Indonesian Rantau

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  • Chapter 6: Pantai Bira- "Of Volunteer Teaching under the Crescent Moon"


    By John Michael Gorrindo

    Indonesian Rantau

    Chapter 6:  Pantai Bira- “Of Volunteer Teaching under the Crescent Moon”

    Bira SDN, 2005. Class photo with teacher. As an obstreperous young man of eighteen, I had the notion to leave America.  Dissatisfaction with my country’s hypocritical character- not its opportunities- propelled me.  But wholly unprepared for carving out a new life elsewhere abruptly delivered me back home in physical tatters, the victim of a mountaineering accident in the Swiss Alps.  Now, thirty-four years later, I was taking another stab at it.  The dissatisfaction hadn’t changed; but dissatisfaction rarely does.  I was a helluva lot more prepared this time around, and so-tempted to believe things would fall into place without too many complications if only not to temper the joy of contemplating a revolutionary change. 

    As an initiate, I had survived my Indonesian “shakedown cruise;” that rite of passage into the heart of a new land that tests one’s mettle, openness, mission, and resolve.  My trials had earned me a diploma of sorts- a sponsorship letter whose capital could be translated into a six month social visa.  My “reward” was presented me by the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore.  Returning to Bali en route to Pantai Bira in South Sulawesi, I stopped to pick up my books and guitar I had stored in the tiny boarding room of my friend Agus, who live in the crowded heart of Denpasar.

    I enlisted Agus’ help in completing the last piece of business necessary before I could return to Bira and begin my new life as a volunteer teacher.  Two hand phones needed to be purchased in “payment” to Hadji Hakim and Riswan, both of whom had demanded as much in return for making my entry into Bira’s school system possible.

    Indonesia’s modern day version of a sacred amulet, the hand phones’ magical powers held a narcotic sway over their owners.  The hand phone had risen to become Indonesia’s single-most desirable commodity, especially amongst the young.  As a pop cultural icon, the acquisition of a new market model featuring still photo and video capabilities and internet access conferred upon the owner instant status amongst from their peer group.  The hand phone was at once a symbol of status, objet d’art, technological talisman and capable of transforming Indonesian society.  To hold in one’s hand a small object that made possible instant communication had produced the same human response all over the planet, but in Indonesia- a society that has leapt forward from colonial servitude to democratic state in sixty years, the hand phone was a central player in making such rapid change possible and sustainable.

    However sweeping this change, the Indonesian telecom companies treat the hand phone as a hot commodity to be over-marketed.  The cost of a new hand phone is still out of the reach of most Indonesians, but those who can manage the purchase often never exploit all its features- such as the internet access- as the surcharge was cost-prohibitive for most. 

    Known as pulsa, pre-paid time is the accounting system put into place by Indonesia’s telecom companies.  Voice messaging was an expensive use of pulsa, so users were forced to turn to the most economic option available, that of text messaging, or “SMS” (short messaging service).  An irrational fever has swept over Indonesian consumers- especially high school and college-aged students- who deplete their limited funds in order to buy amenity-laden phones.  The hi-tech marketers have capitalized, leaving a host of telecom junkies in their wake.  The user run dry on pulsa is reduced to nothing more than a communications addict desperate for a pulsa-fix; an addicted soul sent rambling about in a frenzy, attempting to raise the 50,000 rupiah  needed, or begging for friends to electronically forward pulsa credit to their number.

    Agus took me to Denpasar’s hand phone central; a noisy, polluted, congested boulevard which in order to cross by foot was almost as dangerous as running across four lanes of Los Angeles freeway.  Having already purchased a second-hand phone for Bira’s principal, Hadji Hakim, I just needed to buy a new Nokia camera phone for Riswan.  Riswan definitely wanted the flip-open style, so I stated my search.  I made the purchase in the first hand phone palace I entered, and returning to Agus’ boarding room, began to test the phone’s operational use.  By this time in my Indonesian travels, my logistical intelligence had grown substantially, and I realized quickly that I needed to stay put in Bali for a couple of extra days to make sure that there were no problems with the phone, as making a return would be impossible once I had moved on to Bira, two days travel away in South Sulawesi.  Sure enough, the new model only three months on the market died within the first twenty-four hours, and in so returning it for exchange, the replacement failed as well.  The third phone turned out to function well enough, and it was only then I made the move to purchase a flight to South Sulawesi’s travel hub, Makassar.  The lesson was that time was something you needed plenty of in order to make good your plans in Indonesia.  It was a fact of life Indonesian’s took for granted, and a reality I had been quickly forced to factor into all decision making.

    Finally, I was able to return to Bira with everything in order.  Flying back to Makassar, I spent one quick night with Dodo and left early the next day for Bira by Kijang.  Upon arrival I had a bitter altercation with the Kijang driver over the negotiated fare.  There had been a misunderstanding, and as I lugged my over-burdening collection of baggage up the steep path to Riswan’s Guest House, he followed me into the guest house’s reception area, determined to collect the balance between what I had given him and what he expected. 

    Several unsavory experiences with the Makassar’s unscrupulous Kijang drivers had formed an abscess of poison in my gut, and even though I was rapidly succumbing to the advances of a virulent flu bug, I vented my spleen all over the driver, losing my temper in the presence of Riswan’s wife, Irma, who was there to greet me.

    I could only hope Riswan would save us all by making a timely entrance.  As the driver and I continued sparring in Indonesian within the confines of the guest house, Riswan fortunately arrived. With great poise and diplomacy, Riswan arbitrated, placating the driver who eventually had to give up his demands and turn tail to his vehicle.  I simply  refused to pay the sum the driver requested, and Riswan somehow talked the driver into resigning over the issue.  The frustrated driver descended the stairs out of the guest house and then down the hill towards his black Kijang muttering, “Rugi, rugi.” (loss, loss).

    Riswan and I then commenced our communing as I presented him with his new hand phone.  I taught him its operational use and he in turn handed his old phone over to me in partial trade.  This trade had been one of the provisions of our gentleman’s agreement as per payment for his services as my advance man and interpreter.  So now I, too had joined the auspicious ranks of Indonesia’s hand phone owners.  Soon I would experience how vitally necessary a communication tool it was in an archipelago where mail service was unreliable, internet access scarce, and commercial phone service expensive.

    By the end of the two hour training session, I was spent as the flu had struck me in full measure.  I would have to spend the next five days bedridden.  Meals and water were delivered to my room.  Over two months of stressful, always exhausting none-stop travel had caught up to me, and “sumpin’ I et” in Makassar had successfully stormed the ramparts of my immune system.  Sleep eluded me as unyielding bouts of diarrhea kept me commuting to the toilet hourly for the first three days, and I was worried that some amoebic dysentery hadn’t inhabited me for keeps.

    Reports of my illness filtered back to Bira’s Sekolah SD, where my duties as volunteer teacher were awaiting me. While still in the throws of rehabilitation, I was paid a visit by Hadji Hakim.  I presented him with his oleh-oleh,  the second, or used phone I had bought for him in Denpasar courtesy of Agus’ classmate. “Thanks” was not part of his repertoire, and he only eyed Riswan’s newer, more sophisticated camera phone with envy and ungraciously quipped that it was Riswan’s phone he wanted, not the piece of  kotoran (feces) I had given him.

    With my head spinning with vertigo and the tropical heat reducing me into a spineless life form, I simply had to sit and take his offensive behavior offhandedly.  However ill, I knew I must remain patient and philosophically resigned.  As time progressed I would grow to learn that politeness was a cultural attribute in rare supply amongst most Biranese men.  The Buginese temperament was at once stoical and off-putting, and many Buginese women shared in these affects as well. Life was damn brutal, and there seemed little no reason or room for dabbling in interpersonal etiquette. 

    Furthermore, I was a foreigner from the west.  Automatically I was looked upon as a wealthy individual who should spread the largess.  So too, the memory of Dutch colonialism was recorded indelibly in the Buginese genome, and I would forever be a foreign reminder and occasional scapegoat for the mistrials of that historical imbalance.  Buginese indelicacy would always be there to serve me such notice on a repeated basis, and it was a price I would have to pay- my status as volunteer teacher not withstanding.  First and foremost I would remain a bule-  the term used to refer to a western tourist.  In order to live in Bira, I would have to learn to accept my place.

