Monday, December 31, 2007
The front of the card said, “Christmas Greetings for Someone Special,” and inside was one of those innocuous card poems no one ever reads. Then they wrote, “Merry Christmas Mr. Peter… We love you… We always miss you Sir… We are sorry, because we always made many mistakes. Thank you to teach us with very patient. God bless you!! Wish you have a wonderful Christmas with your family & wife.”
Isn’t that sweet?
I also had two classes of 6- and 7-year-olds just finish the other day too. Their last test had some of my favorite mistakes. Our latest unit covered pets and animals, and they had to answer questions about their pets. Here a few especially good ones.
For the question, What does it look like? one said of her dog, “it look like a cat.”
Also for, What does it look like? one boy said of his fish, “it look like medium.” Hmm.
Entering the world of magic realism and poetry… For, Where does it sleep? one boy answered of his pet dinosaur, “it’s sleep of ocean.” Quite beautifully put.
For, What does it do? one boy answered of his cat, “it do like a thief.” Yes. Don’t they all.
And there were two really good answers for, What does it like to eat? “it like to eat plankton,” one boy very logically said of his fish. And another said of his hamster, “it eat born.” Yes. Even this close to Christmas the harsh realities of life have not escaped this child.
Hope your Christmas season isn’t too stressed out. For those of you in retail… my heart goes out to you. I feel your pain all the way across the oceans and hemispheres. For those of you who aren’t in retail, be nice and tip well to those who are. Santa and the baby Jesus are watching.
We miss you all. Merry Christmas!
“Hot Espresso with Coffee: Creamy coffee, tasty forming of the Viennese people since their ancestors, a cinnamon stick spices destroying the unpleasant taste of cream, specially and incomparably fragrant.”
It’s pretty good.
Well, it’s time for another update on life in Indonesia – specifically Makassar, Sulawesi and its affect on your friends Peter and Sarah.
We’ve pretty much settled in now near the four-month mark. We’ve gotten through the culture-shock/rage-and-anger stage without offending anyone significantly. (Though there was that driver I splashed with water that got too close and honked at me as I tried crossing an intersection. Hey. I had the green light and he had red… But you should’ve seen his face, dripping with water.) We can now give directions to a taxi driver, order food without being laughed at, and shop at a grocery store without much confusion.
Life has fallen into a routine here. Sarah spends her mornings at the gym, and I spend mine writing. Indonesia feels far less overwhelming now. At school, part of the ceiling fell in (no one was hurt, thank God), my air conditioner has quit working and the power still goes out still, though it’s for a multitude of reasons now… not just one. But these are things that are just part of the scene in Makassar. We just kind of shrug it off now. The ceiling fell in because half-inch thick sheetrock was glued up instead of nailed or screwed. The power went out one day because someone was putting diesel in the wrong opening and it ran out of fuel; another time it went out because an electrical box was sparking and wires were melting. I’m no longer surprised. This is Indonesia. And I don’t feel like my life is in danger.
I’m finding out from observing Indonesian culture – the driving, the construction workers’ conditions (they work barefoot mostly, use ladders and scaffolding made of bamboo), the kids in the street, the infants carried on motorcycles – a lot has to happen before things really go horribly wrong. Americans are way too afraid. Sarah saw some barefoot guys using a concrete saw on a sidewalk the other week. I’ve seen motorcycle passengers carrying ladders and chairs. Somehow everyone seems fine. I have not yet seen an accident where anyone was hurt.
I would not have tolerated lizards in my home in the West either. Now I find myself talking to the geckos here. The one who spends a lot of time under our toaster oven is named Phil. Phil’s all right. We used to have an ant problem in the kitchen. Not anymore, thanks to Phil. But sometimes Phil tries to sneak a taste of Sarah’s cookies when she bakes. We have to talk firmly with Phil then. The other night Phil or one of his little cronies was trying to get into a box of chocolates. Little pieces of chocolate were left on the floor. We threw that box out. There are limits to this alliance.
Oh yeah. And when I get back to the States someday, my ceiling better not collapse. After all, I’m still an American.
Sunday, December 9, 2007
This is a public service announcement.
And by “public service” we mean you could help Sarah and me. We had to leave behind our cats Spike and Mixy Mae in the States. Trust us, Indonesia is no place for domesticated animals of any type. Before leaving, we tried believing we could have them sent after us, but that was a foolish dream. Now we need to find a nice foster home for them to stay until October. Sarah’s brother Andy, who’s watching them now, is willing to drive down from Olympia to Portland to deliver the animals.
We do not want to find a permanent home for them. We want them back. They’re good cats. Mixy (11 years old) is de-clawed and Spike (almost 3) does not claw things if you keep his claws trimmed. Both are affectionate (especially Spike). Mixy sleeps a lot.
Our deadline is Christmas. If you can help us out, we’d love you forever. Let us know as soon as possible. Thank you.
Friday, November 30, 2007
Anyway, we had eight guests for our dinner party. We were the only Americans. The list included Bill (our Australian neighbor and co-worker), his girlfriend Rany, Steve our Scotish co-worker, his girlfriend Silvia (owner of our building), our jolly English co-worker Rod and his wife Lini, and their two kids Matthew and Jonathan. The kids sat inside and watched cartoons and ate, while the adults sat on the balcony and drank wine – an Australian shiraz.
They didn’t eat the way they were supposed to on Thanksgiving – that is, all day – but that’s OK. They weren’t really familiar with the holiday. Steve only had one other Thanksgiving experience and that was about four or five years ago in France with his girlfriend of the time, an American. It was not a good experience. He said it was at a strict vegan’s house and he wanted to contribute his special chocolate truffles for dessert. When the host found out the truffles had milk in them, she almost did not let him enter the house. True story. I guess strict vegenism might be some strange, bastardized practice of Puritanism or something.
Now Sarah and I, being the crazy vegetarians we are, did not threaten to throw anyone out. Bill and Rany brought chicken for the meat eaters (turkey is hard to find here) and it was a hit. Sarah and I made our traditional pasta with mushroom sauce and it smelled like the holidays to me, even though it was in the 80s outside. I also made garlic mashed potatoes and Sarah made chocolate chip cookies. Then after a while we all sat on the balcony and watched the thunderstorm move in.
