Making ‘Connections’ Internationally

DSC_2405 lrOne of the most gratifying aspects of international travel is the people you meet. Usually, these are just casual encounters, but occasionally you actually “connect” with new people in a way that brings friendship and understanding that can change your viewpoints, or theirs.

In Costa Rica, my best and most-lasting encounter was with a displaced American. In Croatia, it was a young couple who helped me find a place to live and who questioned me, in excellent English, about American life and politics. In Sicily, it was the young man who rented me an apartment and took me out with he and his girlfriend to experience the night as he and his friends did.

In Indonesia, primarily because I have been here far longer and had a built-in support network when I arrived, I have connected with a lot of Indonesians – from the staff members I worked with every day, to the waitresses I ordered food from every day, to the taxi drivers I use on a regular basis, and now to the ordinary, everyday people I interact with on a daily basis.

I consider many of these people my friends, we often hug on meeting, and laughs and conversations are prominent. Even a chance connection with a local ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver, who invited himself to my table at an outdoor restaurant and drilled me with question after question, in passable English, about life in the U.S., President Obama and U.S. foreign policy.

Helpful taxi driver, left

Helpful taxi driver, left

For the record, this 40-year-old man wants to live in the U.S. and doesn’t care if he gets a job as a dishwasher, because he doesn’t understand that the wages he would earn would leave him as poor as he is in his homeland. To him, America is the land of opportunity, even though he fails to understand what his being Muslim would mean to that opportunity in a country that seemingly hates anything Islamic.

To me, in a small way, this is how peoples learn about each other, how they begin to understand our differences, and how dialogue begins to be the choice instead of conflict.

But really, the reason I started this post was to introduce my two latest “connections – a young couple with a restaurant across the street and a 40-year-old businessman with a family and a deep curiosity about the United States. I must forewarn that the latter will be reading this post, with interest, so I hope I don’t distort the facts, because he will call me on it.

Warung next to Lusy's

Warung next to Lusy’s

My young couple connection I’ve mentioned before, but I don’t think I ever mentioned how the husband always seemed to be distant, while his wife always had a friendly smile for me. I always figured it was the language barrier and probably that’s true. They have a nicely laid out warong (street restaurant) across from my apartment and I have eaten there many times. Their food is from the Aceh region of Indonesia and very spicy but the wife knows not to make it that way for me.

During Ramadhan, this couple moved  its operation to the side street a block away from their warung, and was serving up just grilled seafood. They were there every night and indicated business was very good at those times I stopped to buy dinner.

But something was different. Now, the husband was verbally giving me a hard time when I looked at the fish he was cooking, all done in a friendly tone in a language I don’t understand. I would then berate him in return, in English, which he didn’t understand. And we both would laugh. And his wife would laugh.

When they returned to their regular location, I ordered mei goring ayam for dinner, which is not on their menu but which was delivered with a nice presentation. It was good to have them back. (Note: that’s a noodle and seafood dish in a red chili sauce, with a piece of very fried chicken [no coating] on the side.)

My second recent connection  runs two phone sales businesses on the island and is the worried husband and father of a beautiful wife and daughter. From all indications, he is relatively successful with his businesses and I’m not really sure what brought him to my door.

He would tell you it is because he found this blog on the Internet, liked how I wrote, and decided to contact me when he learned I lived on Batam. That may be true. I remember maybe a phone call from a stranger who was looking for someone to tutor his 4-year-old daughter in American English. He was explicit about the American part of that American English. Apparently, non-Americans can tell the difference.

I referred him to a local English-language company. He said no thanks because they had Australian or British instructors, not Americans. Finally, he asked if we could get together so that he could learn American English and he would then teach his daughter. He was eager to pay my hourly rate. I was skeptical and told him I was. I’m not trained as a teacher. But we gave it a try.

We have probably been meeting now for about four months, every Monday at 5 pm at the local mall. Our meetings go for an hour and a half, mostly now personal chit-chat and a lot of questions for me about American words and culture.

Now, please understand, my friend speaks English probably better than a lot of Americans. He understands such differences in there, their and they’re, for example, and is astonished that most Americans do  not know. He also seems to have a pretty good grasp on American culture, as evidenced by the fact he understands my sarcastic humor, which is not generally understood in Indonesia.

