Pertiwi—The Earth.

My feet tentatively touched the cool tiles of this massive bungalow, as my eyes roamed the expanse of its hall, its wide ceilings, the dim florescent lights that barely reached the corners of its great space. A singular ceiling fan worked up a faint breeze—a thin whisk in a voluminous cauldron of air; the attempt felt feeble at best.

Outside, I could still hear the buzz of street side traffic, but only faintly. Once you got past the heavy timber gate, that outside world became sealed off, and a different one opened unto itself, like a shy flower. There was really little to else to hear in here—except the sound of slippers slowly shuffling.  An elderly lady, in a baju singlet, with bow legs appeared. Her pale, drooping face was wrinkled from years of hard work.  But her eyes smiled and grew brighter the closer she shuffled towards me. “Apa kabar?? Selamat datang di rumah kami!” (Hello how are you? Welcome to my home!)

--

“Might you know anyone I might be able to crash with in Solo?”

I asked my friend Immanuel as I shifted uneasily in my seat. It’s always a nervous question we solitary tennis players ask amongst friends in cities we compete in. Playing the Tour is incredibly financially heavy, and every cent you can save matters.

I met Immanuel during transit in Jakarta in one of my earlier years on Tour. What was a chance encounter bloomed into a steadfast friendship with him, his wife and family.

“Hmmm,” he replied as his pupils moved slowly round in little circles, thinking. “My friends might be able to help out. Let me check.”

--

Fast forward three weeks on, here I stood, at the doorway of this huge residence. It was grandiose on the outside, but belied the simple furnishing its interior hosted. I stood there awkwardly in stark contrast, with my spanking new sports kit, three big luggage bags of equipment and gear in tow.  I towered over the grand dame of the house who came to greet me. Her family, her grandchildren, stood shyly behind her. By sheer contrast in size, I was at least a head taller than all her women.

--

I was placed in the guest room on the second floor, tucked into one corner of the house. The door had to be kept closed at all times, to avoid both the mosquitoes and the swathes of dust that crept in through the windows from the surrounding roads. The house was so big that cleaning it was a constant challenge, so everyone wore slippers instead. During the evenings when the earth cooled, the hot water took time to climb up through the pipes for a shower, and I would often listen out for the call to prayer, as it reverberated across the neighborhood. The mirrors were all set too short for me, and I had to do a Quasimodo stoop for most parts to comb my hair or brush my teeth at the basin. It was a little strange that a house this big had amenities so small, but I suppose it made sense.

--

For all their petite frames, this family had a wonderfully big custom. Every morning, it was their habit to have breakfast not only early, but also as a full meal. I remember coming down bleary eyed, my first morning there, to a full spread at the dining table.

“Sarah! Ayo makan!”

Sarah! Come eat! The grand dame, Aunty Annisa would gesture, before whipping out a plate and ladling a whopping mountain of rice.

“Sila makan, sila makan!”

Please eat, please eat!

It was literally a feast for the eyes, often with two meat and two vegetable dishes, paired with a couple of sides and a homebrewed soup to boot. Breakfast was ready at 8am everyday, and the grand dame was up at the crack of dawn, cooking up a storm with their family helper. I was speechless when I first witnessed this, in part because of the sheer amount of work it takes to cook a full meal, much less a spread of this size, day in and day out. Their family catered to eight people (I made the ninth), so the sheer volume that went through their kitchen was significant.

What this also meant, was I went to the courts everyday with a Tupperware full of homecooked food. Eating in athletic performance is one of the most overlooked, underemphasized aspects of training, and it is very hard, conscientious work to consistently feed your body well.

Every morning, as I tucked into breakfast, I looked at Aunty Annisa with gratitude in my eyes. She would be sitting at the head of the dining table, in her usual batik singlet, charting carefully by ledger every item that her housemaid had bought from the wet market. Her face was often grim, her eyes set firmly on the nib of her pen as she cross-checked every item in each plastic bag. Sometimes, she would bicker with the housemaid—who had been with the family for twenty years—“Why did you buy this type of fish?! I told you to buy the other type!” So on and so forth the banter would go. Inspite of the quibbles, all I saw in this woman was pure love.

In fact if I were a Carebear, there probably would have been hearts spewing out from my chest. Her matronly support in this far-flung Indonesian city, freed me up from worrying about clocking enough calories or making sure my next meal was from a safe, or hygienic enough restaurant. As a woman and an athlete travelling alone, it made a colossal difference.

