When a woman dressed in traditional garb singing Beatle songs with a makeshift band on the street corner in Surabaya pulls you up to sing along how can you say no? As my good friend Andrew from Ireland always says, “go ahead do it, this will never happen again!”
The “take your life in your hands” busy street in front of our amazing hotel The Majapahit, is closed off every Sunday morning for recreation. The band had set up right in front of the hotel and when they saw we were the only caucasian people around, I presume they assumed we must be experts at Beatles music. Coincidently, anyone who meets Steve for more than two minutes knows that would indeed be a correct assumption! Oddly, as soon as we joined them, they decided suddenly to switch to John Denver tunes. Between their uncertain, slow and halting rendition of Country Roads combined with our complete confusion as to what had just taken place, it was a pretty sad little performance. It is a memory that we will forever carry with us, particularly since another onlooker took my camera to capture a video.
That was our first real introduction to Surabaya. This is city bursting at the seams with motor bikes, cars and bicycle taxis (becak.) When you cross the street you just wait for some scooters that look like they (hopefully) have enough room to stop before they hit you, and off you go! Surabaya is not the only Asian city that operates this way, as we have been discovering. This makes jay walking in NYC child’s play.
This was a day of so many sights, sounds and smells that we were on sensory overload. We toured Old Surabaya and our intrepid guide was Graeme Steel, a colorful expat who seemed able to gain admission anywhere with some cajoling in Bahasa and a smile. He marched us up alleys, over bridges and into markets full of fish, spices and perfume, where each scent mixed and hung suspended in the hot, humid air. Our final stop was the old cigarette factory and museum, still in operation, rolling them by hand and absolutely fascinating.
Surabaya International School is far outside of downtown in a sprawling upscale new suburb which they are calling the “Singapore of Surabaya.” When we arrived at SIS we were greeted by huge banners proclaiming Selamat Detang (Welcome) Stephen Swinburne. Leslie Baker and her wonderful library staff treated Steve like a king. This is no exaggeration since they actually gave him a throne to sit on! The school is lovely, spacious, full of light and accented with elegant wood carvings and art in unexpected places. The children were bubbling with enthusiasm and had learned Steve’s sea turtle hatchling song “One in a Thousand” which they performed for us in a welcome assembly.
We had a fantastic time in Surabaya and made great new friends that felt like old ones. We left feeling as we have in every place we have been to in Southeast Asia. That is to say, the people here are gentle and gracious and have smiles that surprise you like their hot tropical sun after a heavy rain.
Cheers, Heather Swinburne