Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dr. Seuss Does Sympathy

The teacher who was supposed to mentor me got called back home for a family emergency last Monday so I've taken her place and just been winging it in her absence. Today I had to tell the class that their teacher's father passed away yesterday and, in their spare moments, they should consider making condolence cards. This one really stuck out:

Welcome back
Have a snack
It's too bad
About your Dad.

I sent it back for a rewrite but, in keeping with my positive teaching philosophy, I did give kudos for the rhyme scheme.

Bahasa Indonesia Word of the Day:  jodho= soul mate

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mall Rat

I've had a week now to shake off the jet lag and settle in. So far having a roommate hasn't been bad at all despite the fact that I don't think either of us likes the other all that much. I'm not much bothered by that. When I suggested she must miss her old roommates she replied without hesitating, "No. Not at all."

I have the top floor of the house to myself at the moment. My room is small but thankfully air conditioned and I have my own bathroom for now. This is a blessing as my hair is falling out like I'm a chemo patient, which I've been told happens to everyone when they first arrive here, but still, it's embarrassing.

Another source of shame, at least to my liberal sensibilities, is the maid. I am appalled at the notion of paying someone else to wash my underwear and clean my bathroom but it's expected here. It's only $15/month and frankly I haven't had pressed pants since I left home so I try not to think about how ridiculous it makes me feel. Besides, it's a trickle down economy and I've already set tongues wagging in the neighbourhood and school with all of the walking I do. "I saw you walking," I hear at least once a day. "Why you don't take cab?" This is said accusingly and I am in constant fear my feet will be severed if I get caught doing it again.

There are things I love though, like the kids I teach, the sudden, intense and almost daily thunder storms, and the momentary relief from the heat that follows them. The mournful lamenting sound of what I assume are the calls to prayer emanating from what I also assume is the neighbourhood mosque. I have loved the far too few cool days like today when I can sit out on my balcony and watch the bats swooping exuberantly to feed on the urban jungle mosquitoes against the backdrop of a rapid sunset. There are the bananas growing on the tree outside my window and for breakfast mangoes that haven't traveled halfway around the world.

On Saturday Mr. Principal took me along with his wife and son when they went to the mall. This is what passes for entertainment here. Mallrats. The antithesis of me. We go to the largest mall in Nagoya. They insist on feeding me despite my protests. I eat alone in a practically deserted food court because everyone is fasting for Ramadan. Food doesn't taste good at all when you are eating it in front of starving company.

I slept badly Friday night and spend most of the meal maniacally massaging the excruciating pain in my neck. This does not escape the notice of Mrs. Principal and, after lunch, she drags me across the street to an alley full of massage parlours. Here she treats me to a traditional Bali massage 15,000 IDR or $15USD for 1.5 hours. Good god! I think, that's slave wages. A masseuse back home make six or seven times that. And then I remember that that's my maid's entire months wages and I feel simultaneously relieved and ashamed.

"Here in Indonesia," Mrs. Principal says, "We no rich but we have good life."

Once we have walked up the narrow staircase to the room full of curtained mattresses Mrs. Principal, who has been fairly quiet and subdued in her husband's company, transforms into a chatty, almost adolescent girl. Having removed her hijab, her face is brightens, she relaxes, and when she laughs she is breathtakingly beautiful. She tells me how she and her American husband, Mr. Principal, met and we whisper and giggle like teenagers while we wait in our terry cloth towels and spa provided gunny sack shorts.

After the massages start we settled in quietly and I think I briefly doze, until I feel my shorts being hiked up into what is practically a wedgie. Only a few hours earlier, while shaving my legs in the shower I debated shaving my thighs and netherworld which caused me to snicker. Whoever would you being doing that for in this Muslim society? So I went with the usual sloppy to the knee shave. You'd think I'd know by now that I never know where a day is going to take me and would take appropriate measures. Instead all efforts to induce my muscles to relax are instantly rendered void while I clench in terror, imagining all manner of awful she might be seeing while she tucks the billowing spa issued pantaloons under my modest bikini underwear which now seem grossly lacking in coverage and into crevices even I've never seen.

