Tuesday, July 8, 2008

July 8, 2008

Sarah and I got some words of wisdom from a former co-worker at EF Makassar. He sent a critique of this blog regarding entries from the past year or so. He took exception to some of them, claiming they were unfair. At first we bristled, of course. The words seemed harsh. But when we thought about his comments with a fresh state of mind, his words changed our outlook on the world forever.

He said Sarah and I were very judgmental people and our only friends were white people, and that we only hung out with rich people. He said we wasted our chance to see the world’s fourth largest country and experience it first-hand. We locked ourselves away in our apartment, hidden from true Indonesian culture. Sarah and I have talked about our co-worker’s direction over the past day or so. We have seen our faults and are asking forgiveness.

No. Not really.

This person, Dave, couldn’t keep my attention past the first few paragraphs of his six-page alcohol-fueled diatribe. Seriously. Maybe that’s why so many students dislike him. On top of incredible B.O. and calling students “idiots,” he’s a rambling bore. (You should’ve heard his painful play-by-play of each lesson in the teachers’ room. Every other word was “bloody” and then half the rest were only slurred, incomprehensible jibber-jabber.) It’s hard to think of him or Simon (our former “director”) as anything more than cartoon characters by this point.

Most of you know about Dave. Remember? The lovable old coot that orders whiskey by the case to support his almost bottle-a-day addiction. What Dave didn’t, and apparently still doesn’t, understand is that Sarah and I didn’t mind Indonesia for the most part – it was the white people that were so bad. (Don’t get me wrong. Makassar is a challenging place to live – there are even locals who wouldn’t disagree with this.) Seems Dave got confused again. He apparently thought this blog was a BBC report on the status of Indonesia and not just personal raw thoughts and frustrations for friends and family to read.

Anyway, enough of that. That’s not what I set out to write. (Once again Dave and Simon have derailed my concentration with their nonsense.) Here’s an entry we’ve been putting together for a while now. It’s about some of our favorite people and moments in Indonesia.

After Sarah was fired from EF Makassar, we went on a trip to Yogyakarta, Central Java. There we visited nearby Prambanan and Borobudur – two 9th century temples, the former Hindu and the latter Buddhist. At Prambanan, we were approached by a group of young English students who wanted to practice their conversation skills. Sarah and I obliged. They were such a delightful group we spent the whole day with them. They explained Hinduism (better than I’ve ever had it explained before, of course) and they drove us on their motorbikes to some out-of-the-way temples and graves. They expected nothing in return.

The crew at our favorite coffee shop, J.Co (an Indonesian chain that’s doing much better than Starbucks, it appears), was always a bright spot in our day… especially before having to go to EF. They were very hard working and always smiled and greeted us by name. They knew our orders and sometimes would bring our coffee out to us so we didn’t have to get out of our seats. This was one of the places Sarah and I, as well as our good friends Sandra and Ginger, kept each other sane and planned our lives beyond Makassar. J.Co made me a fresh press pot of Sumatra coffee everyday I showed up. It’s the best coffee I found on Sulawesi – with the exception of the coffee I had in Toraja.

Speaking of… Doud, our guide up in the remote area of Toraja, was one of our favorite people we met in Indonesia. Knowledgeable, humorous and humble, he filled our heads with so much new information we had to lie down after our daily tours. He helped us see rituals and death in a new way. He’s a truly remarkable man.

We had our favorite becak drivers along our walk to school too. (Becaks are those tricycle taxis.) They shook our hands and greeted us each day. “Hello, chickadee!” was their favorite salutation. They also taught us a bit of the local Makassar dialect and loved to hear us repeat it. They laughed and laughed. Sometimes we gave them J.Co doughnuts. They loved that too.

During a visit in Jakarta on our way to Poland, we had the pleasure of meeting John McGlynn who is one of the founders of Lontar Press. Lontar is a non-profit whose mission it is to translate Indonesian authors into English. Without Lontar I would not have been introduced to a genuine and complex perspective of Indonesia. We spent an afternoon with John and talked about various authors, translation, art and future plans. His home was decorated with beautiful art of mostly Javanese contemporary painters and sculptors. People like John make the world a better place. All he contributed to me – the day we spent together, his friend Karin he introduced us to in Makassar, our email exchanges, and his work – helped me begin to understand Indonesian culture.

There are many students we miss as well. One of them – who I never actually had as a student but was one of Sarah’s – is named Onsi. I met with Onsi a couple of times to help with an essay he wanted to enter into a contest. Here is a nice email he sent to us almost two months after we had left EF. We actually received it while in Poland.

“hallo Peter, do you still remember me? i am onsi, former of sarah's student at EF in Makassar. i just know that you and Sarah have got out from EF. i really dispointed because i think you are a good teacher. may i know what is problem ? do you have any plan to comeback to Indonesia. if you want to come here, don't forget to contact me, brother. you can send me information by email. thank you.”

And another we received while in Hong Kong…
“peter, thank you very much for your email. i really happy to received your information. ok, if you have any time, do not forget to travel to indonesia and tell me please. Give some greetings for sarah and there are some greetings from students of EF and also Mr, Rod. maybe one time i might go to usa. good luck for you.”

Mr. Rod. Although many of our colleagues were drunk and unprofessional, Rod was one of the good ones. He began his contract one month after we did and suffered from similar maltreatment by coworkers. We spent a memorable day in immigration hearing his stories of life in Africa. His positive perspective and boundless energy provided us with much needed support. After our fateful departure, Rod was the one who collected our left belongings and offered to provide reference information if needed. We feel fortunate to have met him while living in Makassar.

And, although this blog is already quite long, I can’t help but pause to mention the non-EF expats who were our lifelines -- Sandra and Ellen, Ginger and Ernest. These individuals helped us maintain some semblance of normalcy when everything else was crazy. We have wonderful memories of shared meals and stories.

Though we had our rough times adjusting to an infinitely different culture and had to deal with easily the lowest, most unethical employers and co-workers we’ve ever had, Sarah and I do not regret for one moment our time in Makassar. It was incredible. Sure, hindsight’s 20/20. There are things we’d do differently. There are some things I wished we had done, but did not. That’s always true. But for it being our first time living overseas, I think we did pretty well considering we had little direction and support from expats who had lived there longer. And no one can convince me that we did not experience Indonesia as much as we should have, or that we lived just like we did in America. That almost makes me laugh out loud it’s so ridiculous. We are different and better and stronger people for this past year.

Well, I must be off now. I think I’ll start on a new bottle of liquor, wake up addled and impaired, and then dole out condescending advice to people who shower more than I do and who I never took the time to get to know. Cheers!

See you all soon.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

June 14, 2008

We have finally left Indonesia and are now in Poland. Wow -- what a difference!

Our photo collection at RothTravelPhotos.blogspot.com has been updated. (We finally found a good internet connection.) You can see our pictures of central Java, Kuala Lumpur and other random Sulawesi sites.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

June 3, 2008

Well, we’re in our last week of living in Makassar. This chapter in our lives is coming to a close finally.

Hello. Peter here. It’s been a while. I realize I haven’t contributed to this blog for quite sometime now. But that’s only because, honestly, I’ve gotten really tired of analyzing how I feel in Indonesia.

