Saturday, December 26, 2009

A bathroom blog. Toilet talk?

Please accept my sincerest apologies, because I have been holding out on you. It occurred to me recently that I have yet to share with you the mildly terrifying adventure that is Indonesian bathrooms.

I should have known some bathroom challenge was looming in my future long before I set foot in this country. Mom and I pored over the pages of my Fulbright information packets in the weeks before I left. Once, I remember her holding up a sheet, saying, “It says here that you’re guaranteed a ‘western toilet’ in your house. Does that imply something about other toilets?”

I think I shrugged. Back then, of course, I was more concerned with fitting nine months’ worth of scrunchy hair gel and spare contacts into my suitcase.

During orientation, they told us a few words that will haunt me throughout my time here: “You have to get used to the idea that here, wet is clean.”

Wet is clean. Wet is clean. Sure, ok. I can get behind that one. I mean, isn’t wet clean?

What they mean is that Indonesians wash themselves at least five times a day, always before they pray. But soap is hardly ever required. They splash some water on their bodies and go on their merry way, feeling clean.

Public restrooms here are covered in a layer of water. If there is a western toilet, it’s always soaked. Which brings me to how they… clean up after going to the bathroom.

The first time I saw an Indonesian toilet, I just stared at it. It’s a glorified hole in the ground. I mean, really. A porcelain hole in the ground. It looks like an angry giant saw a normal toilet and stomped it into the ground with both feet at once.

I’ve found that the best way to use it is to sort of mold my body into a tripod where I lean back against one arm on the wet wall in a sort of valley-girl squat position. In one humiliating episode of my life, I peed right down the side of my pant leg. That was a low point, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

To flush, here’s what you’re working with:

It’s a bucket and a tub of water. They wipe themselves with their left hand and then use the bucket, or sometimes a hose, to clean off their hands and flush the squat toilets. You even flush most western toilets with the bucket and tub of water method. They do not use toilet paper at all. I always carry a pack of tissues in my purse. This is why using your left hand is totally off-limits here. They won’t even accept money if you try to pass it to them with your left hand.

(You’re also not allowed to point at things with your feet. I can’t think of an instance where I have really ever been moved to do that, though. Maybe shoe shopping? Certainly not in my daily life.)

They bathe in much the same way—by pouring a bucket of water over their head repeatedly. Luckily, I have a showerhead in my house. It’s what’s called a “wet shower,” where the hose is suspended, but the water just sprays out onto the floor.

Aside from the chilly temperature, it’s really not bad at all. Sometimes I try to pretend it’s ultra-modern: Tubs are so old-fashioned, I say to myself.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Graffiti and &#*$!!

I think foreign graffiti is one of the funniest things in the world. It makes me giggle like a little girl to see words I don’t understand splayed across the side of a bridge or train. I see a word, hardly ever as elaborately drawn as what you’d see in the US, and I blink. I blink again, slowly, but the letters never move. It’s just so completely… pointless. I want to find whoever did and say, “Look, you might have defaced this piece of property out of pride or to offend me or to leave your mark, and it didn’t work even a little bit.” And then I giggle again.

Which brings me to an interesting topic—swearing. (I despise the word “cuss.” It is the word I hate most in the English language, second only to “crotch.” Must be something about the hard C sound. I promise that after this point I won’t use either in my blog.)

I guess I hang out with a somewhat classy crowd here in Palembang, because I’ve never heard them use an English swear word. I’ve never taught them, either, because they’ve never asked.

Once my friend Didi leaned across the table and whispered, “I heard this word. This word f***. I tried to look it up. It’s an action?” Ehh. I explained that it’s mostly just used as an exclamation or a derogatory adjective. That’s it in Palembang, though.

In Depok, however, where Jakarta is right next door, and they’re all nearly fluent, bad words flow more than running water. But ONLY in English. Christine’s friends taught us some bad words in Indonesian, and they gave us strict instructions to never, ever use them. Even these people, who swear more comfortably in English than I do, wouldn’t dare to say bad words in Indonesian.

