Wednesday, January 31, 2007

At the Travel Agency

I think I'd prefer a 10-day tour, wouldn't you?

Monday, January 29, 2007

S(ingle), M(ale), S(earching)

So, I met someone.

It's not like it sounds. At least, not on my part. While in West Sumatra, during the two-hour drive from Padang to Bukittinggi, in a public car filled with off-duty policemen from Bandung, West Java, all of them chain smoking, one of the policemen, after about an hour, started the conversation I had dreaded all along: Where was I from? Where was I going? How old was I? Was I married?

We chatted amiably for the rest of the drive, him curious about this female foreigner traveling alone, me bored and sick to my stomach but, at least, in some small, enjoying a chat with eye candy precisely my age. When we arrived in Bukittinggi he asked for my number and, because I'm a sucker for a pretty face in a uniform, and because I cannot, in fact, be taught (sorry Katya), gave it to him. He has called me several times after that, always in the middle of the night, and I've always ignored his calls.

So, finally, giving up on calling, today he SMSed me, making his feelings clear. I give you, in all its text-message glory, the lamest attempt at picking up on me I've ever seen. And, seeing as the last few boys who asked me out used email, that's saying something.

Harry: So now you're arrogant, huh? So our acquaintance was only in Bukittinggi?

Hannah: It's just that you've always called me when I'm asleep. Don't call in the middle of the night! Duh!

Harry: Oh. Okay. I'm sorry. So where are you now? Now I'm in Bogor. Do you already have a boyfriend?

Hannah: I'm back in Semarang already. And yes, I already have a boyfriend. His name is Biff.

Harry: Suppose an Indonesian guy liked you. How about it? Would you want to be his girlfriend?

Hannah: Perhaps, but for me the important thing is a shared religion. And I already have a boyfriend who's my same religion.

Harry: Do you want to become my girlfriend? I've liked you since I saw you in the car: you're pretty, smart, and also tall.

Hannah: Well, thank you for the compliments, but my boyfriend in America is big and strong and probably wouldn't like it if I found a boyfriend here. We can be friends, though.

Harry: Okay. I'm happy to know you.

Hannah: Yep. Me too.

Luckily, as it turned out, this superlatively lame attempt was also superlatively easy to reject. I'm going to have to remember this whole Biff-the-big-strong-American-Mormon-boyfriend idea; it's easier, for me, than training myself to refuse to give out my number in the first place. And maybe, just maybe, with that lie in place, all those would-be Single Male Searchers (SMSers) can learn to resist the siren call of my pretty, smart, tall, American passport-holding self.

Oh, and if anyone happens to know any big strong American Mormons named Biff, send them my way. I'm looking to meet someone.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Terrible! Horrible! No Good! Very Bad!

Everything was fine when I woke up this morning. I was a little sleepy, but that's normal. I fell asleep at my desk during first period, which I usually hate doing, because then I wake up covered in drool and with large red spots, and sometimes even the outline of a book's spine, on my face and arms, with all the teachers staring at me and then, later, feeling free to ask me a million times if I'm still sleepy: "Ngantuk? Ngantuk? Ngantuk?"

But then, somewhere around third period, I got sick. I had to dash to the bathroom during two of my classes, leaving the students happily "writing dialogues," which, without constant teacher supervision, was probably closer to "running around wildly and/or texting friends in other classes." In between classes, I dozed in the school nurse's office, and eventually I just skipped my last class, unable to pull myself off the cot where I had been curled up in stomach pain for the last hour. In the hour that followed the end of school, I cancelled plans with a friend, two months in the making, that I was actually looking forward to; forgot the motorcycle helmet I borrowed from the servants at school; dragged myself, in a pained and almost crouching way, through the roughly 100 students on the school bus to take my seat in the front; spent half an hour on the bus trying not to think about how sick I felt; after said half hour, threw up out the window of the bus, while it was moving, in front of all those students, and, what's more, at the busiest intersection in town; stumbled off the bus to throw up several more times into a potted plant by the side of the road; didn't look where I was going and so got hit on the top of the head by one of those bars that raise and lower to admit cars to a parking lot*; and, finally, standing in the lobby of the second swankiest hotel in town, with one hand clutching the enormous swollen lump on my head and the other covered in my own vomit, broke down sobbing.

Things got a little better after that. I came home, changed into my houseclothes, a nightie covered in frogs and the slogan "Toadily Cool," which I paid $6 for because I couldn't resist the pun, and turned on a movie. After crying my way through "Mystic River," I fell asleep for about five hours**, and somehow got the energy to eat some white rice and head to the internet cafe.

