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!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why do you do what you do? Part three

Several weeks a go, I participated in a two-day workshop organized by the Indonesian Community for Democracy (Komunitas Indonesia untuk Demokrasi - KID) with people all working in the field of social change or development aid. In short, people that want to make a difference somehow. So I asked them WHY they do what they do. And this is the result:

 "I am doing what I am to do"

 "Because I have a dream"

"Because I want to be meaningful"

"Because I already Kecemplung"
(Because I'm already splashed)

"Because I want to explore the world, but keep close with my children"

"Karena saya senang melihat kerukunan, kerja sama dan melipir" 
(Because I like to see harmony, cooperation and quietly sneak off) 

"Because there 're limited choices 4 me"

"Cos I'm a human"

"Menarik dan selalu memiliki tantangan" 
(Because it's interesting and challenging)

"I want to change & .... ?"

"Karena saya memiliki mimpi" 
(Because I have a dream)

"I really be a listener + many issues + money + freedom / so many time I have 212"

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Five things I will not miss from Indonesia

Before I was about to leave Indonesia for a while, I was beginning to get a bit melancholic. The last weeks in Indonesia, I kept on thinking that this may be the last time I do this (have dim sum lunch with a friend) or that (be in a KontraS meeting) and continuously ended up teary eyed (or heavily sobbing). One way to cheer myself up was making this list of things I will most certainly NOT miss about Indonesia.

5. Wet toilets - As most Indonesians use water, not paper, after doing their thing on the loo, many toilets are wet. Very wet. Sometimes it's just the toilet seat, sometimes it's the entire floor. The ritual is thus to roll up your pants, so when you lower them, they don't get all wet. The fancier the restroom, the fancier the water supplier (a little spray). Some places have these water sprays that literally shoot the water at you (I am too scared they will harm my private parts that I have never attempted to use them). So, it has happened several times now that my foot was hit by the water splash party my toilet neighbor was having by herself. Yuck.

4. Being called 'Mister' - Need I explain?

3. Witnessing other people's personal hygiene moments - Maybe Westerners (or just the Dutch?) are a bit too uptight about it, but usually we keep bursting zits, clipping nails or pulling out unwanted hairs for our bathroom. Here I often find that people think these activities make good time killers. Often men picking up their wives, use their motorbike mirrors to get rid of any nostril hair. During a meeting, someone can just take out a nail clipper and clip away.

2. Burps and throat scraping - air needs to get out, okay, I agree. It's actually quite freeing for me to be allowed to burp. But everything should (as we say in Dutch 'met mate') remain within certain limits. In the case of burping this means I do not want to hear yesterday's food speak out to me. Loud throat cleansing (including spitting) I just don't get. It sounds as if someone has an eating disorder and makes me loose my appetite. No need to wash up your throat if you don't have a cold.

1. "Gapapa ya?" - Some Indonesians can have interesting ways to deal with disappointment. Mine that is. So at a (quite fancy) restaurant they may ask you if you prefer to sit in a smoking or non-smoking area and when you answer 'non-smoking', tell you non-smoking is full. Why didn't they just say that in the first place? Another way of dealing with disappoint is telling me that I don't mind. So, say I reserved a nice suite at a hotel, but upon arrival it appears they made a double booking and my reserved room type is not available. The receptionist could then easily say: "Kamarnya sudah penuh, gapapa ya?" - "Oh, the double rooms are all full, but you don't mind, right?". I did actually mind and hearing that I don't mind really gets me angry. What I've learned is that saying that I do mind usually doesn't works so well. It's better to just repeat what the original deal was until they look for a better solution.

So, obviously all this complaining was just meant to disguise the fact that I have grown to love Indonesia even more and that I will definitely miss it. Thank you all (you know who you are) for a wonderful time!