My friend always brings the lesson plan for the week, usually something in Bahasa and translated into English, which is always terrible. My job is to make sense of the bad translation and explain certain things about the topic.

Once, he brought a transcript of a Roseanne Barr roast, in Bahasa and English, and asked me what the jokes meant. That was tough because all the jokes were about her weight or referred to movies of TV shows she was in. She is not known in this part of the world so they haven’t seen any of her TV shows and films, nor do they follow Hollywood that much. And making jokes about someone’s wait here is not acceptable behaviour.

The latest gimmick is a Donald Duck cartoon book, a very old, very thick cartoon book with captions in Bahasa and subtitles in English.  For that, I’m basically providing descriptions of the individual cartoon cells , which are then relayed to my friend’s daughter.

Anyway, We have become friends, and I knew that for sure this last week, when I showed up for our usual meeting and he had his wife and daughter, and his brother and his girlfriend, there to meet me. There was no lesson. Just lots of questions about my writing and my life.

That, as much as anything, is why I travel.

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Reflections on Ramadhan

aceh curfewThe just-completed month of Ramadhan was my third experienced during my so-far 3-and-a-half years on Batam.  It would have been four but last year I was on my ill-fated visit to St. Kitts-Nevis in the Caribbean during Ramadhan.

Not that I really missed that Ramadhan observance, as I’m pretty much not interested in any religion or the gods they bow to. But it is interesting from a cultural point of view.

The first two times weren’t all that enlightening because I was cloistered in the protective environment of Smiling Hill and only experienced a Ramadhan-lite version, with the occasional Buka Puasa (break fast) company-sponsored dinners held at Goodies Restaurant, and the reporting on the Muslim holiday in the Smiling Hill newsletter.

This year, I was actually living among the local population throughout the whole ordeal (and in many ways it was an ordeal). There were far fewer filters to this year’s experience and far more inconveniences – and interesting occurrences – to adjust to or take note of.

For the uninitiated, Ramadhan is a month-long observance of the Islamic faith, a time to replenish your faith (I guess) and gather with friends and family. I would compare it to the Christian Christmas season in many ways, complete with gift-giving, lots of seasonal foods, and mass exoduses of people returning to their family homes for celebrations.

True Muslim believers will not eat, drink, smoke or have sex from dawn until dusk during the 30 days of Ramadhan. The people in Batam who actually adhere to this strict observance I would guess are far fewer percentage-wise than in most of Indonesia, where the environment is far less secular and religion is a significant part of life. Kind of like living in an American evangelical-dominated group of people.

I am living in another country, though, so patience and understanding of local cultures is important. But I will never agree with the government funding the religion, or passing laws founded on it, or the mosques blaring music and verses three times a day from their loudspeakers (five times a day during Ramadhan). But it’s their religion, so you deal with it.

Take, for instance, the nine days of what I call “Blackout.” These days are divided into threes, with the first three the first three days of Ramadhan, then three more in the middle of the month, and then the last three days of the month (Ramadhan doesn’t fall neatly into a calendar month and was from June 18 to July 18 this year.)

During these blackout days, my neighborhood basically becomes a ghost town. Bars are not allowed to operate at all. Many restaurants close out of respect to the people who are fasting (Besides, there aren’t so many customers when everyone’s not eating.) Those restaurants that remain open must cover their entrances so as not to offend those who are fasting. In some places in Indonesia, a very religious segment of the population will provide its own brand of vigilante religious justice to violators.

For me, this meant that the local street food vendors or restaurants tucked into the shophouses everywhere are not open. I couldn’t, for example, go a block away for nasi padang (rice with curry chicken) for lunch, or get dinner at my favorite Aceh-style warung right outside my apartment. However, if I so chose, McDonald’s and KFC two blocks away were open as usual.

Most of this is a mystery to me

Most of this is a mystery to me

This shutdown of business during the day was overwhelmed as dusk approached every day. Fasting believers would get up before sunup every day to feast and then near dusk would head for streets where food vendors gathered in an almost impromptu manner. My Aceh restaurant friends were at one, selling just ikan bakar (barbecue fish), and so was the guy who I often buy sate ayam (chicken on a stick) from his cart in kampong bule.

