Saturday, December 31, 2011

Music for the soul

As always when the year is about the end, I start to reflect on all the things I have done in the past twelve months. Besides many great adventures, 2011 has brought me music. More than ever before, my musical landscape has widened. I have always said I was into black music, because white music lacked soul. That is certainly not true, or so I found out this year. So here, I present to you my Top Ten of Most Played Songs in 2011. Thanks to all my friends for sharing their great music with me!

1. Ane Brun - One
2. King - Supernatural

3. Lizz Wright - Salt

This is actually a very old song from Lizz, which I had apparently missed before.

4. Mayra Andrade - Kenha ki ben ki ta bai

In September, I saw Mayra play live - definitively the best concert of 2011!

5. James Blake - Limit to your love

6. Edward Sharpe - Home

7. Avishai Cohen - Dreaming

8. James Vincent McMorrow - Higher love

9. Norah Jones - Chasing pirates

This song is actually from 2009, but I only discovered it a few months ago.

10. Fink - Trouble is what you're in

May 2012 bring you all lots of happy melodies and soulful tunes!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Settle down

More than ever before, the question is posed to me. I am 32 (ouch), have no place to call my own and no job, at least not one that provides me with a sense of security - since I just started my own consultancy. The question usually comes after a moment of hesitation and with a prelude like "No offense, but" or "I hope you won't be insulted, but". And then, there it is: "Don't you want to settle down?".

Some people refer to having a pied a terre somewhere or some savings in the bank, but most people talk about living in one place (preferably Amsterdam) and starting a family. Given my age that may be the obvious thing to do. In fact, when I was 25 I already bought an apartment in Amsterdam and was on the way to settling down. It was great in many ways. However, the scary thing about the settled life for me is that is has a tendency to suck you in. Before you know it, you ride the same train to work everyday and flip channels from America's Next Top Model to Boer zoekt Vrouw (a dating show for Dutch farners). At work, you then discuss these things (train was late, farmer was handsome). This was not my cup of tea. There had to be more to life than this, right? The great wide world kept on pulling my arm. So, for me it meant I needed to get off the couch. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Very superstitious

It seems nobody listens to Stevie Wonder here in Indonesia. In any case, the average Indonesian probably wouldn't sing along to "When you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer." Because superstition IS the way! In the past two weeks here I have gotten to know some new superstitions, which I shouldn't refer to as such of course. They are "facts''.

As always my health is slightly unstable with a change of temperature of 20 degrees and an invasion of polluted air into my pores. Thus, my eye is irritated. I must have been peaking in on someone taking a bath, someone tells me. No, someone else says, you gave someone something and took it back, or was considering it - after I heard this, I did actually start contemplating asking back a dress I had given to Esther a few months ago. Today my ear ached: someone misses me, or so they say. Last week I learned that unmarried couples shouldn't visit the botanical gardens in Bogor together, or they will certainly never get married. Finally, when a child stands on all fours, they want a little brother or sister. I wonder what more I will learn in the next two weeks. In the meantime, I'll sing along to Stevie...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Humans: sleepwalkers in robot mode or highly intelligent creatures?

In the movie Limitless (not bad by the way) it is assumed that we only use 20% of our brain capacity. That we don't use a lot of it, became obvious to me again last Saturday at Albert Heyn (a Dutch supermarket chain). People often act like computers in sleep mode than as highly intelligent creatures!

Upon arrival at the store I noticed there was an extraordinarily long queue at the ATM near the entrance. In order to pass it, you almost bumped into a sign saying that you could only pay by cash. Maybe some hackers had managed to bring the electronic payment systems down - it was down in all Albert Heyn stores in the country. While I was getting my groceries they announced on the intercom as well that we could only pay by cash. I was impressed by how well they were informing the customers.

But yes, you can of course guess what's coming next... While in line to pay, there were at least five people that seemed to wake up from a long nap and were annoyed at the cashier that they could not pay by card ("This is ridiculous. I don't have any money on me!"). They aggressively put their groceries back into their basket and made their way to the ATM queue.

