Tuesday, February 23, 2010
For six months I never felt a temperature under 18 C / 60 F. Now there's snow on the ground.
For six months I did a doubletake every time I saw another white person, or an African, Arab, anything but Asian. Now I'm one of many.
For six months I was learning what it meant to be an aid worker. For one week I'm an academic again.
For six months work involved a lot of things: planning, excel, writing, excel, field visits and a bit more excel. Today I just spent an entire day sitting in a room listening and talking.
And yet, somehow it still feels reasonably normal. So strange this reality. I think I need to go to sleep.
Be back in a week.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Early in the day, I was practising with some of the girls walking on those sticks where four people each put their feet in holsters on two parallel slabs of wood and have to coordinate to walk. So we were walking around the picnic area shouting KANAN KIRI KANAN KIRI (right left right left). Our practise paid off, too, because we WON. The prize was a new facetowel.
But after our practise session I went back to where I'd left my flip-flops and couldn't find them. I wandered around searching while everyone gathered around to watch the guys tie baloons around their ankles and try to pop each other's balloons. My shoes were nowhere to be found, and I started to worry they'd been stolen.
Then I spotted them. On the feet of a girl I didn't know who was wearing a white Islamic headcovering. She was a petite thing and seemed completely oblivious to the fact her shoes weren't hers. Presumably she would be returning them to me, right? But I didn't know her, so I couldn't rightly walk up and ask her what she was doing with my shoes - it'd sound like an accusation. So I wandered around for a few minutes confused, and I guess she saw me in that state because she came up to me and smiled and was friendly as she explained in gestures and monosyllables, since we have no language in common, that she'd borrowed my shoes and was that ok and she would give them back.
My feet were hot and getting dirty and I wanted my flip flops, but what could I say? I tried to graciously say of course she's more than welcome to borrow my shoes. I'm not sure my gracious act worked, though, because five minutes later she came back and returned them to me. I was immensely grateful. She was friendly and meek, and she asked my name and told me her name and smiled at me from time to time throughout the day.
That evening some colleagues and I drove straight from the picnic to the city, since we had a flight to catch today. This morning when I woke up I went out for a walk around the neighbourhood. Down by a canal I crossed paths with a rather attractive-looking young couple. They caught my eyes because they looked liberal (woman's long hair was uncovered and styled), and because they were wearing white exercise bottoms which reminded me of capoeira. They smiled and waved at me, so I smiled back.
Continuing my walk, I headed up to the mini-market near our guest house. Just as I was arriving, I saw that same girl and she smiled and waved again, this time it seemed clear she wanted to talk to me. If a man tries that on the street I act mean and walk away; this was the first time a woman was trying it, so I obliged. I took off my headphones and walked up to her.
She asked me if I remembered her, from the picnic the day before. It took me a moment, but she gestured to her head and said "hijab", and I realised it was the girl from the flip-flops (ok, I think it was, an uncovered head made her very different looking)! There she was in my guesthouse neighbourhood, hair uncovered. She started chatting away with me in Bahasa Indonesia and I apologised I didn't understand.
So in more monosyllables and gesturing she pointed out her house and invited me over for a visit. I told her, though I doubt she understood, that I couldn't visit today because I'm traveling, but maybe later. But honestly: flip-flop abduction, followed by dual identity of sometimes-head-covered-sometimes-not? I'm not sure what she's about.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
But I am terrified of rodents.
I hate mice, rats, weevils, gerbils, hamsters, capivaras, ROUS's, and even rabbits. I'm not sure if rabbits count as rodents, but they're the same size and often the same colour and they bother me. I fervently believe that animals, most notably rodents, and humans were not created to coexist. They can have the sewers and the fields with tall grass, if I CAN KEEP MY HOUSE.
And if you want to give me a scare, tell me you just saw a mouse run across the floor of the restaurant we're (true story from Kosovo), point out a mouse puttering around in the corridor a few feet away (true story from England), wave a pan with a baby rat in it around in the air for me to see (true story from Indonesia), or explain to me that those tiny black oval-shaped lumps in the windowsill right above where my pillow lies are mouse droppings (true story from the U.S.).
If you want to be a friend, even if there is a rodent peering into my purse as if it's about to jump in, DO NOT TELL ME. If you see a rodent run across my head while I'm sleeping, DO NOT TELL ME. What I don't know can't hurt me, and I'm passionate about this creed when it comes to rodents.
So just one more little sign of God's sense of humour are the sounds I hear every evening in the ceiling above me now. I'm living in a village hotel with a big rice field slash cow pasture outside my window. Bugs and critters are to be expected. But an entire rat colony living in the rafters of my bedroom? Who would have thought. It's like this hotel is two hotels: one for the humans and one for the other guys.