I had read about this gathering of the hungry people but never experienced it until the first day of Ramadhan this year, when I went outside to take my nightly walk and was confronted with a huge crowd on the streets outside my building. About 50-60 food stalls had been set up on a side street, pretty much shutting down traffic through that street. People were arriving on foot and especially on motorcycle to peruse the selections and buy their dinner to take home. You couldn’t eat there as there was too may people and no place to sit.

I’ve reported on this already, with a ton of pictures, and I did venture there several times for dinner. The selections were mind-numbing, especially because I had no idea what most of the food was. I did get some ikan bakar from my Aceh friends a couple of times (Once it was a large, whole squid, spiral cut, that was cooked too long.), and tried kari ayam, gudeng (a Yogyakarta specialty) and some of the pastries and sweets.

The blackout days often were a major inconvenience, not just for business but also because the banking system was shut down. At the end of the month, the banks were shut down for a week.

The bank closures affected me this year when I tried to send money to a friend at her village on several occasions via Western Union. I’ve never used Western Union in the States, so I don’t know if it operates the same as here, but Western Union was closed for business on all the blackout days and that last week of the holiday period (so, about half the month). I guess when the banks close, so does Western Union, which is owned here, I’m told, by one person. Fortunately, the ATMs still worked.

And then, of course, all those people had to come back from their kampungs (villages) and they usually waited until after the holiday was over, meaning many local businesses were missing staff well into the week after Ramadhan ended. People will leave before Ramadhan starts, or just before the final week, and return after it ends and not think twice about their jobs. This is after they receive a month’s salary as a Ramadhan bonus.

As I said, business really suffers during this month, and not just because employees will disappear for a month. Imagine how productive your staff is going to be if they can’t eat or drink during the day. The smokers will be having fits and the lack of food and water drags everyone down. The Westerners here in charge of many of the companies know that not much is going to get done.

There are other restrictive rules during the month, as well, such as bars and entertainment venues cannot open until 9 pm on the other 23 days of the observance and must close by 2 am. This has a huge impact on the many karaoke bars here. Interestingly, the massage parlors are not restricted in their operating times.

For me, one of the few benefits of the month was the bar closings, at least regarding the bar next to my apartment that blares music until 3 am most nights. It’s a prostitution bar, with an adjoining room for playtime, and it seems that whenever they have a customer for the adjoining room, the music gets louder. But for Ramadhan, there were nine days of absolute quiet and a number of others where the bar apparently was closed or had no customers, meaning I was able to sleep in my bed and not on the couch in the adjoining room (just until 3 am, when I move to the bedroom). That bar, and its noise, is back to normal.

And so is my neighborhood, with all the outside activity, the pop-up warungs, the street vendors, the neon signs, the traffic. It’s back to normal – and I like it.

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A Mysterious Invitation

Sometimes because of the difficulty in communicating or due to what may be cultural misunderstanding, you have to go with the flow just to see where you end up. That was the case last night, when I received a phone call from Putra, a former chef at Goodies Restaurant.

Putra and I have kept track through Facebook since my departure from Smiling Hill but getting a phone call from him was unusual. Actually, he had contacted me a week or so ago and asked for my phone number. Then he called me Saturday afternoon and said his boss wanted to get together at 6 pm that day and he would call to confirm. He never did.

Putra is a well-grounded individual, married with two kids, and has been seeking other opportunities besides cooking. I figured he was contacting me to get some free publicity on my site but he wouldn’t give me any details about why a meeting was sought.

Tuesday he called again after 6 pm, asking if I could meet with him and his boss, a Norwegian who I had some recent contact with. It was 6:30 and he wanted to meet at 8 pm. He would even pick me up. Why not, I thought. Nothing much else to do.

Putra picked me up at 8 and we shared some small talk on the way to the L Hotel, which he said one of his bosses (not the Norwegian) was renovating. The hotel was certainly undergoing renovation, construction work of various stages everywhere.

By this time I still didn’t know what was going on but I followed Putra thrpigh parts of the hotel as he told me where the 4,000-square-meter bar/disco would be, where the cozy pub would be, where the massage rooms would be, where the escort ladies would stay (“We want them to live here so we can control them better.”). The hotel would only have 64 rooms, he said, because that is not really our main focus. Interesting. A hotel whose main focus was not on selling rooms.

