Monday, January 31, 2011

Doubter's Companion

"When we deliberately leave the safety of the shore of our lives we surrender to a mystery beyond our intent."
-Anne Linea, "Deep Water Passage"

On the crossing back to Phuket, I study the waves intently. By this time tomorrow I will be on them and, feeling their impact on this large vessel, I am beginning to feel more than a little trepidation. I've never paddled a sea kayak before and I've never seen waves quite like these. They're not necessarily high but they seem crowded and hurried, their white caps breaking one on top of the other. I'm starting to think I may be getting in over my head.

I open the book I've brought with me and been power reading through. At times the author spirals into territory far too intimate for me but I find the story of her, often solo, paddle around the notoriously vicious Lake Superior, riveting, informative and reassuring.

I am a self taught paddler. It was my Aunt who suggested it. I had been lamenting the loss of the great love of my life saying, "I'll get over him, eventually (I was young and foolish and still believed that then) but I miss having a paddling partner. I'm not skilled enough to canoe by myself."

Aunt Jude stared at me like I'd obviously lost my senses. "Why don't you kayak?"

Now it was my turn to stare at her dumbfounded. "Well," I said slowly, "I've never tried it, it hadn't occurred to me."

"You've never kayaked? Oh, well, you absolutely must. There's something about it, being that close to the water, it's hard to explain." She paused for a moment, searching for the right words. "There's something sacred about it," she finally continued, "like baking bread. It's an ordinary action that's somehow extraordinary; it connects you, grounds you, reminds you that you are a part of something so much bigger than you."

Many members of my family have shared many amazing gifts with me, but this revelation was one that changed my life. I understood exactly what she meant about the process of baking bread. It's something that's been happening for thousands of years, a process that's been handed down and perfected for hundreds of generations. Every time I work a bowl of dough, combining water, eggs, yeast and flour -such a simple recipe really-it feels like I'm subverting a system that wants me to forget not only the simple pleasures in life, like the yeasty smell of bread rising in warm kitchen on a sunny winter's day, but my connection to the past and the future. Her description resonated with me profoundly and, if a kayak could bring me a similar experience, I was certainly not going to pass up the opportunity.

So, a few weeks later, on a September long weekend, I rented a kayak from the general store and set out on the water of Rushing River. It was everything my Aunt had advertised and more. At first I was terrified, convinced I would over stroke and capsize into the autumnally frigid water. It is, after all, the slyness of a kayak, that it rocks, and sways and generally does not inspire confidence; it deceives you into thinking that by all rights, it should not be water worthy. But, after the first ten minutes, you start to believe it just might let you sit that close to the water without falling in. After twenty you start to relax into it. After thirty you’ve forgotten that, much like humans should not, in theory, be able to fly, it is equally unnatural to be so close to the water and not be wet. You fall into a rhythm, the paddles and water and you become one, and you lose yourself in the fiery colours of fall reflected on the river’s surface from the rocky shore.

But paddling a river is one thing, a lake is another and a feisty, incessant sea is something else altogether. Lake Superior can be described as an inland sea, a lake so vast the waters behave like those of unbounded seas, water who's nature and temperament I know very little about. Fortunately the author, in recounting her journey around the lake, details strategies to overcome unpredictable waves, read the water, and count waves to make a safe landing and launch. I read these passages like a how-to manual, as if cramming before a final exam, knowing full well that, in the end, all I’ll really be able to do is trust my instincts. It’s a fortunate book to have found when I most needed some expert instruction but more than that it transports me back home.

There are moments I think I might drown in waves of homesickness; descriptions of “Old Woman’s Bay”, only a short drive from where I spent my last glorious summer, and the familiar shorelines along the Canadian Shield make me long for the scent of pine trees and cool summer nights spent under the stars. Still, there’s a comfort in remembering home and knowing, through these pages, there’s someone else in the world as enamoured with my homeland as me. I haven’t met anyone here who can relate to or even begin to imagine the majesty of a place with space enough to go for an entire day without seeing another human being; a place where people, accustomed to the treacheries of an often unpredictable climate and untamed landscape, are, on the whole, friendly, trusting and trustworthy. They will, as the American author discovers and marvels, be happy to help if you need. Yeah, I think proudly, reading about the friendly, generous Canadians she meets along the way, those are my people; that’s where I come from.
Most comforting of all is the knowledge that there’s at least one other woman in the world who has ventured out into a foreign wilderness alone and survived. Every time I look out at the sea, and the shark stories and nervous doubts start to creep in, the book serves to remind me: If she can do it, I can do it.

Phi Phi Island

"The only downer is, everyone's got the same idea. We all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check in to somewhere with all the comforts of home, and you gotta ask yourself, what is the point of that?"
- The Beach

I arrive at the Old Town Hostel shortly before eight o' clock as instructed but the tour operated who's to drive me to the ferry is late. The receptionist serves me the complimentary breakfast -tea, toast and a banana- even though I haven't yet spent the night. I sit with another lone woman, from South Africa, who tells me Thailand is just an appendage to her dream trip to India. We have, needless to say, much to talk about but we're soon joined by the Chinese Canadian guest from Vancouver.

