Travel notesIssue 14 | February 2012

Love in the Time of Facebook

by Doug Clark

This star-crossed love starts on a whim: Nurul Bergeral searches Facebook from an internet cafe in Sumbawa, Indonesia, wondering if anyone shares her unusual name. 

Fabio Nurulberger appears. He lives in Hamburg, Germany, and his profile picture features him wearing a wife-beater, bench-pressing two hundred and fifty pounds. Who wouldn’t want to be friends with that?

Halfway around the world, Fabio receives Nurul’s friend request, leafs through her photos, thinks, Cute, and accepts. He writes her a message in German, then another in English, realizing she might not understand German.

The emails get longer and develop into instant message chats; little does Fabio know Nurul writes with an English dictionary open on her lap.  After six months, they upgrade to Skype and he gets his first surprise: Nurul’s sister, who is proficient in English, sits beside her, coaching her on tough phrases. They muddle through a few conversations.

One night Fabio’s at a bar and a brunette from Munich starts unbuttoning the neck of his shirt. But, to the disdain of his friends, he returns home alone and writes Nurul a message: can I visit?

Three months later, exhausted from forty-two hours of travel, Fabio steps onto the airport tarmac in Mataram, Indonesia. He’s thirty-two and still looks like the soldier he used to be: six-three, two hundred and sixty pounds of muscle, and a buzzed head. His soapy skin already glows from the sun.

Nurul Bergeral is twenty, doesn’t even approach five feet, has a pretty heart-shaped face, and though she doesn’t wear a headscarf like most Muslim women in Indonesia, her clothes hide every bit of her skin but her hands and ankles. Her sister hovers in the wings as a translator/chaperone/possible-bodyguard.

The only thing Fabio and Nurul have in common is the thought: What am I doing here?

It only gets worse: on the full day, bus-ferry-bus ride to Nurul’s hometown of Sumbawa, which is backwoods even for Indonesia, the chickens in the cage under Fabio’s seat escape and poop all over his pants.

I meet Fabio a year later on the streets of Sumbawa when I see a horse cart swerving out of his path rather than the other way around. I had thought I was the only foreigner here. Fabio, instantly friendly, perhaps a little lonely for conversation (he doesn’t speak Indonesian and he’s just lucked into the only native-English speaker in Sumbawa), explains how he’s visiting his Indonesian girlfriend and invites me over for drinks that night.

*

The evening call to prayer fades and black clouds mass over the jungle covered volcanoes to the south as I settle onto Fabio’s porch. He introduces me to Nurul, gets out two cold Bintang beers, and starts the typical, fill-in-the-blanks conversation of, So how do you like Sumbawa?

While the conversation cruises on autopilot, I observe them. they look happy enough: Nurul’s leaning into Fabio as if he’s a plus-sized La-Z-Boy; one of his huge hands strokes the ends of her hair. 

But I have a hard time believing they’re in love. I suspect some sort of exploitation: that Fabio wants girlfriends on two continents, or if he’s serious about marrying her, he only wants a maid and younger bed-mate. I even wonder vaguely if Nurul is just digging for the German version of a Green Card. 

It’s when Fabio finishes his beer and Nurul gets up, heading for the fridge, that I start to believe they’re in love. He says, In Germany, women don’t do all the work for their men. I can tell by the amused tiredness in his voice that this is something he’s repeated a lot. He grabs her hand, sits her down, and gets the beer himself.

As the night rolls on I’m increasingly impressed. 

Like when they’re talking about Nurul’s upcoming visit to Germany and Fabio says to her, There are lots of Turks in Germany, so you can use their mosques when you visit. It’s a small thing, but it shows he’s thinking ahead, trying to figure out what’s important for her. 

Or when Nurul grunts something in German, mangling it, and they both laugh. It occurs to me she’s already learned English for him and now she’s sincerely trying to decode yet another language. 

Or their three-year plan. Fabio explains, I need to improve my job—I’m a line cook—but my mother runs a batik import business and will let me join as a partner next year. If business is going well maybe I will buy a bit of land here and spend some months in Sumbawa every year. And if Nurul likes Germany—

We will see, Nurul says and they weave their fingers together.

I only start to worry when Fabio fetches his third drink.

Nurul, I only drink tonight because we have a guest and next week I’ll have a few beers on my birthday to celebrate.

Their voices have gained the ground edge of an old argument. When Fabio opened the fridge I saw far more beers than could be consumed in
two days.

Morals are very different in Indonesia and Germany, Nurul says.

I nod and she continues, For instance, it is not okay for people to have sex before marriage here. So we have not had sex.

Fabio blushes, embarrassed, and glances out at the volcanoes turning purple in the twilight. I can feel the air thick with the pressure of competing cultural forces: Nurul telling me this so I don’t assume she’s not a good Muslim girl; Fabio hoping I would assume they’d been together.

Looking at how fluidly Nurul leans against Fabio, how his paw-like hand brushes her hair, I’m sorry it won’t last. I want to warn them to end it now, to save them all the trouble of trying to keep it going via email, celibate, half the world in between, and separated by an even wider cultural gulf. Facebook, I want to say, is not a strong enough lashing to bind you together for a lifetime.

Fabio is playing with a little cross, carved from a piece of shell, hanging from a string around his neck. Nurul made this for me, he says, smiling at his Muslim girlfriend. 

Later that night, as Fabio drops me off at my house, he asks me what I think.

There are so many things I want to say. I want to express my awe that the relationship even exists: at no other time in history could a man from Germany and woman from Indonesia have a relationship across such chasms of culture and distance. Most of all, I want to tell him that they give me hope—that if a Muslim can carve a cross for a Christian, their love can thrive; that if they can make it, so can the rest of the world.

Make sure to invite me to the wedding, I answer. I’m on Facebook.

We shake hands then Fabio guns his motorbike into the storms of insects swirling in the tropical night.

About the author

Doug Clark has traveled to over thirty countries. Some of his favorite memories include playing chess with monks in Burma, hitchhiking the length of New Zealand, and crewing a traditional fishing boat in Indonesia for a week. Currently, he is a Fulbright Fellow in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where he teaches English at a public high school and is completing a collection of short stories. His work has appeared at Glimpse and in Wend Magazine.

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