In Search of Education – Lao’s Story

(To avoid confusion I have put our guide’s name Lao in italics to differentiate from the word for the Lao people and language.)

He begins by introducing himself and stating his age as 28 or 29. He is not sure but his uncertainty is matter of fact. He is of the Hmong people from a remote village in the northern mountains of Laos. His name is Lao but he is not named for the country. In the native language of the Hmong people it has another meaning and a slightly different pronunciation. This is the closest the Lao language comes to the name his parents gave him.

We asked him how he came to learn English and become a guide. We have asked this question to many guides in various countries and the answer for the most part is similar and succinct. Lao’s story was personal and heroic.

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Modern Hmong boys studying for their exams. The school they attend is not far from their village. Their path to education is much easier than Lao’s was.

Lao started school at about 11 years old. The closest school was in a Lao village, a 13-14 hour (yes, hours) walk down the mountain. He and several boys from the village were sent to begin school. On the first day the teacher had the boys reach their hand over  their head to touch the opposite ear. If they couldn’t touch they were sent home and told they were too young. The other group was deemed ready. The teacher asked Lao how old he was. He said, “I don’t know.” The teacher asked the next boy and the next. Each answer was the same. Over and over the boys responded “I don’t know.” The teacher instructed them to ask their parents on their next trip up the mountain.

The boys stayed in the Lao village during the week, only returning to the mountain on the weekend. The parents gave them money for school and for food. Public school is not free in Laos. The boys didn’t use their spending money because they could not speak the Lao language. That was one of the first challenges for Lao, to learn the official language of his country. Lao and the other boys returned home on Friday. He asked his mother how old he was. She could remember the season that he was born in and tried to work backwards taking into account that he had five younger brothers but the task was too much for her. She simply said, “I don’t know.” Saturday he helped with the farm. On Sunday he cooked rice and vegetables to take with him to eat during the week and then began the 14 hour trek down the mountain to return to school.

On the next school day the teacher again questioned the boys, “How old are you?” Again, boy after boy responded with, “I don’t know.” The teacher needed birth dates to complete their school records so he told them, “You are all probably born between 1983 and 1989. Choose a year but do not copy your friend. Lao looked to the boy on one side. He had written 1985. The boy on the other side chose 1987. So Lao chose 1986. He also picked his birthday as February 13. In his culture they do not celebrate birthdays so he had to choose his own.

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These bears are still found wild in the mountains.

Lao and the other boys had officially begun their education; school during the week, climbing the mountain on Friday, working on Saturday, cooking and returning each Sunday down the mountain. Week after week. The trek up and down the mountain was not only long but very dangerous. Tigers and bears lived on the mountain and the boys were vulnerable. Some were killed on their travel. The young students grew afraid and decided to quit school. But Lao’s father was chief of the village. He had been outside the village and knew that education was key to the development of the country and the people. So despite Lao’s and his mother’s objections, he continued his trek up and down the mountain every week.

And then there was no money to pay for school. Lao had a friend who lived in the village and was more knowledgeable about school things. He told Lao that he could join the Buddhist temple as a novice and go to school for free. So Lao, raised as an animist, became a Buddhist novice, donning the orange robes, shaving his head, and following the rules and teachings of Buddhism.

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The tradition of almsgiving continues.

The life of a novice was not easy. They would rise early in the morning around 4:00 am. The day began with praying and chanting in the temple. Then they would go through the village gathering alms (food) from the villagers. After eating breakfast from the almsgiving, the young boys would attend morning lessons. It was not much different from public school but included Buddhism classes. Lunch break would occur at 11:30. They were fed with food brought to the temple by villagers. They had to finish eating by noon as no eating was permitted after the noon hour. They returned to school in the afternoon and completed their day with more praying and studying. There was no dinner and bedtime came early so that they could rise again the next day.

The village was poor and the food given to the temple was not always enough. Lao grew skinny but he was learning. He no longer had to climb the mountain as he was not permitted to go home. His family came to visit him and upon seeing his undernourished body, his mother wanted to take him back to the village but his father wouldn’t allow him to stop his education. His mother cried and screamed at his father but in the end his parents returned to the mountain and he returned to his studies.

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Monks and novices collecting almsgiving in the morning.

One day during chanting his friend (who to my understanding was visiting from another temple) got up and was speaking to visitors. Lao was curious and began to listen to their exchange. It fascinated him, this new language. He could speak Hmong, Lao, and some Thai but this was much different. He asked his friend later what language they were speaking and his friend told him, “English.”

Lao wanted to learn English so his friend told him he would need to go to the temple in the big city for school. At 15 he left the small village temple and joined the temple in Luang Prabang, the largest city in the northern region. His friend instructed him to buy a book in the market on English so that is what Lao did. He memorized the conversations in the book and was ready to start practicing with the English speaking tourists who came to the temple. He approached the first person and asked, “What is your name?” The man replied, “John.” Lao thought, “This guy doesn’t know how to speak English” and moved onto to another tourist. Again he asked, “What is your name?” The tourist replied, “Mary.” Again Lao thought she couldn’t speak English. He approached a third tourist, “What is your name?” The man said Joe and Lao was confused. Then the man corrected himself and said, “My name is Joe.” At last, someone who knew how to speak English the way it was in the book! It didn’t take long for him to realize that all English was not exactly like the 38 sentences he had memorized.