    This is not to say there weren’t Biranese locals who didn’t appreciate my initial intentions and later my teaching services. And the children I taught were extremely loving and accepting.  Though I have no desire to paint with a broad brush, it would be inaccurate to say the Buginese of Bira didn’t have a hard edge.  Moreover, I feel they would concur with that characterization and be proud of it as well.  Their attitude can be likened to institutionalized American mottos such as “Live Free or Die,” or “Don’t Tread on Me.”

    Two nights before my first day of teaching, The Kepala Dinas Dignas of Tanah Beru, Ahkmad Syam, paid me a visit at Riswan’s  guest House, bringing along his wife and four children.  Ahkmad, in his capacity as Tanah Beru’s school district superintendent was my official host and sponsor as it was he who had signed my sponsorship letter.  As sponsor, he ultimately was responsible for my actions and activities while in Bira.  In as far as I was an asset to his school district, I was also a potential liability.  Legally he would be held legally responsible for any wrong doing I might commit.  I was important that I assured him and his family that I was worth the risk.

    All of us sat around a large dining table in the guest house reception-dining area exchanging small talk.  I asked if a family member would do me the favor of writing out each family member’s name, as my memory for Indonesian names- almost all of which are different- was as volatile as gasoline.  His wife responded quickly, and taking my notebook, quickly wrote down all six names.  Numbering then one through six, she placed her husband’s name at the top of the list, then her own, followed by those of her four children, starting with the eldest and ending with the youngest.  Attached to Ahkmad’s name was the academic title, spd, referring to the highest educational credential he had earned. 

    Interestingly, the remaining five names were ascribed the leading title of Andi.  Heredity is the basis of the Buginese system of social hierarchy, and Andi denoted royal lineage within the South Sulawesi regency.  Ahkmad’s wife, Rayhana Apdy, was descendent of a royal Buginese house, and the title Andi, which translates as king, was conferred upon all her children, but didn’t extend to her husband.

    The simple listing of family names clued me in to this form of Buginese social registry.  Buginese society was both matriarchal and patriarchal.  Ahkmad had “married-up” into the Andi ranks.  But Andi did not necessarily allude to the title bearer’s wealth, measured in both land and money.  Still, Buginese would proudly refer to their status of Andi if asked.  In reality, the Buginese royal kingdom was a relic of the past.  The large number of royal descendents had little wealth trickle down to them after the fall of the Buginese kingdom to the Dutch.

    Two mornings later, I arrived bright and early for my first day as a volunteer teacher at Pantai Bira’s public elementary school, or Sekolah SD No. 198 (SD is an acronym for sekolah dasar, or “foundational school”).  Though I would have preferred to walk the one kilometer from Riswan’s Guest House to the school, Riswan insisted on marking the occasion by giving me a lift on his motorbike, an offer I couldn’t refuse in all courtesy.

    It was 7:15 AM, and a Monday morning.  Only one staff member was present, a sanguine sixth grade teacher named Ani.  She wore a standard issue body length civil servants uniform with jilbab as well.  Her uniform was tailored in keeping with the strict provisions of Muslim dress for females- all flesh was covered except for hands and face. Heat and humidity already having thrown an early morning blanket over the school, I simply couldn’t imagine having to spend the entire teaching day confined in such a sweat suit.

    I didn’t know it at the time, but Monday mornings in an Indonesian public school are set aside for a special flag ceremony.  Ani, all alone and in charge of one hundred twenty-five first through sixth graders, had the responsibility of organizing the ceremony.  She directed some of the older students to set-up the sound system, which included a cassette tape deck.  Then all one hundred twenty-five, identically clad in red and white, self-mobilized, falling into rank and file according to class level, the higher grades to the left and lower to the right.  The flag pole stood before them, the Indonesian flag’s dual bands of red and white already hoisted to the top, hanging limp in the breezeless swelter of early morning.

    Once the student body was properly spaced across the school courtyard, they stood at attention and Ani inserted a tape into the sound system.  A milder form of martial music blared from the loud speakers, over which was heard the voice of a rather soothing female speaker who delivered a long sequence of eight-count cadences.  The children immediately began to execute a series of choreographic segments in strict keeping with the count.  Standing before and facing the group were two leaders of the ceremony, one boy and one girl each from the sixth grade class.  The ceremony lasted at least twenty minutes.  A strict uniformity of movement was absolutely essential.  Every student was to follow and perform each gesture identically as to their neighbor’s.  As a first time observer, I was exhausted by the end of the ceremony.

    President Suharto, the Indonesian strong man who ruled Indonesia for thirty-two years set into motion a large scale expansion of public school construction, building over 100,000 educational facilities across the archipelago early in his presidential tenure.  He also determined that school curriculum would be controlled centrally in Jakarta and strictly embodies his government’s unification policy whose goal was to create “one Indonesia.”  A central tactic in that policy regime was to make uniform every aspect of Indonesian education.  Instituting uniforms for teacher and students was one tool of that unificasi policy.  A key component in that policy’s regime was to make uniform every aspect of Indonesian education.  The Monday morning flag ceremony was another.  By 8:00 AM on my first day as volunteer teacher, I had already been served up a strong dose of Suharto’s legacy.

    But a glaring omission was to be noted.  Not one other school staff member was present for the ceremony save Ani!  It was my early introduction to civil servant culture in Indonesia.  Civil servant passivity, or malaise, was a defiance expressed by omission, not commission.  Rebellion against the system’s stifling hierarchy and low pay was usually expressed as not showing up to work on time- and not working very hard once on duty.  And I soon learned that this particular school’s culture was best characterized by the unwritten, non-verbal agreement between teachers and administrators alike that absence from work was not only tolerated, but expected!

    The teachers as well as school principal, Hadji Hakim, started trickling in around 8:00 AM.  I told Hadji Hakim I would like to tour all the classes and simply observe for a couple hours after which we could discuss my teaching duties, the details of which had yet to be crystallized.  He  smiled in response, agreeing.  My Indonesian was still very limited, and I knew it would be a real challenge to clearly formulate the nature of my duties on this, my first day.

    After making the classroom rounds, formally introducing myself to all the teachers and their students, I returned to Hakim’s office, hopeful he would initiate a plan for me.  Apparently the hand phone offering hadn’t created any incentive, and it was I who had to initiate the proceedings.  In fact, no duties had been pre-planned whatsoever.  All he offered me was a sternly expressed directly that all teachers were to report at 7:00 AM sharp and sign an attendance ledger.  This was directive communicated by rote, and it seemed he blurted it out in automatic response.  He had nothing better to say, and he punctuated his command by lowering his head slowly and then snapping it quickly and sharply back into a rigidly held uprightness, staring into my eyes unblinkingly.  It was a form of pulling rank. 

    His body stood as ramrod rigid as his poker face, as if to say,
    “So where’s your return salute, private?”

    However miffed and mystified- for a teacher battle-hardened by twenty years experience working for some of the most devious school administrators the American educational system has had the pride to produce- I was not surprised.  I remained patient, as I had already been introduced to Hakim’s shortcomings.  His incompetence and laziness were obstacles I would have overcome. 

    I proceeded to try and wheedle information out of him, but to no avail.  He mentioned that school let out at 12:30 PM.  What he did manage to clearly communicate was what he would not do for me.  As a teacher of English, I would have to negotiate a schedule with each grade level teacher on an individual basis, and moreover the school would not provide me with instructional resources of any kind.  I would have to make the all-day, two hundred kilometer trip to Makassar, find the appropriate books, and purchase them myself.

    This last point of non-support was a conversation-stopper.  What else was there to say?  I walked out of the office and stared blankly at the school building and grounds.  Could I stay focused on what was most important; that being the children?  I had to dig deep, didn’t I? 

    The classrooms were dark, and humid heat sinks.  Blackboards and chalk were all I had to work with, and the blackboards were covered with slate-bare strips of exposed wood that would snap in two weakened chalk sticks softened by the pervasive humidly.  The classroom walls were paint chipped and covered with years of children’s dirty hand prints that reached from floor level to the height of a child’s outstretched arm.  The floors were often filthy and the classrooms’ perimeters were choked in dust, paper scraps, and piles of empty plastic water bottles. 

