To Gunung-Gunung and Paths Unknown

By Anna Cabe

When I first came to Indonesia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant or ETA, I started my grant in Bandung, the “Paris of Java.” For two weeks, I was put through the wringer of orientation (orientasi, for those of you who want some Bahasa learning), from 8 AM to 5 PM, five days a week.

The tightness of our schedule made it difficult to experience much of the surrounding area, but we ETAs did our best. One excursion we did one Sunday as a group, was climb Tangkuban Perahu, a famous volcano a couple of hours outside the city.

The plan was to spend two hours scaling the volcano to the summit and then be down by 1 PM to get to our next destination, nearby hot springs.

By 3 PM, only five people out of the 31 (including myself) were in the bus.

It’s a long story. Just know that our bus driver, (understandably) panicked about losing 26 Americans around the volcano, and called security. We then spent the next several hours playing phone tag before finally picking the group up in a town some distance away at about 6 or 7 PM. From my understanding, some locals at the summit gave them the wrong directions, and they ended up wandering for hours until they left the confines of the park.

None of us expected this to happen, obviously. I didn’t expect to spend much of my day waiting, napping in the bus, slurping instant noodles in a warung, trying to speak to curious locals in my poor Indonesian. What I thought would happen that day for me would be something more epic. You know the narrative:  Triumph over human frailty. Even though I’m usually neutral about exercise and the outdoors, I imagined myself that day reaching the top to admire the view of the crater, sans the eggy, sulphuric smell that stunk up the area around the foot of the volcano.

Except I didn’t.

In an aside to another of those “left behind,” who were actually on the bus as it trundled its way to the “lost” group, I confessed that I was somewhat disappointed in myself, in my inability to make it up the ridiculously steep, rough, confusingly marked trail. I used the “w” word.

For, you see, the reasons why none of us five were lost varied wildly. For me and my friend Christina, neither of us are intensely outdoorsy; and after seeing to another unwell friend, we tried to catch up with the group, only to realize that the right path was inscrutable; and the rest of our friends were out of sight and hearing. We came back down, noticing the quickly approaching rendezvous time, and you know the rest.

It’s a confession I’ve been mulling over, especially during my first weeks back at my site in Palembang. Something I’ve been picking up, time and again, from conversations with other ETAs is the feeling of being a child again:  ignorant, helpless, dependent. None of us know the rules of this world. None of us share the locals’ “imaginative universe,” as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz would put it.  Most of us are still grasping at the language, how to get around, how to buy everyday necessities, the most basic marks of being a functioning adult.

I wonder sometimes if that all-too-familiar feeling chafes me especially because I’m already small and childlike, usually among the youngest of my peers. As I told some students who were interviewing me for my school’s magazine, I talk fast and walk fast. I’m like a bouncing bull-puppy in a china shop:  loud, clumsy, and excitable. In life, I tend to barrel full-steam ahead, wanting to see, hear, taste, touch, and experience everything.

I’ve been struggling to accept the slowdown I’ve been experiencing here, how “rubber time,” jam karet, permeates the air. Everything reveals itself in its own time; think wind blowing sand away, grain by grain, until a pyramid appears. I won’t know what I need (or perhaps want) to know when I want it. I won’t know how to do what I need (or perhaps want) to do when I want to.

One word:  patience.

My schedule at school is taking time to settle and explain itself. One day, I might be drawing a map of the United States on the whiteboard, demonstrating the location of my hometown, Memphis, Tennessee; the next, I might be teaching a class a simple English tongue-twister (“She sells seashells by the seashore”) as a way to warm-up before their upcoming dramatic interpretations of Indonesian folktales.

On the day I was to officially start meeting my classes, it was about five minutes before the start of class, and I was in the teacher’s room, eating breakfast with some other teachers. I was bouncing in my seat, impatient to get going. I had already asked a teacher to show me where the room was, and he had told me to finish eating and wait. Now, it was much closer to the time, so I asked again.

Me:  “Di mana kelas?” (Where’s my class?)

Teacher:  “[. . .] Belum!” *laughing* 

I settled back, suitably chastened. Belum: not yet. A word that already vexed me and would continue to befuddle me for weeks to come. A minute later, my co-teacher ambled into the teacher’s room, and we left together.

I am a planner, a doer, a Type-A Hermione Granger. I was a dreamy, lackadaisical child, but years of over-achieving in high school and college turned me into the type of person who applies for something like Fulbright (and in my case, gets it).

But now, being here, I realize most of my abilities aren’t necessarily going to get me where I want to be. Certainly, I’m not even sure anymore if where I want to be is where I need to be.

After all, if I had stuck steadfastly to the straight and narrow trail, would I have been rewarded with hearing “Indonesia Raya” performed by a tenth grade class after singing “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Would I have found myself screaming at Insidious 2 with a completely different group of students than I was initially supposed to be with after a merry night of mix-ups? Would I even be in Indonesia right now?

Let’s return to the mountain, “gunung” in Indonesian. I confessed that I wished I had been able to make it up that mountain, Tangkuban Perahu, to cross it off my list of “things to do while in Bandung.” I had failed.

What about it?

Goals are not to be disregarded. Goal-setting and goal-achieving have served me well, after all. But why make goals my albatross?

Slowly, I’m learning that I focus too much on climbing that mountain, “gunung itu”, when I would be better served by closing my eyes for a second and letting myself wander off the trail.

Perhaps in my wandering, I will turn a path and discover a waterfall. A lake. A rarely seen bird. Perhaps I will find a new mountain to climb, a gunung I will actually conquer. Perhaps, after my (metaphorical) years of wandering, I will discover the secret to menggunung, become like the mountain, a word that was made up by one of the other ETAs during language class and that has stuck with me for its sure aptness here in Indonesia.

There’s terror in letting go of the well-marked path, the well-worn narrative, but there’s beauty, too, in admitting the possibility of dizzying heights, dazzling lights.