small city, big city
My foreign friends get confused whenever I try to explain about my home city. They don't know where Indonesia is, let alone Makassar- a city that my friends here in Surabaya sometimes think is on another island altogether. Makassar isn't that small a city, actually. It has a few malls. And has lots of cars. And several sky scrapers. And it isn't, by any measure, small. The streets have no dividing lines, the buildings jut out quite randomly towards the sidewalk, the cars now pack the streets, and there are only a few hip cafes around. It's not like I'm away from it for too long, either- just a few months since my last visit. But my most recent visit, on the 2016 New Year's, somehow felt different.
I used to pride myself on never being homesick. I'm a big girl, I told myself, I'm going to explore the world and leave that little city far away behind me. I used to treat Makassar as another thing to tick off my to-do list: a list of all the foods to eat. (Although I swear by heavens that whatever happens to my brain, I'm still going to believe that Makassar has the most delicious foods on earth). Somehow, though, on my last visit, something felt different. I have spent an entire year ambitious-ing and needed time to cope and reflect and just step back and take a deep breath. Among my friends and family, I felt safe, but I never thought that I'm going to feel so much love for all the small things, now half-beautiful half-sad in my mind: sunlight glistening over the waves, the scent of the sea whenever you breathe, the department store of your childhood that sells weird candies, the most delicious pangsit place that looks cut out of a Hong Kong 1970 movie and plays gospel songs all day round. I don't think I can feel such love, and longing, and loss, over the city so deeply, but I did, and I thought many things at the same time: "Goodness, did I really spent seventeen years living here?" "Oh wow, the deers are still there!" "Wow, it's really convenient how everything's not that far here." and finally, "Screw New York. I'm going to live the rest of my life here."
Which I must admit is a very, very tempting proposition now, despite my cringing and avoiding such proposition like a plague just a year ago. People do change.
People describe me by many things. I know I'm not the most pleasant person around. So, when they describe me, one of the most oft-heard label is "perfectionist" "short-tempered" "ambitious".
It actually varies. I am not, in fact, the diligent, model-student type. Most of my diligence / handwork / etc stem from insecurities. The high point of my life was middle school - early high school: no hardships to speak of, best friends of my life all around me, the future is still far, far away. I distinctly remember arguing with my mom because I didn't start on UN prep yet (and frankly I don't really give a sh*t back then) and I ended up turning off animax with a great sadness and just went back to thinking about anime all day in cram school. Fast forward to high school: I was insanely ambitious out of insecurities, had motivational quotes glued to my bedroom walls (one of the biggest aib and regrets of my life) and to-do-lists listed by the hour. One thing that never changed, though, was my desire to be free.
I don't know why. It might be the way I was raised, or my personality in general. But since as far as I could remember, I've always loved travel- instantly idolised Holly Golightly- and one of the my most favourite lyric piece from high school was Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway, specifically this part:
"Buildings with a hundred floors
Swinging round revolving doors
Maybe I don't know where they'll take me, but
gotta keep on moving on, moving on
Fly away, breakaway"
I moved to Surabaya in 2012 for college. Meeting friends that are born and raised here all their lives, I felt very small-city. I felt angry because they don't even bother with Periplus here, whereas back in Makassar I had to haul all my novels from Surabaya or Bali due to the lack of any imported books. They have no blackouts here. They have no problems with the internet, and it isn't a scarcity at all, like I always felt back in Makassar. There is a respectable research institution, a smattering of hipster cafes, and many, many Starbucks. Before moving to another city entirely, I only ever took short trips to Jakarta around 2010: I was 15, and I distinctly remember my younger cousin giggling at me as I gaped at the tall buildings, and I always felt really sorry for my uncle whenever he bought me "one of those fancy 50k rupiah coffees" because it's so expensive. Now I have my own Starbucks favourite drink (Caramel hazelnut signature chocolate, skim milk with whipped cream and cinnamon). Five years ago I would have thought the future me very fashionable and cosmopolitan. But right now, I just....feel sorry for myself.
The same applies to travels. Back in high school, and early college, if people asked me, "what is your biggest dream?" I would answer, not with "To be a doctor!" or "To be an amazing doctor!" but with "Travel the world and see Paris!" I never would thought that three years later, I've went from being someone who only ever went to Singapore, to live in Jakarta - Surabaya and see Europe and Europe again and Japan and Australia and soon the US. I would have thought that the present me is very cool! But right now, I just.... feel sorry for myself. I'm not even happy during my travels. Amazed, yes, but the feeling when it seems that everything's made of pink and you just soar with happiness and joy because of the new things? Not there. I even tried to take up photography, so I can look at the beauty later and savour it and embed it into my mind, but...nothing.
More than anything, I just want to know why, after achieving all the material things I've always wanted...I'm not any happier, and perhaps now I just feel worse?
The same question is why a part of me wants to screw the revolving doors and return back home.