So I started thinking, and they’re right. Even when people yell at me on the street, even when I saw a motorcycle accident, even when a security guard chased away a man who was trying to rob me… I’ve never heard an Indonesian swear in Indonesian.

We met a couple students from the University of Indonesia who were very friendly. I asked one of them about swearing, and he laughed. “What words did you learn?” he asked. He leaned in and I whispered it. He then covered his ears and gasped. I waited for him to laugh again. He didn’t.

I’m not sure why there’s such a stigma here about swearing. People yell out all sorts of nasty things all the time, but I guess they’re never actually bad words. It’s even horribly offensive to call someone a dog or a pig. They simply won’t say those words.

I also wanted to mention that every region of Indonesia has certain specialty foods. Just like in the US we associate lobster with Maine and Wisconsin with cheese, Indo has the same. Except that while the US’s regional foods range from dairy to meat to fruit, most of Indonesia’s specialties are some sort of rice with a topping or some sort of fish with a topping. Of course, Palembang is known for those delightful balls of fish called pempek. (Cue me gagging softly in the background.)

As we were driving around in Jakarta, I saw signs for “mie aceh,” and I asked Christine’s friend John what was so special about noodles from Aceh. (Keep in mind, Aceh is the most fundamentally Muslim area of the archipelago. This is where two American teachers were shot at around Thanksgiving.) I am immediately suspicious when I hear the word “Aceh.” Fulbright won’t let me go there, and honestly, that’s all right with me.

John said the noodles from aceh are special because “they put in cannabis.” “Like… as in marijuana?” I asked. He raised his eyebrows up and down a few times. “Yes, like that. The food will make you laugh and feel like you’re flying. You want to try?”

As much as I’m trying to be an equal opportunity food-sampler over here, I had to politely decline. The last thing I need is to “feel like I’m flying” while I spend the whole night retching up street vendor food.

I wasn’t sure if John was telling me the truth, or maybe if he just didn’t know the truth, but I looked it up, and sure enough, he’s right. For God’s sake, this is a country where signs screaming “Death to drug traffickers” greets you as you walk off the plane, and they cook it right into their noodles?

I’m sure there’s a terrifically offensive joke to be made here connecting Aceh’s recent attempts to pass a stoning law and eating their native noodles, but I shall resist.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Rumah Christine di Depok

My friend Katie Nuss sends me songs though email to keep my spirits up and includes some new hits so I won’t be completely left out when I come home. Then I share them with Christine.

Boys, boys boys…
We like boys in cars.
Boys boys boys…
Buy us drinks in bars.
Boys boys boys…
Hairpray and denim
Boys boys boys…
We love them!

“Well,” I said and looked over at Christine, “it’s official. Lady Gaga has zero relevance in our lives.”

She nodded somberly. It’s more like, “Water water water… I wish I had some to drink nowwww.”

It was one of those nights when we didn’t have any water. Those are rough nights. We washed our feet, faces, hands, and teeth with a couple bottles of water.

I have—get ready for this—an entire four weeks off of school. The students get two weeks off for testing (for a total of eight half-days of finals), and then they get two weeks off for a break between semesters. So I took off and spent a week with Christine in Depok, near Jakarta.

The differences between where we live are incredible. On the surface, they’re very similar: the cities are about the same size and our houses are comparable. But Christine has something I don’t have—Jakarta. And that has made all the difference.

People in Depok speak much better English than people in Palembang. Christine’s casual friends are more fluent than the English teachers at my school. She lives in an area with a few restaurants and shops, she has a maid, and she’s a few hours from Jakarta. I live in a neighborhood with nothing. I am a few hours from nothing. I am my own maid.

Although, the maid thing might be a blessing. Christine’s maid steals from her, which is apparently just a given here. People tell me Christine should be grateful her maid only steals food, dishware, and makeup. The American couple Mike and Debbie had to fire their maid after she made off with hundreds of dollars worth of stuff, and another couple had their laptop stolen. At least my grimy hands are the only set on my 13’ macbook pro.