"Augh," she says when I tell her I'm also Canadian and specify Winnipeg, "the mosquitoes so biiiig. Like birds, and so many too," she tells my South African friend who looks at me with round, questioning eyes.

"Well, small birds," I shrug.

"You must be here to be away from winter," the animated Chinese lady continues.

"Actually," I confess, "I kind of miss the winter." I feel foolish admitting this. Escaping winter was, after all, part of what made this plan seem so brilliant to me in the first place.

"Augh," she says again wrinkling her nose, "so cold in Winterpeg. So much snow. Not for me."

Then my ride arrives and I dash out the door calling safe travels back to my breakfast companions.

By the time I get on the ferry all the seats on deck are taken and, not wanting to sit inside, I push my way to the front of the boat, find a small space amidst the other lounging tourists, lean my back against the cabin and sit directly on deck. I eavesdrop on snippets of German and French conversations about scuba diving and Bangkok, until the engines clank and clatter then roar too life.

As the boat pulls away from the pier a voice comes over the tinny loudspeaker warning those of us sitting on or near the prow to move or we will be sprayed. A few people make their way towards the back but most us are willing to get a little wet. After all, we're all on our way to either dive or beach.

The first wave to come over sends most of the crowd running. I smile but I'm sitting far enough to the side of the boat I was only mildly sprayed so I remain, smugly, in my place. A minute later another wave breaks over the prow and this time I am thoroughly soaked. I leap to my feet, grab my bag and head towards the doors but the deck is now slippery and I nearly topple over the rail when my bare feet lose traction at the same moment a wave rocks the boat.

The air conditioning inside is uncomfortably cold, especially now that I'm wet, but there's nowhere else to sit so I dry off as best I can and use my towel as a shawl. I pull a book from my bag but I'm only a few sentences in when the toddler in front of me starts playing peek-a-boo. Unable to resist the distraction we spend most of the hour long trip amusing each other with our funniest faces and disappearing tricks. His French Canadian father is almost as amused with me as his son is.

"'e is not alwayz so friendly to strangurez," he says.

"Well, I'm not always this strange," I shrug, bringing my thumb to my nose, wiggling my fingers and sticking out my tongue, causing them both to laugh.

The ferry makes three stops and they disembark at the first. When my new friend realizes I'm not going with them he begins to cry. I give him a small heart shaped key chain and he waves sadly at me from over his father's shoulder as he's carried away.

The ferry slows to point out islands where various movies have been filmed, including The Beach, and we all gather on deck with cameras in hand to snap pictures of the giant, lush green rock towers rising out of the ocean, looming like large sentinels over the clear teal water.

By the time the ferry has transferred the hundred or so scuba divers to smaller boats and drops the twenty of us who remain on Phi Phi Island it's well past noon. After paying the entry fee, as if entering an amusement park, I wander down the water front in search of food and there is no shortage.

Phi Phi is a massive tourist trap of Australian bars, European restaurants, and French cafes amidst the usual infinity of souvenir shops selling t-shirts, sarongs and flip flops that populate all resort towns. Every shop is filled to the rafters with exactly the same merchandise as the one next to it, as if in defiant challenge of the Western economic theory of supply and demand.

I find a vendor selling "Thai" pancakes. They look like crepes, which I've made very successfully with rice flour, so I ask what they're made from.

"Milk," is the startling answer.

"Uh-huh," I say, suspecting a miscommunication. "But what kind of flour?" I ask again.

"Flour? No flour," comes the confused and befuddled answer. "Milk!"

My desire wins out over my reason and sanity and I order one, deciding I should be able to taste the wheat flour if there is any. While I wait for my order though, I am suddenly seized with the fear that the vendor thought I saying "flower" which would account for the astonished reaction to the question.

When it's served, it arrives on a banana leaf plate with blueberry sauce. I hesitate for a moment before taking a bite, sweating more from fear than the heat but, if there's wheat flour, I can't tell. I decide to enjoy it; it's too late to prevent getting sick now.

After lunch I set off to find the beach, but when I do the tide is out and there's nothing but pink and white tourists beached along the mud flats of the exposed ocean floor. I take a walk around the island but it's so overrun with drunk and high tourists, I can't find anything to like. Even the "Tsunami Village" eludes me. I can see remnants of the disaster everywhere, but even following the signs I can't seem to find this "point of interest".

With only an hour left until the ferry heads back I resign myself to partaking in what the island seems to have to offer: shopping. I buy two scarves, realizing I have nothing to cover my head on my kayak trip, and a much needed pair of pants before heading back to the ferry in hopes of being early enough to find a seat on deck.

Thai Pancakes
2 1/2 cp or 20fl oz coconut milk
2/4 cp (3.4 oz) rice flour
3 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cp (4 oz) sugar
1/2 cup shredded coconut
pinch salt
vegetable oil

Pour the coconut milk into a mixing bowl. Add rice flour and
well-beaten eggs and blend well, then add the sugar and beat until it
dissolves. Fold in the shredded coconut.

