Vacation in My Mind

If you’ve noticed, I’ve strayed from the world of prose lately, posting only photos. Reason: We had a 9 day break for the Muslim holiday, Idul Fitri. Only, um, I didn’t go a.n.y.w.h.e.r.e. ADUH!

I did manage to really concentrate on ways to improve my photography. Am I a geek? Probably. I lived on the ‘net self-educating as much as I could. More about that later (tomorrow maybe).

A few days I went around taking pics in the kampung (village) area of Tanah Merah near Kelapa Gading. It’s an area in extreme poverty, built on a landfill. The stench of rotting garbage and burning tires is pervasive. That’s where I managed to get those photos on this page – the power line photos and “warhol” shots were taken there, and more are on the way.

It’s always interesting to see the reaction to some bule walking around with a camera in an area which I highly doubt has seen a foreigner in a decade. “Halo Mister” is, of course, the most creative and varied announcement shouted from the guys my age. But, I suppose they weren’t aware that the other dude 10 meters away just said it, so they thought they were the first.

I’d much rather talk with the elders. Many older men will approach me and simply speak to me as another human, not with surprise or with hesitation, but more with curiosity at why I would want to photograph their environment. What do I find interesting in this landfill? At this point, it’s tough not to feel condescending, but to resolve this, I simply show them the LCD on my camera and explain that the colors are so much more vibrant than the guarded complex I live in. I go on to tell them that I’ve lived here for over four years and think it’s a shame that so many of my friends will work here for years and never see this side of life. Jakarta is the kind of place where an expat can be sheltered from the poverty. The 5 star hotels, flights to Bali, maids, drivers, fitness clubs, bars, restaurants; they all cater to that facade.

I explain that in their area, people are out doing all sorts of interesting things. Encountering children in these kampungs is always a delight. Many will run up to me, uninhibited, and ask me to take their photo. As expected, they can barely stand still long enough for me to snap away before pouncing on my back to see the photo on the LCD. Walking down the street, it’s not long before an army of a dozen children snakes behind me announcing the arrival of a bule to the rest of the street. Hard to remain inconspicuous, even after half a decade.

In my affluent neighborhood, people lock themselves indoors and rarely even take a stroll in the evenings. They live in air conditioning with maids and drivers to cater to their every whim. The people of Tanah Merah and most other kampung dwellers, welcome their home to visitors. They have the doors opened, the chairs are out in front of the house, kids are playing in the street (there aren’t really any yards unfortunately), and overall it seems as if most people are more friendly than the Benz crowd. No, I shouldn’t generalize like that, as I’m sure most of my wealthy neighbors are as kind once you get to know them – but that’s just it – they don’t offer that chance when barred in their homes. Me? I hang out in the park across the street from my home almost on a daily basis. No joke. I string up a hammock between two trees and either take a nap in the setting sun or read a book in the last minutes of daylight. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen my next door neighbor’s 16 year old kid step foot in the park. Not once in 4 years. Damn shame.

I won’t go on to say that money can’t buy happiness, or pretend to think that these smiling kampung children are living a better life than those locked in their air conditioning with a playstation glued to their hands, scarfing down McD’s. Why bother. The truth is that there’s so much disparity here, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

I won’t bother trying to be poetic about all this; I’m just trying to convey what I observe while on my walks through this fascinating land.

Western Men, Indonesian Women.

Thang D. Nguyen has written an interesting post and subsequent discussion in regards to Western men and Indonesian women. I’ll leave my own thoughts out of this one, but would be interested in hearing how Indonesian women feel after reading this.
Here’s an excerpt from his post:

As my friend and I sipped our coffees last Sunday afternoon at Plaza Indonesia, he asked, “Don’t you think that many of the Indonesian women that white foreigners (buleh) go out with or marry are so unattractive?”

“They look like maids, don’t they” he continued.

“Not necessarily so,” I replied.

Beauty, like many things in life, is bound by the rule of relativity. In other words, what one man considers beautiful is ugly in the eyes of another.

Being an Indonesian himself, my friend’s view of a beautiful woman is that of a fair-skinned one, who has the look of a financially independent, educated, and classy lady.

Thus, in his eyes, an Indonesian woman with a dark complexion, buck teeth, and a high forehead typically found among remote mountain villagers in Java, is not beautiful.