We had to retell the Thanksgiving story, because most guests were a bit foggy on it. They wanted to know exactly what we were “thankful” for anyway. I suppose New England and the winters there and things like religious freedom and actually owning property haven’t been all that important to people from the UK for a couple hundred years or so… since they lost the Revolutionary War (or as they call it the “Civil War.”) So we told them. And I added they could stick around as long as they all were thankful our forefathers survived and then demanded their independence from all of them – except the Indonesian guests, of course. We’re actually muscling in on their turf. They didn’t think all this irony was quite as funny as I did.
Hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving. We’re thankful for all our friends and family and wish you a great holiday season.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Here are some highlights of students’ work that we’ve collected. We should say that the intent of this is not to laugh at the mistakes made by people learning English as a foreign language however. Some of these examples are bizarrely creative ideas that can only come from someone trying to make learning more meaningful. Others are just simple mistakes made by someone working to understand a very difficult language. (Note: Indonesian has virtually no verb tense.) Therefore, we have more of a sense of laughing “with” them. Afterall, English sometimes makes little sense. We’ve haven’t changed what follows, so some of them are pretty rough… Take a look.
- Sarah’s class: 6 & 7 year-olds learning past simple tense, a project to make a list of the days of the week and events that happened thereon
“Luther lost his ball
Luther ate glue
Luther drank wine
Luther killed people
Luther flew into hell
Luther married the devil
Luther died (had the devil’s baby)”
- Peter’s class: 6 & 7 year-olds drew an imaginary creature made of many different animal parts (a “following instructions” exercise). They then had to name it. Some names include:
Dinotrodon Advantage Spit [my favorite]
- From another of Sarah’s class’s dark imaginations: They were told to write a scary story (Indonesians love a good – or bad – ghost story):
One day there was a ghost named luciver. There is a man who wanted to killed the ghost. Because there was an a evil hand (the ghost’s hand. The man look and Find a virus and a magical sword to killed the ghost. And cup to desapere the ghost. After the ghost killed (the man’s name was garreth) he return the ghost in to the cup [by Ivan]
1.) Once upon a time there was a alien.
2.) The alien was so strong.
3.) So he wants got all
4.) But there was a knight
5.) From heaven and killed king alien.
6.) 100.000 died
One day Irene went to the forest. She saw a very old house. And then a crazy grandpa said to Irene “Don’t looked the house because the house is very scary”. But Irene already looked the house. After that the ghost came to Irene. Then Irene killed the ghost. [by Regina]
One day, in the forest there is a ghost named ghosty. All ghost friend with ghosty. But if ghosty and another ghost said a people, ghosty and his friend will killed us and ate us. The first people be killed is a girl named Regina. Regina dead and friend with ghosty. Even Regina family. Regina killed them and all people will killed by the ghost. [by Irene]
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Here’s another sure-fire way to give your self-confidence a boost while in Indonesia: take part in a labor walkout. It feels good. Trust me.
Now before you think I’m ready to pick up the hammer and sickle, let me explain.
Many of you know that I worked for a newspaper as a reporter shortly after receiving my English degree. I was one of, like, 3 recent English/writing degree recipients in America using their degree that year. It was an amazing experience – I’m still not sure how I got that job – and that is where I began to learn what true writing is. It’s where I discovered the world outside academia does not use introductory paragraphs or thesis statements or foot/end notes (whatever the latest MLA Handbook’s whim may be). It’s where I learned academic writing, well, isn’t really writing. To borrow a phrase from Truman Capote… it’s just typing.
Anyway, after a year and a half of reporting on the exciting world of Huntington County, Indiana’s county commissioners and county council I decided to take another step to bigger and better things in writing. So I moved to Portland. The plan was to do freelance writing for the many papers there. Well, the writing was very hard to come by and the pay even harder… and then I got divorced a year and a half later. That’s when, before I really knew what was happening, I was managing a Starbuck’s store. I’ll spare all the details, but thus began my almost 11-year career in retail coffee.
I know what you’re thinking. You know where this is going, but let me just preface this by saying there are far worse companies in the world than the Bucks. I got a 401(k) started there – benefits, stock at discounts, a little bit in stock options too. Those are all nice, but still not preferable to having a soul.
There were a few times at Starbuck that really I wanted to walk. One example was when our hours got cut and we were told it was our fault: “Well, if you all would sell more, we’d get more hours.” (The store was doing about 1000 transactions a day, and bringing in about $50,000/wk. and I hadn’t had a pay raise in two years.) Or being told – not asked – that I was in charge of organizing all my store’s volunteer activities (outside work) and not get paid for it. I called it free PR for a $2 billion company. Or how ‘bout when all labor was cut 5%, co-workers were wondering how to make rent (literally), and only to be thanked by Howard Schultz buying his very own NBA basketball team and getting a $1.2 million bonus? Yes. All those are really great memories of a drone. But why did I never walk? Because. I was disposable, of course. It wouldn’t have mattered. They would’ve just replaced me with two 19-year-olds that afternoon… like every American corporation would do.
Now fast-forward to about four weeks ago. We’re finally in our new school building. It looked great, except two problems: all of our teaching materials were still in boxes all over the place and no AC. I’m no meteorologist, but I noticed it’s hotter closer to the equator than it is in Oregon. AC is necessary in Makassar.
So all the teachers got together and went to the school owner. We said, “We have no materials yet and it’s too hot.” He said, “But kids are already arriving. I can’t just send them home. Their parents paid for a certain amount of classes. How will we make up the lessons?” We told him they weren’t going to learn anything today regardless; we’re going home. Now, we did make a couple well-played moves that made it sound like it was his idea, but we were not going to be treated poorly. He’d have no business were it not for us.
Sarah and I went swimming that afternoon. I saw one of my students there at the pool.
I felt for the first time since I worked for the Huntington Herald-Press that I was needed and not just a cog in a vast machine. There was a certain obligation to make me happy and not a sense of “You’re lucky you got a job and work for us. And oh yeah. Before you clock out could you also…”
I don’t regret coffee or retail. (Peet’s was an especially good experience.) It gave me time to work on my writing in a way working in journalism would not have allowed. And living in Portland… Well, I got to work with great authors (Whitney Otto, Charles D’Ambrosio, Kevin Sampsell), go to Tin House magazine workshops and meet and work with other great writers (D.A Powell, Susan Bell, Aimee Bender). Things I could never do in Indiana or working for newspapers. Those years were a turning point, but at times very difficult because I felt of no worth really.
