When You’re Here, You’re Family

A lengthier entry on the uncompromising kindness of strangers that became like family in Nusa Pendia. A wordy read but each word necessarily to try to share and somehow verbalize their love. This is the story of my encounter with the living and breathing spirit of human compassion.

Okay, yes, that is the slogan for Olive Garden but it very well could be for Nusa Penida, Indonesia. At least that’s how it feels as you are strolling through the villages or along the beach.  People immediately greet you with questions such as “Where are you going?” “What are you doing?” “Where do you stay?”.  It is not nosiness but rather curiosity and small talk – an at home equivalent of “How are you?” or “How’s it going?”

The other day I filled my afternoon with a long and leisurely walk on the beach – jelan jelan. Every few houses I received a nod and smile from the elderly couple tending to their seaweed farm or an exuberant “HALLO!” from a crowd of young kids flying a make-shift, home grown kite from recycled material.

As I passed an entire family sitting underneath a bungalow at the top of the beach, the kids shouted out to me, beckoning me over. The same series of questions were tossed out, including “What do you think of Nusa Penida?”. Things got personal with, “Where is your boyfriend?” Followed by “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” and later, “Are you scared?” The little 14 year old girl named Ayu asked “Do you want an Indonesian boyfriend?” pawning off their older brother that was standing to next her as she began to giggle incessantly. She pointed to him and offered with “You like? Handsome boy, yah?” A simple “I don’t know!” and a smile would suffice as my answer.

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I chatted with the family a bit longer as the older women sat and prepared the material for their daily offerings and the younger boys exploded in celebration over a win in an outdoor Billiards game. I attempted my best phrases of Bahasa Indonesia, using my handwritten cheat sheet as a savoir when my efforts where met with confused looks and silence.

Some Jackfruit later, I got up to continue my jelan jelan. My new friend, Ayu, asked me to come back the next day for swimming, snorkeling, and coconut. How could I resist? We set the time and gave her my word I’d be back.

The next day I returned and we did just that – swan, snorkeled, and drank coconut. There were some added festivities as well; banana leaf weaving and Nasi Goreng eating.  We sat, listened, and sang along to Bruno Mars, Christina Perry, and other Top 40 hits that could be found on my iPod. Ayu kept saying she was happy because I came back and that I was her new friend. The feeling was mutual and it felt really special to be spending the afternoon in local style. A few days later I would be back for another visit as the Ayu and her cousin Ka asked to practice their English. Their final words as I walked back to the Foundation were “Don’t forget!”.

I would go back to spend the evenings with them many a more times throughout my stay. It became quite habitual and something I really looked forward to throughout the days. The time shared under the bungalow generated the fondest memories of the trip for me. The remaining visits were spent as they spent their evenings; the boys leasurely hanging around, playing billiards, acting crazy. My two new friends Ayu and Ka would be hard at work running the family warung or preparing offerings for temple or making trips to the Toyapakeh Market. They are the most mature and responsible 14 year olds I have met yet and they are some serious competition for any future teen boppers.

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Motorbiking to Toyapakeh Market

One evening they asked if I would join them for pura  (temple). I politely and eagerly accepted their invitation and I appreciate their willingness to share this part of their lives with me. Ka and I “planned” in our best English/Bahasa Indonesian communication that I would come by Wednesday to pick up the proper clothing. I stopped by, mentally prepared to gather the clothes and go to pura the next day. Wrong.

The bungalow was empty and I could hear the gamelans from the pura across the street. Word of mouth quickly spread that I was there and Ayu’s mom suddenly appeared, running from across the street, hand waving high in the air as she grabbed my attention with “Dee! Dee!”. She whisked me away to the back of their house to dress me and before I knew it, we were entering pura hand in hand. I sat with the other women and quickly became the main spectacle. The men and boys sat opposite; unveiling themselves as the original source of the music I heard from across the street. A stream of young girls, all beautifully dressed, marched in carrying elaborately decorated and assembled fruit pyramids. I spotted Ayu and Ka in the line and we exchanged big, bright smiles.

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I was welcomed with hugs and quickly asked if I would stay for Ayu’s participation in the traditional Balinese dance. No questions asked – I got comfortable. Sitting there in anticipation, it all made sense – I now know why those school plays, Winter Holiday Concerts, or soccer games are so important if you have your own kids. I felt like a proud parent snapping away as Ayu danced.

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They then guided me through prayer and soon after everyone was shuffling around and heading home but not without the offerings! These pyramids of fruits and desserts are not left out to go to waste but taken back with the families to enjoy. I followed Ka back to her house and she preemptively and a bit guiltily informed me that her house was “no good” because her family was “very poor”. I asked her if she was happy and without a hesitation she said yes.

I was then showered with oranges, apples, bananas, cake, bread, and the other goodies that were apart of their offerings. Sitting outside their home on the dirt with Ka and Ayu as the cousins, aunts, moms surrounded me, I felt overwhelmed by their kindness. It was an emotional overload and my  “crocodile tears” as my family calls them, filled my eyes and ran off my cheeks. Ka began to incessantly apologize for her house and quickly walked away. I got up and scurried after her to ensure that was absolutely not the case and did my best to explain as simply as I could the reason behind the minor breach of water works – happy tears, just happy tears.

The evening came to a close after infinite “teramin kasih” (thank you’s) on my part. The family walked me out of their village compound and Ka’s mother left me with “My family, Dee Dee family”. Real life, live and breathing proof of human compassion. Poor in our sense of material wealth but so rich in love and spirit. In their angelic fashion, the girls followed me home as I motorbiked back to the Foundation.

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The next day I was back again. First to help prepare carang sari and rice bags for the bakso then later another trip to pura. Since I was departing the next day, it was our final hang out. Ka offered me a ring she had worn the day before so I could wear it and think of her, ensuring that my remembrance of her would live on. We rounded up the evening and I sat and waited back at the warung until they closed up shop. Every 10 minutes, “its okay you wait?” “Tidak Masalah” or no problem is forever engrained in my mind.

I mulled over how I could share my thanks and appreciation for the girls and the family. And immediately falling into Western habit I thought “What can I buy?” or “What material gift can I give?” I asked around and everything fell flat to me. It wouldn’t do justice. Days earlier I noticed the girls wearing these earrings at pura and that they proudly and fashionable boasted about in. I motorbiked myself to the silver village and bought 3 pairs of matching earrings. One for myself, one for Ka, and one for Ayu. I wore them that day and the girls said “Oh I like! So beautiful. How much?” but I made sure to slyly answer with “I don’t know”.

The girls, again, trailed behind me as I motorbiked home. I saved my parting for them until now. We sat on a bench and I handed out my letters with earrings inside. Ka shrieked and Ayu closed the card and held it to her heart. They read my words of simple English expressing my thanks and how beautiful they truly were, inside and out. In my true cheesy nature, I told them we all had the same pair and would always be together in some way.  Ayu made me promise that if I came back to Nusa Penida, I would see her. Our contract resided in a pinky promise with a kiss on the thumb. Hugs and kisses later and they were off.

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My time spent with this family called for no tour guide or booking. No tourist information center or reservations – just an openness to embrace the slower pace of the island, to embody the island philosophy of pelan pelan. It is the movement of slow travel that’s so important to adopt when you visit Nusa Penida, – use your time to explore, wander, get lost…or in my case, just walk. An afternoon jelan jelan on the beach led to a family that would forever enrich my Nusa PenidaIndonesiaAsia life experience.