Saturday, August 11, 2012

Memories of Saparua #1: The Classroom

Sorry for the long silence. Strange how a tipping point is reached when you move somewhere new--as I get accustomed to my surroundings I lose the urge to relate them to others.

My ten months in Saparua has shifted my perspective in a few subtle but significant ways, so I'd like to try to get some thoughts down now, three months after the end of my grant. This may become a short series of posts...

The Classroom is a dangerous place

It's dangerous because, in a grossly underfunded and underdeveloped education system, the classroom is too often a place where children go to have their natural curiosity systematically crushed. Maluku is not unique in this, I witnessed it in all three of the high schools I attended in the United States. The difference in Maluku, especially the smaller islands like Saparua, is that the local economy has nothing to offer the handful of students whose curiosity and love of learning is not crushed by the years of rote memorization and well-intended shaming that their minimally trained teachers put them through. In Saparua, a young man can become a farmer, a fisherman, a motorcycle-taxi driver, a shop-worker, a teacher, and very little else. Unlike the way things were 30 years ago (according to my 72 year-old friend Piet, featured in a previous post), these professions seem to barely allow a man to feed his family, and it's getting tougher every year.

What's happening? Well, the fish are disappearing for one. Many of us have heard the reports from marine scientists on the decline of fish populations, but villagers in Maluku don't need reports. Their memories serve just fine. Every year, they say, the fish are fewer, smaller, and more expensive. But that's a topic for another post.

There is so much I don't understand about the way these kids operate. For example, if I ask someone a question, they avoid my eyes and whisper to their nearest classmate while I wait pointlessly for them to attempt an answer. Eventually someone somewhere in the room mutters an answer, which makes its way from ear to cupped ear until the student I asked finally delivers it in a barely audible voice, still avoiding my eyes.

After a while I gave up asking individuals to answer questions or repeat things. I tried instead to get groups of them to do things together. This worked a lot better, but felt like we'd never get past the repeat-after-me stage.

One day I had my eleventh-graders improvise a market scene to practice some useful English. Harvesting the school's garden for effect was their idea.
Once in a while, like the day pictured above, I'd get an explosion of participation, but it would be difficult to channel it in useful directions, and more difficult to repeat it.

Then there were the distractions. Check out the pic below, you can see the next classroom through the makeshift classroom wall. As it turned out, when I taught in this particular room the class next door had a teacher-free hour, which happened fairly often. The school didn't have enough teachers maybe, or maybe their schedules were poorly organized. The result was I couldn't hear myself speak over the excited chatter, let alone hear the timid voices of my students.

Dela, an eleventh-grader with a brilliant wit and joyful personality, nearly always covers her mouth like this when she smiles. She does this because several of her front teeth have rotted away. We never really talked about it, but it's easy to see that she's painfully aware of the effect this has on her otherwise very pretty face. I can't tell you how many times I've wondered the extent to which her life will be shaped by the lack of some good dental work.

Sometimes I'd be teaching and suddenly my students would jump up and run out of the classroom in mid-sentence to check out a fight or some other disturbance. Despite the novelty of having a foreigner as a teacher, most days it felt like it was all I could do to keep them from checking out completely. And really, how could I blame them? They were years behind their English curriculum, but still laboring along anyway, memorizing a word here and there, passing exams by cheating, waiting out each school day hour by hour until they could go home and do this:
Definitely more fun than school.
About 5% of my students were seriously talented and engaged. For those few, who could go so far given the right opportunities, the classroom seemed to me like a tragic tease, a place where their awareness will grow enough for them to realize how far behind their Javanese peers they are, how peripheral the concerns of their province are to the national government, how wealthy the earth and water they inhabit has been, and how powerless they are to stop its being looted by the powerful.
They don't seem to see it that way though. They can't wait to go to college, to learn more about the world around them. Many want to get out of the island paradise where they were born and move to a big noisy city to find and take part in the bloated society whose music and motors and plastic packaging
bleed solvent onto their beeches and into their minds, for better or worse. It's what they want, and for better or worse, I want to help them do it if I can.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Green-Tongued Prophet

At a cafe in Ambon, my table separated from the din of a busy intersection by a hedge of shrubbery. I can't see the street, but I can sure hear it. From the depths of an intensely involved conversation, an intrusive noise begins to tug on the short hairs of my attention, penetrating the protective membrane of my focus, stinging the thriving white noise of traffic like a rubber band snap to a bloodshot eyeball. 

It's a whistle.  One of those infernal blasted traffic cops, with all the self-importance of a rookie bureaucrat, is spewing a near constant stream of whistle shrills into every hapless ear-hole within a precocious radius. Expletives begin to suggest themselves to my mind. I turn them down, return my focus to conversation, but the assault continues. Irrational feelings of violent loathing surge into consciousness. I interrupt the conversation to comment. 

