only hanging out with my students after classes, and it is something I hope to explore further in a later blog.  For now, I’ll just say that the swish of a racket as it arcs towards a birdie has become a sound I can only associate with calm.  A few hours of alternating volleying and intensive game-playing was exactly what I needed at the end of this week.

My Saturday was a lazy day of sitting in various cafes and restaurants with my lovely sitemate and some Indonesian friends, breathing in too much second-hand smoke and drinking what is hands-down the best kopi (coffee) on earth, even if it is sweetened with a shot glass of what can only be high fructose corn syrup, or some other equally bad-for-you syrup.  And that night my sitemate and another friend accompanied me to movie night[2] at my school, which was the perfect sort of relaxed fun and laughter, medicine for the soul.

One of the Fulbright researchers is placed in Malang, and she is a Peace Corps Alumni; during her three months of training, she lived with a host family in a desa (village) near Batu, a neighboring city where I have previously planted trees with my sitemate’s school and attended English Camp with my school.  She invited me to come with her to visit them, and I jumped at the chance to get out of Malang and into the mountains.

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Her family was delightful, the kind of welcoming that only Indonesians can be.  Her host mother is the epitome of Indonesian wonderful: she makes delicious tempe, and has the most infectious laugh.  Her host father is the sort of chain-smoking kind-hearted you only find in bapaks.  I wanted nothing more than to find a way to slip into their family circle.

Her host father is also kepala RT (essentially the head of the neighborhood), and so various members of the community, from employees of his construction company to the one policeman in the desa, stopped in while we were there to chat and to drink the teh manis (sweet tea) that is essential in any Indonesian interaction.  Because I live in the asrama (dorm) of my school, I spend considerably less time in strangers’ houses talking to adults than many of the others in my cohort.  There are advantages to this of course, but I can’t help but feel there is something missing from my Indonesian experience.  Sitting in their living room, snacking on roti goreng (literally fried bread—think fried dough, and you essentially understand the food I am referring to) and mostly not understanding the conversations around me, I found a small hole in my heart being filled.  This was what I wanted from my Indonesian experience.

And if the day hadn’t already seemed perfect, her family was also able to lead me to cows.

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There were only four cattle in their small barn, two yearlings and two adorable four-month-old bull calves who were nameless before I dubbed them Bruce and Franklin (it’s Bruce in the picture above).  I am unsure if these cattle are being raised for beef or dairy purposes, because the nanek (grandmother) of the family mostly speaks Javanese, and did not understand my question when I asked, but there is not denying they were Holsteins, which is the most prominent breed on my family’s farm. I’ve enjoyed the various Indonesian breeds I’ve stumbled across, many of which originated in India or Australia, but there is something about familiar black-and-white spots that gave these little fellas a special place in my farm-girl heart.  Scratching them behind the ears and enjoying sloppy bovine kisses, I decided that my day in my friend’s desa was the definition of a perfect day.

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This is not to say that this weekend was devoid of uncomfortable moments or frustrations.  While I was in my friend’s desa a woman we met asked about my acne (thank you, excessively hot classrooms and inescapable fried food), and after hearing what it was, immediately rubbed her hands all over my face and then washed her hands, insisting that would get rid of it, if I only believed.  It’s a testament to how long I have been in a country that does not believe in personal space that I was mostly unfazed, if a little bingung (confused), by this interaction.  I also drove at night for the first time on my motorbike, and due to having eyes that do not focus correctly[3], this was exceedingly difficult, and more than a little terrifying.  But these small moments could not overshadow the absolute joy that this weekend was filled with.

I have climbed mountains, attempted to surf, and stared into the eyes of a Komodo Dragon during my time in Indonesia, but when I think about the most amazing parts of my experience here, it is days like these that stand
out most in my mind.  They are the reason why, even so far from home, even when my days are long and only marginally successful, I have found bahagia (happiness) in Indonesia.

[1] This is not to say that I missed classes, because it would probably take a national emergency or hospitalization for that to happen.  But while normally I am the first teacher to arrive at school even when I do not teach during the first period, this week I slipped into the office only just in time for the classes I teach.

[2] I also hope I am able to blog about movie nights at some point.  These are not nights of merely popcorn and a film, as the name might imply, but are, rather, huge events that include costumes, performances, and sometimes even fireworks.  SMAN 10 knows how to do movie night.

[3] I’m an irresponsible patient and I don’t remember the name my eye doctor gave for this; all I really know is that it has something to do with my optical nerve, and is the reason why I have to wear reading glasses.

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