So yeah. Today was um, not great. I don't think even Alexander can compete***.

*to make this even more embarrassing, or maybe just more infuriating, the bar wasn't automatic. You'd think the operator could have, I don't know, raised it when he saw me coming.
**throwing up really takes it out of you. Ha!

***to be honest, I haven't read the book since I was really little. Maybe he can. But before you decide, you should see the size of the bump on my head.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wild Wild West (Sumatra): A Roundup

The Good: Flora and fauna like I’ve never seen before; a canoe ride across a volcanic lake; really cheap homestay rooms; delicious Padang food, famous across Indonesia for its spiciness; the feeling of reaching solid ground and fresh air after five hours on a rickety, cigarette-filled public bus; conversation with a real, live American, my friend She Who Must Not Be (Blog) Named; spectacular scenery; touring Japanese World War II-era underground tunnels dug by forced labor; monkeys on the side of the road; singing along, loudly, to Celine Dion on another public bus, wantonly disregarding the real words to “My Heart Will Go On”; watching traditional Minangkabau dances, including one which involves jumping into a pile of ceramic and glass plate shards; cooking chicken fajitas, tortillas, and salsa with SWMNB(B)N and watching “Little Miss Sunshine” as we ate them; buying silver jewelry for cheap; gorgeous 75-degree weather; spending only $160 for the five-day trip, including round-trip airfare, local transportation, souvenirs, and four nights in hotels. I’d say it was worth the money.

The Bad: The only book I brought with me was Moby Dick. Cheap homestay rooms have really dirty sheets, pillows, and bathrooms. I feared for my life on those public buses, especially when twisting and turning down a mountain. I dropped SWMNB(B)N’s cell phone in the squat toilet and ruined it; I gave her mine in exchange, leaving me deprived of communication or a clock. Don't worry, though, it all ends happily: I finally finished Moby Dick, I’m back to clean sheets, I survived the 44 hairpin turns descending to Lake Maninjau, and I paid $20 and got my cell phone fixed and hence can once again send text messages and wake up in the morning.

The Ugly: The scratches on my arms and ankles from branches in the "jungle”; the intense sunburn on my arms, neck, and nose; the peeling of the same, soliciting many questions from my students along the lines of "Miss, what's wrong with your arms?"; the mosquito bites on my legs, arms, feet, and, mysteriously, stomach; my own personal odor after three days of bathing in really cheap homestay bathrooms. Yet, the sacrifice of beauty is but a small price to pay for a west Sumatran adventure.

It's a Jungle Out There

Or, Into the Woods

On my first day in Sumatra, in the small town of Bukittinggi, a man walked up to me on the street and started chatting. His Indonesian was clear and easy to understand, and he was funny and knew a lot about the area, so I played along and let myself get taken to the town’s clock tower, traditional dance hall, and night market. The next morning, as I was touring a particularly scenic spot, he walked up and claimed he had been looking for me all morning: where had I been? I was planning on walking to a nearby town famous for its silver production, about an hour’s walk away, so he offered to accompany me and show me some sights along the way, such as his ganja farm and, right next door, his childhood home. I’m far more na├»ve than you’d expect, so of course I accepted his offer and we set out. It was only a half-hour later, well-entangled in what I would call a jungle but what he adamantly insisted was only the woods, that the various dangers of my situation occurred to me. By that time, however, I was far too lost to go back on my own, so I shrugged and put thoughts of rape and murder out of my head.

I’m glad I did. The hike took about four hours, and, no matter what my guide claimed, we were definitely not on the path that Lonely Planet had mentioned—Lonely Planet didn’t warn me about fording a thigh-deep river four times, or climbing up rock walls, or walking through mud to my ankles--but it was fantastic. The night before, my guide had claimed to be an orang hutan*, or "man of the forest," and in the clear light of day, this turned out to be true. He knew everything about the forest, and showed me which plants are good for toothache and which ones were good for getting high. (I suspect he had a lot of experience with the latter.) He knew which plants would fold up delicately if you touched them—“Check it out!” he said, “It’s a Muslim plant!”—and which plants would hurt you if you even thought about touching them. He cut raw cinnamon from its tree and gave me unripe coffee beans, plucked straight from the bush, as souvenirs. He shushed me as a snake crossed the path, pointed out a gigantic elephant beetle sleeping on a tree branch, and noticed when an eagle was soaring far overhead. He also, of course, taunted me for my city-girl ways, clumsy about stepping over fallen tree branches, laughed uproariously at my nervousness when several of the free-range water buffaloes we encountered took a strong interest in me and trotted over to say hello, and made it overwhelmingly obvious that he expected me to sleep with him in exchange for the tour.