When he finished high school he made the decision to leave the temple to go to a three-year college as he could not remain a novice and go to college at the same time. His parents had no money for tuition. He planned to work first to earn money but then luck fell his way. A cousin of his parents came to him and gave him the money for the first year of school. He was proud of Lao’s education and only asked that some day when Lao had a good job, he would pay him back. So Lao began college and worked to pay for his room and board. He did well in school but the money he was making was not enough for the second year’s tuition. Again luck found him. A relative who emigrated to America was visiting her daughter and son-in-law in Lao’s home village. She knew the importance of education. She gave Lao the money for the second year and asked only that someday he help the children of her daughter if they needed it. He promised and returned to college again working to pay for room and board. The third and final year came and there was no money again. This time there was no luck. So he moved to the capital city of Vientiane to find work. He worked the night shift from 11:00 pm to 7:00 am. Then he would go home and have breakfast and go to another job from 9:00am until 4:00 pm. He slept 4 hours a day. He worked hard for one year and saved his money until he had enough not only for school but also to pay off his debts. Then he returned to college to finish his degree.

It was in college that he studied English. There were no tourism courses. The college was in Luang Prabang, one of the smaller cities and the English teacher was not a native speaker who himself had difficulty with pronunciation. Still, this is where Lao learned. After college he saw an ad for a job as an adventure guide. Being from the Hmong people he was comfortable with trekking, climbing, etc. So he signed up and started his life as a guide. Spending time with native speakers he learned quickly that his education had not been enough and he used each trip to learn more and work on his pronunciation. As his English improved he understood that being a regular tour guide earned more money than an adventure guide so he found work with a tour company.

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Inside a Hmong house. This is similar to the one Lao grew up in. He tells us of their traditions and culture.

Today Lao dresses like many businessmen in slacks, a button-down, and dress shoes. It is only in his voice as he tells his story that you can see the vulnerable, curious and yet determined boy that climbed up and down the mountain. He has supported his brothers through school and supports his parents who still live in the village where he grew up. His father’s foresight has made him an example to the Hmong children as to the value of education and he supports his native people whenever he can. He is fiercely proud of his heritage and follows traditional customs but has a modern sense of humor and is knowledgeable about all aspects of his country, from customs and tribes to politics and economics. In low season he uses his extra time to continue studying about his country and is currently teaching himself to play the Hmong flute. He searches still for knowledge of the world around him.

 

As Lao told us his story during, there were several times I had to fight the tears. (The story of trying to speak English did bring tears of laughter. I only wish you could hear that one in his own words. Hysterical!) He spoke calmly and without embellishment. We asked few questions and instead let him tell the story in his own way. On some level I think he understands how brave he was but he would see it more as obedient. We however were inspired by the enormity of the challenges he has overcome.

 

Our Non-Trip for Chinese New Year (aka Gong Xi Fat Chance)

I am sure we never thought when we arrived at the wrong terminal on Chinese New Year that that would be our smallest problem of the day. Seeing the long lines for the free shuttle, we hopped in a taxi and headed to terminal 3 to catch our Lion Air flight to Lombok where we planned to spend 4 days in the sun. As expected on a holiday, the airport was bustling. The departures hall was more crowded than I had ever seen but it was a holiday. We saw some friends that were on the Lion Air flight before us and knew right away there were delays. We passed the time catching up and chatting. Our friends’ flight was finally called and they left. A bit of confusion with flight numbers had us now waiting in the security hallway adjacent to the departures hall, separated by glass. It was less crowded and so we settled in to wait there. Our flight was supposed to be at 10:30 am. At about 12:00 our friends returned, their plane had a flat tire and they had to wait for it to be changed. Eventually some food was made available, rice, fried noodles, and a spoonful of chicken. At last the 9:00 am flight was off and we anxiously awaited ours. From our perch in the security hall we could see the planes as they unloaded and loaded passengers. The information desk for Lion Air had a steady group of people around it, hopeful for information about delayed flights. Every time we checked we were told to “just wait”. As the time passed, fewer and fewer Lion Air staff were available. Even airport ground staff removed their name badges so as not to be harassed. Emily taught herself the ukulele. We were patient. Most people were patient. Indonesians are an infinitely patient people. Traffic, floods, overcrowding teach those lessons. But now it was getting later. They kept saying wait. There were rumors of government audit, damaged planes, and bankruptcy. It was more crowded. People were smoking wherever they wanted. Cleaners were no longer picking up trash. We were told that the flight coming in at 6:00 pm would be the flight we boarded as soon as it was cleaned. We waited. Scott went for sandwiches and beer. The flight came in but nothing was happening. Word had it that they were looking for our flight crew. By 8:00 pm we were ready to call it. The crowds around the desk, clearly seen from our position on the other side of the glass, were getting angry and frustrated. No Lion Air employee was in sight. I walked over to the Air Asia desk to ask the procedure for getting luggage after check-in. (Note: I love Air Asia and would have flown with them except they do not fly to Lombok. Only Lion Air and Garuda fly there.) They were very kind and directed me back to check-in downstairs to recover my bags. As I returned to Scott and Emily, the doors to the security hall were all closed except for the one closest to the Lion Air desk. I had to weave my way among the hundreds of passengers waiting for news. As I got to the doorway a Lion Air employee came out and told us that the plane was there but the crew was sick. Several people started yelling one man pushed the Lion Air guy into me as I was trying to pass. I got out of there as quickly as I could and told Scott and Emily it was time to leave. As we worked our way back to the main part of the terminal a passenger had grabbed the mic and was beginning to incite riot. People were yelling. It was chaos. Check please!