My feelings are a mixed bag. A really mixed bag, which will take a long time to sort out. Yes, in many ways it’s been a rough year, and this country has left me beat up and bloody more than once. Because of this, I feel like I can hear some of you out there giving warning to another person interested in teaching English as a foreign language. “I don’t know,” I hear you say. “Jim and Lois Roth have a boy who did that, and he had nothing but trouble. It was a terrible experience.”

And though we’ve dealt with more than our share of shady characters and liars and impossible situations, it’s been one of the best educations I could get. But first, here’s my own word of warning: If you want to be an EFL teacher and want to find a place to work that will be like Starbucks or office work in the States, then don’t do it. A fair employer who treats you like he/she is afraid of a lawsuit doesn’t exist in this line of work. Sometimes it felt like every time I left our apartment I had to fight and fight for the simplest things. We had to buy our own colored pencils and scissors for class. And I never had a reliable CD player at school.

I came here to see how the majority of the world lives, and the truth is it’s much rougher than what most of us are used to in America. Sarah and I had to learn to be truly flexible. We had to learn to find shelter and safe places. These are not seen as rights in a 10-year-old democracy. As an American I was used to our system of rights and liberties. And I really do believe in human and civil rights – they’re for everyone. But the test in Indonesia was this: Do I still believe in them when they’re not granted to me?

Searching for the answer is far from simple. I mean, I know what the answer should be. Yes, of course I do. I can say yes, but what do I really do when it comes down to it? What would you do if you had no running water for two days? I’ll tell you honestly, I lost it. And there was no one within earshot who was to blame.

Indonesia, like everything, is extremely complex. And that’s what I’ve come away with during this time. I feel America’s greatest fault is that we simplify things way too much. Too many pat answers. Bush is either a demented war monger who dances at people’s suffering, or he is a man dressed in white weeping before God on a cross each morning to understand the way of salvation. Whatever is what I say to each of those statements.

The American definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” do not exist over here. They’re kind of jokes outside the U.S., in fact. People are judged only by their leadership. Over here, I realize Bush to me is just a guy who’s not very bright who made a series of pretty poor decisions – though not every single one was bad, I must admit. And I’ve realized some people are like that. They just can’t take hold in life. Granted, Bush’s decisions affect a lot more people and his lack of insight doesn’t justify what he’s done or hasn’t done.

We as Americans – as humans – need to learn to be more sensitive and understanding. We need to be more sensitive to those who believe different than we do. I just read an interview with Salman Rushdie, and he said that believing in freedom of expression is only real if you grant it to someone you don’t agree with. That’s a challenge. It means nothing if we don’t acknowledge that the world is so complex that someone might not believe the same way or even want the same things we do.

The great Kurt Vonnegut said it best in his introduction to Slapstick. He tells what we need is “a little less love and a little more common decency.”

True, there are those people who are just plain ass-clowns, who want to say or do things just to test their “rights” and push our buttons. And if there’s no substance or conviction to their beliefs, then they ought to be slapped. But we need to listen first.

I’m not saying this in a bleeding heart/America sucks sort of way. I’ve come to love something very much about the USA. But I feel like it’s real now and not what a political party or news commentator has told me to think. It’s far deeper than Fox News flag waving pseudo-patriotism, but it’s not left-wing Michael Moore manipulative cynicism either. I feel like I disagree with both the “Right” and the “Left.” America has done a lot for the world. We’re an example of democracy and the benefits of capitalism. It’s hard to argue that things aren’t kind of nice in America. But we are not a beacon of freedom and altruism either. America wants more than her share. There’s no doubt about that.

Living in a place that is not as safe as growing up in the Indiana suburbs has been one of the best decisions of my life. True learning is a difficult and dark process. It’s hard work and full of unknowns. For everything I come to understand, there’s something new I don’t have an answer for. But to me that makes life worth living.

We need to have more conversations and fewer mini-trials to prove who’s right and wrong all the time. Whatever the subject. If we’d withhold judgment, we could possibly resolve a lot more of our differences. Why are we so concerned with proving the truth? If it’s truth, I wonder if it’s a little bigger than reason. I wonder if it shouldn’t just make itself apparent? No one owns truth. It’s not ours to use.

Living as an expat, you have to find what you have in common with those you come in contact with. You cannot focus on your differences. If you do you become isolated. Then you’re in trouble. And Sarah and I have found we have much more in common than not with the vast majority of people. (Minus the self-destructing alcoholic honkies we worked with.) That knowledge is a great thing to have received while in Indonesia.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

May 22, 2008

Shortly after our last blog entry, strange, fascinating and positive things began to happen within our Makassar experience. People came out of the woodwork to support and defend us. Friendly faces appeared all around – in coffee shops, grocery stores and our regular haunts. It is clear that removing ourselves from the negative expat culture we had been in for 9 months was one of the healthiest and most refreshing decisions we have made this year. (Yes, the decision was made for me, but Peter has no regrets that he walked out in protest. :) )

Late last week, I went to the gym for my daily workout. (I spend 5 mornings a week at a fitness center located in the basement of the only 5-star hotel in Makassar. It’s my sanity check.) Apparently they were in the process of auditioning for a new aerobics instructor. The hotel’s general manager, his wife, the fitness center manager and a couple of other regulars had appeared in the center and “aerobics-style” music had begun to play. I continued on the Stairmaster while watching what was sure to be an amusing class. One of the guys from the fitness center counter took his place at the front of the room and began to move – not really finding any beat to speak of but moving nonetheless. After 10 minutes, he looked around and stopped – he was stuck.

I jumped in… I just couldn’t help myself. After teaching the remainder of the class, I had acquired quite a crowd. The general manager and the fitness center manager were wondering why they hadn’t hired me earlier and other students were commenting on how much they enjoyed the class. These were some of the first positive comments I had heard in a while. As it is, I am now teaching aerobics classes 4 times a week while training a new instructor to take over in early June when I leave Makassar. (Due to visa constraints, I am being paid in food vouchers – the irony is terribly funny.)

Fitness is my first love – after teaching my first class, I came home happier than I had been in a long time. In the midst of such a strange place and in the middle of a stressful and difficult situation, the opportunity arose to do the thing I love most – teach others how to make healthy choices. It has been such fun. Each day, the fitness center guy teaches a little more and I teach a little less. It’s like a month-long fitness teaching bootcamp where your trainee doesn’t speak any English and hasn’t ever taken an aerobics class before much less has any idea of how to teach one.

Indeed, Makassar has been a weird place. Yet, when we leave in just a few short weeks, we will remember some very good times as well as the difficult and strange ones. There will always be the day I was threatened with deportation and invited to teach an Indonesian aerobics class -- May 8th will be remembered as one of the strangest days of my life.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

May 8, 2008

An adventure. This doesn’t even come close to describing our time in Makassar, Indonesia. There have been times when we’ve seen some beautiful beaches and sunsets and waterfalls. There have also been times when we’ve been exposed to the most astounding and unbelievable human interactions – both positive and negative. Our blogging intent has been to realistically portray our experience living in southeastern Indonesia. This week has been no exception.

