Conversations with Balinese Village Children

Continued directly from our previous post:

Many of the houses in the area were fairly simple – usually one story, wood or concrete, sometimes capped with a layer of stucco, with roofs a mix of traditional thatching, corrugated metal, or corrugated red clay tile, materials we saw around much of Bali.  Houses tend to have the Balinese equivalent of a covered patio outside, taking the form of a wood and straw-mat square platform raised off the ground a foot or two, with thick wooden poles at the corners holding up a pointed roof of thatching or tile.  At the House of Hobbit, this is where we were served our meals or invited to chat, and we saw many other families spending time in such spaces for meetings, food, napping, hand-held chores like making or sorting things, or playing.  This creates a place from which people can greet each other as one walks down the street, as we often heard people do, while having access to breezes and protection from the rain.  As we were clearly not locals, many people sitting on these kinds of covered platforms in their yards called out “Hello!” to us as we walked by, and seemed happy when we smiled and called “Hello!” back.

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Glimpses from around the neighborhood the next morning
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Among these photos, you can see some architectural elements and materials that felt fairly representative of a lot of the houses we saw in Bali
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If I remember correctly, this is where the children were hanging out during the conversation about snails that started off this pair of posts
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In order to not be too intrusive, we didn’t take photos of the homes where people were actively visible, just views of the yards/buildings from the road…

And so Sila brought us the few blocks over to his house.  Along the way, he pointed out a dragonfruit plant in a neighbor’s yard, and upon talking with the plant’s owner, offered for us to each pick one to take along to his place to eat!  It turns out that dragonfruit grow on a type of vine-line cactus, and is originally from the tropical Americas, but has since become pretty widespread in southeast Asia.  As we talked about in our recent foody post about going to the market in Pejarakan, dragonfruit are pretty tasty and colorful, and it was a treat to be given these ones straight off the plant.

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When we got to Sila’s home with our dragon fruit, we offered to help set things up or to help make the tea or bring things outside to where we were sitting (on one of those covered, raised platforms), etc.  But he told us that was fine, for in Bali the women serve the men and their guests, so we didn’t need to worry about it.  Indeed, his wife Ariani soon came out with some delicious tea for us all and plates for our fruit.  She seemed quiet and kind, and sat with us for a few minutes, with her husband translating her words to English, while their children nervously came to say hello between moments of chasing a cat around the yard as they giggled wildly.  It was really sweet to see those 3 little children running around, goofing off together and playing games, and it made us happy to watch them just being kids.

We didn’t end up staying out there very long, as it soon started to rain.  We had a chance to talk with Sila about how he and Ari met, and about a bit of the history of Toby’s and my relationship.  It was pleasant that we had all opened up a fair amount since first meeting only a few days prior, especially since we’re sure Sila has to have some of the same small-talk conversations with visiting foreigners over and over again every time.  We won’t go into the details of this particular conversation, though, out of respect for Sila and Ari’s privacy…

We ended up heading to the top room in the house’s tower – this home was unusually nice for the neighborhood, made of smooth walls of concrete with enough space for a good handful of rooms and a pleasant garden outside.  We didn’t ever go inside the main house, so as not to disturb the rest of Sila’s family, but instead climbed the outer stairs leading up to the Menjangan View addition to the house.  This included one floor above the main house for the residential part of the little bed and breakfast, and above that, a great social space under the roof with views across the town and the forest, down to the sea and the protected island of Menjangan.  Or so we were told… the rain storm settling in around us, FINALLY breaking the epic humidity of our past 3 weeks, had landed fog throughout the region, meaning that our view stopped short of the sacred island, but still looked really ethereal with the green tropical trees peaking out of the fluffy, gray mist.