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Doctors Diggin for Gold

Acupuncture is only $5 here, so I’ve gone a few times recently just for kicks…

As I took a seat in the waiting room, I picked up a magazine to pass the time. There were only a few other people around, and most were absorbed in the Indonesian Soap Opera on the waiting room’s television. Glancing up, I noticed that the guy in jeans sitting across from me was eagerly engaged in some serious nose-picking. I’m not talking about the “bat in a cave” type of deal, or the “waiting-at-a-stoplight-and-no-one-is-looking” type of thing. I’m talking full on, brain tickling with the forefinger action.

I tried to bury myself in my magazine to conceal the grin spreading like wildfire across my face. Unfortunately, my curiosity got the best of me – I had to check on him. Yep. A good two minutes later the man was still massaging his sinuses.

My turn is up, I walk into the room, take off my shirt and prepare to be jabbed. While laying face down the doctor begins inserting the needles into my back. As he comes around to the side, he bumps into a needle that was stuck in my forearm. Wincing in pain, I look up in wonder at how a doctor could possibly be that careless?!

Who do I see? Mr. Blue Jeans. The gold digger was my doctor.

Quarter Life Crisis: Part One (Life as an Expat)

So begins a new phase in my life. My Quarter Life Crisis has officially commenced. I suppose a good way to deal with this is with some introspection, reflection, and a good round of bullsh*ting about whatever spills out of this confused mind. Without further ado, let the rambling begin.

Life as an expat moves through a number of phases. There’s the initial, “Wow, it’s so different and interesting!” first few months of bliss with our newfound relationship with a place. This is the phase when we write home to say how guilty we feel having a maid in our home, washing our boxers and cooking for us while making such a small salary. Or how fascinating the bajaj are, and how much we love sambal and sate. This is when all quirks of the culture are met with an upbeat attitude. This is when it’s so much fun to be infused in a culture where no one speaks your language – where you’re an object of interest. This is when we go jogging around the neighborhood at night and smile and say “malam” to everyone we see, and wonder why we don’t receive a response. “Oh well, it must be their culture!” we tell ourselves. This is when we become a bit condescending without meaning to be.

This flows into a time where we begin missing bits of home, “You know, in America ________ “(fill in with inappropriate comparison, yet say it with a smile). By now we’ve settled into appreciating having a maid, and understand that in many ways she has a pretty decent job in respect to the local economy. We’ve become accustomed to the traffic and are learning to be patient with the realization of Indonesia’s “rubber time”. By now we’ve been hit by numerous stomach bugs and no longer eat from the 50 cent street vendors. We’ve started making friends and maybe have even branched out of our cocoon of hanging out with co-workers and expats only.

Which leads into a minor depression of realizing that those things that were ‘interesting’ now are downright annoying. The abundant stares and comments that were so flattering in the beginning are now irritating. In your mind, you’re silently saying, “What the hell are you looking at?!” but then quickly feel guilty realizing that you do in fact look a bit different and those staring at you are simply passing the time while they duduk dan merokok. You’ve let your temper get the best of you more than occasionally when driving / walking / waiting in line. You’ve grown tired of nasi, nasi, nasi, anything that’s been fried, and even sambal has lost its charm. Perhaps you’ve put on a few pounds from this diet and are wondering, “How do they stay so thin here?” This is make-or-break time. You’ll most likely either decide to leave as the shine of your experience has now worn off, or stay and find that things will indeed get better.

I decided to stay. Much, much, longer.

The next phase of being an expat is like settling into a comfortable relationship with a girl. You’ve made it. You are now allowed to show your true colors. She’s accepted you, and you’ve accepted her, even with that annoying habit of (______). You’ve altered your diet to suit your taste and health. Perhaps you’ve joined a nice fitness club, have a few favorite hangouts, manage not to let work consume your life, and even have a nice group of friends both local and expat. You may even have found a love interest. (the complications / experiences / misunderstandings / quirks / amazement of which would take an entire book to write about)