Downstairs the news crews were already set up. At this point we had been at the airport for 12 hours. We were hungry, tired, and just wanted to go home. So we headed back to check-in to get our bags but were told that they were no longer behind the desk and we had to go to baggage lost and found. We went there only to find our bags had been loaded onto a plane and the plane had been moved to terminal 2 and we had to wait. In the meantime other passengers from our flight came looking for bags. They said there was a full on riot, the overthrowing of chairs and police and security upstairs. We were glad we left when we did. So we headed back to the check-in to wait for the baggage. Upon our return, the check-in clerks were all gone and passengers were crawling into the back to look for and retrieve their luggage. Anyone scheduled later than us still had their luggage behind check-in. Security seemed to be monitoring the situation but not stopping it. Emily went in the back to make sure our luggage was not there. Then she came running out as well as another lady that I knew from our flight. “They are boarding our flight now!” The baggage guy was calling me. He had our tickets and our flight was boarding. He met us at the bottom of the escalator and we ran, having to talk our way past the police. Finally!!!! We took a bus and high-fived people around us. But they were calling our flight and the 3:00 flight together. They told us it was free seating. Scott found a seat but Emily and I did not. They told us there was a second flight leaving from terminal 3. I threw a fit. They should send the people from the later flight to that plane, not us. No amount of words was going to convince them. Scott got our carry-ons and we were taken to a second plane. When we arrived the flight attendant yelled down to the Lion Air rep that there was not enough room for all the passengers. Some people started yelling. He jumped on a bus and left before anyone could get to him. The pilot was yelling from his window at a guy smoking on the tarmac. We were lucky. We got on the plane and had seats. A guy that we had seen all day was one of the last to get on. He started yelling that he wanted his assigned seat and then stormed off. He had been a troublemaker and I was kind of glad he was not on the flight. So they did the whole preflight thing. Seatbelts, oxygen masks, exits to the front, back, wings etc. We were ready. The engines winding up to go and then….nothing. We heard the dinging that I recognize as the captain calling the crew. Soon the curtain in front was once more closed and the rest of the cabin crew went forward. Scott figured something was wrong with the plane. People were getting restless. And then the captain made an announcement. Unlike most, this was only in bahasa Indonesia, and had words I did not recognize. Scott asked the couple next to him and they conferred, looking for the English word. “We are hijacked.” was the answer. The passengers who did not make it on the plane were preventing the plane from leaving. Later this was called “besieged” in the newspapers. We waited, not sure of what was happening outside. An hour passed, Emily napped, passengers were calm. And then, they turned off the plane. The captain announced that now we had missed the window to leave because the Lombok airport closes at 2:00 am and we would not make it. It was after midnight. They said that everyone needed to deplane. Passengers started shouting in Indonesian for everyone to stay seated and not leave. We were not going to be the first ones up. Then a guy from the back came running up the aisle, yelling and pounding on the overhead compartments. Several others went with him. Lots of shouting. Later we heard that one of the passengers punched the male flight attendant. Now we could not leave until the pilot filled out an incident report for the assault. It was getting warm. They guaranteed hotel and food vouchers and a flight out in the morning. The little old people in the back were fed up and hot. They started to leave. No one stopped them so we followed. Out on the tarmac there was one bus with no driver. Some of the passengers that had blocked the plane were still laying on the ground. All we wanted was to go home. We didn’t need a hotel or food vouchers. We asked one security guard if we could walk back to the airport. He told me it was very far but I told him I didn’t care. He checked with the police who said okay. We started walking. I can’t imagine what the other passengers thought, but no one followed. We chatted with workers along the way. Just as we had reached the last plane and the terminal was not too far away a golf cart with police pulled up and said we had to go back to the plane. We told him we just wanted to go home but he said we couldn’t leave so we got in the cart and went back. There were lots of officials standing around but no one from the airlines. We were told to wait for them to sign a paper. I had the paper from when I tried to get our luggage earlier and it said cancel on the top. I started showing it to the security, asking if it was okay. I was taken to the guy in charge of the whole airport. I just kept telling everyone “mau pulang”. We want to go home. I showed him my paper and he got another guy to come over. I used every word I had in bahasa Indonesia telling them that we lived in Jakarta, we didn’t want to go to Lombok, we didn’t care about hotel or food vouchers, we would come back another day for our luggage, we just wanted to leave. Several people looked at my paper and finally one man said he would take us back. So back in the golf cart we went and they took us to the part of the terminal near where baggage is loaded. They asked us to come into a small office and started writing things from our paper. Two more employees came in, one with pretty good English. We once again explained that we had been here since 8:00 in the morning, we were tired, and just wanted to go home. He told us to come back tomorrow for a full refund or a free ticket. Then he and another man escorted us through the airport to the front. Scott used an app on his phone to book a taxi that was waiting for us outside. We finally arrived back home at 3:00 am. I don’t think I have ever been so happy to see my apartment!

There is an afterwards to all of this. Friday morning news showed even more crowds of angry people at the airport with the shops shuttered and security everywhere. We chose not to return. Saturday morning was much better. We headed to the airport and only had to wait in a line of 5 people to start the refund process. Another passenger explained that we needed to request compensation as well (about $30 US per person). Emily filled out those forms while I waited. They were happy to issue a refund for our return flight but said that we had “used” our tickets for the flight to Lombok. Somedays it is a good thing that I don’t know a lot of words in Indonesian because I would have gone off on him. The word I did remember was the one for “hijacked”. I told him we were on the plane that was hijacked and we couldn’t go. It took 10 minutes for them to get confirmation but then our full refund was forthcoming. Surely someone had remembered the 3 bules walking the tarmac at 2:00 am! We attempted to get our luggage but it was still on vacation in Lombok. They told us it would come at 4:00 pm so we waited….and it didn’t. They promised to deliver them on Sunday in the afternoon. Skeptical, we left and to our surprise and relief they were delivered, as promised, at 3:00 pm on Sunday. The hotel with the no refund policy on prepaid rooms was kind enough to refund our money considering the circumstances. They were more concerned for our safety and will be a place we return to on our next trip there.

Oh, and the plane we had to get off of because of no seats? It was diverted to Bali because the Lombok airport closed. The passengers on that flight refused to let the crew leave until they had assurances of a flight in the morning. My friend that was on that one got to a crappy hotel at 5:00 am and was back at the airport at 8:00. They did eventually get to Lombok.

