September 14, 2019•2,804 words
Yesterday, during the daytime, it was blazing hot. Today it is hot again and cloudless. But early this morning it was overcast and yesterday evening it rained for the first time since March. Not a heavy rain, but enough for the neighborhood to start steaming and the dirt alleyways to bloom with petrichor.
It is mid-August as I write this. I have gotten most of the way through my first proper dry season in a part of the world where dry season exists. I am told that we still have another two months of scorching heat left before it starts to rain with any regularity. But in my mind, yesterday's preemptory shower marked some kind of turning point nonetheless. It was the first time I can ever remember the coming of clouds and rain feeling like the return of an old friend. And when they did, I felt sort of wide-eyed—like I was waking up to or reentering a world that I hadn't realized I'd drifted away from in the first place.
"Sleepy" is a word one often hears used to describe remote, undeveloped places. I have been thinking about whether or not there is anything "sleepy" about Kupang or its way of life. Kupang is a city. But it is a small city. It is also a port and therefore not especially remote. But for an island nation like Indonesia, that isn't saying much either. Kupang is a minor port in a poor province that regularly gets left behind socially and economically. There are plenty of signs that it is trying strenuously to stand up on its own two feet. But these too only prove the depth of its preceding slumber.
What's sleepy, then, about sleepy places?
In the end, I think it has something to do with contentedness and calibration of expectations. The less a people and a place crave constant change and progress and the more content they are with the status quo, the sleepier their way of life feels. I don't want to pretend that there's anything groundbreaking about this conclusion. I certainly am not trying to make any judgments about more or less sleepiness in a culture. If anything, stating the difference explicitly is simply a way to help me make sense of my own baggage and understand why I feel what I sometimes feel. And what I sometimes feel is restlessness, paralysis, nameless anxiety, irrevocable mediocrity, and desensitization to the world around me.
"Sleepy" people and places experience these feelings too—experience surges of energy and abstract, worldly purpose (or despair). It's a question of frequency and predisposition. Years ago, E.B. White had this to say about mid-century New York City in his brilliant essay, "Here is New York":
Although New York often imparts a feeling of great forlorness or forsakenness, it seldom seems dead or unresourceful; and you always feel that by shifting your location ten blocks or by reducing your fortune by five dollars you can experience rejuvenation. Many people who have no real independence of spirit depend on the city's tremendous variety and sources of excitement for spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale. In the country there are few chances of sudden rejuvenation—a shift in weather, perhaps, or something arriving in the mail. But in New York the chances are endless. I think that although many persons are here from some excess of spirit (which caused them to break away from their small town), some too, are here from a deficiency of spirit, who find in New York a protection, or an easy substitution.
Forlorn? Forsaken? You can't describe a bustling metropolis like that unless it is already consumed by a fever of meritocracy and productivity and identity-seeking in the first place. One only feels a near-constant desire for "rejuvenation" if he or she is also in a near-constant state of expectation—for self-betterment, affirmation, and signs from the universe that, to borrow another phrase from White, "the way is up." Whatever you want to call this fever and this expectation, it is the crazy-making antithesis of the aforementioned sleepiness. And it is the state of mind that I was born into, have grown up in ever since, and will probably continue to inhabit for the rest of my life.
Many locals with whom I interact daily, on the other hand, are not so constitutionally obsessed with the idea of success. Around me, they might reference "progress" and "development" and acknowledge knowingly that Indonesia hasn't achieved either yet. But in their own daily lives, they are generally content with the way things are and have been. The people whom I have in mind are as immersed in mass media and consumer culture as anybody else in 2019. But at bottom, if they rely on anything for true "spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale," it is probably each other and God, both of which stay put and fulfill far more reliably than career, wealth, status, beauty, etc. All of these latter idols are still worshipped here, of course. There are plenty of people whose ambitions, attentions, and energies are stretched as thin as mine sometimes feel. The more Kupang develops, the more of these people there will be. But as of now, they are still the exception and not the rule. By and large, the highs and lows of everyday existence still seem less extreme and the need for frequent rejuvenation less acute than what I've known in the past.
Or, maybe "sleepiness" is just what it feels like to get up in the morning and not expect the day or the self to be ten times better simply because it isn't yesterday.