Aunty Annisa had a daughter named Pertiwi, who was  the middle child of three, flanked by brothers, who were both established doctors. Pertiwi, in her thirties, was unmarried, and stayed at home. For most parts, she saw more of my schedule than I did of hers. In the mornings, she would saunter up to the dining table and sit and watch me as I had breakfast, decked in full tennis gear, ready for the grind of the day. Tennis players, like any other athletes in their full sporting attire, often stick out like sore thumbs. I’m sure I looked very different compared to the everyday woman in conservative Indonesia, and she probably found me intriguing. She would sit across from me, watching me eat with attentive eyes, as her hands rested gently on her chin.

Initially, I have to admit, it felt a little strange.

To break the silence—Pertiwi spoke close to zero English—I tried my best to smile and strike conversation in smatterings of my poor Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin. Pertiwi, almost in reciprocity, would always make the effort to join me for dinner. If I spent a long day at the courts and came home late, she would deftly turn on the stove to heat up the entire pot of soup, before ladling me a huge steaming bowl.

One thing I never understood though, was why Pertiwi always insisted on eating leftover food from dishes days before, even if it looked a little putrid and stale. When we sat down for meals, she ladled fresh food on my plate, while she rummaged the fridge for leftovers. “It’s still good!” she would mumble in Bahasa Indonesia as her fingers nimbly picked off the corners of a dish, two days old. A grey fishcake or a soggy taugeh, maybe. I didn’t like this discrepancy, but I understood it was part habit, and towards me, part her gesture of friendship.

Quickly, we fell into a daily routine of having dinner together. Her brothers had unpredictable schedules, and with Aunt Annisa retiring to her room early every night, it seemed Pertiwi didn’t have anyone else to talk to. I learnt over our dinners, of their family history. How their father passed away when they were young, I heard about the homelessness and utter, abject poverty they faced. I heard about how Aunt Annisa had to make very hard decisions to keep the family afloat. Pertiwi shared with me her hobbies. I tasted the killer sambal belachan she made—a perfect blend of chilies and dried prawns, balanced with a light, lingering aftertaste of sweetness. Pertiwi’s younger brother, a huge six foot two Indonesian, cameoed during one of our dinners.  She graciously rose to cook instant noodles for him, while he sat at the table and lamented how Pertiwi really needed to set up her own YouTube cooking channel. “She can totally do it!” he exclaimed, banging the table.  “And it would give her something to do.”

“Something to do?” I watched her folded behind the kitchen, quietly cooking supper for him. She moved so swiftly between pot and stove, knife and board, fridge and larder, that a great realization dawned on me.

It was actually Pertiwi who did most of the cooking every morning for the family.

Wow. Oh hey. Wait a minute, I thought.

It made sense, why she was so interested in how I ate.

It was her food, after all.

---

One afternoon, after much planning I managed to squeeze out time from practice to visit the local market with Pertiwi. She had a bible study gathering coming up, and wanted to try a new fruit salad recipe for refreshments. I badly wanted to see the local market, so off we went.

Indonesian local markets are frightening affairs for the unacquainted. The stalls are closely packed together. The interior, dark. The air is dank and musky. Stalls deep-fry fish and chicken, giving off a heady, thick smoky aroma that wafts metres away from a low second floor selling fresh meat. Blood and sticky grime covers the floor of the meat section, as fat flies flit from innards to choice cuts, with a heavy, sluggish indulgence.

Pertiwi took me to a famous local chendol store in the heart of this market, and we giggled like high school girls as we perched shoulder to shoulder on rickety wooden stools. “She’s my friend from Singapore!” she smiled cheekily to the lady boss, as curious eyes of housewives and passers-by turned to look at this nervous-looking Singaporean smiling, anxiously stirring her dessert bowl.  Secretly, I was praying this would not be the last meal of my trip before I had massive runs or came down with food poisoning (think cross-contamination—we athletes can get paranoid this way).

“Come on, try it!” She jerked her head, looking at me intently with those eager beaver eyes, as keenly as that first night I sat across from her at her dining table. I let out a big laugh, and plunged my spoon right in. Life had to be lived, and it turned out to be the most delicious, light, milky textured chendol melting on my tongue. Bits of agar agar and jackfruit formed a beautiful balance with young strips of coconut and sago, set amidst lovely crushed ice.  Cost of damage? Fifty cents.

