Yesterday, during the daytime, it was blazing hot. Today it is hot again and cloudless. But early this morning it was overcast and yesterday evening it rained for the first time since March. Not a heavy rain, but enough for the neighborhood to start steaming and the dirt alleyways to bloom with petrichor.
It is mid-August as I write this. I have gotten most of the way through my first proper dry season in a part of the world where dry season exists. I am told that we still have another two months of scorching heat left before it starts to rain with any regularity. But in my mind, yesterday’s preemptory shower marked some kind of turning point nonetheless. It was the first time I can ever remember the coming of clouds and rain feeling like the return of an old friend. And when they did, I felt sort of wide-eyed—like I was waking up to or reentering a world that I hadn’t realized I’d drifted away from in the first place.
Every morning at 5am, the family next door blares music from a Christian radio station over a loudspeaker. The music has a tinny, carnival quality and is audible throughout the neighborhood. It is as reliable as an alarm clock, at any rate, and inspires the same trance-like quietude and feeling of monotony.
The rest of my host family usually wakes up at around this time. My two host sisters, Desy and Evin, and host mother, Mama Emy, start doing chores: washing the previous night’s dishes, cooking breakfast, sweeping and mopping the floor. My host father, Bapak John, lounges around in his underclothes before taking a bath, getting dressed (on a school day), eating his breakfast, and brushing his teeth. If he has no class to teach, he may leave early on his moped and come back at mid-morning with vegetables and fish or, sometimes, a live chicken for the girls to slaughter. On Sundays and occasional weekdays, my host parents leave early for mass while my sisters stay behind to finish up the cooking and cleaning (they attend afternoon service, along with the other children and young adults of the neighborhood, at 5 p.m.).
Desy and Evin are now second-year accounting students at the local public university. Their school year lasts longer than mine, but their breaks are longer too, so we are somewhat out of sync and have had the opportunity to observe each other at leisure from the vantage point of busyness, and vice versa.
My guess is that from their perspective, my frequent comings and goings seem like a lot of effort—a curious form of restlessness that can only be explained by the fact that I’m a foreigner. On a typical weekday, I’m up early with the rest of the family so as to squeeze in some writing and at school from 7am until 1pm, sometimes until 2pm. Besides that, I am frequently out of the house at track practice (five or six times per week from 4 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m.) or puttering around the city for better or worse reasons (running errands, trying to overcome restlessness or jumpstart productivity through a change of scene, watching the sunset, parting ways with my money, etc.). It is only on the weekends that I am at the house for hours at a time and even then, I spend a good number of them holed up in my room, fooling with my books or laptop, probably trying to make up for all the sidetracked hours that I felt like I wasted during the week. I don’t remember the last time I didn’t leave home all day.
Desy and Evin, on the other hand, only leave the house regularly to go to church or their college campus. When classes are in session, they leave at mid-morning and come back by early afternoon. Occasionally, they may attend an evening prayer meeting or chorus practice at a neighbor’s house. Otherwise, they are at home, doing chores, chatting, listening to music, or watching Korean dramas and Javanese soap operas on television. Like me, they drink coffee frequently, but have no taste for frequenting cafes and paying for “ambience.” They take their coffee at home and in the afternoon, often with a batch of fried banana or cassava chips. Mama Emy, a housewife, is a holy woman to whom a steady stream of guests come everyday to receive consultations and be prayed over. When Bapak John gets home from school, he changes back into his undershirt and sarung and plays chess on his phone for hours at a time and with unshakeable focus.
At one point during my first few months in Kupang, I asked Desy and Evin why they didn’t go out more often to spend time with friends and do whatever it is that I imagined young people should do. In retrospect, this was an insensitive question, asked before I had fully grasped the local reality: that as both women and the youngest members of the household, it is considered their job to be ready at a moment’s notice to meet the needs of the other adults. They cook the meals, do the family’s laundry, sweep and mop the floors, tidy up the yard, and make tea for the guests. They also have to do their homework. It’s not that these responsibilities take up too much time. It’s that they are done (with the exception of the last one, and even that is debatable) in the service of others and must be spread evenly throughout the day—that they are responsive to the schedules of others.
“Do you want there to be food on the table? Or do you want us to go out?” That’s what they should have thrown in my face. Instead, they smiled sheepishly and said, “Kami malas saja”—”We’re just lazy.”
