Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mammoth cockroaches and mayonnaise pizza

Here’s my all-knowing, all-seeing Lonely Planet guidebook’s description of Palembang:

Sumatra’s second-largest city, Palembang is reminiscent of Bangkok 30 years ago. This is a riverine culture that crawled to land to establish an equally free-flowing metropolis. It is chaotic and sprawling but still reverential of the central Sungai Musi [Musi River].

The core industries of oil refining, fertilizer production, and cement manufacturing scent the air with a distinctive odor you might first mistake as your own funk.

They’re right—it just sort of… stinks… all the time here. But I have never once mistaken it for my own “funk,” thankyouverymuch.

Having Christine here confirmed a lot of my speculations. Everything gets filthy immediately: your body, your clothes, your home, your belongings, etc. (Or as my students say, “E-T-C,” saying each letter individually, proud because they believe this is slang.) Anyway, Christine couldn’t believe how after just going downtown and coming home, her feet were literally covered in dirt. We treated ourselves to one night in a hotel (when my house didn’t power or water), and I think we each spent at least an hour in the shower, using the rare hot water to clean off all the dirt caked onto each of us.

Christine also said that my students are “rich spoiled brats.” Unfortunately, I agree. That’s not to say that many of them aren’t genuine sweethearts who really are eager to learn English and welcome me to their school. They are. But there are the others.

The teachers at IGM make the equivalent of US $150 a month. Each of the students pays US $85 a month to go there. That is an awful lot of money in Indonesia; these are the children of doctors and lawyers. They come to class late if they decide to come to class at all, they stand outside my classroom door and make faces at my students (prompting Christine to hilariously yell at one that she was going to march him down to his headmistress if she ever saw him again), and they just don’t like to pay attention. I’m lucky I’m American— my novelty earns me a little more respect than the other teachers.

Haha… I feel so gross all the time! I am constantly sweating, so my hair is in a pony tail every day. My face is breaking out. The dirt gets in my eyes and really irritates them. I decided it wasn’t worth a battle, so I’ve just been wearing my glasses. Add in my braces and stretch pants and I could be in fourth grade again.

Luckily, if there is one place to feel ugly, it’s Indonesia. People here just automatically think I’m beautiful. They think any and all Westerners are beautiful. Pregnant woman stop me and tell me they want their baby to look like me. Strangers in the mall ask to take my picture. It’s all a little overwhelming… but I sort of like it. I can’t help it!

(On a side note, I measured the cockroach I found and destroyed in my bathroom this morning. His disgusting little body was 2 ½ inches long, and his antennae were 3 inches long. They are all like this, and I hate them.)

All Indonesians takes off their shoes before entering any home. In the school, they take their shoes off before entering any important room, like the library, computer lab, or prayer room. I’m finally getting used to this.

I don’t take off my shoes in my own house. In fact, I wear at least flip flops all the time or my feet will be covered in a layer of black grime. Everyone who visits automatically takes his or her shoes off, though. And then they all cringe as they realize my floor is filthy.

I’ve TRIED to mop it! I spent $8 on the best mop in the grocery store and bought the very best brand of floor cleaner. I think the problem is
a. I’m not very good at cleaning floors.
b. They don’t have Swiffers here.
c. The dirt is just so much more than I’m used to or can handle.

As my friend Vincent said after I told him I mopped that very floor yesterday, “Well, Katie, I do appreciate the way you sort of artistically spread the dirt around in this room.”

He said I should hire someone to clean for me, which I’m not opposed to (stimulating the economy, right?!). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find someone here who won’t steal from you, though. I’ve heard that a lot. For now, I will continue pushing dirt around myself and wearing my flip flops.

I found a woman who does all my laundry and irons my work clothes for $30 a month. Actually, it went more like this— (through a translator)
Me: So how much do you charge for four weeks?
Her: 200,000 rupiah ($20)
Me: Ok, deal. When should I bring my clothes over?
Her: Actually, $25, because you look like you have a lot of clothes.
Me: Excuse me?
Her: $25, no less. And I’ll buy the soap.
Me: (getting upset but completely out of clean pants) Fine.
Her: Actually, I forgot. I’ll be using my own electricity to iron, so $30 a month.
Me: $5 a month will pay YOUR ENTIRE ELECTRIC BILL!
Her: I need $30, no less.
Me: So don’t iron my clothes.
Her: I’ll have to use the electricity to turn the lights on while I wash your clothes.
Me: (feeling very cheated and angry) Ok, never mind then.
(At this point my counterpart reminds me that if I don’t use her, I will have to carry all my dirty clothes on public transportation for 45 minutes into the city and then home each weekend. So I finally agree.)

We’re in the middle of the second weekend now, and she actually did a very nice job with the first load. And hey, she provides the soap.

