Saying Goodbye in Sumatra—and Why It’s So Hard This Time

Eti's family (minus her son)

It’s morning and I’m sitting on the porch, sipping my coffee and eating bakwan (fried vegetables).  The birds are chirping and the roosters are still crowing.

And Eti, the friend/teacher I’m staying with, is in her PJs, off-white with small teddy bears, and sweeping the porch and the yard with a handmade broom. Her hair is down, uncovered by a veil (head scarf) since she’s at home. And she looks happy. As she usually does.

I’m feeling pretty content, too, but when she walks away, I’m hit with a mini wave of sadness. The reason? I’m thinking about the future–the day I leave here, that is. And what it’s going to feel like. For me. And for Eti. And a few other people I’ve connected with.

Eti wearing a headscarf (which I bought in Jordan) I gave her )

“I feel sad when I think that you leave. You are my friend and now, my family. Like a sister,” she’s told me a few times, with tears in her eyes. And I know she means it.

Eti's family (minus her son)

That’s how the Minangkabau people are—the tribe to which she belongs. They’re essentially one big, extended family—with clans and yes, even a chief—and they take their friendships and relationships seriously.

Village chief at kindergarten celebration

And each time she speaks to me about being part of the family, I feel my own tears welling up.

“You should not go, but stay a long time,” she says, her eyes searching for a solution, “maybe forever.” I laugh and say, “mungkin”—maybe.

Then, both feeling emotional and wanting to change the subject, we turn to humor. And she loves it, just as the other Minangkabau do. One of their favorite things to do, it seems, is make jokes, tease people and laugh about anything and everything. (Check out the offbeat experiences I’ve had here…)

So we come up with a fantasy scenario.

“You like the physics teacher at my school, correct?”

“Well, I think he’s cute and nice, but…” I’m twice his age, and she knows it.

“So maybe you stay and marry him.” Her face lights up at the thought of a wedding.

“Then we could have good Internet in the house, right?” I say while chuckling. She nods. His part-time job is running the local Internet café, his own business, so he could definitely set her up set something up.

“But he’s too young for me,” I say. And that’s the truth.

“Never mind that…it’s OK.” She then laughs hysterically.

I laugh, too, and for a moment, my leaving is no longer the topic of discussion. And that’s a good thing.

Back in this moment, however, I feel it—the ambivalence and discomfort about my departure. There’s a part of me that doesn’t really want to go; it would be easy to stay longer. And skip another part of the trip I’ve planned in order to do so. That’s how strong the sense of community here is. And how compelling it feels to me. It’s beyond what I’ve felt in other villages and with other families on my other trips.

But I know I must leave soon. And of course, there’s a part of me that’s excited about the next stop—the next ride on the ChickyBus. The journey to another part of Sumatra. A place that will have a different vibe, another cultural group, other sights to see and different experiences to have. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself in each of the next destinations I’ll be visiting.

But maybe I’m not ready to leave here just yet. I think it feels too final somehow…

*****

After breakfast, I go for a walk. And I realize that many of the people here in this village–and not just Eti–have, in many ways, become my family. They’ve welcomed me, accepted me and treated me with kindness. And they’ve been protective over me. I know the neighbors now. The children no longer simply just look or stare. They come and play. And people speak to me in basic Indonesian because they know that I know some now. And I love that. And when I go to the local mini market, the owner knows which snacks I want to buy…

Hiking with students and loving it!

***

Walking away from the store, I stroll down the paved road and turn onto one of the dirt roads. And I lose myself in the dreamy beauty of the landscape. The way the rice paddies and banana trees look in the morning, with drops of dew clinging to them. And the mist that surrounds the palm trees at times. And of course, the looming mountains in the distance.

Watery reflection

It still takes my breath away after a few weeks of being here…and I realize that this place, one of the most unique I’ve ever visited—due to the Minangkabau people and their culture—has a certain hold on me. I’ve fallen under the spell of West Sumatra and a small village known as Tiakar in Payakumbuh.

My thoughts return to Eti and I realize that we’ve become close. Like sisters, as she said. In a few weeks, we’ve been through a lot. And most of it really good.