It could've happened to me too. And probably to you too. So, why is that? Are we robots that do not think when we do things that we often do? Do we stop observing if we know the environment? How come people were so lost in their thoughts that they missed the ATM queue, the signs AND the announcements? How come there aren't many more bicycle accidents in Amsterdam knowing people are absentminded?

Well, now I understand why all this talk about mindfulness and 'the power of NOW' is really necessary. In Jakarta, I'd often take a different route to work just to give my brain some different impulses. On my other blog, I once wrote about things you can do to get yourself out if you're stuck in a rut. So, what are you gonna do to get yourself out of robot mode?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

An instant dose of inspiration or the Fifteen Minutes of Fame Weekend effect

The third edition of the Fifteen Minutes of Fame weekend (last year renamed Matchbox weekend, but now back to its original name) was a great success, just like its two predecessors. We went to the same bungalow park (appropriately named Carpe Diem) as last year, since I had to book everything while traveling in Asia only three months before the event - which for Dutch standards is ridiculously late...
Having breakfast surrounded by paparazzi

We had again twelve presentations covering a wide range of issues - from photography to personal development, from looking the lessons life presents us with to discussing what we eat and buy. As always, each fifteen minute presentation brought a unique insight or inspiration to do things we had wanted to do for a long time. Since the weather was great, we changed the program to be able to get some sun on the beach. The presentations were thus quite spread out over two days which made it easy to focus and gave time to reflect.

So what were the presentations about?

Maike did a presentation on association. Using postcards as her modern-day powerpoint, she urged us to get more into right brain activities. She reminded me of the power of association and of the freedom it brings to just fantasize away. We hardly ever allow ourselves to associate freely and take the sometimes random connections our brain makes seriously. Very refreshing. 

Maike stimulating creativity

Beatriz asked us for input for her research proposal combining sociology with urban planning. We discussed some issues on the border of these two disciplines, such as safety or the extent to which different ethnic groups interact in Amsterdam. Which cities or areas could be comparable and which topics would be interesting enough to study?

Emma made an exhibition with to do lists and photos of tasks which she felt needed to be done - before and after they actually were. As I keep lots of to do lists, the topic spoke to me. It made me see that just doing things straight away works better than keeping it on to do lists for a long time. A lot of the pressure is built up in our own brain. Another eyeopener: the list is never done. Every time we complete a task, we will have come up with a new one. Give yourself a break! (You too, Emma!)

Fenneke reminded me of the fact that we can be in touch with nature if we want to be. On the map of Amsterdam she showed us the places where she goes to pick berries and apples. I was surprised to hear there were actually places like this in my city and realized that I don't see the city's plants as a source for food. Also, I seem to trust the supermarket more than a tree to provide me with healthy berries. Strange isn't it?

Fenneke points us to the city's treasures

Luis makes a great photography magazine, which is read by thousands of people. To me, his presentation was truly a wake up call. Things will only happen, if we make them happen. We do not have to be experts in something in order to have an opinion. Again, just DO it. Also, his persistence NOT to ask for money, or make money with advertising, is just amazing - he wants a 'pure' product, solely fueled by passion, nothing else. Check out DOF magazine and sign up!

Philippe did a consumer test on us as a group. We all tasted four different types of beer, cola and crisps and had to say which ones we liked best. Also, we had to match the right brands with the products tasted. I am very much a Coca Cola preacher (I really do not like pepsi) and was very happy when I recognized it - as did everyone else. Besides that, it was a good reminder of the fact that the more expensive products are not necessarily the best.

Serious tasting

Victor shared the life lessons that he learns by doing improvisation theatre. The one that rang most with me, was 'be confident'. He said that when he plays a scene, he forces himself to fully go for it. Despite any insecurities you may have, it matters that you do it. After his presentation, he did some improv exercise with us. It was cool to see how quickly a funny sketch can evolve.

Miriam talked about the Happiness project, a very popular initiative started by New Yorker Gretchin Rubin who works to improve different aspects of her life to end up happier and shares her steps online. Miriam gave us all a little handwritten notebook with the main points. What stuck with me is to have concrete goals and to do something every day. More on that soon!