There is a Pizza Hut in Palembang! Of course, like any American chain in another country, they offer a lot of very unfamiliar things. For example, the corn, potato, mayonnaise pizza Yana got last night. Corn. Potato. Mayonnaise. On a pizza! I am starving for any kind of fresh food here, considering I’m existing on a diet of peanut butter and jelly, cup o’noodles, and oreos. A cheese-only girl in America, here I order one with everything (everything normal, that is) and devour it.

I was also surprised to learn that Pizza Hut even created a special ribbon with its signature pattern for women to wear on their jilbabs. (A jilbab is the veil worn by most Muslim women over their head, neck, and usually shoulders. A burka is the one that covers the entire body. I haven’t seen anyone wearing one here.) It’s like… really, Pizza Hut? You’ve been mass producing brand-name Muslim veils this whole time, and I had no idea…

There’s a product called “whitening cream” that’s sold everywhere. It’s literally supposed to lighten the color of your skin. And here, as evidenced by my sudden popularity, white skin is seen as beautiful. The ads are similar to teeth-whitening ads in America. A pretty Asian girl holds up a chart ranging from dark to light skin next to her face, charting her progress. Look! Two shades lighter in one bottle!

Initially, I’ll admit, I was pretty judgmental. Then I realized… don’t I smear bronzer over my face? And use self-tanner sometimes? And go tanning? (Yes, I KNOW it’s bad for me.)

Yana teaches English at a night school in Palembang, too, and I went with her to meet her class. One student politely raised her hand and asked, “Miss, aren’t you afraid the sun in Indonesia will make your skin darker?” I replied that I’ve been spending as much time as I can out of the sun, but that I would really like to get a tan while I’m here. In America, I said, many people with white skin pay a lot money to look tan. She was truly shocked, then laughed and said, “We should all switch!”

We were planning a trip to Medan and beautiful Lake Toba this weekend, but flights were hovering near $250, and I’d rather plan out and anticipate that excursion more if I’m going to be paying so much for it. So since I was in Palembang for another weekend, I used the time to plan the heck out of my next few trips:

Ok, back to my guidebook (which is already starting to look worn and loved). Thanks to reading it every night before bed, I have discovered Something I Am Extremely Excited About, the sort of thing you learn about in introductory women’s studies classes. There have been a few matrilineal societies throughout history, though most no longer exist. Well, I found one that does. Names are still passed down through the women in Minangkabau, West Sumatra, as are property and money. I’m not actually sure if there’s much more to do there than pump my fist and shout “Girl power!” but I don’t know verbs strong enough describe how excited I am.

Guess how thrilled I was when I discovered that this village is a short bus ride from the best place in Indonesia to find the rafflesia flower (yes, another goal!)? It’s only in season from August until November, so I have to move quickly to catch it. I first heard about the flower when Jared Grigsby sent me a link to an AP story about it last summer. Oh fantastic, I thought, I am on the same island as the world’s largest flower, and it smells like a rotting corpse. Now that I’m here, it’s more like: Oh, great! I am on the same island as the world’s largest flower, and it smells like a rotting corpse!

AND this trip—which is starting to seem like it has been divinely organized for me—happens to be right next to the place described in a magazine article my mom clipped out and sent with me about the best cinnamon in the world. It grows wild on the side of Mount Kerinci in West Sumatra. Apparently, it is a more “smooth-flavored” cinnamon, one with “less bite.” I will find some.

I have decided that this trip might just be the best one I have this entire year, and if it turns out to be a bust, I will die. I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic.

I’m planning a party for English Club during the week before Halloween. I can’t wait to tell you all about it, but I’m still working out the details.

The weekend after THAT is my 23rd birthday (November 7), and because the universe is good, I am going to spend it in Bali. Then I’ll stick around Palembang for another few weekends before planning something out for Thanksgiving.


  1. Katie--let me know how that rafflesia flower works out for you. When you get back to the states there might be a job for you in a funeral home. Maybe you can broadcast live, I mean dead, from the undertakers place. Keep those stories coming and don't let those cockroaches get the best of you! Dad

  2. Ahhhhhhh... you ARE going to see the rafflesia flower! I'm soooo excited about that. It's going to be so much bigger than you!

    Even though you have a "big bule nose," they all think you're beautiful. Any cute Indonesian guys ask you on a date yet? Hmmmm???

    I love this blog... it should be nominated for blog of the YEAR!

    And, I mop with water first (I use hot, but you don't have the luxury), then soap and water, then a water rinse. Maybe that method will work?

    I sent you an email earlier. Both kitties are asleep - one by me and one on my desk chair. They wanted to meet you!!!

    Miss you and love you so much!!!


    Enough said : )

    I am coming back soon. Tell them now...