Greetings! My foray into blogging commences.
I will be in Indonesia for nine months as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) on a Fulbright grant. Last Saturday—a week ago—I arrived in Jakarta after a long flight from New Orleans. My fellow ETAs and I stayed for just one night then set off for our respective sites. My site is a small town called Martapura on the island of Sumatra. I knew little about it except what Google Maps revealed: it is inland and sits inside a province called South Sumatra (Sumatera Selatan) on the border with Lampung. To get there, I take a one hour flight from Jakarta to Palembang, then drive five hours. This’ll be about that drive.
I was greeted outside the airport by three men holding a cardboard sign that read “Mr. Patrick from America.” Probably me. I approach them. “Mr. Pat-reeck?!” “Yes, that’s me!” “Ok! We go now!” The three men—Syafarudin, Awaludin, and Bahudin—are all teachers at the school. Syafar and Awal speak English well, as they are English teachers. Bahudin speaks no English. He is the P.E. teacher and has a thick black mustache. He will be the driver of the van that takes all of us to Martapura. These men will likely be some of my closest friends this year.
As we pull through Palembang, I take in the roadside scenes happening outside. Small wooden huts and multi-colored store fronts line the road, which is two lanes and heavy with traffic (*cars drive on the left in Indonesia). People burn trash outside their homes, chickens roam around in people’s driveways, and both men and boys can be seen squatting down smoking cigarettes. Behind the clusters of homes are big fields with short brush and burnt-out grass. Every few cars that pass us is a truck carrying stacks of lumber. Or a moped somehow accommodating a family of four.
We get outside the city and Bahudin brings the car into a gas station parking lot. The ride up to this point has mostly consisted of Syafar asking me all kinds of questions about my life. “Do you have a wife? No? Maybe you will have Indonesian girlfriend?” “Maybe…” “Where are you from in America? Memphis? I don’t know it.” “Do you know Elvis Presley?” All three of them: “Oh! Yes, yes! Elvis Presley!” I stay in the car while they leave to go pray in a small worship space in the corner of the gas station parking lot. Most gas stations have these prayer rooms and our car will stop at two more before the ride is over.
The further inland we go, the thicker the brush becomes. The traffic subsides a bit, and Bahudin begins to pass car after car using the oncoming lane. He uses his turn signals constantly, and not just to signal a switch. Sometimes he uses it to tell another car to scoot over. Or he uses the horn. He uses the horn a lot. Everyone is using their horn…a lot. During a few of his passes, he gets very, very close to clipping a car in the oncoming lane. Or at least I think it’s close. No one else skips a beat. The oncoming car honks, but everyone always fucking honks. My ass is pin-hole size. Awaludin is sitting next to me now: “So what do you think about Indonesia so far?” “It’s different, but I like it.” We stop to grab dinner.
Indonesia is an open-air country. Doors are always open, windows are often not made to close, and roadside eateries are often just a few rows of tables with a metal roof overhead. We eat at one of these. They serve pecel lele, fried catfish. Syafarudin tells me it is a traditional Palembang dish (despite the distance, most of the people from Martapura and the small towns along the way hail from Palembang). It comes out and, unlike the fried catfish I’m used to, it has maintained its fish appearance. The skeleton and head are still there, tail too. No matter! I dig in, sans utensils, and eat the little fucker right off the bones with a bed of nasi (rice). Out on the street some kids are peering in and staring at me. They’ve never seen a white person. Most of the people I will meet in the upcoming week will never have seen a bule (foreigner) before. I gotta get used to being stared at.
Despite the roads becoming bumpier and bumpier as we approached Martapra, all the passengers, myself included, fall asleep for the remainder of the ride. I wake up around ten as we pull up to the school’s campus. My home for the next nine months is a boarding house on the school’s campus. About thirty students live here and it’s run by a sweet couple who are far too hospitable. It’s late when we arrive to the house. My room is big and so is the bed. The fluorescent lighting exposes a couple lizards crawling on the walls. I’m bothered by the lighting more than the critters–I’ll have to find some Christmas lights somewhere.
The week that followed offers much more to talk about than the *seven* hour car ride from Palembang to Martapura. Considering what they say about first impressions though, I thought the drive was worth discussing. Long story short, I have no plans of operating a vehicle for the foreseeable future. And I’ll probably be eating more fish.