In three months I will be 24. That is already quite old. I realized the other day that I don’t really know my sister. She is 17. Somewhere in those years of difference there is a gap that wants filling. When we talked on the phone I didn’t recognize her voice. She has grown up without me being around. There are many things I pretend to regret, but not knowing my sister is real. She is unhappy in her skin and I can’t think of anything helpful to say.
I’ve been gone for 19 months. I wanted to try selflessness so I started with charity. In Indonesia there are plenty of poor children whose parents want them to learn English. I went to Medan, the nation’s third largest disappointment, where everyone sinks into their own flesh and the heat takes everything away. There were very few trees and after some time I stopped looking for them. The language is easy to pick up. By the end I wasn’t even close to fluency. At home, my sister quit college and started walking people’s dogs. My mum says she’ll go back to school one day. When my mum asked how I was I said the work was fulfilling and the city was growing on me.
It was growing on me, but not kindly. Medan is a village that got very out of hand sometime in the last 20 years and has now stopped looking after itself. It lasts forever; motorbike repair shops and unsteady shopping malls and power cuts and tin roofs and loud men with wire for muscles and wild rodents and not a musical instrument in sight and road accidents and factory grease, they all leak out into the surrounding rice paddies. Palm oil plantations have shaved the countryside down to nothing. Everything is covered in chemicals. The canals are grey, unhealthy and full of soap. Sumatra used to be a jungle running from the mountains to the sea. I thought of teaching the kids about recycling, but I couldn’t speak to them properly and they weren’t interested. Back home, my mother started to make necklaces and bracelets out of small beads. I saw photos. They are simple and horribly touching. Outside our volunteer compound, plastic spoons and synthetic nappies would build up until someone brushed them into the gutter. I had a shouting match with a rickshaw driver and won. I was never successfully robbed.
My brother managed to finish college and was silent about the whole thing, refused to offer my parents any opinion on the future, then moved to Florence. He will soon be 21. I emailed him asking what it was like to live in the center of the Renaissance and he said “There are too many tourists and most things are fake.” I started to develop the empty half of a drinking problem. I only taught for three hours a week. I pretended to plan lessons and write sponsorship letters, but instead I sat with the old men who lie around like cats all day, playing chess in the coffee shacks, smoking more than I wanted to and laughing when they laughed at me. Sometimes I would ride out with them to see the rest of the city. After half an hour of driving the streets looked identical, and I didn’t know where we were or whether I was being tricked.
The edges of our district could get so dusty and sparse, and the sky was never how I imagined Sumatran sky to be. I didn’t talk to my sister for six months. I knew back home she was growing old as well but neither of us could see the other’s progression. My mum said she sometimes didn’t eat enough. When the children came to my room and asked for help with their homework I’d say I was busy, or sleeping. A boy cut his leg falling down the steps to our pathetic library. I gave him a plaster from my first aid kit and quit my job.
When I emailed my sister it was to tell her that I’d slept rough outside a train station in Kuala Lumpur. I’d been welcomed into the home of a young, upstart businessman whose mother cooked a stew that made my eyes water. Me and the man got drunk together in a bar at the top of a skyscraper then got kicked out because I wasn’t spending enough money and didn’t want a prostitute. On the way home we argued about his opinions on rape and I refused to sleep in his house. I was boozed and brave and magnanimous. I passed out with all my luggage next to a vacant ticket kiosk and was woken in the early hours by a policeman who looked confused and concerned. I hope my sister was impressed by my protest. My mum said she was, although she never replied to my message. I got a call from my dad and he told me about a pub crawl he’d been on with my uncle and how he’d lost his phone in a taxi and then found it under his bed the next morning. I told him I wished I’d been there, that the beer in the East isn’t very good and varies in strength violently.
My brother finished working in Florence and moved back in with my parents. He said the work had been all right but he didn’t want to go to Italy again. He’s a fussy eater. I was climbing holy mountains in central Java, where families wrap themselves in white and start hiking at dawn to visit small misty shrines dotting the slopes. Even the mountains have rubbish on them. Moving further east I hit a small child with my motorbike. I thought I saw the bone come out of his leg but in the end he only needed stitches. I paid thirty dollars and watched as a village nurse sewed him up without anaesthetic. He didn’t shed a tear. My mother started working with psychologically disturbed youths. I said to her, “Don’t you get enough of that at home?” and she laughed. My sister started working at a newsagent’s but some mornings she refused to go. I remembered a monkey I’d seen in Medan, tied to a post outside a rich family’s house. It was frantic even when people gave it old fruit.