Tommy spoke about personal development, overcoming fear and fighting limiting beliefs. We all spend too much time telling ourselves we are not good at things (such as singing, dancing, doing our finances), just because we are afraid or too lazy to start improving our skills. We should be aware of the reasons why we tell ourselves these things and find solutions to overcome them.

Erik talked about the fantastic Dutch TV show 'Keuringsdienst van Waarde' and reminded us of the fact that we need to aware of the products we buy: "After going out, when I'm already drunk, I really want to eat something greasy. I see the chicken at the snackbar, it's calling my name. But I won't eat it". It was good to again think about the choices I myself make when I shop. How much more am I willing to pay for an ecological fair trade product?

Matteo gave us some tips for making better pictures. One I liked was to think about the light. I mostly focus on the composition and forget about the importance of light. Matteo warned for taking pictures around noon and advised to instead do it in the golden hour, right after sunrise or just before sundown.

The last presentation was mine. I confessed that I am a latte snob. Yes, I am one of those women that spend too much money on a daily dose of coffee drowned in milk. I enjoyed talking about it (supported by this) and realized along the way that I would really like to work in the realm of coffee. To be continued...

Miriam made frontpages of the 'Wall of fame journal' for everyone, which were written on during the weekend.

Others blogged way faster than me. Check out what Victor wrote beforehand (in Dutch) and Miriam and Tommy afterwards. Want to know more? Go here or leave a comment to already sign up for next year's edition!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Who says learning is fun?

or: struggling to manage myself (part 3)

As you may remember, I am currently self-employed. Since May, I have taken a few months to reflect on my professional journey so far and work on my project - NGO toolkit, a website helping NGO's (non-governmental organizations) in developing countries to more easily access information on how to manage their organization and measure their successes. There is already lots of information about this topic, but it mostly comes in the shape of thick handbooks. As I've seen from up close, most people working at NGO's don't take the time to read these. So, instead, I will offer videos and summaries.

Talkative Amis at age two

As I had no idea how to build a website, let alone how to make a video, I started completely from scratch. There I sat in an apartment in Hanoi, all set up to record my first video. And then the talkative Amis, that enjoyed giving trainings in Jakarta, had left the building. Completely gone! I hadn't realized that in order for me to be spontaneous, I needed an audience or more practise. At first, I got very frustrated and wanted to quit. Then I became aware of a shocking fact: I do not like to learn new things as I say do. It's not fun to suck at something! I wanted it to be perfect at the first try. But of course we all know it's about daring to fail. That, my friends, is not easy...

The footage from the first rounds of recording was too funny to be wasted though. So I made a little compilation. Here I am, making a fool of myself. Enjoy!

Oh, and the music continues for a while as I didn't know at the time how to cut the audio file :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Somewhere between love and hate

How wonderful it is to wander and wonder...

 At a construction site on Javastraat, Amsterdam

Last year, I described the phases we go through when we live in another country for a while: the honeymoon and the hostility phases. Well, they also appear when you come back to your own country. While I am happy to have family gatherings, eat cheese & licorice, bike through Amsterdam and meet friends for coffees, I also look at my own city through different eyes. Yes, there is such a thing as a reversed cultureshock! Despite the fact that I've spent most of my life in the Netherlands, living abroad makes me see my country in a completely different light. And I figured I should take advantage of this sense of wonder by taking many pictures and blogging about it.

Healthy people eating out

Amongst other things, I've noticed: Girls were wearing bikinis in the park with the first rays of sunshine (my battery died as I tried to take a picture. Sorry, guys). Everybody here looks healthy and carefree. It's all so expensive! A single tram ticket costs 2,60 euro, that's the amount I paid for an 8 hour busride in Vietnam. There is so much going on in Amsterdam. There are tourists everywhere and festivals on every street corner. Then there are the funny interactions between people: A woman on the tram says to the driver "Sorry, I can not see very well, I'm only wearing one contactlens". Waiting for the ferry, I see a man in a wheelchair asking someone for a sigarette. The smoker bluntly said "No", nothing more. It's interesting, this city of mine...