Every evening, as I listen to my music and do this or that in my room, the noise I produce seems to inspire them. When I had company they wouldn't stop running back and forth. It sounds like there is a huge raven trapped in my ceiling, but try as I might to convince them I don't want to know, my colleagues have insisted on assuring me that they are in fact rats.
And they are one metre away from me, running on a plyboard ceiling which is threatening to cave in at the corners. Any day now, that plyboard could crumble and I have this picture in my mind of hundreds of rats falling on my head, climbing down my body and running out of the room. And this idea is not my imagination running wild. All the ingredients are there: fragile ceiling and hundreds of rats.
And just to make sure there was no doubt, I had the privilege of watching a baby dude get lost in the kitchen. Scared, it ran into my favourite pan and hid there until the hotel cleaning boy took the pan off its peg on the wall, waved it in the air for me to see, then released it into the wild. I have to take that pan off the wall every evening, if not to cook in, at least to access the cutting board hanging behind it.
But miraculously, I'm not feeling the familiar frozen fear. This may be curing my phobia. They're there but they haven't bothered me yet. And they're there in such enormous proportions that I can't take it all that seriously.
If you've got a phobia, you should try putting yourself in a situation where its looming threat is so huge you can't help but roll your eyes and chuckle.
Monday, February 15, 2010
It's a great joint with a good selection of Asian food, a bit of a drinks menu, and occasionally live music. The holiday occasioned live music for us on Saturday.
As I sat there watching the different characters performing on stage, and taking note of the random selection of people surrounding me in the audience, and the overall setting itself, I tried to take mental notes so I could later capture the sights and sounds in writing. Everything was colourful, diverse and somewhat unexpected.
But it was too much for my mind to capture and record. To catch it all I had to catch none of it well. To catch a few things well I had to ignore the rest. There's some merit to just sitting back and enjoying an experience, then letting the notables depart with the night. No camera, no notebook, just life.
But because it was so awesome, I did create nicknames for some of the most memorable figures of the night and I'd love to share them with you in this pathetic attempt at capturing life:
- Hair guy So named for his shoulder-length hair which were an indespensible part of his voice. Throughout the evening it was tied up, but when he went onstage to sing Cold Play - for the record, very well - he let the hair loose with his cigaretted hand and proceeded to bob his head such that hair covered most of his face. When it started to pull away he'd reach up with the cigaretted hand since the other hand was busy caressing the microphone, and fix it. Fixing it meant making it look a bit more mussed and ensuring that more of his face was covered.
- The one in the shirt The one in the shirt might have been a member of a reggae band which certainly was the highlight of the evening. Pause for a moment: Indonesian reggae band. Perhaps it requires no description, imagination can already do a lot. Then consider the prospect of welcoming in the Chinese New Year to Indonesian reggae. The band had countless members who all stood on stage together, even though at least half of them weren't performing. The one in the shirt walked onto the stage in the middle of a song early on and took over lead vocals. I guess that was part of the act, but I'm not sure. For the rest of the set, this character wearing a diagonal-striped brown, white and black button-down, was either singing or dipping to the vibes.
- The crossdressed I should mention that the reggae band was really quite good. Good musicians, good beat, and they all looked like real Rastafarians. The guitarist as a bit less Rasta but he more than made up for it with his skilled hands. The guy could play! It took us a while to decide for sure that he was a guy, though. Between his long hair and the effeminate way he held his instrument, we suspected his Indonesian batik shirt might actually be a dress. This mystery was solved as he walked out of the restaurant, when we saw he wore trousers and actually looked a bit less like a woman when not playing.
- The sound guy wearing a T-shirt with the Starbucks logo, but the word "coffee" replaced with the word "marijuana". Yup.
- The Indo-Valley chic This girl made the night. She was the DJ, host, backup- and sometimes lead singer, head dancer, and self-appointed official social butterfly. She talked a mile a minute on the microfone in between songs. While I have no clue what she said, she sounded like an announcer on one of those low-budget daytime music shows that the hotel staff here watch. Her laugh will take some work, though, before she can go pro. This girl wore skin-tight shiny gray jeans, a gray vest and a cabbie cap over her long straight hair. The cap covered her eyes, too. Much of the night was live karaoke: members of the audience could sing with the band doing back-up. So she sometimes sang back-up, sometimes grabbed a person out of the audience to dance with her, and sometimes sat with a cigarette to chat with her, uh, fans.
