“One rarely hears how fieldwork changes people’s lives. The living conditions, the funding difficulties, the practical problems, the highs of discovery, the false starts and dead ends, the drudgery of scientific record-keeping, the learning how to get along without people, places, and things you once took for granted, the feeling of suspension in time as the world spins on without you- all have an impact. Fieldwork forces you not only to confront situations you could have never anticipated, but also to confront elements of your own character you might never have known. Every trip into the field is also a trip into yourself.”
The quote above stuck out to me as I was reading Reflections of Eden by Birute Galdikas a few years ago. I kept it tucked away, knowing I might want to reread it someday. While I have written previously about my research project, it is certainly true that my time in Indonesia had a very profound personal impact on me. I have decided to reflect on this now that I am back home.
Every part of this quote rings a bell, though some more loudly than others. For example, “The drudgery of scientific record keeping” accurately describes the day-to-day data entry experience. While living conditions were comfortable for the most part it still took a little while getting used to hand-washing all of my clothes. And regularly sleeping in close proximity to huge spiders that make noise when they scurry across the wall! I periodically had moments in which I worried that I forgot to feed Meeko (my beloved and terribly missed dog-child).
But I can especially relate to the way Galdikas refers to time in the field. Many times I had the very false sense that time, while moving very quickly for me (time flies when you’re having fun, right?) couldn’t possibly be still ticking across the world, moving along without me. December 25 is long gone but it never felt like Christmas, even though I spent a festive day in the forest wearing reindeer antlers and singing Xmas tunes. I was shocked the first time my mom told me on the phone that it was snowing at their home in Colorado. But it was hot when I left there! The seasons changed without me? The seasons changed in Indonesia as well, from the dry season to the rainy season. The shift occurred in gradual but obvious stages. The winds died and the sun hid, the humidity spiked, flies came out in swarms followed by mosquitoes and mold. It went from watermelon to peanut to rice and mango (yum!) season. Life was different when the rain started. But because I had not experienced this change before- had not yet associated it with certain places and traditions and people- it was, from my perspective, an invalid marker of the passage of time.
My time in Indonesia was a personal and spiritual venture in addition to an academic one. I fasted during Ramadan. I prayed among pines. I delighted in the fact that I live in a place where a cat horn or a deer fetus are items displayed in a casual manner. Or where ghosts are more active on certain days of the week. I had in-depth discussions about religion and the meaning of life in a language that is not my first. I debated with biologists about the goodness of humanity. I formed strong and meaningful relationships with people who are simultaneously the same as me and yet drastically different.
I think it is a given that if you go to a new place with an open mind you will learn something new about the world (especially as an anthropology student!). What is more surprising is what you learn about yourself. And the best part is when the boundaries of these two realms, yourself and the world around you, become blurred. Living in Sulawesi taught me things about myself that I would not have otherwise known, and that have positively changed my life. For this I am very grateful.
In the series finale of The Office, Andy Bernard said he wished there was a way to know you are in the good old days while you are in them. In the weeks leading up to my departure I felt a mixture of seething frustration and intense pre-nostalgia for the place that had been my home for the time it takes to make a human (9 months!). A part of my heart will always be in Sulawesi with my Indonesian friends and family. I will be back someday. For now and am just thankful to have known that I was in the good old days while I was in them. And I am happy to be reunited with my pooch!