Indonesia/ Trinidad (VO)
Indonesia is about as far away as one can get from Trinidad or anywhere else on this latitude. It is on the other side of the planet, about twelve thousand miles away. It is the largest Muslim country in the world, an archipelago of about seventeen thousand five hundred islands. I wonder if anyone has really counted. People in Indonesia speak three hundred fifty local languages but they have agreed on a common one, Bahasa Indonesia, which just means Indonesian language. Indonesia is an ancient place with people reaching back in time as far as we know. Recently there was a little humanoid discovered named Flores Man, “the hobbit”, about three feet high. He survived until about twelve thousand years ago and was around, it is thought, for about eighty thousand years before that. We don’t know a lot about our past on this planet. People have had the brain we have and looked like us going back one hundred fifty thousand years but we have no knowledge about what they were doing. I don’t think they were just pounding the ground with a stick. Indonesia was Buddhist and it was Hindu; and it still is to some degree, but basically, as in many places, Islam has taken over. Why is it growing so fast and why is Christianity seeming to fade in the West?
I lived and taught in Indonesia a few years ago and met my wife there. She is Chinese Indonesian. The Chinese were brought in to help in the exploitation of Indonesia’s rich natural resources. They were very good at it which caused envy and hate; it occasionally erupted in communal violence. These days there is peace among the people but the Chinese, although only about ten percent of the population, control something like ninety five percent of business and wealth. They feel some pressure and nervousness being outnumbered so considerably by a sometimes hostile majority. Their strength is their strong cultural identity and their talent for commerce. The Chinese don’t mind sacrificing for subsequent generations and, over time, small businesses grow into very big businesses.
After this school year in Trinidad we will be moving to Bali, an island in Indonesia which is still Hindu. It is a beautiful place like Trinidad. It has a deep culture of religion, art, music, and food, among other things. There are numerous museums, festivals and temples everywhere. The beaches are some of the best in the world. On top of the Balinese culture is a growing international culture which includes about 50,000 expatriates from all over the world, drawn to Bali because of its beauty, and its affordability, and maybe most of all, because of the people. Indonesian people are generally friendly, polite, and welcoming. They are pleased by the westerners interest in them and their culture and they look up to the accomplishments of the western economies, as they also do to the mainland Chinese, who have an increasing influence in Bali in many ways but primarily in tourism. After the Australians they are the major tourist group in Bali and growing. Expats from all over the world contribute to the economy as well as adding an international spin to the Balinese experience. Rather than changing the local culture they seem more inclined to assimilate and be changed by it. This is probably an effect of the type of people drawn to live in Bali as well as of the beauty of the Balinese culture.
All Indonesian cities including Denpasar, Bali, are congested on the road. There are about hundred motorbikes to every car and there are thousands of cars. Traffic moves slowly but everyone makes room for everyone else. Everything slows down, becomes deliberate. One enters the river of humanity like a salmon on its ancient annual migration. So dense and close together, constantly making way for each other, avoiding conflict, endlessly patient. What choice is there? What would happen if this broke down? It is a frightening thought. There is only one rule: “Don’t hit anyone”. The cooperation and the general politeness are inspiring. People are friendly and polite even in frustration and disappointment. There is no road rage and no sense of violence or threat. This is palpable and heartwarming. Things don’t always work right, which is the case in all developing countries, but the Indonesians work around these difficulties with grace and patience.
In our neighborhood here in Trinidad, in Westmoorings, there are five or six security companies patrolling the streets and checking houses twenty four hours a day. We don’t go many places beyond the neighborhood because of the stress we feel driving. We have experienced many scary incidents on the road. This is our second year here and a year’s experience has made a huge difference in our being able to accept certain things. “Ok, so the road is not meant for sight-seeing”. You have to pay attention. Maybe that is a good thing, like doing crossword puzzles to avoid Alzheimer’s disease. A year on the road here with no dents to speak of is a point of pride, and feeling comfortable missing head on traffic by half a meter is a badge of courage! It makes those wide roads in the USA seem weak and made for sissies. One thing that happens here that happens nowhere else is the courtesy people show it letting you make a turn or enter traffic. If you blink your lights they blink back and let you in and a warm feeling of brotherly love ensues. If you don’t blink and just barge in they honk and reach for their gun or cutlass which is always close at hand. Chop chop!!
We often go out to Chaguaramas, a park area with a golf course. We mix in with the local men and women. They are generally good natured and fun to be around and very good golfers too, many of them. Trinidad is known for its athletes, Brian Lara being one of the best cricketers ever to play the game and now Keshorn Walcott, the Olympic gold medalist in javelin, making the whole country proud on its fiftieth anniversary of independence. It is touching to see how much pride the average Trini has for his country despite the problems everyone knows about. The Prime Minister declared a national holiday to celebrate Walcott’s wonderful achievement. Trinidad has a distinct culture particularly in language and in what they value, in food, in festivals, music, and race. The racial make-up is about forty-five percent African descent and forty-five percent Indian descent and only three percent white. I don’t know about the missing seven percent.