Eventually I accept that it's too late now and she's probably seen many far more horrific things than my bottom and I try to relax, and actually succeed, until she begins to pound and slap me like she might a sassy bowl of bread dough. I am about to relent and beg her forgiveness if only she'll please, please stop when she does something indescribably fantastic with her fingers. I acquiesce. This is sheer hubris on my part as mere moments later I am gleefully pummeled. I am beginning to feel betrayed by all this soothing and lulling that only ends in abuse. I am beginning to have flash backs to bad relationships past.

In the end she sits me up and, placing her feet on my back, pulls my arms straight behind me until my shoulders pop. I make a mental note to make "Are you a licensed chiropractor?" the next phrase I learn in Bahasa Indonesia.

When our time was up I leave feeling slippery and smelling like I showered in black tea. Somehow I thought jasmine oil would smell prettier. I commence rubbing my neck maniacally.

We walk back to the mall and Mrs. Principal takes me grocery shopping at the HyperMart. I have already been grocery shopping at the HyperMart in the Mega Mall by our school but now I can finally ask what is inside packages of oil that read simply "Mengiken" and what kind of eggs are blue? I buy a dragon fruit and some Pantene Pro-V that seems to be specially formulated for Indonesia promising, as it does, to "reduce hair fall".

After shopping it is time to break fast which seems an utterly impossible venture with every person in the mall making a mad dash towards every eatery. We end up eating at the "Happiness Restaurant" where I order the chicken in strawberry sauce. The Indonesians heart their chicken and inconceivably good things to it like serve it with strawberry sauce. Happiness indeed.

On Sunday Ms. Yeni calls. "I go to mall, you come too?"

So at noon, we set off to the final mall on Batam Island that I haven't seen, the BCS mall. Ms. Yeni teaches me how to use the bus which involves standing on the side of the road -anywhere on any road will do- and waiting for a van to pull over. When they do, you ask if they are going to BCS or wherever you might wish to go. Because it's an island they almost inevitably are, or will eventually, so you climb on board and try to find a patch of seat that still has some padding on it because it's going to be a bumpy ride.

I had been warned by Ms. Heni when I first arrived not to take a taxi. "They will try to hypnotize you and steal your money." When I inquired about good places to swim I was told to go to Nagoya. "But don't take a bus. They are too dangerous. You take a bike cab instead." Bike cabs are men for hire on motorbikes. When I express skepticism that these are any safer than buses I'm told, "Oh, no, this is normal and perfectly safe. Just wear the helmet." Actually it's the sweaty lice ridden helmet I'm worried about but I keep my opinions to myself.

At the mall we go to the grocery store and Ms. Yeni does her best to educate me about more vegetables I have never seen. I buy a mango and a $4.00 bottle of olive oil (half the price of the Hypermart, though only 3/4 the size) which I accidentally try to pay for using Korean coins. Ms. Yheni seems captivated by them so I give them to her. She gave me two Javanese bracelets earlier in the day and I was happy to reciprocate. Afterwards we wander around a bookstore in search of a Bahasa Indonesia - Inggris dictionary ($1.50 brand new, still wrapped in cellophane) before returning home.

We stop at a local restaurant for mango juice when we get back to our neighbourhood and she tries to convince me to get a cell phone. I am adamant that I must wait until pay day at the end of September.

"No," she says almost near tears. "I have phone I give you. No cost. You just buy pulsa."

I remember all the lovers and boyfriends who tried to buy me a cell phone. I balk now just as I always have. I don't want to always be available, accessible. I don't want to feel tied down.

"Yes, but pulsa cost money," I say by way of excuse. "Just call my home phone."

"No, this cost too much. No phone. Text. Just text. So I can reach you."

So today I have a new friend and a new, used cell phone and not a clue what to do with either.

Bahasa Indonesia phrase of the Day: Tidak, terima kasih  = No, thank you.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dear Ndugu

My parents have taken to sponsoring children through aid organizations now that my brother and I have long left home leaving them with disposable income. One of the first was Feng-Feng Wang, a little girl from China. "I really wanted a boy," my father told me, "but did you know that in China parents will sell girls to perverts. That's just not right." He was genuinely shocked by this revelation. I was genuinely shocked that this, or any of the innumerable ways women, including Western women, continue to be abused, oppressed and exploited, would be news to anyone.

