I slowly make my way over the mounds of jagged rock and coral leading up to my homestay house. I’ve gotten used to the unevenness, ready to trip me at any moment, but after another packed day of swimming and exploring I have to be careful that my tired legs don’t betray me.
My ibu, bapak, and 13-year-old sister are perched on the deck of the house, chuckling quietly as they watch my struggle. I make it to the deck and plop down next to them with a relieved sigh. We say good evening and exchange smiles. The deck doesn’t quite fit all four of us, but it gets an unbeatable evening breeze. My ibu disappears and quickly returns with two steaming bowls. One is full of fluffy white rice and the other is piled with freshly grilled fish. She fills three plates of food, kindly making sure to offer one to me even though she knows I’ve already eaten at the program house.
We talk as they eat. My bapak always has questions for me about America. He wants to know what the weather is like: is it always hot like here, or does it get cold? I assure him that it can get very cold, but I struggle to describe it. There’s nothing here that’s really comparable to a New England winter.
He asks more questions about my life, my family, etc. Often I’m unsure of how to fully respond in Bahasa Indonesia, and we’ll end up smiling and laughing at our clear language barrier. My sister giggles as I mess up some word or phrasing and patiently corrects me, helping me figure out what to say. And sometimes, when we have absolutely no idea what each other is trying to communicate, my sister takes my hand and squeezes it, reassuring me that it’s alright.
Eventually the conversation starts to dissipate. We’ve covered all the topics for one night, and the laughter and confused smiles are more frequent than the actual words. Then, the silence settles and we sit, not saying anything, listening to the sounds of the night.
The neighbor’s TV bleats sounds of some popular Indonesian soap opera, and the sea gently laps beneath us. I lean back against the cracked and weathered wood of the deck and watch as thousands of stars speckle the night sky. We sit here for a while, wrapped up in the contentment of our quiet and the glowing beauty of the sky. Some stars fall in their lazy yet deliberate path, and as I sit there with the cool breeze, the ocean, and my Sampella family next to me, I wouldn’t wish on those shooting stars to be anywhere else.
10 Truths of Sin Leh Jwah (Village)
1. The people have lots of faith in your Myanmar language abilities. They trust that you understand them no matter how confused you look, so they continue to talk very quickly and without gestures to the point where the only thing you can do is just laugh, throw up your hands, and say “Na Ma lay boo” (I don’t understand).
2. It rains when you least expect it and is sunny when you wish it weren’t, but it doesn’t really matter because your feet will get muddy walking through the streets anyway.
3. There will always be children. Everywhere. The sweetest-looking, most-beautiful children. There to hold your hand, to carry your bag that happens to be larger than they are, to lead you to a monastery up a rocky hill at a too-fast pace, to stuff your pockets with crab apples that they will eat for a snack later, to fix your hair and adorn it with wildflowers, to laugh at you, to laugh with you, to play with your camera taking silly pictures, to just watch you in your natural habitat. Whatever you’re doing, there will be children.
4. You can always judge how many people are at your house and a little what they are like based on the shoes on the landing before the stairs to your house. Muddy black boots–your brother is home from work. Worn gray flip flops–your father is lounging by the TV. A few pairs of tiny pink and green sandals with flowers–your little nieces are crowded in the corner playing the hand game you taught them yesterday.
5. No matter how many times you say “Wa bee” (I’m full), your home-stay mother will put more rice onto your plate and will scoop a few more of those extra-saucy unidentifiable green vegetables on top. She will smile and laugh as you pat your stomach and continue saying “Wa bee.” Then she will heap a few more veggies on your already-heaping plate.
6. After an overly-fulfilling breakfast, your family will most likely disappear. You will return from getting your morning medications to find your house door closed and your house completely empty. You will be slightly confused, and then a child will appear, grab your hand, and lead you along.
7. Showers will be cold, yet refreshing. The first bucket-full of water dumped down your back will make you squeal and squirm, but putting on fresh longyi and a warm fleece on your clean body is well worth the cold rush.
8. Expect bwehs (festivals) almost every night. Lines of lanterns on a walk to a mountaintop pagoda. Oohs and Ahhs and pointing to the sky as you crowd the porch to see the fireworks. Dancing around a single light to the beat of drums and unknown instruments. This is the norm for Sin Leh. Always something to celebrate, something to dance for, to smile about.
9. Your mother will be, no doubt, an oxymoron. Like all women of Sin Leh, she will be both gentle and firm. She will be beautiful and delicate–when putting on her thanaka in the morning and when setting up the Buddha’s offering plates in the mornings, her pace will be slow, and her hands will softly do their work. But then, she’s a strong, muscular, even crude-seeming woman to the Western eye–when she smacks the cats out of her way while she’s cooking or when her grandchildren walk all along her body as she lays down or when she burps and burps and burps for the whole room to hear while we try to watch a TV show. No apologies. But its this “oxymoronic” state that makes her so incredible, and one thing is definitely for sure: you will love both sides of her in every moment.