    The school was under reconstruction as well.  Two-thirds of the students had been displaced.  Fifth graders had been moved into the cramped quarters of a dusty, decrepit abandoned building on site.  The sixth grade class had been moved across the street, occupying the empty space under a traditional Bugis’ house-on-stilts.  At lest it was shaded and open air. and the children could be entertained by the parade of goats, chickens, and mouser cats that dragged, tortured, and ate their hapless rodent prey under the desks and at the feet of the students. 

    Behind the two L-shaped classroom wings and school courtyard and complex were a set of bathrooms to one side and an undeveloped space to the other.  Garbage was strewn everywhere, and the bathrooms looked like bombed-out cement bunkers whose plumbing didn’t work, and walls covered in graffiti.  Behind ran a dilapidated , buckling toll fence marking the property line.  Beyond the fence was a large flat area which was officially property belonging to Bira’s port authorities.  Children could play football (soccer) in the dusty flat, and beyond that was an old port building which had been converted into rental rooms.  The building’s entrance consisted of a large, open-air, covered porch, and this had become the temporary home of the twenty-seven third graders- the school’s largest class. The back wall of the porch had once provided a view of the sea and port below, but the vegetation that grew along the miles of marine terrace had become overgrown, blocking view of Bira’s most beautiful and refreshing sight- the ocean. Again, the porch had been unmaintained; covered in chalky dust.  A broken broom, possibly ten years in age, stood aging and gathering dust, welded into place near the front corner steps leading up onto the porch-classroom. The makeshift classroom chalkboard was the worse the school had to offer.

    Then my attention shifted to the children streaming out the classrooms for mid-morning break.  My presence was a cause of great celebration.  There were miles of smiles everywhere.  They danced and capered about me, screaming out hellos repeatedly until my brain resounded with their elation.  Toothless grins of seven year old boys and coy smiles of ten year old girls imprinted themselves on my weary eyes.  I was still weak from sickness, but the students provided a wonderful elixir.  Their joy and innocence went a long way towards disabusing me of their school’s destitute condition.  Their souls’ soared with the unabashed glee of being young, and they had never known their school to look any different.  It was all an innocuous, unimportant detail of life that provided no bother whatsoever.

    Still standing outside of the administrative office, I took the time to contemplate and reflect on the situation.  Yes, it was all worth the trials I would inevitably experience because I knew there was potential for me to make a difference in these children’s education.  But I also knew I would have to forcefully assert myself and make some demands.  That would require me going over Hadji Hakim’s head and trying my luck with Ahkmad Syam, whom Hakim had to answer to.  I would need to enumerate my needs in the form of a teaching contract, written in Indonesian and presented formally to Ahkmad Syam in his offices.

    Indonesia’s civic life revolves around reports and a variety of other official documents.  This is in no way unusual to any bureaucracy, but in Indonesia, a properly drafted document takes on the gravitas of a Javanese warrior conducting an all day Keris ceremony, and signatures from the authorities along with the characteristic purple stamp of certification that authorize them are surrounded by an aura of sacred mystique as would an illuminated page of the Koran fresh off the desk of an expert Muslim scribe working in the cloistered confines of a seventeenth century sultan’s court in Sumatra.

    I was still new to Indonesia’s civil servant culture, as well as the republic’s firmly entrenched command-and-control style of centralized governance.  But I was quickly catching on.  If I were to exact some control over my working conditions, it would have to be set forth in writing.

    Returning to Riswan’s sometime after noon, I discussed my grievances with Riswan at length.  We agreed that I should draw up a Volunteer Teacher’s Contract,” which I would first write in English and then translate into Indonesian.  Once finished, this first draft would be reviewed by Riswan.  Riswan knew I was seriously unhappy and legitimately so.  There was also no way in hell he was going to lose me as a paying guest, as the income he received from my monthly boarding in his guest house was more than most Indonesians earned in two months of labor.  He may have even believed in me and my cause.  Sometimes it was difficult to know.

    My contract draft contained only four terse points which defined working conditions for my services:

    1.  The school will provide for instructional materials, including books.  I will not be   asked to pay them.

    2.  The school will provide me with a regular schedule for teaching English to classes 3rd-6th grades.

    3.  I will arrive and depart from school as dictated by the demands of this schedule.

    4.  Any extra or special instructional services the school may propose I fulfill will be considered upon request.

    Riswan checked over my Indonesian translation and I was surprised to see it was grammatically correct.  My Indonesian was improving.  It was late in the afternoon by this time, and  I was spent.  Wearily, I climbed the guest house’s steep staircase to the second story’s guest room area and set aside some dirty laundry to soak in a bucket of soapy water.  I then sent a text message to Ahkmad Syam requesting an audience the next day.  He quickly replied, affirming that Riswan and I could meet with him the next morning at 9:30 AM.

    The next morning I showered and shaved.  After a banana pancake breakfast I clutched my composition book containing my hand-written contract and headed out for school alone, walking the back roads annex to the guest house.  The roadway was constructed of gray paving stones; the brick-shaped pieces arranged in chevron formations.  Goats and chickens scurried about as I passed the Buginese style houses-on-stilts that stood along each side of the road.  The path eventually led back to the main road and toll gates that marked the border between the old village of Bira and the newer resort development that was Pantai Bira.  

    This walking route was a short journey that provided a snapshot of old, rural Bira.  Old folks stared at my passing from the shadow of their porches or peered at me cautiously from the recesses of dark doorways or open-air windows whose wooden shutters had been thrown open.  Fences made of tree branches ran along property lines, driven securely into the dry, rocky limestone that was the cape’s bedrock. 

    Women wearing traditional sarongs carrying baskets of laundry or food supplies on their heads walked along as well as children.  Yet other women pushed along large water carts which stopped by each house, delivering large, plastic Gerry cans of water collected from a local well.  What few men could be seen were working with lumber from the hardwood forests, busy with carpentry projects.  They only worked with hand tools.  The heat along this stretch of road was searing by 8:00 AM on an August morning.

    Fifteen minutes later I arrived at Hadi Hakim’s office and calmly briefed him on my contractual points, but did not reveal the document itself.  I then told him that Riswan and I were to discuss my demands later in the morning with his boss, Ahkmad Syam.  Somehow, my limited Indonesian got the point across, prompting Hakim to suddenly jump into action.  He consulted the master schedule posted on the wall as he hastily attempted to assemble my teaching schedule.  Within an hour’s time, and after quickly conferring with the teachers, he hammered out a schedule that satisfied everyone.

    Riswan arrived late.  Hadji Hakim approached him, anxious to know more about our meeting’s agenda with Ahkmad Syam.  The three of us stood along side the highway in front of the school gates while Riswan and I waited for local transportation to come by and take us to Tanah Beru and Syam’s offices.  Filled with steely resolve, I stood passively peering off into space, smoking a kretek while Riswan explained everything to Hadji Hakim in spins of phrase both informative and arbitrational in tone.  Hakim knew we meant business. Riswan was the perfect foil.

    Riswan and I hailed a pete-pete and arrived in Tanah Beru around 10:30 AM, an hour late for our appointment.  We were ushered into Syam’s office immediately, and the affable Ahkmad genially conducted the forty-five minute meeting with humor and aplomb.  I was polite but withdrawn as I was on a serious mission and was still drained from illness.  We presented Syam with my list of demands.

    Pak Syam didn’t respond directly to my contractual points other than to say no, I didn’t have to purchase any instructional materials, and that he, Hadji Hakim, and I would meet to discuss my volunteer work.  Unfortunately, Riswan related statements I had made in private to him concerning the degraded condition of Sekolah SD No. 198.

    To my surprise, Syam responded by bellowing in hearty laughter, saying, “Well, Indonesian schools have low standards!  It’s the same all over the country!”

    During the course of the meeting a curious looking man in chocolate brown tunic and slacks gained entrance to the office interrupting our talk.  He produced a multi-page typed document, handing it to Pak Syam.  In the most obsequious of manners he proceeded to request of Syam a donation of 350,000 rupiah in “appreciation” of his service to the local community over the past five years.  Apparently he was a journalist, and was leaving his newspaper post in nearby Bulukumba, the capital of the regency, moving to a new job in Makassar. 

