Thursday, June 10, 2004


I’m sitting in the cool night air of the front porch, one foot on a regal column balancing me against the window upon which my shoulders rest as I lean back in my chair like so many teachers told have told me not to do. Mrs. Goodnoh, this is for you. I’m the teacher now! But I have rules too: “If I see a cell phone in your hand it’s mine for the rest of the day.” And “We all make mistakes. Life is better if you can laugh at yourself.”

At night the heat and some of the moisture go away and it’s quite pleasant outside. I hear a dog in the distance barking. It’s that sort of barking that’s more like echo-location than anything else: just sending out a signal to see if it bounces off of any other dogs. I think it’s a mixed blessing to be a dog in Manado. On one hand, I've read that the Minahassan ethnic group of North Sulawesi find dog, particularly black dog, very tasty. So it’s not uncommon for dogs to disappear from gated and locked front yards. It’s also not uncommon for owners to treat dogs very poorly. I’m not sure if this is because they plan on eating them (I can’t say that the turkeys on my parents farm live a luxurious life), or because some see them simply as a status symbol. Our neighbor directly across the street has a German shepherd who must think, and sounds as though he thinks, life has played a cruel joke on him. I think it ought to be one of Dante’s circles of hell to live here with a perpetual coat of thick fur and no sweat glands. To make matters worse, he seems to spend his days locked in a small cage except for the singular occasion of his daily walk down the street which his owner seems begrudgingly committed to.

The mixture in this blessing comes from the shear amount of traffic that even remote residential areas like ours receive. The noodle man with his spoon rapped bottle, the mobile, motorcycle produce section with his bicycle horn, and especially the Walls Ice cream motorbike with it’s melody that never quite resolves on any satisfying note seem to provide the often fenced or caged dogs with an endless supply of stimuli to bark at and ward off.

The dogs I’ve seen on the loose perpetually and inexplicably have the look of having just won the lottery, or perhaps having just stolen the lottery check. You’ve seen it. It’s something like the Tramp from Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” only less earnest. I don’t trust these dogs but I can’t deny that they seem to be having a good time. They eat garbage and serve no man.

Jane, a British teacher at our school, has a dog that came from the village. Yesterday she explained that as a result of his upbringing he only understands Indonesian. So, as she visited with us in our living room she would periodically shout words we don’t know at this dog as he trotted around our neatly swept tile floors. It wasn’t until he hiked his leg toward one of our indoor, regal pillars when she finally shouted “Jangan!” (Don’t!) that I started to believe her. Though I suspect that I could have shouted “Chimichanga!” in the same tone and it would have done the trick, and I was very nearly on the verge of trying.

“Bagi Yesus Semuanya.” A Personally Amplified voice piles its song into the night air. We sang the same words the second day we were here at church. I still don’t know exactly what it means but I have a vague idea that I could, were I to walk over and pick up the Indonesian- English Dictionary. Which brings me to my final point about dogs; if Jane is right about their linguistic limitations, then Manado really isn’t a bad place to be. Indonesian may be one of the most intuitive languages to learn (from my point of view), and as I was reminded tonight while we sat through the Mandarin Chinese News spot in order to get to the English one, there are much much harder languages for dogs, and people to learn.

So, hats off to dogs and friends and friends of dogs who have spent time and energy learning Chinese language and culture wherever you may be. Lately I’ve been quite happy here, learning how to communicate with and how to teach English (one of the more counter-intuitive languages) to Indonesians. It can be fun being the teacher.

Post Script
Those of you who are wondering right now whether I mean the British “quite” or the American “quite” have too much time on your hands and a special place in my heart.

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