05/08/2012 07:10 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

Moving To Indonesia And Into The Present Tense

Before I'd even made a dent in suitcase number one, I knew without a doubt that I'd overpacked by about 70 percent. By the time the contents of both suitcases, my backpack and my tote bag were neatly arranged on shelves and in the drawers of my new Jakartan bedroom, that certainty had congealed in my stomach into a hard ball of guilt: "I'm doing this wrong."

This refers to my recent move across the globe, from San Francisco to Indonesia. The question I began considering, after I'd sheepishly tucked my empty suitcases into a closet, one of them still containing all the absurd items (An enormous wool sweater? On the equator?!?) I'd been too embarrassed to unpack, was what the wrong refers to. I won't launch into a discourse on how everyone's path is unique and equally valid, or the arbitrariness of trying to meet some standard for "right" human experience, but I do want to consider the impulse, not 24 hours into my stay, to assign it a label, an impulse that inevitably if unintentionally colors everything after it.

On trips as in life, the tendency to constantly assess an experience propels the mind forward. It moves us away from the flatulent tuk-tuk or moonlit dinner or urban monsoon, tunneling outward to some simulacrum of some future self who judges, with flawless verdicts, how good or bad, exciting or boring, challenging or peaceful, our current experience was.

It hardly merits saying that most of us aspire to steer clear of this mentality--you don't need to be a yogi these days to encounter frequent instructions to "be present," or "live in the moment." And I like to think that I make a valiant effort to do that, when I remember at least.

But here in Jakarta, that nebulous goal has taken on a new urgency. That's in part because I have no reasonable frame of reference for this place, such a far cry from any other city I've visited. It's also in part because being present here is largely a survival skill; even with my full attention on my surroundings, I almost got run down by about a dozen mopeds, four cars, and one aggressive food-cart-pusher on a walk down a semi-main drag this morning. There's also the tacit knowledge that I could leave at any moment. Setting aside potential crises or changes of heart, there's the very real fact that my boyfriend's job could move him to a different project, anywhere in the world, at any time. How can I formulate a cogent review of an experience with an unknown end date? The fluid duration both prevents me from scheming up some romanticized narrative arc of my Jakartan hero's journey (What if the story stops before I've had my life-altering epiphany?), and puts more weight on each day we remain here. I need to be here, now, because I may be elsewhere tomorrow.

This afternoon, a monsoon opened up the sky and I went onto our sheltered patio and sat on the little couch out there and pulled out my box of Bahasa vocabulary cards ("Learn Indonesian--In A Flash!"). As the water pounded the yard's palm fronds and lightning shattered the clouds, the sunset call to prayer began its wail from the minarets, the mournful minor key notes from at least three different mosques mingling with the air-trembling thunder. And I try really, really hard to be fully in that moment, to hear the insistent rain, to enjoy the blessed, ephemeral coolness of the air. I try to point my thoughts toward all that stuff, though part of me is already thinking about how nicely this intersection of elements encapsulates my Jakartan existence, ignoring the inconvenient fact that said existence is three days old. I try to avoid the temptation to squint at the present until its fuzzy edges can be redrawn as some ideal, transforming this very moment into a memory about which I'll wax poetic someday--though, in a way, I guess that's just what I'm doing now.

After I leave, I'll have the rest of my life to remember and misremember and interpret my time in Jakarta. But I don't know how long I'll actually be here, in this noisy, hot, mysterious city, creating the raw experience that I'll diligently label in years to come.
So I'd better take good notes.