This site has included stories of teacher walkouts and unreliable electricity. We’ve included stories of ceilings that have collapsed as well as inconsistent pay schedules. Our “colleagues” have been described and their characters painted in such a way as to give a glimpse of our daily work environment.

Over the last month, Peter and I have moved forward with plans to accept teaching positions in Poland and begin a masters of education program involving intensive weeks of study in Krakow.

These circumstances as well as the appalling teaching environment led us to decide to buyout of our contract at the end of May. The buyout was provided for within our contract. We gave our notice in late April and endured a week of the silent treatment.

Monday, I was fired. I was told I was the worst teacher that had ever taught at EF English First Makassar. Yes, apparently I was worse than the alcoholics and the teachers who arrived hungover or with alcohol on their breath. I was informed that by leaving and never coming back I was doing the school a favor. I left.

Peter ventured into the office of the Director of Studies, Simon Still, moments later and asked what had happened. He was told that the director didn’t like me and that I hadn’t said “hello” or “goodbye” to him during the course of the year. Apparently this is cause for dismissal. When Peter suggested the director take responsibility for the ongoing communication within the school as well as the daily work environment, Simon informed him that he did not want to take responsibility and wasn’t going to. When told he was the worst manager Peter had ever had, Simon replied, with a shrug, that’s fine with him… he was ok with that. Peter left.

Between the 2 of us, we carried a teaching load of 15 classes. The average teacher at the school had 5 classes. Yes, for being the worst teacher at the school, I was teaching twice as many classes as the head teacher – 8 to his 4. I performed evaluations and placement screenings and was considered the “young learners” expert. Not bad for being the worst teacher ever. Hmmm…

Now, as one can imagine, this is a bit of a strange and stunning experience. I am unsure if we are still in shock or if we just don’t care anymore. But we feel strangely at ease. As we wandered Makassar today walking from one favorite place to another we realized that it’s not Indonesia that has been difficult – it is EF English First Makassar.

Indonesia is full of strange and fascinating people with a complex and unique heritage. Their religious, geographic and political situations are unlike anything known in the west. These systems are difficult to comprehend. Yet, it was our western connections that made them unbearable. It was the people from the west who made our lives frustrating and difficult.

For the first time in over 8 months, I took a full breath and realized that it was not Indonesia that made me feel insecure and disrespected – it was EF English First Makassar and it’s Director of Studies, Simon J. Still, BA (as his business card desires you to note). Had he even a bit of respect for the teachers he hired, had he tried just a bit to facilitate the teacher transition into this environment, our experience would have been very different.

And so, we are looking forward to our remaining month in Indonesia with the expectation that we will come away from the experience with much more positive energy now that we have severed our ties with the western institution housing the distracting and negative individuals who have tried to color our experience with their insecurities and disillusionments. We can begin to appreciate the true nature of the culture… We’ll let you know how it goes. ☺

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

April 23, 2008

Sometimes the way real life comes together is much more phenomenal and inspiring than anything that could be made up in a book or movie. And strangely enough, sometimes less believable.

A few years ago I read an article in The Atlantic Monthly about Winton Marsalis. It said in a time when jazz was about to roll over and die (the early ‘80s), up rose this young talent who revived and resuscitated the music. The son of a New Orleans jazz pianist, Marsalis played trumpet with Art Blakey – one of last of the old guard of musicians from the ‘50s and ‘60s heyday. And then young Marsalis just took off from there. It’s amazing to think about: a brilliant young African American born to a family of musicians, raised in the birthplace of jazz, played the signature instrument of the music’s formative years, and was taught by one of the most respected teachers of his day. The article’s author said that if this were a movie script, the producers would’ve handed it back to the writers. Try again. A little too perfect.

But, of course, it’s a true story.

Most all of you know I grew up in Indiana. And when I was 27 I moved to Portland, Oregon, after spending a rough year and half riding a steep learning curve at a newspaper. In Portland I learned a new trade and much more about life in general. Blah, blah, blah.

Ten years later… I ended up moving to Indonesia to start a new career in teaching. Those of you keeping up know it has been pretty crazy year of trying to figure out which side is up for us. Just when we were getting a feel for Indonesia (kind of), Sarah and I have already done the job search for next year. And Radom, Poland will be the next home for this couple beginning in September. We will be teaching English there and pursuing a masters in education through a commuter program. The prospect of Europe is more exciting than we can put in a blog entry.

So. I’ve thought about this.

Starting points for me: Indiana and Indonesia. Next stops: Portland and Poland. Hm. It’s also interesting to note the countries’ flags. Both are half red and half white. Indonesia has the red stripe on top, Poland has white on top. (On a strange almost unrelated note, I’ve been listening to a lot of The White Stripes lately, a duo whose gimmick is to dress in red and white.) This all is cheesy in the Shakespearian or Greek theatrical coincidences. If this were a story, I’d never write anything so transparently “poetic.”

Now please don’t think I’m making a comparison between Mr. Marsalis and me. That’s not my intention at all. I’m saying it’s just funny how life can sometimes come together so neatly.

The characters I work with here in Makassar could not be found in any (good) book or movie either. Their racism, chauvinism, alcoholism, and psychological projections are just too obvious – too straight out of Psych 101 textbooks and AA literature. But as I know all too well, they’re waiting for me at work today. They’re real. And I’ll have to listen to them order Ballentine’s whiskey by the case (sometimes two at a time), listen to why things were better for Africa in the old colonial days, listen to patriotic recollections of the Faukland Islands conflict, and joke about how their Indonesian girlfriends will have to be quarantined with their pet Dalmation upon returning to Europe.

Yeah. It’s been a rough ride. But I can’t wait to find out what’s next.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

April 13, 2008

After working in the coffee business for 11 years, I now have the unique and somewhat surreal opportunity to teach a unit whose theme is coffee to a class of advanced students on the island of Sulawesi. It’s pretty weird.

In case you don’t drink coffee, Indonesia and Sulawesi in particular produce some of the best coffee in the world. Years ago, I discovered that Sulawesi and Sumatra were my favorite coffee origins. And there’s really not much that can beat Arabian Mocha Java (the world’s first coffee blend) brewed as a shot of espresso. Now, these things aren’t why we chose to work in Makassar, Sulawesi. It was just coincidence that the teaching positions presented themselves to a guy who used to sell coffee from here and his wife.

Anyway, the curriculum of this English unit revolves around using contrasting and comparing terms, discussing supply and demand, and charts and graphs vocabulary for analyzing trends.

I asked my class of seven students who had been up north where most coffee is grown on Sulawesi. Two had. I asked who had seen a coffee tree and unpicked coffee berries. “Tree?” they asked. “Yeah,” I said. “Coffee grows on little trees. The beans start as little red berries.” I thought about one of these trees in a café I had worked in – right next to the merchandise. Then I described how coffee was picked, processed and roasted. They had no idea. It was new to them. Five of the seven drank coffee (the other two preferred tea), and of those who drank it, drank instant coffee. Instant coffee: I usually refer to this as an abomination in the eyes of God. Unbelievable. It’s the Mountain Dew of the coffee world. Only one had ever been to a Starbucks. (This fact seemed so quaint to someone from the Pacific Northwest.)