But now I have some real pride in what I do. I don’t know of anyone who thinks being a teacher is unethical or below me. And for that I really do feel lucky to have the job I have. Thank you, English First Makassar!
Monday, November 12, 2007
This weekend I ventured out to get highlights in my hair -- it has now resumed a non-monochromatic state. And, although the back of my head resembles a leopard, I like having my hair lightened a bit… I may try red the next time around….
A couple of weeks ago, our Director of Studies informed Peter and I that we have finished our probationary period and are “actual teachers” now. This has led me to realize that Thanksgiving is only about 10 days away even though I still feel as though it’s August.
As the only U.S. citizens at our school, I believe that it is up to Peter and I to host a Thanksgiving extravaganza. We have figured out the guest list and have realized that we may be having the largest Thanksgiving gathering that we’ve ever had. This should be quite an adventure given our living situation and our almost non-existent kitchen… let me explain…
Our apartment in comprised of one very large room -- furnished with a bed, 2 chairs, a wardrobe, a vanity and a TV., a much smaller room that we’ve converted into a “kitchen” of sorts – there is no running water or sink or anything, and a bathroom. Our “kitchen” has a gas stovetop, a toaster oven and a refrigerator.
We cook many of our daily meals here, but we have not yet tried our hand at hospitality…. I have managed to figure out how to make chocolate chip cookies and scones using our toaster oven, Peter makes a fabulous potato dish moving from the stovetop to the toaster oven and this weekend, we mastered the art of a nacho dish.
Our plan is to make our traditional Thanksgiving dish – cheese ravioli and a wild mushroom sauce and allow others to bring meat dishes and other additions to the meal. We‘ll cover our bed with a large tablecloth and transform it into the food smorgasbord and see how many chairs we can round up within our apartment building. We figure if we open the door to the balcony and let people wander into our Australian neighbor’s apartment, it may not feel too crowded. Even if it does, no one really cares – it’s the food and company that really count.
And, really, if I wax poetic for just a moment, isn’t that what it’s really about anyway? We’re a long way from home and if there is anything I miss, it’s my family and friends and the people who make my life the rich experience that it is. And, even as I meet new people and make new friends, I realize that there is nothing that can compare to those I’ve left behind.
So, thank you for being such loyal and supportive friends. We miss you and wish you the best as Thanksgiving approaches.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
As you may have noticed, the spirit houses in Toraja are some of the most unique homes in the world. You can check them out at our photo blog, if you haven’t already (rothtravelphotos.blogspot.com). Our guide in Toraja, Doud (pronounced as “down,” only with a d at the end instead of an n), who has been studying under an old community wise man, explained their strange shape to us.
Long ago the people who are now called Torajans (which means “people of the mountains”) came from south China in boats, of course. Upon arriving at the “land of ore” or Sulawesi, they took Sa’adan River until it became too shallow. At this point, they hung boats from trees and lived in them. When they began to settle and build houses, they kept the shape of the bow and stern. This shape resembles the head and horns of a water buffalo, their symbol of hard work and wealth.
The house, which always points north and south, is split into three areas that resemble life here on earth. The lower, where the stilts are, was where animals were kept – chickens, buffalo, pigs. (Understanding sanitary conditions better today, they have separate pens away from the house for livestock now.) The middle is where the meals are prepared and the people sleep. The upper is where the family heirlooms are kept. Windows play a role too. The windows on the east are to -----. The western windows are where funeral garments and funeral paraphernalia are passed. They are not taken down the stairs, only through the window, because the west represents death.
In the south end of the home the dead relative is kept, facing south, where spirits go after they die. They are kept in this area of the home anywhere from a few days to a month before being taken to the final burial site. They are referred to as “sick” during this time. Meals are served and household activities carry on as usual. To keep the body from, well, stinking up the place a family may choose from a couple of different options. They could simply use formaldehyde or they could hire a shaman.
Doud told us that when his aunt died, his mother hired a shaman. The shaman touched his tongue to the tongue of his “sick” aunt, and then washed the body. After he was finished washing the body, he filled a section of bamboo with some of the water used and hid it in the jungle. After that she did not smell, Doud said. He watched this all as it happened and could not explain it.
Sarah and I were able to go inside a spirit house that was about 200 years old. A little old-timer lived inside, and he just sat on the floor and smoked while Doud explained the house functions to us. The Torajans are proud of their culture and they do not mind people coming to ask questions and have a look around.
Sarah and I really felt this when we went to a public gravesite within a system of natural caves. At first you feel a bit apprehensive, like a gawker, like maybe you’re desecrating a sacred site. But after a while you realize that these people love and respect their dead. They want and like to visit them. And they like others to see their old family members and give them cigarettes (there were piles of unsmoked cigarettes next to skulls) and listen to stories about their own Romeo and Juliet and so on. They do not view the bule as disrespectful.
Sarah and I agreed that we had never seen an actual human skull in all our lives. In two days we saw hundreds and had our pictures taken with them… at the prompting of our guide.
Some of the kindest people we’ve met in Indonesia live here. But the reality is that this is a culture that is slowly fading away. Soon the roads will improve and maybe flights will be offered to Toraja in a couple of years. Funeral processions will only be performed and demonstrated someday. The worry is it will all become contrived and commercial. Maybe no one will really live in spirit houses soon. Ugly square homes with corrugated rusted roofs will soon be there instead and spirit houses will be museum pieces. And that’s too bad. I wish more people could see a culture that views death without as much fear and sadness as the West does. I thought it was all an honest attempt to understand life and find meaning in death… even though I didn’t agree with it all.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
So the Indonesian experience has been pretty crazy this far. I’ve told many of you that I’m learning a truer meaning of the word “foreign” here. Sarah and I have had to make several adjustments, inventories, re-evaluations, reassessments, and revisions in our almost three months here. And I’m sure there are more to come.
Well, all of these new things were turned upside down during a short trip up to Tana Toraja the other week. It’s taken a while to let it all settle before we wrote anything down. I’m no expert, of course, but I’ll try and give some observations.
