One 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.
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.
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.