Friday, September 28, 2007

September 28, 2007

Some other weird things in Makassar:
  • 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

September 26, 2007

Expats are a strange lot. I guess I pictured a bunch of people like in Casablanca or Indiana Jones movies hanging out and discussing life adventures and the intricacies of the culture. You know, inviting each other to dinner and drinking fine port and stuff. Not so. An expat in Indonesia is generally one with a whole bunch of survival experience, drinks a lot of sensibly priced alcohol, and is minimally helpful – usually in very different ways than you might be used to. They will tell you what you need to do, but often leave out the much-needed details of how to accomplish said task. Or they are simply just late in getting the details to you.

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

September 19, 2007

Happy Holidays! It’s Ramadan. No food, drink (including water), smoking or sex from sunrise to sunset. Restaurants have shades or curtains drawn over windows and the kids’ breath is awful… for four weeks. The morning call to prayer at about 4:00-4:30 is a bit longer while people make lots of racket – fireworks and banging pots and pans – as they eat before sunrise. You can’t buy alcohol except at a few international establishments (grocery stores and hotels) and kids are late to the 6:10 p.m. classes as they are breaking fast. Nu Bliss is all but closed. Lots of the regulars there are eating with family and have given up alcohol altogether for the month. (Some Muslims do drink.) People are also supposed to pray and read The Koran more. Some of the teachers I work with are not allowed to take smoke breaks out front during this time. I think that’s tacky anytime of year though. Smoking in front of a school is poor form – I’m sorry.

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

September 16, 2007

Just a quick earthquake update... Peter and I were in Singapore last week to obtain our work VISAs. We were told there were feelable tremors there, but we didn't experience them. In fact, we were at the zoo when the earthquake hit.

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...

September 10, 2007

Here’s a big difference between the States and Indonesia: no fire alarms. This might seem disconcerting and “underdeveloped” at first. But think about it a little differently. When you’re at work or at school or hanging in your apartment or wherever and hear fire alarm, what do you do? You stop what you’re doing and look at the people closest to you, wait a few seconds, maybe wander outside, and then continue with what you were doing… shouting over the racket or maybe trying to go back to sleep. Once a few years ago during a bomb scare in an office building Starbucks where I worked, we just kept making big sweet drinks for the impatient public – couldn’t be bothered to wait outside.

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

September 4, 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.

August 29, 2007

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.

August 25, 2007

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

  • Two iPods

  • Jewelry box

  • Chrome brand sling bag

  • Two Moleskine journals

  • A copy of Tin House magazine

  • Trail mix

  • Wedding photo

August 24, 2007

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.

August 19, 2007

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.

August 17, 2007

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.