In this TED talk one of my favourite fictions writers, Chilean author Isabelle Allende talks about passion, nice people with common sense and why feminism still matters. Please share it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


We spend the night in a tiny room in a noisy hotel in Singapore as the last ferry for Batam left an hour before my plane landed. I take an instant liking to Ms. Heni, who reminds me Miranda Bailey on my guilty TV pleasure "Grey's Anatomy." (Wow, I can't believe I just casually outed myself like that.) I keep her talking all morning about her hometown but the minute we find seats on the ferry she falls fast asleep.

The ferry is circa 1965 but there are two brand new flat screen TV's on the wall. I become completely engrossed in the featured Kung-Fu movie in the way only the fantastically jet lagged can. The Principal is waiting at the ferry terminal when we land. He buys me an iced tea but I have to stand behind a screen to drink it because it's Ramadan and almost everyone is fasting.

When I finish my luggage and I are whisked away in the school bus. "You are basically here to increase enrollment," Mr. Principal tells me. Gee, no pressure.

Straight to school, where I am paraded through the classrooms like a prized Christmas present. in every room I am greeted with cheering children and applause. I feel like a rock star. Mr. Principal buys me lunch - chicken and rice and a spinach like vegetable - then we hide out in his office until it's time for the fire demonstration.

The school's fire extinguishers have expired and need to be replaced so it's been decided the old one's should be used to demonstrate how to use them. outside there an oil drum has been cut in half like a trough and filled with gas. The kids are gathered round in a circle while the maintenance men light the gas on fire. The kids push back from the punishing heat which is not actually that much hotter than the air, while I stand with Mr. J -the only other bule* in the school aside from Mr. Principal, and crack jokes about insurance and law suits. When the pin is pulled on the first extinguisher and the foam is released the wind blows it straight towards us and we all begin to choke.

This is my new workplace, my new school, my career. I am eventually driven to my new home, across the street from the campus and my new life begins.

*bule = white foreigner

Bahasa Indonesia Word of the Day: buku = book

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I love airports. Sometimes I think I travel just to see airports. I have spent hours scheming a way to get sponsored to fly around the world on every airline possible with a stop at every airport on the planet. Maybe I can try for a world record. If I can pull together enough money I hope to make this my first documentary project. By my estimation, airports are true monuments to mankind's greatest achievement - flight. They are the true United Nations.

Airplanes, on the other hand, I'm not so keen on. The flying is fine, in fact I love flying, it's the whole pajama party in the sky scenario that underwhelms me. Particularly because, at this sleepover, you don't get to chose who you unroll your sleeping bag next to and I inevitably end up next to the bed wetters. "I wish," I said to my mother before leaving, "instead of giving you the option to choose a window or aisle seat they ought to offer a choice between nursery or handsome bachelor."

I did actually get my handsome bachelor on the overseas leg of the flight. Unfortunately he was accompanied by his mother and two decades younger than me or I'd have snapped him up. Not only did he fix my in flight entertainment center but he folded his hands prayerfully and bowed his head almost reverentially after doing it to. I was agog and had to remind myself that all too soon puberty would transform him into a great big jerk and I felt sorry for the girl who's heart he was going to break.

I fell asleep for a few hours in Seoul airport while waiting for dawn, but I managed to make it into the city by mid morning. Thanks to Joseph at Somewhere in Dhamma I knew exactly where to go and make the most of my few hours there.

The first recognizable landmark for me was the I Want apartments which I recalled from one of Joseph's posts and made me grin despite my jet lag. The first stop though was the palace which I loved for the lily pond, but was, quite frankly, terrified of thanks to incessant buzzing and whirring. Welcome to Seoul, City of Screaming trees.