We chose to go up to this remote area that’s about a nine-hour gorgeous bus ride north of Makassar to see some true Indonesian culture. This area is difficult to get to and remains very rural and cut off from many Western influences. There are no chains there – Western or Asian – even the ever-present KFC is not to be seen. The closest thing I saw to the corporate world was a pirated Starbucks t-shirt in a little shop near our hotel.
One thing Toraja is known for is its many little coffee plantations. Some of the best beans in the world are grown here on giant 100-year-old trees that families cultivate and process themselves. I learned about Toraja during my time with Peet’s Coffee and Tea. The harvest happened in July and August, so I didn’t get to see any of this first hand.
But what Toraja is best known for are their huge, elaborate funerals and unique houses. Death is an ever-present reality here. It’s not eerie or creepy. It’s just there. We hired a guide and attended part of a funeral. There were hundreds paying their respects to one man. Guests brought hundreds of pigs and a couple dozen water buffalo as condolences. We saw several groups paraded in with their pigs, and then the family names were read (they were either repaying from a past funeral or giving with the expectation that the favor will be returned). The guests were given coffee and cigarettes, and then after a short time they left to butcher the pigs. The meat was then distributed among all the other guests. They cook some right there over open fires and take some home in bags. It was like a big block party – only with a bunch of tied up, squealing pigs around knowing their end was near.
The ancient ancestral belief is that these animal spirits will accompany the man to the afterlife, but my detached view saw this as a way of distributing wealth. Some things I’d read called the Torajans’ old religion (who converted to Christianity in the early 20th century but have kept some of their old beliefs – like every culture has to some degree) as “ancestor worship.” I don’t think this is accurate. From what I understood and saw, Torajans do not worship the dead in the way I understand worship.
They keep the dead – or “sick” – person in their home for a while. (Their houses are something we’ll write about later.) Then they offer things to help them in the afterlife, but they do not pray to them. It’s just a posthumous ritual, which every culture needs to do to mourn a loss. In the West, we do similar things “in the memory” of someone who died – donations, plaques, flowers, expensive gravestones. These all seem strangely related to me. Both cultures do things in hopes that the person is well where their spirit has gone. But ultimately there is nothing we can do, so we comfort each other.
I told our guide, I’d be a meat eater if I got my meat this way.
* Sarah has set up a blog site with pictures of our time in Indonesia. You can check them out at rothtravelphotos.blogspot.com
Well. My iPod got ripped off the other day. Anyway…
For those of you white guys back in the States who are feeling a little low, feeling a little down about yourself, come on out to Indonesia. You’ll feel like one of the most beautiful people in the world. Like you should be hanging with Clooney and Pitt.
As of now, I’ve been told I’m very handsome in front of a whole class, in a grocery store, on the street. I’ve even had kisses blown to me. Of course, I know the truth. I’m one of a very few different looking men in a city where everyone is either of Chinese descent or are purely Indonesian. Sarah and I stick out, in other words. I take it all with a grain of salt, of course, But still it feels good. So I just say thank you. It’s kind of like how we Americans love to listen to someone with an English or French accent, I think.
The other week I went to get my haircut. This is not something Whitey should do in Indonesia if you want to keep a low profile. First, they don’t know what to do with my hair. As you may know, Asian hair is very thick and very course. Also, very black. The first time I got my haircut, it was so over-conditioned, it was like a puff ball on my head.
This last time, the woman was kind of nervous to cut it. Very apprehensive. She asked if this was my natural hair color, and was surprised when I said yes. “You don’t lighten it?” she said. About 45 minutes later, when she finally finished, she told me that everyone at the place thought I could be a hair model for America. Then she asked if I had to cut my arm hairs. That last part kind of brought me back to reality. I’m a strange sight.
Indonesians also think my name is funny. They all say, “Oh, Peter Pan. Yes?” I thought I understood. But after watching the Indonesian VH1 Top 20 countdown, I found out that Peter Pan is a pop band here. They’re kind of cool too, in a poppy, rockin’ sort of way.
Still it’s sometimes fun to be such a fascinating object to so many people. Most of the time it’s just tiring though. A group of little boys asking my name and wanting high fives and reciting all the English swear words they know gets old sometimes. But other times I stop and think it’s kind of fun to be a minor celebrity. This is probably my only chance.
More weird stuff…
Sarah has a boy named Fakih (pronounced Fah-kee) in one of her classes and even Indonesian kids make fun of his name
Our school has been “preparing” to move for about three months now – as of this week I no longer have an air conditioner in my classroom
Sarah actually hit a guy with her bag who was persistently following too close behind a few weeks ago
I found a way to work The Smiths into a lesson
“Lost” Season 3 is not as disappointing as everyone said it was
Sarah accidentally brought home some porn on our portable flash drive from the internet café… oh, wait. Yeah. That’s not such a strange thing at any country’s internet café…
We got to see one of Indonesian Idol’s stars perform at a mall – there were hundreds of people there to see him
I haven’t eaten at Pizza Hut this much since I was in high school
We got to see Indonesian recording star Atlas getting mobbed at another mall
Some quotes from the menu at Black Canyon Coffee, where the “…coffee is as black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, and sweet as love!”:
“Provocative shower of taste…”
“Share with your sweetheart or with your favorite group of yuppies…”
“Taste it and try it.”
So. Ramadan. It’s still going strong. The fireworks that go off every night and pick up again around 3:30-4:00 a.m. still run like clockwork. It’s traditional to wake up everyone before sunrise so they can eat. Well, we’re up too – usually just staring at the ceiling.
But some of the strangest attributes of this holiday are all the traveling karaoke parties. It’s the weirdest thing: people put a sound system – sometimes a whole band – in the back of a truck and drive around Makassar and sing the night away. And now, this late into Ramadan, there are actually more of these blaring machines than the first couple of weeks. Supposedly they are raising money for new mosques and orphans, but giving money to these people would be like giving money to a televangelist, I think.
That aside, the stamina of the average Indonesian really is amazing. The holiday’s energy has picked up rather tapered.
