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
Half-way around the world I met a man named Graeme Steel with two ukes. One he’d inherited from his grandfather. The other, a lovely Kono uke, recently purchased. I’m holding a photo of his grandfather playing the ukulele, circa 1910. Graeme holds a photo of his grandmother playing her uke, same vintage.
With your eyes and heart open, travel allows you to step, for a brief moment, into someone’s else’s life. After my last class in Surabaya, Graeme and I hunkered over our ukulele’s practicing chords. I learned that this dapper gent with British and Australian roots has lived on Surabaya for over 20 years and now runs a business called Authentic Java Tours.
I love the uke; the way it sounds, the ease of play. It’s hard to strum this instrument and not feel happy or smile. Does the world need more uke players? Of course, it does. How can you get into trouble when you’re plunking away on a four-stringed mini-guitar?
I play the uke. My daughter, Hayley, plays one. My youngest daughter, Devon, recently received a nice uke from her boyfriend. So if my wife, Heather, starts playing…is it possible….ladies and gentlemen… live from Vermont….It’s the Swinny Ukuleles!
P.S. What do you think about using that fantastic name — Graeme Steel — in my next kid’s spy novel?
“Trailing spouse” is the term given to the spouses of teachers who come from America, Australia, Canada and Europe to teach in many of the International Schools here in Asia and around the world. Since Steve is not actually a teacher and I am a temporary trailer, it seemed like “tag along” was more applicable; although neither term seems to have a very positive ring to it. I am very involved in all aspects of putting together Steve’s school visits and everywhere we went I was made to feel as if I was an integral part of the package. These daring, adventuresome people who choose to teach (sometimes for their whole lives) in exotic and occasionally politically unstable countries are a unique and wonderful breed. Some of them start right out of college and some at the time of their lives when most people are thinking about retiring to a life of leisure. The spouse is sometimes the one taking the biggest leap,not having any kind of job or routine to depend on to make the adjustment a little easier. Since our experience is short term (only one month) and we are visiting four different destinations in Southeast Asia we have been able to have a wonderful enriching experience without any of the worries of long term commitments. Steve and I thought it would add a different perspective if I occasionally added some dialogue from the passenger’s seat. Cheers! Heather Swinburne
And now for something completely different…
I spent two days with 45 students at the International School Riau at Rumbai, Sumatra, and it was an author visit on an intimate scale. I visit schools across the U.S. and generally I’m speaking with 200 3rd graders in a gym the size of Rhode Island. The small but dynamic school in Rumbai afforded lots of great eye contact, sharing of work and time for good back and forth for question and answers. While the school is situated on a Chevron oil campus, and is surrounded by tidy houses with lush gardens, you don’t forget the Sumatran jungle is alive and howling all around. While we missed seeing the hornbills and wild elephants and python snakes as thick as Rafa Nadal’s biceps, we woke to gibbon monkeys and let the rain from Sumatra run down our backs.
Will post more photos and news from ISR Rumbai so you can get a sense of this high-powered seat of learning in one of the remotest corners of the earth.
We left Sumatra under cloudy skies and traveled through Jakarta onto to Surabaya for a 3-day visit with the students of Surabaya International School. Leslie Baker, the vivacious librarian from SIS, scooped us up at the airport and ushered us into the Hotel Majapahit. As you can see from the photos, this is a place where we will revel in the architecture, history and food. More soon.
Today we wrestled, we massaged, we hoed, we tweaked, we nipped and tucked. We became word warriors and sentence defoggers and paragraph clarifiers. We took on the job of word undertakers hauling tied and used words to the Word Graveyard.
R.I.P. “move” “go” “stuff” “nice” “epic” “awesome” and most of all, “went.”
We transformed pre-school into a wild zoo, as we howled like wolves, hooted like owls, screamed like monkeys, and hissed like snakes. The teachers loved it, but the kids gloried in it.
Second and third graders pounced all over my writing assignment to load up their writing with details. And, as one student declared, when I asked what a detail is, “You zoom into the small parts.”
Fourth grade through eighth grade accepted my mission: Mission Verb Hunt. They kicked those weak verbs to the side of the road. Go became scramble and went became trundle.
Tomorrow at the Farewell Assembly, we’ll celebrate with a reading of some the student’s writing efforts. It’s gonna be awesome…I mean, magnificent! Will share a few sample of our work in a future post.
I can’t finish up this post without a mention of our after-school bike ride. Brian, the technology teacher, and his son, Rex, and Heather and I donned helmets and cycled out of the Chevron campus, and into the outskirts where village meets jungle. We were an hour out, making good time, mud-splattered, and searching the terrain for elephant tracks. Along a wide stretch of jungle road, my front tire blew out. Brian, our go-to guide and bike magician, tried desperately to repair the flat, but we were riding borrowed bikes and fixing wasn’t an option. We hobbled back to school, grabbing a lift from locals. After a shower and late dinner, we feel happy, tired and grateful for a comfortable place to lay down our tired bodies.
We arrived in Sumatra two days ago and woke our first morning to the wild and bellowing call of the gibbon. I’ve woken to coyotes, owls, New York CIty taxi cabs, the Colorado River down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the haunting cry of sandhill cranes in Nebraska, but nothing prepared me for this in-your-face primate proclamation. I’ve learned these are territorial calls. No worries gibbons. This stretch of Sumatran jungle is all yours.
We are visiting two International School campuses in Sumatra, the 6th largest island in the world and home to more than 50 million people. (Vermont, where we live, has just over half a million people.) Once lush tropical rainforest covered Sumatra from coast to coast. Like so many habitat loss stories around the world, much of this biological wildlife paradise has been lost to development and palm oil plantations. Yet, deep, deep in the untracked remnants of forest live lovely reddish-brown orangutans, and even some last Sumatran rhinos.
Listen to a gibbon here:
We celebrated our last night in Singapore with a fantastic meal at Samy’s Curry Restaurant. Curry fish head, like chili crab or chicken rice, is one of the iconic dishes in Singapore – spicy but oh so good. The food gets plopped on banana leaves and cold beers and iced lime drinks cool the palate.
The days flew by at Stamford American International School. Before I knew it, Friday afternoon arrived and the end of the first week abroad. The student’s produced wonderful poems and engaging pieces of writing about sea turtle hatchlings.
With jet lag behind us (and the Mac Book Pro power cord I left behind in one of the classrooms…grrrrr!), it’s off in the morning for a week of teaching in Sumatra.
We had fun gathering together after our Cool Details writing workshop in the morning 4th grade class. I wish we could have given every kid a book to hold but thumbs up worked just fine.
Day 2 at Stamford American Int. School and we continued the work of adding details to our writing, and look what 4th grader Aidan B. came up with when we did a quick write about sea turtle hatchlings on the beach:
“The crystal-clear waves of the beach crashed and growled on the
shoreline. There was a faint aroma of salt in the air as our feet
pounded the powdered-sugar sand. The sparkling bright yellow ball
suspended up above our heads burned down on us, as if in a temper. As
we dashed across the scorching sand, something grabbed my attention.
Stopping dead in my tracks, I focused my tired eyes in on the
silhouetted shape on the hill.”
Photo by Guillaume Feuillet