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Since coming here I‘ve learned that all the superior coffee is exported. All of Sulawesi’s best resources are shipped away. Not long ago, I got a pound of Sulawesi beans from my nephew who works for Starbucks in the mail. This irony was even more profound when I tasted it, and it was better than the beans I actually bought up north in Toraja – coffee growing country. This would be like getting better corn on the cob from Germany instead of Indiana or better apples from China instead of the State of Washington. It’s difficult for an American to grasp.

I did a little research for the class. I not only wanted to give them an English lesson, I wanted to present them with information about an industry so important to their country. As many of you know, the coffee industry is a nasty, nasty business. While over the past few years coffee production has increased 1-1½%, the demand has increased by 2%. And as farmers try to meet the demand, they’re producing inferior quality, and about 8% of all beans go unused. Producing countries exporting profits have dropped by billions of dollars in just a few years as well while their buyers try to increase company profits. (Admittedly, I got some of this from the Internet, so give me some slack on these figures.) I introduced the idea of the Fair Trade consortium and of those smaller roasters (as opposed to the gargantuan buyers: Nestle, Sara Lee, Proctor & Gamble, and Kraft) who pay enough for farmers to live. Some had at least heard of Fair Trade, but they didn’t really understand it.

This was a moment I could certainly tell that I was working within a young democracy. This information had never really been presented to these students before. It makes me appreciate my rights of freedom of press and speech all the more. Indonesia observes these rights now but only since 1997, and this concept takes a while to reach an archipelago that’s also the fourth most populous nation in the world. Information is so important to the prosperity of a country. This seems so obvious, but now I have seen why first-hand.

Such a strange full-circle of events.

Monday, March 24, 2008

March 25, 2008

Sometimes living in a foreign country is all about doing things and associating with people you never thought you would. Perhaps this is what happens when you state so many things with fervor and conviction…

Many will recall that I staunchly claimed that I did not run. Running was for occasions when buildings were on fire or someone with a knife was chasing you out of a convenience store. Yet, I find that my daily 40-minute runs in Makassar keep me sane. I also was staunch in my belief that you should avoid whole milk lattes in favor of the non-fat ones and that donuts should be equated with cigarettes when it came to their negative health aspects. Yet, in Makassar, my daily cappuccino is worth every sip – even though people here have never heard of nonfat milk. (Not to mention that the cappaccino comes with a free glazed donut – I mange to stay away from them during the work week, but come Saturday, I am all about my donut.)
These little sanity checks aren’t just relegated to my eating and exercise habits – they relate as well to my female relationships. In Portland, there were the easties and the westies – those who lived on the east side of the Willamette and those who lived on the west side. You could further divide the city into its four quadrants – NE, SE, SW and NW. Peter and I were decidedly northwest – we lived in a lovely, little neighborhood just blocks from coffee shops, pizza restaurants and some of the hottest bars in town. People came to the west side to dress up and shop, eat and drink along the hip people of the city. Or, at least to be around those who thought they were the hip people of Portland.

There were those who lived on the east side – they tended to be a little earthier – maybe they had their own mulching area in the backyard, maybe they grew their own organic vegetables, perhaps they recycled everything one could think of while listening to reggae and the Grateful Dead. They related to the world in a different way. They marched in peace rallies, stood up for the Tibetan people and believed in taking care of animals as much as they believed in taking care of those who didn’t have a voice.

Somehow, the two sides were at odds with one another. That’s not to say that we didn’t all live peaceably with one another. There were places we all loved – Peet’s Coffee & Tea, McMenamins, etc., but we were in different worlds.

In Makassar, the east and west sides of the Willamette don’t matter.

In October, Peter and I were invited to a bar b que. A new bule would be there – she was from Portland and vegetarian so surely we must know one another… right? Of course not – she was from the east side. We sat for hours talking about Portland and the paths we had taken which led to Makassar, Indonesia. She worked in homeless shelters in Portland, her partner was still living there, and Peter’s Peets was her favorite coffee shop. Over the remainder of the fall, our paths crossed every now and then, and we continued to figure out what it meant to be so differently connected.

Since January, Sandra has become an invaluable asset to my quest to remain sane. She and Peter and I have begun meeting for dinner once a week designating our group the “Makassar Support Group”. She enjoys working out, she loves cats, she doesn’t eat meat, and most importantly she wants to be healthy – to figure out where her path will eventually lead – to never be settled when you could strive to develop more fully into the person you’re supposed to be. What we have in common outweighs our differences – at least here in Makassar.

Sandra is also as different from me as one can imagine. She dresses in earth-y, hippy styles, she has permed her hair, she collects kittens and takes them in to provide a home for them. She has a degree as an anthropologist and hopes to move to Ethiopia to work with women’s health issues there. Our ideas of good music and good shopping are as different from each other as one can get. Yet, she is valuable to me.

Sandra provides me with feedback that allows me to feel connected to my true self. She listens and relates to me as only one can who has been thrust into this strange land. She understands what it’s like to have people touch you every time you wander to the grocery store. She knows how exhausting it is to feel vulnerable among the creepy men in the city. She understands that it’s not because I’m weak that I stay inside my home on the weekends, but rather it’s a coping strategy and allows for my batteries to be charged for another week. This is someone I cannot put a price tag on.

Someone once coined the phrase that “No matter where you are, it’s you’re friends who make the place”. That person must have spent time in a land far from home. It’s only when you are alone and the people around you are strange that you can truly recognize the necessity of friendship.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 28, 2008

With all our talk of negative personalities at work, profiles of reptiles, fashion critiques of the expats, one might think this blog has become less of an overview about adjusting to life in Indonesia and more a record of two people’s descent into madness.

While that might be true, there are actually some very nice aspects here in Makassar. There are people we come in contact with regularly who make us feel like we aren’t freaks on display for a whole city to point at. People who like us.

After working for years in the service industry I’m finally one those regulars the staff greet by name. Sarah and I have our “usual” drinks, and our baristas make them just the way we like them. I always wanted to be on this side of the relationship. Juanda (pronounced Joo-AHN-da) and Danda (DAHN-da) at J.CO Donuts and Coffee are great. Our first time there they gave me an Americano (espresso and hot water) instead of regular drip coffee. I wrote a comment that said I’d rather have regular coffee and got a reply via email the next day. Now they make a fresh press pot of Sumatra every day just for me. They add an extra shot of espresso to Sarah’s iced latte too.

This is a very nice daily luxury for two people who lived in the Pacific Northwest for ten or eleven years. I wrote to J.CO the other week and thanked them for their fine service. This was their reply:

Dear Mr/s JPeter,
Hi Mr/s JPeter, Thanks for your comment of our job.i have you get comfortable and enjoy on J.CO Mall Ratu Indah.
you are our best customer :>

No. Thank you.

There is a very bright class of fifteen-year-old students at English First. Sarah taught them a few months ago, and now I’m teaching them. (EF changes class teachers approximately every two to three months, the length of one term.) They’re pretty proficient and like to discuss such things as Soeharto’s recent death, sex before marriage, vegetarianism and also like telling jokes. They are a challenge to teach – that is, to keep the class challenging enough so they don’t get bored. So we’ve translated Indonesian poetry. We’ve also listened to Johnny Cash (they think he sounds kind of funny), the great crooner Johnny Hartman (kind of boring, they said) and the song “Cleveland Rocks” (they liked that one a lot). We’ve spent one class just talking at a coffee shop too.