Rub an omlet pan with a paper towel and heat to moderate.

Pour a large spoonful of the batter into the pan and cook until flecks
of brown appear underneath. Turn and lightly cook the other side. Cook
the remainder of the batter in the same way, keeping pancakes warm.

Roll each pancake up into a tight cylinder. Scatter with the remaining
coconut. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Wat a Wonderful World

 "...Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
'living it up'..."
-The World is A  Beautiful Place, Lawrence Fahrlengetti

 Wat Chalong is the largest temple complex in Phuket, though any aspect of the sacred is utterly overwhelmed by the carnival that's grown around it like weeds choking an untended garden. Walking through the gate I feel more like I'm entering the fairgrounds of the annual Red River Ex than a place of meditative worship.

I push through the crowds, past the hawkers and their stalls filled with every conceivable consumer good from beach balls and sandals to kitchen pots and pirated DVD's. The late afternoon heat steams up from the asphalt and molders amidst the sticky human throng but if I keep my face turned towards the peacock blue sky there is a great red and gold spire pointing towards the heavens.

When I finally reach it the gates are closed, only monks are allowed to enter, and I find I suddenly have a lot of space around me as I'm the only person interested in the temple or the neglected lotus pond beside it.

I play with my camera until the smells from the food stalls and the setting sun remind me of dinner. I wander around the perimeter, past the massage and karaoke stalls, past the carousel and mechanical swings, to the food alleys where practically every creature that can be dregged up from the ocean is being roasted on a stick and offered up on a plate with an infinite selection of accompanying sauces.  There are earthly critters too, pan fried beetles and catepillars alongside frog kebobs and mysterious meat stews. I settle for chicken sate, fresh squeezed mango juice and a bag of popcorn to enjoy with a movie when I get back to the hostel.

Neon lights are flickering on, the electricity that moves through the frayed wires filling the air with a cicada like thrum as I wander back to the gate. I approach a mini bike driver standing awkwardly by the road and point to the giant buddha sitting atop a distant ridge silhouetted by the greying dusk sky.

"How much?" I ask.

"400," he says, hopping from one foot to the other, adding, "long way, very long way."

"Okay," I say. "Let's go."

It's a two minute drive down the highway before he turns off onto a gravel road that passes through a small town where he stops for gas. He hops with a nervous energy even as he uncaps the water bottle full of fuel and dumps it into the tank. The owner of the convenience store, round and serene as Buddha himself, says to me, "You go Buddha?"

I nod and he nods quietly back. My driver says something in rapid Thai, slaps his thigh, then hops back on the bike. Even though he chatters for most of the drive, I like him. He doesn't make me wear a helmet and he speaks mostly in noises, trying to convey to me that the road is very dangerous and we may, at any moment go flying through the air. I suspect that the odds of this occurring are becoming exponentially greater every time his hands leave the handlebars to make the universal gesture of being airborne and crashing but it makes me laugh all the same and my laughter seems only to encourage him.

The road twists up the side of the hills and the air cools quickly as we climb past cafes, restaurants and viewpoint bars. We round a bend to find elephants grazing and a sign offering rides for only 1500 baht. I've never seen an elephant in nature and have always thought of them as slow, melancholy creatures but here they swing their trunks in a seemingly playful wave, they grin mischievously and I half expect them to wink as we pass.

By the time we reach the top, the sun has almost disappeared. Still, standing at the foot of this mass of stone carved in the image of the most benevolent being I am awed. I walk up the steps, wander around the monument, still under construction, and watch the last rays of dusk disseminate over the city below.

I consider how utterly fortunate I am to not have missed this moment. It's corny to the point of treacle, but whenever I am struck by moments like these- left breathless from the blows of amazement at my life since crawling from the valley of shadows-I recall the people I've met and their stories, the people who still love me in spite of me, the places and creatures I've seen, and I can't help but concur with the sentiments of a certain jazz singer, the world really is pretty freaking wonderful.

Easy People

"You will love Asia," says the well kept, middle aged Chinese business man seated across from me. He owns the "Old Town Hostel", a renovated European colonial style building that is as neatly kept and comfortably pragmatic as its owner. The Greek pillars and whitewashed facade looked inviting from my patio seat so I crossed the street, after finishing my wine, to inquire about room rates and availability if I decide to take an extra day to visit Phi Phi Islands. "In Asia we are very easy and everything is simple, even traveling."

"Well, in Thailand maybe, that isn't exactly how I'd describe Indonesia," I say.

"Oh, you've been to Indonesia?"

After I explain that I'm teaching there, he says, "Well, I think this might be because they are Muslim. But still it wasn't always so. They used to be very easy going too. I think maybe the difficulty now is they are wealthier and send their children to study in the Middle East and when they come back they have certain ideas." I nod appreciatively though I don't recall crossing paths with anyone privileged enough to have had such an education.

"What do you teach?"

I tell him and then add, "But I'm hoping to teach in Thailand next year."