Many of you folks back home have voiced some shock/dismay/concern over young children taking part in the sunrise to sunset fasting. Worry not. The vast majority of children do not feel forced to do this. They are maybe a bit more subdued during the day, but they’re not cranky or disagreeable – jonesin’ for their next cookie break or Happy Meal. They smile and joke like always, though they stay seated for longer periods of time. Thank Allah. It’s hard to tell if they just aren’t strung out on refined sugar or lacking energy. (Probably both.) I reward some classes with pieces of candy for doing homework or winning a game or whatever, and the Muslim kids – even the squirrelly ones – simply say, no thank you if I absent-mindedly offer them candy. And they don’t mind if others eat in front of them. It’s just something you do. Strong kids.
There is a positive energy – though subtle – present during this time of year. It might have something to do with how a huge segment of the population stays up late, sometimes very late, and celebrates together. The daytime is reserved for prayer and reading The Koran, and the evening is spent having fun with friends and family. And remember, even Muslims that drink don’t drink any alcohol during the month. (Most of them anyway.) So this isn’t drunken carousing one might associate with New Year’s or July Fourth in the States. Don’t be mistaken, Indonesia is not lacking in the carousing department (there’s plenty), but those types would be cavorting in any country or culture.
To be blunt, sometimes I get angry at all the noise coming from the streets. Being awakened by fireworks in the wee hours is not a nice thing, as you can guess. Saturday night, a party just parked out on the street under our window. Bad pop music, karaoke, fireworks and shouting from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. (sunrise). Good thing I brought a Bugs Bunny DVD with us. We didn’t get much sleep, but we got to see that one about “Duck Season! Wabbit season!” and Daffy gets shot a bunch of times. I love that one.
Now, consider this. There’s a hotel across the street and a small community of homes next door to us. No locals complained. There was no angry church lady, no old man in a bathrobe, no bow-tied hotel management telling the kids to shut up. I get the idea that this is just what Ramadan is. Most everyone else was probably up anyway.
It was easy to get angry, of course. Who do they think they are? There’s a good 20 percent of Indonesia who is not Muslim. That’s millions of people! But the more I thought about this, the more I got a pang of jealousy. Why have I never been a part of such prolonged and strong celebration? The closest we in the States come to this is New Year’s. And be honest now, how many of those have been a let down? For me, I can count all my really great New Year’s celebrations on one hand.
I did some volunteer training in Portland with a woman who was from Romania. She flew her mother out for the holiday season one year, and her mother was appalled at our New Year’s Eve. “I’ve never seen such a thing in all my life,” her mother said. Two in the morning was when they started to eat in Romania. Everything closed down for a week, and they danced and ate the whole time, she said. Hm. And I considered myself lucky if I didn’t have to work on Jan. 1.
Why does it seem the whole world knows how to celebrate except the U.S.? Why do we always have to get up early to go work? Or clean the house? Or go to basketball practice? And the people who do celebrate all night are often looked down upon.
Sure Indonesia isn’t a world power and doesn’t have an economy as strong as America’s. They also have a lower rate of alcoholism and don’t kill nearly as many people with guns either. Of course, they have a hopelessly corrupt government and doctors who don’t know how to read X-rays…
Am crazy to hope for a balance between these two extremes?
Friday, October 5, 2007
Although I knew that I would have familiar toilet facilities in my new home, I took precautions during the trip – I carried toilet paper in my bag, I made use of any “western” toilet I saw and hoped for the best. When I arrived at my new home, I wandered through the front room noting the sparcity of furnishings and the strange completed puzzles that doubled as wall-hangings. The bedroom I was to share with Peter held a small wardrobe, an even smaller desk and a twin-sized bed. I hadn’t slept in a twin-sized bed since I graduated from college – much less had I shared one with another person. I peaked into me new bathroom and the true horror set in. I discovered a squatting toilet, a square fixture and 2 tubs of water.
The promised western-style toilet was on the 2nd-floor, which was occupied by our new “housemate” – another teacher. As I attempted to digest this living situation, I realized that my period – which was already over a week late due to the stress of moving and the long airplane trip – arrived. Lovely. Well, my new roommate was at work until later that day, so I opted to use the familiar facilities as long as I could.
As western-style toilets go, I took 2 things for granted. First, I believed that you could sit in relative comfort and second I trusted in some sort of “flushing” mechanism. I will say, for the record, that there are usually seats if a western toilet is provided. However, flushing is often a luxury. After using the familiar toilet, I spent some considerable time looking for a flushing mechanism. There was none. I asked Peter to take a look and he didn’t have any ideas either. The plumbing was perplexing…
I opted to resist using the facilities until I found out more information – this would require a very straight-forward conversation with one of the other female teachers. Fortunately, we were meeting our new coworkers for a drink that first evening. After a couple of bladder-agonizing hours, I worked up the courage to ask this teacher how to utilize the toilet I had been given. More specifically, I wondered aloud how to deal with tampons and other feminine issues. She was helpful – although it didn’t make me feel a lot better.
That evening, I asked her where I could use the bathroom (it had been a long time…). She directed me to a nearby hotel where there were western facilities. I wandered along and headed directly into the closest restroom – it had a urinal, but everything seemed so odd that I just went ahead and used the provided toilet. As I walked out, I received the strangest looks – I had been in the men’s room.
Needless-to-say, we only stayed 10 days at the provided accommodations before finding a lovely studio-style apartment with a shower and a flushing, western toilet. I hadn’t realized how good a shower felt until I had spent a week and a half ladling water over myself and washing as best I could.
Two months have gone by and I no longer avoid the squatting toilets – they are often cleaner than the others. But I still carry toilet paper with me wherever I go. I haven't figured out how to avoid getting mostly undressed in order to not to splash my clothes, but even if it takes me awhile, I can still get the job done with fairly little mess. Ah, the things I took for granted as a woman in the states....
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Sarah and I brought probably 15 or so books along with us to Makassar. You might remember that I listed some of them earlier on this blog. We heard books in English were difficult to find in Indonesia, and we couldn’t be without good reading while we were away. One in particular that I brought along is a little book by the great American poet Robert Pinsky. I’ll pick up this book once or twice a week and read a couple of poems.
I just re-read Pinsky’s “The Want Bone” not too long ago, a short poem from the book of the same name. It has stuck with me for several days now. In the first stanza, he writes, “The dried mouthbones of a shark in the hot swale/Gaped on nothing but sand on either side.” It’s a great little piece about desire and longing written in such a beautiful and simple way. It’s a poem I read a bit differently in Makassar than in Portland.