And the guy that was causing all kinds of trouble on Thursday and probably was the ringleader of the “hijack”? We saw him on the news Friday morning, still causing trouble. I think he just liked the idea of anarchy.

And that is the story of our non-trip for Chinese New Year.

Immigration – Leap of Faith

For those of you that hate going to the dentist, the idea of your annual check up can bring nightmares, sweaty palms, and panic attacks. Going to the Office of Immigration is something like that for me.

Each year (sometimes every six to nine months depending on how the winds blow in the government) Scott must have his work Visa renewed. There is a LOT of paperwork involved, forms and pictures, and verification of all sorts. As for me, I am a +1. No elaborate forms necessary. I am just the trailing spouse, following in his wake. Once everything is in order the company requests our passports and KITASs (permanent resident cards) in order to finish the process. This is where my bad dreams begin.

Surrendering your passport is a bit of a leap of faith. It is THE document that says you are who you say you are and defines your citizenship. At first it isn’t too worrisome but as days turn into weeks you start to panic. When am I getting it back? What if they lose it?  What if there is an emergency and I need to leave the country? Two different friends have had their passports delivered to them at the airport as they were checking in for flights to America. Nothing like cutting things close. Another woman had her embassy ready with a temporary passport in case hers was not returned in time for a scheduled trip home. Luckily she got it before heading to the airport. Stories like these get my heart racing and my palms sweaty.

An interesting side note is that it is easy to move about within the country without any documentation. A color copy or something with your picture is good enough if anyone asks and often, sadly, no one does.

Finally, when you are at your wits end thinking you will never see your precious passport again, you are given an appointment at immigration. If you are lucky you will be given a few days advance notice or maybe just an hour. Either way you cancel everything on your calendar and make sure to get to Immigration on time! (Actually we have been late once. Sometimes traffic and demonstrations get the best of you and it can’t be helped. Luckily they moved our appointment back a bit and did not make us return on another day.)

Each district of Jakarta has its own Immigration office. Our Office of Immigration is a blue building downtown, four floors tall on what appears to be a one-way street that is not. Each floor has rows of plastic seats facing either office doors or a counter. I am really not sure how it works and what each grouping of seats or designation of floors mean. My bahasa Indonesia is not yet that advanced. The first two floors seem to be for Indonesians. Not any foreigners there. Our destination is always the fourth floor. It has been renovated since the first time we arrived but it is very much the same. Linoleum floors, plastic chairs, and the backpack people scurrying around.

Backpack people (my term) function as an intermediary between the immigration officers and those needing to be processed (like us). They are not there as interpreters and most likely cannot speak English. Each one carries a black backpack filled with pink folders, one for every person needing processing. They sift through the folders containing our passports, forms, and personal information. It is their names that are called and they, in turn, walk you into the office. After several years of observation I have hypothesized that each backpack person has some connection with certain immigration officers, using that relationship to move their people ahead or at least into the office on time. There is no evidence of this however, just my theory to pass the time. There is no obvious pattern of who gets called when. You just sit, and wait, and hope that this time it will not be long.

Finally your person is called and points you into the office. You sit in a seat across from an immigration officer and get “processed”. It is during this time that you have a brief visitation with your passport. No touching, but you see it and identify it as your own. It is a reassurance that it has survived the last few weeks and has been hopefully well cared for in a pink folder in a black backpack. Then they take the mug shot and fingerprints. Finally you sign your name on an electronic pad. They ask if it looks right. Not really, but if you have ever signed your name on one of those electronic things you know there is no hope that it will ever resemble your actual signature. Finally you are asked to go press the smile. The officer really says, “Now you go press smile.” There is a satisfaction box with a smile face and a frown face. Who in their right mind would press the frown face? They are still holding your passport hostage!

And now we wait again. Fingers crossed that it will not be too much longer before my passport and I are reunited. Oh happy day that will be!

Note: Sorry no pictures, too chicken!

 

Mitoni Ceremony (Tujuh Bulanan or the Seven-Month Ceremony)

As with most cultures, traditions can be traced back to a mixture of religious and cultural sources. The Javanese tradition of the Mitoni Ceremony is one of these. Although based on a Hindu ceremony, it has survived and been adopted by those of the Muslim and Christian faiths as a Javanese cultural tradition rather than a religious one. It is a beautiful event layered in symbolism and I was thrilled to be able to attend one today.

IMG_0265I belong to the Indonesian Heritage Society and the daughter-in-law of one of our members is now seven months pregnant. She arranged for us to be able to join her son and daughter-in-law in this very old Javanese ceremony.

 

Also known as the Seven-Month Ceremony, it is performed when a woman who is pregnant with her first child reaches the seventh month of her pregnancy. It is thought that at this time the baby’s chance of survival is high and it is a safe time to celebrate. Gifts are not given to an expectant mother before this time. The ceremony is only done with the first born child. The husband and wife are joined by their families for this ceremony. Usually it is held at the mother-to-be’s parents house and is done in the morning before noon as the rising sun is a good omen for their lives rising and moving upward. It is only done for the first child because this will be the one that binds the two families by blood rather than marriage as they will share the same grandchild.

IMG_0258 First the expecting parents kneel in front of their parents or elders and ask for their blessings. This can be done with prayer, poem, songs, or simply words. I felt myself tearing up watching the mothers bless the soon-to-be parents. It was so sweet. After the blessing the families and guests process to the backyard pool for the next blessing. They have a platform that is covered in a mat made from old and new coconut leaves, green and yellow, symbolizing ying and yang. Also on the platform was an umbrella and a large bowl of water with flowers inside. They use seven different flowers and the water comes from seven different sources.(Ideally it would come from seven different springs in the area but this is the city and seven IMG_0251different people brought water from their houses for this part.) There was a scoop made from a coconut shell. They use a coconut because everything from a coconut tree is useful and it is in hopes that the baby will be a useful person.

