Between Batam and the world

Looking over a Batam street food center at night

For four days I wake to the sun in a hotel in Batam, Indonesia, and put on music. Burial and Sofia Kourtesis soundtrack the sunrise as I stretch, shower, and head downstairs for coffee.

I am back in the world, visiting factories in towns I’d never otherwise have known about. I’m back to getting flown places to learn, to teach, to do. And I am comfortable.

The days are spent in a windowless room. Twenty odd people gather each morning, some familar with this building, some on their first time in this country. We work on a project that will not be finished in this visit, that will take a year. We work as part of a larger vision, one node in a network spanning the globe, spanning my time in Pune last month and San Francisco in June. We work.

In the evenings, after dinner and a team debrief, we have beer on plastic chairs in the open air, surrounded by people doing likewise. We are in the world, in a place. Food stalls surround the tables, sellers push alcohol and spicy snacks, push bread rice noodles. The clientele is local, is at home in Batam but not only from Batam. Chinese, Malay, Muslim, Singaporean, Indian, the occasional westerner. This is the world, and we are in it, diverse noisy welcoming and, for me, comfortable. I am at home, and after a beer I leave the table, walking the surrounding streets, stopping in to check on street stalls and small malls, convenience stores and restaurants. On these walks, intended mostly to provide motion to a body that has sat for far too many hours, I think about this comfort.

Twice I bring colleagues, only to have to stop and wait for them on the far side of a street crossing. Without realizing it I’ve left them on the curb, stepping out into the traffic with no pause. Just walk across without thinking,” I say. Just step off the curb and keep going.”

I think back to wandering Saitama suburbs at 22, biking around Shanghai at 24, standing on the side of a highway trying to flag down a long distance bus in Changzhou at midnight at 26, crashing a scooter in Shanghai at 27, crashing a motorcycle in Laos at 36, and the comfort, the difference, is no longer as surprising. In some way this traffic, these Indonesian food stalls and dusty roads that I have never seen before are home. In some way, in my mid forties, I am comfortable in many places, if not most. I am happy, out in the world with no ambition save my work goals, no need save my flight home.

We get McFlurries, on our last night, from a McDonalds in a mall basement. My colleague is disappointed that the experience isn’t more local, despite the crowd of people around us eating the same thing. We are the only westerners getting ice cream at 10 pm at McDonalds in the basement of this Batam shopping center. Stepping back out into the heat with the cup half full, I am happy in a way that feels hard to share. My colleague surprises me.

I like it here,” he says. I feel alive.”

And like that, there the words are. After all day on a computer, after all week in a windowless room, after giving up all of the things I would have done with my own time for these shared days and evenings, we are alive here, wandering in the dark of a place we never meant to go.

May it ever be so.