Baking in the Tropics

Dear Sherah,

It’s after one in the morning and I’m sitting alone in a living room, feet propped up on the couch, watching the candles I lit early this morning flickering in melted wax. If I had to guess what you’re doing right now, I’d imagine you’re either (a) stuffing wrapping paper into a plastic bag, (b) finishing lunch, or on your third or fourth cup of coffee, depending on how early the boys woke you up. I’m hoping you see this letter during a lull in your afternoon, so that it’s kind of like we’re sharing Christmas from across the world.

Today marks our third Christmas in Indonesia, but it was the first time that we opened our gate for neighbors to visit, which is what Indonesian Christians do on Christmas. Last year we were brand new in Tarakan and I couldn’t handle the idea of hosting strangers on a day that I was already feeling so uprooted and homesick. This year I wanted to open our gate, but not for the whole day, so I printed invitations for a 1:30 – 3:00 open house. I figured we’d open gifts in the morning, I’d bake cookies and get the house ready, and then we’d relax until people showed up in the afternoon.

It’s a good thing I decided to bake and get the house ready before taking any time to relax, because I severely overestimated my ability to throw together three batches of cookies and severely underestimated the chaos that was my home.

By 12:45 it was 110 degrees in my kitchen and I was swearing that I would never bake in the tropics again. Anders was asking me for the tenth time if I wanted to come play with him and his new gifts, inflaming that ugly piece inside me that still thinks the American way of doing things is the “right” way. Foreign cultures are easy to romanticize until you live in them. For example, if you thought that celebrating Christmas day with your neighbors sounded like a rich human experience that you’re missing out on as a Westerner: you’re not. Throw a neighborhood party on December 15, by all means, but Christmas day is for sitting around and doing nothing with your kin.  

By 12:59 I was mopping the house while skating around on kitchen towels; by 1:10 I was getting out of the shower; and by precisely 1:27, Pete and I were both sitting in the living room—him in a button down shirt and slacks, me in a dress—waiting for neighbors to arrive. (Did I mention I got a super cool watch for Christmas? Hence the exact times.) 

Our first wave of guests—five of Anders’ neighborhood friends—showed up right away. They ate almost all of the M&Ms but didn’t touch the cookies. Our second “wave” of guests (a mom and two kids) showed up shortly after. The mother ate one cookie and the kids had a couple pieces of papaya that I had cut into star shapes. On their way out she reminded us to visit them, too.

And that was it. Pete and I sat alone in the living room for another hour. I cleaned the kitchen and wrapped all the cookies onto small paper plates, which Pete and Anders delivered to the air traffic controllers on duty at the Tarakan airport. I walked across the street to visit the neighbor who had just been at my house. And it was about the time that I was looking at pictures of my neighbor’s friend’s friend’s daughter in the hospital for an illness that I pretended to understand the name of that I felt very, very far from home and also a bit useless in this language. I politely excused myself and went back to the house, where I spent the rest of the day playing with Anders and watching movies. 

Maybe the question I was hoping to answer by writing you all this was: will I do it again next year? Was it worth it? I don’t think I’ll get a tidy answer or lesson learned, at least not before these candles run out of wick. The truth is that some days I feel very clear and purposeful about why I live in Indonesia and other days I make three batches of cookies and no one eats them. 

I shouldn’t say that. I hope the air traffic controllers enjoyed them.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Sherah. I hope it’s merry and bright and wonderful. And thank you so much for the birthday letter! I had forgotten nearly all of those stories, so getting those memories back was a gift—as were your words, and as is your friendship.

Have any resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to hear them.