"That is one whistle-happy traffic cop," I say.

The noise continues. Insistent, tenacious, almost desperate, it even seems to intensify. Suddenly a threshold within me is crossed from annoyance into genuine curiosity. Who is this abomination? I must see his face. I must assess the nature of this creature who wrings his lungs with such wanton abandon for so menial a purpose.

I excuse myself from the table, walk out to the street. It takes all of one second to find the man, and immediately all of my accumulated irritation is dissolved. The source of the disturbance is not a traffic cop at all, but a small-framed man wearing only a pair of shorts six sizes too big for him, brandishing a bright green whistle with an intensity of purpose normally reserved for slam poets or curbside evangelists. 

I consider what happened next a rare and glorious moment. Seconds after I took the man's picture, two actual policemen approached the whistler as he stalked up and down the curb screeching his gospel of distraction. At first it appeared as if they wanted to question him, but as the quality and intensity of his crazy became apparent they decided to just keep walking. As they passed, striding with the authoritative air common to men in uniform, the blessed green-tongued prophet turned, fixing them in his sights, and began marching high-stepped directly behind them, swinging his arms and marking the rhythm of his stride with his whistle. I could not believe my good fortune. The cops tried to  ignore him at first, failed within seconds, then turned around and yelled while he scampered off.

Grinning from ear to ear, I returned to my table. The conversation resumed, and so did the whistling, but this time it didn't bother me at all.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Daily life in Saparua

It's suddenly raining buckets outside. I sit on the front porch, and my line of sight pushes far enough through the pulpy mass of falling water to make out the road in front of the house. The surface of the blacktop looks like oil boiling in a pan, only faster. I can't hear the person sitting next to me but if he yells.

Plastic tubs have already assumed their stations inside, collecting the leakage from various weak points in the roofing. Down the street I see a little old grandma wading toward us, umbrella obstinate over her head, protecting a wide basket of fresh fried banana balanced thereupon.

As the rain began to die down I stopped writing and walked to the back courtyard to find an impromptu rain-shower party. 

I've been meaning to write a little bit about daily life here, but I'm finding it difficult. How can I take the cumulative effect of thousands of details, and somehow distill them, without too much loss, into something readable? I remember the first thing to strike me when I arrived was the blistering contrast between the life lived here by my host family and the way I'd been living during orientation, pampered at a four-star hotel. No longer do uniformed attendants delicately fold the leading shit-ticket in my private bathroom into an origami triangle while I'm out crossing the language barrier in order to describe how much milk should accompany my espresso in the conference room. Here we do not use shit-tickets, or TP, or whatever else you care to call it. Here I have learned to rely on water, soap, and a far more complex relationship with my left hand than I had ever thought to expect.
Back at the hotel, any employee chosen at random will have as many teeth as my two host parents combined.

There is a pattern to my days here. I rise at 6, get dressed, drink tea prepared by my host mom before she leaves to teach at the elementary school. I walk down the hill to the high school, teach three 80 minute classes. At break time I sit alone in the air-conditioned break room. Two of the students, always girls, will shyly enter the room carrying tea and bread or cakes. They ask permission to approach, set down the refreshments, and make their exit as quickly as possible, often giggling. After school I walk home, usually surrounded by a troop of boys who ask me about my clothes or for my phone number, or invite me to play soccer later. At the top of the hill, just before I reach my house, I stop at Piet's store to sit on his homemade bench under a tree with him and answer his random questions about my country, my family, or my thoughts on this or that. Sometimes he'll grace me with a rant about what's wrong with Malukuan society. When it feels like the right time, I leave Piet to his barefoot migrations across the ten feet of rain-exposed roots between his bench and his store.

Pak Piet at the entrance of his store

The rest of the day involves eating, napping, showering, and eating again, in that order. It's considered rather rude here to sit down to dinner without having showered recently. Carmel, my 8-year old host sister, will ask me directly at the table, “sudah mandi, om Chris?” (have you showered yet, uncle Chris?). Once early on I admitted I hadn't, and the grimace on her face reacquainted me with shame.

The shower is an experience in itself. As in most Indonesian homes, you bathe by scooping water out of a large tub with a plastic ladle that usually holds about a quart, then pouring it over yourself. One day I was discouraged to discover many dozens of tiny worms swimming impressively well around the tub of shower water. Ever since then, I have made a habit of inspecting every scoop for worms before I let it shiver down my back. Sometimes I wonder what my host family would say if I told them that nearly every home in America features heated, drinkable, running water in nearly every other room.