Royal palace on Dam square

Spreading the word of the Lord

Human statues still do it for tourists

A man at the city hall pays with coins he keeps in a winebox

Very Amsterdam style bar called 'The traffic light'

"Stop suffering" (across the street from the bar)

Drinking water available for free!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Presenting: me singing a Vietnamese song

For a long time now, I have had the idea to do a 'musical trip around the world' visiting all the places where the music I love is born (Portugal, Spain, Cape Verde, Cuba, Brasil, The USA -New Orleans- and more). It's on my bucket list. However, in the meantime I travel a lot to countries with other great music to explore. Since I love to sing, I figured singing a 'local' song would be a good way to get to know a culture. I already know several Indonesian songs, but will work on something less popular later this year (Indonesian friends, do feel free to send suggestions).

As I found myself in Vietnam in June, I posted an add offering English conversation classes in exchange for being taught a Vietnamese song. Before I knew it, I was practising 'Vao Chua' with my lovely tutor Trinh. She was very patient, explaining the difference between 'tuh' and 'thuh' - a difference I could vaguely hear but certainly not reproduce... It costed quite some blood, sweat and tears, but here it is, my version of Vao Chua, about the joys of going to the pagoda. Enjoy! :)


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Please feel free to rip me off

The joys of being a tourist

I love to travel. That much has been established. What I don't like is to be the tourist. Tourists are easy targets and (often rightfully so) played for fools by the locals. Since we look like wallets with shoes on, you can't blame those working in the tourist industry, I guess. I just really do not like the feeling of getting an unfair deal. In Indonesia, I often played my 'I'm almost local' card and sometimes that would help in negotiating the price.

In every country or region the sellers would have different tactics for getting you to buy their goods. Somehow the phrase 'Kijken, kijken, niet kopen" (meaning "You look and look, but you don't buy anything" in Dutch) made its way all over the Indonesian Archipelago. This actually leads to me not wanting to buy anything at all. All over Asia, I have found that repetition seems to be a much used strategy. A guy would yell "transport?" from across the street, you walk passed and another guy yells the same thing. This can go on for a while like that. Do they really think we'll pick guy number six?

A woman of an ethnic minority in Laos tries to sell bracelets 
and ends up Skyping with people in France

In Vietnam they are really quite sneaky. I'd already been warned by several people, so I was ready to fight so I wouldn't be ripped off. Several times the menu would not have prices and the bill would be remarkably high. Or the waiters would put stuff on your table that you'd have to pay for without telling you (such as fried things to eat with your noodle soup or wet napkins).

A few times were actually quite memorable. The first was on a cruise in Halong bay, Unesco world heritage site. While admiring nature in silence, I noticed a little boat approaching us. The woman saw me looking and yelled "Hello?! You buy something?". Goodbye peace and quiet.

Some salespeople seemed to have read books on marketing. On the street in Hoi An, a woman tried the reciprocity approach. I could take a picture for free (she basically attacked me with her gear), and buy a banana in exchange (which I didn't do): "You photo? No money! I am 74, very poor. You buy banana?"

Creative banana selller

Just speaking to a sense of guilt and social proof can also do the trick. At a salon after getting a massage, the masseuse told me: "Please write how you like massage. You give me tip? No salary. My salary your tip." She'd been smart enough to write down in her little booklet that previous customers had paid the amount of five dollar, leading me to pay, yes, five dollars too. Even though I don't like getting an unfair deal, I'm also always the softie that ends up giving high tips. But hey, let's see things in perspective; how much is five dollars in Amsterdam?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Show me some skin!

The past weeks in Hanoi have been hot. When it's not raining, the sun is out. And that means that girls need to cover up every single inch of their bodies. They don't want their fair skins to tan, do they? So they have found a perfect solution: when they ride their motorbikes they wear special thin hooded jackets with extra long sleeves that cover their hands. How come no one in Indonesia came up with that?!