10. When you say goodbye to your family, you will know–from the warm, completely enveloping hug from your amay (mother), from the giant bittersweet smile of your apay (father), from the last high-five of your nephew, from the tearful faces of your apwah (grandmother), and from the crowd of hands waving you off–you will know that you will miss your host-family. And at that point, you will stop thinking of them as your host-family but rather just as your Sin Leh family.
In San Antonio, Palopa, Guatemala, every November 1st is celebrated with earnest. Brightly colored kites dot the skyline, soaring high above (although sometimes colliding with) the powerlines. Atoll (a corn-based drink) is served, alongside fiembre (which contains every meat and vegtable one can imagine). Flowers are bought, candles are lit, prayers uttered, and tears shed. This celebration is known as Dia de los Muertos, which is observed by San Antonio as well as a majority of Central America. It is a day for rememberance of loved ones who have passed away, and is celebrated in a number of ways, but most prominently by visiting the loved one`s tombstone. I, for better or for worse, have been to the cemetery many times in my life. It has never truly gotten easier, less solemn, or without tears. However, upon seeing the ceremonies at San Antonio´s cemetery, I think I might have been going about it in the wrong way. There were plenty of solemn, tear-streaked faces among the graves, but they paled in comparison to the rest of the cemetery`s activity. First of all, graves in Guatemala are not at all like they are in the States. They`re vibrant- birghtly painted in neon pinks, greens, and blues, embellished with beautiful paintings of Virgen de Guadelupe or Jesus Cristo. When I arrived, graves were blanketed in sweet-smelling pine needles and flower petals, and almost every headstone had a bouquet of flowers lying across it. Music drifted through the air, not sad, solemn music, but music that made me smile and sway alongside it. Incense burned, intoxicating the wind with its rich scent, infiltrating every inch of the cemetery.In addition to this, families and friends were encircled around their loved ones. They weren´t staring at their toes sadly, or in silence. Instead, they sat down, right next to the grave, and offered their loved one words of admiration and kindness. They set their favorite meal at their tombstone, and perhaps poured out a taza of vino or chicha, to toast the occasion. Little kids sold cotton candy and flowers, wandering from grave to grave. Teenagers sat on top of the cemetery walls, talking and sipping Coca Cola our of plastic cups. As the sun began to dip low in the sky, casting shadows over the celebration, I was thoroughly confused. I had never seen anything like Dia de los Muertos. For me,(and presumably, most of the US) death has always meant sadness, mourning, pain. Never had I seen anyone smile in a cemetery. That was when I realized something. In the States, death is considered an end. It`s a one-note harsh separation for both the deceased and those who love them. Here in Gautemala, it`s believed that the deceased come back and visit, in the form of November`s massive ron rones (bees) that invade the streets of San Antonio, or the kite strings that are said to transmit messages up into the stratosphere, communicating with those you love. There is no definite endpoint for relationships, no cutoff for love. Dia de los Muertos is as much a celebration of life as it is a mourning of death. It`s a day centered around the culture of family, of love, of living. It`s beautiful, and although dotted with solemn moments, it is very much a happy occasion. As the sun slipped behind Volcan Toliman, I pondered this. Death is not singular, or unaccompanied, as it is always preceded by an illustrious life. Without life, death is infeasible. In everything, there is duality. You cannot have light without dark, happiness without sadness, life without death. Recognizing, maintaining only one of two entities is illogical. Recently, the one year anniversary of my grandmother´s death found me on a chilly Guatemalan morning. In the moment, I was overwhelme- overwhelmed by her absence, overwhelmed by the prospect that life is so fleeting. Suddenly, from where I was seated on the patio, I saw a few bright, lively kites dot the sunrise. I heard the buzzing of November`s famous ron rones, I saw the sun peek over the top of the distant mountain range. And I felt my grandmother with me, always.
Bleary eyed and peckish, we wander down the first street of this boom town. Kedougou, flooded with rural migrant workers brought by the gold mining in the hills, offers plenty of cheap breakfast options. Three sided stalls made of cotton sheets are erected temporarily and stand alongside more permanent wooden slatted huts, each selling sandwiches of beans and omelettes. Their interiors are bare bones, just a table with a couple benches or perhaps a rickety chair or two.
The routine at each is fairly uniform. You sit at one of the benches where some regulars eye you with vague curiosity before returning to their bowl of beans and potatoes. The proprietor sits behind a table, piled high with eggs, spices, tapa lapa and various twisted and worn cooking implements. She smiles and the creases all over her face fold into each other. She motions for you to sit as she quickly assembles her ingredients. You watch her cut the onions with speed and dexterity, dicing them completely in 20 seconds without putting them down once. She cracks the eggs and beats in the dirt colored Adja spices that she sprinkles in from each small recycled container of chocolate spread. When she reaches for the homemade mayonnaise that has likely been sitting in the stall for a few hours, you interject ‘tutti rekk’ attempting to control the ratio of mayo to filling.