    Smiling effusively throughout the pitch, Syam ultimately turned the request aside.  The donation request was indeed a form of corruption- or extortion to be more exact- meant to insure Pak Syam that anything the journalist might print in the future would shed only the fondest of light upon Syam, his offices, and his school district.  After the man departed, bowing several times, as he backed out of the office and through the doorway, Syam flashed a toothy grin, laughing loudly again while shaking his head.

    Corruption was a way of life in South Sulawesi, and a game played by many players. It was a game whose form took many shapes with shifting ground rules whose manifestations were only limited by the imagination.  Dodo’s words echoed in my mind.  “Indonesia is number five in corruption in the world and number one in Asia.”  I was beginning to wonder if my Karma had put me here!

    Ahkmad Syam’s response to my contract could only be taken as a positive, and there was now good reason to believe I could fashion some control over my volunteer service and teach on terms I could manage, hopefully producing results that would benefit the students.

     Syam’s attitude also reaffirmed the lessons of a rapidly mounting back log of personal experience I was beginning to properly digest concerning the Indonesian mentality.  Unlike America where the proclivity for denial and tendency to dismiss anything other than the positive and practical is core to the national character, Indonesians deny nothing, called a spade a spade, while embracing a separate peace that flows forth from inner resignation.  Indonesians are very good at accepting reality without denial, admitting to its gross imperfections while using good-natured humor and positive relations to lessen the pain.  But their commitment to improving their lot was lackadaisical.  Americans can not bear to look at themselves and their lives, even though slavishly bound to self-improvement.  Do Americans really know themselves?  Indonesians were zestfully self-effacing, non-defensive, and found great humor in their faults and limitations.  Indonesians knew themselves and their culture with much greater clarity and acceptance.

    Only one more meeting appeared necessary, and that would take place between Ahkmad Syam, Hadji Hakim, and myself.  Scheduled for the next day, I appeared at Syam’s offices once more, transported by a pete-pete filled with small children, mothers, old women, sacks of rice, buckets of fish, bunches of bananas, cans of coconut oil, and a couple of chickens, immobilized by their legs having been bound. 

    Sitting with Syam yet one more time in his office, the television in
    the front reception area tuned into a football match in progress, the two of us waited together uncomfortably for Hadji Hakim.  He never showed, and our attempts to contact him by hand phone failed as well.  Syam said he would meet alone with Hadji Hakim later, and presence wouldn’t be needed.  He also promised to obtain some instructional materials from one of the English teachers employed somewhere else in the school district and have them photocopied for me.  Not surprisingly, the materials never did appear.

    Finally, the preliminary rounds of obtaining sponsorship, procuring a visa, and establishing a teaching schedule were complete.  I had yet to begin teaching, but certainly had learned a lot about the politics of incompetence and corruption in Indonesian educational institutions.  Somehow, it didn’t seem all that different from American education, where office politics vied for importance with the real mission of schools and school systems. 

    My crash course in Indonesian bureaucracy, corruption, and preoccupation with empty formality had come to term.  How interminable it had all seemed.  No wonder Indonesia was considered an unproductive society.  It was much more interested in the menu rather than the food.  By now my foot had crossed over the transom and I was in the classroom.  thankfully, the rest was up to me, and I could return to the more secure realm of holding myself accountable.

    My teaching methodology had always included creating my own instructional materials.  this approach would now come in handy as I had none to work with!  Neither Hadji Hakim nor Ahkmad Syam had come through with anything more than a few, poorly designed instructional booklets.  Fortunately I had some books on hand, including dictionaries and Indonesian phrase and grammar books.  Most of these books had been brought over from America.  Without them, I would have been empty-handed, and only in Indonesian’s largest cities could one find adequately stocked book stores that could serve the educational needs of teachers or students.  Bira was removed and remote.  Even quality writing implements and paper stock weren’t available, let alone books. 

    But there was good reason for the absence of books in Bira.  Almost no one could afford them, including the school district.  Indonesian students were not issued text books, and only the teachers were provided with a set.  The only positive in all this was children quickly learned to read and write, as all information had to be copied from the black board by each student directly into their composition books.  Teaching methodology in Indonesia consisted mainly in delivering information by lecture and whatever might be written up on a black board.

    This was especially true at the elementary level.  Problem sets were transmitted by black board scrawl as well.  I would soon visit nearby junior and senior high schools in the Tanah Beru district.  Over time it became clear that Indonesia’s Ministry of Education had decided that funding priorities should be given the senior high schools.  Generally, only senior high schools provided computer technology, but in the Tanah Beru district, there were no computers to be found, no matter the grade level.  Not even Ahkmad Syam had a computer at his disposal.  Later, I would experience other school districts where computers were plentiful, but the funding of Tanah Beru’s schools was abysmally bereft.  Tanah Beru and Bira, the two largest population centers making up the local district, had suffered a long history of neglect.

    Again, overtime, I would began to see that the Indonesian populations best served were those that lived in provincial or regency capitals, which are equivalent to America’s state capitals or county seats, respectively.  Monies allotted regency capitals, for example, seemed to disproportionately be funneled into schools within the capital town or city itself, and outlying districts within the regency were thrown the crumbs. 

    In the kampung (countryside), there was little incentive for students to attend school beyond the compulsory sixth grade level, and education there was little valued.  A child was of economic benefit to their family; their labor in the fields needed most immediately.  Much of rural Indonesia’s economic system still resembled the Dutch-created “cultivation system” of the 19th century. 

    Populations in the kampung, which accounted for most of Indonesia’s population, had on the whole not yet seen nor understand the benefits education might provide their children.  Their economic needs were urgently immediate, and investing in the future went as far as only the next harvest of crops.  Such agrarian populations had no interest in demanding their fair share of the educational budget. 

    Bira still had one foot firmly rooted in that hand-to-mouth system, but outside influence and the rise of a more diversified economy in the last thirty years was beginning to produce a local mentality where continued education was becoming valued.

    But “valued” is a relative term, and certainly few parents in Bira had any concrete conception of what was a “quality education.”  Indonesia did not offer a free education to its people, and required parents to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 rupiah per month per child.  It was compulsory to send children to school through the elementary level, families had no choice by to pony-up the funds, and few really knew the overall value of what they were paying for.  That their children learned to read and write seemed enough in return. 

    And the curricular certainly looked good on paper.  Curriculum was influenced by a combination of the old Dutch system and priorities set forth by Jakarta’s central control.  Again, on paper, the course list would be familiar to any westerner, including studies in language, mathematics, history, science, and physical education.  Local languages were taught in Bira’s elementary schools as well as English starting in the fourth grade.  Indoctrination of the children into the national identity was accomplished through mandatory courses in civics and religion as these topics came hand-in-hand.  As Bira was devoutly Muslim, the religion curriculum was confined to Islam. 

    Although Indonesia officially recognized and permitted the exercise of only Islam, Buddhism, Balinese Hinduism, and Christianity, there was as such no concept of freedom of religion nor separation of church and state.  Jakarta’s Ministry of Religion effected everyone’s daily life, both in and out of school.  But for the people of Bira, the religion question was neither an issue nor a question at all.  Islamic values and teachings dominated every aspect of life so completely that for the locals, no other religion existed outside the most abstract of realities. 

    When repairing to Riswan’s Guest House, I sought the refuge of my garret- an 8 X 10 foot room with wooden-planked floors and walls.  A small fan stood on a chair in the corner.  Two single beds and a small dresser-cabinet constituted the rest of the furnishings.  As I had personal projects I was pursuing in my free time, I requested a desk and extra chair, which were provided me.


    The room had one electric outlet, and I had been astute enough to bring along with me a multiple allowing me to operated the fan- which I never turned off- and another electronic device simultaneously.  That device was usually my hand phone or digital camera battery charger.  The only light available was a single fifteen watt bulb, providing so little light it would have been just as effective to read by moonlight.  It would be another month before I was able to buy a sixty watt bulb in Makassar, as nothing stronger that twenty-five watts was available in Bira.  In order to read and write during darker hours, I used a head lamp I had brought along from the states. The bath and showering room were located at the end of the hall.