Every morning at 5am, the family next door blares music from a Christian radio station over a loudspeaker. The music has a tinny, carnival quality and is audible throughout the neighborhood. It is as reliable as an alarm clock, at any rate, and inspires the same trance-like quietude and feeling of monotony.
The rest of my host family usually wakes up at around this time. My two host sisters, Desy and Evin, and host mother, Mama Emy, start doing chores: washing the previous night's dishes, cooking breakfast, sweeping and mopping the floor. My host father, Bapak John, lounges about in his underclothes before taking a bath, getting dressed (on a school day), eating his breakfast, and brushing his teeth. If he has no class to teach, he may leave early on his moped and come back at mid-morning with vegetables and fish or, sometimes, a live chicken for the girls to slaughter. On Sundays and occasional weekdays, my host parents leave early for mass while my sisters stay behind to finish up the cooking and cleaning (they attend afternoon service, along with the other children and young adults of the neighborhood, at 5pm).
Desy and Evin are now second-year students at the local public university, studying accounting. Their school year lasts longer than mine, but their breaks are longer too, so we are somewhat out of sync and have had the opportunity to observe each other at leisure from the vantage point of busyness, and vice versa.
My guess is that from their perspective, my frequent comings and goings seem like a lot of effort—maybe even a mystifying waste of energy that can only be explained by the fact that I am a foreigner. On a typical weekday, I am up early with the rest of the family so as to squeeze in some writing and at school from 7am until 1pm, sometimes until 2pm. Besides that, I am frequently out of the house at track practice (five or six times per week from 4pm until 6 or 7pm), hanging out with the other volunteers or my girlfriend (easily four evenings per week, sometimes until quite late), or otherwise puttering around the city for more or less sensible reasons (running errands, having coffee or beer, trying to overcome restlessness or jumpstart productivity through a change of scene, watching the sunset, parting ways with my money, etc.). It is only on the weekends that I am at the house for hours at a time and even then, I am always holed up in my room, fooling with my books or laptop, probably trying to make up for all the stunted, sidetracked hours that I felt like I wasted during the week. I don't remember the last time I didn't leave home all day.
Desy and Evin, on the other hand, only leave the house regularly to go to church or their university campus. When classes are in session, they leave at mid-morning and come back by early afternoon. Occasionally, they may attend an evening prayer meeting or chorus practice at another house in the neighborhood. Otherwise, they are at home, doing chores, chatting, listening to music, or watching Korean dramas and Javanese soap operas on television. Like me, they drink coffee frequently, but have no taste for frequenting cafes and paying for "ambience." They take their coffee at home and in the afternoon, often with a batch of bananas or cassava tubers that they have fried up or boiled. Mama Emy, a housewife, is a holy woman to whom a steady stream of guests come everyday to receive consultations and be prayed over. When Bapak John gets home from school, he changes back into his undershirt and sarung and plays chess on his phone for hours at a time and with unshakeable focus.
At one point during my first few months in Kupang, I asked Desy and Evin why they didn't go out more often to spend time with friends and do whatever it is that I imagined young people should do. In retrospect, this was an insensitive question, asked before I had perceived that as both women and the youngest members of the household, it is their job to be ready at a moment's notice to meet the needs of the other adults—mine included. If they went out even a quarter as frequently as I did, who would stay behind to cook the meals? Do the laundry? Clean the floors and the bathroom? Tidy up the yard? Make tea for the guests? When would they do their homework? It's not that these responsibilities take up too much time. It's that they are done (with the exception of the last one, and even that is debatable) in the service of others and must be spread evenly throughout the day—that they are responsive to the schedules of others.
"Do you want there to be food on the table when you come back? Or do you want us to go out?" That's what they should have thrown back at me. Instead, they smiled sheepishly and said, "Kami malas saja"—"We're just lazy."