We had a wonderful week just relaxing and basking in the happiness that is having a friend nearby. Chris did a good job planning out activities for us each day—

We went to the Taman Safari (Garden Safari), where no regulations means animals come right up to the car as you drive through. I petted a zebra and fed him three carrots. The ornery llamas blocked the road until we diverted their attention with more carrots. We rolled up our windows when we saw the lions.

Ahhh! Somebody's hungry.
(Photo courtesy of Christine)

We spent a day in Jakarta with Pete, another ETA. Pete has a really cute story—his family in America hosted an Indonesian foreign exchange student when he was in high school. She wound up falling in love with and marrying Pete’s cousin, and now Pete lives just miles away from her family… which is his family now. So he stays with them most weekends and they showed us around town.

Chillin' with Pete's cousin Sabina in the ice rink

We went ice skating in a huge Jakarta mall and sat on an Indonesian Santa Claus’s lap. I wanted him to ask me what I wanted for Christmas in Indonesian, but he didn’t. I guess not all dreams come true.

Ho ho ho

We visited the elementary school where Obama was a student when he lived in Indonesia! That will go down as one of my favorite Indonesian memories. The school is VERY nice, better than any I’ve seen, but we heard it got that way only after Obama gained popularity in America. Nearby, there’s a park where they just dedicated a statue of Obama as a little boy playing with a butterfly.

Obama means so much to these people. He only went to that school from 1969-1971. A friend told us that after the controversial Indonesian elections over the past decade, television reporters would head downtown and interview the bejaj drivers (who reside on the lower rungs of the transportation ladder). The reporters would ask, “Do you know who won the elections today?” And the drivers would say, “Who was running? There was an election? When?”

Last November, though, the reporters found drivers and said, “Do you know what happened today?” And they said, “OBAMA! OBAMA!” Some of them don’t even know their own president, but they know Obama won an election halfway around the world.

Baby Barack's school

I haven’t read Dream of My Father yet (though I’m anxiously anticipating its arrival from, but I can’t wait to read about his years in Indonesia. I’m not complaining, but it’s hard to be a White woman here. I can’t imagine being a Black little boy thirty years ago being raised by a single mother. I’m also really curious about his religion. Indonesia is so extremely Muslim; his mom was an atheist. Hmm.

We ate at good restaurants, including a pseudo-Mexican one run by an American. As my new friend Gary said, “It’s not good Mexican food, no, but it’s the best you’ll get here.” That’s good enough for me. The salsa tasted like salsa, so I was a happy lady.

More about Gary. He’s from… wait for it… Bucyrus, Ohio. (Though he went to my rival high school, Wynford, which sits outside the city limits. Boo!) Gary completed two terms with the Peace Corps in Malaysia in the 70s. Now he’s living in Jakarta with Nina, his wife of 25 years, who’s from Yogyakarta.

I was especially curious to find out about Nina’s visits to Bucurus. I’ve been walking around thinking, “People in myyyyy city wouldn’t shout and grab at a foreigner like this” to make myself feel better. Nina and Gary are delightfully honest about American and Indonesia, and they’ve traveled practically everywhere else in the world, too.

“So, you’ve been to Bucyrus?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I know all about Bucyrus.”
“Did people… harass you there?”

I said a silent thank-you prayer when she said they didn’t. Nina wears a jilbab, and I know I’ve never seen anyone in Bucyrus wearing one. She said adults ignore her for the most part, and sometimes she notices little kids spying on her behind trees. I can handle that. Thank you, Bucyrus.

Katie, Nina, Gary, Christine, yummy food

Now, anybody who knows anything about Bucyrus knows about the Bratwurst Festival. We are the Bratwurst Capital of America. I have a sneaking suspicion that might be a self-proclaimed title. Eh.

“So, have you been back for the Bratwurst Festival?” I asked.

She hadn’t, sadly. I suppose a jilbab would get awfully messy in the cream-puff-eating contest. Gary said, “You know, I don’t eat pork anymore. I’m a good Muslim.”


That’s about the definition of irony, isn’t it? A boy who grew up in the Bratwurst Capital of America who gave up pork? But he and Nina assured me they enjoy the veal bratwurst.