"Can you teach high school?" He asks.

"My experience has been with teaching adults ESL, children with learning difficulties and primary school, but I would love the opportunity to work with teens." It would, I think, round out my CV quite nicely.

"Well, I also own a school, a special school with an English program, here in Phuket. Maybe you can teach there. You would have maybe a week or two of classes to learn Thai culture and language, nothing difficult, before you teach."

I tell him that sounds really good.

"Send me your CV and we will see," he says handing me his business card before turning his attention to a Chinese Canadian from Vancouver who has brought him a bottle of whiskey for a New Year's present. I make arrangements with the girl at the front desk for a room and a ferry ticket for tomorrow before lugging my bag of books back to my hostel, then hiring a motorbike to take me to Wat Chalong.

The Imaginarium

" Medicine for the soul."  
~Inscription over the door of the Library at Thebes

The curious thing about deprivation is you often don't realize you are until you no longer aren't. This was the case with me and books until my tuk tuk driver passed a giant bookstore on the way back to town. My heart did a somersaulting leap and landed so hard my stomach fluttered. My pulse quickened to a pace that threatened to cause me to faint.

Entering the store I am nearly knocked out again by the musk of pages too long unturned and, as I run my fingers along dusty spines that fill the shelves, I feel an old familiar thrill creep tenderly into my blood. Picking my way through and around cardboard boxes overflowing with books I wonder how I could have possibly forgotten the excitement of these amassed and collected words, compiled and composed of paper, glue and ink hunting for the one, or two, or five that might be arranged in unputtable-down order.

They are a coterie of friends I had yet to meet, just waiting to divulge the existence of someone they know that I really ought to meet, a place I simply must see before the tourists take over, a story so completely unhinged it can only be true even if it's not. I wile away most of the afternoon, spines snap crackle open and paper whispers beneath my fingers, at turns conspiratorial then seductive, words -beautiful familiar words in my own mother tongue- caressing so many too long untouched places in my soul, soothing my shriveling and parched spirit. Language that leaps, words that waft, sentences that scintillate and simmer; I am transfixed and utterly lost to the world.

By the time I finally tear myself away from the shelves I have amassed a bagful of books and an even deeper and more terrifying understanding of just how much of who I am is being denied by my current circumstances. I wander down the street, find a wine bar with a patio furnished with giant wicker chairs, order a glass of fantastically affordable wine and settle into the overstuffed cushions to read until the sun begins to wane.

Sea Gypsy Village

The Sea Gypsies are the oldest known inhabitants of Phuket Island and, for an extortionist rate, I hire a tuk tuk to visit the settlement at Silay Island.

Because the Sea Gypsies are, well, gypsies of the sea, their origins are still uncertain but it's largely held that they first arrived in Phuket from Malaysia as refugees from the Muslim invasion. Until recently they lived as nomads, moving from bay to bay when resources would run out. There are still nomadic sea gypsies in the more remote islands of northern Phuket but there are three permanent settlements along the coasts of the main Phuket Island.

The settlement at Silay is a tiny village with one main road and a few more houses off some alleys. On main street there's a medicine man laying hands on the porch of his hut, some teenagers strumming guitars with a reggae calypso feel while young kids play soccer in the local community club which is basically a cement pad under a concrete roof. People loll about, napping in whatever shade they can find and the women gather in groups, gossiping while they crack oyster and clam shells in search of pearls to make jewelery to sell to tourists.

The fishermen are already back for the day by the time I climb the hill at the end of the settlement where I sit, staring out at the wind blown sea, wondering if it's ever calm.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


"Slip into silent slumber
Sail on a silver mist
Slowly but surely your senses will cease
to exist" -
Trust in Me (The Python Song), The Jungle Book

"Pleez," says the grey-eyed French chef with a boyishly round face, "move inside. I 'ave opened ze wine and would like you to stay. I will feed my snake."

If I were any kind of sober, I would employ the wisdom all my past experience and ask a few questions to verify that he is not referring to a euphemistic snake, but after taking a nap, shower, eating a plate of chicken penang, taking a wander through the night market trying to figure out how to use my camera, I have chosen one of the innumerable wine bars - oh yes, I love Thailand- and sipped my way through three large glasses of ridiculously affordable wine. When he speaks all I hear is more free wine.

He pours me a glass and drops a small gecko into the snake's glass aquarium. He assures me, when I ask, that it's not a poisonous snake and, in fact, after I ask a few more questions, I determine it's something akin to garter snakes back home, but with yellow stripes rather than green. When I explain that I will be camping later in the week and am somewhat anxious about snakes he gives me a lesson on what to look for and how to avoid them altogether. When he asks me where I'll be camping and I explain that I'm actually kayaking more than camping he becomes concerned.

"It eez not ze snakes you should be worried about," he says wide-eyed, "it eez ze sharks." He walks over to a small bookshelf in the corner of the restaurant, searches the titles, pulls one down and lays it in front of me: A Pocket Guide to Sharks. dead eyed sharks stare back at me from the cover their jagged toothed mouths opened wide waiting to rip me in two.

