Saturday, October 27, 2007

October 24, 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

October 22, 2007

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.

October 15, 2007

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.”

October 10, 2007

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

October 5, 2007

Upon hearing that my husband and I were moving to Southeast Asia, students with whom I had never had a conversation approached me with concern over the plumbing I would encounter. I assured them that I would be provided with a western-style toilet and could manage squatting when required. I laughingly suggested that that was the reason for the leg strengthening exercises we had been doing in class.

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

October 3, 2007

This one might sound pretentious, but I don’t care.

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

October 1, 2007

A few musings of a woman in a Muslim country in southeast Asia…

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.