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 cafĂ© 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.