- The hunchback A man probably in his twenties, somewhat overweight, and quite hunchback, wearing a red t-shirt with a silly logo that I now forget. Clearly a shy guy on the average day. He was the Indo-valley chic's first victim to the dance floor and as people kept pumping him with alcohol, he grew more and more animated in the dance. After a few songs without the Chic asking him to dance he appeared on stage and grabbed her to dance. And his moves were not particularly chaste.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Here's a typical scenario, one of many, many, many:
On Boxing Day 2004, natural disasters overtook several places in Asia. The most notable was the impact of the Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh is on a tip of Sumatra Island, and is a highly conservative Muslim region.
Within a few weeks after the tsunami destroyed the homes of thousands upon hundreds of thousands and took countless lives, hundreds of organisations arrived to offer their help (if you've watched the news lately, you've seen the scenario repeat itself in Haiti). Among those organisations were some Christian groups sent by evangelical churches in the United States and several other countries.
In keeping with Christian evangelical belief, these groups came to offer assistance to the poor and the needy as best they could. And they also saw this as a God-given opportunity to witness to some isolated Muslim communities.
Meanwhile, as tends to happen, members of the Muslim communities who were receiving Bibles and invitations to prayer services were insulted. They said that if the help was all a ruse to get them to change their beliefs, they'd try their best to fend for themselves, thank you very much. So they became suspicious of everyone arriving in their villages to help. Any group that might possibly be affiliated with Christianity, in particular, was scrutinised and in some cases turned away - even if they did bring life-saving aid. Faith goes deeper than hunger and shelter for so many people...
The common mantra among humanitarian organisations now seems to be that those religious humanitarian groups would do a service to all if they would limit their activities. In fact, they don't belong in an emergency situation like this, and they are all too often a hindrance to the business of saving human lives.
But if we truly believe in people's right to exercise their beliefs, shouldn't church groups who want to help be allowed to do so in a way that is most in keeping with their personal faith?
I really don't know, and I'm stumped.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Yeah, but is that a problem? I mean there's two sides to everything, and it drives me nuts when I'm not allowed to acknowledge the other side. I say, Bring It On!
I'm losing a bit of this edge, and I miss it. Maybe others will like me more for being less contrary, but I miss the edge. I miss the debates that can go on for hours finding fault with everything but never condemning: just looking for the other side. So I use here the quote's phrasing of "finding fault" but it's really to me just looking for an angle, a more thorough or different perspective. Finding fault: to do it you have to take it. And to take it you have to do it.
I remember my week in Boston a few years ago when I spent hours debating obscure things with a few dear friends. My friends up there were all kind of brainy and they loved talking and finding fault. It was such a breath of fresh air after living in the political ambiance of D.C. where faults are better off not found. Talk in D.C. was weighty - sure it happened, and fault was found, but there were consequences. The process couldn't be easily dismissed. In the more academic setting of Boston, talk and fault were more affordable, could be bought and sold and traded with more ease, and that made them much more enjoyable - a good thing.
Faults in D.C. are like a falafel sandwich in downtown London - they don't taste that great, are possibly but not necessarily a turnoff, and they cost a fortune. Faults in Boston are like a falafel sandwich at the Medina/University Dorms in Damascus - absolutely delicious and so cheap it's like you never bought it.
Anyway, my world today is neither Boston nor D.C. but a different alternate universe. It resembles D.C. a bit more than Boston, and so I'm losing my ability to talk and find fault. And as that happens I'm losing my ability to be talked about and have fault found. Oh dear.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Living in an Indonesian village hours from people I know and with few if any offerings by way of entertainment, this challenge seemed like a good opportunity to discipline myself to do what I should have been doing anyway.
Are there any writers who read my blog? If so: this is a good idea. Choose a day and plop yourself down to write, because the next Moonrat-sponsored Write Your @ss Off Day won't be for another year, and this was too cool to have to wait a year to do. If you really love writing, then an activity like this is pure joy. At least it was for me - although I spent a lot of the time translating my book, which required a bit less squeezing of creative juice than other writing activities.
Since this is my blog so I can do this, I here provide you with my running log of the day:
Today's Write your @ss off and I'm finally sitting down to get to work at 11:30. They said we were supposed to do 8 hours, but I can't do anything for 8 hours so I'm shooting for 6. That means ending sometime around 6 p.m. assuming I take a few minutes to eat, wander around, chat with colleagues... ok, perhaps more like 6:30 or 7:00. We'll see how it goes, anyway. God sure has a sense of humour because the Internet's down! I know I was going to sit here and re-check my email every 5 minutes, even though no one ever writes me on a Sunday, and ditto for my facebook. Maybe I'd browse some of my friends' photos. But no. Here I am writing. I haven't put together a plan for how to spend today, but here are the things I would like to consider accomplishing:
- Translate 1-2 chapters of Medina. It's almost done, this could be like the last big push.
