I managed to escape. On the same day I published my last post, I took a car to the nearest city, Larantuka, paced across the sea port, and boarded the next boat to the island of Lembata.
Scenes from Lembata
– Scene 1: I fall sick in the bathroom in the night. In the morning, I resolve to shy away from food. Kak Etik, my host who I have come to love in the past 32 hours, cycles her arms behind the kitchen curtain, clacking her rusted knives against a wooden board.
Kak Etik is 34 but looks my age, and is the acquaintance of the priest who has arranged my volunteer-ship. She is thick in the arms and legs, of wood-red skin and thick lips.
As I wait to ask permission to abstain from breakfast, I flash back to the previous evening.
We sit in a little pagoda atop of “Love Mountain” as Kak Etik tells me that when she sees my face she sees femininity, but when she observes her own image in photographs, a masculine figure stares back. I wonder why she perceives this, since she’s the one with the round face, but then it becomes clear.
She tells me how she’s widely perceived as tough and independent like a man. She poses questions about Bible history and marital restrictions of Catholic priests: what does it mean to be pure? She demands controversy, whereas her conformist culture tells its adherents, particularly women, to listen and listen only.
Back at her home, conformity holds sway. Custom requires her as the woman of the house to feed me breakfast, and me, as the guest, to eat it. She sits at the table, her own plate empty, and watches my spatula-ed hand hover over over the tray of fried noodles. I give up and hand the spatula to her husband, who takes. I sweat and try to shove a fork-full of fried egg between my lips. My stomach torques so that my bottom lip begins to shake.
Later, I confide my uneasiness. I tell Kak Etik that my stomach crimps when I’m forced to act and eat as if I were a child. In East Indonesia, a respected guest receives food and protection (more like supervision) as a sign of care. But even after three years in this country, Indonesian customs prohibiting choice, especially for women, seem like insults. An American woman, even in someone else’s home, likes to manage a small part of her own diet and schedule in order to maintain her sanity and self-respect.
Fortunately Kak Etik’s respect for my forwardness, and especially my obstinance, breaks the chain of formalities and provides a sound foundation for friendship.
“I don’t want to be protected,” I tell her.
“Then we’re the same,” she says.
– Scene 2: Kak Etik’s husband, a headmaster 14 years her senior, drives me on the back of his motorcycle to his school. We traverse Lembata’s small city, Lowoleba. Children and their teachers sweep the roads with stick-brooms to celebrate the island’s independence from neighboring Flores.
Rushing past the dust that flies over the concrete, our bike passes a gated hospital. The building stands beside a factory, which spews oil clouds that swirl around the walls of the hospital as if it were the locus of a grand disappearing act. I wonder how the patients bring themselves to inhale. The palm trees in the hospital yard lean away from the smoke as if to puke.
– Scene 3: Residential dust yard gives way to untended fields. Children dance, one young woman in platform sandals and heavy lipstick leading choreography for children between the ages of five and fourteen. I know that many of them come from broken homes, some “left behind” by the public school system.
Just beyond the children, a female dog braces herself against a launch by her pups. The pups grab their mother’s nipples by the teeth. The shaking so destabilizes the dog that she collapses on her side. Eyes half-open, she licks the neck of whatever pup shuffles close to her mouth. The pups think of nothing but the milk.
– Scene 4: I cut local spinach with a dull knife as Kak Etik tells me of her kinship with Mary Magdalene. One day she hopes to travel to the Basilica Sainte-Marie-Magdalene, France, to visit the site of Mary’s remains. It doesn’t matter that Mary Magdalene’s romantic bond with Jesus was skirted by Biblical history; in fact, this makes her all the more alluring. That, and isn’t it fate that the two women share a birthday?
– Scene 5: Gentle hills capture a highlighter green, their grass coats waving erect shafts.
– Scene 6: Smoke rises from the tops of mountains. It’s hard to tell if it foretells a volcano about to erupt or a farmer setting a massive trash pile afire.
– Scene 7: Two shop attendants hover over me at the city’s only supermarket, which equates to a small-town general store. I walk down the soap isle, and the two girls shuffle alongside, looking over my shoulder. I know they’re just curious, but their attention is oppressive.
I try to get past saying, “I’m just walking, yeah?” But the girls follow me like mosquitoes. I say the same thing, only this time I gesture theatrically that I aim to pass, and they get the picture. The shop attendants approach my friend, Sarno, who sits at a chair at the front of the store.
“We try to invite Nona (the title for a young woman) to chat,” they say to Sarno, “but we find it so difficult! She won’t let us help her. Maybe it’s a language problem.”
“Of course it’s not,” I want to shout desperately across the aisles. “I just want a few minutes to make choices. I so rarely get the chance!!!”
At my remote volunteer site, I rarely have options as to where I go, or even what I buy for my daily needs.
Choices are what make us feel we take care of ourselves, are they not? Even the simple ones: what kind of soap do we choose to bathe with? What flavor of oreos do we savor during a long week? What drink do we choose from the fridge? In the US choices are overwhelming, but here in this store on the island of Lembata, faced for the first time in 3 weeks with multiple varieties of bath and beverage items, the indecision floods me with the relief and familiarity of home.
How do I explain this? How can I express to the attendants that my choices must be made on my own, without others hounding my judgment? But here, the need to think alone is an alien concept.
– Scene 8: Kak Etik takes my hand as we walk through the market. All around us are fish of all variety of shapes and colors, as if I were a dull and dry thing.
-Scene 9: We sit in a van loaned by a friend of Sarno. On our way home from the market, Kak Etik looks up at the roof of the van. Casually, as if pointing out a leak, she says: “This is the van we rode to the hospital on the night my baby died.”
-Scene 10: Kak Etik stuffs chocolate biscuits into her mouth as I eat the leftover spiced fish she made for lunch. She tells me me she’s too lazy to eat.
– Scene 11: Thick forests bend down and up. The rain pelts us as we travel on broken road. The driver, Mas Tom, shakes his hand every five minutes, his hands spent after gripping the break for hours.
– Scene 12: I flip through a photo album of Kak Etik’s dead child, who cracked her head open after slipping on a wet floor. The electricity had gone off, as it often does in these parts. Two hospitals in Lowoleba tried to tend to the toddler’s wounds, but neither was equipped to save her. Kak Etik’s child wasn’t two years old.
-Scene 13: An old nun, Sister Alfonsa, delivers a playful slap on the cheek. She tells me of how she once orchestrated the coming-together of different religions to build a garden, laborers contributing their own bricks and iron. This was this nun who helped Etik emerge from her grief following her child’s death, who taught her to take ownership of her emotions and her career.
The nun, Sister Alfonsa, tells me I must drink a local medicine for my bloated stomach, and must reduce my coffee intake if I want to have children. She hands me a butter biscuit, which I feel obligated to eat. In this rare moment I’ll relinquish the freedom of choice.