I have now been in Kondas for seven weeks and I think it’s time to admit that I have, completely and utterly, embraced my Manggerai self.
I haven’t cared this little about how I look, what I wear or how I act since I was in Primary School. Unfortunately, this means that my hair is a rat’s nest (I once left it unwashed for eight days – don’t ask, I’m still feeling disgusted with myself), my eyebrows resemble slugs and my skin is becoming clearer and darker by the minute.
And of course embracing village life means embracing the food. Bowls of nasi, labu siam (a type of marrow) and fried fish three times a day every single day, all cooked on wood fires. In fact, although I still dream of bowls of cereal and keema and rice and freshly baked home-made cinnamon buns just out of the oven, it is astonishing how quickly you can adjust to a completely new life style.
Food plays a huge part in Manggerai life. It isn’t just what they eat but also what takes up most of their working day. Everything comes from the farm: the vegetables are picked just before we cook them, gula merah is made in the neighbour’s house, chillies and onion and all the other spices can be found just outside the kitchen door. The only thing families buy are fish and salt in the weekly Tuesday market.
They even grow their own rice!
In fact, almost everyone in the village has their own sawar (rice field) and harvests enough twice a year to feed their family year round.
Every four months, the sawar are prepared and planted. This means using buffaloes to turn over the soil and prepare the rows. Four months after the seeds have been planted the padi (rice stalks) are tall enough to be cut. Every day for a month, all the women in the village go into the fields and work together to cut the padi that is ready.
It’s exhausting work – the women use long curved knives to hack at the tall stalks – but the atmosphere in the fields is relaxed and jokey. A big urn of coffee and cake sits on one muddy bank. The women move around with ease, hair bundled up in towels to protect from the sun, red beetle-nut stained on their teeth. They’re covered in mud and exhausted but in a few weeks work twice a year they have enough food to feed their families without having to buy extra.
After the padi is harvested, it is taken to a machine to be shredded in to its seeds. These grains are then spread on big tarps outside the houses and dried in the sun for the whole morning. After drying, the grains are carried to a machine behind Jek and Jeffrey’s houses to be turned in to beras (uncooked rice grains). The family charges one kilo of beras per ten kilos that are put through the machine.
People here often complain about how difficult it is to ‘find’ money. In most conversations, they’ll ask what life is like in England and say how poor they are here. How are you meant to explain to someone who has never left their village that there are poor people in England too but that they all live in brick houses and wear shoes? How do you explain that actually the quality of life in your village in Flores is in many ways better than anything you might find in a big city?
Living in the village is hard. The people have to search high and low for the kemiri, coklat and ndege that they sell. Each kilo of dried vanilla brings in Rp 150,000. Each kilo of kemiri Rp 14,000. For one kilo of kemiri, roughly three hours have been spent finding the seeds and then cracking them open. But at the end of the day, they have enough food to eat, neighbours and friends to talk to at every moment of the day and a life that is completely theirs. They work hard but not in the dreary long lonely difficult hours that they might have to in a city.
But oh, how I miss city life.
Last weekend I went to Ruteng, the capital of Manggerai tengah. I took the bus along the TransFlores with Kak Efin, Bapak Alo’s second daughter to meet his youngest daughter at her university.
The university in Ruteng trains students to become teachers. A big double storeyed building, it looked more like a school than what universities look like in England. But the kos (university accommodation) was exactly like I imagine it to be at uni in the UK. Students everywhere, loud music and endless card games finishing late at night. In fact, the accommodation at Atik’s university is probably better than what I’ll have in London. She has a huge room and her own bathroom and toilet. Everyone has their small cooking stoves and rice cookers inside their rooms. The corridors outside are lined with shoes and frying fish. And all of this – electricity and water – was just Rp 350,000 a month!
Being back in a city again was so nice. Ruteng is cold, really cold, and walking around and hanging out with families and young people made me feel like I was back in England. The children were so much more worldly, knew so much more English and seemed so much more grown-up than children of the same age in the village. And there was even a huge supermarket with a cosmetics section and Cath Kidston bags displayed on shelves!
