Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Honeymoon Phase

(For all those who don't care what's going on in my life, and only want clever little quips and stories, please skip this entry. I'm about to do an information overload, and, what's worse, it will be information unbound by a formal narrative. I can't promise I'll be clever; all I can guarantee is that it will be verbose.)

I arrived in Semarang from Jakarta two days ago on a tiny little Garuda Indonesia flight. The weight limit, according to my ticket, was 30 kilos for everything, meaning both of my suitcases and my carry-on. My suitcases were roughly 28 k each, and my carry-on was easily another 10. When I checked everything in, the guy at the desk said something about paying an overweight fee, at which point I smiled sweetly, crossed my fingers, and pulled out a letter from the government that the office gave me. Our program director told us to try using it to avoid the fees; she said it may or may not work, but would be worth a shot. I gave the man a slightly nervous spiel (in Indonesian) about how I'm in the country at the special request of the office of the president, and how therefore I'm exempt from such pedestrian requirements as overweight baggage fees. To my great surprise and pleasure, it worked. You'd better believe I'm holding on to that letter, and maybe even making some extra photocopies.

After being picked up at the airport by some of my school's incredibly nice teachers, we went out to eat, where I had my first experience trying to eat rice with my hands. It was messy but strangely satisfying; I worried mostly about an open sore on my thumb, which stung like nobody's business as I ate spicy dishes.

(When it comes to hygeine around here, it's often best to just close your eyes and think of the empire. Rest assured that I did wash my hands.)

Speaking of food, that's an issue here. If I come back next summer weighing twice as much, don't be surprised: everybody wants to feed me, and it's hard to constantly resist. I haven't paid for a single piece of food since I arrived, and at every turn I've been offered sweet syrupy drinks, strangely textured desserts, spring rolls, cap cay, spicy vegetables, sweet vegetables, cantaloupe drinks, fried noodles, fried chicken, spicy fish, sweet fish, salted fish, otak-otak, oranges, apples, mangoes, papaya, snake fruit, jackfruit, keropok, bread with chocolate, pastries, various other unidentified dishes, and, of course, white rice, brown rice, yellow rice, fried rice, and coconut rice. It's all--with the possible exception of cassava--completely and utterly delicious, so how can I refuse?

I'm less likely to even think about refusing other aspects of my school's hospitality. They were supposed to arrange housing for me--housing which I don't even have to pay for--and, I must say, they did a smashing job. They found a teacher at the school who had a spare room and, let me tell you, this woman is loaded. I'm living in a bedroom larger than most of my Provo living rooms, and it comes complete with a king bed and a twin spare, marble floors, an air-conditioning unit, a Western toilet and shower, and a giant wardrobe for storing many more possessions than I actually own. The rest of the house is equally stunning: it's spacious and light, with a charming little porch in front, and another in back which looks into a tropical garden. I intend to eat breakfast there in the morning, listening to the bird calls.

As for breakfast, I don't even have to prepare it myself. All my meals are prepared by one of this household's seven servants. (They may have others that I haven't seen; to be honest, I'm not quite sure.) There are at least three maids, constantly hanging around to do my laundry, tidy my books and papers, make my bed, and urge more meals on me. There are two drivers, one for each car, and finally there are at least two extra people, who perform basic services such as opening the gate.

(I'm sure after at least a week all these extraneous presences in the house will grate on me, in particular the fact that I can't come and go on my own without asking someone else to open the door for me, but for now it's still a thrill. Hence, the honeymoon phase.)

Plus, and this is where I really feel blessed, the house is quite near the center of town, which means I can walk to an internet cafe which provides broadband internet for 30 cents an hour, or, if my cravings for Western comforts overcome my reluctance to spend money, to a Dunkin' Donuts or McDonald's. What's more, I'm within walking distance of the Mormon church, so I don't have to worry about transportation on Sundays, even if I do feel a bit like an Orthodox Jew, eschewing all forms of work.

Being near the center of town is also an advantage on Sunday mornings, such as today, because Sunday morning is prime recreation time for this town. When this morning I arrived at church at 8 AM only to find that it actually began at 9, I wandered through the market, and stumbled upon such interesting gems as a street performance of traditional Javanese dance, a man selling fat crickets to be fried and eaten, horse-drawn carriages taking people around the traffic circle, and a pirated DVD stand selling, of all things, a copy of "The Legend of Johnny Lingo."

Semarang, or what I've seen of it so far, is a beautiful town. (I suspect that's probably not true, and instead I'm just wearing "Jakarta goggles," through which nearly every other city looks peaceful, quiet, and clean.) Everyone's dire warnings of the heat here were, as it turns out, perfectly true, and so I'm being careful to keep a water bottle with me at all times. (The maids think it's strange that all I want to drink is water. Mostly I'm trying to avoid being offered more strawberry syrup.) Semarang was a major capital in the Dutch era, and many old Dutch buildings, including a fabulous old church, are still standing. It's also a heavily Chinese city, and its Chinatown is, in addition to being full of good food, thriving. It also features a section of town up on a hill, which offers great views of the city stretching out over its bay. The school where I'll be teaching is a five minute walk from the sea, which sounds a lot more interesting than it actually is. There's no beach to speak of, and the water so close to the city looks, well, less than appealing. On the plus side, it's the Java Sea, which hasn't had any drastic tsunamis so far and, as far as I know, isn't likely to get them. Knock on wood.

(As my dad pointed out, though, the fact that the U.S. Government is worried enough about my security to buy me my own cell phone is not exactly heartening. It's not just tsunamis, of course, but also bird flu, earthquakes, and terrorism. Semarang is, according to a nice FBI agent I talked to a few weeks ago, a "real hotbed of terrorist activity nowadays." At his urging, I'll be keeping a low profile, as far as that's possible for a blond-haired, blue-eyed, 5 foot 9 inch American female in Southeast Asia.)

Let's not end it on that note: Semarang is great so far, and I feel ridiculously lucky to have ended up in my situation. Starting bright and early tomorrow--I have to leave the house by 6.30 at the latest every day--I'll be at my school, first observing and getting fitted for a uniform, and later teaching myself. I can sense a variety of emotions stewing below the surface--anxiety about standing up in front of 15 year olds all day, frustration with not speaking the language and constantly feeling like a retarded child, homesickness for my family and friends and even, occasionally, the mountains--but for the most part all I feel is excited. Wish me luck.


betsy said...

Thanks for the long chat. That's what your blog felt like today. I have been missing you and hearing about what you are up to. thanks for the great blogs. Keep them coming.

Tolkien Boy said...

Wow. You made me, of all people, wish for servants. That extra bed is looking pretty good...

steve said...

so, does this mean that when I come to your city on a crowded bus, fighting off pickpockets one your drivers will be able to come pick me up? I can't believe I'm even asking this question.