They wrote their own poem for me. Only they wrote it about themselves in the persona of me, their teacher. (What follows is slightly edited by me to help it make a little more sense.)

My Students, My Diamonds

Peter, that’s my name
Paul, is my nickname
I’m a tooth that shines brightly
I’m smiling table
My students are my soul

I said to them,
If you are the stars
I’m the moon
If [I am] the stamp
[You] are the envelope.
Even if Sarah is [my] cupcake…
But [you] are the sugar…
That giving taste to your

I think this might be one of the most amazing things ever given to me. It helps on those nights I can’t hear myself think and want to duct-tape their mouths shut.

Makassar also gives us the guy who says, “Hello, chickadee!” every night we pass by. There’s also the security guard outside a big oil and business complex who always says hello a gives us the thumbs-up. Our own building’s security/fix-it men Jama (JAH-ma) and Rici (RICH-ee) are always kind with the little English they know. Rici gets us our water for us each week.

These people help us feel adjusted and like fellow humans. Not the circus. We wish we could bring them to the States for you to meet. But if we ever do, please don’t point.

Friday, February 22, 2008

February 22, 2008

I am trying to be more involved in the blog writing although Peter’s writing is much better, and more entertaining, than mine – he is a writer after all.

And so it goes… I enjoy the things that most western women enjoy – I love to shop, I enjoy getting my hair done, and I want to be pretty, clean and stylish. Many of you have observed that I like things a little out of the ordinary – my hair has been many different colors ranging from red to platinum to pink and purple, etc. My fashion sense is my own. I love these things – they are my creative outlet.

In preparing for Indonesia, I spent time trying to figure out how I could maintain my hair color in an unknown situation – battle plans were drawn up between my hair person, Lauren, and myself as to whether or not Peter could bleach my hair if she vowed to provide toner. Could I take the bleach and do it myself? Certainly someone in Indonesia could do the bleaching and I could tone it to platinum with Peter’s help. All of these ideas were considered. In the end, I figured it was better not to have color than to end up with strange roots in an unknown country…

I spent the first few months trying to figure out where exactly to get my hair cut. I spent even more time trying to figure out if there was anywhere that I could go shopping. As I stopped and looked around me, I realized that the only women shopping were Indonesians with distinctly different body types and style preferences. In general, their hips are small and their shoulders a bit broad. The clothes are designed to make their hips appear wider and their shoulders more narrow. Now, this does not work very well for me. My hips don’t need any help looking curvy and my shoulders are narrow unto themselves. Strange shorts that look like bloomers are all the rage. Peter and I both think they are hideous. To add to the style difficulty is the fact that none of the clothes are large enough for me. I used to think I was small, but here I am a giant. I went to buy some workout clothes and they offered me the extra large. It didn’t fit.

So, my ego takes a bit of a hit. In fact, on Friday the manager of the fitness center asked me why I had gained weight in this country – did I eat too much? Since I work out every morning, she suggested I should start eating less and then maybe I would look better. I wasn’t sure if I should burst into tears on the stairmaster or wait until I got home. I weighed myself as I was leaving and found that I had indeed gained two pounds since my arrival. Great, I’m on the slippery slope… Bear in mind that this woman really wasn't trying to be mean. Indonesian women see nothing mean or unsupportive in pointing out appearance issues with blatant honesty.

I have not given up my pursuit of pretty things. In Bali, I found some delightful designers and purchased a few new and beautiful items. In December, I found someone who could bleach my hair. (This was a bit of a disaster, but it was a necessary trial into the world of Indonesian hair color.) Last weekend, I turned to the color red and found that red is definitely something Indonesians can do. I have some relatively different pinkish-red locks and I love them. Peter likes them too. However, I do get even more strange looks. (I will note that my aerobics instructors really like the new hair color – exclaiming with great delight that it is “bagus” – Indonesian for good.)

These beauty struggles have not been helped by the female expat community. In part because there are really only about 5 bule (western/white) women in Makassar, but in part because they enjoy not having anything to do with being feminine or pretty. This morning, I ran into a woman who teaches English to a local hospital staff. Her hair is graying and she has at one time attempted to color it strawberry blonde – there are about 2 inches of gray roots showing around her crown. She appears to not be worried about this. While we were in Bali, I found some interesting, boxy shirts that had a small gecko embroidered on them. I wondered aloud that the gecko was cute, but who would buy such a shirt and actually wear it – upon returning to work, the other female teacher was sporting the very same shirt. Other women have given up on any sort of fashion or beauty pursuit and let their hair go – preferring a ponytail to ventures into the salon.

For my part, I must continue try and find pretty things. In the end, it is part of my path to relationships with the Indonesian women around me. The female expat community may not desire beauty, but the Indonesians do – in this, I can continue to try and find our commonalities rather than be struck by all our differences.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

February 19, 2008

We have encountered many characters during our time in Indonesia – many who I never could’ve imagined on my own. But by far one of my favorites has been Phil.

Phil, as many of you may have read earlier, is our gecko in residence here at home. Phil spends much of his time on our kitchen table under our toaster oven or our storage shelves. He’s a very nice animal, about four inches long, light green, and who has helped get our ant population under control.

Phil has made himself very comfortable over the past few months. Some mornings I will write at our table before work, and he’ll come out to look at me and check out any crumbs we have missed. He often comes within a foot or so of me but will never let me touch him. (Don’t go for the tail, it comes off.) He likes sugar, and we often catch him snooping around Ziplocks with cookies or scones in them.

He is such a regular presence here that I’ve gotten to know his personality. One morning last week, when I discovered a gecko moving around underneath our kitchen burners, I knew it was not Phil. This one did not poke his head out to say hello, and after a while when I did not leave the kitchen, he made a break for it past me down the table leg and to a safe corner. Definitely not Phil.

This past weekend, Sarah and I were watching a movie and she decided to make some snickerdoodles. (Everything in Indonesia is loaded with refined sugar, and lately, we have significantly reduced our sugar intake but indulge on the weekends still.) She let the cookies cool on a paper towel on the table while we finished our movie. You see where this is going, don’t you? Well, after the movie we went to the kitchen and there are not one, but two, cookies moved about 3 inches off the paper towel. And they both have clearly been nibbled on. I look and there is a very happy little lizard under our toaster oven. This was quite a feat. Each cookie is probably close to Phil’s own body weight.

Sarah hopes she hasn’t inadvertently cause the poor guy to OD.

In the States, all of the cookies would’ve gone into trash, of course. But after six months in Makassar… we only threw out the two that were moved. After walking past open sewers with raw sewage, after finally accepting that hardly anyone washes their hands after using the restroom, after walking past rats twitching in their death throes in the street, a reptile we know being near our cookies really isn’t that big of deal. Not anymore.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

February 14, 2008

So. I’m downstairs at the bar. (Nu Bliss has been recast as a sports bar.) I’m letting Sylvia, the building owner, know that we still don’t have any water, after not having any all day. Liverpool and Manchester City are playing on TV. Liverpool is like the Portland Trailblazers, they’re having a disappointing season with one of the best players in the league. I’m watching the game and making small talk with Steve the Scotsman and watching the game. Liverpool is down 1-0, and there is a play when they should’ve scored but missed a great opportunity. They zoom in on the guy who missed: dark skin, long black braids, with snow-white extensions interspersed – a true football star. I look at Steve the Scotsman and say something about how the guy shoulda had that one, hair must’ve gotten in his eyes. His only response was, “African.” He nods. “African,” he says again.