Chris and I also went to the Botanical Gardens in Bogor, where I continued and miserably failed at my perpetual quest for the elusive Rafflesia flower in bloom. It doesn’t seem elusive to anyone but me, but dang it if that flower doesn’t close up the second it senses me entering a town.

We ate tons of rambutan. I adore rambutan. Indonesians tell me that you can’t use the word “love” for an object, you only “like it very much.” So I can “suka sekali” a fruit, but I can’t “cinta” it. Well I cinta it anway, thankyouverymuch. The relationship is bordering on inappropriate.

It was also really fascinating to see the differences in the way Chris’s friends and teachers treated her. I suppose a greatest ability to communicate goes hand-in-hand with more drama.

Let’s take the wedding. Chris was given a spot on the wedding party of her school’s former vice principal’s son’s wedding. Got that? No, she’d never met him, but that’s the way things go here. When they heard there would be TWO “bules” in town, they made me an honored guest, as well. Sadly, they ran out of yellow tops. So they put me in a green one. The only green one. I tried to politely decline being in group photos, but they insisted. See for yourself:

As though I don't stand out enough already...

My school was thrilled when I wore a jilbab. Chris’s school wouldn’t let me wear one to the wedding, and honestly, they couldn’t understand why she was. “Why would you want to wear that?” they would ask.

Her friends also sort of fight over her. There are definitely two groups: the cooler, richer group who drinks and stays up late (Group 1) and the working-class, younger crowd who keeps it clean (Group 2).

Group 1 is clearly just excited to be around white people. Even when we’d go out to dinner, they’d spend the whole time taking our pictures and telling me I looked like Britney Spears (which I didn’t really mind). But it’s not hard at all to see why Chris hangs out with them—they really know English, they do fun things, and they have excellent transportation.

Group 2 doesn’t do as much, they have to work, but they’re true friends. They love playing Uno and strumming out chords of American songs on the guitar. But even they’re a little racist: “We used to make fun of John (from Group 1) because he has Chinese eyes.”

One night, we were supposed to play a highly-anticipated game of Uno with Group 2. We cleaned up Christine’s house, put on comfortable clothes, and invited them over. We knew right away that something was wrong. Two of the guys came over and stood awkwardly near the door.

Chris: “Is something wrong?”
Friend: “I just… feel bad being in a woman’s house after dark.”
Chris: “…but we’re playing Uno. And there are four people here.”
Friend: “Yes, but it feels wrong. People will think I’m bad.”
Chris: “So you won’t stay and play?”
Friend: “Please don’t make me.”

Well of course, we weren’t going to force them to stay, and it was clear that they were uncomfortable. So we went to a nearby restaurant where one of them works and played there. After, of course, they told us not to come outside with our cloth shorts on. It’s frustrating. Sometimes you just want to play Uno. No funny business, just some serious +2s and +4 wild cards. Not here.

And he warned us in about the coolest way possible: “There… is a parental advisory… on your knees.”

All in all, it just felt good to be around a friend. We listened to Christmas music, ate ourselves stupid on tempe (which comes from Indonesia!), and watched enough Top Chef episodes to convince me I can open a five-star restaurant.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I have not yet made peace with certain things about myself, but especially my views towards the environment. Well I guess I know my VIEWS, but I need to work on my ACTIONS. Mostly because, well, I’ve been busy doing my best not to think about it because I feel guilty.

I turn off the tap water when I brush my teeth, I don’t use aerosol cans of hairspray, and I don’t ever litter. That’s really it. I’m big on littering. Isn’t that about the most kindergarten philosophy you can have? Just pick up after yourself.

I was walking next to another Fulbrighter a few months ago when he threw a gum wrapper on the ground. That’s always a weird position to be in… you don’t want to be the jerk making a big deal out of a gum wrapper, but then again you’re thinking, “Come on, man. Is it so hard to put in your pocket?” I almost kept walking, but I was briefly haunted by the image of my grandchildren wading through Juicy Fruit on their way to school.