And then we heard a chorus of children’s voices calling out “Hallo!”  We realized that they had gathered under the cover of the platform sitting area (see photo above) in the yard next door, and had seen us through the windows of the tower.  Toby, Sila, and I waved cheerfully back to them and called out “Hallo!” as well.  Not expecting anything more, we began to sit down with our tea, but soon heard a round of giggles bubbling up from outside and another call of “Hallo!”  So of course we had to go and call back to them again!  We soon realized that every time they could see us in the windows, they wanted to call to us, so of course Toby and I started basically playing peek-a-boo out of the windows, popping our heads out to call out to them and make cheerful faces, before disappearing behind the bamboo shades and popping out at a different angle or opening.  What a pleasure to hear the children laughing and being silly with us!

When we paused in our goofiness, we could see that this gaggle of kids included maybe 6 or 7 of them, all of different ages and sizes, a few boys, mostly girls, ranging from what seemed to be about 7 to around 14 years old.  (There were also some adults and a baby or two resting on the covered platform at the back, doing some kind of handiwork we could hardly see.)  The oldest girls had the most confidence in their English, and soon they began asking us questions from their perch in the yard below, with these great big smiles, lots of giggles, and adorable slight accents.  They asked us our names, where we were from, how old we were, and what we liked to do, and we did the same in return.  The kids would whisper questions to each other and try to remember the right words, and then call out what they thought would be the correct English phrase.  Their linguistic bravery and curiosity were wonderful, despite the fact that you could tell they were a little shy with their words.  Occasionally, they would have to ask Sila how to say things, and he would happily remind them of the words, or ask us about more unusual constructions that came up.  We were all grinning as we talked over the rain from our tower window and they from their earthen yard.

After at least an hour of this, they began asking us about Indonesian food and customs that we encountered.  Then came the most memorable question: “Do you like eating snails?”  The kids and Sila were all surprised when we told them we had never had them before.  Sila responded, “But what about escargot?  I’ve heard of that.  If you have a name for it, isn’t it common?”  Their surprise only turned to astonishment when we told them that not only had we never even encountered it, but that it is usually quite expensive and is really hard to get in most places.  Sila translated for the kids, and they all gasped and chattered in surprise.  “Snails?  Expensive?  But you can find them in the yard!  Why would they be rare and expensive?”  And that’s when a little boy in the group proudly offered to find us some to cook for a snack, and he ran out into the rain.  “I’ll find you some!  Then you can eat them, too!”

In the meantime, some of the other kids called up to ask if we liked popcorn.  When we said we did, they offered to make us some as a treat!  A few of the girls ran in to cook some up in a kettle for us, and then Sila invited them all to join us upstairs to eat it together.  The kids came dashing up through the rain, becoming somewhat sodden in the process.  When they shyly offered us their homemade kettle corn, Toby and I eagerly popped some in our mouths and enjoyed the simple but tasty kernels.  After thanking them, we pulled out some more chairs for the kids and they piled around the table, becoming immediately more nervous than they had been when speaking to us only from a distance.  I totally get that.  As a language geek, I’ve eagerly practiced talking to people in other tongues for many years, and yet there are always times when I feel more put on the spot, or accidentally intimidated by my interlocutors and immediately forget the fluidity with which the words sometimes come to me.  I could see the same thing in these kids bodies and on their faces, and hear it in the relative silence that came after they settled down with us in the tower room.

So we began asking them questions instead, talking about what they enjoy doing in school and for fun, and what kind of music they listen to.  We even got to play them a few things we like off of my phone, from Four Tet and Pantha du Prince to LCD Soundsystem and Fleet Foxes.  The little boy who had originally offered to find us some snails was there, too, I realized – I imagine the idea of snail hunting in the pelting rain was less entertaining than he had expected, and the lure of kettle corn and dry shelter was too great.  He giggled and said that Pantha du Prince and Four Tet reminded him of cow bells.  Particularly the song Asha – for those who don’t know, this music is kind of minimalist and bouncy and atmospheric, all instrumental.  And even though this had never occurred to us before, I can see why it might make someone who has grown up around cow bells hear a similarity there!  They didn’t seem to react very much to Fleet Foxes, although they were kind of interested when I said it was based on traditional American folk music, but then they grinned wide and started dancing in their seats to LCD Soundsystem, especially when we played them I Can Change.

