It is crazy how quickly these last two months have gone. It feels like just yesterday that I was stressing about being in a completely new situation where no one could speak English and now I’m sitting on my bed in Jakarta again.
For the last nine weeks I have lived and breathed the library at SD Kondas. I was there every day – swapping books over in the mornings, teaching English, reading out loud – and there most afternoons just hanging out. And if I wasn’t in the library I was being asked what I was doing there or thinking about how I wanted to paint a wall or which of the children I wanted to encourage the most.
The library in Kondas is spacious and airy, with an almost constant breeze that sends the drawings strung up above our heads into a frenzy of fluttering. It is loud and noisy: there are always children running in and out and a few that just sit quietly on a table in the corner. The walls are painted red and the bookshelves yellow and there are the most beautifully illustrated books covering every surface.
And, of course, there are the children: running, laughing, jumping, annoying me, making me laugh, at times thoughtful, at times hopelessly exasperating, almost always smiling.
They will always be what my time in Kondas was all about. I might not have done as much as I had hoped in the library but for a short while I was there and I hope I’ve been able to inspire just a couple of children to enjoy reading as much as I do.
But my time in Kondas was also two months of learning and understanding and becoming part of a culture and community wildly different to my own.
Last week we had a party to welcome the head of the local Buparty (local government) to the village. After he had left, promising to build a real asphalt road to the village (his grandfather came from Pampa and so most people here voted for him), the real party started. In Flores, this means dancing. By one o’ clock in the morning, the bottom half of my legs was covered in mud and you could no longer tell my flip flops had once been a bright blue. I had been introduced to more people than I could count and almost everyone else knew of the bule girl living in Ame Alo’s house.
After the party I finally felt a part of the community. As I walked around, people called out to me, asked where I was going, invited me in for a cup of coffee. It had taken two months but suddenly I felt at home.
But I was leaving. Leaving behind the families I’ve become friends with, the random ibus in their wooden houses that always asked me to stop when it was raining, the children playing in the library… It’s the kind of goodbye that hurts so much more because you don’t know if you’ll ever see the people again and you know that, even if you do, everything will be different.
And so there is Ine (mother) Yus, my ‘mother’, small and strong, hair always wrapped in a towel. She never stopped working: pounding coffee, fetching vegetables from the garden, cooking in the kitchen. Ine Yus has a voice better suited to Bahasa Manggerai. She piled rice on my plate to get me to eat more and picked fish off the bones if I didn’t take enough myself. Throughout my time in Kondas, she was always looking out for me and helping me understand the new culture.
Ame (father) Alo was my ‘father’, as well as the head teacher at the school. He likes to play by the rules and has an unfortunate black-dyed moustache that wiggles when he talks. He helped me in the library and with the other teachers and was forever checking if I was ok. Before I arrived he phoned Nila (the founder of Taman Bacaan Pelangi) to ask if the bed would be long enough for the ‘tall’ white girl. He quickly saw how unnecessary a question it was.
Ine Yus and Ame Alo have four children. The middle two, Kakak (older sibling) Dedy and Kakak Efin still live at home. Kak Efin is ridiculously skinny and spends most of her time sleeping or playing games on her phone. She’s getting married in October to a roly-poly smiley man from Ruteng. While I was in the village she accompanied me every time I went to people’s houses.
Kakak Dedy never spoke to me!
Apart from the two of them, Ine Yus’ sixteen year old nephew also lived in the house. He is apparently a rebel who likes to skip school but I always felt bad for the sheer amount of chores he was expected to do around the house.
And then there’s Ibu Ellen, the librarian, who lives in the house opposite. We were in the library together every day and she never failed to include me in anything she did: going to the market, making cakes with the other female teachers, cooking for parties. She has two children, Chelsea and Ed. Chelsea, gorgeously pretty and ridiculously shy, finally warmed up to me in the last two weeks. Ed spent two months running away every time I came near him and then decided over night that I was his best friend. In my last two weeks I couldn’t go anywhere without a snotty little nose pressing itself in to my back and sweaty hands grabbing on to my own. (I stopped wearing my nicer clothes).
Ed’s best friend is Naldi – genuinely the cutest kid I have ever met. His mum is no less lovely. She lives next door but can always be found in our kitchen shelling kemiri (some kind of nut that can be used as a spice or sold to make oil) and sharing the latest gossip she has picked up.
