“Assalamualaikum!” Peace be upon you! I call out the traditional Muslim greeting from outside the front gate of a neighbor’s house.
“Walaikumsalam!” And peace be upon you! A man’s voice responds from inside. His head pokes into the ruang tamu–the front receiving room for guests–and he smiles in surprise. “Oi! Ada Miss Kelly!” Even if I found the wrong home, I am still a welcome guest here. He disappears and moments later the woman I know only as Mama Fhaiz appears, the confusion clearly showing on her face. Happiness quickly replaces confusion when she sees me and in a flurry she opens the open-air, wrought-iron door separating us. She had been in the kitchen and at first defers a handshake/hug, insisting that her hands smell. I draw her in anyway, exclaiming “Apa kabar?! Ada Fhaiz?” How are you?! Is Fhaiz here?
We smile and laugh and marvel at the unexpectedness of my appearance. It is Sunday afternoon in Pangkal Pinang, my third and final day back in the place I called home for 9 months. Mama Fhaiz seats me in the ruang tamu and slips into the house to fetch her son.
Fhaiz appears, smiling shyly. “Fhaiz, do you remember me?” I ask in English. He smiles wider and leans into the chair next to me. He considers my question for a moment, then pushes off the chair with all his six-year-old might and responds with a question of his own: “How did you freaking get here?” I laugh in response; his English is as good as ever. I pull him into a hug and another boy, older than Fhaiz, joins us.
When I lived in Pangkal Pinang, Fhaiz was my neighbor. He regularly came to the Bukit Tani English Club that Caitlin and I held every Thursday evening at 7. A piece of his artwork is taped into my bahasa Indonesia notebook to inspire me in my studies. At the age of five, Fhaiz was entirely fluent in English. His parents speak a little English, though he is mostly self-taught and we were the first foreigners he ever met. He impresses me greatly, and this is why I made a special stop to see him during this brief visit. I am pleased to discover that his cousin, Eza, is equally good at languages.
For the next hour, Fhaiz and Eza hold court. They ask some questions about when I will return to Pangkal Pinang and about the new Americans (other Fulbright ETAs) who will soon become their neighbors. But mostly they explain the intricacies of BTD, Balloon Tower Defense. This is an online game they can explain with a matter-of-factness only possible after many hours of study. They shout over each other, louder and louder, vying for my dutiful attention. Mama Fhaiz cringes at the racket, but laughs when I shoot her funny looks in the din. She has her phone out and films part of the “lesson” to share at the next family party.
Fhaiz and family were but one stop during my whirlwind visit to Pangkal Pinang. The decision to return was made long before I left in the first place, but the details of this particular visit were finalized at the last minute. Thursday afternoon I asked Astrid, the Program Officer at AMINEF, about the possibility of going to Pangkal Pinang one of the weekends during my time in Jakarta. After some discussion it was decided that the first weekend would be best. Thus, I bought my ticket Thursday afternoon for a flight at the same time the next day. I arrived for this 48-hour visit Friday evening and left around the same time (after a three hour delay) Sunday evening.
Despite arriving unannounced and having no plan, I managed to do quite a bit and see lots of people over the weekend. Friday was nothing more than arriving and learning the best places to find Pokemon in Pangkal Pinang. Turns out that the airport is a Pokemon hotspot. Upon exiting there was a crowd of teens in front of the gate, leaning on their motorbikes with their faces aglow from cell phone screens. I was informed that mosques are common places for gyms, and during prayer some people keep one eye on Allah, the other on their phone. Pokemon hunting seems to be the latest craze no matter where you are in the world.
Saturday–my one full day–quickly filled with events and invitations. I texted Ibu Isnaini an hour before arriving at SMA3: “Can you keep a secret?” I wanted to surprise her and everyone else at school, but I needed an informant to confirm that there would be people to surprise when I got there. What luck: students were at school but they were having competitions instead of class, meaning I didn’t disturb their learning PLUS the entire school was in a festive mood for the upcoming national holiday. My visits were brief but bountiful: with Ibu Kun, the headmistress. With Ibu Isnaini, my co-teacher and fashion twin. With Pak Elvan, my superstar counterpart. With Ibu Evi, the accountant and source of much good advice, who gave me the most exuberant hug… her feet left the ground and wrapped around me for a moment.
I saw lots of different teachers, too many to name. The female teachers were gossiping in the teacher’s room, as usual. The male teachers were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes behind the school, also as usual. And the students! They were everywhere, going about their business in various competitions including a pole-climbing contest and a pempek [fried fish cakes] cooking competition. “Miss Kelly!” “Hello Miss!” “We missed you!” My cheeks hurt from the nonstop smiling.
Class X MIPA 1, now XI MIPA 1, had the most coordinated greeting. I taught them the most last year–5 hours per week–and that makes a big difference. We took full-class photos outside, then they invited me into their classroom to see their decorations. They did a nice job cleaning and decorating the space, making it their own. They even had a “Motivation Wall” with some encouraging sticky notes written by students’ parents and friends. They produced a sticky note for me to add my own words of encouragement. Such sweetness! I am already wondering how I can finagle coming to their graduation in April/May 2018.
After a shower and power nap in my hotel room, the visiting continued at an arisan [community-based lottery] party. I went with my adopted family, the ones I met because of one member’s laundry business. The party consisted of lots of sitting, talking, playing with little kids, and politely trying to refuse the mounds and mounds of food being offered to me.
Saturday night was the one pre-determined invitation I had: dinner at Manggo’s house. Manggo is a counselor at SMK2, my old sitemate Caitlin’s school, and she and her family are Grade-A human beings. Our friend Lya (and her boyfriend/fiance) came, and together we had a lovely all-veg dinner party. We talked, ate, talked, and ate some more. I made a heroic effort to finish two plates of rice, successful because of my temperance in the torrent of food earlier in the day. We even did a videocall with Caitlin and the signal held well enough to have a conversation and meet her grandfather. Manggo and Sisva, her sister, promised to meet me at the airport the following day. We parted ways, saying just “good night” and not “good bye.”
Sunday was dedicated to the people who taught me bahasa Indonesia, made me feel safe, and gave me a social life: my neighbors! With a borrowed motorcycle (and a Chicago key chain to match), I scooted around Bukit Tani to visit as many people as possible in a short amount of time. Thankfully, most people were home. News travels fast in Pangkal Pinang and many already knew I was in town. Everyone asked how things were with my family in the United States, to which I replied that everyone is healthy and fine, as usual. I inquired in turn and my neighbors are also healthy and fine, as usual. Not much has changed in the past three months but it sure was nice to see so many familiar faces.
Now I am back in Jakarta, nervous and excited in equal parts for this upcoming year in Sidoarjo. If anything, this recent homecoming has tipped the scales in favor of being excited. The warmth of the people I have gotten to know in Pangkal Pinang continues to amaze me. Although Sidoarjo is on a different island with a different language and a different culture, I have high hopes that the warmth of humanity will continue to glow in this home-to-be.