Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wong kito galo.

Before I left Indonesia for my visit home, I was really struggling in Palembang. I love Indonesia. I love all the places I’ve been able to travel. But I really don’t like Palembang. And that’s not to say I haven’t been trying.

I accept any invitation to do anything. Karaoke? Give me the microphone. Dinner at a random food stall? Give me just a second to grab my Immodium. Party of someone I’ve never met? I’m signing the birthday card now.

But try as I might, I just couldn’t convince myself that I liked the city. It didn’t help that all the other places I traveled to seemed so much more exotic and welcoming. Even being in Depok (which is certainly welcoming but not quite exotic) made me want to request a transfer. (No, that’s not really an option.)

I met with a few Americans who were traveling through Palembang a few days before I left for Christmas. They said it’s their least favorite city in the whole archipelago. “You live way out there?” they asked. “You live by yourself? You teach all those spoiled kids at that rich school? No internet? No television?”

One of them told me they read an old guide book about Indonesia, in which Palembang had the esteemed review, “Don’t bother going here.” In my guidebook, even a recommended week-long tour of the island of Sumatra doesn’t include it.

The sweet retired American couple I met at the English Library have become like adoptive parents to me here. They traveled all around Indonesia, which is why they accepted a three-year position in Palembang, assuming it would be like the rest of the country.

“There are days here when I literally search the internet for flights home,” the wife told me. “It is nearly unbearable.”

I was nearly overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. Was I just not trying hard enough? I eat everything they put in front of me (minus more of that fish soup), I go everywhere I can, and I talk to everyone I can. Is is possible that the city just isn’t that great? I certainly can’t be expected to love every single place in the world, right? Aren’t there just some that are better than others? At least Palembang makes me appreciate the other cities in Indonesia that much more, I reasoned. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my fault, as though if I’d tried harder or been smarter or more adventurous or braver if might be ok.

The new Lonely Planet was released recently, and they revamped the description a bit:

“Sumatra’s second-largest city, Palembang is a manic concrete sprawl with little to offer anyone but the true urban enthusiast… the core industries [are] oil refining, fertilizer production and cement manufacturing, which all scent the air with a distinctive odor you might first mistake as your own funk. Chances are you’re passing North or South if you’re here. While the city ain’t much to look at, be sure to stick around for at least a meal… Palembang fare takes a while to get used to.”

At least we’ve been upgraded from “don’t bother” to “maybe attempt to swallow lunch.”

I returned to Palembang by way of Jakarta from America. I was so upset at the thought of coming back to the city that I stayed with Christine until the day before classes started.

My former roommate Leslie and I have been emailing back and forth a lot, and I told her about how I just couldn’t stand Palembang. She commiserated, and she said how frustrating it can be to be surrounded by other people who LOVE their experiences, who couldn’t possibly IMAGINE being anywhere else, who are simply the HAPPIEST they’ve ever been in their lives. But then she said something else. What would happen… if I just started saying I loved Palembang?

I assure you, this was a thought, not a plan. I have done absolutely nothing different since I’ve been back. I’m exactly the same person… but something has changed. I’m not trying any harder.

This city is starting to grow on me like a fungus. Now buses drive by and spray me with smog or dirty rainwater, and I laugh a little and say, “Gosh, isn’t this place just awful?” The internet company charged me TWICE this month for my internet which DOESN’T WORK. This time, instead of using gentle reasoning and try to make my counterpart my translator, I went in nearly shouting “AKU MARAH!” (I am angry!) They reimbursed me immediately and took lots of happy, smiling photos of me with each of the employees. I’ve discovered that if I pretend the food I’m given was cooked at a clean restaurant with tableclothes and napkins, it tastes immeasurably better. I have found food that I love. Is there anything greater?

Part of the change might be because of my trip home. I was shocked at how far away, emotionally and geographically, I felt from Indonesia. It was a reminder that someday soon this all will be just a memory.

I am starting to love this city in the way I started to love my last name. No one could spell it. No one could say it. No one in the same city ever shared it. But eventually, I realized that it was mine. Sometimes I feel like this ugly smelly dog of a city belongs exclusively to me. No English radio station, tv station, or newspaper? Of course not! This is the real Indonesia. No one wants to visit? Why should they? It’s mine.

Would anyone really recommend vacationing in Bucyrus, Ohio or Muncie, Indiana? No, but I’ve sure loved the heck out of those places.

The title of this blog, “Wong kito galo,” reflects everything I’ve been feeling. It’s written in Palembangese, which is a slightly different language than Bahasa Indonesia, and what everyone speaks here. (And speaks loudly here.) Wong is a slang term for “orang” or person. “Kito” is the Pbang form of “kita” or “we.” And “galo” means “mine.” So literally it means “person we mine.” But people in Palembang use it as a phrase that means essentially “This is mine.” This is my city. These are my people. This belongs to me. Wong kito galo, Palembang.

The woman of the couple from the English Library told me some jokes an old ex-pat friend told her about living in Palembang:

“You know you’ve been in Palembang too long…

…when you hug your toilet more than your spouse.

…when you don’t wake up coughing in the middle of the night.

…when the best part of your week is discovering the grocery store remembered to stock toilet paper.

…when someone says ‘Gee, that smells bad’ and you honestly don’t know what they’re talking about.

…when an Indonesia doesn’t shout something at you or try to take your picture and you say, ‘Hey, buddy! What the hell do you have against me?!’”

Sounds kind of terrible, doesn’t it? And isn’t it just terrific?


  1. Yet again you really made me smile with this post.
    Oh yeah, and keep on yelling "I AM ANGRY!" That's just great and I'm sure it felt liberating!

  2. Fascinating! Now I'll be waiting for your top ten reasons (fellow BSU alum David Letterman style) to visit Palembang.

    Reason #10: Nowhere else in the world can you immediately mistake a distinctive aroma as "your own funk."

  3. Haha, I just read this after I posted on friends and family. I finally got pasta night up there! Maybe after 5 months the tides are turning for all of us. We have a common theme...hmmm... Or maybe I am just on too many antibiotics and you are high on poptarts ; )

  4. Ahhh...the turning of the page in your love/hate relationship with Palembang! It's that whole wave thing I tell people going it (it's new and exciting), hate it (the things you want aren't there), love it (you're learning how to make your way around and function), hate it (it's not home), love it, hate it, love it, hate happens to everyone. And how right you are - how many people go to Bucyrus to vacation there? Well, I don''t count because I would go there and stay a month if you're there. Muncie...meh. LOL...

    Isn't it cool how a change of mind can change everything?

  5. and congratulations. you've graduated. i knew you'd get to this point. i got here at about the same time too. you love the fact that you hate your dirty little city. :-) nobody understands the feelings that you're going through more than i do, TRUST ME!

  6. I can relate all too well with this one, but I like you're attitude. On the good days I try to have to same...then the power goes out!