There’s the English teaching side of things. I observed her and understood the challenges of being a non-native speaker teaching English as a Foreign Language to middle school students. And she’s let me take the lead and learned from me, too.

Me and other teachers

And although the main goal of my volunteering here was mostly educational, it’s turned into more of a cultural exchange. Eti has taught me about her people and what they value most…and I’ve shared some things about my culture, too.

****

The sun is now setting. And I’m reflecting on the day. New people I met in a nearby village. The rice paddies. The sticky rice yum yum I had that I can’t quite pronounce. And Eti’s smile and laughter when I got confused about two words that sounded similar in Indonesian. (Instead of saying “good evening,” I said, “hello, my love.” To her husband!) And the local boys on our street, one who’s missing his front teeth and looks ready for mischief, who ran after me when I got home and sat with me just because…

And then I realize that I’ve made a decision. Silently and without much thought. One that just sort of came to me.

I’m staying a few days longer than I planned. It’s not just to ease the pain of leaving, but because I want to be here.

And more importantly, I’m not going to say goodbye.

I’m going to say “Sampai jumpa”….see you later in Bahasa.

Quite simply, I’ve decided that I’m coming back here. I’m not sure when—maybe in a few years—but I’m sure that I will. And that fills my heart with a certain joy that’s beyond words…

Me feeling good after a challenging hike

Your Thoughts/Reactions?

Have you ever gotten close to people in a small town or village while traveling? If so, how hard was it to leave? Did you return at any point?

If you haven’t had this experience, what is your reaction to mine? Would you like to visit a place like Payakumbuh? If so, let me know. I may be starting a volunteer program here!

23 Responses to Saying Goodbye in Sumatra—and Why It’s So Hard This Time
  1. Dyanne@TravelnLass
    June 19, 2012 | 10:10 am

    You surely do look happy there. Maybe it’s time to be a long-term expat again? g-knows I’m loving it here in Vietnam. Haven’t the LEAST desire to head back to the States.
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..Newbie EFL Teaching: A Rollercoaster of Highs ‘n LowsMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 19, 2012 | 10:20 am

      Hi, Dyanne! Nice idea…would love to, but…many projects back home and my sweet little nephew…. Hmmm. We shall see. I hope I can return in a couple of years. That should do it!

      Glad you’re loving it in Vietnam. Awesome!!

  2. Stephanie - The Travel Chica
    June 19, 2012 | 11:20 am

    I have never had this type of experience, but I hope to someday. As hard as it is to leave, you will always have wonderful memories…. and a family to go back and visit :-)
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Mountain Biking… For Real!My Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 20, 2012 | 5:56 am

      Thanks, Stephanie…you’re right about the memories. True…!

  3. Laura
    June 19, 2012 | 11:46 pm

    This article makes me miss our friends in Mexico! It’s a humbling experience to be made a part of the family when you are a traveler. I’m not surprised you are a part of this beautiful family; you have a genuine interest for others and open heart which no doubt draws people to you.

    • CB Driver
      June 20, 2012 | 5:55 am

      Hi, Laura. Thanks for sharing that. Are you a fan of Mexico? Me, too. I enjoyed connecting with the people I met there, too. Thanks for the kind words…really appreciate them!

  4. Nora - The Professional Hobo
    June 20, 2012 | 4:48 am

    After over five years of full-time travel, I’ve become an expert in saying “see ya later” rather than “goodbye”. And most of the time, it has worked quite well. In many cases, I have indeed returned, or otherwise reunited with special people in other places in the world.

    I think it is easier to leave than be left, as well. When you leave for a new place, it’s with the excitement of a new adventure that lies ahead. You’re on your way to a new destination, and a whole new set of experiences, that keeps you looking and moving forward. Those moments leading up to and just after the departure might be tough, but as travelers, we keep moving forward, and looking forward.

    I’ve started to consider what these constant departures mean for the people in the communities we leave though. The longer you stay, the deeper the roots are, and the connections with locals.
    This is why slow travel is great for the traveler; when we stay for a while, locals will open up their hearts to us, helping us to deepen our own immersion experience.
    When just passing through, locals usually remain somewhat aloof. Of course they do! Wouldn’t you? Why open your home and heart to somebody who will be gone in a week or two? But if we stay for a month, or two, or 12, then there’s a chance for a real relationship to develop.