Maybe there is so much life has to offer, if we let ourselves live in the margins.

--

Every tournament stop on Tour is at most, seven days long. During that time, about ninety percent of a player’s time is centered around practising, competing, and the preparation or recovery routines that surround tournament matches. The truth is, there is little space in the margins for anything else, and life on Tour literally is eating, sleeping, thinking, pooping tennis. It is the only, and fastest way upwards.

Mentally, such devotion is tiring, especially when you have to travel non-stop between cities for multi-legs of Tour, whilst aiming to be in tip top condition to compete, week in and week out. After some time, you learn certain coping mechanisms to help you stay focused on the task at hand. Like learning how to block out travel distractions, or visual overloads of sight and scenery when you travel between points. At other times, precisely because the strain of travel is so exacting, you need outlets that help you cope with this stress. This comes in different forms for different people. For me, over the years of travelling on Tour, the stress of honing my killer instinct on court was always kept in check by connections I got to make with real people, across these various cities.

--

Every night after dinner, I would go up to my room while Pertiwi switched off most of the living room lights, and sat in relative darkness to video chat with a guy friend from church. It was obvious he was interested in her, and I was happy for her. Happy that, as they talked in the dark like lovers between shade and shadow, it seemed she actually had someone she could speak to.

I teased her about it, but she always shook her head.

“No, we’re just friends,” she’d say, with a small frown and the slightest upturn of her mouth. There was this subtle, disconsolate tilt of her shoulders, always away from the screen as he asked her questions. It was almost as if she didn’t really want to be there. It baffled me.

--

On my last night, we sat, the two of us hunched over the dining table. By this point, we had shared multiple meals, a crazy market run, and had had countless conversations under our belt. The unspoken laws of propriety had been broken, and there was a familiarity about the air, where our mutual comfort felt more like a well-versed sisterhood than an awkward new friendship.

“Can I ask you something, Pertiwi?” I traced the acrylic motif of the tablecloth with the tip of my finger, unsure of how to start my question.

“Yes?” she nudged her chin, with her usual, gentle, almost child-like smile.

Pertiwi was obviously a highly capable, intelligent woman. It had been a question that had consistently gnawed at me shortly after we had met.

“Why… why didn’t you want to finish school?”

Her eyes flashed. The smile fell, like a drop in a pond. Waves of emotion flickered across her face.

“I always wanted to.” She lowered her eyes.

You always wanted to? And…?

“But I couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me.”

Then the story came. When Aunty Annisa’s husband passed away, the family was so poor they could only afford to send two of their three children for further education. Aunty Annisa decided to send her boys to university, and Pertiwi was left to stay at home to take care of the house, instead.

“Because at the end of it, mum figured I would get married and have babies. If we needed legs to support the family, my brothers would be able to do just that, and for longer, than me.”

Her eyes stayed downcast, still. I could tell she was reliving the memory, and her sideway glances showed she still wrestled with that decision, twenty years on.

“That’s why in high school I studied so hard. I studied so hard because I wanted a scholarship, I needed that scholarship to get to university. I was always top three in my entire level, Sarah. Top three.”

The pink in her cheeks rose, as her eyes turned misty.

“But I never got that scholarship.”

---

Pertiwi admitted to me later, that was the reason why she actively resisted all the suitors that came knocking on her door. Her family was comfortable and educated. She cooked well, loved warmly, and was highly capable. There was little to resist in a marriage CV like that. But Pertiwi refused. She saw resistance to the very act as the last bastion of her freedom.

“I don’t want to get married. Because I will become a wife, get pregnant. And that will be the end of all I have left.”


She looked up at me. There was so much unspoken as our eyes met, and all I wished in that very moment, was the ability to do something for her. To make a difference for this one woman in front of me.  Instead, all I could do was reach out to hold her arm, as tears slid down her cheeks. She looked at me with great sadness in her eyes, whispering almost inaudibly,

“You are very lucky, Sarah.”
Sisters of Sarah
Sisters of Sarah is a story series in collaboration with The Best of You movement, born from the lives of some truly incredible women Sarah Pang, a Singaporean professional tennis player, met while travelling the world playing Tour. This project is an overture to helping one another realise that there are deeper dimensions to people than just the jobs they do.