Sampela, Sulawesi, Indonesia

I’ve been thinking a lot about knowledge, and what I know, and what information is actually relevant in life. A few weeks ago, we were sitting by the water in Sawai and Peter began explaining a theory about knowledge.

He held up a black wooden pawn and said, “See this chess piece? This represents everything that you know.” It looked so small in his hand. Next, he reached for an empty plate from lunch. “Now, this dish is everything that you know is still unknown, or are aware of being unknown- like, how the universe got here- questions that have been asked, but that no one really has the answers to.”

He put the plate down and said, “Now imagine the entire planet, planet Earth, but bigger- bigger than anything, ever- that’s how much information exists, how much knowledge is out there- but you don’t know any of it- you don’t even know you don’t know it.”

Jump to yesterday. I picked up a book in Hoga that someone left behind, a cheesy romance about a woman torn between three dashing young men during the Spanish Civil War. Most of it is nonsense, but one line stood out to me, as I was reading on my front porch:

“…the most exquisite kiss imaginable; not that she could have imagined it, it was like trying to imagine heaven, you could only use the things you knew, like harps and clouds and choirs, as ciphers for the things you couldn’t know, until you got there.”

This is how I think I viewed Indonesia, sort of- not as the most exquisite kiss imaginable, but having used only what I knew from previous experiences and previous knowledge to understand my surroundings. In reality, all of the knowledge I brought with me was, like the harps and clouds, just a cipher, a placeholder, for the things I couldn’t understand before arriving. All of my knowledge was and is in that tiny metaphorical chess piece of knowns.

If you asked me what I did today, here in Sampela, the Bajau community, I would say, “Oh, we ‘jalan-jalan’-ed (walked around) for a bit, sat on the porch, and I put some local sunscreen on my face, turning it gold-orange”. If you had told this to me before arriving, I would be both surprised and ready to resign myself to boredom. What do people do all day- do they just sit around? I want to learn! I want to go somewhere! I want to do something! This idea, of doing nothing, would be interpreted, in my mind, with how I would feel at home- restless and looking for something to entertain myself. But that’s a sort of cipher, I guess- using one idea to determine another. It’s one of those parts of life that I couldn’t understand with previous experience. To understand, it must be experienced in real time.

Being here, as a part of the community, I see how life flows differently than at home. If we sit on the porch, we don’t have to be doing anything- not reading, or eating, or even talking. We sit. In the States, ‘doing nothing’ is seen as counterproductive, lazy,  indulgent, whereas here, over the ocean, it makes so much sense to just sit and be– maybe greeting the people who stroll by, or rocking the baby in the bungee-cord net, but mostly sitting. I think that being silent, with just your own thoughts, can make people (including myself) terribly uncomfortable. I haven’t quite got the hang of it, yet- or maybe I haven’t yet fully understood it- but I know that it’s very different from home, and that, in relation to Peter’s theory, it’s part of the metaphorical dish- a known unknown.

Jump to when I was maybe six years old, watching Disney’s Pocahontas for the first time. I was enchanted by the bright colors and smooth movements of the animated people, the lilting voice of the Native American princess as she ran over the hills, singing about the colors of the wind, advising:

“…but if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew…”

The things you never knew you never knew. What do you not know that you don’t know you don’t know? So far, I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing here in Indonesia- learning things I didn’t even know I was ignorant of. For example, we talked for an hour about GMOs one day, before which I didn’t even know what GMOs were. We talked for an hour about what it really means to be masculine or feminine. We talked for an hour about strange facial hair. I went spearfishing in the sea, I chopped down a sago tree (traditional source of food) in the jungle, I’ve had full conversations in Bahasa Indonesia – all examples of unknowns that are now knowns, for me.

Jump to my last day in Louisville. In-between packing and eating, I was reminded by a friend that I still had to make my senior page for the yearbook, as I would be in Indonesia when the deadline ended. I hurriedly looked for a quote to display next to my photo, and quickly chose one which had been given to me last summer. As an afterthought, I wrote it in my journal to carry with me on this trip. It’s by Rilke:

“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I always think of this quote, and how it’s saying that the answers aren’t really important- or even guaranteed. The thing that matters, that’s relevant, is that you have questions to begin with. So far on my trip, I think I’ve gained more questions than I have answers; the further off the map we go, the more alien life seems, the more known unknowns begin to form in my mind.  I guess it’s about being comfortable with that greater unknown unknown that is represented by planet Earth, that somehow, Indonesia as a whole represents, too.