Friday, April 30, 2010

of security briefings and caribbean resorts

Apologies for the blogging silence. I was enjoying my family too much during a very brief break I had with them, on the way from Indonesia to Haiti.

And now, here I am. The country that has occupied the fancies and obsessions of the media over the last several months, the disaster which has harnessed more donations than can be counted, the tragedy whose stories have somehow touched each one of us in a personal way. And now I've joined the story.

Sitting on a balcony overlooking Atlantic flora to see the sun setting behind a hill up, about to enjoy a pricey and delicious meal at the hotel restaurant with its outdoor sofa seating and full-service bar, and taking advantage of the broadband Internet access to write this blog.

In the pre-arrival briefing I was warned to bring a sleeping mat and a mosquito net. What a contrast to the reality I now see. Our office here is lovely and we have a fleet of lush SUVs. I stopped in a supermarket at lunchtime today and saw pretty much whatever I'll need for cooking.

But then last night I had my security briefing. I was told of murders, rapes and kidnappings. I was warned of people's violent reactions to having their pictures taken. I was told that a delegation of American geologists predicts a 55-95% chance of another major earthquake here, within the next 3-12 months. If I prefer to sleep in a tent, one will be made available to me. Due to the is bits of information, it has been decided that we have a 9 o'clock curfew and, for now, I will never go out anywhere alone.

During my well-chaperoned and highly-secure rides through town, there are stretches in which easily 1/2 of the buildings are a pile of rubble. Favelas of tents fill just about every available public space. As I watch the people walking on the streets, I see figures who either do not eat, or eat too much of the wrong things, wearing tattered hand-me downs. I may be living on the other side of that fence, but reality is clearly there.

When I arrived in the airport, two images greeted me which I will try to keep with me:
- two men hugging each other warmly as if they hadn't seen each other since yesterday, and
- the airport staff passing around a guitar and occasionally playing a tune for us as we waited for our luggage.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


She sits facing a lake in the wake of a storm. The water laps against the shore where a white sandy beach used to tease backpackers who came to explore Sumatra. The sandy beach has long eroded and now all she sees is the water on the lake, the entire mass of it, unmistakably running to the right.

A lamppost blocks her view of the single gap in the mountain range circling the lake. The gap is where she came from and where she will return. Beyond the gap, she knows, a road runs past rapids in the river and the footprints of landslides on hills that look to climb from the road and the river at a 90 degree angle. Beyond those, hundreds of houses now lie in a rubble of concrete and tin, remnants from the earthquake of six months ago. Those houses were her ticket to this place which aptly labeled itself a "beach paradise." Next to each rubble of a ruined house sits a wood cabin which she, in her small forgettable way, helped to build.

The sun pokes through the branches of a manly palm tree that's leaning over the water where the white sand used to be. That sun is going to set soon. If she's lucky, it will set right into the gap, but that does not look likely. She's chosen a perch too far to the right, so, for her, it will set over the legendary and treacherous Sumatran mountains. Right now the sun is casting his rays directly onto a tiny island a kilometre or so from where she sits. The island looks like the head of a green water giant, round, bushy and green, with a lone twig of a tree poking up on the top.

Behind her, and behind the beach cabana that will house her tonight, several hundred metres of rice paddies separate her from the nearest road. As she bid farewell to her friends and colleagues who have already driven back through the gap for the night, she wandered alongtop the mounds of mud set up as trails through the fields of rice. Her only company tonight will be the bison sleeping in the middle of the rice stalks and the children in the family that operates this compound of four empty beach cabanas and one cabana on the shore with a woman inside.

The lapping waves murmur every two seconds or so that she is not alone. A chorus of insect sounds echo their agreement.

In a world surrounded by smiling innocent faces and fun-loving colleagues who plan dinner parties and ad hoc road trips, she seems to prefer the company of one. She can't understand what comes out of the mouths belonging to the smiling faces, and the fun she has with her colleagues seems to always remind her that this, too, shall pass. For what future awaits a friendship with people she will be leaving in only a few days? How many times can one person fall in love with friends and then leave them behind, setting out in search of new friends to love?

