My wife, Cedar, and I had always wanted to have a Peace Corps-like experience. When we were younger, decades before we married, we were each too busy with our U.S.-based lives to consider going somewhere exotic to do something for the greater good. But in 2012, at ages 72 (me) and 67 (Cedar), we finally got our chance....
Members of our spiritual association, Subud, had started a private school, Bina Cita Utama, in Central Borneo a half dozen years before. Now three-quarters of Borneo, one of the world’s largest islands, belong to Indonesia, with a much smaller section in the north divided between Malaysia and the tiny sultanate of Brunei. The Indonesians refer to their section as Kalimantan, literally a “diamond of rivers.” This descriptive term refers to the fact that rivers, larger and smaller, run mainly from north to south on the island to give it its diamond-like look, rivers that have long served as transportation routes for the indigenous Dayaks. Now however, thanks to policies of the colonial Dutch and, after independence in 1947, the Indonesian government, many inhabitants of the overcrowded main island of Java had been “transmigrated” to Kalimantan, so the population had become a combination of Javanese Muslims and animist or Christian Dayaks—a sometimes explosive mix.
Cedar and I had signed on as volunteer teachers in this then first-grade-through-senior-year school. Its hundred students were almost entirely Indonesians, both Dayaks and Javanese. She would teach 6th-grade honors English and 7th-grade geography. My assignments were a combined 9th/10th-grade and senior English. Although we received no salary and had to pay for our own travel from the U.S. to Indonesia, the school subsidized our 90-minute round-trip jet flights from Jakarta, the nation’s capital, to Palangka Raya, the 250,000-person provincial capital of Central Kalimantan. Also, we would each receive a monthly stipend of ca. $75 in Indonesian rupiah, enough for our food, and were given a lovely two-bedroom cottage with indoor plumbing, a decent kitchen, and the daily services of a wonderful young housekeeper-cook, Surya, plus a car and driver on the weekends. Early every morning we awoke to the buzz of the motorcycles of the staff, including Surya, as they came to work. The next daily sound was the sweep-sweep of Surya’s broom as she cleared away the physical (and spiritual) dust that had accumulated overnight. We had gotten all the recommended shots prior to our trip. I had also prayed that we would be spared encounters with tropical diseases and the assorted poisonous denizens of the equatorial jungle. Gratefully, my prayers were answered. (Our compound where this day school was located—actually a small resort complex complete with a good little restaurant and a pool—was 3 degrees south of the equator.) There were thus also the matters of heat, humidity, and the not-infrequent tropical downpours. For the ensuing six months, our lives were full of adventures, large and small. Please read next week’s blog for the rest of the story. Meantime, I’ll leave you with a picture.