With big cities come bigger fears. With big cities, it's a cutthroat world. You want to go to a bigger city. And a bigger one. And bigger ones, the ones with a hundred floors and revolving doors. And you have to compete all the way there, shoving people out of your path. You know no one, know no food, know no place, you're entirely and truly alone. You wish you're back home, in the comfort of things you've known since childhood, the familiar smells of food and dust and dogs. You sit in a Starbucks cafe, working on a paper, watching the rain, wondering why you never ever felt at home where you are, why everything's so functional and businesslike and....stark. Why there's no sunlight glistening on the waves, air that smelt of the sea, or balmy breezes on Sundays when your family goes to the same restaurant every week.
When you think of those moments of the past, time seems to lie still as the sunlight that glistened on the waves seemed to tell you, "Look at me! I'm beautiful!" or the balmy breeze seemed to tell you, "Feel me! I'm beautiful!" and at the same time, everything conspires to remind you that not only are they beautiful, they are also lost. Perhaps that's what life is. In exchange for advancement, you lose the beauty. You lose the beauty and the memories and the moments in exchange for a bigger city, a bigger and faster league.
I still do want to be free. I still do want to explore, and travel the world, and wake up in a strange new city. But this time, with the full knowledge that dreams and preconceptions conceal disillusionment. And that sometimes, beauty is in the places you never bother to look into.
-Surabaya, January 22nd, 2015
the scariest thing about life
You know what's the most harrowing thing about life?
You don't really know that it changes.
You just live. And live. And breathe. And breathe. Do whatever you need to do, pass hour and hour, day by day. Things happen. You acknowledge what happened, you adjust. And suddenly you're not the same person anymore.
In the movies, the protagonist does amazing stuff, and gets away hanging by a thread. Most importantly, stuff happen, and people have this moment of intense realisation and self-reflection. And suddenly, they go, "Aha, I was wrong! Pardon me. I should never have acted like that. I was wrong". And their entire personality changes.
In reality, you don't really know what hit you. You just change. Things you wrote a year ago seem stupid and childish. In fact, nothing considerably of note has taken place. Your life goes on, your heart beats. With every beat, if you listen close, it brags: "I am. I am. I am." But the "I am" of now is not the "I am" of a heartbeat later. You don't know why.
There goes life. You make plans. You make decision. And life happens. Changing the circumstances around you, but most importantly, most creepily- changing you. You always change, and you don't really know when or why. Maybe it's those late nights listening to the rain while thinking. Maybe it's those little decisions that you make every day. Maybe it's an utterly unimportant thing that you never even gave any second thought to. But you change. Change itself is not harrowing, and it's not something to be afraid of. But sometimes you wake up at night, thinking how much you've changed, how long you've gone since then...and how was you again, five years ago? And suddenly you can't remember. You remember the decisions you made, the things that happened to you, and why you made all those decisions. But you no longer remember how you felt. You remember that once, in high school, you felt like you're looking at everything through pink tinted glasses. How did that feel again? You don't remember. And you remember that once, in high school, you wished you have a secret camera in your eye so you can capture every ray of sunlight, every balmy afternoon, every plastic bag blown in the wind. You wish for such a thing even more now.
And there goes life. It not only changes things around you- it changes you- and so, what do you have in control? How do you know who you are, if at every moment you change, no longer the same person? How do you cope with life as time goes by and days become shorter and faster, and your memory can no longer cope with keeping everything? Sometimes it seems that life purposefully throws away the beautiful memories, the weekend dinners with your parents, the yearly school fairs, quarterly exams and childhood Christmasses. It condenses them into one big glob of painful nostalgia, while things that remain are wounds that stay fresh- five-year-old heartbreak that stays so vividly, with all the physical stabs and suffocation in your chest.
And there goes life, changing so rapidly yet so discreetly you won't even realise, and the scariest, scariest thing of that is- in five, ten, twenty years- it will have gone by, and you will be in some place, and you will look back, thinking "Where did it go wrong?" and you won't even remember or know. You will think, "Where has the years flown to?" and you won't have a clue. It's life, with the limits of human memory and human intelligence, that forcefully condenses it into one bundle of either happiness of failure so that you keep on walking obliviously, past all the warning signs. It leaves everything just there, right there under your nose, in plain sight, for the rest of your life...and you won't even realise. Some people try to avoid thinking about it and just goes on living, content, savouring the ordinary, seeing the beauty of life and the world. They're lucky.
But whenever I think about it all I remember are: a big glob of happiness here. My failures gaping wide open there. Myself, changed- and I don't know when or why. As I think, I hear my heartbeat, "I am," "I am. I am." I am, and I am alive, and I don't know who I am, and therefore, my life serves to remind me of my own failure and limitations.
And my heartbeat obliviously continues on beating.
Gabriele Kembuan is a medical student; ambitious perfectionist by day, forlorn poet and ponderer by night. She loves many things: hot chocolate, sunrise over clouds, waking up in a strange new city, cat's tails, mist and footsteps, but above all, the rain.