If only there were something to give. A kind word or a listening ear, perhaps. Or perhaps a new crazy idea of an ad hoc adventure. Surely there is. She looks around. In every direction she sees mountains with clouds on top. They look like blueberry ice cream with whipped cream on top. Except instead of being held in a bowl, they are the bowl, and she and the lake lie inside.

She prays. Prays for what lies beyond the gap. In her mind's eye she follows the road through the gap, past the rapids, past the landslides, past the rubble and the wood cabins. She stops at her home of the last five months and bids the fun and loving friends and colleagues a fond farewell, then she continues down that road until she reaches the airport. Five airports later, or maybe it's ten, she arrives at a new adventure which is to be her home for a month, two months, perhaps more. But she already knows to expect that farewell. It will come soon enough.

She prays for love to give and energy to spend. She prays for space in her brain to fit all the names and faces and life stories. She prays for space in her heart to somehow love each one in a new fresh way.

She remembers other times she has sat surrounded by beauty and the truism comes once again to mind: the greater the beauty, the sharper the blade of the sword that sears the heart.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Maninjau: men on motorbikes

From the day I arrived in Asia I've been wondering when this would happen. Now, in my last week, I thought maybe I'd escape without. But it was not to be, and I can only be grateful it happened at this late date, that I managed to avoid it for so many months, and that it was so inconsequential. After all, it's the oldest game in the book when a man on a motorcycle drives past a woman walking on the street.

But he only managed to hit my arm. It may bruise, but my dignity is intact and I can partially blame myself for wearing such short sleeves. When I left to take a walk I wasn't planning on taking a walk. It just happened. And I suppose such things are a natural outcome of just letting things happen.

I was amazed by my reaction. Immediately, I knew it was no-big-deal: he drove quickly away on his motorbike and the kind-looking old bakso meatball seller was only a few metres behind me. I was almost at my turn-off, anyway. Even so, my whole body started to tremble and I was whacked by pain. I'm such a physical person, I'm afraid - my body evoked such a strong reaction to something so minor, even though it happened in the surroundings the kind of natural beauty that should make everything pale in comparison.

Here was my conclusion. We so often represent an entire people, often people far beyond the reach of those we actually know. The guy on the motorcycle sullied the reputation of all Indonesian men for me when he swiped me with his arm. Did I sully the reputation of all Western women by wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans while walking on the highway?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Maninjau: the saga of Mr. Phone Camera and the Sunset

Her phone hangs limply from a cord around her neck. He is a diva of a phone, boldly dressed in aqua blue with a cord of checked blue and green. When he heard her turn down the offer to borrow a full-sized, full-strength photographic powerhouse for the day, he beamed with pride. He knew she turned it down because she didn't plan to take any pictures because he knew her well enough to know she didn't trust any camera to capture real life.

But just earlier today, her friend - someone who knows a thing or two about pictures - had complimented his work. He was not only a phone, he was a camera! And as he heard her discussing the anticipated beauty of the impending sunset, the phone also realised that she did have some trust in his camera. He grew excited as he hoped for a magnificent sunset, one so powerful she would not be able to resist trying to capture the moment. She would call upon his services and he would step up to the challenge.

Now, as he sat there on her lap, still tied to her neck, he felt her body tense with awe. The phone looked through his camera lens and saw the glory of a sky aglow, and he knew his dream would come true. Sure, he was underqualified, but he was a fast learner and a hard worker. The phone started to tense with anticipation, not of the sunset, but of the opportunity to capture the sunset.

He looked out his lens again and began to plot his strategy. How much lighting would he let in, to how far of a distance would he focus his lens? He looked through the tiny window and saw nothing short of the beauty of God. Something that deserved to be memorialised in a divine manner.

But... a divine manner? Who was he, little aqua-coloured phone, to think he could capture heaven? There was no way he would be able to satisfy. He would only confirm her supposition that glory cannot be captured for enjoyment at a later moment. He had not trained for this, he had not been built up enough to do this. He was just a phone. Capturing this vision was a hard enough job for a camera with all the top technology, built on the basis of extensive experience!

Limply he hung as low in her lap as he could and began to hope she wouldn't try to take a photo. As much as he longed to be worthy of the title "camera", it was a job for someone else.

(This is so like a job I was almost offered last week! It's really best I wasn't offered the job.)