Last Saturday evening in church I was looking around and studying the people. They all looked like they had a tan. I considered them all white but then I started wondering about that so I asked my friend, the librarian, about the racial breakdown and she said, “I think everybody is mixed race. It is only three percent white”. That opened my eyes quite a bit but not as much as the night parents all come to the school to meet the teachers. One of my students, someone with a French name whom I considered quite “race” as the French would say, which for them would mean pure Gallic if that even exists. The French are the world experts, I think, on making distinctions of every conceivable kind between people. Anyway, it’s parent night and in comes a beautiful woman, dark as night, and announcing that she is the mother of the aforementioned race student. I have another student, Henry Von Bornbrumer, who looks like a Viking and, sure enough, you guessed it, his dad looks like a Zulu! My friend, Debbie, the librarian has “gone native” and although she was born Jewish in Ohio, USA she has been here for forty years and speaks like a Trini and has given her life to books, to writing, and to educating young men, teenagers, who are incarcerated for capital crimes. She is a great resource for my many questions about this complicated culture. Regarding my amazement at the variety in color in one generation she says, “You know day like dat in de same family”. Wow! It’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, “You never know what you are going to get!” I find all this very cool and fascinating; it takes the notion of integration to a different level. My next little research will be to visit Mendel’s experiments with pea plants and honey bees to understand the genetic math and see what that conjures up. This is Trinidad.
I play tennis with “white” Trinis. Most are not white but lighter than pure African descent. And I play golf with black Trinis and some tan ones too. They are friendly and nice once they understand that you are not going to hurt their feelings, which they expect from the milk white foreigner who might be a snobbish, superior, pain in the ass, if not by actual conscious behavior, then at least by body language and gesture. I try not to stand with my hands on my hips or my arms folded as if I am waiting for someone’s behavior to improve.
I will never forget one time when I had met, years ago, my rival in love. It was a messy situation, the kind associated with mid-life craziness. There we were, outside a bakery, trying to talk somehow and not just beat each other up. We stood there on the sidewalk; arms folded authoritatively in passive aggression and we had a reasonable conversation under the circumstances. This was in New Paltz, New York, not far from the city, a pleasant place where New Yorkers have second homes and retreats. A middle aged Jewish woman, strong looking with left wing accoutrements, some bangles, unkempt hair, and maybe a slogan pin stuck on, came over to us and said, “Who do you two think you are standing like that, like you own the street?” We were speechless and giggled a little nervously. Such is the power of nonverbal communication.
Do you know how much you can know about a person without ever saying a word to him or her? At one point I was a daily visitor and practitioner at a yoga center in the Catskills about one hundred miles from New York City. I had a little cabinet and furniture business and would go to the early morning program at the center before spending the rest of the day in my shop on the first floor of a three story barn. In those days I only slept a few hours every night and would go to the center and meditate until the program began at 5 am. I saw the same people day after day and week after week and year after year. Sometimes it was years before there was any occasion for us to have any words at all. But when we finally did have a conversation it was as if we had been talking all along and were good friends. We knew so much about each other, silently.
My friend here in Trinidad, Stuart, is a Trini of many generations and although I have not asked him, my eyes tell me that maybe his line never mixed with the Africans or the East Indians who predominate here. He and his ilk are the vestigial colonial part of the culture linked to the days of plantations and agriculture, before oil became God here, before nationalism and independence, before 500 murders a year and guns and drugs and road rage. “We have problems Rick but once you know what to avoid it is still a good place to live”.
People can adapt to anything it seems. I am reminded of the experiment where a frog is (cruelly) placed in a pan of water and the temperature raised slowly, slowly, up to a deadly boil. Because it is done gradually, over time, the frog somehow does not notice, does not even notice his own death. There is a William Burrows story making the same point. It is about a restaurant which has a wonderful reputation for fine cuisine. But, the management changes and bit by bit, or bite by bite, the quality goes down, and down, until the clientele is happily eating garbage. In my ungenerous moments, that is what I think of my friend’s comment about Trinidad being “still a good place to live”. And yet, as time has gone on, and our grumbling ceasing, we see the beauty and interest of our life here and of these marvelous rainbow people with their inimitable spoken English, their fun loving way of relating, their charming gentility in the old guard minority, and in the fierce pride and anger of their young bloods-writers and artists.
Port of Spain,
Trinidad and Tobago
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