Late afternoons in TDM (Tuak Daun Merah—the name of my neighborhood on the east side of Kupang) are a magical time. The midday heat relents. Shafts of sunlight slant in low over the roofs of houses, bathing streets and yards and alleyways in a warm incandescence. There is usually a light breeze blowing, which further helps with the heat and sets the banana leaves and palm fronds a-waving and a-rustling. The usual cast of characters passes my host family’s front gate: schoolgirls and schoolboys weaving lackadaisically home with their ties loosened and shirts untucked, adolescents on motorbikes zooming by at reckless speeds, helmet- and khaki-clad civil servants coming home from work and rounding the same corner much more conservatively, young mothers with toddlers in tow, old grandmothers carrying bags of groceries, the vegetable cart man ringing his bell and pushing his cargo along.
As of two months ago, a new pangkas rambut has opened shop across and fifty yards down the street from us. These tiny barbering outfits abound in Kupang. I could have started going long ago to one of many that dot the surrounding neighborhoods and line the main street—could have saved myself a good deal of time and money and probably gotten a better haircut to boot. But old habits and haunts are hard to take leave of (especially in the grooming department—visiting a familiar barbershop is like going to therapy) and for months I kept trekking twenty minutes up the hill to the first place I ever went to in Kupang—a “real” shop with a “real” storefront that charges about 15,000 rupiah too much for a cut but that seemed safe when I was still afraid of the side of the road.
With a new shop now just a thirty second walk away and not even on the side of a busy thoroughfare, I have no more excuses. So last week, after getting home from school one afternoon and deciding that it was about time, I went down the street to have a look.
Most pangkas rambuts are tiny things—about the size of a tool shed. This one was also exceptionally clean, on account of how new it was. Its walls were constructed out of sheet metal and freshly covered in A5-sized print-outs of barbershop-related clip art and quotes (“Be the kind of barber whom a client needs, not a barber who needs clients.”). And aside from tufts of black hair, the concrete floor was still bright and spotless. Out in front was a small wooden sign, spray-painted gray with black lettering, that read: “Pangkas.” Inside were several colorful, plastic chairs—one in the center for the customer, one pushed up against the wall, which was occupied by a student of mine who lives in the neighborhood, and another by the door, which contained the barber himself. When I walked in, they put their phones down and grinned at each other as if to say, “He’s here!” My student, who was shirtless, looked a little bit embarrassed too.
I have never seen a female or older barber at a pangkas rambut. They seem to exclusively service and be serviced by males between the ages of eight and twenty-eight. I am not sure if this is the reason for or result of another fact, which is that the average pangkas rambut is a sort of hangout spot for the young men of the block—a kind of communal front stoop where one drinks instant coffee out of a glass cup instead of beer out of a can in a brown paper bag. There is often a thicket of mopeds parked in front of the pangkas and perched on top of them, or in the aforementioned plastic chairs, are the adolescents and twenty-somethings, smoking cigarettes and playing multiplayer first-person shooters on their smartphones. At night, somebody is either strumming on a guitar or blasting dangdut remixes from portable speakers.
It was still too hot and too early in the afternoon for there to be much of a crowd when I went for my haircut though. I sat down in the chair in the center of the room and showed the barber a picture of what I wanted: a high-and-tight with the sides and back nearly shaved down to the skin and the top buzzed to number two. It’s about as simple of a cut as you can get, but as I watched him in the mirror, I noticed that he was much more skillful than the barbers at the other shop—that he paid much more attention to detail and approached the cut much more sensibly (he tapered the transition after finishing with the number two on top, instead of before). At the end, before trimming my sideburns and neck with a straight razor, he dabbed on some shaving cream, which felt astonishingly cool on my skin.
I paid 10,000 rupiah for my cut, or about 70 cents. The thing about a pangkas rambut is that, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t really exist to make the barber money. There are way too many of them for that. And they all rely more on frequency and volume than on charging a premium for any sort of “experience,” the way a fancier outfit might. In this way, they’re like the city’s bemos, which only charge a flat rate of 3,000 rupiah (30 cents) for a ride of any length, but which do so much business that breaking even is never a question.
Unlike the bemos, each pangkas rambut also has to stay put and rely on the loyalty and the restlessness of the young men on the block. Earlier I said that the need for frequent rejuvenation in Kupang is less acute than it is where I come from. I stand by that statement. But now that I think of it, it’s also true that sitting at home on a cool night has never cut it anywhere, anytime, and that the side of the street has beckoned to us all, like a lightbulb to a moth, since time immemorial. Haircuts are just a front.