For the record, I did not, but it was equally obvious that most Western tourists would, and did. My guide had a whole collection of amazing stories—“when I was young and the water buffaloes were my best friends”; “the time I got bitten by a snake and my dog saved my life”; “when I lived on the streets of Jakarta”; “how I visited all 31 provinces of Indonesia without any money”—that were, I think, about 30% true and 70% cleverly calculated to seduce impressionable young white girls. He also had a whole litany of easy-conquest stories: the Dutch girl, the French girl, the Australian girl, the British girl. I told him pretty plainly that no, I was not his girlfriend-to-be and he should stop introducing me as such, and no, I was not going to go home with him, and no, I was not going to be "the American girl" on his list. To his credit, he didn't immediately leave me in the wilderness, but continued being friendly, though I did have to work to keep his hand off my knee. Hope springs eternal, I guess. I was not sorry to disappoint him, and that evening, after returning to civilization, such as it was, I politely thanked him, gave him a fake phone number, and promptly skipped town.

So here’s to you, King of the Swingers. May you live out many more happy days as a jungle VIP, and may you, next time, find a girl who will fall for the snake bite story. Thanks for the great day.

*whence the English "orangutan," for the interested

Monday, January 22, 2007

On All Your Houses

Miss Hannah: Today, class, we're going to talk about going to the doctor. Who has ever been to the doctor?

[all raise their hands]

Miss Hannah: Good! Now why do we go to the doctor? What kinds of sicknesses can he treat?

[all are silent]

Miss Hannah: Okay...what kind of symptoms does a doctor look at?

[all are silent]

Miss Hannah: Please, people, we're just brainstorming vocabulary. Someone just tell me a disease.

[all are silent]

Miss Hannah: Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

[all are silent]

Miss Hannah: All right. You, in the back. Name a disease. Any disease.

Julio: What?

Miss Hannah: You've been to the doctor, right? What were you sick with?

Julio: What?

Miss Hannah: What disease, or sickness, did you have when you last went to the doctor?

Julio: Oh! I had smallpox, Miss.

Miss Hannah: [laughs] Yeah, kid, you and the Indians.

Julio: What?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

When I Grow Up

One day, I'm going to acquire a black dog or cat, or maybe even bird or fish, so that I can refer to it as my "pet noire."

(This will be even funnier when it runs away or has an accident in the house or otherwise annoys me. I can't wait.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Retreat From Sanity

I just spent the last one (hellish) night and two (surreal) days on a "rededikasi spirituel" retreat for all the teachers (middle school and high school) at my school. While I love all these people dearly--really I do--this love seems to hinge as much on my ability to retreat (get it?) from their combined presence for an occasional breather, or at the very least an occasional ten-minute stretch without someone, usually proxying for a wandering fruit saleswoman, asking me if I like avocados.

(It's not very Christlike, I know. But I like to think even Christ might have whipped out his trademark sarcasm at that point--a little bit of "render these avocados," if you know what I mean. Then again, that thought is probably just proof of how little "rededikasi" my spirit really got.)

While the retreat had its high points--like when I accidentally got locked into the conference room during our lunch hour and had to escape by climbing out of a window--my general opinion on it is probably best summarized by my first thought upon waking up this morning: "Please don't speak Javanese. Please, please, please don't speak Javanese. I can't take another second of not understanding what's going on. Please...oh, sialan."

This whole language thing was the main problem, see: I love everyone dearly on an individual basis, where I can persuade them to stick to Indonesian, and to repeat things when necessary, so that we can actually talk. When everyone gets together, though, they switch into raucous Javanese from which I can only catch basic words like "Miss Hannah," "does," "not," "like," and "avocados." This means I'm completely left out of the fun bits of every conversation, which, by definition, is no fun.

Moreover, I was left out of the fun bits of our spiritual rededication. We had about ten hours, all told, of what were basically church talks with PowerPoint. This being a mainstream (and sometimes charismatic) Protestant school, most of the speakers were professional preachers and therefore reasonably talented. (Although, to my Mormon mind, used to a lay clergy, this also made them vaguely slimy and not to be trusted. Plus, it's triply disappointing when a professional's talk resorts to "it was then that I carried you." For heaven's sake, man, you're paid to do this! You really couldn't come up with anything better?) However, since they liberally made use of Javanese to keep their audience entertained, their talks, to me, sounded something like this: "And we need to REDEDICATE ourselves to the LORD! As my grandmother used to tell me...blo blo blo londo goble goble songo lungo siji loro!" [Hearty laughter from the audience, with the exception of Miss Hannah, who is thinking of trying to choke herself to death on the nearest avocado.]