The only shocking thing about this is that Sarah and I hear this type of comment all the time here. I thought living the expat lifestyle would be full of tolerance and brotherly union across the race lines. Guess not. It seems bad experiences while traveling gives you ammo and “knowledge” to talk trash and make sweeping, generalized statements about others.

From what I’ve seen in the small expat community here in Makassar, America looks like one of the most tolerant nations in the world. I know of some Australians, Scots and English who have a long way to go. Sarah and I have been told why you should never trust a Pakistani, an Indian, why you should never sell property to Aboriginal Australians, how only Muslim countries are filthy and poor, that “African-American” is just too much to say – whatever happened to “darkie?”

This is all for real. I’m not making any of this up. People actually said these things.

I had an argument with a co-worker about how even though you’ve met a few people from Pakistan who had lied and stole from you, you still cannot make an all-inclusive statement like “They’re liars and cheats” when someone is talking about their cricket team.

I have actually heard the words, “That’s why I wish the old colonial days would come back,” and “These people cannot run their own country. Bring back the Dutch.”

It doesn’t stop there. A student’s poor class performance was first blamed on his (supposed) homosexuality. The lesbians of Makassar have been pointed out to me like rare tropical birds. And if you’re a single bule in Indonesia and not out playing the game in the clubs every weekend… well, you’re most probably gay. What other explanation could there be?

Seriously. I’m not exaggerating here, people. And then it continues with America bashing…

The guy who wished us a “Happy Chinky New Year” called American football “one of those horrible sports no one cares about.” Then I actually had to listen to a debate in the teachers room one day about whether the Moon Landing was real or not. (How was the flag blowing in the breeze on the moon? one asked.) And if it did in fact happen what was the point? To hit a golf ball, collect some rocks and say the U.S. beat the Russians there? Really. I listened to all this. And I really couldn’t tell how serious they were. When I was little, my Mom would’ve told me they were just jealous. I mean, when we think of European technology we think of nice luxury cars, the guillotine and the cuckoo clock. OK. Maybe they discovered penicillin or something over there. I’ll give them that.

Portland may be full of do-gooders and feel-good liberalism, but I’ll take a slice of that over having to hear about how anyone but a (straight and white) European would fail at anything they’d ever try. Of course, racism and bigotry still exist in the U.S. It took us years longer than most countries to ban slavery after all. But we have come such a long a way in such a short time. Is there any other government that has anything close to Brown v. the Board of Education and the wave of change that followed?

Does this mean I think America is the greatest country in the world? The simple answer is no. The longer answer is that every country and every culture has infinite possibilities of intricate, efficient, complex and rich systems of living. And America does too. We gave the world jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, baseball, the Monroe Doctrine, Moby-Dick, Star Wars, the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement, the cotton gin, and the light bulb. We’re not just a bunch of bullies and ill-informed morons. Don’t forget we have two former presidents who have won the Nobel Prize for Peace (Jimmy Carter and Teddy Roosevelt).

You’re welcome, world. Sorry if we get a little too excited sometimes – even, yes, arrogant. But America has given more opportunities to us than most countries could promise.

(I still want to travel all of Europe someday, by the way.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

February 5, 2007

I’m writing this as we get ready to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This is the third New Year’s Day we will get off in 2008. We’ve gotten Jan. 1st off, the Muslim New Year in early January, and now on Feb. 7th, the Chinese New Year. I got to say, it ain’t bad getting all these days off. America needs to give it try. Take a break every now and then.

Seriously, I’m not here to bash America. Just the opposite really. Watching the presidential primaries from the other side of the world has been refreshing. First of all, it’s not in my face all the time that Obama once wiped a booger under the dinner table or McCain used “a” instead of “the” when talking about the 1973 oil embargo over coffee with his wife and what it all means for the future of the U.S. So, that’s been nice. And second, the whole world is watching: Indonesians, the Scot, the English, the Aussies, even the Canadian (kind of – she didn’t know who McCain was). For all the America bashing we put up with, they sure are interested in who will lead our country, not to mention our economy.

While we were in Bali in December, I watched a lot of coverage of the Iowa Caucuses. The BBC and Al-Jazeera both praised the American democratic process. Reporters spent several minutes trying to convey the seriousness (some) Americans take the primary process and what it means. A reporter on the BBC confessed that she thought it was the most ridiculous process she’d ever heard of before she arrived, then she quickly was very impressed.

Soeharto died just last week. His authoritarian government fell the same time as a Southeast Asian economic crisis in 1997. Indonesia, because they were transitioning into a democracy, was hit especially hard and is still recovering. And they still work to build a believable democracy. There just was rioting in protest over a gubernatorial election recount last month. Sarah and I, by the way, are constantly impressed that in spite of all this recent history Indonesia is surviving and functioning.

Yes. The U.S. isn’t perfect. We can be arrogant. We make mistakes… sometimes huge mistakes. But I have a little more faith in our system now after learning about one that is struggling to work, as well as the amount of faith the rest of the world has in the very system we pick apart – the same system that hardly missed a beat when Nixon was busted. No rampant rioting, no coups then.

So maybe the U.S. democracy can continue to work.

Pay attention. Vote. Then throw the bums out next election if they lie.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

January 29, 2008

So, it’s time for another installment of life as a woman in Indonesia. It’s a strange place, but I’ve found that women all over the world fine ways to communicate that have nothing to do with a shared language. We smile and gesture and nod. We seem to just know by observing body language that another woman agrees, disagrees, or needs something. I find this reassuring in a country where I know only bits and pieces of the language.

Shortly after we arrived in Makassar, Peter and I joined a couple of teachers and their Indonesian girlfriends for dinner after work. I found myself chatting with the men as they all spoke English. The girlfriends and I attempted some conversation as they used their broken English. After a short while, our food came and we ate. I noted that one gal didn’t like her dish and the girlfriends were talking about it. One of the guys asked what was going on and I offered that Rani didn’t like her spaghetti and thought it was better at a different restaurant. They looked at me and asked if I spoke Indonesian or something. I said no, but women can communicate when they need to. The girls smiled and agreed.

I find this scenario comforting as I go to my aerobics classes and laugh with the instructor about the guys who have joined the class. When I shop and Peter does something a little silly and the cashier and I exchange glances. When I find that way to connect with my women students that allows them to know it’s safe in my classroom. It’s amazing to me the connection women have.

There are so many obstacles to being a woman – we are often considered lesser citizens around the world. We encounter a myriad of different struggles than men. One of these created one of my most interesting moments in Indonesia. After arriving, my period stopped for over four months. Week after week passed and I saw no evidence of this regular monthly event. Peter was pleased, but I was a bit confused and worried. Peter has had a vasectomy, so we wondered about the possibility of an immaculate conception – could it be possible I was pregnant? One day in October, we decided I should probably take a pregnancy test to make sure.