I started volunteering for an organic garden project in Bali. A friend said the tropics were the perfect place to learn about gardening, because everything grows, seeds and dies so quickly. Back home, my grandmother died after having grown quite slowly. She was the last of the grandparents. I asked my mum if she wanted me to come home for the funeral and she said no, which was a relief. She said “Your gran would have wanted you to carry on out there,” or at least I think she did. I can’t find the email. I got some money from the death. My mum said my brother cried when they read the eulogy, which isn’t like my brother. My sister didn’t cry. My mum said that she wants Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” read when she gets lowered into the ground. I want to be the one who reads it.
I got another email saying that my uncle had retired and that he still didn’t spend any money. He had spent forty years as an honest teacher and lived as a quiet bachelor. I had foul arguments with the woman I gardened for, because she believed natural disasters were an ecological product of mankind’s hatred for each other. Yoga at dawn was always too early for me to consider. The plants had a quality of colour that man-made pigments just can’t match. Back home, my father didn’t lose his job but plenty of his colleagues did. He said they’d all gone out for a grim farewell lunch where nobody knew how to act or what to say. I took hallucinogens on Kuta beach and distances became very difficult to judge. I just about managed to hold it together. A few days later I witnessed another motorbike accident and this time there was a lot of blood and I couldn’t stay around to watch. My sister stopped going to work and I could hear on the phone that my mother was quite worried. I’d managed to burn through most of my dead gran’s money and was pushing the gardening woman’s limits. I caught a fever and she said it was because I had a weak pulse and poor vitality. I was angry for four entire days and went on volunteer strike, which means I continued avoiding yoga and didn’t plant anything either. She kicked me out eventually, but when I wrote home I said I’d chosen to leave because I was fed up with hippies.
I went further out, through Lombok with its absurdly white sand and aggressive minivan hustlers; through Sumbawa, which I didn’t see because we drove across it at night in one blurred and continuous slog; through Aceh with its deafening minarets and enthusiastic mullahs; through Flores, which someone told me is Portuguese for flowers. I wrote a poem half in the native tongue half in my own about women praying on a dirty ferry that was covered in cigarette ash and packets of fried noodles and everyone was terribly thirsty and bored because the ferry company had lied about how long the crossing would take. It would have been a terrible poem if it hadn’t been true. It was, truthfully, a terrible poem.
I became briefly inspired by my uncle’s teaching legacy but knew I didn’t like children enough to try it again. He emailed me to say that his college had bought him a bottle of fine ruby port as a token of gratitude. He drank it in two sittings. My sister emailed me once to say she still walked dogs occasionally and to ask when my birthday was. I told her it was coming up fast.
I checked my bank account five hours ago and I have enough to fly further away but not enough to fly home. I’m considering asking my mum to send me money for a work visa, so I can try self-sufficiency. I’m in a hostel next to a lake. The electricity cuts at nine o’clock every evening. The lake is very beautiful, although I’m still refusing to take any photos, which upsets my mum more than I’m willing to acknowledge. I wrote her a short email explaining that out here in Indonesia you often hear thunder without seeing any lightning or, sometimes, mighty flashes rise up from the rainforest and no thunder comes at all. It doesn’t make much sense and is difficult to explain.
I met a young man earlier. His name is Munawir. We chatted in faltering English about how he wants to buy his own boat so he can take tourists out on the lake. He says there is a small island in its center, so small that it’s difficult to see from the shore, but in the evenings giant bats fly out of the jungle and head for it, hundreds of them in the trees, all packed together when they land. If you are quiet you can sneak up on them as the light falls and then, if you pay your boatman extra, he will thrash the side of the canoe and shout, so that all the bats flap into the air at once, a great spectacle. I haven’t the time to see it. I’ve asked Munawir to be my driver in the morning. I need to get to the provincial airport, a shabby affair, with few people. I’ve yet to see a plane land or take off. I’ll consider my options once I get back to the city. There are no connections here and I can’t check my messages.
I read somewhere that returning home is a way of coming to terms with the finitude of life. Everything beyond home moves towards the infinite. I have also heard that nostalgia is yearning for something that never was. I honestly don’t know if any of that is true. If stepping onto a piece of land could flood a map with colour, I have conquered most of this country. I plan on phoning my sister again as soon as I get back to the city.
If I come back here I will try to see that small island in the center of the lake. It is a shame when you leave a place without experiencing the very thing that is its center. The locals are very enthusiastic about the colony of bats. They say no one remembers them arriving; they have always been around. When tourists catch sight of them from afar, they believe they are looking at birds.