    But most people didn’t come to Riswan’s Guest House with reading in mind.  Only the occasional tourist guest could be caught reading, and they were prepared with reading lights as well.  Riswan’s guests were a mix between local Indonesians from nearby Bulukumba or Makassar, and foreign tourists, mainly European. 

    A few repeat customers came once a week.  One was a man from Bulukumba with two wives, and he would bring of them to the guest house for marathon love making sessions every Thursday or Friday afternoon, as the other wife’s jealousy made intimacy impossible for them back home (I took this information on good faith from Riswan). 

    Another Indonesian couple came weekly for a sexual rendezvous as well, but they were a much younger, unmarried couple.  They lived in Bulukumba as well, and their marriage status made intimacy impossible as well.  The couple was extremely guarded and arriving together by motor bike, never took off their protective helmets until entering their rented room (well- I can only conjecture they did so behind closed doors!).  They made every effort to keep their identities secret.  Over three month’s time I saw them arrive and depart the guest house maybe ten times, and never once did see their faces.

    Even though it was still the high season for tourism, Riswan’s room occupancy rate was extremely low.  As Riswan was Bira’s first hotelier, he was the living memory of Bira’s short history with tourism.  Simply put, Bira’s twenty years history of tourism fell into two economic periods- that of before and then after the fall of Suharto.  1998 was a watershed year in Indonesia’s short history as a republic.  President Suharto was forced out of office as a monetary crisis sent the value of the rupiah tumbling.  Neither the rupiah nor Bira’s tourist trade has yet recovered.  Indonesia appeared unstable to western travelers, and they did not consider it a safe place to visit. 

    Just as some rebound was beginning to be felt, there came the 2002 bombing of the Kuta Beach night club in Bali, killing two hundred two people, eighty-eight of them Australians. An economic depression immediately followed.  Riswan remained hopeful as well as patient concerning a comeback for the tourist industry.  He could wait it out due to his savings during the boom years and wise investments in new business creations subsequently.

    Then in early October 2005, during my stay in Bira; and on the eve of Ramadan, bom bunuh diri, or suicide bombers, struck three tourist locations in Bali. 

    I was relaxing on the second story verandah of the guest house, listening to my emergency world band radio when the news was first broadcast.  It was yet another blow to Indonesia’s already staggering tourist industry.  I quickly text messaged my young friend Hanafi who lived in Kuta Beach with his wife, her family, and a seven month old infant daughter.  He quickly replied, saying, praise be to Allah, they had been kept from harm’s way.  Only six weeks previously I had gone to visit Hanafi and his family in Kuta.  They lived in a traditional Balinese housing compound which was located directly behind the site of the 2002 nightclub bombing.  He had taken me to see the memorial which had been built at the site. 

    Terrorism was beginning to strike closer to home- and certainly Kuta Beach was Indonesia’s ground zero.  Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group responsible for most terrorist bombings in Indonesia over the last decade, had now struck Kuta twice, as it was symbolic of everything the group detested.  Kuta was viewed by JI as a cancerous creature of western influence; a tourist enclave whose presence in Indonesia was like an open wound infected with every sort of western decadence, and disseminating it throughout the body-morality of the republic.  These bacteria were of the most virile kind- capitalism and foreign investment; sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; sundry other anti-Islamic cultural values, and godless forms of government.  Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll- those obsessions of pleasure that degraded the morals of young Indonesians- were especially prevalent in Kuta.  Kuta was Indonesia’s poster child of western decadence, and a  point source of the infection JI intended to surgically remove.

    There are half-dozen predictable targets in Indonesia where terrorism could strike, and now after its second spate of bombings, Kuta was clearly at the top of the list.  There had actually been three separate bombings in Bali on the eve of Ramadan, all in and around the greater tourist area surrounding Kuta.  One suicide bomber struck in each location, which included a hotel and cafe. 

    Balinese police cut off the heads of all three dead bombers and took their photographs which were plastered all over the front page of daily newspapers throughout the country the next morning.  The authorities nominally did this in an effort to enlist public help to identify the bombers, but the gruesome display was also a warning Indonesian authorities directed squarely at the comrades of the three Islamic martyrs, signaling  governmental resolve to root out and exterminate terrorism throughout Indonesia.  The photographs were also made into posters and distributed throughout the country.  I took a photo of one in Makassar’s airport. 

    Within two months time, the chief bomb making expert and master mind of the first and most deadly Bali bombing had been cornered in his house near Malang in East Java.  His hideout surrounded by both local police and Indonesian military, the JI master of terror opted for martyrdom himself, detonating a suicide bomber’s body pack of explosives, killing himself and destroying the house.  It turned out he was a Malaysian by birth; highly educated and the member of a well-off family.  His death was a major event, in part because he had been training many cohorts in the art of bomb making.

    Much was made of this terrorist’s status as a foreigner.  The fact terrorism was at least in part an imported phenomenon didn’t bode well for any foreigner in the country.  At the very least immigration laws could be tightened, and obtaining visas for prolonged visits made that much more difficult.

    But very selfishly, I didn’t mind the dwindling of tourist traffic such tragic events would inevitably produce.  The fewer tourists the better as far as I was concerned.  Outside of the obvious influx of cash they brought with them and the few die-heart eco-tourists, I didn’t see how the industry benefited Indonesia much. And in Bira, I began to hear stories of just how disruptive their presence could be. 

    One tragic tale in particular caught my attention. I became acquainted with Basih, a woman who owned and operated a tiny shop and restaurant located at the bottom of the hill below Riswan’s.  Usually I would stop in just to buy bottled water, condensed milk, or clove cigarettes.  But occasionally Basih was in a social mood, and would invite me to sit, offering pisang goreng (fried bananas) and tea.  We would make joyous chatter in Bahasa Indonesia, and simply share a little time together.  Her two young children, Riska and Herfandi, were both students of mine at Sekolah SD No. 198. 

    On one particular visit to her bamboo warung, she chose to tell me the story of her ill-fated marriage.  It was a tale of a collision course between the old Bira the Blair brothers found in the early 1970’s, and the new Bira of today.

    Basih was born and had always lived in Bira.  She married a handsome Biranese man named Rachman.  Soon after, the couple had two children.  Rachman worked as a local fisherman.  The sea had always been the source of livelihood in Bira, and his family was leading the kind of traditional life the Biranese had always known. 

    Then a diving center opened in the growing resort area that was springing up on the western side of Bira’s cape.  The dive master lured the athletic Rachman away from his traditional labor as fisherman, and trained him to dive.  Rachman was then hired to accompany western tourists- most of them European- on dives into the greater waters surrounding Bira.  there was great diving to be had in and around the small islands off of Bira’s cape.  Depending on the time of year, divers could take in the sight of schools of sharks, manta rays, Napoleon fish, giant tuna, sea turtles, and whale sharks.  Bira’s reputation as a quality dive destination was on the rise, and Rachman was riding the tide.

    Certainly Rachman and Basih initially benefited.  Rachman earned a great deal more as dive guide than crewing on somebody else’s fishing boat.  Times were good for the growing family.  Then Rachman met an Irish lass named Anne on one particular diving expedition, and the pain a foreigner’s  influence could inflict on traditional Biranese life presented itself.  Rachman and Anne soon eloped to Makassar, taking up residence there, and Rachman simply abandoned his wife and children.  Basih, Riska, and Herfandi were left the family home- a traditional Bugis house-on-stilts- and the small, bamboo restaurant below Riswan’s guest House. 

    Rachman only committed to sending his family 300,000 rupiah a month; roughly 30 USD.  Despite Basih’s entreaties, he refused to increase the monthly support.  Moreover, Rachman married Anne, a legal act as an Indonesian Muslim may take on a second wife.

    This entire story spilled from Basih’s heart in follow-up to one question I asked of her, being simply, “Are you married, Basih?”

    As she was the mother of two children, it might seem a stupid, even offensive question given the cultural context, but so many women in Bira had lost their husbands to disease and prolonged absence as many men were forced to seek work in far-flung corners of the archipelago.