Among the many things that struck us about our time with these delightful kids was how when we asked them what they like to do, they kept coming up with things they were learning in school (including learning English, reading, and singing) – but when the oldest girls told us they were 14 and 15, Sila quietly mentioned that because they were somewhat young and small for their age, they would still be allowed to go to school for a while longer, and wouldn’t have to get married yet.  I looked at them and realized what he meant – they were still obviously children, skinny, silly and cheerful, with the implication being that once they looked like women, regardless of age, their families might require them to marry.  This quiet reminder that particularly in more rural areas of Indonesia, girls are expected to primarily function in the community as wives and mothers, rather than as individuals with their own ambitions and interests outside of family life, well… that contrast between their lives and mine has stuck with me ever since.

These were vibrant young people who were clearly thrilled to have opportunities to learn and explore (they eagerly told us about why they liked school, and completely lit up when we told them that if they ever came to America, we would be happy to host them and show them around and teach them about our culture).  And yet for most of them, even the most successful of them, they will never have a chance to go more than a few hours away from home, and for those who get to finish high school, they will still never get a chance to learn many of the things we take for granted in our average school system.

For example, that the planets are closer to Earth than the stars, or that trees turn red and lose their leaves before every winter in seasonal parts of the world, or that there is ice at the top and bottom of the Earth, or how utterly enormous the sun is compared to our planet – these were all things that came up in our conversations with Sila and Putu.  (Toby and I tend to be enthusiastic about sharing our love for the beauty and power of this world, and of the universe beyond – so when related topics came up, we were happy to show them some evocative images online…)

But this is all stuff that we were exposed to at a young age.  It is hard for me to imagine the incredibly different experience that all these young Balinese, from the youngest of these kids through to Sila (who is 3 days older than Toby) and his young family, have had growing up.  I am also sure that they know many things that we do not, the kinds of experiences and wisdoms that come from living in a rural town in tropical Bali and taking care of each other and gardening, fishing, and raising animals, living daily with the tropical forests and the coral reefs, going through the local school system and the community-driven education of daily life in this region.  While we know more about the world as a whole, I would bet that they know a lot more about their immediate surroundings and what it takes to live among them in an intimate way than we do for ours, or certainly than we did at the same age.

Talking with these kids and with Sila (and Ari, for the brief time she sat with us) was wonderful because of the bond that we felt with them for those few hours, because of the chance to get to know more about their thoughts and experiences on a great many topics, because of the chance to revel together in the joy of learning from each other and making each other laugh.  But it was also extremely memorable for us because of the gratitude that it made us feel for all the privilege we get to have in our own lives.

Toby and I grew up in families and towns where we didn’t have to worry about not having enough food or access to a working indoor bathroom, where our families wanted to and could afford to give us incredible educational opportunities, both at home and in schools near and far.  We have been able to travel, in our own country and abroad, and to learn other languages because we wanted to, not because that was our ticket to work in the tourism industry as the primary way to get a job outside of farming or fishing.  We have opportunities for a wide range of jobs and ways to live our lives, and support from our families to choose among them.  We know that we are of a relatively small group of people in America, let alone the world, who get to have such freedoms and opportunities and supportive friends/families all at once, and we are thankful for all these things.

And we are grateful for the chance to have met these charming families in Pejarakan, to make friends and to get to know about them as people with joys and struggles and aspirations that they were kind enough to let us in on.  We appreciate how strong the sense of community seems to be for these people, and how they come together to help each other through good times and bad more deeply than many people will ever experience in America.  We have been thinking about what that means for the differences in their culture to ours, how that affects each community’s values and practices, how that touches their lives in ways we do not know or understand.  We’re thankful for the chance to witness a glimpse into their different perspective and way of life.

However, since that little boy came in to share our kettle corn, we still have to say we’ve never eaten snails.

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We leave you with a few more photos from around the neighborhood…

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Including some of sleepy little cats!

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