Hour seven of, hopefully, eight:
In twos and threes, fellow members of our cohort have departed for their sites throughout the day, and now, it’s just Carlie and I left… with only another hour to wait, if we’re lucky. We were on the road before 7am this morning, driving the three or so hours from Bandung to Jakarta, and now, ten hours after leaving the hotel, we’re SO close to being on our way home.
The one thing that stands in our way, however, is the lovely smog that has descended on Palangkaraya at state of emergency levels. It’s all over the news: flights have been canceled, school has been canceled… it’s terrible. The smoke comes from the illegal slash and burn deforestation to create room for palm oil fields – aka another example of Western capitalism destroying the environment and upending people’s lives. Here’s my favorite video illustrating this:
It’s one thing to read about it, another thing to see it in a funny awareness video, and a FAR different thing to be living it. It’s similar to when I was in Madagascar learning about forest conservation and how poverty is driving the local people to cut down the forests. But here, it’s the demand for palm oil (in everything from cooking oils to laundry detergent) that is driving the local people (hired by large corporations) to burn the forests to make way for palm oil fields. I’m still learning about all of this – but my understanding is that it’s either “burn the forests” time or it’s just made worse because it’s dry season. Either way, the smog has descended on Palangkaraya (and much of the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra) and we are stuck in the airport because the planes can’t land (which, knowing Indonesia’s air travel record (abysmal), I’m perfectly content being grounded for as long as need be!)
Hour eight of a now indefinite period:
It’s 6:30pm and we were supposed to board at 6:15. They have stopped making announcements in English, the bilingual announcer must have gone home, so I’m trying desperately to pick apart the Indonesian announcement and listen for “enam, tujuh, delapan” (678, our flight number) or for “palangkaraya”. So far no word. I ask the flight agent in my broken bahasa, and she responds in broken English, “something wrong with the weather. We do not know.” Awesome. Oh, and they already canceled the previous flight to Palangkaraya… so our hopes of this one leaving are slim.
However, this last hour has been the most enjoyable hour yet of our airport stay. I had been flipping through my notes from the last two weeks of Bahasa class when the guy sitting next to me sees the Bahasa words and asks if I speak Indonesian. “Sedikit” (a little), I respond. We start chatting (in English at this point) about where we are from, that Carlie and I are teachers in Palangkaraya, etc… He invites us to his wedding in Bandung in a few weeks (damn the travel policy). Later, he asks me to practice my Indonesian with him. I jump on the opportunity. I absolutely loved my Bahasa classes in Bandung and feel like I learned so much – definitely enough to have a basic conversation, and here’s someone new I can practice with! He takes my notes, flips through them, and starts quizzing me on words. I nail every single one (thanks quizlet). By now, there’s about 15 people near us watching, laughing, and pointing at us. They, and my new friend Adi, are absolutely delighted. We break away from the notes and a natural conversation flows – I’m having a blast and I CAN ACTUALLY DO THIS!
After exchanging numbers, taking photos, and him helping us learn that yes, our flight has been delayed indefinitely, Adi has boarded his flight to Benjarmasin and we are back to entertaining ourselves. However, by now, a number of people have witnessed our “amazing” (in their words) Bahasa skills and two more people start to talk with us. Unlike Adi, they speak ZERO English. However, they are from Palangkaraya so we have “much” in common. I thought the guy said he went to SMA 5 (my school) but later learned, that it was the woman’s daughter who actually went to SMA 5. We discovered this after the woman throws her phone at Carlie excitedly and says, “talk! My son!” Ummm, okay?
Carlie chats with her (quickly realized she meant daughter, not son), and then passes the phone to me. She has very good English and explains that she is currently in University in East Java but graduated from SMA 5 a few years ago! We chat excitedly and exchange contact information so we can meet up when she is home on holiday. How fun! Who would have thought that would have come out of randomly talking to a stranger with no English in the airport!
It’s 8pm now (flight was supposed to leave at 6:45pm), and there is sudden movement around us. Our new friends say, “time, it time!” and we jump up excitedly. Finally! We are however, slightly concerned by the decision as it’s now pitch black, we’re certain the smoke is still there, and we’re flying on one of the less than ideal airlines. (We later learn – after arriving in Palangkaraya – that Garuda Airlines, the best one, canceled all their flights but Lion air will “take the risk” so that they don’t have to pay for people to stay in a hotel. Oh, Indonesia…)
But I’m happy to be on my way again so we board the plane and settle in for the short 1 ½ flight. Then, I get lucky again. The guy next to me asks what I’m doing in Palangkaraya, and I tell him I’m a teacher at SMA 5. He says he graduated from there in 2001! We continue chatting and he learns that I know a little Indonesian. So he decides that he’ll speak only in English, so he can practice that, and I’ll speak only in Bahasa, so I can practice that. We have an absolutely delightful conversation for the entire plane ride, sharing life stories, drawing maps of what the school looked like then, and now, and all the while, writing new words for each other in our respective notebooks. It was so.much.fun. I used the basic words I know to have a full, and fruitful conversation – it was amazing! I had no idea I could say all that I did in Indonesian!
When we finally land, scarily, as we land WAY to fast because I’m pretty certain they couldn’t see the ground through all the smoke (jk, I know they have instruments for that, but actually it was terrifying), I exchange contact information with him and make plans to see him again soon. He’s a journalist for one of the newspapers here and wants to interview me for a story about Fulbright and teaching here 🙂 We walk onto the tarmac and holy shit, I’ve never experienced anything like it. You know the super foggy mornings, when buildings are hidden and the rays of light look huge through the fog? Imagine that, but it’s not fog, it’s SMOG. Everywhere. It’s this thick haze that has descended everywhere and you can’t take a deep breathe without inhaling a mouthful of smoke, and can hardly see 100 yards ahead.
We step into the small airport, push through the crowd to get our bags, and emerge to find our counterparts and co-teachers ready and waiting to welcome us home!
We stop for a midnight snack of grilled banana topped with honey and cheese (interesting combo) and grilled spicy corn and then, finally, 17 hours after leaving Bandung, I open the door to my house (which actually was already standing open, sketch?) and collapse onto my bed. I’m home <3