He tells me of a surfer friend who died surfing this sea and another who was left crippled by an attack. I glance back at the lethargic snake who has shown no interest in his dinner. I must agree that snakes do seem the less formidable encounter to contend with even if they are more likely.

After two more glasses of wine the Chef leans forward and, placing his hand on top of mine looks into my eyes and says, "You 'av ze most beautiful eyez, when I look in zem I feel like a spaceman looking at eart from ze moon." I can feel the mortification registering on my face and it's all I can do to resist asking him the only thought my wine slogged brain can produce: Does that actually work for you? Are there women in the world who might still respect themselves in the morning after falling for that? I can only assume the answer to both these questions is yes, but I take it as my cue to leave.

"Don't forget your book," he says, after I thank him for his good company and the wine.

I turn back for the book and note, on my way out the door, the snake still hasn't touched his dinner.


When I step out of the airport in Phuket and into the muggy heat, the kind that anticipates rain like a hopeful lover with a certain kind of fever to cool, I am greeted with the usual barrage of touts and taxi drivers. But there's something different about these ones:

"Miss, miss where are you going?" asks one.

"I'm still trying to figure that out," I say, "Give me a minute."

When I give him the address the cab driver says, "Well, you have three choices: you can take my cab for 400 baht, take a mini bus for 100 baht or the city bus for 85 baht."

For a moment I am speechless, but when I regain my composure I tell him, "I think I'll take the mini bus. Sorry," I add.

"No problem, miss. Come with me," and he leads me to the mini bus line adding, "It will be long time though. He must have ten people before he goes."

I shrug. "I've got time."

As I watch him walk back to his cab I can't help but think I'm going to love Thailand.

In the end I take the city bus and, just as it drops me off near the old town, the rain begins. It's a warm drizzle, really, and I'm not all that bothered by it as I wander the streets trying to find my hostel. A tuk tuk driver pulls up beside me and asks, "Where you going miss?"

I tell him the name of my hostel and he says, "Oh, very close. Go two streets straight. Very close."

I thank him, he smiles, nods and drives away. Without even trying to scam me into paying for a ride.

I begin to relax and, in the absence of the tension, the alertness, the guardedness, I become aware of just how low, how beaten, these last few months have left me. I begin to notice all the happy, smiling people. I notice a conspicuous absence of litter, garbage and waste. There are no open sewers; I can almost smell the rain. There are no men raping me with their eyes and no women admonishing me with theirs. In fact, if anyone takes notice of me, and hardly anyone does, they smile broadly at me and I at them and we continue on our way. There are no photo shoots, no baby blessings, no stroking of my skin.

This, is going to be a vacation.

Sixty Second Boyfriends Redux

"I know I should not complain because life's been good to me
It feels real good to be stranded on my own
...All you drifters now you've got places to go and people to meet
Watch out for the shifting tide wherever you may travel"
-Gordon Lightfoot

I wake at ghastly o'clock in the morning and, as there are no cabs, walk to the ferry terminal to catch the first boat across to Singapore. Once there I exchange most of money for baht, stop for a "western" breakfast of a runny omelet and some type of ham they're calling bacon, before hailing a cab to Changi.

When my driver hears I need to go to terminal two he says, "Oh, Qantas."


He recounts all the plane problems he can recall them having in the last five years until I finally assure him I heard all about their problems when their plane exploded over my school. "I didn't realize they owned Air Asia and Jet Star. I guess that explains why the flights were so cheap."

Turns out, flights are also cheap, because they charge you for any checked in baggage. When I get back in line after paying for my baggage there's a tap on my shoulder.

"I think we've met before," says a middle aged man who looks like he hasn't slept in over a decade.

"No," I say, "I don't think so."

"Yeah, I'm sure of it. Hong Kong I think. You were looking for a good dim sum restaurant."

It's the reporter who described Hong Kong as feeling like living in Bladerunner and was trying to get a desk job.

"Oh my god, tell me you're going on vacation."

He shakes his head. Ho Chi Minh city, he's still on the circuit.

"Where's your boyfriend?"

It takes me a moment to realize he means Matt.

"Oh, he wasn't my boyfriend really. Boyfriend for a day I suppose."

And then I am struck by how inert a human life can be. No matter how fast or far you run, or maybe because we're running too fast and too far, everything stays the same. The scenery may change but the substance of it all remains exactly as it was when you started.

There's an awkward moment where we both stare at each other, calculating. Anyway we add it, it is two years and he is still jumping time zones and I am still singularly alone. In five months of almost daily demands for answers to why I'm not married I have never once felt this way, but for some reason today, a tsunami of pity for us both washes over me. We are pathetic.

The spell breaks as my line moves forward and we call out "Safe travels" to each other as I move along with it losing myself once again in the sea of humanity.

Friday, January 28, 2011


The Barongsai, or Lion Dances performed to celebrate the Chinese New Year, were outlawed in Indonesia until 2000 (in recent years certain regions have begun banning them again.). The Barongsai dragon is said to frighten away demons and misfortune while bringing luck and prosperity to all who make an offering.

