It was 8 AM in the Sumatran village of Lempur. I emerged bleary-eyed from my homestay bedroom to find myself surrounded by high school beauty queens, giggling and chattering as they sparkled in colourful dresses and elaborate headscarfs. They all wanted selfies with me so, despite my dishevelled state, I dutifully complied.
It was graduation day at the local high school and the girls that filled the lounge room were here for their professional photographs. Our host and local guide Zacky took tourists like us on hikes in Kerinci-Seblat national park, but also ran a successful photography and videography business. He was overseeing the filming of the graduation ceremony and invited us to come along. His cousin, the camera-man, was looking slightly sad – the graduating class was the one he’d had to drop out of because he couldn’t afford the fees.
At the school hall, we aimed for a balcony at the back so as not to intrude. But we were intercepted, promptly relocated to the VIP seating and issued with cardboard snack boxes. The teacher to my left showed me photos of her trip to Java on her mobile phone. I was consuming some kind of sweet green bread when I noticed the teacher on stage motioning for us to join him. I knew from the looks of excited anticipation on the faces surrounding me that refusal was not an option. Things took on a dream-like quality and we climbed the stairs to rapturous applause.
The teacher announced that his wife was very beautiful, but that I – Laura – was even more beautiful. The crowd roared with delight as I suppressed my feminist misgivings and smiled graciously. We were required to make a speech. Zacky, ever-forward-thinking, hissed from side-stage ‘Environment – education!’ – a reference to the war on litter which he was waging in the local community. In an act of cowardice I passed the microphone to Simon. He told the students how much we’d loved Kerinci National Park and how important we thought it would be for the future of Lempur. He described our disappointment at seeing so much rubbish, and said he hoped when we came back next time we would see an even more beautiful national park. We wished the graduates a bright future. The students, teaches and general audience listened intently, bearing this unexpected missive coming from the random white tourists with surprising grace. I stood there smiling supportively like some kind of fully unqualified First Lady. Zacky gave us the thumbs up for our diplomatic efforts, and we were given the honour of presenting graduation medals to the students.
Then from the sound system came the opening strains of Unchained Melody. Our friendly teacher now had a smile that seemed to take up his entire face.“Oh my lo-o-ove, my da-ar-ling”, he serenaded us, whilst fixing us with his intense gaze. The headmistress and another teacher joined us, and linking arms, we swayed to the tender beat. It all should have been ridiculous but as the fluttering strings lifted up the song and our karaoke master sang the bittersweet words “Ti-ii-ime, go-es by, so slo-o-ow-ly, and time can do so-oo much” like his heart would break, everyone in the hall was transfixed. I was a stranger here, a random tourist spectacularly crashing this graduation ceremony. Like most things here, our elevation to celebrity status made little sense to me, and to the extent that I did understand it, it raised some uncomfortable questions. But in that moment a collective acknowledgement hung in the air, of the human connections, some fleeting and some enduring, which we carry with us in our hearts during our time on this strange planet.