    Basih’s initial answer to my query was, “Yes, I am married, but my husband lives with his other wife.”  She offered her reply most matter-of-factly, looking me straight in the eye. 

    Basih was a tough nut.  I had seen her rebuilding the fence marking the property line surrounding her house on my daily walks to school.  She was fully capable of doing a man’s work, and had managed to recoup her personal loss and go about the business of raising her two children without a husband.  Basih hadn’t really confided her life’s story to me.  Bira was a small village town, and everybody knew everybody else’s business.  And Indonesians in general are not prone to keeping private such  personal tragedies.  Life was a tragedy as well as anything else it might be considered, and personal loss was just the cost of living.  To think she had especially chosen me as confidant would have been an act of vanity and self-flattering on my part.  Besides, there were two other attentive Indonesians sitting with us at the time!

    But I was thankful to Basih for having shared her tragic story, and even more so,  because it had been told in Bahasa Indonesia.  It was the kind of experience I had hoped for in Indonesia- a real story told by a real Indonesian spoken in the native tongue.  Basih’s narrative was a model drama with its protagonists and antagonists, but told in the manner Hemingway would have liked it written- disassociated from emotion, short, and truly narrated.

    Basih’s story and others like it which detailed some of the more sordid liaisons between tourists and Biranese locals didn’t enamor me to tourism’s darker side as found in Indonesia.  It takes two to tango, and Rachman was of sound mind and as an Indonesian had to be considered responsible for allowing western influence in the form of a femme-fatale to get his goat.  But the romantic fantasies westerners brought to Indonesia in chemistry with the opportunistic response it prompted in the Indonesians seemed on the whole an unhealthy side effect of tourism.  I was open to counter-example, but I hadn’t seen nor heard much in the way of complementary evidence in my travels around the archipelago.

    My reflections on stories such as Basih’s helped me in my resolve to stay true to my mission- i.e., to be a positive influence and help Indonesians better themselves educationally.  Even though I would always remain a foreigner in the eyes of Bira’s people, I could at least aspire to leaving a legacy that was more than that of just a carpetbagger.   

    No, being looked at as just another tourist was anathema, and I was sensitive to it.  I did not want to be associated with being a tourist nor associate with them.  But Bira had small streams of western tourist constantly trickling in, mainly in the form of dive tour groups from Germany, and some straggling backpackers who usually ended up at Riswan’s Guest House.  Their presence was a permanent part of Bira’s greater social mix, and I simply had to accept their presence.

    My all too human stance on this account was neither virtuous, a matter of pretense, nor pathological.  But I will admit to its vanity and self-righteousness.  I was not lost to the complexity of my attitude, though, and having no intention of seeing things differently, decided to both embrace it for its dramatic effect, and put it to good use as a community volunteer.  My prejudices against tourists were limited to internal dynamics, and I never did once openly slight any one individual.  I simply allowed my holier-than-thou attitude to entertain itself, while my external actions and speech mostly hid what I was really thinking.

    Finally cured of the flu, I put these positive values to work in Sekolah SD No. 198’s fifth grade class.  My maiden voyage as a volunteer teacher in Bira could not have sailed with a sweeter crew of children.  “Kelas lima” won me over the first moment I entered their tiny, makeshift classroom.  It was love at first sight.  Bright, eager, and engaged, the eleven girls and four boys were so thrilled to have me as a teacher that they single-handedly revived my spirits, giving me hope I might find a receptive group of students to teach. 

    Slowly working my way down a class roster I had extracted from the school attendance records in the office, I made my way around the cramped classroom, attempting to match names to faces.  Their names carried a magical sound, and each time I intoned a new name, I experienced a strangely singular elation.  Indonesian names held for me the greatest fascination.  Jusmawati, Dilla Maenawati, Lilis Karlina, Febrianto, Vivi Anggraeni, Selviana, Igo, Rosmila, Hendra, Rinawati, Irwandi, Lirmati, Reskiyanti, Yuni Irwanti, Asriandi.  Each spoken name seemed to fill the room with a divine music.  I reveled in these introductory moments.

    These were such beautiful children, and they didn’t seem to mind their terribly cramped classroom quarters.  As mentioned earlier, school site reparations were under way, and the fifth grade had been moved into a temporary space.  Most of the other grades had been displaced from their home classrooms as well, but the fifth grade had been asked to make the biggest sacrifice.  An abandoned cement building just across from the largest wing of normal classrooms had become their new home. 

    It consisted of four small rooms, and had been originally designed as office or storage space.  Thirteen fifth graders had been squeezed into the largest of the four rooms, which was no larger than 8 X 12 feet.  A doorway led into a rear room where the remaining two students were forced to sit in virtual darkness.  In order to set themselves or extricate their little bodies from where they sat, most of the children were forced to crawl over or under the classroom furniture.  They seemed to take it in all good humor, and having to huddle together up tight wedged into cement cubical most of the day didn’t faze the happy troupe of ten year olds.  A teacher’s desk and large, elevated black board propped up against the cement wall and placed on top a battered desk occupied one end of the room.

    Lack of cleanliness was what was most disturbing about  classroom conditions.  Furnishing had been thrown inside with no care given to even sweeping out the four little rooms.  The building had sat for years unattended, and no one had concerned themselves in ridding the cement bunker of dust, spider webs, and what have you before moving the fifth grade class into the decrepit site. The heat inside was tremendous, even though an open doorway and two windows circulated air.  It was August and the height of musim panas (dry season).  That the adults in charge would care so little as to be this negligent appalled. 


    My first impression of the level of care and attention given the children was unfortunately a lasting one.  Under the supervision and authority of Kepala Sekolah Hadji Hakim, the elementary school’s culture was typified by adult neglect and laziness.  Some staff members showed different stripes, but Hakim spread this disabling infection around him, giving license for teachers to share in his shirking of duty. 

    That the children didn’t pay it any mind probably meant their parents didn’t either.  and if I mentioned my misgivings about conditions at the school to Riswan or other Biranese villagers, their response was either stoical or one of laughter.  They echoed Ahkmad Syam’s attitude as well- that Indonesian public upheld low standards, and that was all need be said about it. 

    That most Indonesians harbored such resignation both disturbed and baffled me.  To conclude from all this that education was not valued didn’t seem on-target.  Like a pathologist looking to differentiate between epidemiological symptom and root cause, I rummaged around my brain trying to put a finger on it.  This neglect and apathy I witnessed within the confines of one little school- could I logically follow its rotting roots out into the local community; then the South Sulawesi region; followed by all of Indonesia itself?

    Could I dare make such general conclusions?  Was Sekolah SD No. 198’s culture of neglect part of a much larger pattern at work that in effect kept Indonesia’s people down?  Though my gut told me that SD No. 198 was emblematic, it was a question whose answer was best deferred, as I hadn’t the experience to rightfully answer it.  More importantly, I had a job to do, and couldn’t let it stand in my way.

    The fifth grade had already studied some English.  I tested their knowledge of letters and numbers.  They had the alphabet, numbers 1-100, and days of the week already under their belts. Having determined their prior knowledge, I moved into the heart of my lesson plan, which was to teach them the English words for the parts of the body and face.  “Ulang sesudah saya,” I would direct them. “Repeat after me.”

    “I have two eyes!  I have two ears!  I have one nose!  I have twenty-eight teeth!”

    The response was thunderous and shouted in ensemble at ear-splitting levels.  “I have two eyes!  I have two ears!  I have one nose!  I have twenty-eight teeth!”

    I had only a smattering of experience as an ESL teacher (English as a Foreign Language).  In 1989 I had taught an adult education course to a group of thirty recent immigrants.  There were Latinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Somalis. Most of my teaching experience had been as teacher of middle school mathematics and music.  These disciplines are languages in their own right, so there is some carry over to foreign language instruction, but I really had to operate more by the instincts and experience gathered from twenty years of being a teacher in its general sense.

    My approach with the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders of Pantai Bira was to present them with collections of related vocabulary- numbers, days of the week, months of the year, telling time, parts of the body, members of the family, food, clothing, shopping, and feelings.  I would place those nouns within the context of simple sentence structures and have the students repeat the sentences out loud, each time substituting in another noun from the classified list.  Call and response was the format.

