Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Memories of fieldwork

In my build-up to starting writing my thesis once again, I've been looking up information on the city in Sumatra where I did my fieldwork. The other day, I came across a website containing hundreds of photos of that very place some of which I am borrowing for this post, including the one above (source: Palembang daily photo)

I've become fascinated by these images of the tropical metropolis which was my home for thirteen months. Though I can barely recognise many of the locations, brief threads - nuggets of memory - are filtering into my daily consciousness. Slowly but surely I'm being transported back 20 years to an extraordinary time in my life.

I found a picture of the monument (which I can't find again) where I once stood for a photo with the trader I called Young Etek: she done up in her traditional-style sarong from her Minangkabau homeland and me in a thin blue cotton dress down to just below my knees. My face is the usual puce from the heat and humidity, hers deadpan for the important picture - testimony of our friendship. I remember her house now: the wooden walls; the woven, plastic mats on the earthen floor; the simple plastic garden chairs used for guests; her husband cooking for the next day's trade in the rudimentary kitchen at the back; her pregnant daughter selling ice shavings from a stall just outside and the constant but comforting noises of neighbourhood life. I stayed the night there once, sharing a bed with her youngest daughter who gossiped about boys and make-up almost all night. We could hear the neighbours chatting and arguing through the walls - their proximity made me feel the warmth of a community who by necessity have to live cheek-by-jowl.

This picture reminds me of a shop in town where I used to get my photos developed and sparks off a memory of a bizarre time when I went there with my friend Kath who was working with VSO. The shopkeeper had asked me whether I wanted a matt finish on my photos and I hadn't understood so to demonstrate he had brought out another customer's pictures and with a flourish, confronted me with an image so surreal that I was forced to double-take. There I was, in the middle of an Indonesian city in the mid 1980s, staring at a photograph of a bullfrog,wide-mouthed and apparently grinning, dressed up in Elizabethan ruffs, a shirt and puffed up shorts, sitting on a hand-made swing, webbed feet demurely crossed.
Just for info - this is what a normal, nude bullfrog looks like, so imagine it if you will:

Photo: A bullfrog in mid-jump

'Oh yes,' Kath had said casually,' those are Mrs Brennan's.' Mrs Brennan was one of the handful of Western expats in the city - a Kentucky lady whose husband was teaching at the agricultural college. The poor woman, presumably sent doo-lally by the life of a trailing spouse in a Southeast Asian backwater, had developed a hobby of catching bullfrogs, making clothes for them, training them, photographing them and then setting them free.

I had been to her house a couple of times - in fact she had been the first person I met. I had bumped into her in the city's first shopping mall (very like the one above) , a day after my arrival, wandering around and feeling lost. She took me to meet my contact at the university, gave me some tea and offered me the key to their video room, where they kept copies of Cheers and American films and where I would spend a number of happy hours in an air-conditioned place, touching base with my Westernness.

The photo of the river brings back another time with Kath, when we had gone on some boats with some of her students and Kath had split her trousers right up the back and we'd had to find all kinds of ways of preventing her from exposing herself to the boys.

A picture of the local buses reminds me of a terrible journey I took with a newly found Minangkabau friend, with very curly hair and a moony face, who took me with her to her home village over Eid. The seats on the coach were far too small for my massive Western frame and my friend had been sick all over me. Worse, the bus broke down and we were stuck at a truck stop for what seemed like an age (6 hours) while all manner of folk had stared prodded and poked at me, laughing at my pointy nose, thin lips and ghostly skin.

Lastly, a photo of the river Ogan reminds me of Ogan lane and the first family who took me into their home. I had a room to myself while the other girls shared. Four children, a niece and a Javanese boy, plus me and Mr and Mrs C made up the household. There was a chicken farm outside managed by Mrs C which stank to high heaven and contained a MADDENING cockerel who crowed ALL THE TIME. Inside, was the main sitting room with a fantastic faux waterfall as a centrepiece on one wall. Just by my room was the mandi (bathroom) with a tiled concrete square about three feet deep containing water and goldfish from which we washed ourselves using plastic scoops. The toilet was outdoors - a squat toilet into which I secretly smuggled tissues - I never got the hang of using water; it always ended up all over my knickers and dress.

I could go on and on - but perhaps that's enough for now.


Tom Foolery said...

Photographs are so good in bringing back hidden memories. TFX

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Suzy said...

Great way to build up to the writing...
They sound like wonderful memories.

Any chance of you sharing your photos? It would be nice to have these photos around your writing area when you write.
Thanks for the comment-I'll be posting in the next day or so.


Mid-lifer said...

Yes Suzy, it would be lovely to put them up there - I'd have to scan them first. And the ones I spotted are on someone elses blog page - not sure if I'm allowed to lift them off there. A few photos would make my blog more interesting I'm sure.

Mean Mom said...

The photos have brought back some interesting memories, for you.

Dressing up bullfrogs? Everyone needs a hobby, I suppose! Now, that's a photo' I'd like to have seen. Would be very glad to see your photos, too, of course.

Mid-lifer said...

Mean mom - I know! I WISH I'd slipped one of the pics into my pocket at the time - it was so extraordinary.

I'd love to put photos up with my blog, but I'm dead ignorant about getting photos off the net. I realise my ramblings above would be enhanced if said photos were placed next to it - but can I just lift photos off someone else's site?? Lots of you use photos to brilliant effect - can anyone enlighten me pleeeeese??

Mid-lifer said...

I've gone ahead and copied some of the photos with a link to the site of origin - is this allowable? anyone know? Feeling guilty and bad already.

Suzy said...

I think as long as you cite where the photos are from, you're okay.

Really like the photos you chose.

Not your typical postcard stuff-
very nice photos.

Thanks again for sharing!


Crystal Jigsaw said...

You have some lovely and unforgettable memories. Amazing photos especially the one with the buses. Thank you for sharing.

Crystal xx

Mean Mom said...

Here I am again. Photos are great!

Please come to my tea party and pick up an award. Hope you can make it!

Mid-lifer said...

Just noticed your comment - thanks mean mom!!