Pregnancy tests in Indonesia are a bit hard to find. There are very little birth control options and no tampons available in any of the supermarkets. Women’s reproductive health is not mentioned and yet every time we go to the grocery store we get behind someone buying maxi pads, salty snacks and Fanta. Hmmm…. Anyway, we wandered the department store we thought might have what we were looking for. No. As we were walking out, I saw a pharmacy type store and decided that may be where I could find something. Sure enough, after asking the clerk and involving no fewer than 4 people in finding this test, we found one and purchased it.

Now purchasing it was one thing – figuring out how to use it was another. This was not a stick you simply peed on. Of course not… I spent an hour in the bathroom with our Indonesian dictionary trying to figure out the directions. Apparently, I was supposed to somehow catch my pee and then somehow get 3 drops into a small opening on a stick sort of thing. It would turn a color if I was pregnant. Well, I used my creativity to find something to catch my pee and then used a toothpick to distribute the drop accordingly. After 3 minutes, it was clear that I was not pregnant and I heaved a sigh of relief. Being pregnant in Indonesia was not a pleasing idea.

Since then, my cycle has returned to some sense of normality, but the experience remains one of the strangest things I have had to do in this country. Being a woman is an adventure all on its own.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

January 22, 2008

The time has come (again) for me to give some candid opinions. That is to say, my optimism in Indonesia has run out (again).

It’s been a rough 2008 so far. Sarah and I returned from Bali on Jan. 4th and a wide array of excrement hit the proverbial fan… even if at times that fan wasn’t working properly. Before we were home for even a half hour, we found out we teachers had not been paid yet. And probably wouldn’t be paid until the following week. Another teacher walk-out was organized that Monday, but we still we did not get paid until Jan. 16th. The owner – who was hurt that we would do such a thing – offered no solution to prevent this from happening again. By the way, he would not meet with us before the walk-out, and when we went to talk with him before actually walking out he had gone to lunch. He also claimed he didn’t know we wanted to talk with him… yeah, about why we weren’t getting paid. Didn’t think that’d be an issue for us, I guess.


On Saturday the 5th, seven men claiming to be police officers demanding to see our “marriage papers” woke Sarah and me at about 1 a.m. They puffed cigarette smoke into our apartment and showed us some folded up piece of paper written in Indonesian. Sarah called the building owner while I told them to get the hell out and slammed the door. We figure maybe only one or two were actual police. Guys: At least, wear something besides shorts and flip-flops if you want to intimidate people into giving you a bribe. Deep under cover, I’m sure, to execute morality and justice.

The air conditioner in the teachers’ room has not worked since before Christmas break, and my classroom’s AC has not worked for two weeks. I was given a fan instead of a repairman. I was supposed to open my second-story window (no screen, of course) and run the fan while I taught my six-year-olds. This past week I tried talking to the owner three different times about this matter. He was never available. I talked to other administrators instead, and they only told me that the repairmen are coming. Or maybe the part has been ordered and hasn’t come yet. It was finally fixed on Friday. (My six-year-olds still wanted the window open anyway.) However, on Monday, it wasn’t working again – I remain without AC…

I’m hot and surly. I have almost no climate control at my workplace. Every time I meet with the school administration (if I can find any), I am met with either reasons and excuses or outright lies.

Throughout all this, I’m just told: Well, this is Indonesia.

I know. I realize I’m an American with a privileged upbringing. But after thinking about this and venting to Sarah (several times, such a patient woman), I’ve come to understand that my comfort and self-respect is not what’s at the heart of these matters. It’s not even about how I can’t understand why this culture doesn’t have our good old Judeo-Christian work ethic. My frustration is not because of these things at all. I think it’s simply this: uninspired people surround me.

I have met some nice people here. Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want is to make gross generalizations. And I didn’t come to Indonesia for things to run smoothly and to be oh-so-comfy like the U.S. But I seem to be constantly struck by apathy and lethargy at every turn. No one cares. No one is vulnerable. A sense of figure it out yourself, I can’t help you is everywhere. Don’t ask for help here… for anything.

We have been accused by a co-worker of not seeking out the culture of Indonesia. We were told we live in a “honky enclave,” and asked why we came halfway around the world to just live like we did in the U.S. (Yeah, good one!) This was said as though the only real culture is found in poor neighborhoods and shanty restaurants and old, divey bars.

However, one thing I truly have recently learned, and one thing I constantly keep in mind – and it’s the one bright spot of this entry – is that the real culture, the true life of Indonesia, is found in their writers.

While in Bali I bought five books by Indonesian authors. These translations were my first encounter with a sense of wonder and mystery at life here in Indonesia – that is, real inspiration. I finally found people with a sense of something bigger than us all, a sense of something that holds us all together, something we recognize in each other regardless of ethnicity. I consumed three and half books on vacation alone. Gus tf Sakai, Goenawan Mohamad, W.S. Rendra, Ketut Yuliarsi. New names to me – new inspirations. Not just new problems and challenges. I finally found a connection with the culture here. I stayed up late reading their pieces on doubt, anger, love, peace, and religion in Indonesia. And now I finally understand something of real worth about Indonesia.

All of my co-workers knew I wrote when we got here. My question is why did no one tell me about these authors? Why did no one lend me a copy of poetry or essays? Why were we only taken to dives where old, worn-out prostitutes sadly strut their sorry stuff around? It took a student to tell me about W.S. Rendra.

This is how culture dies. This is how misunderstandings occur. It’s not where you eat. It’s not about hanging out with locals all the time or not. It’s not even about avoiding the chain restaurants. (I love Black Canyon Coffee.) Culture is illuminated and kept alive by poets and writers and artists. The only thing worse than ignorance is not embracing or protecting them. But to be uninspired… that is the worst crime you can commit against any culture. Each night I still had Goenwan Mohamad when I got home, even though I didn’t have a paycheck, and that’s what made our problems bearable.

Friday, January 18, 2008

January 18, 2008

Sarah and I took our rented motorbike on another ride west of Lovina, and this time we ended up at --- hot springs. It was kind of dirty there, and warm water in a tropical climate isn’t something we were accustomed to. But we had already paid. Plus I had managed to make two vendors pretty angry by working them against each other while trying to get the best price for a sarong, so we couldn’t go back the way we came right away.

Hippies, apparently, really gather at hot springs. I guess it’s great place to rinse out the dreadlocks and that hippie funk that’s been accumulating on the body for the past few weeks in the back of the van. There were also a lot nice locals there with their families fortunately.

One guy I talked to had Slim Shady tattooed across his shoulders. Now in the States, this would have told me it was time to go, but seeing this on an Indonesian for some reason put me at ease. He was holding his, I’m guessing, year-old son (which he proved to me) in the water. He began to talk to me – where are you from, how long have you been in Bali, where are you staying, the usual stuff. Often Indonesians will want to practice their English on me, so I’m used to this. I obliged. But before long I found myself with more in common with this guy than I imagined.

He said he worked at a brewery. I asked if he worked for Bintang. (Bintang is the Budweiser of Indonesia and is truly one of the blandest beers I’ve ever tasted – about as bad, in fact, as Budweiser.) Oh no, he said; I work at Storm Brewery. This was a sense of pride for him, I could tell. He explained it was a small company there on Bali. I told him there were lots of those kinds of companies where I came from, and I introduced the term microbrewery to him.