My kids said, "Oh, Miss, you're going to love it!" And they were right, of course. You can watch the video here if you like. 

Gōng xǐ fā cá!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Next Contestant on the Price Is Right

Aside from food, the first thing I bought in Indonesia was computer speakers. These didn't have the right jacks or a USB jack and therefore didn't work. I was unable to return them and they remain in a box on a table in our living room.

The second item I bought was a reading lamp. When I got home the box was empty. Try explaining that to customer service when you don't speak the language. (I did eventually get the lamp and it is, miraculously still working, though it didn't come with a bulb and I had to make a third trip to the store.)

The third thing I bought was the Blackberry. Several of the keys stuck and the battery blew out on it two weeks after I bought it. The vendor would not replace it but did offer to repair it for almost as much as I originally paid for it. Adik used her contacts to get it repaired for a reasonable price but the battery never properly held a charge again. And of course, in the end, it was stolen.

After the latest alarm clock purchase also proved futile, I am not looking forward to negotiating the purchase of a new camera. Still, I leave for Thailand in a few days and if I want pictures I have no choice.

"The Lucky Plaza" is in the heart of what used to be Batam's equivalent of a Red Light district, at Nagoya Hill. The local government, in a bid to clean up Batam's image, shut down most of the bars and brothels three years ago, and Batam's economy has never really recovered from this and Nagoya itself still marinates in the ambience of festering seediness.

The Plaza is two city blocks of fluorescent lit kiosks with glass cases filled with cell phones, laptops, cameras, and video cameras. Most of these items have well known names like Sony, Nokia, even Apple branded on them but they're nothing more than cheap Chinese knock offs. Fortunately most of the sellers will tell you what you're looking at is made in China and then show you the two genuine articles that they have and will sell you for ten times the price.

I make my rounds of the camera kiosks. I look at every Canon available. I snap pictures. I try to ask questions but none of my limited Bahasa vocabulary is useful for camera shopping. After almost two hours of shopping I decide on a model. It's larger and heavier than my last Canon but it does take good night shots and doesn't use a rechargeable battery which will save me adapter hassles when I travel.

I also choose a seller based largely on the size of his shop and our ability to reasonably communicate but when I tell him I want the Canon and the price I'm willing to pay he says no, he will not sell it to me for that price. I thank him and start to leave in order to look for the seller who made me that offer but he stops me.

"You don't want that Canon. It's cheap. Made in China. Is no good. I give you only two day warranty. You want this."

He hauls out an Olympus. "Made in Japan," he says, and shows me the Japanese manual to prove it. "I give you one year warranty. Also this camera has 4GB memory in camera. No external card. Canon you need to buy external card."

It is a beautiful camera but he wants almost $80 more for it. I laugh and tell him I can't afford it.

"How much?" he asks.

I tell him the same price as the Canon, about $180. He shakes his head. "For you, best price," he counters offering an approximate $240.

Now it's my turn to shake my head. "$200."

"$220 and I will give you case for it yes?"

I shake my head. "Too much," I say.

"Ok fine, $210. Final."

I ask him again how much memory the camera has. "About 270 pictures," he says. "4 gig, 4 gig."

It does take beautiful pictures, at least from what I can see on the display, and it has a warranty. I don't think I'm going to do any better, so I agree to the price and when the deal is done I walk to Nagoya Hill Mall for some butter chicken at the only Indian restaurant I've been able to find in Batam.

While I'm waiting for my food the owner's son strikes up the usual conversation with me; where are you from? why are you here? where is your family? where is your husband?

Foolishly believing the boy is simply making conversation I don't bother to haul out my fake husband, who is usually sick if he's not away on business, poor man.

"No husband," I answer honestly.

"How old are you?"

I laugh. "Too old."

"No really," he says earnestly, "twenty-five? Twenty-six?"

"You are very kind," is all I answer.

"Well you can't be thirty," he says, wrinkling his brow.

Nope, I think , I'm definitely no longer thirty. I simply smile by way of an answer.

"Then why aren't you married?" he asks, alarmed.

I laugh. "I was once. Wasn't for me."

He nods and, as my food has arrived, he leaves me alone. When I'm done my meal and getting ready to go he appears again.

"Do you mind," he says, "can I have your number?"

"I don't have one," I tell him honestly. When he looks at me disbelievingly I tell him, "It was stolen and I haven't replaced it. I don't think I'll bother."

"Can I give you mine then?"

"Sure, but I don't see the point. I don't have a phone to call you with."

"Do you have an e-mail then?" He asks somewhat agitatedly.

I agree to give him my e-mail, cursing to myself the whole time. There goes my one and only option on the island for Indian food. It wasn't the best I've ever had but now I will have to take a ferry to get my fill of tikka masala and a lassi. Note to self: nag fake husband to buy me a "wedding" ring so I never forget him.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Learning to be Human

'Out of the questions of students come most of the creative ideas and discoveries'. 
-Ellen Langer 

I will never admit this to my students but some most days I think they teach me more than I teach them. Okay, not if we're measuring quantity, but definitely if we're considering quality. Sure, I teach them skills, and another language, but they teach me important things about life. For instance:

After completing their summative tasks for our social studies unit on "Communication" (which, I'm proud to say, most them rocked) one of my best students asked if she could redo hers.

