Sunday, May 23, 2004

J and Victory

Friday we went on a field trip. We accompanied the Middle school classes (along with their homeroom teachers and other school staff) to the nearby town of Bitung (on the other side of the peninsula from Manado for you orienteers out there). We visited the Bimoli Coconut oil production facility where the managers of the plant struggled to describe their work in English to students who struggled to decode it. We toured the plant and I learned that vast piles of drying coconut meat smell an awful lot like turkey houses in need of new litter.

On the way there a girl who we think is named Rachel and has the kind of raspy voice that aught to belong to a chain smoker but comes off really charming in a 12 year old kept us supplied with music via hip-hop mix-tapes of her own selection including but not limited to “Jump Around,” and a single by Missy Elliot (who should be in Jakarta performing this month). Much of the music blasted on the bus stereo was extremely sexually explicit. I was a bit shocked at this being allowed by our conservative (Seventh Day Adventist) staff who, at least ostensibly, is trying to help these wealthy, young kids to become “good Christian people.” I remember being offended to see Ms. Elliot performing her song, which is entirely about her sexual exploits with her male friends, with a chorus of pre-pubescent school children on stage with her, singing along on the MTV music awards. I was beginning to wonder if anyone was listening when it occurred to me that Melody and I were the only ones on the bus capable of understanding most American rap music (a skill I’ve had to cultivate). I asked Rachel if she could understand what they were saying. She smiled and said “very little.” I told her I would translate it for her sometime.

Our next stop was the Zoo. It’s a private collection of animals not funded by the government which served as sort of a disclaimer for the generally shabby appearance of the place and its animals. About half had small cages, and those who didn’t were tethered to a tree or post. Zoo’s, somewhat like bad nursing homes, are almost always sad just because of their distinct manifestation of the concept of captivity. We saw Tarsiers (the smallest monkey, also a native of Sulawesi), the sort of monkey-bear called Cuscus, and dozens of different birds (see the new posts on the .Mac Photo Page linked at the right).

We generally hide behind fans and under roofs during the times when the sun is directly overhead but today we were out and about and feeling what it means to live on the equator. I saw melody heading over a hill just past a tree-tethered ape and decided to follow. Over the hill I saw several thatched roofs, an old abandoned boat on the beach and a massive sprawling tree with 2-foot thick branches that seemed like they weren’t sure which direction to grow. The school kids sat on logs and asked Mr. Joy, how to spell various animal anatomies. I wandered around the beach and found shade under another spreading tree and watched as a dirty little girl with short hair climbed into a boat with the name “Galatia” on it. Anywhere other than Northern Sulwesi I would be intrigued by the biblical allusion. But here religious phrases litter the streets and buses, paper the walls and provide blessings for everything from food-carts to luxury cars.

A bit later her sister joined her in the boat. In the mean time I found a large marble jammed into a knot in my shade tree, I suspect by these little girls’ hands. They both remained hidden in the safety of “Galatia,” peering through its portholes at these loud, uniformed kids who had invaded their front yard (which happened to be adjoined to the ocean). I walked over and held up my camera asking “Okay?” I always feel ambivalent about taking photos of residents of places I visit for a thousand reasons (the distance it can create, the transformation of them into a spectacle or an object to be collected rather than a person), but these girls were just so captivating. After each shot I turned my camera around to show them the digital image on the screen I had made of them. With each shot the older sister seemed more delighted, while the younger one still seemed uncertain. It wasn’t until I took the closest shot that I noticed she had a razorblade in her hand.

Later they emerged from the boat and I asked them what their names were in Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian). The younger didn’t respond but the older quietly stated her name (it began with a J though I can’t remember it for the life of me), and then introduced her sister as “Veektree.” Victory was missing one of her flip flops so I asked her as where it was but it came out something like “where foot your?” J translated it for her sister who probably only speaks the local dialect. We drew pictures in the sand until Melody came over and with her a gaggle of middle school girls. Rachel informed us in English that she thought that this girl was very very poor and that she probably didn’t know anything about school or learning. “I know,” I responded, somewhat annoyed that such an observation needed to voiced, though I suppose its truth would render it less offensive (or comprehensible) to J and little Victory. “They live here and they have nothing,” said the girl with a backpack full of snacks, and a thoroughly customized cell phone she would later misplace in my bus seat.

Melody later asked sarcastically if the houses and their residents were part of the owner’s collection implying the similarity between the poor conditions in which they all live. Walking back over the hill, we cringed as some of the older boys ran up to the two little girls, surrounded them and spoke loudly, pointing. We don’t know what they said or in what language they said it.

We ate lunch at another nearby beachfront where more people have shacks and a little brown boy was running around without clothes inspiring more laughing and pointing which is to be expected from middle-schoolers in any culture. The stray dogs ate well on the scraps they scrounged from us.

On the way home I was getting really annoyed with the kids who would shout “Mem, mem, mem!” five times before Mam Sharon (an Indonesian teacher who was accompanying her homeroom class) could even have a chance to respond. It’s clear that these kids are accustomed to demanding what they want from adults. This is probably because many of them are being raised by their parents’ servants. I remarked to Sharon later that I was impressed with her patience with the demanding kids. She responded that even though they are rich and spoiled they still need our attention. Just as I was trying to communicate to Rachel that even though those two girls were poor and uneducated they still need our attention.

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