Finally, after negotiating the construction-laden floors and hallways, we made it to the master suite on the top floor. “This is the owner’s suite,” Putra explained, “but if someone wants to hold a party this is where it would be.”

We proceeded to the balcony, where three Indonesians were sitting. Beyond them was a great view of Nagoya, with the huge Windsor food court just below.

I was introduced but, of course, didn’t get the names, so made sure we exchanged cards. The three men were sitting at a long table, with one at the head of the table. He turned out to be the boss who was renovating the hotel, and the president director of another company. During the evening, he was constantly cared for by a young woman, not attractive but very subservient. When his water glass, or later his Scotch, was empty, she dutifully filled it up without being asked. She was at his beck and call all evening.

A second man was introduced as a consultant who was going to be promoted to marketing. He seemed very interested in everything I had to say during the evening.

We spent long minutes without conversation as I continued to wonder, and occasionally ask, what was going on. I was thirsty and hungry but figured I’d get whatever it was they wanted done done and go on my way. There was some discussion about my website, and about the hotel as the night wore on.

Eventually, the Norwegian also showed up. It became obvious he had a working relationship with the others.

Orders were given to the boss’ staff members, who disappeared on whatever errand they were assigned. I had no idea. Finally, I was told they were bringing drinks, which turned out to be top-tier scotch and cans of green tea. Now, I don’t like scotch and the thought of mixing anything alcoholic with green tea has never entered my mind, but when in Rome.

Glasses of scotch were poured for everyone and the green tea distributed. The boss downed his scotch, about 2 ounces, as a shooter. I sipped mine and tentatively washed it down with tea. The boss began to loosen up. He was preoccupied all evening with a small notepad, much like a 16-year-old would be.

At some point, I casually mentioned I still needed to get some dinner, as much an effort to get out of there as needing food, although it was past 9 and past my dinner time. That seemed to motivate them even more and the boss’ assistant took orders for food all around. I asked for nasi padung ayam (chicken and rice). When the food was delivered 30 minutes later, all the meals were beef rendeng and rice, which is very spicy. There were also two pieces of chicken for me. Everyone seemed famished.

During all this time waiting for drinks and food, I was given an overview by Putra about the “hotel” and also about another project the boss had in mind. During these conversations, Putra acted as translator for the boss, who spoke some English, probably more than he let on.

The hotel, it turns out, can probably better be described as an upscale brothel. They planned to market it primarily to Singaporeans, who would buy weekend package deals that included a female escort, massages, tours, dancing and drinking at the disco – an all-in-one, stay-the-whole-time-in-the-hotel experience. “Do your guests get to select their female escort?” I asked. A long-winded answer came in reply, but basically, yes. The package price was $500.

The other project involves an island near Batam that the boss wants to buy and put up a small resort, probably for another “man’s experience.” There was some talk about having a barbecue on the island soon to look it over. I think I was invited, with my girlfriend, who I had to find a picture of online to show them.

During all this, my help in promoting their ventures was discussed. I agreed to write something up if they provided the details of the hotel opening and the island activity. Then a third project was brought up.

Apparently, the boss, with the Norwegian’s help, had purchased property on the water in the industrial sector of Tanjung Uncang. This area has huge plots of flat land occupied by shipbuilding and oil and gas companies. Big manufacturing/fabrication operations. Their plot is being extended into the water, at the expense of mangroves. I guess with 18,000 islands, Indonesia has enough mangroves that a few more dead ones won’t matter, although it won’t be long before Batam is completely without any mangrove barriers.

They are trying to market the property to companies wanting to set up an operation on Batam, or expand their current presence on the island. Maybe your website could help, they asked. I have no idea.

As the scotch continued to flow, the conversation became more lively and my hosts started asking my opinion about their endeavors, which I gave freely. Would the small pub/bar appeal to other bules on the island? Probably not, as it’s in an isolated, residential area requiring a taxi ride. Would expats pay $500 for the package deal? Probably not, because they can get all that for less, although maybe not all in the same place. Do you know anyone who would be interested in building on the waterfront property? No.

Would expats come to the disco? Probably not, unless there were lots of pretty, available women there.

I could go on but why? We finally were finished about 11 and Putra drove me home. I await their next step. Very strange meeting.

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