 

There are many special offerings around and all have meaning.IMG_0298 Some are meant to honor the ancestors. There was a bowl of foods that came from under the ground (potatoes and nuts) and above the ground (bananas and pineapple). This represents the harmony with nature and is to appease the spirits below the earth and above the earth. (Religious people accept this as a cultural tradition rather than a belief.)

 

The mother-to-be sat on a chair covered in leaves. The types of leaves all have IMG_0266significance. She wore a “shawl” woven of IMG_0270melati flowers.   She was blessed by seven people, usually it starts with her grandfather and grandmother. They were not there so her mother, mother-in-law and several honored woman from good marriages took turns offering blessings and pouring the water over her. Last her husband came and offered his blessings as well. They were such a cute couple.

After she had a chance to dry off we all came back inside. Then they dressed her in seven different batik sarongs, one at a time. Each one has special meaning and wishes for the baby. Some of the meaningsIMG_0280 were for the family to be full of love, for the baby to have a good position and be a role model in society, prosperity, many children, and that the parents will always guide the child. As each is put on the guests are asked if this is the one and to each we replied “No” until the last one. Then they piled all the sarongs on the floor and had her sit on them and they called it “hatching”. IMG_0289

 

 

 

 

At this time they took a string made from seven different colored string and had the husband cut it to show that he was going to take care of the family. They wrapped IMG_0303another piece of material around her and the husband dropped an egg through it as a sign of easy birth. Then the mother-in-law dropped a coconut through the material and the mother caught it to symbolize that the two families will help take care of the child. The coconut was painted with two Javanese goddesses that IMG_0294represent good luck. With all of the explaining going on the mother wasn’t paying attention and didn’t catch the coconut the first time. I am not sure what that means but they did it again and everyone was happy. Then the husband takes the coconut and cuts it with a sword. If the water inside shoots up then it will be a boy. Looks like baby blue is in their future!

After all of this there is food served, starting with honored guests. There is meaning in the display of the seven cones of rice. The number seven is significant as it is the seventh month. Finally there are two desserts offered. One is fruit salad made of seven fruits that represent the colors of their lives and a IMG_0305sweet drink made from coconut, brown sugar, and green rice pudding that symbolizes that the baby will be pure (white of the coconut) and have a sweet life (brown sugar) and will be fertile (green). The dessert is served by the mother-to-be with her husband standing with her holding an umbrella over her head. This symbolizes that he will care for her and their family and protect them.

Needless to say, it was awesome. The symbolism and the old traditions are really interesting. Much different than the baby showers I have attended in the U.S. It is almost an extension of their marriage ceremony. I was very glad that I was able to go.

Just One of Those Days in Jakarta

Today was one of those days that is planned down to the minute. Everything has to fall into place or fall to pieces. And yeps, it was much more the latter than the former. It started not too bad. I knew our driver had to go do car registration. He went yesterday but didn’t have Scott’s police card (sort of like a driver’s license but not) so he couldn’t get the registration. He was trying to save us the exorbitant fees that Toyota charges by doing it himself.

I on the other hand had to be an hour away at the American Women’s Association by 9:00 am. This required a taxi ride. I ordered one for 8:00, was told it would be here at 8:30 and was called that it was here at 8:10. That is about par for the course. Then the taxi driver headed in the wrong direction. I had enough bahasa Indonesia to ask him where he was going and he assured me he knew how to get there. Just took a longer way to get to the road I am used to traveling. For some reason there was little traffic this morning and with very little stopping I arrived 20 minutes early! (It really does happen sometimes. The AWA Center is truly only about 25 minutes away if there was no traffic or red lights.)

First order of the day was an informative talk given about by our security consultants. It covered everything from earthquakes, floods, and floods to personal safety, health, and many other topics. Some of the information I had heard before and some was new but it was all a good reminder to be prepared. One of the topics during personal safety was use of taxis. Our company recommends we use the Blue Bird Group and I have adhered to that since I have been here. The speaker told of a practice whereby an unscrupulous taxi driver will let cohorts “detain” you until you give them your credit cards, pin numbers, cell phones, laptops etc. The Blue Bird Group has never been accused of this practice, which is why they are recommended.

Next was a race to one of the member’s house for a board meeting. (Yes, I stuck my hand up and volunteered earlier this year to be a co-chair.) I texted my driver to meet me there but he was STILL trying to do the registration and he was now north of the city and a good 2 hours from me. There was no way I was going to get from the meeting to my bahasa Indonesia lesson so I had to cancel that.  I told Scott I would just get a cab home. After the meeting was finished I was going to call for a cab but the hostess said the security guards in front of her complex could do it. I joked, “As long as it is a Blue Bird!”.

When the cab came it had backed into the driveway and the door was held for me. Since it was a blue cab I didn’t look closely and just got in. As soon as we started out I called Scott to give him the cab information and realized I was NOT in a Blue Bird! They had called a discount cab company that just looks like one. I had told the driver where I wanted to go but I was starting to panic a bit. What if this was one of THOSE cabs that they talked about. I texted and spoke with Scott again. There was nothing creepy about the cab and for the most part I was not worried but I was worried. After texting with Scott again I told the driver I changed my mind. He insisted he knew how to get to where I originally wanted to go. I told him my husband was going to meet me close by and to take me to a restaurant that was just up the road. He did not know what I meant. He asked if I wanted to go to McDonalds. I said no and asked him to take me to a hotel that was just around the corner. I told him it was near Kem Chicks Supermarket.

By this time I was getting a headache. There were gas fumes in the car that really smelled and I could hear the security guy’s voice in my head. I almost lost it when he passed the hotel. I told him he passed it and he smiled and said “Kem Chick’s” and pointed ahead. I guess I was going to the grocery store! No problem. I happily paid him and got out. I called Scott to tell him where I was when a REAL Blue Bird pulled up to let out passengers. I asked if he was available and hopped in.

