Sunday, September 16, 2012

Growing Roots in the Soil and Soul of Borneo

I hold my breath against the stench of smelly fish as I pull out the blue bill that sometimes still looks like monopoly money to me. I need just 50,000 rupiah worth of minutes for my phone. But the man who owns the tiny store where I buy my minutes and onions and eggs tells me that I owe him another 50,000 rupiah. He’d accidentally given me 100,000 rupiah worth instead of 50,000 rupiah worth of minutes on my husband’s phone last week, he explains.

I am annoyed that his mistake means that I have to go digging in my purse for more cash, while the odor of smelly fish from his shop turns my stomach. He apologizes and I force the smile on my sweaty face. I thank him for the transaction and walk away from the place where I’ve been coming for six years.
Then it occurs to me. I’ve never bought anything at any place for that many years in a row.
I grew up as the daughter of an American military officer, moving from place to place, making friends, then leaving them, memorizing addresses, then starting again with a new street name named after a general.
More than six years ago, my husband and I moved to the small island of Tarakan, off the coast of Borneo to work with Mission Aviation Fellowship. My husband spends his days flying hundreds of kilometers in the jungle of Borneo, serving the isolated villages there. I live my life planted on this tiny island volunteering and teaching English and taking care of my kids who have never moved. And in the midst of living and sweating and eating rice, I learn about friendship and community and growing roots.
And sometimes my cell phone-minute-selling neighbor is my teacher. I bought water from him the first week I moved into my house down the street from his. He delivered the jug on the back of his motorbike, no extra charge. A couple weeks later, I hired his relative to do some work on our house. A few months later, I began teaching his daughter English until she left for college. 

Sometimes I sit next to the man’s wife in our neighborhood church, her Down’s syndrome son on her other side. She always gives my own 3-year-old son free candy when he joins me on my errands. I’ve seen their wedding pictures several times—whenever I have time to do more than buy onions and cell phone minutes—time to sit and chat with this neighbor in this community.
Another neighbor of mine threw a big party for their son and daughter-in-law’s wedding four years ago. The party lasted for days—and nights. The street was blocked off and I had to park my car a block away and carry my groceries past several houses, sweat running in my eyes. The smoke from the wedding reception permeated my house and I grumbled inside, while pushing out a smile when they called out to me. But after all that, I didn’t need my groceries because I didn’t have to cook for days. They invited me to eat all my meals with them, welcoming me as if I were family.

Their daughter-in-law--the bride that day--became a close friend, her son and my son friends, too, trading words while they shared toys.
Up and down this street, I know the faces, and many of the stories. The woman with the autistic son. The woman whose husband died suddenly. The family whose husband (and dad) left them for a new family in Java. The woman who used to be married to a man who beat her, until she left him and married a man who beats her less often. The woman who tried for years to have kids and now has two.
Some of them are my friends, some just neighbors. Some have annoyed me. And I’m sure, I’ve annoyed some of them, too, as I fumble, mixing my own culture with theirs, never getting the mixture quite right. 

But through the years of language learning and teaching, we’ve traded words while sharing lives.
I’ve lived my life for moments, with many friendships that didn’t last; in places, not always in communities. But when I moved to the other side of the world, I learned more than just Bahasa (language) from a culture that does community well. I’ve learned that parties can be loud, but there is always enough food for one more guest. I know that the guy who sells you cell phone minutes is also the guy who knows your son’s name. I’ve figured out that everyone—even the lady with the obnoxious dog—lives with circumstances that break their hearts...and mine. 

And I’ve discovered that people make mistakes, but that patience makes friends.
And I watch my roots grow deep in the rich soil and soul of community on a street I have memorized but that I probably pronounce wrong. Not moving away, but changing in place.

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