Whatever was shrieking in the foliage was either averse to asphalt or drowned out by the traffic because it couldn't be heard on the city streets. I went in search of the temple lost in a lunchtime crowd of investment bankers and real estate lawyers, hundreds of them dressed in uniform black and white and gray. I felt awkward and conspicuous. I began to second guess everything, from my choice of lunch (yogurt and a banana-maybe I should have tried harder to find some local cuisine?) to my life (Am I completely mad to leave everything I know behind and dive into the unknown as though it was all a big lark?) I was on the verge of panicked exhausted tears when I stumbled on the very same, in every detail, Buddha statue from my birthday dream.

After a half hour of respite in the temple I took a far too quick tour through part of Insadong. It was here I discovered, aside from the most amazing collection of antique books, teapots and toys, that it's not only Indian men who want to have their pictures taken with random white girls. I wonder what stories trhey make up when they show them to their friends?

By two o'clock I was back on the bus to the airport catch my flight to Singapore where a Ms. Heni was waiting to pick me up.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Last Picture Show

When I'm stuck in a city and feeling stressed, the movie theater is my escape. The refuge of a chilly theater with sticky floors from the assault of the melting asphalt heat of the concrete zoo on a hot summer day is instant relief for whatever weariness may have gotten hold of either my body or soul.

One of my favourite memories of India was momentary sanctuary from the heat, but also the crushing crowds and noise, in a darkened theater with my self appointed guardian Bablu and a Japanese girl traveling the world on a gap year. Bablu was the only one of us who understood the dialogue but the plot was formulaic enough it didn't really matter. Indian audiences are expressive in the way of Rocky Horror Picture Show fans. They don't wear costumes but they boo the villain and throw popcorn at the screen during scenes they don't like. If this is their second or third time seeing the movie they'll sing along to the musical numbers and they applaud wildly at the end if they liked the show. To be in the midst of this, I assure you, is worth the price of admission.

Temperatures on Wednesday reached 37 with the humidity and I stopped by the Green Tree Cafe to take a break from running errands.

"Can I help you?" asked the petite middle aged lady behind the counter.
"Do you serve milkshakes?" I asked her hopefully.
She shook her head, "No."
My face fell and I made a quarter turn to go.
"Well, wait now," and, opening her freezer, she asked, "what kind would you like? I have vanilla ice cream and frozen strawberries, raspberries or blueberries."

In five minutes I was sitting on a bench outside slurping on a homemade raspberry shake ($2.25 and it was the perfect size so I was able to finish it all) and eyeing the posters on the wall of the cinema next door. This is the same cinema where I saw my first movie, "The Lone Ranger" with my brother and Uncle G. when I was barely six. With a twinge of nostalgia I tried to remember the last time I'd seen a movie in a genuine theater, not a Cineplex and I realized it was "Rainman", in that same theater, over half my lifetime ago.

So I returned in the evening to see "Inception". The lobby had been renovated since my last visit but the theater itself still had the red velvet curtains and the front fifteen rows still had the small, hard backed seats with worn and faded red upholstery. The last fifteen rows, however, were armchair style leather seats. I got an aisle seat, my favourite, in the last row before the old seats began. I had enough room to put my messenger bag beside me and curl up with my feet on the seat with plenty of room left over for my popcorn. All of this for the price of $6 admission and $5 for a popcorn and drink.

Small town living is where it's at.Unless you have to live there.

("Inception", by the way, is brilliant. If you liked "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or "Memento" I'd recommend you see it. A few times.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


It was hard leaving my woodland life behind but berry season is over, the wildflowers are no longer blooming and autumn is imminent.

On Friday I set out on a quest for Silver Falls which had been touted as a "must see" attraction. "The water is perfectly clear there, you can see right to the bottom" I was told. I consulted my maps. I consulted our landlord who pointed out their coordinates on the map and then suggested I visit Drewry Falls instead. "They're closer." 

But I am not about "closer". I am about adventure and the promise of a tropical paradise only a short paddle away. Because, despite all geographical evidence to the contrary, tropical is how my imagination envisioned it. It was going to be a large, cascading waterfall with brightly coloured fish for me to chase while swimming in the crystal clear pools below. It would be just like the one I once hiked to in Costa Rica.