And of course, I had to concentrate ridiculously hard to even understand the speakers' Indonesian, so after an hour or two (out of ten, mind you) I ended up with a headache. When I tried to kill my headache (and my sore throat and runny nose and cough and aching stomach--did I mention I was sick with a cold through all of this?) by going to bed early, I found that my two roommates wanted to watch TV until one in the morning. (They were possibly celebrating the fact that we got to wake up "not too early in the morning," which the retreat coordinator apparently defined as "in time for a mandatory 6 AM exercise session.") And then my host mother arrived and brought two of the maids, which excited everyone because the maids could take care of me, which was terrible because hello? I spend all my time trying to persuade them not to take care of me. And on the way home, we had to stop to buy oleh-oleh, or edible souvenirs, where I then had to explain to an estimated fifteen people, in the space of five minutes, why I was not buying anything. (No, I don't hate you. No, I'm not on a diet. No, I don't hate your food, with the exception of avocados. I just don't. feel. like. eating. Is that so hard to understand?) And there was no hot water at the hotel, which is fine in Semarang's 100-degree weather, but not so fun in Kopeng's breezy 75 degrees. (I ended up just faking it: going into the bathroom, splashing some water around noisily, including on my hair, and changing my shirt. Luckily, that same breezy 75 degrees guaranteed that I didn't smell too bad.) And, of course, I managed to eat something spicy just before leaving Semarang and so had to request an emergency gas station stop halfway to Kopeng, which I found hugely embarrassing, especially since it encouraged all the teachers to watch what I ate even more closely than normal, and, of course, to make plenty of snide comments about how Westerners just can't handle their chili.

So yeah. It was not, let's say, the best two days of my life. On the other hand, it's over now, and early tomorrow morning (too early, even by the retreat coordinator's standards), I get to make my own retreat (surely it's funny now?): I'm flying to west Sumatra, where, as long as I don't die in a fiery plane crash, I intend to visit beaches, jungles, lakes, and mountains, speak English with an honest-to-goodness American, buy lots of cheap silver, and not even look at a single avocado.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Obligatory "Weird Food" Post

New Foods I Tried Today

cow brains, mashed, fried, and cooked with egg
cow skin, dried and inflated
cow lungs, disguised in some way to look vaguely like chicken
chicken feet, not disguised in any way

New Foods I Enjoyed Today


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Chapter 78: Borobudur

In which our heroine wakes up early, spends seven hours on a three-hour bus ride due to two flat tires, misses a wedding ceremony, almost misses a wedding reception, dances the funky chicken, discusses the 19th century opium trade with a technical drawing teacher, squeezes into a public van with 16 other people, buys edible souvenirs, meets an American tourist, teaches racial slurs to a sociology teacher, and sees an (unofficial) Wonder of the World.

That’s about it, actually. How did those early novelists ever manage to add anything to their chapter summaries? I guess pictures will have to substitute for the three thousand words Fielding or Thackeray would add here.

17 people in an angkot. Only about ten of them are technically visible, so you'll have to trust me that I counted right.

(I did.)

If you touch the Buddha statue in the middle of the stupa, all your wishes come true. If you don't, you just look like an idiot trying.

(I didn't.)

Don't you think it should be an official Wonder of the World?

(I do.)

Home (Where My Music's Playing)

I dreaded coming back to Indonesia, I’m ashamed to say. I spent the last few days of my vacation abroad surrounded by cranberry juice, a fast internet connection, English novels, and Monty Python episodes with my brothers. How could I leave all that? My heart sank at the thought of it.

When I first returned, on the day before New Year’s, I stayed with a friend, an embassy employee in Jakarta. Her place was, for me, a sort of halfway house: cranberry juice but no fast internet, English books but no loving family. I spent my time there sleeping (one night, for a record fifteen hours), reading books (seven novels in two days, my idea of heaven), and eating American snacks from the commissary.

I came back to Semarang on Wednesday night, on a ghetto little plane (insects crawling on my seat: seven) with a ticket I had purchased for twenty dollars the day before. I spent the flight planning my lessons for Thursday and Friday only to discover, when I landed to a flurry of text messages from my school, that the students had testing on Thursday and I didn’t have to teach. Fine, I thought, another day in the sun, reading novels and finishing my grad school reapplication. Friday morning, I woke up bright and early (or, at the very least, early, since the sun isn’t quite up at 5 A.M.) and headed in to school, only to find out that testing extended to Friday and therefore I still didn’t have to teach. No one told me because, as my favorite teacher put it, they missed me. It was rather sweet, really, except that it meant I wasted an entire week in Jakarta and Semarang that I could have spent in Bali. (I forgive them. See what I sucker I am for people who miss me?)