Your life has become rather complete. You don’t really miss ‘home’, and maybe begin to realize some of the disadvantages of living in a Western culture of consumption, chasing the dollar, and from a distance, realize your home country has a rather superficial pop-culture. You have no idea what a Ti-Vo is or how to use one. You’ve never used Crackberry. You’ve never seen a Hummer 3, a Chrysler Crossfire, or a Pontiac Solstice. You don’t have any idea what the latest blockbuster is. The last you heard about Britney Spears was something about having a baby. You don’t watch Lost – you just buy the DVDs a few months later. You hang out in malls and cafés to relax. You wear jeans outside even though it’s 92 degrees and 99% humidity. The heat that was so overwhelming in the beginning is now biasa saja. You get the latest music from pirated CD shops, not a real CD shop. You’ve stopped complaining about paying $100 to the government every time you leave this country. You know you could pay $60 to the guy in the corner but couldn’t be bothered. You’ve tinted the windows and windshield on your car to Mafia tones. You forgot what a speed limit was. Police have become simply an annoyance, not really any kind of deterrent, knowing that $5 will make most of your troubles vanish. You forgot that the shoulder isn’t really for passing on the highway. You feel that a Kijang is a pretty decent car. You feel it’s normal to expect to take an hour and a half to get 5 miles for dinner. You debate about what to do for the Idul Fitri break and realize you’re actually bored with going to Bali. You no longer care if people stare at you, cause you’ve become immune to it. You can go to the bar and carry on a conversation with a kupu-kupu malam, knowing with 100% reassurance you’d never take her home. The hostess at the local bar invited you to her wedding in Sulawesi. You can sms faster than a 13 year old. You have that handphone with you at all times. You don’t even blink an eye at the fact that 6 year olds have them as well. You call it a “handphone”, not a “cellphone”. You begin to finish emails with “cheers”. You say “university” and not “college”. You simply can’t get into reality shows. You think it’s expensive to pay $30 for a doctor visit – with drugs. You’ve never seen a car with GPS navigation. You feel as if you should go indoors as soon as the call to prayer begins at 6pm. You haven’t seen the sunset more than a handful of times, and never after 6:30pm. You think it’s normal to see the dude spraying DDT on your front lawn every Saturday morning at 6am – without wearing a mask. You think $60 a month for 128kbps broadband at home is reasonable and even exciting. Your Honda Jazz is actually considered cool to some of those you work with. You think a 200cc motorcycle is a big bike. You consider a V6 or anything over 2.0 liters to be a powerhouse. You give about as much thought to an Embassy bombing as you do to bird flu. You laugh at “Bule Gila”. You only find Asian women attractive. You no longer consider, “Halo Mister” annoying. You think $3 for going to the theater is a bit expensive. You’re completely used to subtitles on those movies and having the volume played at full force. Many pieces of your wardrobe have tags that say “Armani, D&G, Bvlgari”, but you know damn well none of them are real, and you couldn’t care less. Rats don’t faze you. Seeing a monkey chained to the security guard’s post is no longer unsettling. Getting your driver’s license has become a yearly tradition. Going to immigration still sucks – bad. You don’t remember snow. It’s no longer weird to go a couple of years without seeing family. Your friends back home haven’t forgotten about you, but still truly have no idea where you’re living. “Isn’t Bali a country?” “Do they have good coffee on ‘Java’?” “Do they have Internet over there?” “I always wanted to see Thailand!” You’ve had an amoeba. At least once – and you’ve resumed eating off the street cause, well, sh*t happens.

And finally you begin to realize that, yes; you could in fact remain here for much, much longer and probably be reasonably content. But the fact of the matter is that you’re becoming so embedded in life here that if you don’t bring about a change soon, you may miss a window of opportunity to once again do something different with your life. You realize that a huge disadvantage of being here is seeing friends come and go. You spend a couple years hanging out with these great people, and then suddenly they’re gone, having returned to the land of McDonalds and Britney. You feel a craving. Perhaps you’ve seen all there is to see. Done all there is to do. Experienced all that your adopted country has to offer at this point in your life. What is it? What is that nagging sensation? Is it time to pack it up? Is it time to move to another country and therefore resume the cycle of expatism? Find that which is shiny and new yet again? Or is it time to head home? To realize that, hey, maybe it’s not so bad there. Maybe you could live somewhere in your home country that is completely new – an entirely new adventure? Would you regret leaving? Would you miss all that you’ve come to love about this place?

These are the questions which keep many expats up at night. These are the questions which I suppose I’ve been dealing with for a few years; coming in as tides and receding when I’ve made the decision to stay. It’s about that time of year when the tide is coming in, and I’m not sure about how this one will play out. This is the most uncertain I’ve been of my future since I was 22 and facing university graduation.

