Leaving Wonderland, a last night in Indonesia

I’m leaving Surabaya at long last. Of course I’ve left a dozen times over the course of two years to go on holiday but I always came back to my job and my apartment. Real Life was always there waiting for me to resume it. There were a handful of get-out-of-jail-free passes but I resigned myself to the shackles of responsibility and moral obligation to return to work after my blissful holidays. But two weeks ago I left Surabaya for good. I watched the city pass by from the inside of a car as my friend drove me to the airport. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ but in contrary: Goodbye Waterplace Residence, my home for two years! Goodbye Supermal and my massage peeps! Goodbye highway toll gate! Goodbye shopping malls, traffic, chaos, and smog! Goodbye smiley people! It was a blur of places and people as will be the sharp details of my everyday life in Surabaya soon enough. We stopped at the school to pick up my passport. There was just a handful of admin staff at their desks. The whole place was a bit ghostly.

I used to think that any place with palm trees was paradise. But on the Friday night of my final day of work as I sat out smoking a shisha on my habitual stomping grounds of Spazio, an outdoor social space hosting a smattering of restaurants, the palm trees stood sadly, looking malnourished and neglected in the middle of one of the busiest streets in West Surabaya. They sagged next to giant billboards advertising real estate and university degrees, all in English, excluding much of the population from having access to things they simply could never afford anyways. Imagine that. Giant signs all over your own city that you can’t understand because someone has deemed you not worthy of having access to such information. And I caught a glimpse of the human condition (namely MY condition as a human), finally at 37 years old: that we all just kind of want to be somewhere else. That’s why we travel to places exactly like home and text people in the company of others and anticipate future plans and regret past choices. It’s why we watch TV. It’s why we’re always moving, in body or mind.

Leaving a place is sort of like entering a place; you’ve no idea how you’re going to feel. I could have anticipated that I would feel relieved and happy to no longer have obligations in a city I never liked. I could have also guessed before arriving two years ago that I might love the place. Like when I buy wine and can’t make a decision until I’ve held the bottle in my hands (thanks Jono, that works every time), you don’t know if you’re going to like a place until you feel it. I asked a good friend some time ago when he became aware of his dislike for the city. “At the airport,” he responded. I snorted in resignation, that was no surprise. You get an immediate, visceral sense of whether or not you’re going to like a place upon arrival, like your first impressions of people. Other places take time to feel out. A different friend fell in love with Surabaya the moment she stood on its road-juice-soaked pavement. “It felt like home straight away,” she said. And that’s precisely what she made it. She’s been in the city for several years now married to a local man with whom she had a child two years ago. The city isn’t for everyone, but it is for some and having a network or a support system, whether that be one person or a family, makes a foreign land much more liveable.

Travelling and living in Surabaya has acquainted me intimately with time, which can feel like a prison or a release out into the great wide open. It often panics me. Too much of it requires goals and tasks to fill it. Too little time however, which is usually the case, has me begging for more, watching my world fly by like a high speed train en route to a destination I’m quite literally dying to get to but terrified to arrive at. It’s a chase. And the thrill of the chase makes its objective so much more desirable. Once attained however, I so often step back with remorse, NOT YET.

My 730 day teaching contract was a long desert road at the start. I couldn’t see the end and I didn’t look closely enough at what initially appeared to be barren surroundings. I ducked down and got to work to the rhythm of the slow ticking clock. Days turned into weeks turned into months, dragging by like tired feet on a long journey. Dry season ended and the rain came down hard and often, trapping me in my apartment every evening, lonely and fantasising about post-Surabaya life and how sweet it would be, like raspberry juice on a parched tongue. For two years I was the locust once caught in my shower, hopping around in a mad panic to find its way out. And then one day I woke up in someone’s arms, to sun and nostalgia streaming in through the windows of my empty apartment and I realised that the end had arrived. Is this what I wanted? My release from what I’ve always referred to as the iron grip of Surabaya leaves me feeling relieved but also sad. It’s the bittersweetness of finality, abrupt and irreversible, because the end of something is never gradual. It’s there one minute and not the next. Only grief and an inability to let go make the end continuous. They’re the talons of time.

On my last night in Surabaya I floated around my apartment, hearing the echo of cupboard doors opening and closing as I did last checks for any insignificant, scattered remains. The ridiculous number of built-in mirrors reflected my choices back at me: the old clothes I chose to wear and the bags holding ones I no longer needed, to be given away, all that wouldn’t fit in my backpack. The walls stamped with faded squares and rectangles where once hung artwork and hastily scrawled mantras I’d used to soothe myself as I foraged for answers to questions about life I’d not yet asked. My giant suitcase, which sat with it’s lid propped against my wall, sagging with books and other collected items. It held all my possessions, artefacts of my adult life. The only adolescent things that remained were a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (Sonnet 42) on paper the colour of an old man’s teeth and as creased as his skin–a palpable indication of the passage of time–and, a turtle rattle (I have no idea but every time I pick it up and wonder what the hell it is and what the hell to do with it, something in me speaks to keep it so I listen). I experienced deja vu, a scene I’d starred in once before, years ago but with fear and more suitcases. That was my goodbye to Surabaya and that two-year-long moment in time. I felt from the top of my head to the soles of my feet a longing to stay so as to hang onto some significant part of myself and simultaneously, a desire to ceremoniously burn every representative scrap of my life there and then run without looking back.

Stockholm syndrome sets in not long after I leave. The once-had beautiful situation now lays itself plainly before me. A great salary. Rent paid. Year-end bonuses. Flight allowances. A ridiculous amount of holiday time. An awesome boss. A professional status unlike what I could ever receive in Canada. A rewarding yet undeserved social status. Few responsibilities. The opportunity to learn about and immerse myself in a totally different culture. Easy and inexpensive access to spectacular nature and sublime beaches. The chance to redefine myself and rewrite my life’s script. Refuge from loneliness and culture shock in the form of a beautiful lover. A motorbike and the semi-open road. And all I wanted was to get out of that city. It was never me. I bent myself to fit into something I didn’t love and within in I found something I did. And those talons grip, even as I breathe clean air and ditch my calendar. Freedom is a state of mind after all.

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