Here is Mr. Phone's handiwork. Doesn't do the real thing justice, but still not bad work for one so unsuited for the job.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I wrote an entire report today in one sitting

25 pages, no break except for lunch.

What on, you ask? The final evaluation for our program here in West Sumatra.

Here are some links:
Mrs. Jawanis
Mr. Mawardi (re-linked from the other day)

I think I've written enough for one day, so I'll stop.

(I think rats may have finally invaded my room today. Investigate? Or pretend I'm not noticing. I think I'll keep pretending.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Karaoke and Buffet meals: my summary of Indonesian culture

Obviously, a culture cannot be summarised in one blog post. And Indonesian culture may be more diverse than most. So obviously, I am grossly generalising when making observations about Indonesian culture.

That being said, to my Indonesian friends, here are some observations I've made about your culture:

1. Karaoke. In the West, we grow up with a strong sense of image. After living in the Middle East, my sense of image may be even stronger. Almost universally in places I've lived before, part of a good image requires avoiding giving the impression that we want people to notice us. Of course, we do want people to notice us, but we don't tell them we want them to notice us. We just hope it happens, and draw attention to ourselves in less than obvious ways.

Singing Karaoke is all about drawing attention to ourselves. We stand up in front of a TV screen flashing stupid images, we grab a microphone, the louder the better, and we sing. Hopefully we sing well, but that is less important than making noise into the microphone. Most of my Western friends will only touch Karaoke if they are drunk. Otherwise, it breaks the image rule.

Not Indonesian culture. I hope I never forget the night our driver, who was waiting for us to finish eating so he could take us home, asked the restaurant manager to turn on the karaoke machine. Then some of my colleagues around the table jumped up and joined him. Before having even one sip of beer, the three of them took turns singing into the microphone with the rest of us watching and listening. They seemed little bothered about the perfection of their performance: they did it for fun and it seemed to little matter who was watching.

2. Buffet meals. I come from a cultural heritage in which I was taught to always defer to others. Serve others before myself when cutting a birthday cake, allow others to enter a room in front of me, invite others to speak first in a meeting. I was taught that this kind of deference is a way to show respect for other people. Other times, in my culture, we do all this to make ourselves look humble (not because we are humble) - the image thing again.

Since I've been in Indonesia, on a few occasions I've participated in group meals. A spread of food is laid out on the table, little welcome speeches are given, then we eat. Without fail, for about 2 seconds people wait for others to help themselves, and then they jump in and don't look back nor do they look around. They don't insist that someone else go first, and they only occasionally dish out for others. They just eat. That's all there is to it!

Once, about six people were waiting around the water cooler to serve ourselves some water. We all knew each other as acquaintances - not good friends but not strangers. In the West, such a relationship would evoke extreme politeness and deference. Not here: people pushed their way in to serve themselves with little concern for the thirst of the others. (To be fair, I fared reasonably well in the rush.)

I get the impression there are a lot of cultural rules in Indonesia, and quite of a few of them have to do with showing respect to people according to their status. Perhaps the lack of rules regulating karaoke and the water cooler helps balance things out.

Indonesian friends, I do love you. I've had a fabulous time with you and getting to know your lovely country. But I'm a sociologist and you can never take the analytical questions out of me! These are just some of the musings I've had about your lovely world.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


This afternoon, after I woke up from my Sunday nap, I went for a lovely long walk up the highway. It's a one-lane road with gobs of traffic and no pavement/sidewalk. But it works for walking because most of the traffic is motorbikes and they just don't take up that much space.

I walked for half an hour then I turned around and walked back. On the way back I bought fruits from my favourite fruit lady. She had grapes! I can't remember the last time I've eaten grapes - I'm excited for tonight! Then I stopped by my lemon juice friends and we took photos of each other with our cameras while they made my juice.
Then I came back and had a chat with a colleague about a film we both watched this weekend: The Syrian Bride, which recounts the wedding day of a woman from the Golan Heights to a man in Syria. After she marries him she can never return home, so this wedding was bittersweet to say the least. But before she can fatefully cross the border, there are a million social and political barriers to be surpassed. It's really quite accurate, although it attempts to capture all of the Arab cultural and social issues related to Israel-Syria dynamics in one 90-minute film, which can't be done. But they came impressively close.