I called Scott again and gave him the new info for the cab I was in. I settled back and felt so much better. The new cab driver used a route I was familiar with and made some chit-chat in bahasa Indonesia. I was able to understand and answer his questions in bahasa Indonesia as well. Pretty soon he was talking 90 to nothing and I followed some and occasionally most of it! So much for skipping my lesson. It was great practice to be forced to use my new language. I even learned a new word!

When I got to my apartment I was so happy to have escaped what I imagined could have been a horrific experience. (If you don’t know I have a great imagination!) I ended up overtipping him but didn’t really care. He was happy…I was happy…Scott was happy. It was just one of those days!

Afterwards: Reading this you might get the wrong impression of my feelings of safety in Indonesia. Truly I feel safer here than in most cities in America. The people are friendly and caring. Crime is not that bad. Violence is at a minimum. Today’s non-incident was a reminder to stay on top of my game, wherever I am in the world. Follow safe guidelines, pay attention, and when you have to, “vote with your feet.” (Vote with your feet = walking away from a situation that makes you uncomfortable.)

Bonus story: During the talk about “taxi detainment” the security guys said that for the most part they do not want to hurt you. They have been known to take cell phones but return SIM cards and to take wallets but return enough money for the victim to get a cab home! Only in Indonesia would you find a considerate thief.

 

PADI-cake, PADI-cake, Scuba Man!

Our children came to Indonesia this summer. The five-ish weeks they spent here were carefully planned, thought over, researched, and booked. (Mostly by Scott who would make an incredible travel agent if he wasn’t such an awesome engineer.) One of the trips was a 5-night boat trip to Komodo Island. Scuba diving was listed as a possible activity but none of us were certified. Our “cruise director” said it would be no problem and that we could do our certification on the boat. Our experienced dive friends said the exact opposite. The kids found classes in the States and began their courses but Scott and I had issues with schedules and out-of-country trips and decided to do the online course and certification on the boat. Once more our diving friends thought this was not the way to go. That gave us one week. We sent out inquiries and crossed our fingers.

Backstory: (Because what would a good story be without a backstory.)

I am prone to panic attacks. A crowded church or loud restaurant can have me fleeing, heart pounding, to the nearest quiet spot. I always sit with an escape route. I have given up most night driving. (Well, I have given up ALL driving in Indonesia.) I have learned some calming techniques that include Altoids and drinking bottled water.

With only one week to pull this off Scott and I started calling around for somewhere to get certified, or at least an opportunity to try out the equipment in a pool. By Wednesday we had nearly given up hope until I talked to ODY Dive in Jakarta. They understood our dilemma and had us start that night. Two LONG nights of course work and tests and we were ready to head to the pool. We knew this was going to be the big test for me. Every night I practiced breathing through my mouth. Friday we met our instructor at the pool. Scott was excited but I could see in his eyes that he was worried about me.

We got all our gear on poolside and then got into the water. So far, so good. We had the hand signs down and were ready to submerge. As we sank there was some water in my mask. (I now know this was normal but that day I didn’t expect it!)  The instructor questioned us with the “okay” sign as we submerged. Scott returned the “okay” sign but I created my own signal for “Oh hell no!” and immediately headed back to surface. I could see that Scott’s hope of a family picture underwater was rapidly fading. It was time to put on my big girl pants and suck it up. I could do this. After a few more practice breaths with the regulator at the surface I was ready. And this time, I did just fine. So fine in fact that I passed the pool part of the certification, (woohoo!) which was good because our open-water certification was set for the next two days and we were already booked for Thousand Islands.

Saturday morning before the sun came up we joined what seemed like half of Jakarta at the pier to take a water taxi out to the Thousand Islands. We found our dive group and waited for our turn on one of the boats. After an hour-long, pounding trip in a boat that looked like it could be used to run drugs in Miami we were at our island. Now the fun could begin. Our room was a small building with two beds and most of a bathroom. By that I mean it had a sitting toilet and a shower. (For those who don’t travel in Southeast Asia to actually find a sitting toilet and not a squatty potty is a big deal!) The table where we had our meals and a deck to relax on were outside.

Each dive master had a group of 3 divers. The third in our group (Henry) was going for his advanced so our dives were just Scott and I with a dive master. I was happy for the personal attention. We were scheduled for two dives each day. The first dive was off the pier to get our requirements out of the way. It was close to shore and a bit murky but the required tasks were similar to what we had done the day before in the pool and I was able to handle them without too much stress. In between we relaxed near our room and had meals prepared by the staff. The food was pretty awesome.

Our second dive was out amongst the islands. We went out on a dive boat to some of the bluest water. It almost did not look real. Having finished our requirements during the morning dive, we were free to just enjoy the reef. It was amazing. The colors were vibrant and it was truly like nothing I had seen before. I will admit that about 20 minutes in I felt a little panicky but with Scott holding my hand and some intense concentration, I finished the dive.

The dives the next day were easier. We had spent our free time the night before talking to the other divers in our group and the dive masters. It was good to learn that the other beginners were just as nervous as I was. The experienced divers had lots of stories and encouragement for us as well.

So one week after beginning our search for a class we were PADI certified. If someone had told me that Scott and I would be scuba diving in Indonesia a few years ago I would have laughed but I guess the joke is on me.

 

PADI = Professional Association of Dive Instructors

 

 

Strangers In the Night

Last Saturday was Mexican Independence Day. (Really. Look it up. It is not Cinco de Mayo.) Our favorite Mexican restaurant right next door was having a celebration and Scott got invitations for us to go. (He is in tight with some of the waiters and the hostess, who he has taught to fist-bump.) We headed over for some free beer (Corona!) and margaritas after he came home from golf. We planned to meet a friend there later.