Late afternoons in TDM (Tuak Daun Merah—the name of my neighborhood on the east side of Kupang) are a magical time. The midday heat relents. Shafts of sunlight slant in low over the roofs of houses, bathing streets and yards and alleyways in a warm incandescence. There is usually a light breeze blowing, which further helps with the heat and sets the banana leaves and palm fronds a-waving and a-rustling. The usual cast of characters passes my host family's front gate: schoolgirls and schoolboys weaving lackadaisically home with their ties loosened and shirts untucked, adolescents on motorbikes zooming by at reckless speeds, helmet- and khaki-clad civil servants coming home from work and rounding the same corner much more conservatively, young mothers with toddlers in tow, old grandmothers carrying bags of groceries, the vegetable cart man ringing his bell and pushing his cargo along.
As of two months ago, a new pangkas rambut has opened shop across and fifty yards down the street from us. These tiny barbering outfits abound in Kupang. I could have started going long ago to one of many that dot the surrounding neighborhoods and line the main street—could have saved myself a good deal of time and money and probably gotten a better haircut to boot. But old habits and haunts are hard to take leave of (especially in the grooming department—visiting a familiar barbershop is like going to therapy) and for months I kept trekking twenty minutes up the hill to the first place I ever went to in Kupang—a "real" shop with a "real" storefront that charges about 15,000 rupiah too much for a cut but that seemed safe when I was still afraid of the side of the road.
With a new shop now just a thirty second walk away and not even on the side of a busy thoroughfare, I have no more excuses. So last week, after getting home from school one afternoon and deciding that it was about time, I went down the street to have a look.
Most pangkas rambuts are tiny things—about the size of a tool shed. This one was also exceptionally clean, on account of how new it was. Its walls were constructed out of sheet metal and freshly covered in A5-sized print-outs of barbershop-related clip art and quotes ("Be the kind of barber whom a client needs, not a barber who needs clients."). And aside from tufts of black hair, the concrete floor was still bright and spotless. Out in front was a small wooden sign, spray-painted gray with black lettering, that read: "Pangkas." Inside were several colorful, plastic chairs—one in the center for the customer, one pushed up against the wall, which was occupied by a student of mine who lives in the neighborhood, and another by the door, which contained the barber himself. When I walked in, they put their phones down and grinned at each other as if to say, "He's here!" My student, who was shirtless, looked a little bit embarrassed too.
I have never seen a female or older barber at a pangkas rambut. They seem to exclusively service and be serviced by males between the ages of eight and twenty-eight. I am not sure if this is the reason for or result of another fact, which is that the average pangkas rambut is a sort of hangout spot for the young men of the block—a kind of communal front stoop where one drinks instant coffee out of a glass cup instead of beer out of a can in a brown paper bag. There is often a thicket of mopeds parked in front of the pangkas and perched on top of them, or in the aforementioned plastic chairs, are the adolescents and twenty-somethings, smoking cigarettes and playing multiplayer first-person shooters on their smartphones. At night, somebody is either strumming on a guitar or blasting dangdut remixes from portable speakers.
It was still too hot and too early in the afternoon for there to be much of a crowd when I went for my haircut though. I sat down in the chair in the center of the room and showed the barber a picture of what I wanted: a high-and-tight with the sides and back nearly shaved down to the skin and the top buzzed to number two. It's about as simple of a cut as you can get, but as I watched him in the mirror, I noticed that he was much more skillful than the barbers at the other shop—that he paid much more attention to detail and approached the cut much more sensibly (he tapered the transition after finishing with the number two on top, instead of before). At the end, before trimming my sideburns and neck with a straight razor, he dabbed on some shaving cream, which felt astonishingly cool on my skin.
I paid 10,000 rupiah for my cut, or about 70 cents. The thing about a pangkas rambut is that, as far as I can tell, it doesn't really exist to make the barber money. There are way too many of them for that. And they all rely more on frequency and volume than on charging a premium for any sort of "experience," the way a fancier outfit might. In this way, they're like the city's bemos, which only charge a flat rate of 3,000 rupiah (30 cents) for a ride of any length, but which do so much business that breaking even is never a question.
Unlike the bemos each pangkas rambut also has to stay put and rely on the loyalty and the restlessness of the young men on the block. Earlier I said that the need for frequent rejuvenation in Kupang is less acute than it is where I come from. I stand by that statement. But now that I think of it, it's also true that sitting at home on a cool night has never cut it anywhere, anytime, and that the side of the street has beckoned to us all, like a lightbulb to a moth, since time immemorial. Haircuts are just a front.