So I set out with one bottle of water, one piece of farmer sausage, ten cherries and a basically empty Blistex container. I paddled the shoreline of the lake for hours searching for the Grassy Narrows that would lead to the connecting lake but every excursion into every bay turned up nothing. "It must be just around the next corner," I would tell myself with every disappointment, then paddle confidently around to the other side of the trees only to discover another bay with more trees. I had been told the trip should take about two hours but three hours later I still had nothing to show for my efforts.  

I ate my lunch. With the sun beating directly down on me I realized I only had a quarter of my water left. I had no more blistex. Refueled and reinvigorated I forged on convinced at every turn that it would be just around the next bend, and then the next until, finally, off on the horizon at last I saw reeds. That must be it. I paddled for twenty minutes towards the reeds, ignoring two more bays along the way. Five minutes before I reached the grassy shore I passed a cottage with a family leaving their dock in canoes and kayaks.

I searched the shoreline for an opening but couldn't find one. I was about to give up when I spotted the family from the cottage paddling and disappearing into the reeds on the far side of the marsh so I followed them in. Paddling down the beautiful creek I felt happily content and when the falls came into view after turning round the final bend, I was relieved to have finally found them.

They weren't exactly how I'd envisioned them, more like rapids than actual waterfalls, and I most definitely couldn't get out and swim, but still they were pretty and definitely worth the paddle. My spirits buoyed I thought I might check out these Drewry Falls on my way back. I pulled out my map. I checked it three times certain I must be reading it wrong. But no, it turns out I had been reading it wrong all morning and I was already at Drewry Falls. I was still miles away from Silver Falls.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Saturday I found myself on a practically deserted beach with my ma, a couple from Fort Frances and a pair of families of four on the opposite side. The couple is touring Ontario while he recovers from heart surgery. "I'm worried," he says, " I might scare people with my scar." She loves to swim but only in the clearest water because she can't stand leeches and needs to be able to see everything in the water. After explaining this she runs into the surf and dives in exuberantly. As though watching his twenty year old bride he says "She loves the water. She's amazing." Then, pulled back to the current decade he adds, less whimsically but with more admiration "Her whole family is. Her Uncle just swam the English channel. This takes some determination as it's so polluted, you know, you have to vaseline your body to keep it from sticking. Her mother's in her nineties and could swim half this lake without a problem." Before we learned all of this, before we'd even exchanged a sentence, he had stopped to ask if we needed anything from the store. "I'm going to town to get her a snack. Do you ladies want anything?" Just the offer makes me happy and I am reminded that there's no such thing as a stranger.

But not even an hour later, watching one of the fathers from the other side of the beach playing with the four children, the happiness is eclipsed by jealousy. He is teaching them how to swim under the dock and find the air pockets. "Just remember," he says, "if anything happens when you're under there, and you get stuck, don't panic, go down to find the sand then straight up." I am suddenly twelve years old again and crippled with envy of friends whose fathers read to them or tell them stories before bed. Fathers who show them how to swim or fix their bikes. This father takes the kids rock climbing on our side of the beach and as they walk by us he is saying, "Maybe we should bring something to fight the sharks."
"Sharks?" the oldest girl says doubtfully.
"Oh, absolutely, you don't know what's going to be there. It's unexplored territory after all."

Sigh. Imaginative too. Why couldn't I have had a Dad like that? Instead my father can be socially awkward, withdrawn and indifferent and because of our different religious beliefs and values, our relationship has be difficult.

"Dad," the youngest boy says.
"Your eyes are really red."
"Yeah, well, I was up really late last night."

Okay so he's a pothead. Still, it takes me ten minutes to convince myself that I have not been cheated by the fates. That, in fact, I didn't need a Dad to teach me to stay calm or read to me because I've been able to figure these things out for myself. Even after I do finally quell this irrational dissatisfaction with reason and a reality check I still find myself dwelling in all the imperfect moments of my life as a daughter rather than my father's sense of humour, and gentle and generous nature.