You can choose your own ingredients: nebe, beans slowly simmered in tomato sauce and spices, often leftover from last night’s dinner: potatoes cut chunky and cooked til golden: the omelette itself, usually more fried than sauteed in the generous helping of oil heated on the furno’s glowing coals. She roughly flips the rapidly cooking eggs with with one hand as she reaches for the thick short loaves of doughy tapa lapa. A deft slice and the whole loaf is ready to absorb the excess oil leftover from her ministrations. The slightly crispy and salty eggs go in first followed by spoonfuls of beans packed alongside. She rips a piece of butcher paper or foreign language newspaper off the crackling pile and wraps the middle to alleviate the oily fingers, which the average toubab cannot avoid. ‘Am’ she says ‘take this.’ The question of beverage soon follows and you will inevitably consume a significant amount of spicy sweet Cafe Touba or kinkeleba tea. The first bite is to be savored, then you quickly chow down on the rest in order to make it back to the campement for morning check in.
The woman (Awa, Fatou, Ramata) continues the dance of the tangana (the name of these stalls, literally ‘it is hot’) as you munch the sandwich. You sip the thick coffee while her hands dart around the table. She can converse freely, accustomed to these motions from years of experience. She has seen the success of the gold mining rise and fall, the somber men who visit her benches coming and going with their fluctuations. She sees the new arrivals to her hometown, from the Malian migrants to the foreign companies to the Nigerian prostitutes, and continues frying and pouring. There’s peace in the routine, a beautiful choreography of clicking and stirring and greeting all at once. And then you pay your 400 CFA (maybe 300 if you have the same last name as she does) and draw aside the Spongebob sheets, back onto the dusty red laterite roads of Kedougou.
I woke up early on sunday morning (2 weeks ago) to go to an indoor food market with my MaMa. Though the anticipation that I was feeling for a for a full 11v11 soccer game I would play later that day with some fellow students was laying heavily on my mind I managed to push it aside for a few minutes. When my host mother and I arrived to the market it immediately reminded me of every other market I had seen up until that point. It was loud, crowded, and definitely nothing like your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Although there were some whole foods (as in freshly killed pigs, and soon to be freshly killed fish). Although on the surface this market appeared totally chaotic I soon realized that below the superficial grit there was much more, a method to the madness. We first went to my MaMa’s favorite vegetable vendor, and I learned a few new words for vegetables I had never seen before, which I then forgot about seven seconds later. Next we moved on to buy some pork off of a pig carcas so fresh that its feet were hanging off of the table. MaMa told the butcher what she wanted to cook, he chose the appropriate cut.We then continued to a new stand, the man there ground up some of the pork that we had just bought. The smell of vegetables, grime, meat, fruit, and fish filled the air. MaMa and I moved along to the next phase of our journey. As the smell of fish grew stronger I figured out what was going to happen next. We walked up to a booth with two small tiled, constantly oxygenated fish tanks. As my mother chose the fish we would have for dinner later that night I watched who I can only imagine to be the fish lady’s 6 year old son washing some unknown thing in a metal bowl. Our two fish were chosen, beaten over the head, then scaled and bagged. We walked home with our lunch and dinner.
My time in the traditional market had come to an end, the next thing on my agenda for the day was a soccer game. I walked 35 minutes, across seas of scooters, to a 2 year old subway that led to an expensive, incredibly clean shopping center. From there I hopped into an Audi and traveked 30 km to a multi-fielded sports complex in a brand new neighborhood with a dealership for every luxury car one can imagine. I played a full game of soccer on a beautiful grass field, and only then, after the game, did I go to lunch (my biggest mistake of this trip). The rest of my day involved eating a lot of food, wandering through the city, and hoping my legs would feel less exhausted before my Sanda (Chinese Kickboxing) class a few days later.
When I first arrived in China a little over a month ago the I-Team asked me to answer the question “What is China?” I had no clue then, and I still don’t; however I have learned some things in my travels. What I know now is that whatever China is, it’s rugged, mystifying, beautiful, chaotic, crowded, dirty, clean, organized, developed, and never ceases to contradict itself. I’m constantly interested by what I see, hear, and try to understand with my slowly developing understanding of the language. On that day I truly realized that I can never answer the question “What is China?” with words. The answer lies in the Hutongs of Beijing, the ally in Yinchuan where I played soccer with a gang of kids, the narrow streets of a small Tibetan village where I ran from a gang of kids (they knew Monkey Style), the rooftop porch in Xining where I could look over an entire city at night, the massive shopping centers of Chengdu, and the park I walk through every morning on my way to the program house in Kunming. “What is China?” is not a question, its a guide telling us to slow down and to open up, to allow ourselves to absorb the world around us in the hopes of coming to understand it just a little more through every little experience. As Thom Yorke once said in my favorite song, The Tourist, “Hey man, slow down, slow down.”