Ooooh, West Hemisphere born-and-raised...
In the Midwest is where I spent most of my days...
Ok, I'll stop.
Bugs. There are bugs everywhere. There are bugs in the shower, bugs all over my food if it sits around for even a millisecond, and bugs that think I’m delicious. The first night I didn’t sleep with bug spray on—big mistake. The welts on my ankles, chest, and arms have diminished significantly now.
Cockroach count: 4 (which I hear really isn’t that bad)
1 in the kitchen
1 in my bedroom
2 in the shower
Little lizard count: 5
Luckily, I have a nice neighbor who got rid of them for me. I guess squeals of terror don’t need a translation. The lizards are almost cute and they’re harmless, I think, but they poop everywhere. I have nothing nice to say about the cockroaches.
My house is really nice. It’s small and beige on the outside, and the inside is very empty, but clean. I have a bright blue couch. There are a lot of things I want to buy: a toaster, a bigger mirror, a blanket to sleep on, a small plastic chest of drawers, a broom, a trash can, etc. I haven’t really figured out how to get anything bigger than a the most basic groceries home, though. I can only take what I can carry on the motorcycle… this will be a continuing mission.
It’s hot. And when I say “it’s hot,” I mean “IT IS HOT.” I don’t know what the actual temperature is, but when I sit here, I have no trouble at all imagining myself straddling the equator. I don’t have AC in my house, but I do have an old fan, which I carry around with me and plop down next to me wherever I am. I am not a person who sweats much, but I literally soak through my clothes on a daily basis here. I can’t keep up with my own demand for deodorant. The cold shower has turned out to be the least of my worries.
Have you ever seen “Fools Rush In” with Matthew Perry? There’s a scene where his family is out on a boat along with the Hispanic family he married into. Someone asks his father what’s wrong, and he yells, “THE WHITE PEOPLE ARE MELTING HERE!”
AMINEF warned us that Palembang was a really difficult place to live as a Westerner, mostly because the people here are especially conservative. That’s why they put two of us in this city. Rajiv is the other ETA, and he’s stationed at a Catholic high school downtown, while I’m outside of the city at a private high school. We’re still at least a half hour apart by motorcycle, but we’ve been able to meet at the mall a couple times.
Some of the food is unbelievably spicy. Dear god, I feel like I’m eating flaming rice. But I like it when they warn me about the salt. I can handle my salt, you see. They say, “Katie, beware! This one, it is very spicy. And this one, it is very salty. Much too spicy and salty for you.” Then they watch me closely, and their eyes widen a little in what must be sheer admiration. I can eat the best of them under the table when it comes to salt. It tooks years of practice, putting too much salt on soup, potatoes, and meats.
Whenever we go out to eat, I feel like some clichéd supporting actress character on a bad movie. Waiter hands me my plate. “Ooh, sir! Excuse me! You forgot to give me a spoon and fork for this meal! However am I supposed to eat this?!” Hardy har har. Everyone eats with their hands. And my hands taste like hand sanitizer.
The second you even mention the city “Palembang” in Indonesia, someone will inevitably tell you about pempek; the two are basically synonymous. Pempek is the traditional dish of Palembang. It’s basically a ball of fish, usually with the skin still on it, mixed with some other minor ingredients and dipped in a dark spicy sauce. In every single class I’ve met, the students told me about pempek, as did every angkot driver, AMINEF employee, and native Indonesian. I’ve asked if any of them don’t like it—I haven’t found a single native who doesn’t adore it.
And they love love love to share their favorite food with you, the visitor. People from Palembang aren’t just disappointed if someone doesn’t like pempek, they’re genuinely insulted. So I was greatly anticipating (and fearing) my first experience.
Raj is a vegetarian. That’s perfectly fine with people from Palembang as long as you’re still willing to eat meat.
Raj’s counterpart: Tonight, I will take you to eat pempek.
Rajiv: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m a vegetarian.
Counterpart: Oooh, really? Well you will like it very much.
Rajiv: I don’t eat any meat, actually.
Counterpart: But you will try this and I know you will like it.
Rajiv: I’m sorry, I can’t.
Counterpart: …You will not eat pempek?
It’s enough to almost break your heart.
So I finally ate some. It’s nothing I’d order for myself given, uh, any other menu options, but it’s not bad. And I’d choke down a few bites of anything to see the smiles like the ones on my students’ faces when I finally answered: “Yes, I did try pempek. I liked it!” Cheers all around.
Guess what I did? I got clean drinking water for myself. I am really beaming with pride just thinking about it. Obviously, I can’t drink the tap water, which is only really annoying when I’m brushing my teeth over the kitchen sink (my only sink). When I moved in, I saw an empty water cooler. Normal-sized, like you’d find in an office. After rooting around, I found a few of Andrea’s (the old ETA) receipts from a place to get it refilled. She left a note saying it’s 30,000 if you carry it back yourself or 35,000 (35 cents) if you want them to carry it back for you. I couldn’t believe how cheap that is… even bottles of water here are at least 40 cents. I showed Yana the address, and she helped me find the little water stand, which happens to be the ONLY kind of commercial business within walking distance.
So one afternoon, I changed from out of my school clothes into the acceptable casual outfit of jeans and a sweater (gasp, sweat, choke on heat) and started off down the my little gravel road carrying my big empty cooler. Before I left, I had translated all the sentences I thought I’d need to use and I carried them in my pocket on a note card. What I wasn’t planning on was finding 14 (I counted) kids under the age of 8 there with no adult. “Please stop jumping on me and screaming at me in Indonesian and go find the shop owner so I can finally stop wasting my precious bottled water cleaning off my toothbrush bristles” was not one of the sentences I had anticipated using.
After asking “Where are your mom and dad?” repeatedly for about six minutes, a 15-year-old kid finally showed up. He helped me fill up the jug and drove it home for me. I waved goodbye to the kids and skipped down the road. I even paid the boy 5 more cents, and he lifted it into the machine for me. And then he left. And then I had clean water.
Coming up next: Katie’s First Day of School