    “Do you like to eat rice?” I would ask.

    “Yes, I like to eat rice!” would be the enthusiastic reply.

    “Do you like to eat pork?” I would mischievously prod.

    “No! I DO NOT LIKE TO EAT PORK!”  was the clarion response.  Then I would smile with a wink, and we would all share a good laugh.

    Woven into this were vocabulary-building exercises, and as a form of warm-up, I led the children through pronunciation drills.  As a native English speaker, this was perhaps the most valuable thing I had to offer, as creating the proper sounds of the English language was something Indonesian teachers of English were hard-pressed to reproduce themselves let alone teach.  English words ending in consonants were of great difficulty for Indonesian, as their vocal tracts had been trained to “choke-off” word-ending k’s, g’s, and p’s.  For example, the ending “k” on the end of the Indonesian word for “no”- tidak - was stooped short deep down in the throat; blocked from escaping by contracting the lower throat muscles which served to dampen more than pinch-off the air flow.  Because these consonant sounds were in effect “swallowed,” an English speaker would experience difficulty in perceiving their presence at all.

    I took extra care in over-pronouncing these consonant sounds of English.  English words are often demarcated one from the next by the proper articulation of a final phonemic consonant.  With the plosive “p” for instance, one must pop the “p” at the end of a word such as “stop” or “mop.”  Warm-up drills focused on these word-ending consonants, often collected into rhyming sets: “drop, cop, lop, shop; cat ,mat, rat, hat.” 

    “Th’s” were especially daunting for Indonesians, no matter their placement in a word, as there was no equivalent in their phonemic inventory.  Having to extend their tongue  outside the mouth and pinch it clinched between their upper and lower teeth was as foreign a position as could be for them.  Bath, wrath, lath, math;  that, thought, thing, these; clothing, bathing, soothing, mathematics.  No matter where the “th” was situated, the kids struggled; sometimes mightily.

    Bahasa Indonesia has some similarities with the Spanish language.  Almost all letters are symbolic of only one corresponding sound, and if another sound is indicated, an accent mark must be included when written.  Each vowel carries only one sound, unless accented.  Pronouncing English on the other hand, is nightmarish for beginners.  The English vowel “a,” for instance, has four official pronunciations, excluding those found in foreign sounds and diphthongs. 

    I enjoyed teaching the nasal inflection, found in such words as “tang.”  This portion of a lesson always  provided for great amusement, as American twang was an easy, fun, and humorous sound for all the students to reproduce.  This observation seemed in keeping with the Indonesian love of American country music.  Many Indonesians had an affinity for good ole American twang, whether it came from a guitar or human voice. 

    Later, I was stunned when first watching the Jakarta-based Indonesian country music television show, “Country Roads.”   The musicians, dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and hats, belted-out American country like nobody’s business!  Their mastery of country vocal accents as well as the overall country idiom completely cleaned my clock.  My jaw dropped a yard and I sat shaking my head in amazement as an Indonesian country band knocked off on American country standard after another.

    This style of teaching was a labor-intensive process, as the students had to copy down all the vocabulary and sentence structures I written on the board into their own personal notebooks.  I’m sure I could have employed a better system, but it was the method I had selected. So it was through music that I provided the children relief  from vocabulary and pronunciation building.  After a week of introductory lessons, I started bringing my guitar to class, and would teach the children songs with English and Spanish lyrics.   I chose songs of varying tempo, style, and mood.  The Beatle’s All Together Now along with Bingo; Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and La Bamba were all great favorites with the kids. 

    I always reserved the last twenty minutes of class for group singing, and brought the class to a close with Indonesia’s national anthem, Indonesia Raya.  English classes were ninety minutes in duration- a lengthy stretch that would test the attention span of students twice the age.  Knowing that we would end a class with joyous song provided incentive for the students to stay the course for the first hour.  The benefits of music in developing pronunciation skills and the meter of language- not to mention soul, voice, and spirit of a the culture behind that language- may well be peerless as an instructional tool.  For everything I lacked as a teacher of English as a foreign language, the music seemed to make up for- especially in terms of building a sustained student enthusiasm.

    A ritual group offering of respect from students to teacher always marked the official end of class.  One class member would stand to attention and announce in English, ”Stand up please!”; a military-like command prompting the entire class to stand at attention as well; ramrod straight with eyes focused to the fore.  The lead member would further direct everyone to thank me in unison. Upon returning to their seats, the children offered a prayer to Allah from a sitting position. With palms slightly cupped and placed side by side, they would raise them up as if to sip water from their hands, partially covering their faces while leaning their heads forward in supplication.  Again in unison, they would recite the a standard prayer.  Looking up after finishing, they would await my permission to be excused.

    Each and every time I was offered this ritual of respect, I was in awe and made humble.  After countless years of working with  American youth the formal offering was a most remarkable change, and I soaked it up like a dry swab does rum on shore leave after six months at sea.  My receptiveness to the ritual far outweighed any misgiving I had at the regimented, martial style of delivery.  And sharing in a prayer to their own god made me feel included and accepted.  Everyone knew I did not share in their faith, but that made no difference.  Not being Muslim added immeasurably to the experience. 

    For me, the only thing that truly mattered was the service I had offered in good faith- not religious faith- and that offering was fully reciprocated.  The only real faith I knew was good faith, and to thanked in religious faith built a bridge over whatever divide there may have existed between us due to religious differences.

    An anti-authoritarian, independent-minded viewpoint might have well-condemned this ritual as obsequious to authority, and just another tactic implemented by Suharto to make uniform Indonesian society through the indoctrination of its youth.  All of this was probably true, but in that moment of thanks I only experienced a purity of expression and bonding with the children.  My mind and heart did not experience a dissonance between the criticism one could levy against such demonstrations of  respect and the good it did one’s communal heart.

    Upon leaving the class, the children would often rush forward to shake my hand.  Reaching out for me while crowding together, their faces beamed with appreciation and their eyes with love and acceptance.  I would shake every hand directed my way, thank them all, press my palms together, raise them to my brow, and bow to them in return respect.

    I was invariably soaked in sweat after a ninety minute session.  Cooped inside a cement building, even with wire meshed open air windows was a real trial.  The heat was somewhat tempered by being removed from direct sunlight, but even shade trees served little protection from the equatorial sun .  The superheated air filling the classroom space coupled with extreme humidity could be life-threatening! I would often forget to drink enough water before teaching, and upon returning home by foot in the blazing noonday sun to Riswan’s Guest House,  I was routinely  dehydrated  and well on the way to sun stroke.  Slumping into a chair in the guest house’s dining area, I would ingest nearly a half
    gallon of water, and slowly revive.

    But the walks home were often lively events, as I was invariably accompanied by a gaggle of my students who were on their way home as well.  They would excitedly ask me to sing songs in English, and those few who had bicycles would circle round our group in play.  We occupied a large swath of the narrow asphalt road, and impatient drivers would honk their horns vigorously as they approached.  The children would shift slightly to one side allowing traffic to pass by, unfazed by the potential danger.  Pedestrians were showed little respect; no matter their age. 

    Our merry troupe traipsed through the toll and security gates marking the entrance into the Pantai Bira resort area proper, and then continued on up a rocky dirt road that ascended a slight slope into that old part of traditional Bira  which took me back to Riswan’s.

    One-by-one we would pass a child’s family home, and one or two siblings would drop off from the group.  As I lived at the end of the line, I would eventually say good-bye to my last walking buddy, and make my way alone the last hundred meters along the paving stones that rose up gently to the hilltop where the guest house sat, overlooking the dark blue waters of the Flores Sea and white expanses of beach running along the western cape’s shoreline.

    After lunch I usually walked down to the beach, stepped into the warm coastal waters and went snorkeling.  Having brought along my own snorkeling gear from the states, I had my own little ritual in preparation for my solo swims out onto Bira’s coral reefs.  After wriggling my feet into extra-short, travel-sized fins, I would stand, apply a silicon get to my upper lips and cheeks to seal the diving mask to my face so as to prevent leakage, and then splash a few drops of defogger onto the mask’s lens, rinsing  only once after application.  As I grew more experienced snorkeling the area, I would stop to study the sea surface for wave action and possible currents before slipping into the ocean.