This last time I read it was one of those moments when I really understood the power of language. When what was communicated was greater than what was just in the words. And being so far from a Western culture I know and understand (for the most part), it’s times like these that keep me grounded and oriented in my life.
There are times when the richness of life actually can be carried with words – taking language beyond just dictionary definitions. Though I’m obviously not Robert Pinsky, I feel something of what he felt during the time he was writing this poem. It’s humbling sometimes to be in the midst of language pure as this. It’s got little to do with the author himself, because he did not invent the language or the feelings. These exist to some degree whether he or I are alive or not. He was able to tap into his existence in an honest and powerful and profound way.
Earlier this week, I was teaching a group of more advanced students – late teens, early twenties – about comparative adjectives and adverbs. (That’s just jargon for words like better, easier, more beautifully.) We did an exercise in which I wrote random nouns on a small piece of paper – like pencil, police officer, David Beckem. I (somewhat) randomly picked two nouns and then wrote an adjective/adverb on the board – like easy, fun, interesting. Then the students had to write a sentence correctly using both nouns and the comparative adjective/adverb. For instance, if I drew pencil and computer from the stack, and wrote easy on the board, they might write: “A pencil is easier to use than a computer.”
It’s a good exercise because it takes foreign language students beyond fill-in-the-blank types of stuff and forces them to create sentences. At the same time they begin to find humor and think in English.
We worked on this for a while with varying results of effectiveness. Then toward the end, one young woman named Nia wrote, “The color of a bird is more beautiful than a taxi sign lamp.” This is a very good use of English for someone at her level, and I was instantly taken by how simple and profound it was. It went beyond just correct grammar and usage. It was a good sentence.
Crazy as this might sound, after she read her sentence I felt the same thing I did when reading the Pinsky poem. Nia’s little sentence had power of its own and communicated something pure, something greater than just words on paper. I felt something she also felt.
It’s refreshing to have this memory. After two months of living in a new culture all the romance is gone. I now get angry with the gawkers, the scammers, and the plain old ill-mannered lazy creeps that seem to make up so much of Indonesia. But now in the middle of all these bad feelings, I have a supernatural moment of sorts. Something common that goes far beyond any culture.
The Creation story for Muslims and Christians and Jews is the same. God spoke. It’s interesting to think that language, like God, did not need to be created in this story. They both simply always were. Language is part of us too. No one is without it – whether it’s English, Indonesian, or non-verbal. Something so many traditions give as an attribute of God is also an attribute of ours. There’s a bit of the supernatural in language that is in all of us, a bit of God’s – Allah’s – character. Coming from a Christian upbringing and now being in the most populous Muslim nation in the world, it’s nice to know we have this in common. This incredible attribute.
Monday, October 1, 2007
So far, being a woman in Indonesia feels a little like going back to middle school where you thought you had friends only to discover they were backbiting, malicious and trying to get the boy you thought was cute.
Women in Indonesia are often ignored as children with the understanding that they will grow up to become gossips and submissive housewives and mothers. They will marry a man who can have more then one wife and who will probably cheat on both of these wives with at least one mistress if not more.
One of the best outcomes for an Indonesian woman would be to marry a rich buli (white) man and get delivered from life as they know it. As a woman married to a rich, white man (Peter may not seem rich by U.S. standards, but here he’s very wealthy.), I have a strange status among the women of this country. Many women stop and tell him how handsome he is – on the side of the street, in the grocery store, at school, etc. They flirt with him right in front of me. It’s an interesting territorial feeling to know women are determined to meet my husband and see where they can go with him.
In my aerobics class, I am often pushed to the front of the class where they can watch the strange, tall, white woman with hips as she tries to follow an instructor she can’t understand. When I miss a step, they laugh and say things I can’t figure out. Aerobics is different here – the instructors show you the steps once and then expect you to keep going while they stand on the side of the room and watch. I don’t think Judy (of Jazzercise fame) would approve of the laziness of these instructors.
When I am not with Peter, I get a lot of strange comments as a solitary, white woman. For some reason, white women are thought to be prostitutes – I’m not sure where they got the impression that all white women do this for a living. In fact, the only other white women I know seem to be lesbians… Last Friday, I had 5 men on motorcycles pass me, make a u-turn and come back to wait for me. They watched as I passed and waited to see if I would say anything to them.
At least 3 times a week, I’m followed through the streets as I walk home from work. Earlier this week, I yelled at a man who had followed me for some distance and wouldn’t leave. This evening, two fat men on a motorcycle rode along beside me for more than 2 blocks. These men say many things I can’t understand, and I am thankful for the language barrier that keeps me in the dark as to the comments they are actually making.
Friday, September 28, 2007
- 405: I’ve been interviewed twice by teen boys on the street since arriving – it’s for school or something
- 406: No Burger King
- 407: No Starbucks (yet)
- 408: It’s still harder to get vegetarian food in Chicago than in Makassar – and let me tell you, it can be a challenge here
- 409: Being told you have a “long nose” by an Indonesian is a high compliment
- 410: We live about a block away from one of the homes of Indonesia’s vice-president – sometimes they block the street to traffic when he’s in town, but soldiers with automatic weapons and grenade launchers still say, “Hello, mister! Hello, missus!” to Sarah and me and let us walk by
- 411: People here will answer yes to everything, even if they don’t know what you’re talking about (I had to sort through a giant plate of meat and noodles because of this and then deal with the guy trying to overcharge us Rp. 10,000…)
- 412: Sarah was yelled at for eating a cracker outside during the day – it’s Ramadan, remember
- 413: I’ve been listening to a lot of ABBA lately
- 414: We’ve lost about Rp. 675,000 (about 67 USD) – half of the average Indonesian’s monthly income – through scams, pick-pocketing, or just falling out our pockets (that last one was my fault, actually)
- 415: One night, we walked into Nu Bliss and The World’s Most Extreme Vidoes was on the big screen TV and Christian praise music was playing
- 416: Indonesians wear coats to keep cool – they don’t really sweat and the long sleeves keep the sun off their skin when they ride their motor bikes
- 417: I haven’t gotten diarrhea yet, even though I brush my teeth with the tap water and eat local food that is definitely not up to Multnomah County’s health code standards
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
It has taken Sarah and I about six weeks to get the whole cell phone thing sorted out. We got one phone that was pick-pocketed at a mall by a group of Muslim women wearing those traditional head dressings. (Who knows if they were really religious or if this was just a guise.) They squeezed in on us on the escalator and got their hands in Sarah’s purse. That phone lasted, literally, about two hours. A week and a half later, we got a new one and purchased 50,000 units. (There are no “plans” here, just buy minutes as you go.) Those particular units were all taken up in sorting out plane tickets. Special note: If you call within Asia, Cathay Airlines does not have anyone who speaks English to help you – you might need to find someone who speaks Indonesian to help you out… as Sarah had to do. A little later we found a place to buy more units. They jacked up the price, acted like they couldn’t speak English and then (probably purposely) gave us the wrong type of units for our phone. We were out Rp. 58,000 (not even $6 USD) because of this.