"Why?" I asked. "You did really well."

"Oh but miss," she lamented, "I always regret after I finish. I will be at my friends' house or at the supermarket and then I suddenly think of what I could have done better."

"Ohhh," I say smiling. I know exactly what she means. "Well, it's okay to have regrets like that. That's how we know we learned something."

Hearing myself say that, and watching her face brighten with understanding, I realized that I just said the very thing I most needed to hear.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tick Tock

"But if you wanna leave take good care
Hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
Just remember there's
A lot of bad and beware
-Mr. Big

I stop by Adik's place after school, having decided I should at least try to get my watch and 16GB USB back before she skips town, but her landlady tells me she's left.

"Kalimantan," she says waving her arm vaguely towards Singapore.

"Kasih," I say and, shaking my head, walk past the permanently kenneled dalmation towards home.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Time and Happenstance

Stacy and I manage to catch a bus to Hypermart as it's about to pull back onto the highway. A minute later the girl in front of us turns to look at us.

"Hey Adik!"

"I didn't see you," she says.

"Didn't see me where?" I ask, confused.

"Waiting for bus," she says, squirming.

"Oh, huh. Yeah I saw you from behind when you were getting on and wondered if it was you but I thought the hair was too short. So where were you? I waited for you on Friday but you never showed up." This is sort of true. I was home on Friday but I knew she wouldn't show and so wasn't really waiting for her.

She giggles nervously but doesn't answer so I repeat the question.

"Oh, uh I was sick," she says.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Are you better now?"

She nods.

"So have you figured out where you're going from here?"

"Yes. Makassar." She had told me weeks earlier a friend of hers might have work for her there and I'm happy to hear she's finally going to work again.

"Oh good! When are you leaving?"

"Later this week," she is still punctuating our conversation with nervous giggles and glances out the window.

"Well, here," I say pulling out 50,000 rupiah and tossing it at her. "For the cab. Make sure you stop by and see me before you leave and say a proper goodbye."

She nods and I call out, "Love you adik," as Stacy and I get off the bus and head towards the mall doors.

I remember then, the reason for my trip and curse. I should have asked her for my watch back. Certain she will not stop by to see me, I search for an alarm clock. I had been using my "Blackberry" or, when it was being fixed, my watch but, as Adik now has both of these things, Stacy's been knocking on my door every morning, which works but isn't a permanent solution.

I find a battery operated alarm clock and we go to Black Canyon for smoked chicken salads with chili lime sauce, one of the few variations from chicken and rice available to us here.

When we get home I assemble the alarm clock but am not surprised to discover, two hours later, that it can't keep proper time. It's only moved ahead half an hour. Nothing I've bought in Indonesia has worked or lasted more than a week.

But time, in Indonesia is even more subjective than anywhere else in the world. Even at school, every classroom seems to be a separate, exclusive time zone and there are no bells to indicate lunch time, breaks or the end of lessons. Sadly, this relativity doesn't seem to be working in my favour, and the end of my contract in another six months is just as far away as it's always been.

Monday, January 3, 2011

End Note

Let's not unman each other - part at once;
All farewells should be sudden, when forever,
Else they make an eternity of moments,
And clog the last sad sands of life with tears
~Lord Byron

Adik and I are seated together on the flight from Surabaya back to Jakarta. She clutches her yellow knapsack like a nursing baby. Shortly after we take off I hear it ring. This wouldn't be noteworthy if she hadn't sold her blackberry to Wavi at the beginning of our trip. In what is possibly one of the most absurd moments of my life, I sit beside her, listening to her bag ringing while she stares blankly at the seat in front of her.

I want to say, "Your bag is ringing." or "Are you going to answer that?" or "You know you could kill us all by not turning that Blackberry off during take off an landing." But I don't. I chose days ago to let her take from me without asking and I can't bring myself to reverse my decision now. Worse, some twisted part of me is taking a perverse pleasure in allowing this to happen, taking satisfaction in discovering that she is not the helpless, beleaguered victim she pretends to be. I no longer have to feel responsible for her. I no longer have to care. She is no longer my problem. If this is really happening, and I can't believe it is,  a partial plane ticket refund and a fake blackberry suddenly seem a small price pay.

Still, in Jakarta airport as we settle in for our 8 hour overnight layover she once again acts distressed by the attentions of a fat, balding, middle aged man though she engages him in what seems to be a lively conversation. I have been ignoring him ever since I lay down on a bench, my backpack as my pillow, for a nap.

Adik shakes me awake. "He wants to take his picture with you."

"Good for him," I groan. "Doesn't mean it's going to happen," I add before falling back asleep.

She wakes me again to tell me she's going to the second floor, then again a while later to complain that the man has followed her upstairs.