    This post really resonated with me, because I’m starting to get tired of the “goodbyes” – or rather, “see ya laters”.
    But then again, I’ve been at this for many years, and my emotional reaction to this post is much more personal than practical I think.

    Your anticipation of the upcoming goodbye might be tough, but like you say, keep a stiff upper lip, call it “see ya later”, and see what happens. If, with a dose of perspective and distance, you continue to miss this community, then maybe you’ll find a way to come back, and to stay a little longer.

    Anything’s possible! :-)
    Nora – The Professional Hobo recently posted..A Week-In-The-Life of Anne: Photographing North America by RVMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 20, 2012 | 5:54 am

      Thanks so much for your comment, Nora. It really made me feel better. I see that you totally understand and I appreciate that you took the time to share your thoughts and perspective.

      Like you, I’m wondering about how the departures affect the people in the communities. And I agree about it being easier to be the one who’s leaving. I keep trying to get psyched about my next destinations and am finding it hard. The next part of the trip requires some long bus travel on rough roads or a flight and some tricky bus connections and I’m struggling to decide how to approach it. And today, I got lost on my way back “home” and it was a bit humbling. Indonesia is a tricky place to travel on your own–especially here in Sumatra. I really saw/felt that today. Makes it hard to leave the cocoon perhaps…

      And so, that’s only feeding into all the emotions I’m feeling now….

      Anyway, I like what you said at the end of your comment re: time, perspective, distance, etc. I have a feeling that I will come back. Time will tell, of course…

      Thanks again for your own sharing!

  5. Naomi
    June 20, 2012 | 7:39 am

    Now you know why I keep going back! bit easier for me seeing it’s less than 4 hours to Bali!!
    if you want to go to Toba next, it is a lot easier just to take the overnight bus from bukittingi, even if it might be a bit long and uncomfortable, you’ll only have to take the ferry from parapat, whereas bus/flight/bus (or share taxi) then ferry is a bit more complicated and won’t save you time.
    my indonesian language wasn’t that good when I was in Sumatra, don’t let people tell you it’s hard to travel. The locals are not only very helpful, I almost always found at least one person on the bus who spoke good english. Local people often expressed concern about me travelling, esp alone, but it’s just their concern as caring people, not based on any fact whatsoever.
    Naomi recently posted..Things you do…My Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 24, 2012 | 10:53 am

      Things worked out. I met a guy who’s starting a career as a tour guide and we became buddies. He happened to be taking a group of students to Lake Toba and asked me if I wanted to join them. I said yes. It was not an easy ride (the bus was very cramped), but the students were sweet and we enjoyed ourselves somehow. It was definitely not the worst bus ride I’ve been on. That was in Mexico! :)

      So…I just arrived here in Toba today. So far, I like it. It’s a very different scene than where I was before. Here, because there are tourists, some of the locals are slightly less friendly there are some pushy touts. But I know that’s how it is…and I accept it. I’m sure there will be some special ones here, too. I guess I miss the W Sumatra village vibe a little bit. :(

  6. Josie
    June 20, 2012 | 10:38 am

    Hey Lisa,
    This is the conundrum of slow travel — we want those connections with locals. As a house sitter, my husband and I have relished spending months in one place for this very reason.
    Your post is excellent in its power to relate your feelings. Good Job!
    Overall, I’d have to say, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
    Josie recently posted..Put Yourself “On the Map” with MuseumsMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 24, 2012 | 10:13 am

      Thanks, Josie. Sounds like you really understand. And thanks for the feedback re: my writing. Appreciate it! House sitting sounds cool.

      And yeah, re: the loving line. True even in non-romantic situations…

  7. Sky
    June 20, 2012 | 8:19 pm

    Oh, yes…goodbye is ALWAYS the hardest part! Even though I was only in Guatemala for 10 days the first time, I made immediate connections with locals. In those ten days, I suddenly had a new Guatemalan family that I never wanted to leave and knew before I left that I would be back this year. After having spent another 10 days there, the connection is stronger and leaving was so much harder and filled with many tears. I’m going to spend 3 months there in 2013, practicing my Spanish but mostly with the intent of spending time with those I love so much. It’s really hard for people to understand the connection I have with those in Guatemalan and why I am so determined to go back so I’m glad someone else understands!
    Sky recently posted..Where Have I Been?!My Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 24, 2012 | 10:11 am

      Hi, Sky. I totally get how it can happen in 10 days. Sometimes it happens really quickly and sometimes it takes more time. So next time, you’ll do 3 months? Wow. That’s great. Your Spanish will be fantastic and your friendship with them, even more special.