    Once immersed, I was instantly transformed into a creature of the sea.  Having grown up on the shores of a mountain lake, swimming was more natural than walking, especially given the awkward set of feet I had been born with.  Their structural integrity is so compromised that the U.S. Selective Service had quickly issued me a medical deferment from serving in the Viet Nam War upon inspecting them!  I had never been much on land, but in the water I was in my element, and completely relaxed. But the ocean is a great task master, and must be respected.

    As the coral gardens I visited were located a couple of hundred meters south of the beach and 150 meters straight offshore from the cape’s marine terrace whose limestone cliffs rose vertically out of the sea, a few hundred meters of swimming was required to get there. My first few ventures out to sea taught me the vagaries of the local ocean currents.

    Riswan had warned me that if I swam too far down along the cape’s cliffs towards land end, I might get caught up in turbulent surface waters and strong currents that could sweep me further down the coastline and eventually out to sea.  Ladders descending from the tops of the cliffs down to the sea provided a visual reference from a snorkeler’s vantage point.  As measured from the beginning of the cliffs that rose up from the end of the strand of nearby beach, a snorkeler was to take care upon reaching the last of three ladders spanning some two hundred fifty meters of cliff side. 

    Riswan never one to use exaggerated language,  told me, “The current can get a little bit strong past the third ladder.  Better not to go past.  Just snorkel out to the second ladder.  The coral is good there.”

    His words were as true as they were understated.  If the current moved northerly and in direct opposition to my swimming direction, I didn’t need to worry.  In fact, this provided the safest set of conditions, as I could swim against-current  even out past the third ladder.  When I turned back, I could ride the current like a bird does the wind, or like a sky-diver does the effects of gravity, tumbling along in a kind of lateral moving free-fall, stretching out my body and rolling onto my back and then onto my side, gloriously surrendering to the sensation of being swept along a river flowing within a great body of water. 

    All the while the coral garden some seven meters below stretched out far to both sides and in front of me.  Its demarcation was to the other side, where the drop-off occurred and coral gave way to sandy ocean bottom.  Coral colors were muted pastels of browns, greens, yellows, and blues.  Fish were not in huge variety and number as every snorkeler dreams of when first arriving in Indonesia.  But there were plenty of fish to be seen, including schools of  large, blue, bulbous-headed relatives of the Napoleon fish, as well as parrot fish, and sea turtles.

    If the current ran out along the cape, though, I had to take great care.  As I invariably snorkeled alone- a risky proposition some might consider- vigilance was of the highest priority.  My first experience with a southerly current whose strength increased rather imperceptibly upon nearing the third ladder was nearly a disaster, as I found myself having to contend with large, choppy waves as well.  I panicked a bit, and in an effort to swim back against the current whose strength I had underestimated, I didn’t angle in towards shore sharply enough, and the rising and falling wave action churning all around both impeded my progress while beginning to exhaust me. 

    Soon, breathing through my snorkel no longer provided the growing volume of air I needed as I was swimming as hard as I could.  I resorted to swimming on my back, spitting out the snorkel mouthpiece and gulping in air attempting to recoup the oxygen needed.  This was a vulnerable position to be in while navigating choppy seas.  The random movement of wave fronts could easily wash over me from a blind side and I’d soon be gulping down salt water instead of air.  Finally I adjusted my swimming angle so directing it more towards the cliff-lined shore and made safe passage into shallower waters where the current’s strength and volume became manageable. 

    Regaining my composure and replenishing my breath, I swam back to the beach, and lolling about in the shallows took some time to decompress emotionally and physically.  It had not been a terribly close call, but certainly a wake-up call.  From then on I took much more care in reading the current, and learned to judge its direction and strength within the first twenty swimming strokes that took me out to sea once I had pushed myself out into deeper waters past the initial swathes of white sand and green sea grasses in the shallows just off the beach.

    There were plenty of cross-currents to be faced in Bira, both at sea and on land.  And I was navigating both unchartered forms- natural and cultural- alone.  It was my want, and my style.  And on land, without the support of a traveling companion, woman, or educational organization to help buoy me or pull me out of the drink,  I could have inadvertently been swept-out to sea, or lost in some cultural confusion due to my full immersion. 

    But it was the challenge of going it alone and often blind that drove me on.  Like a tightrope walker who foregoes the safety net; or free-style rock climber who only depends on his skills, a good pair of technical shoes and a pouch full of resin, I found the volunteer teaching experience and all the events leading up to it a much more profound experience having done it on my own and at some psychological and physical peril. 

    Call me stupid, self-destructive, or a glutton-for-punishment, the simple truth was I needed to traverse the journey along a finely-honed edge.  The sharper the angle between the razor’s edge and my face as I drew the shaver against the grain of my beard, the better.  I wanted a true-to-life experience without buffers and padding.  For too long I had been lost wandering about the labyrinth of a conventional fun house; its mirrors confusing me with multiple reflections, all unfaithful to the original source whose image had been distorted beyond recognition.

    All of that had been stripped away in Bira.  I could not continue the process of cleansing my psyche that had so frighteningly gripped me as an initiate in Tanah Toraja.  I was further along the road now.  I had also begun to discipline my mind, as I began to study and practice calculus in my garret at the guest house for hours every day.  I was not going to waste one spare moment in executing a scheme of self-revitalization that balanced community service, physical exercise in the sea, intellectual challenge through the study of mathematics and three square meals a day. 

    Nightmares still ravaged my sleep, though not on the order of the Torajan shaker, and I rarely managed to sustain more than four hours of sleep at a stretch.  Turning aside and shutting down the flow of disturbed thought patterns I carried to bed with me was still a difficult psychological task.  Surrendering to the needs of the body and mind and allowing sleep to overcome me was difficult as well, just as it had been in the states since the years surrounding my divorce.  Detoxing would take how much time I didn’t know.

    To truly live and live truly requires risk, and I was trying to live up to this aphoristic credo.  I had left America to reclaim my life, and however long and drawn out the process, every little thing I was doing felt relevant to the mission, and had to be done.  And I was sure as hell not going to return to the states empty-handed on that account.  Something told me the rest of my life would go the way of this Indonesian rantau.

    Every step along the way revealed its meaning and limits; and every activity I committed to had its life term; its beginning, middle, and end.  As far as teaching in Bira , I could commit to no longer than six months as my visa would expire, and I had a second teaching position awaiting me in Tahuna on Sangihe Island north of Manado in North Sulawesi- a stronghold of Christianity- where I had visited in July.  A chance meeting there with a solicitous high school teacher in tandem with the persuasive tactics of his school’s headmaster had combined to prompt my decision to teach in Tahuna before returning to America  The opportunity to teach in both a Muslim and Christian world couldn’t be passed by. 

    As my experience in Indonesia repeatedly reinforced the observation that religion was the most powerful force at work in peoples’ everyday life, it seemed important for me to see first hand how that defining power worked in both Muslim and Christian contexts.

    My days in Bira were numbered.  As much as  I loved the elementary school children of Sekolah SD No. 198, other considerations had convinced me I had to move on sooner than planned.  some of those considerations were admittedly selfish and rationalized.  My dissatisfaction with government corruption as experienced within Bira’s educational bureaucracy that had forced me to by my way into volunteer services had left a bitter taste in my mouth that had lingered and festered.  Coming to school each day only to find teachers in unexcused absence or huddling in groups outside their classrooms socializing for hours while their students were abandoned to their own devices, began to wear on me.  Indonesia’s civil servant culture was on display in its worse form in Bira and nearby Tanah Beru.  To be a part of it was growing intolerable.  That Bira’s conservative traditions had
    carried over so powerfully from the past seemed to insure slow educational progress, as education was simply not a valued nor understood cultural entity in that context.

    I had used all these excuses and more to rationalize moving on before anticipated.  My troubles with the immigration office in Makassar put the drove the final nails into the coffin.  I felt guilty in leaving after three instead of six months, but I also knew it was the right decision.  I could move on to sever another group of Indonesian children in what appeared to be a much better educational environment.  Somehow it seemed I could contribute more to the children who not only had my educational support, but also the support of their own, greater island community.