Sunday, May 9, 2010

CRASH! (in Palem)BANG!

Only three more weeks to go? Is that even possible? I have no idea how to describe the way I’m feeling, but I’m sure I’ll be trying. I’ve resolved to blog a lot over the next 21 days, because I have some more things I want to tell you about, and I don’t want to turn into one of those people who writes a blog after I get home just to write a blog.

It’s a pretty bittersweet feeling to be so close to returning home. On one hand, I feel like this massive adventure—which I’ve anticipated and feared and loved—is days away from just… ending. On the other hand, some of the frustrations I’ve had over the last 8 ½ months seem to have been magnified lately.

My friend Vidhi said it well in her blog:

maybe the smell of fresh cut grass and summer lemonade is clouding my senses. maybe the thought of running into my parents arms at the airport is making these last few weeks particularly hard.

there are no schedules here. my classes are constantly cancelled. teachers get paid for extra-curricular activities they never lead. men get to smoke and judge women who do. cheating in school and on spouses is expected. money that could be going into education is used to buy snacks for meetings. my school has power outages every day, but the glitzy mall Sun Plaza is always air conditioned and glamorous.

im tired of all the stares i receive. i don't really understand why people here stare at me anyways. most indonesians think i am indonesian. im brown. i have black hair. and i dress appropriately for the culture. so why are you STILL glaring at me? if i was white, or pink, or green i would understand. im also tired of not fitting in, even when i look like i fit in...

Ok, I don’t have any glitzy malls or brown skin, but I can relate to the rest of that. And she goes on to explain how some other Americans she met at the airport were rude. The other two Americans in Palembang are really, really nice, but other than that, most expats here are notoriously unfriendly.

I think the biggest reason for my recent frustration was that Rajiv got into a motorcycle wreck.

I still say that if I could start this 9 months over, the first thing I would change would be to get an international driver’s license and rent a motorbike. My biggest complaint this year is how completely stranded I feel at times. I’m 45 minutes outside of the city, and I can’t even walk anywhere to buy dinner. Still, maybe it’s for the best that I don’t have a motorbike. A) Because I have absolutely no idea how to drive one, and B) Because my doctor friends tell me that motorcycle crashes and stabbings (many while on motorbikes) make up an overwhelming number of ER patients here.

Every Saturday we’re both in Palembang, Raj and I meet up and do a radio show at a local station through the US Embassy. [Another blog on that soon.] Then, we go to the mall, eat a delicious JCO doughnut (I swear they’re even better than Krispy Kremes), and eat dinner.

Raj rented a motorbike in February after getting his license when he went home for Christmas. So he drives himself home, and I call my buddy Ari, my ojek, to come pick me up. It’s such an important part of the week for both of us. It’s venting with someone who understands completely. The Raj dinner part, I mean. Not Ari, though he's nice.

But the last time we met, Raj got in an accident. And—get this—on the same road where my purse was stolen! (Indonesians would say there’s an evil spirit there, and they might be right.) He was turning right (with his signal on), and instead of slowing down or swerving around him, another motorbike with two men on it ran right into the back of his bike. Hard.

Raj was thrown over the front of his bike and onto the street while his bike skidded across the road. The other bike crashed, too, and it hit another bike with a couple on it. They lost control and crashed, too.

Raj is lucky he was wearing his helmet. He says after the impact, he only remembers laying in the middle of the road and seeing at least 200 cars and motorcycles drive by without stopping at all. Pieces of his bike had broken off, and he watched while someone even stole one and ran off. The two guys who caused the wreck immediately jumped on their bike and left, though Raj says pieces of their bike were laying in the road, too. His bike wouldn’t work.

He tried calling me, but of course the network was screwed up, and none of his five phone calls went through. I’m not sure what I would have done, anyway, and I think that’s another of my central frustrations: helplessness in times of need. Luckily, he was able to call a teacher at his school to come pick him up.

When my purse was stolen, I yelped and jumped around, and no one stopped to help me. There were at least 40 people just sitting on the side of the road eating from street vendors, and all of them just watched. But at least I wasn’t laying in the middle of the road. Not a single person helped him up or even stopped to see if he was ok.

The good news is he is ok, and a repair shop was able to fix his bike for only about $100.

I’m sorry this isn’t a happier post, but happier ones will follow, I assure you. I’ve been trying to think about what specifically I find so exasperating. I think it’s that my whole life right now is such an exercise in extremes.

On one hand, I have more independence than I’ve ever had in my life: I live alone, and I decide what I do, what I eat, and where I go. And yet, on the other hand, I feel so completely dependent on other people. I have to call for rides to get food, to go shopping, to get to school, etc. I have to walk and wait and pay each week just to have drinking water.

Same as with what I packed to bring: I managed to fit nearly everything I’ve needed for nine months into two suitcases and a bookbag. I have a little microcosm of my home, and yet… I have so little with me that it all fits into two suitcases and a bookbag! (Note: this does not include souvenirs. Oh my, no. It does not.)

And, most importantly, there’s the idea of being surrounded by people all the time. People are constantly stopping by my house unannounced, asking me for help with papers, and taking pictures of me when I walk by them. And yet, I wouldn't really fit in here permanently. I’ve talked to the other Fulbrights, and I think most of them feel the same way. There are so many people everywhere, and yet, aside from the other ETAs, you’re the only one who’s really like you.

But I promise—barring any more robberies or crashes—this is my last negative blog. There are so many exciting things happening right now, and I’m taking picures of all them.

Oh, and Raj has his bike back now. But this weekend while we were eating dinner, someone stole his helmet.


  1. Wow! It's hard to believe that you ETAs only have three weeks left. I will miss your blog! What's your next adventure after Palembang? Whatever it is, I hope you continue to blog about it because I really enjoy your writing.

    By the way, there will be an ELF in Palembang next year. I don't know who it is yet, but when I find out, I'd like to pass along the link to this blog as well as your email so you can give the new person the DL on life in Palembang.

    PS. Glad Raj is OK!

  2. Katie - once again, "Palembangin'" made me burst out laughing... I've really enjoyed reading your blogs.. THANK YOU.. :) from Sarah (the ELF in Solo)

  3. Katie, you should know you have a loyal ELF readership, particularly since the fa-HEE-na post. My mom even passed that around to her friends. Good stuff.
    - Stephanie (the ELF in Semarang)

  4. I think technically helmets are only really good for one real crash or even drop. So it must've been a good spirit that got it stolen for him so now he will get a safer one.
    See how much I've learned about where you are?

  5. Thank God RAj is okay. Poor guy! And to just be sprawled out on the ground with people looking at him and not helping. That's the part out of everything that I cannot grasp. Here, I feel that the greater majority of people would rush to someone in need. I wonder how this goes in other countries? And with so many people on the streets, 10 "good guys" can easily take out the one "bad guy." The good in Palembang must unite. Alas, it must go along with the territory and the established ideals there. When you were helping rebuild after the earthquake, those people didn't help, they just watched - it must pertain to all aspects of their lives.

    You will be back soon and tears of joy will stream down your face when you're reunited with your family and then regroup and start on the next exciting chapter of your life.