Peter D'Auria '14: A Butterfly Entering Your House

Peter D'Auria is the 2017-2019 Shansi Fellow at Syiah Kuala University. This is his first year narrative.

A butterfly entering your house means that you will

have a visitor.

 

   It’s become clear that the house I live in does not belong

to me. The creatures living here are following their own

schedules, pursuing their own agendas. A small brown

frog has made my bathroom its home, returning even after

I gently evicted it.  Geckos clack in the corners and lounge

by the lightbulbs. A family of mongooses sometimes

passes through my yard, and occasionally I startle a

massive monitor lizard sunbathing on my concrete patio.

 

And then there are the insects. Once I lifted up the water

tub in my bathroom to find an entire seething colony of

ants—eggs, queen and all. They also live in unknown

numbers inside the walls; rubble and debris from their

activities there collects in the corners of my doorframes.

One night I returned home to find a vast cloud of winged

insects swirling around my living room; in the morning they

were gone, leaving nothing but their clear thin wings

scattered across the floor. The mosquitoes number in the

high billions and are after my blood.

An itchy right hand means you will find money. An itchy

left hand means you will lose it.

   I’m back in the U.S. now after having been in Asia for 11

months. It’s the longest I’ve ever been out of the country,

or even away from home. After leaving Aceh, my first

destination in the U.S. was Mountain View, California, a

wealthy Silicon Valley town of tech companies and

redwood groves. The fact that these two worlds could

exist simultaneously was dizzying. In Mountain View,

Priuses and Teslas glide over pristine asphalt; in Banda

Aceh, the roads are home to a dusty snarl of motorbikes,

hawker stalls, stray cats, and the occasional troop of goats.

Mountain View in May is cool and dry; in Aceh the temperature was topping out in the mid-90s, along with a smothering humidity and occasional thunderstorms. Most striking was the difference in volume. After spending most of a year listening to the sounds of Aceh—the five-times-a-day call to prayer, the roar of unmuffled motorbikes, roosters crowing at all hours—coming to Mountain View felt like entering a ghost town. Even the cars there are silent.

 

I’ve lived in places like Mountain View for most of my life: the hills of Portland, Oregon, the California Bay Area, and then Oberlin, Ohio. All comfortable, navigable places. Moving to Indonesia meant giving up the feeling of control that I enjoyed in those places. In Aceh, cultural and linguistic barriers transform everyday tasks into challenges. Blackouts, motorbike breakdowns, and sudden downpours derail routines and scuttle plans. Even my body could be hijacked at any moment: I was variously afflicted by sudden bouts of food poisoning, unidentifiable insect bites, a mysterious allergic reaction that spread rashes across my body and swelled my eyes almost completely shut.

 

Do not take a photo with only three people in it; if you do, whoever is in the middle will soon die.

 

   One of my favorite lesson plans for my classes in the university’s Language Center revolves around superstitions. I ask my students to get into groups and to write a list of Indonesian and Acehnese superstitions, after which they compare them with others from around the world. It’s mostly a selfish endeavor: I love being introduced to new superstitions, which I record in a running list. I’m drawn to the connections they make, the poetry of their logic: a broken mirror and bad luck, a shooting star and a granted wish.  

 

To me, superstitions are an attempt to understand and control things that are beyond understanding and control. The world of the superstitious is full of meaning: there are signs, omens (black cats, finding a penny); there is cause and effect (breaking a mirror, knocking on wood). There are methods of avoiding bad luck, of ensuring good luck, of knowing the future.

 

My students largely view superstitions as nonsense, citing the scientific method and passages from the Quran as arguments against them. I’ve also always thought of myself as a rational person, but things creep in. Over the summer, I spent some time in Sri Lanka, where a Buddhist monk tied a white string around my wrist and blessed me. I kept it on my wrist for almost two months, worried that its removal would lead to bad luck. How do these tiny beliefs, so contrary to our convictions, take root? In my classes, too, some people admit to this kind of half-credulity. “I believe and I don’t believe,” I remember a student saying.

 

                                                                                                    A dream about snakes means that someone close to you                                                                                                       will get married soon. A dream about your front teeth falling 

                                                                                                   out means that someone close to you will die.

                                                                                                      The reason I returned to the U.S. and to Mountain View                                                                                                         was to attend a memorial service for my grandmother. She                                                                                                       passed away in early May; the news, sudden and                                                                                                                     unexpected, upended my plans for the day. I cut class                                                                                                             short, instead spending hours searching frantically for                                                                                                               flights to the U.S. and calling my parents over and over. I                                                                                                         felt helpless. I had a strong sense that there was something                                                                                                     important I needed to do somewhere else, but I couldn’t get                                                                                                     there.

 

                                                                                                   In the past year, my world has grown bigger, more fraught.                                                                                                       Fourteen years ago, Banda Aceh was devastated by an                                                                                                           earthquake and tsunami; I was twelve, growing up by pure                                                                                                       luck in a comfortable home. My students and friends tell me                                                                                                     horrific stories of survival, of losing their families, their                                                                                                               friends, their children. To me, the tsunami was just                                                                                                                     headlines. My Indonesian tutor, Vivi, tells me about how she                                                                                                     lost everything: home, possessions, money. She said she                                                                                                         learned what it is like to have everything taken away from                                                                                                         you. She advises me to always have at least half a tank of                                                                                                       gas in my motorbike.

 

                                                                                                    Do not cut your nails at night. Do not sit in the middle of a                                                                                                       doorway. Do not wear green clothes to the beach.

 

                                                                                                       I was in the Language Center office when we heard that                                                                                                        the wife of Faisal, the office’s secretary, had just given birth to a son. It was a sweltering, overcast day; a thunderstorm was roaming around in the distance, rumbling faintly. The news of Faisal’s baby was met with a chorused “Alhamdulillah!” from everyone in the office. Praise be to God. I texted Faisal, “Congratulations!”

 

Later that day I thought about the differences in our responses to the good news. Who really deserved the credit? Thunder was growling outside. It’s clear that there are greater, inscrutable powers at work. One day last year, ten sperm whales beached themselves just outside the city. Students have told me casually of their ability to see ghosts. In my house in Aceh, ants build their homes in the walls; geckos die still clinging to the window glass. Not even the rooms we live in are under our control. What else can we do but live our lives picking up pennies, knocking on wood?

Peter's house in Aceh at dusk.

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