And he said, “Oh, I forgot. You’re the one who doesn’t like littering.” What? Like that’s a thing?He said it like “Oh, I forgot you don’t smoke” or “Oh, I forgot you don’t eat meat.” Does that imply there are people who like to litter?

Anyway, the point of all that is simply this: there is trash everywhere in Indonesia. People throw candy wrappers out of car windows. My students just leave plastic bags on the ground outside before they walk into school. Everyone litters.

I think part of the problem is that there are so few, if any, public trash cans. If you make it easy for people to recycle or throw garbage away, I think most of them will. But trash just lines the streets. There are sewage canals under all the sidewalks, and often the concrete will be broken and you’ll find yourself staring down into river of year-old trash. The stench underneath is overwhelming.

There are two seasons in Indonesia: the hot season and the rainy season. The six-month-long rainy season started about a month ago. Yana and I were caught on the road on her motorcycle during the first big storm. It was insane—we the water rose so high in thirty minutes that we couldn’t even drive her bike anymore. We were stuck for two hours under an overhang on the side of the road. Finally, her dad was able to get through with an SUV.

I asked Yana if rain that hard was uncommon. Nope, she said. Then why don’t they build the roads higher? It was hard rain, but it only lasted for 45 minutes or so, and it completely shut down all of Palembang’s roads. She said the only reason everything flooded was because it was the first big rain in six months. It wasn’t the amount of rainfall that caused the flooding, it was the fact that half a year of garbage was blocking the sewers.

Rain rain go away

Eww. So we weren’t really “waiting for the floods to go down” exactly, we were waiting “for the water to push the trash out of the way.”

There ARE landfills, but in some places, people are expected to just burn their trash. I take my own trash out to a bucket in front of my house that I share with four other families. Yes, just exactly the shape and size of a normal bucket. Obviously, this doesn’t hold five families’ worth of garbage, so it’s always overflowing and spilling into the road. I just discovered that for $1 a month, my trash is being taken to a clearing in the woods near my house and burnt. It’s burnt! I have such a problem with that, but I don’t know how to just stop producing trash or where else to take it.

The smell is terrible. It smells like … well, like someone setting a whole bunch of trash on fire. And it smells like guilt. I wonder what I can do…

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In defense of a little political correctness...

I think my dear friend Christine explained it really well in part of an email she sent to her family and friends back home:

“‘Hey N*gger,’ Miss, my friend is a ‘n*gger.’ I hear this all of the time. I try to explain why this is wrong, but all I get is, “We are just joking. This is Indonesia. It is ok in Indonesia.” I hate that expression: “This is Indonesia.” I get it all of the time for the faults of people. It’s become an excuse for things I promise you are not cultural. People also call the darker skin students in the class “Obama.” Indonesians can be brutally honest with each other too. A teacher said this to me and a student in regards to the student’s appearance: “Look at her Miss, isn’t she fat. She is so fat. Haha, we call her the fat one.” The student puts her head down and looks mortified. I correct the teacher in front of her. The teacher tells me “But this is Indonesia. We joke in Indonesia. It’s OK in Indonesia.” When the teacher leaves the girl lifts her head, tries to smile, and thanks me.”

When my students got new uniforms earlier this year, one of the other teachers paraded two boys in front of me. “Which one is the fattest one?” she asked. Excuse me? She said they only had one uniform for “really fat boys” and this year they had “two really fat boys.” So the smaller “fat boy” would get the uniform and the bigger boy had to wear a white dress shirt to school every day. I said, “I think you’re hurting their feelings. Maybe you could just order another of the larger size?” She laughed. “Hurting their feelings? They know they’re fat boys!”

I was showing a group of teachers some pictures of mine, and they saw one girl who’s overweight. They all gasped and pointed and asked, “What is wrong with her? Why is she so fat? Does she have a disease?”

So what’s cultural and what’s rude?

I finally tackled the post office alone last week. I marched in, head held high, repeating all the words I’d made sure to memorize before I went inside. Behind the counter was the same man who is always sitting behind the counter, but this time I had no Yana.

He found my packages and was very polite this time, but then he asked, like every Indonesian always does, “Are you single, miss?” I suddenly realize I’m in for an uncomfortable conversation. I pretend to misunderstand and try to back out the door, but he stops me. “Do you have a boyfriend?” (This is in Indonesian.)

