Sumatra's Children

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Sunday, June 17, 2007

The best of Sumatra's spirit dwells in her children. Nowhere in the world have I seen such a readiness to smile, wave and say hello.
 
Partly it's because we're bules, I know. "Bule" (pronounced boo-lay) is the term for Westerner, but it is not to be taken as derogatory. If anything, we're like movie stars. When we fair-skinned women walk through the village or ride atop the bus, children of all ages and states of dress, from naked urchins splashing in the mud to pristinely dressed girls with embroidered headscarves, rush out of their gardens to gather on the side of the road, flashing us big pearly smiles and waving to a chorus of "Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!"
 
This morning, as I sat on the porch of Coconut Island, the two boys in the hut next door, about eight and six, came sauntering along the front of our fence and stopped to peer at me. I waved and said "Hi!" to my mini-paparazzi.
 
Hi? Now that's a new one. 
 
"Hi! Hi! Hi!" they chirped, and took off into the rice paddies, stopping every few steps to wave again and practice their new word. When the little one stopped to shout "Hi!" for the umpteenth time, the older brother gave him a shove in the head and blew me a kiss.
 
Ah, boys will be boys. And brothers will be brothers. I'd seen him shove his little brother before, but he seems unfazed by it; such treatment goes with the territory of any little brother, no matter what nationality.  
 
The other day, the boys had their friends over, and they all gathered at the fence to look at us as we sat on the porch having our breakfast. "Hallo!" they called, and when we responded, they burst into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. One got very shy and hid behind the older brother.
 
"Ah, malu!" I called, and the kids laughed even harder while the boy peeked out and gave a sheepish grin.
 
The kids here have a devilish sense of humour, too. Once, as we were sitting in a café, we watched a group of them playing in an empty lot. They spotted us and flocked over to the open window, mischievous glints in their eyes. "Hallo! Hallo!" they said, and paused. Then they grabbed one of the boys and tried to pull his pants down in front of us, dissolving into a heap of giggles on the ground before scampering away.
 
Much like any other children of the world, Sumatra's children are pure of heart and mind, still so resilient to the troubles of the world. But there's something else about the children here-they seem so joyful and happy, despite what Westerners would consider obvious poverty. While I wouldn't recommend poverty to anyone, it seems to have its own silver lining: The children here seem far more joyful than the children of North America.They don't watch much TV because most households don't have one, nor do they have videogames, telephones or even radios. They play outside, help their parents, go to school.
 
Wanda, our guide, said his favourite game as a child was "catch me," the Indonesian version of our Western game of "tag," but played in the river-they scrambled everywhere, even up the overhanging trees, like little monkeys. Even now, there's always children playing in the Bohorok, soapy and glistening like little seals while their mothers do the washing. The mums do a fantastic job of it. All washing is done by hand, and the children's clothes are always pristine. They're not dressed in designer wear, but in simple, colourful clothes. Their mothers don't trot them around in $500 jogging strollers, but bundle them neatly at the hip with batik sarongs. And there are no temper tantrums in shopping malls because they want this and want that. There is no want, want, want, even from children who live in huts with dirt floors. For one thing, no shopping malls exist here in the country. And the children get all the attention they need, which is want they really wanted in the first place. If mom or dad are too busy, the older children take care of them. The whole community takes care of them as well, so they can run around safely without the worry of child snatching-largely the pastime of Western psychopaths. No aura of fear exists around them, which is almost palpable in the West. The mothers here are certainly protective, but open and friendly to their neighbours. People here know each other.
 
With the exception of farm children, like those next door, and some whose parents cannot afford to send them, most children go to school from grades one through 12, immaculately dressed in white, along with red for primary grades, blue for middle school and grey for high school. And when school is out, they don't rush home to sit in front of a TV or Playstation and zone out for five hours. Instead, they go out and play. The sports of choice here are badminton and football (soccer), which they play in schoolyards and empty lots. I've even seen them get good mileage out of old bike tires, running down the street with them, rolling them with the tap of a stick. Always on the move, always outside in the fresh air. Almost no children here have the same obesity problem as in the West.
 
This morning, after the muezzin prayers awoke the roosters who awoke the farmers, the children next door had run out into the field to help their parents. Each morning the birds must be scared out of the rice-a never-ending process for which a length of line and old pots and utensils have been rigged up. The lines are spread across the field in a simple grid that leads back to the main line.
 
The older brother held the line, crouching and waiting patiently. When he saw the birds land in the rice, he got a big smile on his face and jiggled it with enthusiasm, making the pots clatter and the birds scatter into the sky. Meanwhile, little brother ran out into the field to do his bit, waving his arms and shouting, "Rah! Rah! Dah! Dah!" When the birds landed, they did it again...and again, and again. Then they paused to see if I was watching. When they saw that I was, they flashed their joyful smiles and called out, "Hallo! Hi!"
 
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