Now that I’m actually back, I am, to my surprise most of all, glad to be here. Between a church activity where I was greeted, loudly and enthusiastically, by the missionaries, the entire Relief Society, and the children to whom I teach piano lessons; time spent exchanging vacation stories with my favorite teachers; the new Decemberists CD to obsess over; a random school trip to Kudus, two hours away, simply to tell three middle schools there that we would like to visit later in the week; and the exciting discovery that I’m suffering several of the major symptoms of pinworms, I’ve realized I really do have a life here. It may be different, sometimes to the point of surreal, it may not be what I expected, it may not even be exactly what I want when I wake up every morning, but it is my life and I’m happy with it, parasites and all.

Asking For It

This Christmas, I asked for books. Any kind of book will do, I told my mom, as long as it’s in English. I have scads of spare time, both at school and at home, and the comfort of English prose, even bad English prose, is enough to stave off the potential ravages of culture shock. Yet, English books are expensive here, having been imported from abroad, and the shipping costs of books from the States are enough to discourage any cheapskate like myself from trying.

Luckily, my family lives in a land of milk and honey, book-wise. India has some of the world’s greatest bookstores; although they’re usually not as big as Border’s or Barnes and Noble or any of America’s giant take-over-the-world chains, they are filled, almost exclusively, with books I want to read. I can walk into almost any bookstore in India and take almost any book off the shelf and know I’ll enjoy it. Where else could I, within two minutes of entering the shop, find the Ali Smith novel Alea recommended, which is practically nonexistent in Utah libraries? Where else posts on a sign on the door advertising Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian Nobel Prize winner I had been meaning to read since returning from vacation there? Where else, in sum, would the first five books I picked up be winners of major literary prizes?

So now, thanks to my mother diligently saving what she’s been reading for me, plus a few heavenly bookstore visits, I have enough to read for the next, oh, month and a half. Thank you, family, and thank you, India.

(As a side note, I managed to get nearly all these books back to Indonesia in only my one 44-pound suitcase and a backpack, which, I later discovered, weighed about 35 pounds itself. So that no officious Indian airline employee would realize how massive my carry-on truly was, I had to walk like it wasn’t heavy; it was quite the acting feat, if I may say so myself.)


This Christmas, I asked for nothing else. Since anything my family gave or received then had to be carried in a suitcase, we opted to forgo the gift exchange this year. Yet my father, who loves buying things for Christmas, couldn’t quite let it go. He insisted that we each get something from “Santa,” but then complained that “Santa” had it a lot rougher nowadays, with practically grown-up children wanting practically grown-up, and therefore expensive, toys. In the good old days, he told us, he went to Toys ‘R Us a few days before the 25th, blew $100 a kid, and we all jumped up and down with joy to see stuffed animals and action figures on Christmas morning.

Well, why not? we thought, so as a family we bundled up and made a trip to a Toys ‘R Us in Innsbruck, where we each selected a stuffed animal or action figure to serve as a token Christmas present. I got this rockin’ Care Bear on a keychain, as a memento of the days I used to have real Care Bears; as soon as I have keys again, you can be sure I’ll use it.

(As a side note, this is the first time I’ve ever owned a brand-new Care Bear; when I was actually in that phase, my parents were in the “too poor for new toys” phase, and so all my beloved childhood bears were from yard sales. We were also in the “too poor for TV” phase, so don’t even try to reminisce about the TV show; I didn’t know it existed until only a few years ago.)


This Christmas, I didn't ask for a trip to Austria, sparkly silver shoes, or a new Belle and Sebastian CD. I didn't ask for good friends who mail me packages to cure my homesickness (thank you, Alea and Kaneeneenie) or let me stay at their house for as long as I need (thank you, Ruth). I didn't ask for a roof over my head or enough food to eat. I didn't ask for a supportive and entertaining "work" environment; I didn't even ask that my "work" be easy enough that it deserves the quotation marks. I didn't ask for a kind, loving, and remarkably un-screwed-up family. Yet I got all those things anyway. I know this is a Christmas post, not a Thanksgiving one, but can't (and shouldn't?) a girl be grateful the other 364 days of the year?