The Irian Jaya Chapter of My Story... Connections.

Chapter 26.

It was 1996. August 19th to be exact. I was twenty-six. I said goodbye to my family at O'hare International Airport, as I stepped onto the American Airlines flight bound for Irian Jaya, Indonesia. I was about to embark on the biggest adventure of my life, one that would forever hold this amazing place in my heart. Always. I didn't know then what I know now, that this Irian connection runs very, very deep and very, very wide.

Ask almost anyone who has lived there.

I stepped onto that plane alone on a Friday night. I wasn't scared and I wasn't nervous. Yes, I knew I would miss my family deeply {and I did because this was before the day and age of Skype and regular Internet connections and telephone calls were astronomically expensive}. But amidst that sadness for having to say good-bye to my mom and dad and brother and life in Chicago, there was an excitement inside that I truly cannot explain.

I believe since I was a young girl I was meant to go abroad. To be a missionary in a faraway place. To explore another culture. So there was this huge part of me that knew that this dream was coming true. I was walking, rather flying, into this part of my story that looking back now, I realize was one of the hugest chapters in my book.

I stepped onto the plane alone.

And on the other side of the world I stepped off the plane. Alone. I didn't know a soul. I had absolutely NO idea what to expect other than I was going to go teach Language Arts to 6th, 7th and 8th graders in a missionary kids' school. I didn't know where I would be living or with whom {they were arranging that for me}. I knew it would be hot there (4 degrees off the equator). I had been trained on what to do if I was kidnapped {No joke and rather bizarre to think about. If you need any tips just let me know.} I knew that I guy named Ken {Schimdt} was picking me up at the airport. And I knew I'd be there for three years. That much I knew.

Here's what I didn't know.

While I stepped off the plane alone, I stepped right into family. Almost instantly. New family. Not blood-related. People from all over the world who happened to land in the town of Sentani, on the island of Irian Jaya, in the country of Indonesia.

And there was {and is} this unexplainable connection. A strong connection that I've come to realize I just can't explain to those that haven't experienced it. It kind of doesn't make sense to those on the outside looking in, but once you're on the inside looking out, it's as if these people actually are your true family. At least this was my experience.

Maybe it's because Irian Jaya {now called Papua} is this magical, tropical paradise with beautiful, amazing national people. And because it is so remote, most people in the world will never experience it. It's not common. It's kind of an out-of-reality-no-box-to-fit-it-in kind of place. Maybe it's because you don't really get there unless you're intentional about it and because you feel pretty strongly that God called you there and brought you there so it's this spiritual high, too.

I don't know if it was the fact that we had all, wherever we had come from, left our actual family behind, that made us connected. Or maybe it was the common goal we all had; to share the love of Jesus with people that needed to know they were loved. Or maybe it was because in order to up and leave your home country and go to the other side of the world and leave behind frequent access to McDonald's Diet Coke, you're just a little bit off your rocker so you have that in common with the other ex-pats there. I don't know. I haven't figured it out.

But I'm gonna give you an example of the depth of this Irian connection.

While there, certain families took me in and made me their own. I've shared here before that there's a verse in the Bible that says, "The Lord sets the lonely in families." And God did that for me. He gave me the Stubers.
And the Isaacs.
And the Dukes.
And the Hans.
And the... And the ... you get the idea.

There's a definite connection I feel with these particular families because they actually did take me in. I spent holidays with them. They fed me more meals that I'd care to admit. They took care of me when I had malaria. They followed me up the hill at night to make sure I got home safely. They remembered my birthday and made it special. They let me sleep in their guest room when riots and tensions broke out and it just wasn't safe for me to be alone. Or simply when I was feeling lonely. They gave, and gave, and gave.

And then there's this indirect connection that runs super deep, too. And it's with ANYBODY that has lived in Irian, especially those that lived there during the time I was there. I might not have known them well when we lived in the same community, but BECAUSE we have that common bond of Irian, and we know the same people, and we understand the culture and we did life there, then there's this deep connection.

Here's a great example that just happened this weekend. Benji was one of my actual students when I was there. I taught him 7th, 8th and 9th grades, random subjects. What a great kid from a great family. He has 3 siblings, one of whom was Jonathan, who was 2 years younger than Benji. I never taught Jonathan and when I left Indonesia, Jonathan was only 11 years old so I would have to say that I really didn't even know Jonathan, other than to say he was one of the Sunarjo kids.