I weigh the odds. Be honest, reject him, and wind up with him withholding my mail from now on? So I decided to lie. I intended to say yes, I have a boyfriend, and he is very muscular and jealous. I figured a little description couldn’t hurt. Sadly, my knowledge of Indonesian adjectives is limited, and I wound up saying “I have a boyfriend in America who is fat and angry!” He took my number anyway and called me immediately, making me show him my phone to prove it was my number. Sigh.

I visited another English school in the area, and one of the teachers demanded to talk to me. I say demanded because he told the students I was talking to that they couldn’t talk to me any more and beckoned me into a classroom. Luckily, I brought my Indonesian friend with me.

Teacher: So, where are you from?
Me: America.
Teacher: Not from Australia?
Me: Nope.
I’m from America.
Teacher: Is this your boyfriend?
(points at my friend)
No, I don’t have a boyfriend.
Teacher: Why don’t you have a boyfriend?
Me: I’m too busy for a boyfriend.
Teacher: So who do you like better—black men or white men?
Me: I like nice men.
Teacher: But if you met a black man and a white man, which would you make your boyfriend?
Me: I would say that I’m too busy for a boyfriend.
Teacher: Would you go on a date with me?
Maybe be my girlfriend?
Me: I’m sorry, I’m too busy for a boyfriend.

I love it when Indonesians are brave enough to just plow through English even though they don’t get the words in the right order. I feel like a character in a Dan Brown novel, decoding some mysterious message. “Rain rain. Makes you wet. Not hot. You is diseased. Responsibility mine not if you do.” I concentrate very hard. Aha! Being outside in the rain will make me sick, but you warned me so you’re not responsible! I pat myself on the back for a job well done. And then two days later I have a cold.

I can’t quite catch on to some cultural things. A few friends dropped me off at my house the other evening and came in to use the bathroom before they started the 45-minute trek back into the actual town. I let them in and, completely without thinking, apologized for the mess.(Really, I don’t have enough stuff to count as a mess, but there were some lifesavers strewn around from an unfortunate cockroach-spotting incident earlier that day.) Anyway, I said, “Oh, it’s such a mess!” And they all said the word aloud, turning it over in their mouths and repeating it. “Mess. Mess. Meeehhhh-usssss. So your house… this is mess?”

I stammered a little. “Well, not really a mess, no.”

“You said it was a mess.”

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes we do that in America. We said something is a mess when it isn’t.I’m sorry to confuse you.”

“Why would you say it was a mess in America when it is not?”

Good one, Katie. Now where do I go with that? Sometimes in America we say bad things about ourselves or our belongings because it’s considered polite? Why DO we do that? It’s happened other times, too.

I was talking to a teacher who said, “I hate my shoes. They are so ugly!” And I instinctively replied, “Oh, no they’re not. Just look at mine!” And so she did. She just looked. And then she looked back up at me and said, “What did you want me to see on your shoes?” And I said, “Well… umm, my shoes are… kind of… ugly… too.” She just looked at me confused and said, “No, they are not.”

And she’s right. My shoes aren’t anything special, but they aren’t ugly. They are perfectly fine shoes. Why do I do that?

And then, there was the time one of the teachers asked to introduce me to her boyfriend who was picking her up outside.

Her: My boyfriend is so ugly. I hate how ugly he is. He is so very ugly. Please do not tell me that he is ugly.
Me: Oh, I would never say that. I’m sure he’s not ugly.
(We see him. In the interest of full disclosure, the guy was ugly. No way around it.)
Me: This is your boyfriend? He is handsome!
Her: Really?!
(She jumps up and down and tells her boyfriend I think he’s handsome. He whispers something back.)
Her: He says thank you and he thinks you are very beautiful.
Me: Makasih! [Thanks!]
Her: Now I am jealous! We have to go. Don’t ever call each other handsome and beautiful again!

And check out this poster that hangs in our school:

"I'm not handicapped... I'm just lazy! Why?"