I stayed two nights at Atik’s kos and then the next nights in Efin’s fiance’s mothers house (imagine a tiny smiley woman who can cook amazing food – I was very happy).
But homesickness hits at random, unexplainable times.
I was walking down a cold misty morning road in Ruteng and suddenly, bam, I wanted to be in England. The feeling of the cold kissing your cheeks, the smell of a clear winter day, the coziness of being in the car with your family when it’s raining outside. England might be dreary, it’s cold and wet but it will always be home.
But I wasn’t just hit with homesickness for England: I wanted to be in Jakarta with its easy luxury and a Mummy hug or, if not there, than in Kondas with its familiarity and my own bag of clothes and books.
This was all amplified by the fact that on Monday I got stuck in Ruteng. On Sunday, the Tour Flores – an international bike race – passed through the city. On Monday, they cycled on to Labuan Bajo and so all the buses in that direction got cancelled. I swallowed back my frustration and resolved to wait. But Tuesday, when I was told that there were still no buses, I was ready to burst in to tears or start screaming. I felt so guilty – I hadn’t been in the library for a week and hadn’t taught English in two because of the exams for Class 6 the week before. My time in Kondas is running out and there is still so much I wanted to do… And I was stuck in Ruteng.
Wednesday finally brought a travel (a car that doubles up as a mini executive class bus) that took us back to the turning from the TransFlores to Kondas. We waited four hours for the oto and eventually ended up getting an ojek to the village.
And then the next day I left Kondas again to go exploring with Lukas.
I seriously have no idea what I was thinking. I constantly feel guilty about going away and not doing the absolute most I can at the library and yet I went to meet Lukas the day after I came home. In my defence, the librarian was in her village cutting rice and no one had the key so I wouldn’t have been able to go to the library anyway.
Indonesia is an incredible country. Hidden along muddy bumpy roads that most people don’t know are huge lakes and hot water springs so hot you can cook eggs.
And at the end of an hour trekking in sandals down the steepest hill and along terrifyingly narrow paths through the rice fields are waterfalls so tall they make trees look miniature.
Unfortunately for me, exploring meant that I fell over and broke my phone (half the screen is black, I can’t reply to any messages!) and that I got stuck in Lukas’ village for another night. This meant yet another day not at the school.
Feeling guilty about how much you can give to a project is something that I’m becoming accustomed to, whether I want to or not. Being nineteen without any real qualifications means that often the things you can do are quite limited. And of course never being longer in one place than two months also plays a part in how much you can do. I want to feel like I have achieved a lot and inspired the children to read more and enjoy reading more than they would have otherwise. But is that just naïve Maleeha speaking? Because how much have I really done in two months here? Is being remembered as the foreigner that lived here enough to change someone’s life in some small way?
I hope so. Because living here has changed me more than I thought possible. A week ago marked exactly one year since I started my Gap Year and if I compare the shy awkward person I was a year ago to this version of myself, I can’t believe how much I’ve changed. It is unbelievable to think how comfortable I am speaking a different language, showering outside, squatting down in the toilet. I have even reached the stage where I don’t wear make-up or pluck my eyebrows or, for a horrible eight days, wash my hair.
And even if I haven’t achieved that much, there are always the things I have done. Like teaching children to introduce themselves in English and encouraging them to use their imaginations to write stories.
And painting a wall mural.
While Class Six were busy with their final exams, I spent my mornings cooking on wood fires for the invigilators, and then my afternoons creating this masterpiece.
It is no work of Picasso – our wall mural features a wonky rainbow courtesy of Class Five and a couple of teachers, and different shades of blue making up the sky – but it is the joint work of me and a few students and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done.
And so my time in Kondas is drawing to an end. Two weeks but so much to do and so many goodbyes to say – I don’t want to leave!