We talked about pale ales, golden ales, stouts and amber ales. We both felt satisfied about our connection with someone so different. People who’ve spent a good amount of time tasting stuff tend to geek out about these sort of things – whether it’s about coffee or beer and to a certain extent wine. It’s something that can surpass language limitations. (Though wine is really a whole different level of geekdom and snobbery.)

Later that night Sarah and I found a small (expensive) specialty store and bakery owned by a German. He carried Storm and to Sarah’s and my elated surprise Kettle Chips – the very ones made in Salem, Oregon. That evening I felt the ghost of Portland for a few minutes. The sky was gray, and I was sipping on a microbrew, eating Kettle Chips.

You may not be the real Slim Shady, but you’re OK in my book.

January 16, 2008

Northern Bali is beautiful. Terraced rice paddies cut in the hills, palm tree jungles, rolling hills, water buffalo – all of what you think of when you picture Southeast Asia. It’s the first time Sarah or I had ever been to a picturesque “island paradise.” We traveled to Lovina, a gathering of a few fishing villages almost straight north of Kuta, along the Bali Sea. They’re hungry there for the tourists to return after the terrorist bombings in south Bali.

Many restaurants have very few guests sitting at tables. Shops are virtually empty. The people are nice, but if you visit there you need to be ready to just tell vendors “no” and keep walking. They can be very persistent, but who can blame them?

Telling the locals you’re from America but have lived in Makassar for four months goes a long way. It earns a little bit of trust of sorts. This was my only chance to learn about Balinese culture – the one Hindu enclave in all of Indonesia – outside of tourist-oriented dance shows and temple tours. Sarah was taking care of some business on the internet one morning, so I walked to the beach. I let the sales people approach, and I just sat there. Soon I had three ladies who could see I wasn’t going to buy anything but wanted to talk to me anyway.

This definitely was not a tourist-pandering town like Kuta. You travel to their turf. And they give you what they have, not just what you want. (Though Sarah and I were able to get Mexican food there too.)

My new friends told about the three temples close by: one for the water, one for the crops, one for the hills. Everyday they give a small offering to the gods of something they gather (flowers usually) and something they make (a piece of bread or cake maybe), then burn some incense in a little tray at any of countless shrines… or just on the sidewalk. Nyepi – their new year, later in January as I understand – is one of their most sacred days. They will not leave the house all day. They will not cook. They will not turn on any lights. And they will meditate about the past year and what the new one will bring. But some exceptions have been made for the Balinese who are in the tourist industry on this day.

No other vendors really bothered me any more in Lovina after talking with these three ladies – my “girlfriends,” as they called themselves. They all wanted me to tell Sarah about their handmade jewelry, sarongs and messages though. But our tourist rupiah only goes so far. We couldn’t help everyone.

A couple days after Christmas we went and visited Sing Sing waterfalls, about a twenty-minute motorbike ride west. Two guys took us up a back route. We waded through streams and shallow, rocky white water. I lost a flipflop once, but one guide was on it and got it for me. When we finally got to the top (a half-hour to forty-five minutes later), we could look out over rice fields to the sea and have a cup of coffee. (Conveniently, there’s a little café there.) I bought our guides two sodas, took some pictures, and after we took a much easier route down they of course wanted a “tip” for helping us. I gave them each 50,000 rupiah (about $5 US), an astronomical amount for what they did. (We had very nice meals for Rp. 150,000.) Sarah wasn’t sure about that, but I reasoned with her, C’mon, it’s Christmas. The two Hindus agreed with me. Yes, Christmas. Thank you, mister.

January 14, 2008

We’re back, intact and stronger than ever after two weeks of rest in beautiful Bali. Of course the trip was enlightening in many ways. No matter how much we try, we just can’t get away from that whole enlightenment thing here in Southeast Asia.

My brother Greg was told a couple of years ago while visiting Thailand that white people all look alike. And it’s true, you know. White people really do all look the same. That’s one thing I learned.

Well, maybe not all of us, but I see what all the talk is about. Listen. Sarah and I have been in Indonesia for close to five months. Most of that time has been in Makassar, Sulawesi. Makassar is a port city, a working town. There’s really not much of a tourism industry here, and therefore, not many westerners. So, other than our co-workers, white people are a rare site here. We get stared at a lot. Likewise, during this time we’ve slowly gotten accustomed to distinguishing the differences between some of the many ethnicities that make up Sulawesi.

Now Kuta, Bali is only about an hour’s flight southeast from Makassar. But the difference between the two cities is worlds apart. Australians, Europeans and Americans love Kuta and southern Bali. Honkies and surf shops are everywhere. Suddenly there were Starbucks, Polo, CK Casual, mini-marts, and Chi-Chi’s all around me. It was a bit of an adjustment. Jarring, kind of. Sometimes I felt like I was only in Florida. (We did, however, finally get some Mexican food there – the first time in more than four months.)

Our first morning in Bali while sipping my Starbucks coffee, I kept thinking I saw people I recognized. Then I’d look closer and realize, nah, I don’t know them after all. Then Sarah and I turned it into a game. Look, there’s so-and-so… or Hey, is that…? Man, we cracked ourselves up. Then it hit me: I haven’t seen such a concentrated gathering of white folk in long time. At first glace, we look basically the same.

It’s true. We Americans think we’re all so unique and different and free. But stop your flag waving just a minute and hear me out. We (like all ethnicities) all fall into a few categories of body-types and facial structures. And hairstyles… don’t even get me started. There really aren’t that many stylish and unique styles. It takes truly creative people to look different… if not a bit crazy.

Then there are the things we really think set us apart: piercings and tattoos. Oh boy. Looking from the outside in… those are some of the most generic of the “style” lot. You got the black extreme blade-flame on the dudes deltoids and biceps. You got the dragonfly or butterfly on the chicks stomachs or shoulders. You got the extreme eyebrow piercing, the extreme emo-rocker lip piercing, the extreme-chic modified beauty mark lip piercing. Not that these look bad all the time. Sometimes they’re done well. I’m just saying they’re not as unique and radical as we fool ourselves into believing.

Mixed in to this, there were your basic doofusses with their hats on backwards and wearing tank tops (or worse, no shirt at all), Harley wannabes, the jocks looking to beat up some freshman when they get back to the West, sluts trying to score a local surf instructor, the shopaholic, the gloomy bored teenager, the families always walking around eating ice cream, the shrewd businessman or woman in $400 sunglasses who can’t relax, the lonely divorcee looking for love, and the frumpy or fuddy-duddy dresser.

That’s pretty much the vast majority of white people who travel in the tropics. I’m sure someone thought they knew me from somewhere too. Hey, isn’t that the tortured artist barista I didn’t tip who was rude to me?

I got so confused. I was in a sea of clones. It was like a 21st century version of that Twilight Zone where people of the future chose which face and body they wanted and everyone looked the same. We realized, shopping bags in hand, it takes more that just buying stuff to make someone unique after all.

After two days, there was nothing left for us to do but travel north away from it all.