Friday, November 30, 2007

November 30, 2007

Well, Thanksgiving came and went. Sarah and I celebrated on Saturday the 24th, instead of Thursday the 22nd of course. We had to work on Thursday. I guess the Indonesians don’t care if adjusting to life in the New World was difficult. Plus, they had a bit harder time shaking the Dutch than we did the British, I guess.

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

November 27, 2007

Sarah and I have been putting this one together for a while…

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:
Super Santa
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
[by Billy]

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

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

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

November 5, 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 ( 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.