When we related these anecdotes and our fellow teachers and expats, they said, “Welcome to Indonesia,” each time. After the units fiasco, they said, “That’s just the way it’s done here. It happens to everyone. You have to make sure they put the units in your phone while you stand there. Don’t do it yourself.” Um. OK. That would’ve been good to know beforehand… but thanks.
Sarah once told one of our crustier co-workers who’s never bothered to get his missing front tooth fixed, “Well, we just don’t have the experience you have yet.” He responded, “Well, maybe you should get it.”
That statement kind of still blows my mind. Not because it is a completely new level of insensitivity unknown to me until recently, but because it has all the non-sense, bassackward hooey of a Bush administration press conference answer. What does that mean exactly? And how does one answer to that? “Uh. Well, I am. I guess. So… exactly why are talking down to me again? Because I haven’t been cheated by a cell phone dealer before?” Yeah. Not much you can say really.
Added to all this, is the problem of the gossipy nature of expats. You must be very careful what you reveal to them, because it will be all over the teacher’s room the next day. Really. So far Sarah and I have kept clean… we think. But we have heard some pretty venomous words about others. Lots of expats get bored and just drink and talk. Thank God for good books, DVDs and blog writing.
That kind of sums up the expat “camaraderie.” Like all humans, some are more helpful than others of course. A few have been very helpful and selfless, in fact – our Aussie neighbor and co-worker Bill and our landlady Silvia and her boyfriend and fellow teacher Steve the Scotsman. I have to say most of them, however, have the answers when you don’t really need them anymore. A day late and a dollar short, as Dad used to say.
Sure. It gets frustrating. But each time this happens, I learn a bit more about human nature and how to get along with people. And that’s what this experience is all about, I suppose.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Sunset is a pretty wild and festive scene. Lots of people eating and saying, “Buka puasa!” which loosely translated is “Break the fast!”
The beginning of the fifth week – the end of the month-long fast – is a lot like Thanksgiving in the States. Everyone is traveling back home to see family. Sarah and I get the week off from work then. No classes.
Many places like Nu Bliss become juice bars. They could pay bribes and serve alcohol, but then they’d have to deal with fundamentalists and after the amount they’d have to pay in bribes they would not make a profit.
The kids are little easier to teach, though you wonder if anything is sinking in. The Christian and Buddhist kids are just as crazy as ever though. New booths have opened in the mall and are selling traditional Muslims clothes and books by Koran scholars. That’s about the extent of Ramadan marketing. If I had to make a Western comparison with what little knowledge I have, I’d say it’s kind of like a month-long Thanksgiving, only with more emphasis on spiritual practice and discipline and less on gluttony. But family and friends are equally important.
Sarah’s and my lives are largely unaffected. Though Ramadan’s presence is everywhere, it is not the same as it would be in most Middle Eastern countries. We just need to be sensitive about eating in public – no coffee to go, etc. As I write this, an imam at a close-by mosque is speaking. At night sometimes a child will recite The Koran. It seems like a decent holiday to me.
Monday, September 17, 2007
The earthquake was just off the western coast of Sumatra -- this is an island about 800-1000 miles west of Sulawesi, where we are living. No one here felt the quake or even really heard about it. We are just fine and learning more and more about how to ask for meals without meat and how to obtain minutes for our cell phone, but that's another story for another time...
Now, if someone started pounding on your door at 4 a.m. shouting Api! Api! Fire! Fire! Quickly! This way! you would get up and run for your clothes. We know because that’s what happened last week.
Our neighbor Ricky woke Sarah and I up doing this and would not stop repeating the above until we had left, locked our door, and were following him and his cigarette lighter torching a path through the haze. An old fridge at Nu Bliss, the bar we live two floors above, shorted out and caught fire. No one was hurt and other than the fridge being destroyed there was only smoke damage. And here’s something else the Indonesians got right: buildings are made of concrete. Who knows what would’ve happened with plywood and drywall.
The fire department never showed – who knows why not. Instead the whole building helped put out the fire – even passersby. Only a cell phone came up missing during the whole event. Not ours. Ours was pick-pocketed in a mall two weeks earlier.
And of course during all this strangers still said to me, “Hey! Mister!” and shook my hand as I stood outside half asleep with the call to prayer going out all around me. I didn’t even do anything. Just watched the front door for looters. (There were none.) Then we all went back to bed.
Nu Bliss was open for business the next day.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Weird things in Makassar:
No one ever calls this city Ujung Pandang – we were told it was used as much as Makassar.
I have a kid named Frisky in one of my classes
In the same class I have two twins named Verrol and Verrel and a third kid name Farrell, and I can barely tell any of them apart.
I heard the song “Honestly” by that band Stryper just the other day on the radio – and it sounded positively terrible
That same day I heard a Spanish flamenco-esque version of “My Way” on the radio
One class had never even heard of Johnny Cash
I had one girl tell me I was very handsome in front of the whole class
Going to “the health spa” is a euphemism for sex with a prostitute
Going to “the karaoke bar” is a euphemism for sex with a prostitute
Going to “get a massage” can be a euphemism for sex with a prostitute
Many of the people using said euphemisms pray five times a day – what’s the problem?
Our school has to pay bribes to keep electricity flowing – which still goes out an average of seven times in an afternoon of teaching
Every business pays bribes
The call to prayer is strangely comforting
During an exercise where we were planning a fictitious talent show, I had one group of 12-year-old boys plan five acts involving female impersonators – comedy, dancing, a rock ‘n’ roll band, magic and drama
Someone had a karaoke party the other day… outside… and it started at 10:00 a.m.