- Try out writing a prayer. My prayer life is pretty dreary now, which is inexcusable considering that I'm living in a place where there are few people to distract me and I'm coming out of a difficult season meaning I really don't have much to depend on other than God.
- Write a story. In the ideal world I would start my next book, but I don't know if I can do that if I'm so distant from the world I write about. But could I come up with a short story about someone here, or perhaps in Timor Leste?
- Post something on my blog
Seems reasonable?! Who knows. I've never written more than 3 or 4 hours in a day before, and that was probably academic writing which involved as much copying out of a textbook as it did my own creative thought. Eight hours? Can't even imagine... only if that involves lots of times spent procrastinating. In which case I can say my day started an hour and a half ago when I went out to take a walk and listen to inspirational music.
11:41: Internet's back. Which is good, because I do need the online translator... But I'll keep skype on invisible in the very unlikelihood someone might want to chat
15:12: Have translated one chapter. Took a while, but I only have one more chapter and the epilogue left! Almost done!!! Maybe two more days after today, assuming I get a bit more done today.
Honestly, translating is a lot less painful than writing from scratch. I fear it may be an excuse to avoid writing... Hmm.
15:39: Wrote a blog about the things I enjoy without seeing them (like enjoying the sunset without seeing the sun setting)
The easy things are done, huh.
16:35: Done prayed, wrote it all out. This day is going by too quickly. Yes, I'm getting distracted, but nothing like I'd imagined I would - but still, I've got 1-2 hours left and want to translate another half a chapter, PLUS force myself to write something creative.
17:19 OK. Time to stop faffing around. I did a little bit of the LAST chapter translation, but if I'm going to start writing something creative, I'd better get started.
18:26 I wrote a little story. I tried to think of the childhood of my landlady in Timor. I don't know what it was like, so I made it up. It's a rushed little tale, and I have no idea how accurate or authentic it could be, but at least I did something!
And now the sun is setting and I don't want to miss that, so... bye! (7 hours almost non-stop. not bad)
I went to watch the sunset which was gorgeous, and after that I enjoyed dinner with some co-workers. Then went on with my evening. But the strangest thing happened. The beautiful feeling of accomplishment I felt after writing gradually transformed into longing, then deep pondering, and by the time I went to try to sleep, I was downright restless. Like it was too much of a good thing.
By the time I turned around, I'd missed the sun. It was gone behind the trees and the horizon beyond, brightening the days of people further west than here. But the sky was breathtaking. The sun's rays were reflecting pink and purple and the high scattered clouds above me, and the sky in the distance glowed yellow and orange against the bright green palm trees.
Last weekend, at the beach in Malaysia, I really wanted to see the sunset. I insisted that we go down to watch the sunset from the beach, but by the time we got there, the sun had already disappeared behind a cloud which wasn't all the big, but exactly blocked my view of the ball of fire. But for the next half hour we sat on a ledge by the beach, watching the water change colours, the sky changing tones, and the clouds in the distance taking more and more distinct features as the sun reflected on them. Everything was blue and purple, then white and red, then slowly went dark. It was not too shabby, even if we missed the sun.
You don't have the see the sun to enjoy the sunset.
I wonder what else I don't have to see in order to enjoy.
A common mantra is that we don't have to see the wind - in fact we can't see the wind - in order to appreciate the effects it has on things. That gorgeous breeze in my face...
The biggest one is God. I don't have to see God to enjoy his presence, and actually, the Bible makes it pretty clear that I can't see God. If I saw God, I wouldn't be enjoying him anyway, because I'd be dead from the shock.
What about people? Do I have to see them in order to enjoy them? In my transient life, I have very little opportunity to see the people I enjoy the most, but I do still enjoy their friendship. Although I think it'd be better if I could see them more.
Music is best not seen only heard. At least that's my opinion. Some people prefer to watch a concert, I suppose.
I very much enjoy running, moving around, physical activity. That's not something I see. But it's something I do, maybe that's a different category.
Prayer. I shamelessly enjoy the prayers of others, but I never see them - and in that case I don't hear or feel them either. But I know they are there and I enjoy them, and their effect.
I enjoy all the hard work that goes into things like producing good TV shows and films, writing and publishing good books, composing and performing good music. Sometimes I even forget it exists, but I endlessly enjoy its effects.