Today, while cooking dinner Ma called for my father and I to come and see the double rainbow. I grabbed my camera and was taking pictures when my father said, "What about at the dock? Could you get better shots from there?" And then, suddenly excited by the prospect, he ran towards the house calling, "Where are the car keys?" Within seconds we're in the car, gravel spinning and spitting beneath the tires and driving down to the water. The rainbow is already fading when we get there but I get a few good shots including a couple with my notoriously camera shy father.

Today I went rainbow chasing with my father. Take that Mr. Pothead dad.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Instructions for Disposing of Your Past: Part II

On the last night of the full moon burn the last of your papers. Burn the box that you stored them in too. When the final coals have been reduced to ash say goodnight to the fireflies and sleep a dreamless sleep.

In the morning a cold but gentle rain will fall as you paddle to a part of the lake you often pass but never cross as there are no creeks or rivers or islands there. In your pocket is the inescapable ring.

Last summer, when your father lost his glasses in the lake, you had hoped it was lost for good. When the twin band had slipped off and settled on the mucky bottom you resurfaced and, slipping the remaining one off your finger had slapped it, angrily, on the dock. "Can you please look after this for me? I've already lost one," you say thinly veiling your anger in martyrdom, before diving back into the murky and, that year, frigid water.

Later that evening, glasses recovered and a sort of peace restored you laugh when your parents both admit that neither took the ring and it's been left on the dock.

"Don't worry, it's impossible to lose these rings. I wouldn't be surprised if the one in the lake found it's way back to me too." And, as predicted, while the one in the lake remained lost to the leaches, the one forgotten on the dock, the one in your pocket now, was still there in the morning.

Both were silver bands the Ex bought from a street vendor at a theater festival. You always wore them on your left hand though, after the divorce, when you lost all that weight, you had to wear them on your middle finger. You have never owned expensive jewelery because you are uncannily adept at losing or breaking it, yet, despite your best efforts, these rings have continued to find their way back to you. Over the years they've been lost for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time only to be discovered in a lint trap, under the claw foot bath tub, in the pocket of your grandfather's favourite blue cardigan. Once, after the spring melt, they reappeared in your back alley after having spent the entire winter under a blanket of snow.

Until last summer, your fingers and those rings remained, unlike you and your ex, inseparable. But the lake has proven greedy for treasure, and has never coughed up the first band so you will trust it with this one as well. Pressing the ring between your palms in a prayerful namaste you close your eyes and wish the Ex well before flinging it blindly into the water. Do not open your eyes until you hear the splash and are certain it has sunk without a trace.

Paddle to your island. Dive in to the water. Let the waves wash away the smokey scent of last night's fire; the proof that you are cured.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Weekend Round Up

We had visitors this weekend, what a fantastic treat! My Cuz regaled me with travel tales and the Aunt regaled us with tales of her own. We took a road trip to Shoal Lake, a swim at the local beach and a tour of the local haunted tea house during the torrential downpour in the afternoon. It was musty and leaky and filled with paraphenelia referential of our previous excursions throughout the summer like the cemetery tour and the Lake of the Woods Museum. Oh and I finally got to experience clotted cream, which I have wondered about ever since I first read Anne of Green Gables.

Plautdietsch phrase of the Day: Shlop jesund = sleep well [literally sleep healthily]

Sunday, August 1, 2010


A few weeks ago the Diva and I were discussing a book/movie "The Five People You Meet in Heaven". It's an interesting story (I've only seen the movie) by the same author of "Tuesdays With Morrie". The basic concept of Five People is that we, in the course of living our lives, effect people around us often without even knowing who they are or how our actions or choices have affected them.

Yesterday my mother returned to my hometown to attend the funeral of the man who built the Cabana where I have spent much of my last five summers and all of this one. He died suddenly and relatively young and, while he and I have never met, this bit of shelter that he built with his own two hands in the midst of the boreal forest has impacted my life in ways he most certainly could never and will never know.

This place allowed me to reconnect with my love of nature, brought me closer to my own center, and inspires me while at the same time protecting me from a life lacking in, well, a true understanding of the cycle of life. For these and other impacts I might never even truly comprehend. I owe this man I've never met, and never will, a debt of gratitude and thanks beyond words.