Our first gecko died in our apartment this morning. Well, he was almost dead. Sarah had to sweep him outside. But he might’ve met his end before he got there. He was a cute little guy. About 1½ inches long, nose to tail, is all.
We first noticed him two nights ago when we had to get up and investigate the scratching noises outside our window. We think it was one of the minions of mangy cats that roam the street here and not (I know what you’re thinking) a rat. A few thumps with a broom and that was taken care of. Anyway, when we started to get back into bed at 4 a.m. we saw our little gecko buddy just watching from the wall above Sarah’s nightstand. By the way, whoever said our cats, if we brought them, might be someone’s dinner – y’all are way off. The Indonesians cannot bring themselves to kill cats here. They won’t even interfere with their procreation. There’s no way to spay or neuter dogs or cats. Bob Barker would be outraged. J.Spike and Mixy Mae are staying home for altogether different reasons. More on that later.
Geckos here are harmless. The biggest I’ve seen so far was on the street and he or she was about four inches long. They look a lot like salamanders or newts, only green and sometimes red. They’re afraid of us bule – and the Indonesians too, I guess. We were warned to shake our shoes before putting them on because these little guys might be inside. They’re actually quite cute – big excited eyes, little fingers, and awfully confused.
Our little friend must have been very confused this morning. He was on the floor right beside the bed, not moving. Sarah was going to sweep him to the balcony, when he started to move. She tried to get him outside to a better life, but then he kind of stopped moving before he got out.
So what’s to be done? Sarah went to the gym. I made a cup of coffee and put on some Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins. Those guys know some good stories about death too. Oh little gecko guy, tell St. Peter that life was good with air conditioning and people who talked nice to you.
A partial list of things we needed to bring with us (excluding essentials):
365 Organic brand unsweetened, creamy peanut butter (two jars)
1 lb. Peet’s coffee
Peet’s Coffee mug and gold swiss filter
Casablanca on DVD
The Simpson’s on DVD
Bugs Bunny on DVD
Lost in Translation on DVD
Our Love to Admire, Interpol’s new album
The Legend of Johnny Cash
Al Green’s Greatest Hits
New Moon, Elliott Smith
Oh, Inverted World, The Shins
A flask of Maker’s Mark bourbon (for special occasions)
Clown Girl by Monica Drake
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Autographed copy of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
The Road by Cormack McCarthy
Chrome brand sling bag
Two Moleskine journals
A copy of Tin House magazine
This is where I’m supposed to talk about how wonderfully simple the Indonesian culture is. How their value on family is superior to American attitudes. How the discussion of religion (and they got them all here, folks) is open and not taboo. How rich their community is. How America has so much to learn and has lost a strong set of values.
I’m not going to do that.
One’s culture is what it is. There’s good and there’s bad in them all. We might prefer our own though. Indonesia has widespread corruption. The U.S. does too, but it’s just kind of forged to fit within certain laws and codes. There are parts of Sulawesi that are very dangerous. There are parts of Fort Wayne, Indiana, I wouldn’t walk in the daytime.
I, the bule (boo-lay) visitor, am also supposed to write about how much work there is to do in Indonesia. How there is a need to provide sustainable jobs. How they need to incorporate more efficient and environmentally responsible economic growth projects. How the culture of lying is so damaging to the country. I’m not going to do that either. The people here are just trying to live, just like people in the States are. They are friendly and curious, just like people in the U.S. They simply want to have a nice life, definitely like the people in the U.S. Their feelings toward the West are very complex: jealousy, respect, mockery, attraction, superiority. I guess, my feeling should be at least equal to theirs.
The flight into the archipelago that is Indonesia is amazing: Islands rising through the clouds on the horizon, blue-blue water picked with dark green islands outlined by aqua marine bands, rice paddies, mountains.
When you step off the plane and into a cab, things change very quickly. A taxi ride through Makassar’s concrete interior is a wild ride through a virtual state of traffic anarchy. It is of utmost importance to be in front of the vehicle in front of you apparently, and risking the lives of your fares and all the worldly possessions they have is part of the deal. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous buzz of motorbikes is a constant criss-cross everywhere. We didn’t see any wrecks or wipe-outs (so far), so I suppose that’s good and a bit surprising. I couldn’t help but think the KATU Channel 2 News helicopter’s pilot would hardly have a chance to land for gas here. I wondered how motorbike drivers and their families of two or three survive. (I’ve only seen one amputee, by the way.)
That said, we found out it was going to be cheaper to ride a motorbike to work. We hired ojeks (oh-jekz) – motorcycle taxis -- and they weaved, honked and shouted Sarah’s and my way to school. Sarah have even considered actually renting a motorbike to get around. It is by far the most efficient way to travel. Strangely, enough coming from the land of one person per vehicle values, a motorbike is very often occupied by two or more people. They bring their infants along on those things. Bill, an Aussie we teach with, said we’d be fine if we drive like people are maniacs out to kill us and not like we’re in the States.
I guess that means we won’t get shot at, at least.
Selamat datang. Welcome to Sarah’s and my record of making a new life in Indonesia. This site will hopefully give you some idea of what it’s like to live in Indonesia, start a new career and getting the hang of a new culture. It’s this place that we will write down anecdotes, adventures, faux pas, descriptions and have some pictures – all that kind of stuff. And feel free to leave messages about how crazy you think we are.
We have just completed our first week here. We first touched down in Jakarta, on the island of Java, on Aug. 13th. Jakarta is a noisy, sprawling, dingy, hazy metropolis. We to our hotel at about 3 p.m., then showered, crashed for a while and finally going to a mall to keep ourselves stimulated and awake. (This is where I confess we ate at Pizza Hut for our first Indonesian meal. Hey. You would’ve done the same thing. Don’t give me that.) After going to bed at about 8p.m., we got up at 4 a.m. for a two-hour flight Makassar (also called Ujung Pandang) on the island of Sulawesi.
Our first day was all about getting a tour of the school, meeting the other teachers, unpacking, forcing our eyelids to stay open, getting laughed at for being vegetarians and finally staying out until 1 a.m. talking and having a few beers with the staff at a bar on the pantai (pan-tie) – the beach front area. Nice people.
I hardly know what day it is still.