So, I wrote I book, which is actually a collection of blogs–my musings and stories of a two-year-long life now passed. If you’re interested in reading some amusing, crass, heartfelt stories, check it out on Amazon.com, and please leave a review! Here I share the preface/introduction to my book, A Single White Female in a Foreign Land, Tales of a Teacher Abroad :
Preface: You Can’t Make This Shit Up
Living two years in Indonesia was a 730-day trip of epic proportions. It was all I loved and hated in myself and my immediate airspace. Everything happened there, from within the confines of my tiny seventh floor apartment in Surabaya, and the rest of the country. With a healthy number of holiday weeks packed into my teaching contract, I had oodles of time to explore and fall in love with South East Asia, particularly Indonesia. And I just recently discovered that I do, in fact, love Indonesia with all my heart. Through all its annoyances and gill-inspiring humidity, I fell in love with it somehow. Maybe it was the country, or maybe it was the etch-a-sketchy course my life took during that time. Or maybe I’m just not overly choosey about what I love. Most likely it was a combination. But I am grateful for it anyways.
Surabaya–coined the City of Heroes–is an urban failure, from my subjective point of view, that is. But, according to Indonesia, it is the model city that resurrected itself from the industrial squalor of its past, so calling it a failure is a bit strong; it just didn’t meet my culturally-relative expectations. Even last year’s solar eclipse skipped out on making an appearance there–a galactic event. Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia, squashed into East Java’s snout, just out of reach of a narrow escape route to the giant Java Sea. It has all the appeal of a cinder block. In the tropics, amongst bare needle palm trees threaded with green, and humidity thicker than a wool sweater are a hundred shopping mall monstrosities and a massive cigarette industry. The pungent scent of clove cigarettes hangs in the moist air like an old dirty shirt. But the city is a gateway to incredible Mount Bromo–a few hours drive from the city, and Bali, a mere 40-minute flight away, and which needs no descriptor because the word Bali produces its own imagery of emerald rice fields, superb beaches, and richly coloured batik. And–importantly in the single woman’s life–Surabaya has one good bar with really good live music, but fill your hip flask with whiskey because they don’t serve ‘em Jacks up cheap.
The name Surabaya derives from two Javanese words: Suro, meaning shark*, and boyo, meaning crocodile. Two wild and misunderstood creatures who, as folklore has it, fought for the title of the most powerful animal in the area. Now, sharks have survived five planet extinction events, which is momentous if we consider that they will drown if they simply stop moving. And although we fear sharks, we pose more danger to them than they do to us (in fact we have greater chances of dying from being popped on the head by a falling coconut than we do from a shark attack–and the odds increase if you live under a coconut tree). Crocodiles on the other hand, can strike more quickly than we can react. A key insight to survival in this city? Beware: The potential for danger lurks as much on the inside as it does in our external environment, but pay close attention to both. In the end, the crocodile won as the legend goes. Perhaps for its ability to survive in dual, competing habitats. And the shark can’t stop moving in its native home or it will die.
There are about three million inhabitants in Surabaya, mainly of Islamic custom. Gorgeous people with as much patience as there are colours for their beautiful women’s hijabs. So many people–including those beautiful women–helped me there, in big ways and small ways. Some of them I’ve lost touch with now but they will stay with me, forever tucked away in the bones of my gratitude. The teachers I worked with are some of the most special women I’ve known. These women are humble, proud, hard-working, uncomplaining, grateful, kind, and as excited by life as the beautiful children they teach. They made my days at work akin to a sugar high, surrounding me with fluffy marshmallows, snappy bubblegum, and colourful twisty lollipops. Their energy kept me lifted and light on days when rainy season filled my heart with tropical thunder. These women represent the people of Indonesia for me. Not the young, desperate men who robbed or disrespected me, or even those who live in the dank, gritty basements of poverty.
My time in Surabaya was like two years spent in a jail cell with walls painted the blue and white of clouds and sky, with palm tree bars and a lock that didn’t quite fit the key in my desperate hands. But it was a confinement of my own creation; Indonesia painted its walls–thankfully. Had those 24 months happened in the context of a Canadian winter I might have shrivelled to the likes of–well, a few people who’ve helped me grow–and simply stopped moving. A shark dead in the water. Those two years in Surabaya marked my first time living alone, and as a single woman, recently divorced and with as much certainty about what to do with life as a fish has about flying. That time afforded me frequent escapes to Bali, Lombok, the gorgeous Gili Islands, mind-blowing volcanoes and craters, and sweet, sweet ignorance. It showed me impossibly blue sky and dense jungle green and icing sugar sand, all from within a tropical prison.
In Bahasa Indonesia–literally the language of Indonesia–the word hati symbolically translates to heart*. Piggy-backed, hati hati means be careful. Be careful. In a myriad of ways that comprises the truth of my two-year residence in Surabaya and partially, the indie rules of the English language regarding double words: Emphasis. Or, a stutter. But primarily, it suggested be very careful with your heart out there. Don’t double-up servings of your love to anything because this country is wild and unpredictable and dangerously low on boring, sensible arrangements of events or logic. And I fucking double-loved it anyways. It’s never al punto–unless we’re talking about parking tickets. It’s so many different cultures scattered across so many different islands, with so many different, similar sounding languages. All of them serving up tempeh* and nasi goreng*–no fail. All sporting Swallow brand flip flops amidst active volcanoes, ancient Buddhist temples and extravagant mosques, crushing poverty, run-of-the-mill corruption, and gaping holes in the cities’ unused sidewalks. And undersea magic and sunsets that will change your life. To find all of this in one place, from the seat of a motorbike or a seventh floor apartment is something of a miracle. To find all you want and don’t want in one place is the essence of any adventure or heartbreak and isn’t there always one in the other? So, Indonesia was my heartbreak country because I loved it in spite of all the things I didn’t like about it. And loving something will always break your heart.
This collection of what were originally published as blogs, with the exception of The Boy in the Airport, is a set of chronological stories of my experiences as a single white female (SWF) living in Indonesia. They are also a symbol of the end of my relationship with that period in my life. I’ll interact with them in my mind from time to time, and they will always linger somewhere in my body, but I will dust them off now and put them back up on the shelf where they belong. Those pages don’t need anymore turning, brooding over, or attempts at sense-making. They are what they were, and for a short time, what they became. But they will cease being it, what must happen when we close the door on any relationship. My stories, musings, self-indulgent quasi-rants will stay here in these pages–or E-ink screens as a record of a pretty wicked couple of years. They’re how I say goodbye to that incredible experience. And if I didn’t already say it–Damn! I love Indonesia!
* Suro is a mythical creature that closely resembles a shark and is generally accept as one.
* Hati translates symbolically to heart, but its literal translation is liver. Indonesians believe that emotion originates in the liver, so it’s Western equivalent is heart.
*Tempeh is a dense, soybean cake, usually deep fried.
*Nasi goreng is Indonesia’s version of fried rice