"Huh," is all I say. "Where the f@##$ is your backpack."

"Oh I left it upstairs," she says, "it's so heavy."

"Geezus," I say shaking my head. "I really don't care what you do about the man but get back upstairs and don't leave your bag again."

She nods and turns and climbs the stairs.

But, an hour later, she's back again, without her backpack.

"Where's your backpack?"

"Oh I left it back there with my friends." Her friends are a group of twenty somethings she just met an hour ago.


"We are going to sleep in the mosque."

"Okay. I'll meet you in the morning. G'night."

When we arrive back in Batam, our luggage doesn't. We fill out forms but I don't expect to see any of my clothes again. Fortunately for me I don't really have anything of value left to lose. My camera's broken, my bank card's gone, my phone is stolen. I have no idea how I will brush my teeth in the morning but at least I have my work uniform, the OMP's (Old Man Pajamas) so I won't be naked when the clothes I 'm wearing are in the wash.

We're about to leave when the baggage carousel starts to turn and the luggage from the next flight, also from Jakarta, starts going around. I nearly fall to my knees and weep at the sight of my red backpack, like getting one's baggage is a great miracle to be grateful for rather than expected.

I need to sleep.

When we arrive home I tell Adik to come see me on Friday, I will have money to pay her back for the cab ride. I will send her pictures, if I can recover mine, but she should remind me if I forget.

"Ok," is all she says.

But she doesn't show up on Friday and I don't hear from her again.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


"Whatever the reason for wanting to escape, sane or insane, 
zoo detractors should realize that animals don't escape to somewhere but from something."
- Life of Pi (p. 41), Yann Martel

The giant albino cat rises from the back of it's cage and lopes to front where it paces in front of the rusting bars. It, like the people around me, doesn't take it's eyes off me for a second.

"It wants to eat you," Adik giggles nervously.

"No," I say, without a hint of irony, "it's happy to see a friend, another bule just like it, in this foreign place."

Adik shudders. The sky begins to weep and everyone except me runs to the nearby shelter. I stay and watch the tiger watching me, as it saunters past the grates, swinging it's tail lazily, a reluctant arm extending a hesitant handshake. 

I'm glad for the rain. It suits this prison with it's moldy concrete and crowded cells. That the animals seem bored and depressed doesn't distress me. It seems right and proper and normal. The animals are behaving intelligently and as they should, under the circumstances. So, while I'm sad watching the matted orangutan beg for, and receive, ice cream cones from sticky children and witnessing the hippo swallow and regurgitate the plastic "Pocari Sweat" bottle tossed recklessly into it's bathtub, I simply try not to imagine the lives that have been stolen from them. They don't recall a verdant jungle with vast rivers, so any such thoughts on my part will contribute only to my misery and not ameliorate theirs.

What troubles me, leaves me utterly alienated, are the families gathered and eating picnics on top of mountains of trash. They seem content, possibly even  happy to be there, eating among the filth and other people's litter, while they watch the prisoners in their cages. And when they are done, they simply add their wrappers and bottles to the pile. I don't know who to blame but I am certain this is proof that evolution is a bad idea.

The tiger knows this too and, as we eye each other in the quickening rain, I feel we've made a pact: Somehow, we will find our way home.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

I make it back to the hotel in time for the complimentary breakfast -omelet, bacon and OJ.

Stacy and I watch "The Hangover" and I manage to sober up, then fall asleep, by noon.

When I wake up late in the afternoon I remember that I need to charge my Blackberry but it, and the charger, are nowhere to be found. I search everywhere and find my charger and camera case sticking out of Adik's bag. I suppose I could open her bag to see what else might be hiding in there but I can't bring myself to do it.

Instead I head out to find a bank machine and some greasy nachos to soak up my hangover but when I get to the machine my bank card is gone.

When Adik comes back from an afternoon of shopping, I tell her I can't find my phone. I tell her I also don't know how I'm going to get to Surabaya to catch our plane because I have no money left and no bank card.

She accuses me of leaving my bank card in the machine in Labuan Bajo. "You always do that! I see you do that always!" I gently agree that I am forgetful sometimes but I do remember putting my card inside my wallet and my wallet inside my bag.

Her face goes blank and she stares off into the distance. She gets up to check her bag.

"Where's my camera!" she exclaims.

I shrug. "I don't know. I found my camera case hanging out of your bag but it was empty."

"Oh no," she laments, "all my pictures. Gone."

"Well," I say still trying to figure out how I'm going to pay for my bus ticket to Surabaya, "hopefully I'll be able to get the one's off of my camera and I can send them to you."

Stacy loans me a few hundred thousand rupiah until we get home and suggests to Adik that she may have left her camera at the bar.

"It's worth checking," I tell her. "I'll wait here while you go ask."

She leaves but isn't even gone long enough to make it out the hotel lobby before she returns, declares that it isn't there and we should leave.

We don't sit together on either of the buses and she clutches her yellow back pack to her like it's a life preserver all the way back to Batam.