Then I got back to my room, sprawled out on my bed, checked my facebook, and wondered what to do next. So I went for another walk in the other direction to buy some vegetables. Hopefully I'll make dinner tomorrow.

As I was walking back from the vegetable stand I wondered why I was feeling so de-motivated, as if I have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do. Obviously, I have a lot to do, although none of it is particularly urgent.

I think it's because I don't know what lies around the corner. The mystery that is my life two weeks from now has paralyzed me. It's forcing me to live for today, which I always thought was a good thing. But somehow, it feels empty.

Oh, a new mystery to solve - live for today or plan for the future? Maybe I'll invest myself in resolving this dilemma.

Or maybe I'll track the gecko currently climbing down my curtains to figure out how he gets back on the wall - and to make sure he doesn't end up on my bed.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

reminiscing about Timor Leste

Am I jinxing myself by writing this? By writing this post, am I locking myself into a return? I don't know, but I'm going to share anyway.

Things I miss about Timor Leste:
  1. going to the beach
  2. going to the beach in my big white SUV and parking it in any empty spot
  3. going to the beach and walking from my car, 20 metres to the pristine white sand and sitting down on a beach chair
  4. going to the beach and having a Mana come up to me to take my drinks or food order
  5. going to the beach and running into friends while digging my toes into the soft white sand (Areia Branca)
  6. watching the sunset at the beach
  7. the sunset from outside Lita store
  8. going to the gym
  9. swapping crazy stories about crocodiles and plotting my escape route while sitting at the beach
  10. jogging from Caz Bar to Cristo Rei, running up the stairs to the top, then back down and repeat. Preferably right at sunset.
  11. wearing cute sun dresses
  12. my yellow room with the chocolate accent wall that drove my landlord nuts
  13. the bathroom that was built just for me, with my very own septic tank and hot water tank
  14. speaking Portuguese
  15. hopping over the wall into the litter-strewn dried-out river and crossing over into downtown Dili
  16. listening to capoeira music and watching the MAC kids puttin' on the moves
  17. Little Pataya
  18. Caz Bar
  19. Aroma Café
  20. sharing an international living experience with friends FOB from Brasil
  21. Yoga class!
  22. GNR jokes
  23. Mana Māe's smile
  24. Donuts from Tiger Fuel, picked up mid-afternoon when I'm desperate for a snack
  25. The Sri Lanki hole-in-the-wall restaurant with awesome juice and coconut salad
  26. The bed I got special ordered from the coffin-maker, but that only enjoyed for two weeks before leaving
  27. Piling all the kids in my landlords' family into my big white SUV and teaching them all how to buckle seatbelts!
  28. The pigs outside my window (I debated which list to put this on, but I think I miss them)
  29. MY VERANDA FURNITURE. Two days after I moved into my house I drove half an hour to another town until I found a guy selling bamboo furniture. We bargained, he fit the full set into my vehicle, and that was that.

Things I don't miss about Timor Leste
  1. UNPOL
  2. UNPOL vehicles
  3. Driving the white SUV when everyone else was driving the motorbikes
  4. Getting violently sick on the drive to Baucau
  5. The inability to avoid people I know when I'm at the beach
  6. The ethical dilemma of daily living
  7. Not being able to trust people
  8. Working in a dark gray-coloured warehouse
  9. The inability to avoid people I know when jogging to Cristo Rei
  10. The [lack of] quality of the Internet connection!
  11. The failings of the Brasilian embassy
  12. Being lied to all the time
What can I say. There's a lot that I miss. It's a great place to live. If only the items on the don't-miss list weren't so important.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Quote discipline day 16

I set out on a narrow way, many years ago, hoping I would find true love along the broken road. But I got lost a time or two, wiped my brow and kept pushing through. I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you! Every long lost dream led me to where you are. Others who broke my heart, they were like northern stars pointing me on my way into your loving arms. This much I know is true.
(from the song Bless the Broken Road)

I suppose this is a love song, but I'm reading it a different way.

I set out on a narrow way. Was it my idea to make my way narrow? Or is it the way that proved itself to be narrow? Could I see down the road and tell how broken it was, or did the breaches hit me one at a time, taking me by surprise?