The men however are quite laidback here (or as my cooking teacher in Hoi An said "Vietnamese men no good! They are lazy, just hang around the coffee shop all day") and like to feel the breeze on their bare skin. It doesn't really matter where you are, there's always a guy with his shirt lifted somewhere near. Not a very pretty sight.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Connecting the dots looking back

Or, struggling to managing myself (part 2)

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite games was 'Job Agency' ('Uitzendbureautje' in Dutch). At the age of seven, I would help poor (imaginary) jobseekers find their perfect employment. I dragged all my friends along with me (try to imagine what their moms must have thought). I must have been inspired by a family friend who was actually paying for his philosophy studies by doing this - at a real job agency with real jobseekers though. I liked the idea of making someone happy by just linking them to a great job. Easy does it.
Sometimes I feel like am playing Uitzendbureautje all over again...

Later, together with a girlfriend, I expanded the scope of the agency to also include travel. She was crazy about the US and we would spend days speaking English (sort of). Yes, even at that age, the world was already luring. How come? Maybe it was because our house was always filled with guests. Alexandra, a friend of my mother, would come over and tell me about the journeys she made to make documentaries. An aunt from Italy visited and brought me il libero delle parole, a great book showing illustrations and its meanings in four languages. The American neighbors upstairs invited me for their parties, where I practiced my English (and learned about god. Hmm). A guy from Mali, whom my mom taught Dutch, came over to cook his local dish (which I recall not liking very much. Ha! Maybe that's why I haven't been to Africa yet!). For my (twelfth?) birthday I got a subscription to a beautiful glossy magazine about Indonesia (Archipel magazine). This was it! The rest is history (in short: I went to Indonesia when I was 14, studied Indonesian and just spent a year and a half in Jakarta).

An issue of Archipel magazine

Now that I am self-employed (or voluntarily unemployed) I take a lot of time to reflect. As Steve Jobs says, you can only connect the dots looking back. Now that I do, it all makes sense. I've always wanted to travel, write and help others. This now gives me the confidence to take a step into the unknown. In a way, I have always been a self-made woman: in primary school I was involved in the 'Montessori Democrats' (we didn't get a lot done though), wrote for the school paper and took part in a game show on TV. Also, I interviewed my favorite writer and wrote an article that was published in Primeur, a newspaper for kids. Somehow as a grownup we think we cannot just pick up the phone and ask our favorite writer for an interview. Isn't that a pity?

When I was a kid I hardly needed anyone to tell me what to do to stay busy, now I often wish for a manager. I now send reports to my friend Miriam, so she can check up on my progress. Most of all, I should trust that in ten years, I can again connect the dots. How about you, does your path makes sense when you look back? And how does that help you to move forward?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Laundry magic: how my undies were lost and found

Have you ever left a bag of dirty laundry at a hotel and wondered how they managed to bring you back exactly your clothes the next day? How do they organize that? How do they remember which clothes belong to whom? If you know, please do share!

Honestly, I had never really thought about all of this. Maybe because it had always gone right. Until my last three months in Jakarta that is. From February, I lived at a place where they could not get it right. The laundry kept on getting mixed up! Several times the landlady came up to me with a piece of underwear, holding it up to ask me if it was mine. Once I was flattered (it was a tiny little undie), but mostly I was embarrassed - as was she. One morning I ran into a neighbor who was writing a note to go with a stack of my underpants ("Hey, those are mine!"). The note said: 'Sorry, but these are really not mine'. She told me she had already given them back before, but somehow, they kept on coming back to her.

The poor landlady (whose maids kept on running off without notice or falling ill) realized something had to be done. She got a big notebook, sat down with the (loyal but not all too bright) maid  and wrote down every piece of clothing someone wanted to have washed. When my boyfriend lost a shirt, I actually went through the notebook. It was fantastic! They had described every item including as much detail as possible: 'Ami - black T-shirt, size M, blue butterfly'. Since too many of us were apparently wearing undistinguishable black underwear, they had to abandon this method though. Instead, they decided to sow a colored thread to every piece of clothing. Every person had their own color.