      I’m glad that you understand, too! Gracias!

  8. Mark D.French
    June 24, 2012 | 8:41 am

    I seldom visit places that I am not familiar with but when I go to the rural areas, I can see the sincerity in the eyes of the people out there, the way they treated a stranger like me in their place is very warm.

  9. Erik
    June 24, 2012 | 6:35 pm

    This is another amazing piece.

    I’m so impressed with how you put yourself out there. I have trouble doing this, but I see how rewarding it is to others.
    Erik recently posted..Photo of the Day- Salzburg, AustriaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 24, 2012 | 9:35 pm

      Thank, Erik–so glad you liked it! Sometimes it, the putting myself out there/connecting, just sort of happens…creeps up on me. And it’s great in the moment, but when you leave, it hits hard. I’ve been crying off an on since I left. I’m slowly recovering. My friend asked me to promise to return. I told her I could “80% promise” (since the ticket is so expensive). Target date: 3 years from now. Hope I can make it happen!

  10. Angela
    June 25, 2012 | 9:13 am

    Very nice, I can’t wait to visit Indonesia, it must be such an enchanting place.
    Angela recently posted..A trip, a photo – Boroneddu murals, street art in SardiniaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 25, 2012 | 11:13 pm

      Hi, Angela. It is! And I think it’s the kind of place that one can visit over and over again…

  11. Nate @yomadic
    June 25, 2012 | 11:13 pm

    Saying goodbye is the hardest part of travel for me, especially when you make a fast, and genuine, connection with new friends – or family, in your case.

    To be honest, I started reading your post, and it was actually really tough just to keep on reading – it brings up a lot of emotions inside me.

    Great reading, Lisa.
    Nate @yomadic recently posted..Best Travel Camera of 2012 : Travel Cameras Reviewed From $10 to OMGMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 26, 2012 | 3:42 am

      Thanks so much, Nate. It was hard to write…I felt emotional every step of the way. And when I left, a few days ago, it was brutal. Eti and I cried and then later, alone, I cried some more. Sometimes I picture my room and I’m right back there with her and the family.

      The fact that you got emotional reading the post tells me that you’ve connected in similar ways…and that you really get it. That makes me feel better somehow.

      Thanks for reading!

  12. Sabina
    September 7, 2012 | 10:53 pm

    This is really beautiful, Lisa. I hope you will make it back there one day – in the not-too-distant future. A question: Do you know why the younger daughter is covered in a head scarf and not the older daughter in the first photo? Or are they not both dauthers of the older couple but some other relation? If they’re both daughters, the younger one covered while the older one is not would be very unusual in Arab countries. Also, are your friends here Muslim or some other religion? Just wondering about the culture, here.. :)
    Sabina recently posted..A Delicious Lunch…If You’re a CamelMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      September 8, 2012 | 5:10 am

      Hi, Sabina–thanks! To answer your question, which is a great one, I’m not 100% sure exactly. In general, my friend’s younger daughter didn’t wear a scarf that often–just when she went to school or to a special event. On this particular day, she and Eti had gone out to visit a woman who’d just had a baby there, which was quite a big event. The other daughter wasn’t able to go, from what I recall. She, meanwhile, was home from university.

      Anyway, in this photo, they were home–and there, the scarves were usually off.

      I think the daughter wore the scarf when she was out, but I never noticed it. Each time I saw her, she was home studying.

      They are Muslim–yes–as is the entire community. And what makes them really interesting is that they’re Minangkabau–a matrilineal culture that’s pretty unique. Here’s a link if you’d like to learn more. While there, I felt (as I did in the Middle East) taken care of, protected, etc., but in a different way because it was a smallish community. Really liked it, too.

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