Watching the film edition of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” I couldn’t help but reminisce about the year I lived in Indonesia and how vastly different my experience was from hers’. If I wrote my own recollections, would it make me the millions she made?
I have amazing photos from that year when I was eighteen, as well as fragments of writing in the form of memoirs and a screenplay but nothing that warrants the proper action of a story. Because the story was more internal then external. More static than transformational or transcendent. And yet still I reflect. Here an excerpt:
The air coming through the windows of the moving train brought the temperature back to bearable. I no longer felt like was going to faint from the stifling heat. We moved through the slums of the city’s outer domains. There were no houses, only shanties put together with cardboard, scrap metal and bamboo. Clotheslines were strung every which way like zig-zags in a game of cat’s cradle. Children ran around barefoot, apparently oblivious to the filth of their surroundings – empty soda cans, newspapers, shoes and clothes were scattered everywhere.
Initially excited to be an exchange student in Bandung, Indonesia, I now felt utterly terrified. Yet like a Colonist seeking absolution from the past, I embarked on my journey with a sense of courage and excitement. “I had a farm in Africa,” I kept repeating to myself imagining myself as Isak Dinsen or as the heroine from “A Passage to India.” In cahoots with my self-absorption, I cast myself in an internal Merchant Ivory film.
The landscape gradually changed to countryside, replacing the filth and squalor to reveal a National Geographic spread. Now children played in streams instead of squalor. Most notable were the long flat rice fields. They created a sea of green so vibrant the color almost didn’t look real. Contrasting this green I’d only seen before in a box of crayons was sky as dark as the horizon of a Midwestern summer storm. While children played, adults worked barefoot in the fields. Most wore cone shaped hats of straw, reminding me of “Ping the Duck”, a children’s story with illustrations of Chinese fishermen. I struggled with the dichotomy of their lives and mine. What was it like to work in such intense sun? Could I stand the heat and bugs? Were there water snakes? No wonder people in the villages looked so beat up, as if the sun and wind had worn them down like the walls of the Grand Canyon. Yet they always had a toothless grin and seemed to accept their fate with a sense of Grace and dignity I couldn’t quite understand. Sure I loved to garden but I always had a place to wash up afterwards and a cool air conditioned home.
The year passed in a blur not unlike the way the rain in Indonesia muted the orange and white fish in my host parent’s pond into a beautiful blur below. While there, I consumed experiences like antibiotics hoping to purge a pestilence, only the bacteria just spread. Many people go abroad to run away from something and I was one of them. While my life did not necessarily follow me, it was only temporarily put on hold. I knew when I returned to the States, I would have to face my father’s continuing descent into drugs, madness and financial ruin.