Ine Bet and Ame Simon were the other couple who were always at the house, watching TV and barking out with laughter. On my last night Ine Bet and her daughter, Mel, stayed over and we slept five in one bed. I gave her my small bag and she started crying. But as I left to get in to the car to take me to Labuan Bajo she started dancing and told me that she wasn’t going to miss me. I think it was a joke because she was genuinely my best friend while I was there. She is also the person I was most terrified of when I first arrived. On my first night I went to bed only to find her already there – snoring and smelling strongly of betelnut. I would never have guessed that she would be one of the people I miss the most.
But it wasn’t just the neighbours that made up my circle of friends. The teachers, especially the women, were always up for a laugh or inviting me to their houses.
Ibu (Mrs) Irta teaches Class Six and has the most beautiful daughter. Ibu Sharida was forever handing out hugs and laughing. Ibu Eggy liked to pinch my cheeks and walked me home most days.
And then there’s Pak (Mr) Jul who teaches Class Six. He invited me to his house every day last week to break my fast. I went to the mosque with them for tarawe every night and was told I was much prettier wearing hijab.
Pak Maxi Hindi has the most amazing family. In fact, I spent most afternoons at his house, drinking coffee and laughing with his wife. They have five children, the eldest already at university and the third, Elsa, in Class Five at primary school. Elsa was lovely – always helping the teachers and playing with her friends. The youngest two children were also adorably cute; especially Etrin, the first baby in Kondas who wasn’t scared of me.
And then, of course, there are the children.
Meda who was always sitting in a corner of the library reading. Luqman who liked to pose in front of bookshelves. Yati: ridiculously tall and hilariously funny. Tika who came every afternoon when I opened the library. Chelsea: walking an hour to school and whose father was apparently fluent in English. Mimi who gave me bananas on my last day in Kondas and told me which boys to avoid. Noya and Chan: never in their own house, always ready to help. Ngai: bitten by a snake but still hobbling to school. And Rego and Messi and Minnie and all the others who I can’t write about or have forgotten the names of but that made my time in Kondas so wonderful.
And Ota. Ota hasn’t started school yet. He would peer round the door of the library and if there weren’t any other teachers there he would come trotting in. Ota listened to me read and then read it back perfectly from memory. Most of the time he spoke in a whisper. He was so bright and so interested in reading.
But it’s not just the people I miss. It’s the place and the smell of the air and the person I became there. The girl who could speak Indonesian and wasn’t just another tourist.
On my last night in Kondas we had a pesta perpisahan (a leaving party). I was given a gorgeous kain songket (a traditional sarong – they use them for cultural events, especially negotiating a price for a bride) and a pile of money. The small money, IDR 1,000 and IDR 5,000 was to represent the tissues they would use to dry their tears when I left. The IDR 20,000 (about £1) showed that I had been safe in Kondas and that I would always have a family there. I wanted to cry, especially when I saw Ine Yus with tears in her eyes.
But now I’m back in Jakarta and, although it feels so weird to have a hot shower and be with my family again, it also feels like I never went away. My time in Kondas already feels like it was just a dream. I don’t know how I feel about that. But it’s ok. Living in Kondas was like taking a break from real life and living in a story. Yes, the life I led there was routine for the people I met but at the end of the day, it isn’t my reality and I can’t stay in this strange gap year limbo forever. I miss living in Kondas so much but at the same time I think I’m ready to move on.
And now for a quick side story because I don’t really know where to fit this in:
A Trip to Pulau Messah
In my last two weeks in Kondas I somehow also managed to make time to visit the islands with Monik, the Taman Bacaan Pelangi coordinator in Flores.
There are times in Indonesia when you are struck dumb by the sheer beauty of the country. Sitting on a mouldy boat headed to Pulau Messah in Komodo National Park was one of those moments. Blue blue sea stretched away into the skyline to merge with hazy blue hills which in turn blended in to a pastel sky dotted with candyfloss clouds. No picture can ever do it justice.
Pulau Messah was equally as beautiful. High raised colourful shacks dotted along perfect cement lanes bordering a sandy square where beautiful boys ran and played football. On one side stood a tall hill from which you could see the sunset. On the other, the mosque. Everyone on the island is Muslim.
The sheer diversity of Indonesia never fails to amaze me. Just one hour from Labuan Bajo the people speak a completely different language, have different skin colours and different cuisine. All the food and the water, the water, has to be brought on to the island but the people are all well-off from their fishing businesses. The children were so much more confident than those in Kondas. They seemed to be more carefree, spending their afternoons swimming the sea and jumping off the pier. We spent a gorgeous afternoon, swimming, watching the sunset, and tidying books in the library.
I didn’t want to leave.