Even though we were early there were no tables available outside in the courtyard when we arrived. We stood for a bit and saw the table near us had two extra chairs. We asked the guys if we could borrow them to sit in while we waited. They kindly invited us to join them. They were all 21, high school friends now in various stages of University study.

Each one of them were ambitious in their own way. One was in University outside of Jakarta but was hoping to go to the U.S. to study to become a pilot. The other was studying business at a University in London. The third was finishing his business course at a University outside of Jakarta and was working on a business plan to open an American-style restaurant. They had many questions about the U.S. and we had many questions about their aspirations in life. The were incredibly articulate and passionate about their chosen fields.

Our friend JB joined us and the conversation turned more towards geography. JB has lived in many places including England and he and the young man studying there talked about the places they had been. They asked us where we had traveled in Indonesia and we told them our favorite places and where we would like to go in the future. Sadly, when they asked about New York, both Scott and I had to confess we had never been to the city. Definitely something to put on our bucket list!

Being young men, they had plans for the rest of the evening and left. Before their seats had a chance to cool the waiter asked if we would mind if a few other guests joined us. We enthusiastically said, “Yes!” We were joined by a young Indonesian couple named Sasha and Michael.

They were young professionals and parents of two toddlers. Once again we found ourselves making new friends, learning about them, their lives, their work, and their family. We were joined by Michael’s friend from the magazine where he works. A lively conversation continued for the rest of the party. We said our goodbyes and exchanged numbers and emails.

The night still being young Scott, JB, and I went across the hall to the new Irish bar to play some pool. We had been in there the night before and were greeted by the manager and one of the awesome waitresses with friendly smiles and warm hellos. As we played we talked about how much we enjoyed our chance meeting with both groups of young people. The interesting range of topics was refreshing and the conversations were fun.

The next day at church as we were asked to greet each other before Mass the priest said, “There are no strangers here, only friends we have yet to meet.” I had heard that before but it really hit home after our encounters the previous night. I am glad we had the opportunity to share food and drink and great conversations with strangers that became friends.

I do believe my life is made better by the people I meet and the encounters I have. I urge anyone who has the chance to make a new friend or have a conversation with a stranger to be open, be friendly, and have your life enriched.

Happy New Year!

No need to check your calendars, it is still September. However, I have a hard time feeling like January 1st is the start of anything other than a month-long battle with my writing hand to not automatically put the wrong year on everything. Instead, autumn, blowing in to push out the last remains of summer with all the excitement of a new school year has always held for me a beginning, a start, a new year.

This is the time for new clothes and books and school supplies. Blank pages in brand new notebooks waiting to be filled with all manner of interesting and not-so-interesting subjects. Pens and pencils at the ready. Clothes meant to last at least until the next growth spurt, tennis shoes for gym class, a new wardrobe that blends comfort, style, and versatility, not the use-once party outfit to be seen it at midnight. There is freshness to the fall. While I miss the cool bite of the air in the morning that I remember from my youth I can imagine it quickly as I watch little ones load up on the school bus.

There is so much potential in the return to school, of new friendships, and fresh starts. The first day is filled with promise. Everyone can be a scholar, or an athlete, or the star of the school play. It is a chance to rewrite your story. It is this time of year that inspires me to make changes, improve my self, improve my world, and begin again.

I guess it was a good sign that I arrived in Jakarta just after Labor Day one year ago. I repeated that trip this year, returning to Jakarta from a trip to the States just after Labor Day again. Lots of deja vu!

At the ANZA Ball.

I even checked into the same hotel that I did one year ago.  (Yep, lost my mind and went to a Ball after my 30+ hour trip.) Scott booked us a room so that I could quickly get ready as soon as I arrived. But it gave me a unique insight into how far I had come in just one year. It was a wonderful homecoming greeted by good friends and my “Horizon” family.

 

 

And just as each fall before it, now is the time for a new year. So I have dusted off my resolutions and reset my course. Having found my log-in information again for the blog (Sorry!), I am going to rededicate myself to writing more. (There is a whole summer of stuff to catch y’all up on.) I am getting back to the gym, or the pool, or some activity that will raise my heart rate and take off the pounds I gained eating my way through the States last month. I am signing up to Explore Jakarta with the Indonesian Heritage Society. I am planning better so my time is used more productively.

So here is to fresh starts, new friends, and endless potential. Happy New Year!

Let me ‘splain…No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The title of this post comes from one of my favorite quotes from the movie The Princess Bride. So appropriate…so necessary.

There has been much to write about and no time to write lately. This is just a quick summary of some of the incredible things we have been able to see and do since Brendan and Emily arrived less than three weeks ago. I will take the time and post pictures and details when I can. For now I will share the short version.

They arrived the night of July 4th. The next day we were off to Yogyakarta. The jet lag played to their advantage as we did sunrise at Borobudur, toured the temple, and discovered a plant called the “shy princess”. A partial climb up the volcano Mount Merapi, traditional Indonesian lunch in a hut over a Koi pond, and sunset at Candi Prambanan. The next day was a visit to the Sultan’s palace and touring of the tunnels near the Water Castle. The highlight was Emily joining some street musicians in the tunnels for a couple of songs! We fit a batik factory tour, massages, and some chill time at the pool before dinner. That night we saw a Javanese ballet performed in an open-air theater with Candi Prambanan lit in the background.

 

Our next trip will probably forever be the highlight of the visit. After a couple of days in Jakarta we flew to Bali where we overnighted in order to catch an early morning flight to Komodo Airport in Labuan Bajo, Flores. Our group, which included the four of us and three very dear friends were met at the airport by our cruise director Michael. Soon we were on a tender boat heading to our home on the water for the next 6 days and 5 nights…the beautiful Samata Liveaboard. In the next days we were treated to beautiful sunsets and sunrises and incredible weather to sit and relax. We went scuba diving at dusk and the kids went on their first night dive (awesome!) We dove with sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles, and some of the most colorful fish we have ever seen. There was beautiful coral to see while snorkeling and diving. The kids have become quite the divers and I envision more family vacations that will include dive spots!

