Arriving where left is right and where small gestures speak volumes

Immediately upon our arrival, the neighborhood kids congregate on the blue-tile front porch of the modest concrete brick home.  The house had been Kari and Loren's who left six months ago to return to the states after having lived, worked and volunteered for ASRI for 3 years We've returned for 3 weeks to host a group of women from Dining for Women but know that there is so much more we are here for as well.

"I usually had some arts or crafts for them to do," Kari said. With delight, I recall a box of 48 crayons in the bags we brought from Portland, Oregon where we began this journey on April 13th, arriving here on the 17th. I dive into the long duct tape-belted ski bag that holds crutches and and pull the brightly colored box from the jack straw aluminum poles. "Paper is scarce," Kari says but a tablet is produced. Seven children ages 2 to 12 quietly, eagerly reach for the waxy jewels using one crayon at a time. imageThere is no hoarding or guarding with a carefully cupped hand, a rainbow fan of crayons for one's exclusive use. Maima, who when Kari left was only beginning to talk, now chortles her ABC's in Bahasa and counts to 10 with Kari in English. Selecting a blue crayon, she draws small hieroglyphics along the top of the page. With the best inquiring face I can manage, I point to one of the figures assuming it is either her, a sister, maybe mother or father and I'll perhaps learn one more precious gateway word of Bahasa. She says "orang". I must have looked confused. I point again at the figure. She says "orang" again then points to the other two blue stick figure shapes and repeats: "orang, orang".

Perhaps still hoping that I might find a common word, a bridge to one thing we both understand, I point to the shape of a heart Maima has drawn and ask hopefully, "heart?" Maima looks up at me briefly and then to an older girl, an Indonesian-child-version of Audrey Hepburn, who says in her prepubescence voice, "I love you." My look of incredulity brought a repeated statement of love while Maima pointed to her blue hearts book ending her orang family. What is there not to love? And how could I be more delightfully reminded of why our work is so important.

This is our first afternoon in Sukadana having arrived via a low slung sloop of a speedboat from Pontianak with at least 60 other passengers and our luggage contraptions. The 5 hour tour through inland waterways was punctuated by a stop for lunch where we faced a precipitous climb up 60 degree wooden stairs to arrive at a mecca of riverside warangs. Rice scooped out of the communal rice cooker is followed by a help-yourself to a variety of dishes nearly none of which I recognize but all of which my mouth watered for. Stewed greens, fried chicken, tempe, fried eggs, hardboiled red eggs, salted fish, potato balls, fish balls, knuckles and bits of meat, whole giant shrimp with their eery antenna like legs akimbo. I relish the quick repast washed down with a warm coke. Returning to the boat the seats feel less hard as we lace the ochre waters, hugging nipa palms and mangroves arms, skirting flotsam and jetsam.

River settlements of 20-40 wooden stilt houses and small stores colorfully displaying their wares are accessible only by this wide water highway. Sukadana pulls into view, the sun-yellow Hotel Makota dominates the horizon. Chuddeering into port, sun pressing hotter, Kari and I make silly faces at the 3 year old boy in front of us who mimics us and chortles with delight. Words would get in the way. Disembarking, he takes my hand to shake it, I assume; we do and I take mine to my heart as I've observed is done. But I've not got it right. "No?" I finally understand they're trying to tell me that he wants to take my hand to his forehead, a child's gesture of respect. Feeling like a blessed klutz, I give him my hand reminded of how lucky I am to be here, now. Saying goodbye, we navigate a 4' gap between boat rail and scaffolding and clamor up. Tides here are tricky matters. There is Hotlin and the ASRI ambulance to greet us!

An early evening storm wraps its shuddering arms around us. Rain curtains. Swirls of cool kiss hot skin. Hotlin had invited us for dinner. It seems a night in is called for. I glance up and see the pictures of a village, mountains and orangs that Kari and I have propped up in the front windows of the house.

And I think to myself "what a wonderful day it has been."

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About Michelle Bussard | View all posts by Michelle Bussard

Michelle is the Executive Director at Health In Harmony, based in Portland, OR.