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How I Learned The Meaning of Ular

Let me introduce myself. My name is Marisa Shortreed. I live in a quiet, rural town named Roseau, in northern Minnesota, with my husband Chris, and my cat named Gordon.

I graduated from Carthage College with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. I wrote as a staff reporter for my college's newspaper, and I submitted several works of prose for our literary magazine during my time there. I lived in southeast Asia for a time after college, interning for a business there. I then returned to Minnesota and married the love of my life.

January 2019; I am in a tiny, aluminum boat speeding through the South China Sea. My two companions are the boat driver and my culture mentor. I lick my lips and taste the salt from the sea spray. I try not to think about what toxic fluids are in the water. “Don’t drink the water”, they said. That was the number one rule for visiting this sprawling island nation in Southeast Asia.

I am a brand-new, baby intern, only three-days-old in this year-long internship at a business halfway around the globe from my home state of Minnesota. I had three days to meet the team, get acclimated to the time change, and seriously reconsider my readiness to endure the year-round heat and humidity, before I got tossed in the deep end. My culture mentor is taking me to a nearby village on one of the thousands of islands. There I meet my host family, who speak little to no English, and I try to communicate with them using the embarrassingly rudimentary grasp I have on their native tongue. Using the spotty cell service, my host sister and I use Google Translate and are able to communicate, with some funny mistakes along the way. I try to use what language I know, and they correct me when they can puzzle out what I am trying to say. Thus, I am learning.

I am immersed in daily village life. Two “showers” a day at the local women’s well, one in the morning, one in the evening. I am modestly covered in my sarong as I dump buckets of cool well water over my head and try to clean myself with the 3-in-1 men’s shampoo and body wash I brought with me for the occasion. I make sure to keep my lips tightly sealed and dry my face off thoroughly to avoid ingesting any water.

My host sister shows me how to do laundry. We immerse our dirty clothes in a plastic tub full of well water, add a packet of powdered laundry detergent and start scrubbing the clothes against themselves. Then, we transfer the soapy clothes to a second tub with clean water for rinsing. We rinse, then back to the soapy tub for another wash. Rinse and repeat. We squat on the ground near the well. My back is screaming, my knees are groaning, and sweat drips down my face and back. I look at my host sister, who so efficiently washes and rinses her clothes, and I admire her for her ability to do this every day.

I help with community projects. On Sundays, the village cleans the wells. The women clean the women’s well and the men clean the men’s well. A woman hands me a hard-bristled brush and I join them in scrubbing the moss and dirt off from around the well. A couple ofwomen jump down into the well and scrub the inside walls clean of dirt and moss. The bottom of the well is about ten feet down or so, but the well water comes up to about four feet. Buckets of clean water are used to rinse the walls and outside of the well. We are crouched down in the blazing sun. The humidity is so thick, I could sip it through a straw. The women urge me to sit down and take frequent breaks as they see I am in pain from the awkward squatting position, but I feel ashamed to take a break when they continue scrubbing without respite.

The village is constructing a new sand volleyball court to replace their old one. I am assigned to rock detail. A group of us are crouched beneath some trees, picking rocks out of the dirt and tossing them into woven plastic totes to be carried down to the building site and used to make concrete. As we work, the villagers chatter and laugh around me. I am happy to sit quietly and listen as I work, trying to pick out words that I recognize. As it turns out, there was one word in particular that I should have learned before I even got on the plane.

A commotion occurs around me. Everyone gets up and leaves the shade of the trees, yelling “Ular! Ular!” Maybe it’s the heat and humidity making my mind sluggish, or maybe I’m not over the jet lag yet, but I continue to sit under the tree, looking around at everyone else, wondering what is going on. They become more urgent. “Ular! Ular!” A couple of men come running from down the path, holding machetes. Finally, one of the villagers is able to come up with the English translation of the word they’re yelling.

“Snake! Snake!”

I understand that. I jump out of my sitting position and make it over to my host sister in about two strides. I don’t know that I have ever moved that fast. I turn and catch a glimpse of the white and black striped snake slithering about a foot from where I had been sitting. One of the villagers had pried up a rather large rock and disturbed the foot-long snake. The machete-wielding men charge the snake and quickly dispense with it. Through a few English words and gestures, I learn that this type of snake is dangerous, hence the villagers’ panic. Oh, and the nearest hospital that would be able to handle a snake bite like that was over two hours away by boat.

You better believe I will never forget the meaning of ular.

The rest of my stay with my host family is a walk in the park compared to the snake incident. After the snake is taken care of, the villagers decide it would be best if the ignorant American girl (my words, not theirs) went to help prepare the snacks for the villagers and stay out of harm’s way. That’s how I found myself beheading tiny dried fish called Ikan Bilis and chatting with an older woman who knew a fair amount of English as she prepared the snacks for the villagers who are hard at work on the volleyball court.

My favorite part of each day is the afternoon nap. The sweat has become a permanent layer on top of my skin now, but at least I get to lay down in the shade during the hottest part of the day. I also love the evenings, when the whole community gathers at the volleyball courts to play, watch and socialize. My new friends encourage me to try the new words I know, and a few of the teenagers who are learning English in school seek me out to practice.

That week was incredibly hard, physically and mentally, but the hospitality I felt from my host family and the entire community made the whole experience worth it. I can’t wait to go back.

Marisa Shortreed

Freelance Copywriter


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