Similarly, the guy who cleans my room. I don't sit around and watch him cleaning, but I do enjoy the clean room. There are many other services I enjoy without seeing.
Actually, perhaps most of my enjoyment comes from things I don't see. Hadn't really thought of it that way before.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Which matters: What we do or the way in which we do it? End result or the path taken to arrive there? Motives or results? What does it mean if I think Bush's motives were pure, but disagree with his politics? If Kosovo is finally stable but only after Nato showered it and Serbia with bombs?
As a leader of people, if the direction is clear to you, should you take the direction, or first listen to the people you lead? On one hand, as the quote states, it is wrong not to listen. On the other hand, things can get messy if you listen and don't like what you hear.
If I dug into the deepness of my brain I might be able to think of a story to illustrate these questions which according to the quote have obvious answers, but I stand to disagree. It's about as clear as mud, but I don't have any stories to show why.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
I'm not one of those people who can trip down a stairway and create a new acclaimed dance as a result. But nor am I the type who walks into a room and the floor disintegrates under her feet.
My life has been full of its share of both accomplishments and disappointments. But overall, I have generally felt like what I was doing was enough. I may not be a diva nor the first woman president of the United States, but I have a good degree, have a few useful skills and eventually was able to find a decent job. Even during the long months, which turned into years, of job hunting and failing, I felt confident that I was in the right place, that I was trying and that good was coming out of the situation. A power beyond mine would take care of the details. My angst had more to do with curiosity about what and when would happen, than it did with my confidence in my ability to offer something.
Ironically, now that I'm working and doing a job I very much like and desire to perform well in, I seem to struggle a lot with failure. Back in Timor, I remember that I went to my yoga class right after I was offered this assignment in Indonesia. I'd been robbed two days previously, I knew my housemates weren't happy, and I was exhausted. This job offer was a perfectly timed gift, but I sat there in class, posing and stretching, unable to keep the tears from my eyes. I had failed. I was going to leave Timor in disgrace, not in triumph. Sure, some things had gone right, and my colleagues appreciated me enough to recommend me for a new and exciting assignment, but overall, I thought to myself, "wow. I really feel like a failure."
This wasn't the low point. It got a lot worse and by the time I left Timor for good, I'd failed a lot more, and a lot worse. And the feeling has followed me. I'm second-guessing everything I do and worrying that I am doing things all wrong. That my next step will be the one that causes everything to unravel. And while I have had some lovely moments here in Indonesia, I certainly couldn't say I have performed perfectly by any means.
Today I was walking, as I try to do every day, towards the sunset. I was thinking about the decisions I've made recently and wondering whether I had done well enough or not. Even if I could convince myself intellectually that I am succeeding, my heart still screamed "failure!!!"
Then it hit me: I have spent a lifetime learning to attribute everything good that happens in my life to God. All my successes belong to God, don't they? Sometimes I live that better than others, but deep down I know it to be true. So why am I owning my failures? Surely, barring any attempts I may make to rebel against God, he allows me to fail when he chooses to allow it. Maybe he even orchestrates failures. So I should get over myself. Pride about success is no worse than pride about failure. Trust and give it up.
Monday, February 1, 2010
That being said, if we take love out of it, then my heart flutters at the quote's point: value is known intuitively, not by logic.
Ah, now that's a lesson that comes with following and flexing. Things don't have make sense logically. Sometimes they just are.
My time in Timor was a disaster yet fabulous. I did well at work, yet am still finding out about mistakes I made. Socially wacked out and no friendships lasted, but people were the highlight of the time. None of it makes any sense whatsoever to me, but I know it is, and I know it's right.
Christmas in Malaysia, New Years in the air, then Sydney. Five stays in Bali in the month of December. All this when I was expecting to run away and stay with the Sisters out of fear of depression during a lonely holiday season. It was a gift, sure, but wasn't that Christmas with the Sisters or Christmas home alone going to be a spiritual growth experience? I totally don't get God's logic in working things out that way, but I definitely appreciate it.
And here I am living in this lovely little village hours from the nearest city which isn't a particularly impressive city as far as cosmopolitanism goes. So I'm looking forward to a rest-and-relaxation week at the end of February. But just watch, I'm going to be somewhere else before or after that, and it will be so lovely that I won't need rest-and-relaxation anymore. Not that I'll be resting or relaxing then... oh, don't you see? Intuitively this is all just perfectly right. Logically, thought, it's lost on me.
If you're reading this in an interactive mindset, I'd ask you to stop a minute to think about things in your life that intuitively are something special - valuable - but logically you're a bit lost to explain. Are they there? I hope so, because they make life gorgeous and faith real.