from Ricker Winsor’s book Pakuwon City
Muslims fast during Ramadan. For a month between sun up and sun down, no water, no food. Caddies pass out on the golf course or quit after nine holes. Some don’t fast and pretend to do so. Some fast quietly. Some swoon dramatically. For the ruling class this Muslim condition creates problems. The rhythm of the game is disrupted. And, at the end of Ramadan, there is Lebaron when they go on Mudik, a journey to the home town to celebrate for a week. We are expected to give extra money to one and all. There is a mass exodus as the cities empty themselves of people. Countless families climb on motorbikes and travel as far as four-hundred miles that way- two adults and two kids on a 100 cc Honda! It’s the biggest holiday of the year. All of a sudden it is very quiet. Six-hundred people died on the road going home to celebrate this year.
I visited my old friend and college roommate, Mark, and his wife Nicole in Jakarta. She is French and he, American, from Massachusetts. They are permanent expats living a very refined and luxurious life in Jakarta. Every morning begins with fine espresso coffee, and sprouts perched on perfectly poached eggs along with some cereal and yoghurt. The two cooks have been trained to a fine degree of excellence, following instructions and producing the requisite dishes that are organic, fresh, tasty and healthful. Three times a week a personal trainer shows up punctually to help them move their bodies in unnatural and painful ways to create stiffness in soft places and strength where weakness once ruled. After that, they go their separate ways for a while- she to the pool for a mile swim and he to the golf course in pursuit of a lower handicap. Then there is a sumptuous but low caloric lunch and maybe some movies and some attention to clients mixed into the day since they are both head shrinkers and life coaches in different ways. Certainly their life is a refinement of the life available to the wealthy in this part of the world. Their staff totals five which is not so many since I think they had about twelve in Nepal. Other than the kitchen and house team, Kareem and Marney, there is a driver named Bhari and two guards on the gate- one for day and one for night. They all make life easier in different ways. For example, in this part of the world one never picks anything up. If something needs to be picked up one just stares at it for a while and soon a person will pick it up. A jerk of the head in the direction of the object’s destination usually suffices and saves the energy of having to raise one’s arm to point. It is remarkable how quickly one adapts to this style of life.
Although I have had some experience with privilege at different times in my life I chose to learn to work, having romantic notions about the value of that, of being able to fix things instead of calling an “expert” as my mother used to refer to anyone who had an ad in the yellow pages, anyone who knew how to do any manual labor. And I did learn and truthfully gained a lot of satisfaction from it. I learned carpentry, furniture making, electricity, and plumbing and even had a cabinet and furniture manufacturing business for ten years. I worked as a contractor, did the electrical on two houses, built and renovated four or five houses- the whole megilla. Why then, when I came back from a recent trip and found that my electric power was off in my house, did I immediately and frantically call people – experts- to rescue me? God love them, they came flying over on motorbikes, fraught with panic lest “Boss” be inconvenienced even a minute more. Looking around, they went to the main switch just by the front door in perfect sight and flicked it on. Experts can do these things! I would like to say I didn’t know about that switch but I did know. When “experts” are around, however, it is easy to forget!
Back in Jakarta with my friends in the middle of their sumptuous life I begin to hear anxious tones and whispers. The kitchen staff will be leaving for mudik, the exodus to the villages for Lebaron the end of Ramadan. For the last three days of my visit we will be on our own without servants. This is serious! I suggest we just check into a hotel for a few days. They like this idea but can’t do it because of obligations to clients looking to them as “experts” to fix their struggles with the human condition. And, of course, everyone else has the same idea so the hotels are booked solid! So we talk and decide that somehow we will “tough it out”. The time approaches. We shop for provisions. Kareem and his wife leave. Life careens downhill. Who is going to cook? Mark volunteers and manages the soft boiled eggs and sprouts for breakfast. Some leftovers for lunch suffice. Not bad. At dinner he decides on a fine meal of salmon and special greens and some other good things. His standards are very high so a meal like this requires a staff- me! I chop and chop and chop! Nicole pokes a head in the door and says before quickly leaving “You know I like good food but I don’t want to spend all this time on it. I just want to eat it. I am fine with chocolate and cheese and some bread.”
In fact the meal does take quite a bit of work and produces more dishes than I have ever seen. It is very good but quite late at night by the time it is consumed and then all those dishes!
“When is your kitchen help coming back?” I pleaded. “Maybe we can just throw all these dishes and stuff in the corner for a few days?”
“It’s too long,” Mark says. ”It will attract bugs and things.”
“Oh, “I say, taking a different tact, “Don’t you think they are sick of their village by now?” “Probably their relatives are pestering them for money.” “Can we call them? Probably they miss being here. It’s got to be much nicer here than at a hut in their village!”
Mark says, “We’ll just have to do the best we can. I did the cooking so I would like to be relieved from the dishwashing.”
“Oh, oh,” I am thinking to myself. So I say, “I am not good at dishes. Francine would never let me wash them because when I do they come out dirtier than before.” Nicole had already rewashed something I had tried to wash earlier in the day so I had some credibility.
Nicole says, sighing, “Ok, I will wash them if you dry them and put them away”.
I counter, not giving up,” Listen you know they are missing us very much and wondering how we are getting along without them. How about a helicopter? Will they take a credit card? ”
Nicole says, “You can’t get a helicopter at this time of year. Everybody wants a helicopter. I say, “Can the pool guy be trained to cook? How about the garbage guy? Maybe he could work up the food chain …”
A day earlier Mark had asked me to paint one of the walls in the house- a big mural of a traditional Indonesian village. I am an art teacher and a landscape painter.
“It doesn’t have to be too good” He said. “ It’s going to be background for some photography I want to do celebrating village life. ”
“No sweat, Bubbie” I said. “I am happy to help you to promote the native culture living close to mother earth!”
While Nicole and I struggle with the aftermath of the sumptuous salmon dinner he prepared I happen to hear him talking on Skype using his laptop in the room with the painting on the wall. He is talking to his ex-wife, someone I know well since we went to college together and I was the best man at that wedding. They had recently made contact and were interested in resolving some difficulties needing attention after about 40 years. What’s more, she’s one of the founders of the voluntary simplicity movement and quite famous in that- Opera guest, author etc. So while I am drying the multitude if dishes one at a time I poke my head in and listen and understand that what she is seeing on Skype is Mark, now out of his silk pajamas and stripped down to a T shirt and shorts, with an Indonesian village in the background.
“Oh yes Vicky” I hear him say,” we have simplified our life and reduced our carbon footprint to help our mother earth. We even make our own toothpicks from trees that have died of natural causes. In place of toilet paper we use the leaf of the Po Po plant just after the seeds have dropped. We use no Po Po before it’s time!”
I am liking this all very much. “Wow” I muse, “This guy can think on his feet!”
Back in the kitchen, Nicole is repeating, just audibly, “Just give me some chocolate and bread. My hands will stink for weeks from these rubber gloves! Merde!”
Mark finishes his call and checks on the progress here in the kitchen.
“By the way,” I mention, “what are we going to do about laundry? I didn’t bring that much spare clothing! ” Normally you throw your dirty stuff in some designated spot in the room and the next day Marney has it all ironed and back in the closet or on the shelf the way God intended it. But now??
“I don’t know,” says Mark who has lived in the house for 6 years. “I don’t know where they keep the washing machine. Is there a washing machine? ”
From Pakuwon City, Letters from the East
Mud Flat Press