They day I left, I realized my laundry had not been delivered to me yet. As the maid insisted there was no clean laundry for me, I started going through all the clean clothes myself. And guess what? I found my clothes, with several different colored threads (mostly brown, blue and black) in them!

So how DO guesthouses, hotels and laundry services keep track of which undie belongs to whom?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The misery of free time

Or, struggling to manage myself (Part 1)

Since my contract ended as advisor on Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation at KontraS on the 1st of May, I have had time off. I knew from the beginning my posting (by Togetthere) would only be for 18 months and had come up with the idea to write a novel about my family. I was inspired by Eat, Pray, Love, I guess, and envisioned a little house between Balinese rice fields where I would write for 3 months. After doing some initial research (interviewing some family members), I decided not to write the book. At least, not now. It's a great story, but too much to handle (believe me!). Jokingly I told my nephew, who had been helping me, that only he would be able to tell the story of how his aunt went insane, if I'd continue.

Sorry grandma, no 'Wild Swans' about you

No book then. But the idea of taking 3 months for myself still sounded very good. As my boyfriend was planning to start an online business, I figured we could do what Tim Ferriss advises us all to do: work remotely and take a mini retirement. That is, in short, how we ended up in Hanoi. After enjoying a holiday by the beach, writing out my notes and reports for Togetthere and going around Vietnam with my dad, I have now been behind my computer for a week and a half. You're probably wishing you could take a break from it all and take a few months to do anything you like. Well, I can tell you: this freedom is a pain!

All set to work!

Every day I have a new idea of what I could do or a different approach to what my life should look like. Do I want to do something meaningful or make buckets of cash? Or should I just try to find a niche to make some passive income on? This way, I'd have enough money to live from and could use all my time helping other people. Or should I start a social enterprise? Maybe I should just be a consultant in monitoring and evaluation, or a writer of blogs on coffee, or a remote English teacher for Indonesians. The web provides loads of inspirational material, but it's overwhelming too. Can I be as good as Salman Khan? Am I really the first female lifestyle designer? "Neh, don't be silly", my Dutch calvinist brain says (constantly), "Just act normal, that's crazy enough". Then another hour of browsing for a safe 9-5 job begins. For all my life, I've been trained to do what other people wanted me to do: homework at school, tasks at work. Now that I choose to be my own manager, I just cannot decide on what to do. 

Activists in Jakarta - they know what to fight for

Yes, I know: I have to not be too critical about my own ideas and set small goals for myself (I have read every single blog about this topic!). But the lizard brain is at work. As Seth Godin tells us, we all have a part of our brain that will resist to anything scary. In this case, I can tell you: I am scared shitless. I want to contribute to something bigger and I want everybody in the world to like it. Just the thought of you thinking "What is this girl doing?!" makes me want to hide my head under a pillow for the rest of the day. Instead of doing that, I have decided to drag you along with me. With this post I am starting a new series keeping you updated on my progress. Stay tuned for my next post! 

Any advise? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Prepare to puke!

The joys of traveling on Asian buses

Last October, when traveling in Laos, I got a small yellow plastic bag after getting on a local bus. All the other passengers also got one - some even two. Did I just get a private trash bag?! Usually Asians traveling on public buses are not so tidy (they often throw their trash on the floor and during a stop the driver gets a broom and shoves everything out through the door. Works like a charm!), so I was pretty impressed. Soon enough I realized that the bags were not for keeping trash though. They were for puke! Not like the sturdy bags on airplanes, these were fluffy and more importantly, transparent! Was I glad to have taken my anti carsickness pills! The idea of people around me vomiting made me wonder if my stomach would survive the trip calmly.

Laotian bus

Please don't show me your bag!
So, during the trip I tried not to look around in case someone was in the process of filling their plastic bag. Despite this and the entertainment my iPod brought (on its highest volume), I couldn't help noticing that my neighbor across the aisle was having an encounter with her breakfast. Other women and a little boy were also vomiting now (while I was going "Lalaaaalaaa" in my head as hard as I could). The woman on my row then tied her full bag into a little knot and hung it on the handle on the chair in front of her. It hung there the whole way (three hours!) even though we made several stops. She enthusiastically ate lunch during one of these stops, but somehow did not feel the need to get rid of her puke bag. Yuck!