Welcome to my Quarter Life Crisis.

Bule Behavior Defined.

My gym is on the second level of a newly constructed urban jungle called “The Piazza”. To get to that second level, I have two options: the stairs or this hi-tech tunnel with a flashy escalator. I almost always opt for the escalator as it’s closer to the parking area (ok and it’s got the Knight Rider feel).

A couple months ago, the escalator stopped running for no reason. They didn’t attempt to put any kind of “Under Repair” sign in front and I never saw anyone use it again. Oh well, nothing wrong with resigning myself to the stairs. For the past few months I have passed the escalator and continued on to take the stairs. Sometimes things in this country just stop working for no reason right? I’ve gotten used to it.

Last week as I was approaching the escalator area, preparing to walk on by, an attractive Chinese woman in workout gear breezes past me and hops on the escalator. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was broken, to save her the embarrassment.

You know how this is going to end, don’t you?

As she reaches the first step, the motion detector, sensing her movement, starts the escalator moving.

Stalking Leopards

I was contacted by a reporter for the International Herald Tribune last week. She had come across my blog and asked if I’d compose an article for publication. The focus of the article was to convey expat experiences with having guests stay with you, “quirky, extreme, or unexpected stories”. So, for better or worse, here’s one of those stories I wouldn’t usually share!

Jakarta. Famous for political strife, bird flu, and harboring terrorist cells, it’s also the gateway to Indonesia. Most travelers and tourists never leave the airport, much less venture into the heart of this city of 14 million souls. However, as an expat who has called this place ‘home’ for over four years, I tend to attract interesting experiences with those guests who decide to drop by and stay a while.

An expat who opens their door to a variety of visitors will inevitably find that people have many different interests when taking in a new culture. Some pursue the arts, the monuments, perhaps the landscape and natural wonders, while others prefer the more visceral and raw experience; they want to crawl into the under belly of the place so to speak.

One such guest made it a personal mission to experience Jakarta’s lesser known secret: the infamous nightlife that is said to rival Bangkok. Despite Indonesia being a nation with a 90% Muslim population, the bars and nightclubs in Jakarta are stocked with gorgeous girls seeking the company of both expats and their wallets.

Having witnessed the shock of visiting bars and seeing older expats bonding with women a quarter of their age, I strongly attempted to dissuade my friend to follow that route. As his host, I felt a certain responsibility to keep him out of the ‘dark side’ of Jakarta. When hosting out of town guests, the experience they have and the memories forever carved in their minds are a direct reflection of what you choose to show them. After attempting to persuade him otherwise, my friend was determined to see the ‘real Jakarta’, and I was about to find out just what kind of reflection I was about to provide.

Strolling into the five star hotel bar, I had to help my friend (let’s call him Joe) retrieve his jaw from the ground: the women were nothing short of breathtaking. He confidently made his rounds, as happy as a man who’d found utopia. As the night wore on, I noticed Joe was like an eight year old in the cereal aisle: desperate to know what prize was in the box, but unable to choose from the copious selection. The more time passed, the darker it seemed to get in the club. Toward the end of the night, I found Joe in one such dim corner practicing his 20 word Indonesian vocabulary with a slim woman in a leopard print dress. He had found his prey.

Drained and ready to leave I pulled Joe from his shady corner and into a cab. Climbing into the front seat, ready to close my eyes in preparation for the 30-minute ride home, I heard not one, but two doors slam shut behind me. Joe was not alone. Joe had captured a leopard. Knowing that Joe was a responsible adult, I decided to keep both my judgments and my mouth shut. To each his own, I told myself.

Two minutes into the ride home, I was pulled into Joe’s conversation with the Leopard. Apparently the Leopard didn’t speak English. I turned around to help Joe translate with his new friend. A nauseating feeling began to well up in me. Something was definitely wrong with the situation but I couldn’t put my finger on it. What was it? Was morality rearing its ugly head? Was it the fact that I should I tell Joe just how wrong it was to take home a woman whose English vocabulary stopped at “hi” and “beer”? As the fast moving car passed under the street lamps, it created a strobe light array that reflected off the Leopard’s face at rapid intervals. And then it hit me: my subconscious had noticed something my (and Joe’s) eyes hadn’t seen. The Leopard had a 5 o’clock shadow arriving 8 hours late. The Leopard was a man!