 

 

The water did not hold the only beauty and wonder on this trip. We took the tender to Komodo Island to see the Komodo dragons. We were told it would be hard to see them at this time of the year but not too long into our hike one came ambling down the path we were on and yes, they have the right of way. Our guides moved us slowly into the brush on the side of the path and asked us to be absolutely quiet and to not move. For the nine of us we had two guides each with only a forked stick that stood between us and one of the most deadliest creatures on earth. It was like seeing a dinosaur. Before we left the island we saw deer, wild boar and four more Komodo dragons!

Another day we visited a different island nearby and went to a small village. After spending time with the local children we climbed a huge hill to see a bat cave! On the last night of our trip we stopped near a mangrove island and as the sun set we watched thousands and thousands of fruit bats fly to nearby islands to find food. There were millions of stars at night and I did see the Southern Cross for the first time! Worth it!

The boat crew was amazing. The chef should be in a 5-star restaurant. Everyone had multiple jobs and the two girls on the crew gave great massages! The best night was barbecue on a beach on a vacant island. We had a bonfire and after Emily and Brendan did some singing and guitar playing we discovered our captain was a guitarist as well. Soon the entire crew was singing along and everyone was dancing. The beauty of nature, the warmth of friendship, and the wonder of God’s creation will not soon be forgotten.

 

Our next stop was Bali. We spent two days off the beaten path and discovered the “real” Bali according to our friend and guide Mardy. We saw the making of sea salt, the carving of lava stone for temples, visited a community of local painters, met some local carvers, relaxed in a hot spring, went to a volcano, participated in an abbreviated Hindu cleansing ceremony, ate at a local warung, watched a temple ceremony with local villagers, drove to a mountain with beautiful lakes, went to a monkey forest, drank Kopi Luwak (poop coffee), saw a Barong dance, learned a lot about the Hindu religion, and Brendan and Emily both held bats, snakes, and iguanas. We were hosted by our friend for a Balinese dinner at his house where Emily and Brendan wore traditional Balinese clothing. Our last day in Bali we spent at the beach, shopping the alleys for bargains, spending time at the hotel pool and finally discovering the night life in Legian. We literally danced the night away. I haven’t closed a bar since I was in college!

Now we are back in Jakarta to relax a bit and enjoy the city for a week. Next stop is Thailand. I’ll check in with you after that!

Apologies…

Sorry once again for a long absence. The upside is that I am adjusting quite well to life in Jakarta and finding myself more busy than I could have believed possible. The other day Scott called to tell me he had a comp day that he had to take soon. What day would be good for me to golf with him? I looked at my calendar and replied, “I am booked for the rest of the week!” This is what retirement looks like I guess.

So, what do I do with my time? First, I spend half of it in traffic (haha)! Seems like it but only about a third!

I have agreed to serve on the board of the American Women’s Association (AWA) as a Co-Treasurer for this next year starting June 1. This has taken a huge chunk of time in the past couple of weeks learning the ropes. The handover has gone smoothly so far and I am learning so much about our organization and banking practices in Indonesia! They are sticklers for perfection so I have been practicing my own signature. (Not kidding on this one. I call it my Catholic school signature….perfect enough for a nun to approve!) We have a great group of women on the board and I am looking forward to working with them and getting to know more of our members.

I have also been volunteering with the Social Welfare committee for AWA. I was able to visit a Yayasan (charity) that is a place for elderly women to come during the day while their families work. They feed them lunch and give them a place to socialize. Sweet women. Scott and I spent a Saturday at Community Day working with another Yayasan that supports children. He worked in the organic garden picking and cleaning vegetables and I read books with the children. It is heartwarming to be involved with the local people. The children especially are so bright and eager. Many can speak limited English and love to practice with us.

As most of you know my initial reason for joining AWA was to be part of their Creative Writing class. It has been a great learning experience but also a source of encouragement and friendship. And yes, it was supposed to make my blog better but it is a huge part of why I have neglected it. With the support of my fellow writers I have been doing a writing project aimed at children. This past week I “workshopped” my project with some wonderful children K through 3 grade at a local International School. It was very helpful and a joy to be around little ones again. As the project progresses I will share more here with y’all. For now I have made all the deadlines I set for myself and will have some more free time to write my blog.

For “fun” I have been golfing. I try to get in a round each week with a great group of ladies. My game is slowly improving but more than that it is helping my bahasa Indonesia! The caddies are great to practice on and you would be amazed at how many “golfing words” show up in everyday life. Most of all it is a chance to be outside and walking. Not many places to do that near us without some sort of face mask to block the fumes from the cars, motorcycles, and buses.

I have kept my shopping skills up by hitting several bazaars that feature local and regional handicrafts. These bazaars not only support the vendors but raise money for charities as well. (Philanthropy is my middle name.) Now the apartment has a little more flair….or just more to dust as Scott would say. He recently asked me what “tchotchkies” were. I told him it was stuff you buy that needs to be dusted. (Insert his eyeroll here!)

Throw into my calendar a few lunches and dinners for birthdays and such and you can see how I can stay very busy. Scott and I have also snuck away for a couple of weekends to Bali and to Singapore/Kuala Lumpur.  (More on that later…pinkie promise!)

So I apologize again for not sharing more often on my blog. I will catch up in the next few weeks in anticipation of the arrival of our children in July! I will probably disappear from cyberspace again for that month but when I come back will have wonderful (or at least entertaining) stories about our adventures in Indonesia.