Vietnamese woman holding a plastic bag, which (fortunately) she only used for spitting. After a short stop, she had exchanged the bag for a transparent yellow one though.

And I won't show you mine...
Now, whenever I see these bags being handed out, or people bringing their own (?!), I feel like marketing my great Dutch herbal pills. Or any other car sickness pill, for that matter. The only time on my Laos trip that I ran out of my pills (panic attack!), I did indeed make use of a plastic bag (yes, a yellow one). The road was going up and down and the driver was not particularly subtle. Wow, that was not a very happy day... Since I did not want to be confronted with the content of the bag afterwards (nor confront my loved one nor the other passengers) I (*blush*) threw the bag out the window (to my loved one's discontent, I should add). I do apologize to any possible motorbike driver behind our bus (sorry!). And a free warning to the rest of you: in case you plan to travel on a bumpy bus, be prepared and take some pills in advance!

Monday, May 30, 2011

How I ended up drilling numbers in Vietnamese

As tourists, it's really easy to stay in your own little bubble. Moving around in minivans, drinking lattes (which I love to do) and eating food adjusted to suit the Western tongue. You can spend months hanging around on beaches, while drinking beers with other tourists. Even though it's not always comfortable, I like it so much better to step out of that bubble. Without realizing it, that's what I did.

Sailing club in Nha Trang where lots of tourists hang out (and I managed to take a picture WITHOUT any! That was quite a challenge to be honest)

A few days a go, we traveled by train from Nha Trang to Danang. Given the number of tourists in Nha Trang, we somehow assumed that we would be on the sleeper train with other tourists. After arriving at the train station we quickly realized that assumption was all wrong. The waiting room smelled of durian and was packed with Vietnamese people and their boxes. Yes, we were the only bules! I suddenly remembered all the buses I saw passing by, filled with tourist getting ready for bed (they were all on sleeper buses, not trains!). The voice of my friend and Vietnam expert Elske echoed loudly in my head "Why don't you guys just go straight from Mui Ne to Saigon and fly from there?!". She had said that while rolling her eyes (Thanks, Skype, for that addition). Now, I began to see why.

The train only had two wagons with sleeper compartments, the other ten compartments consisted of with wooden benches where people had to sit all night long. The toilet did not look very clean and the hallway not very appealing. Our beds were the top bunks in a compartment for six people. They were all sleeping already. In the semi-dark, we climbed onto our bunks whispering. I, being somewhat clumsy, received a gentle kick from a foot that then pointed at a step I could use to climb up and still needed a (loving) push to get on the bed. Then, we tried to sleep. Unfortunately, that didn't work out very well. When at five thirty the family on the lower beds started talking and having breakfast, I knew I had missed all opportunities for sleeping that night.

Tommy getting ready for a good night's sleep

Me on the sleeper train

It occurred to me that the family was really enjoying this trip together: they were chatting and seemed to be making jokes continuously. Yes, it was still five thirty in the morning! I hopelessly tried to sleep for a few hours and then decided to climb down. After standing in the corridor uncomfortably for a while, the two women on the lowest beds invited me to sit with them. A six-year-old boy, probably the grandson of one of the women, counted to five in English and that's when I got out the Lonely Planet Phrasebook. Lightbulb moment! What followed was a lesson in Vietnamese, of which I already do not remember anything. Tonal languages should just be forbidden. No, seriously. It's impossible!

Anyway, I was taught how to count and they seemed enthusiastic about my progress. They asked me if I already had children (I think) and I answered with no (I think). I asked them if they were 'older brother/sister-younger brother/sister', but they just looked at me funny, so I must have asked something else. I did find out where they were going, but just didn't know the town they were heading to. The eldest woman started getting out her wallet and waved money bills at me. Assuming she wanted me to practice my newly acquired skills, I started saying how much it was. It was great. I just wished I could have asked more. And I wished I could have understood more. The older woman wouldn't stop talking to me, pointing out of the window (At the rice fields? The houses? The sky?) and making gestures (Harvesting rice? Dancing? Rocking a baby?). The other woman seemed to explain that I didn't understand and that she should give up. Too bad I'll never know what she told me. 

