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The Visit

Indonesian village entrance.
The village awaits.

I thought I would surely fall off the back of the motorcycle and tumble down the mountain.

The mountain is in a region called Sikka on the island of Flores, Indonesia. I am en route to a small village in the community of Nua Mbalu to visit a child I have been sponsoring for the last two years through the Plan International program. I am on this motorcycle because the road ends after driving three hours in an SUV from Maumere through a magnificent lush landscape.

I have one arm firmly clutching the waist of my driver, Teddy, this district's Plan representative. My other arm holds a large bag of rice I bring as a gift. My backpack is stuffed to its limit with cooking oil and school supplies. This may be part of the reason I am falling off this motorcycle. The other is that this is not a path but a rain-indented crevice, naturally cut through the dense jungle and enhanced by the foot traffic of the occasional villager. The air becomes crisp and smells of earth and green as we ascend the mountain for the next hour in our convoy of two bikes — ours and another carrying my translator, Tirza, and her Plan associate, Tony. Except for the occasional call of a bird, there is no noise other than the motorbikes, but as we near the village, Teddy and Tony begin to honk the horns. This is a "heads up" to the villagers who know we are coming and have prepared something special. Now, I hear the sounds of unfamiliar music and excited voices. I'm a bit nervous!

The village consists in a group of 20 small huts scattered comfortably between trees as if they had always been there. It has been decorated in my honor. Two huge palm fronds at either side of the entrance meet in the center. Blue and white crepe paper twirls across the middle. The entire population stands at the other side in expectation. Huge eyes follow my every move. I try to smile, and they stare back in fascination. I am the first Westerner they have ever seen!

My 10-year-old sponsored child stands at the front. Her name is Yenimia Yansivia Nona Jata. Tiny in stature, she is very beautiful with giant brown eyes. She wears her finest traditional garb, a colorful hand-woven sarong, and a pink blouse. She also wears a small rhinestone heart necklace, a gift I sent on a previous Christmas. A completely serious, if not horrified, look is on her face. Yenimia is nervous, too.

Shy Yansi in traditional dress.
Yansi - What can she be thinking?

Her family — father Blasius, mother Caroline, Grandmother, and 2 brothers — surrounds Yenimia, called Yansi by her parents. A week before, Blasius had traveled to Maumere, seven hours in each direction via public busses, to make sure I was still coming. He had to make the trip this way. This village has no telephones or electricity. Now, his smile is beaming, and I find the whole family substantially more attractive in person than in the more somber photos I had been sent.

Standing next to the family is the village Shaman. In all my admitted worldly innocense, picture what I naively perceived as a saronged and turbaned psych ward patient with intense beady eyes. He holds a hollowed coconut filled with ceremonial oil, as I must be blessed before I am allowed to enter. Though I’ve been suddenly transported into a world like a David Lynch movie from my American pop culture lens, I’m not afraid. These people mean no harm. It is impossible not to sense that they are here to welcome me to their world as part of a tradition I will never fully comprehend as an outsider.

The intense eyes of the village elders.
Intense eyes of the elders.

A hush falls as the oil is put on my forehead with a section of palm frond. Secret words are uttered. I am in! Everyone seems very happy, and the band, consisting of drums, wooden flutes, and Sprite bottles with spoons on the top, kicks it up a notch. I'm still unsure what to do, so I kneel down to connect with my "child," who is being pestered to hug me. She does, half-heartedly. At her parents' instruction, she reluctantly takes my hand and leads me down the path towards the family's hut. The wide path is lined on either side with the local schoolchildren. They are dressed in white short-sleeved shirts, red shorts, and their uniform's matching red baseball hats. Classes have been canceled today in my honor. The children sing as the band plays.

Welcoming cchoolsgirls in the village.
These kids love the camera!
Welcoming schoolboys in the village in Indonesia.

The bamboo and thatched roof hut has been transformed into a primitive VFW hall. The focal point, where I sit, consists of five plastic chairs facing out toward the center of the village. A small table in front holds individually wrapped water, hot chocolate, and seedpods. A blue plastic tarp has been erected overhead, and 10 feet away are more chairs holding the village elders. The rest of the population spills out into the surrounding area. They are all facing me. There isn’t a space I can turn my eyes without my eyes staring back. My Plan companions have been escorted to a spot on my right, so I sit alone between my child and her parents. The Grandmother sits to our left. She has the most oversized hands I have ever seen. I have an instant flashback from the Seinfeld show I have seen on American TV. No doubt this is an entirely inappropriate thought, but this is the cultural baggage I bring!

Author with Yansi and her grandmother.
See what I mean about the hands?

I sip the chocolate, and someone demonstrates how to eat the seedpod. “You don’t have to,” the locals say. ”It’s ceremonial.” I take a big bite and immediately grimace at the taste. But I think it’s good that I tried because I see a glimpse of respect in some of their eyes. I am starting to gain trust.

Next, the women practically herd me into the backroom of the hut, changing me into traditional clothing by fitting me with a sarong and blouse that I suspect was made especially for the occasion. They take great care in brushing and retying my hair. I feel totally comfortable with these women in this tiny, dirt-floored room. I have felt this way many times in my own country. In essence, we have just all gone to the what we call the "ladies room" together. Some things are perhaps universal, or I am projecting!

Finally, I emerge as the new me. This makes the spectators very happy, and smiles abound. We sit, and the speeches begin. I actually understand what is being said. They are saying that they are proud I am here. It makes them feel special.

The children begin to sing and dance carefully choreographed numbers. One is very special and stars my sponsored child, who clutches a small piece of paper in one hand and looks even more nervous than before. She steps away from the rest of the group and begins to read what she has written. I don’t understand what she is saying this time, but I notice her mother begin to cry. My translator tells me Yenimia is thanking God for me and hopes we will always be together. Now I start to cry. My translator starts to cry. The men begin to laugh. All women are the same! We, too, start to laugh, and soon, we laugh and cry together. It is a beautiful moment!

Village musicians.
The band.

Now that we are all family, it is time to eat! A HUGE feast is laid out inside the hut. The whole village partakes. Local moonshine, a type of arak, is also presented, and I am given a large glass. “Cheers!” I shout, taking a giant swig. The delighted elders almost fall out of their seats in hysteria as I practically choke from the potency!

As supper ends, we exchange gifts. They give me some beautiful weavings and baskets handmade by Caroline and tell me my clothes are mine to keep. I am overwhelmed by the generosity of these people who materially own nothing yet have so much.

People in the village.
I think they like me!

"You must see our latrine," I am told. Why must I see their latrine? But I say, "Okay," and off I go. Then it dawns on me. This is the first latrine in town! My money built this latrine! This is my latrine! I immediately volunteered to christen it. The entire village waits outside the door!

I am heartbroken this day must end, and so are my new friends. "We would be honored if you stayed the night," they say. "Not possible," say my companions." We must get down the mountainside before dark."

As we ready ourselves to leave, my sponsored child, now my friend, approaches me. “Terima kasih banyak.” she says. "You're very welcome," I reply. "I will see you again." Yansi finally smiles. It's as if the sun is rising at daybreak. She steps forward and gives me the biggest of hugs. This time, she doesn't need to be asked.

My family in Indonesia.
My new family!

For More Info

If you would like more information on Plan USA Organization, or to learn how to sponsor a child of your own, please visit the website. There are currently thousands of children waiting for sponsors.

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