Sunday, January 17, 2010


I’m about to do something rash, so brace yourselves. I’m going to compare my year spent teaching English in Indonesia to the children’s holiday movie Home Alone for the second time. You remember how terrified little Kevin is of the furnace in his basement? This is not an exaggeration. I feel exactly that same way about my gas burners.

I even have a gas stove at home in America, so you’d think I’d be better prepared for this. But at home, you don’t see the hose connecting the tiny tanks to your two burners (one of which works on consistent basis).

They’re this lime green color. All the better for lurking just inside my peripheral vision and startling me as I type an email, like these tiny little gnomes of explosiveness. They are always so covered in dirt that they look like they belong more in an antique store or historical museum than in my kitchen.

Four a half months into my fellowship, and I still cannot light the thing without turning my head away from the flame as it ignites. I suppose I reason that if it explodes, I stand a better chance of salvaging my face that way.

Of course, it doesn’t help that my first week in Palembang, someone’s gas tank exploded on Sumatra somewhere. The teachers told me the story with horrifying hand gestures. “BOOM,” they said, their hands and eyes spreading wide open like they were only talking about fireworks.

“Did… anyone get hurt?” I ventured.

“Twenty houses… BOOM!” was the answer.

So now not only was I responsible for nightmares about MY gas tanks, I had to worry about a twenty-house radius surrounding me.

I was eventually lulled into a false sense of security. Those tanks gave me hot water for washing my face. They gave me ramen noodles.

Until one was empty.

It went out for the first time right in the middle of one of three precious packages of alfredo noodles my mom sent me. The fire just died. I wanted those noodles. They were my reward to myself for having endured the bathroom at school twice that day. (I had been very thirsty.)

I decided to go and ask my neighbors for help, since there was a spare tank under the sink. I tried looking up the word for “gas” in the dictionary, well aware that I would probably end up saying something really gross to them in another mis-translation, but the word wasn’t in there. (I learned later that’s because the word for “gas” in Indonesian is still “gas.”)

So I knocked on my neighbor’s door and waited while they shuffled around inside. It was about 7 o’clock, and Indonesians go to bed ridiculously early, since they all get up well before dawn to pray. My neighborhood is completely dark and silent by 8:30pm.

When they came to the door, I said, “NO FIRE IN KITCHEN!” in Indonesian. But what young neighbor comes across the street and wakes you up to tell you that there is not a fire in her kitchen, right?

Naturally, they assumed my kitchen was on fire.

Panic ensued. They raced over immediately, shoving their dozen small children (all right, four kids) out of their path. They were visibly confused and perturbed when they did not see flames in my sink. I pointed to the tank. “No fire.” Ahh.

The husband fiddled around with it for a while and tried the spare tank, which it turned out was also empty. He said I’d have to wait until the next day to get them refilled. I grudgingly thanked him and he went back to bed, taking with him the twenty or so other neighbors who’d come in to my house to see what all the commotion was about.

My ojek driver filled them for me. Even after paying him, it cost me less than $1. But he had to switch the tanks, which, curiously, involves a sharp kitchen knife and many rubber bands.

I watched, peering through the doorway with one eye open and hands covering my face, from the living room. I wondered what would happen if he exploded and whether or not I would be charged with financially supporting a small family in Palembang for the rest of my life.

It didn’t explode. I tipped him well.

Weeks later, two men appeared at my door and told me I had to buy some special hose attachment for the tanks. They said they were from the government, and I demanded to see their IDs. They showed me some papers, which I realized may or may not have been government identification—I had no clue. I raised my eyebrows and tried to look suspicious.

They told me the attachment was a new government policy and would protect me if one of the tanks fell over in my absence. They said all my neighbors had bought them, too. The thing cost $30, which is an awful lot of money here.

I told them I couldn’t afford it and sent them on their way. Then they offered to help me pay for it out of their own pockets. Well, that seemed unnecessary, especially since I was lying in the first place. I forked over the cash, and I’m still not sure if they were telling the truth or not.

If you want to con me, threaten me with those gas tanks. There is no single greater motivating fear in my life right now, which is really saying something, considering where I’m living.

I showed the school my receipt, and they seemed to think it looked ligit, although they’d never heard about the policy themselves. I’m still hoping they reimburse me.

Life was fine again until I returned home from America. I walked in and immediately smelled something funny. I figured it was the standing water in my sink, which hadn’t been moved around in almost three weeks.

Of course, it was the gas tank. Leaking. Thanks, new $30 hose attachment.

I resolved not to use the stove until after I could call someone to come look at the stove. Of course, then the power went out. And it was dark.

I was excited, actually, to use the new battery powered lantern Mom bought me for Christmas. Until, by the light of my cell phone, I discovered that it had somehow gotten turned on during the flight, and the batteries were already dead, before I ever got to use it.

Candles were my only option… candles that needed to be lit with a lighter or match.

But it was either that or sit in the dark. I debated. Then, I got the candle and the lighter and pressed myself against the front door, as far away as I could get from the kitchen.

Sccrrattch. The lighter lit, and I did not explode. There are no small victories in my life these days.

My ojek driver came the next morning, and he confirmed that my gas tank was leaking, and he fixed it. I think.

Tomorrow will be another battle, but I’ll risk my life as many times as I need to for the sweet taste of macaroni and cheese.


  1. Ahh..., Katie. I know the experience with the gas tanks had to be absolutely terrifying for you, but this blog is so funny!!! I laughed out loud, I felt your fear, and I could only shake my head at the importance of something as simple as Kraft macaroni and cheese. Hang in there, baby.

  2. Oh dear, what an exciting and scary story! Don't explode! And I agree--this was scary and really funny at the same time. I love your writing style! Keep it up and stay safe.

  3. I've got to agree with the pretty lady known as "Katie's Mom." I HATE gas with a passion and am just as scared of it. I was terrified of my gas furnace, especially when it went out and I had to light it. I too, turned my head to salvage my face even if the rest was blown to bits. All that for Mac-N-Cheese. LOVE IT! LOVE YOU MORE!!!