The boy was sick and had tiger balm on his neck

The woman who told me stories I couldn't understand

The mediator (I think) who tried to explain that I didn't understand

Another family member (husband) who was mostly reading (and spoke a bit of French)

Another husband (?) who mostly smiled very friendly

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Five things I learned in Indonesia

The past few weeks in Vietnam have been very relaxing. After escaping the bustle of Saigon, I breathed in some fresh mountain air in Da Lat. More lazy days followed on the beach in Mui Ne, where I reflected on my time in Indonesia. I wrote reports for PSO, ICCO and KontraS telling them about what I think made my posting successful and which great plans never materialized. All this thinking about my year and a half in Indonesia, made me realize that there are so many things I've learned. Since five is my lucky number, I came up with my my top five! After living in Indonesia, I can (amongst other things):

5. Use dirty toilets. Yes, I have complained about the hygiene at Indonesian toilets before, so I will not do that again here. Instead, I will just applaud myself for being able to deal with the unfreshness (to formulate it nicely). My lady bag (I have had complaints of it being too messy) is always armed with wet and dry tissues. Also, I can squat and hold my breath at the same time now. Hear, hear for that, no?

4. Laugh out loud. In an earlier post, I explained how the roaring laughter of Indonesians (usually occurring in groups) can make my day. Well, I can do it too now! The joke doesn't even have too be that funny, which is a good bridge to number 3 on my list.

3. Make bad jokes. Indonesians are stars in slapstick and obvious jokes. Not to mention repetition. Who cares that the same joke about two single colleagues possibly being a good love match has already been made during every staff meeting in the past six months?! Right, no one. As I enjoy being the center of attention, I also wanted to take part in all this fun. No need to be creative! I just recycled someone else's joke and was sure to be met with a room full of laughter. Wow, I'm sure gonna miss that back home...

  The funny bunch

2. Be late and say it was due to traffic. In the Netherlands, I am usually perfectly on time. That means that for formal things I will be 5 minutes early and for a date with a girlfriend (depending on the timeliness of the friend) be on time or up to 10 minutes late. In Indonesia, everyone is too late. Or (not many people know this) too early. Whether too late or too early, the stress should be on the word 'too' here. People stuck in traffic can be an hour late and text you when they are 30 minutes late to tell you they will be even later. People who were prepared for traffic can on the other hand suddenly be an hour early. Very inconvenient when you planned to clean up your house before they came. Anyway, I can do it too now. Come an hour late, that is. I'll do my hair, dress up and jump in a taxi way too late and then blame ever congested Jakarta for making me arrive so late.

1. Eat spicy food. My mom eats everything with chili sauce. Even hotchpotch (Dutch culinary explosion consisting of mashed potatoes and vegetables, usually eating with a meatball or sausage) is better with a spoonful of sambal. I think living in Indonesia did something with my taste buds as I long for spice all the time. I add red (or when I feel adventurous green) peppers to my Vietnamese noodle soup and will not eat fried rice without spicy sauce. What's worse is that pizza's have lost some flavor. At pizza places in Indonesia you will always get some sauce on the side (French fries come with chili sauce too by the way and you have to ask for ketchup if you want it). If I wouldn't feel ashamed, I would eat them with spicy sauce now as well...


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In-between and inside-out

Even though I am not in Indonesia any more (and no longer in-between and inside out), I wanted to do some self-promotion here and direct you to an article I wrote not too long a go for a great online magazine about Indonesia called Inside Indonesia. All the experts on Indonesia are represented there, so I feel especially honored that my article was published. Let me know what you think of it!  Click here to read it. Do also browse their website if you're interested to learn more about Indonesia. Their latest series is about the rich in Indonesia - that's bound to be a fascinating read!