These worm inspections lead me to another regular feature of life here: blackouts. On average, the electricity seems to go out about five times a day or so, for anywhere from 30 seconds to an hour at a time. This can make showers very dark. It has also taught me to check the flush bucket before I sit down on the seatless, tankless toilet, because when the electricity dies, the water pumps stop, and the taps go dry.

On a brighter note, dinner, without fail, is both delicious and built upon a foundation of rice and fish. The rice is steamed and white, and the fish is fresh and locally caught. Sometimes them fishies are small like a candy bar, sometimes they're about the length of my forearm, sometimes I get fat chunks of meat with no way of knowing how big the fish I'm eating was. The variation of sauces and spices that Mama Rik (my host mom) and Eka (Mama's daughter-in-law and mother of the two-year old twins pictured above) prepare easily make up for the uniformity of the food. My host mom fusses over making sure I get pieces of fish with as few bones as possible (this is because I proved myself hopelessly incompetent at removing them with fork and spoon the first few days). Carmel, by comparison, deftly pulls a complete skeleton from her fish with a few flicks of her flatware.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Waylaid in Ambon

After three weeks of orientation at a four star hotel in Bandung, West Java, Brian Kraft and I headed out to Maluku to begin our teaching assignments in two of the program's most remote placements, both located on islands accessible only by boat from the regional capital of Ambon.

We were supposed to spend one night in Ambon. Just one. But the afternoon we arrived (Sunday, September 11), the city erupted in riots a few blocks away from our hotel. We watched from the roof, saw smoke from burning car tires, heard gunshots. Lots of gunshots. Some of the hotel staff watched with us. They said the cops were using rubber bullets, but we should watch out for snipers on other rooftops. This might seem crazy or paranoid, but they had precedent for their concern.

Ten years ago, this city saw serious and long-lasting inter-religious violence triggered by a fight between a bus driver and his boss at a major transit hub. The Muslims and Christians were segregated at gunpoint by security forces. Homes were burned to the ground as communities of both faiths turned on their neighbors. In 2004, military snipers killed 34 people from building-top perches in the city.

We heard the riot started because the corpse of a muslim youth had been discovered by a dumpster in a Christian neighborhood, like the one we're staying in. As to how it got there we heard differing accounts. Some thought it was planted there by radical muslims, others said the kid was riding his motorcycle too fast and hit the dumpster, dying on impact or shortly after. 

The character of the smoke changed as fires moved from tires to a downtown restaurant. Gunshots continued in periodic bursts. We got a phone call from our boss in Jakarta. She said the people at the embassy wanted us evacuated, police escort and all. We weren't to leave the hotel, she said. Just wait for the cops.

By evening the situation seemed to have calmed down. We got another call saying the evac was cancelled, but keep laying low in the hotel. So, of course, we got up the next day and went exploring.

We found some of the wreckage that hadn't been cleaned up yet. All the stores were closed, the streets deserted. Everyone had taken the day off to let things cool down. We talked to those we could find, and some consistent themes presented themselves. Firstly, everyone remembered all too well what this sort of unrest could lead to, and nobody wanted to repeat it. Secondly, many of the Christians we spoke to believed that some marginal group of radicals were attempting to instigate trouble, while the majority of the Muslim community were as innocent as they were. 

Toward evening we learned that three more people had died in the riot. We were told to keep sitting tight, the ways out of town go through dangerous neighborhoods and are blocked by the military. A woman at the food stall where we bought our dinner told us that hundreds of police had been flown in from Makasar in South Sulawesi to help keep order, but in her opinion they did more to stir things up than calm them down.

The next morning, this morning, somebody's house was burned down within sight of a police station. We decided to walk around again, and found things had generally gone back to normal. Most shops and vendors were open and busy, people seemed calm. 

We found a crowd of people scrambling to buy what smelled like gasoline from a pair of vendors, who dipped small buckets into an open barrel of the noxious fuel, pouring it through a funnel into containers brought by customers. One of the vendors told us it was gas for stoves, that demand was higher than usual today because many other places were still closed for fear of more violence.

This afternoon we got another call from Jakarta. We were to wait at the hotel for a certain man, I'll call him Joe, to call on us in about 30 minutes. We were to take him out to dinner at one of the most expensive restaurants in town, pay for his meal, and receive instructions from him about the safest way out of the city tomorrow to the harbor in a neighboring town.

Joe showed up and we did as we were told. During the course of the evening Joe introduced us to the provincial high commissioner for Human Rights in Maluku, as well as an intelligence officer from Jakarta. He told us a story about how he and this officer were arrested and tortured by the military as teenagers for throwing rocks at them. It was decided that Joe himself, who is very well connected in both Muslim and Christian circles, will escort us to the harbor tomorrow afternoon.