I couldn’t help but blurt it out to Joe.

“Oh my God she’s a he!”

“What are you talking about?” replied Joe with a drunken slur.

“Your chick has stubble!”

“No way, I’d never be tricked into that.”

“Dude, wait till we get under a street light.”

The discernable horror that stretched across Joe’s face will forever be etched in my mind.

“Pull over!” he screamed.

“C’mon, you can’t just drop her, I mean him, errr it, here!”

“If you don’t pull the cab over, I’m gonna puke all over the driver!”

The Leopard apparently knew the drill, as s/he wasn’t noticeably surprised or shocked in the least. S/he simply held their hand out waiting for cab fare to hitch a ride back to the same club. Ten dollars lighter, yet stocked with a lifetime’s treasure of humiliation, Joe made me swear never to tell the story again. Well, at least until a few years had passed.

The mortification we both experienced that night leapt through a range of emotions: the most immediate being fear of what could have been, followed by vodka induced laughter as we replayed the script in our heads, and finally into a dead silence of shame; his from the shock of it all, and mine from allowing myself to get him into that situation in the first place. As a host familiar with the trappings of Jakarta’s nightlife, it was my duty to steer him towards safer venues, like bookstores or shopping centers. Places where the sex of a customer was not a discussion point.

Joe didn’t seem keen to hit Jakarta’s nightlife after that, and for some reason we drifted apart after his departure. The last I heard he was stalking prey in North America, in well-lit venues where Leopards simply cannot hide.

Black Magic and a Brat's Holiday Remorse

I’m experiencing a bit of holiday remorse. Four weeks in Bali was almost too much of a good thing. In fact we changed our tickets and returned 5 days early to Jakarta (DOH!). That plan bit me in the ass for reasons I won’t go into at the moment.

I’m coming to the conclusion that perhaps 1-2 weeks of an amazing holiday would be more worthwhile than four weeks of moderation. This is not an invitation to receive criticisms for sounding like a yuppie, spoiled, expat-living-like-a-king (yeah right), etc, etc. I’m just saying that maybe it’s better to go for quality over quantity. One week of bliss in Thailand over four weeks in Ubud may have been the preferable route this time. Maybe this is stemming from the fact that I’ve spend three of the past 13 months in Bali. Or, maybe this is just a slight amount of home-sickness creeping in. After all, I have only returned ‘home’ to the States once in my 4+ years in Indonesia. I’m wondering if it would have been more wise to leave the country at least, as now my colleagues are returning with fresh faces, raring to go for yet another year and I’m only partially recharged.

Overall, Ubud was wonderful but the quiet nights got a bit too quiet. I love it there, but after three weeks anyone needs a change. Fortunately, we had the chance to hit the beaches of Sanur, Seminyak, Dreamland, and Balangan (my fav). I put a solid 1000km on the Jeep but most of them were burned up driving back and forth from Ubud to the Bvlgari Resort, unlike the other trips to Bali exploring every inch of the island.

What’s the flipside? I am looking forward to getting back into the gym (I’ve lost so much muscle that my shirts are actually fitting well), spending time with friends, and continuing on my photographic endeavors this year with a couple of tentative projects that have yet to take shape.

The day I arrived back in Jakarta the security guards at my place of work informed me that my Honda’s tire had been flat the entire time I was gone, my maid told me that the drain in my shower was stuck and they’d have to rip apart the tile to repair it, and I had to pay extra corruption fees to receive a package that my brother sent from Singapore – after he already pre-paid all the shipping charges.

When I said that returning home early bit me in the ass? Actually it’s an amoeba. I’m on horse pill antibiotics that warp your world. Ever have one of those take residence in your intestines? Betcha it’ll make you write a post like this one. I’m beginning to believe in black magic.

It’s good to be home.

P.S. – I’m dedicating this entire post to this discussion.

You Can't Title a Post Like This

So I’m in the grocery store with Novita looking for hand sanitizer. I find the proper aisle, and am surprised by the variety of shapes and colors offered for hand cleaner; usually it’s just a small square boring bottle. These bottles were curvy and fit the hand very well. Pleased with my selection, I’m joined by Novita:

“What are you doing?”, as she inspects the label.

“Buying hand sanitizer.”

“That’s not for cleaning your hands!”, with a devilish grin.

“What the hell is it for then?”

“Cleaning vaginas.”

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