Peter D'Auria '14: Finding Solid Ground

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

Sometimes while falling asleep in Aceh I would feel earthquakes. In a country crisscrossed by fault lines, in a city devastated fifteen years ago by a catastrophic quake and the following tsunami, it always seemed inevitable that I would experience an earthquake before my time there was up. Lying in bed, slipping into unconsciousness, I would suddenly feel the house shaking—the bedroom wobbling around me; the mattress shuddering, and I would think: This is it.


But in the morning, trying to check the magnitude of last night’s temblor, I would always find the same thing: nothing. There had been no earthquake. The nocturnal sensation was an illusion. I dismissed the feeling as just a side effect of falling asleep, a half-dream. And then a few nights later the room would start shaking again.


I’ve spent the past two years on increasingly unstable ground. Every day I get less sure about basically everything. This is partly thanks to the terrifying seismic menaces in motion around the world—mostly the slow-burning catastrophe of climate change, but also the various horsemen of the 21st century: authoritarianism, xenophobia, hyperpolarization, mass violence, etc. etc.


More to the point, I was shaken by the visceral experience of moving to Indonesia for two years, then the nearly-as-wrenching move back.


I’ve been grappling with how to think about my time abroad. My father spent a year and half in Afghanistan when he was my age, teaching physics at Kabul University through the Peace Corps. The program was not yet 20 years old. My grandmother, wracked with anxiety, cut out and saved every news article she could find about Afghanistan while he was gone (he had the bad fortune of being there during a tumultuous time, so there were many). They communicated by infrequent letters.


Now, I think, living abroad teaching English has become something of a rite of passage for young Americans within a certain socioeconomic class. Many of my friends have taught abroad or are still doing so. Outside of Shansi, I know people who have taught in Russia, Spain, France, Armenia, Senegal, and Korea. And then of course technology has brought everything closer together—as long as my parents woke up early enough and I stayed up late enough, the only impediments to our communication were slow Wi-Fi or the occasional power outage. What was I—a teacher? An ambassador? Or a tourist with an extended time frame?


As much as I got used to Banda Aceh, it never seemed to get used to me. The stares, the shouts of “hey mister!” the curious questions—though always good-natured, the attention served as a constant reminder that I was a foreigner. Even spending time with my Acehnese friends, I couldn’t avoid seeing how I was different: the effective absence of organized religion in my life, my university-provided (and relatively luxurious) housing, the comfort with which I was able to spend money (one dollar is worth roughly 14,000 rupiah, which can get you a whole meal and change), my ability to spend weeks traveling on either end of the academic semester.


Trying to condense my experience abroad into a narrative has been challenging. (Gavin and Ted can attest to how criminally long I’ve taken to write this.) I wanted to include the highlights, the strangest, most interesting parts of my time there: Visiting an ancient temple to feed hard-boiled eggs to sacred eels? Watching a volcano erupt from the slopes of another volcano? The motorbike accident that tore swathes of skin off my forearms, legs, and palms? Spending a night drinking chocolate milk with a hermit on top of a mountain? All good stories, maybe, but how could I fit them all into the format of a narrative? Then I also wanted to include my aforementioned concerns: privilege, foreignness, the value and validity of experience, Armageddon, seismology, etc. etc.


Not long before I left Aceh, I realized that my time in Indonesia was bookended by the month of Ramadan. I arrived in Yogyakarta in the middle of the month in 2017, and I left Aceh in the middle of the month in 2019.


During Ramadan, Aceh’s Muslims wake up around 4 a.m. to eat sahur, the pre-dawn meal and the last before the fasting begins. At around 5 a.m., nearly two hours before sunrise, there’s a recorded announcement from all the mosque loudspeakers, in which several important people, including the mayor, wish the city a selamat berpuasa, or “safe fasting.” An air raid-like siren goes off, and the fast begins.


In the daylight hours, the city takes on a surreal atmosphere. Workdays are shorter and the usually bustling restaurants and hawker stalls are shuttered. Around 3:30 or 4 p.m., the restaurants and grocery stores and markets open, so that people can buy their dinners and the light food and drinks for buka puasa, breaking the fast (literally, “open the fast”). People set up boxes and tables all along the side of the street, selling plastic bags of fruit juice, coconut water, and various other sweet concoctions. There are also little cakes, fritters, fried tofu and tempeh, dates, packets of noodles, sweets, and anything else you could want to break your fast.


Around 6 p.m., a frantic air descends on the city. People have less than an hour to get their buka puasa provisions and get home. Traffic thickens; people honk at each other; abstaining from food, drink, and cigarettes all day has finally gotten to them. Just before 7 p.m., the mayor’s voice comes back on the loudspeakers, wishing everyone a selamat berbuka puasa (“safe fast-breaking”). The siren sounds again, and people can drink and eat (and smoke).


A few days before I left Aceh, we hosted a buka puasa bersama, a communal fast-breaking, at our house. As non-Muslims, my co-fellow Sydney and I were not required to fast, but we had decided to try anyway. We invited friends, students, teachers from the language center, and housemates of Shansi fellows dating back years. We bought bags and bags of coconut water, sugarcane juice, mango juice, snacks and sweets and fried things from one of the streetside stands. In the half-hour before the siren, we gathered in our living room around a little table stuffed with food and drink. I was bleary and weak after not eating or drinking all day, but it was impossible not to feel a wave of affection for all these people, crammed onto the couch, chatting in three languages.


The loudspeaker in the mosque behind the house crackled to life. Everyone filled a glass with mango juice or sugarcane juice or coconut water. The fast had been long and hard and hot, but now it was almost over. The mayor wished us a safe fast-breaking, and the siren rang.


I never experienced a real earthquake in Aceh. But during my whole two years, I never felt that the world was as motionless as it was just then, when we all lifted our glasses and drank, and for that single moment the only sensation was sweetness.

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