The way sure is narrow and broken. It's what life is. And, likely, the narrower the better, the more breaks the more excitement, the more opportunities for adventure! But I suppose, by definition, they should come as a bit of a surprise.

I got lost a time or two, wiped my brow and kept pushing through. Hit the wall when running a marathon but kept running. It happened again and again and again. People talk about persistence, but, after all, often there really is no way to go but forward.

And the rest of the lyrics... saying that ultimately the direction taken and the destination reached were the only right answer. The way may be narrow and broken, but it's there, it's set, it's real, and even though it seems that way to me, the fact is that it's actually not changing.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Quote discipline day 15

So. The time has come for me to get my kite flying, stretch out in the sun, kick off my shoes, and speak my piece. 'The days of struggle are over,' I should be able to say. 'I can look back now and tell myself I don't have a single regret.' But I do. Many years ago a very wise man named Bernard Baruch took me aside and put his arm around my shoulder. 'Harpo, my boy,' he said, 'I'm going to give you three pieces of advice, three things you should always remember.' My heart jumped and I glowed with expectation. I was going to hear the magic password to a rich, full life from the master himself. 'Yes, sir' I said. And he told me the three things. I regret that I've forgotten what they were. (Arthur Marx)

How is it that we so easily forget the meaningful things that we learn? How is it that some great, deep bit of life wisdom that I learned today sticks with me for all of one day, then tomorrow I need to learn it all over again?

Why do I have to keep passing through difficult situations in order to grow my faith? Can't the faith just stay bloated?

I'm afraid the Bernard Baruchs of my life have told me great things not once, not twice, but many times over. Sometimes I remember. Sometimes I kind of remember but don't really do anything about it. But all too often, I do as the author did. I gear up, with enormous anticipation, listen carefully, then forget what I learned.

Oh! And so often, I listen carefully to the first few words, then my mind wanders and I forget to keep listening until he's almost done, at which point I realise I didn't get his much-anticipated, highly-valued point! Don't you do that? I hope I'm not the only one.

This year has been a season of lesson-learning for me. God doesn't generally stop me and say something to me like the sage in the quote. Not usually. Usually he provides me with holistic kinetic learning, a full-bodied experience which involves all my senses. The kind of thing a student will remember.

Yet he hasn't taught me these things once, nor twice, nor three times. Every few weeks, if not more frequently, he's teaching me the same thing again, and I can only surmise that it's because I have got to hear it again. And here's how I see it: as long as he's patient enough to keep teaching, I should keep learning. Probably if he's teaching it again, it's because I didn't get it the first time anyway.

So I don't regret not remembering the lessons. Because they'll keep coming around, in a new conversation, a fresh lecture, or a unique experience, until I'm done learning.

Oh, and, I probably won't finish learning until the day I die. Clearly life is about the journey not the destination.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

life is just too much again

Have you heard of the Bali bombings? That was, I believe, 2002. Around 200 people were killed in a blast right outside some of the hottest nightclubs in Southeast Asia, on the Indonesian Hindu-majority, tourist-trappy island of Bali.

I don't remember the details too well, but I remember hearing about the event in the news. Another Islamic attack on the Western way of life. Or, for others, a well-deserved blow for a temple to hedonism.

This weekend, I stayed in a hotel right next to the glossy white marble memorial that has been set up at the Balinese "Ground Zero" site. All night, every night - presumably all week long since, being the ultimate definition of a tourist town, Kuta Bali is not a city that functions on the work week schedule - I could hear the unique blend of dance music wafting up to my room. As I walked past the clubs on my way home in the late evenings, I passed hundreds of girls in black miniskirts and stilettos and frizzy blond hair, and hundreds of Australian surfer dudes half-drunk and half-gawking. These tourists were surrounded by the Balinese who make their lives off the industry: gobs of masseuses, shopkeepers, and motorbike chauffeurs.

Bali is such a stereotype, but there were so many unique characters within the stereotype. How many times this weekend did I say to myself, "Now that's a character. That's someone I could portrait for my blog"? Oh, it happened at least several times a day.

How many of those people can I remember, now that I'm back with my computer on-line? None.