Any country you travel to is better enjoyed when you speak the language. You get a stronger sense of the people and the culture when you actually understand what’s going on, in terms of the people who live there. For Indonesia, that is absolutely the case; plenty of times I’ve met tourists who don’t understand the half of what’s happening around them. I know my experience is a richer one for speaking the language and understanding the culture here.
One of the most joyful moments I’ve had in Peace corps was last December on vacation with my sitemate Nafisah. We went to the Banda Islands in Maluku, as far east in Indonesia as I’ve been. Eastern Indonesia has its own culture, very similar to that of Kupang (Timor is very much eastern Indonesia).
Two experiences have really stuck with me, both of which made me truly grateful for my Bahasa Indonesia abilities. The first was a conversation with a young hostel employee on the main Banda island. She spoke passable English and really wanted to learn more. She asked me to teach her a bit and I agreed. Her request for an English lesson quickly turned into a conversation in Indonesian (as these are wont to do; Indonesians rarely find non-native speakers anywhere near my fluency level and they get excited about being able to have a better-than-stilted conversation with a foreigner). She told me about some of the pressure she was feeling as a young twenty-two year old woman to be married. She iterated that her options were limited–the Banda islands are small. She told me she had dated a boy she really liked but her family thought he was a “bad boy” so she dumped him. Then she said all of her friends were always looking to “marry up” essentially–finding someone of higher status, more wealth, better education, etc. I’ve never seen an Indonesian more openly frustrated. She said she didn’t want to do that and didn’t really care about status and then pointed to the volcano across the strait and she hit me with this:
You know, some people think when they climb the mountain everyone below looks small–but I say that from below, people who climb the mountain look small too.
Especially after my experience at Northwestern, I’m used to status climbers. Looking for the school with the name recognition, the company with the famous CEO, the alumni with the connections etc. This Indonesian girl, who grew up on a tiny island in the Banda Sea, put something I’ve been feeling so succinctly: just because someone views your values and goals as small doesn’t diminish them.
The other experience was delightful. A small thing. Nafisah and I were walking on the big Banda island where tourists rarely go, looking around for the nutmeg trees that grow there. We came across a team of men hauling a huge felled tree by hand. I shouted in Indonesian to ask if they needed help as a joke. They enthusiastically agreed. I was going to laugh it off but Nafisah jumped right in and grabbed onto the rope–so I did too. We helped drag the tree maybe fifty meters, laughing the whole way before stopping to take a photo together. It was a purely joyful moment that would have never happened if we didn’t share a language.