Friday I was at a wedding of two Irian missionary kids {mks}; Rachel and Randy. And out of no-where this kid comes up to me and says, "Hi Aunt Alysa, I'm Jonathan Sunarjo." WHAT?????? No WAY. Little Jonathan, now 6 foot 3. Here all the way from Switzerland. You've GOT to be kidding me. {He's the one on the left in the picture below.}

And while I never taught Jonathan I was just so excited to see him and couldn't wait to get in a good visit to see how life in Switzerland was, what he was up to, where life had brought him the last decade, etc. We got to spend all day today with Jonathan and it was such a highlight of this weekend. I pulled out my boxes of Irian pictures and we laughed at how young everyone looked. We were in awe, once again, of the beauty of Irian, saying things like, "Wow, it's been a long time since I've seen the sun set over Lake Sentani. I forgot how red the water looked." An unexpected surprise. I cried when I dropped him off at the train. I just added him to my list of Irian kids. Twelve years after leaving Irian.

Another example from this weekend was of the bride and groom of this wedding. I am very close to Rachel's older sister Julie, whom I taught. And Randy's older brother, Dean, was one of my students, too. And while I really can't say that I know Rachel and Randy at all, because they were that much younger, there's this part of me that is so excited to know that they're only a couple hours away because I'd love to get to know them better. Because they know a part of my life - a big part of my life - the Irian Jaya part of my life - that most people here in America don't know and will never know.

And maybe that's it. Deep down, we all want to be known, so when people know this huge part of your life and understand it and have memories attached to it, it causes connection. Even though I might not have known Jonathan or Rachel or Randy, the reality is, we know that piece of each other's past and we get to reminisce. And re-tell stories. We get to slip Indonesian words into our sentences and we don't have to explain what they mean. Like barang or hati hati or perpustaka'an. They know where Tanah Merah is and the beauty it holds. They've been on O.E. trips and have lived to tell about it. They know that Silimo is perhaps the most beautiful place on earth. {Insert many Irian villages here.}

So here's what I find. When I'm with my Irian kids I'm on this unexplainable high and I just don't want it to end. We got home from deep-dish pizza at 9:40 Saturday night and at 12:40am it was as if we had just walked in the door and I so didn't want it to end. I cried as I hugged my girls and said goodnight, but I inwardly smiled knowing that while I was drifting off to sleep, there was a house full of Irian kids that were together again, feeling the same way I do about life in Irian, reconnecting with each other on this side of the ocean.
And then this always happens next. One by one, or carload by carload, they begin to leave. I drop the last one off at the train. Or at O'hare. Or I wave goodbye and watch their tail-lights turn the corner, knowing they have a 14 hour drive ahead of them. I feel like a mom that's having her heart ripped out. {I know that sounds rather dramatic but it's true, these are sort of like my kids and it's so sad to see them leave.}

And a deep sadness hits. It's like I've just said goodbye to people who understand this past life of mine. And I never quite know when the next time will be when a bunch of us will be together. I suppose it's that saying goodbye thing. I hate goodbyes. I really, really hate it.

Goodbyes and connections. I remember walking across the Sentani airport tarmac and up the outside stairs onto my Air Garuda flight. June of 1999. I had just said goodbye to my Irian family. A lot of them. I found my seat and promptly began to weep. It's like I was closing this chapter of my life and I really didn't know if I would ever get to open it again.

But there's good news in all this. While we might not get back to Irian very often {Jack and I have been back once}, I love that when I see any of my Irian kids or families, it is as if I'm back.

And I find that to be a beautiful gift from God. We might have been sprawled out in the lower level of our Chicago, Illinois home last night, but if I shut my eyes it was as if I was in my Sentani, Irian Jaya, Indonesia, Pos 7 hill apartment, smelling the frangipanis out my back window, hearing the torrential rains on my tin roof, and listening to the laughter and giggles of my Irian kids. All over again.

Chapter 26 doesn't have to stay shut. I've learned that over the past twelve years.

Every once in a while I get to open up my story book, turn to the "Irian Jaya" chapter and re-live it again. And it is a beautiful, BEAUTIFUL read.


Kacie said…
I saw on facebook that you were weepy.... and I was weepy just seeing the pictures Kathryn posted... because I wish I'd been there! And I too, feel that bond with people that I didn't even know all that well, but they were THERE and they know....

So I'm weepy reading this, dear teacher/friend. Love you, and your love for all of us.
ju.vanderw said…
So true! Just like when you were here a couple of weeks ago... There's such an immediate connection with old Irian people! :) I imagine it'll always be that way.
cleary said…
All I can say is "Wales" - I get it.
Grayson said…
what a beautiful blessing this weekend was for you! weepy hugs ur way

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