Chasing pavements

So after a few weeks here, I find myself feeling lonely and homesick. It’s always like that at the beginning, going anywhere new, facing new uncertainties. But even more than that, I find myself being Belgium-sick.

I guess it’s not that strange really. I’ve moved something like 17 times in the past eight years, so I guess my mind subconsciously hangs on to whatever recent stability it had and imagines that it’s some kind of home. And maybe also because, despite the difficulty of finding a job there, I really liked it. I miss the diversity, the African influence, listening to Khaled on my walk to school in the morning, wandering the streets on weekends, eating frites from paper cones, meeting people in museum parks, drinking mint tea the way only true Moroccans can make it, spending evenings with Alice and Pierre and Sofia…

I think I’ve had this feeling before, of feeling homesick for something that’s not really home…but it’s still sort of a strange phenomenon. I just need to find my place here.

Blah blah blah, yeah I know. You’re thinking, enough about you and all your feelings…tell us more about Indonesia and all the ways you can catch malaria and typhoid! Show us pictures of exotic animals and tell us stories about getting lost in the jungle! We want palm trees and beaches and birds of paradise!

Okay okay…I’m going to Bali this weekend, so hopefully I will post the first pictures of Indonesia when I return…be careful what you wish for!

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Seeking solitude, finding peace

I am a person that likes to be alone. Often.

Strangely enough, I’ve never, except for that brief month of bliss in Brussels, lived alone.

Indonesia is no exception. Except this time, we live AND work together. ALL DAY.

So I find myself seeking quiet, independence, peace. In a city of 23 million in a nation of 222 million, that can be hard to do.

Tonight I went to the hotel pool. Although when I left Brussels, the sun was setting at a leisurely 8:30pm, it’s dark here by 5:30, and then the storms begin. It’s still rainy season, after all.

Luckily, no one was at the pool. I had a view of the brilliant city, alive with lights, pulsing and noisy even after work hours. The pool was dimly lit and little birds, or bats, or something, were flitting among the trees and flowers that open only at night. I swam laps, watching the lightning, diffused by thick clouds, creating a soft flickering glow in the sky, like that of a candle. Then the call to prayer. I love the call to prayer. It starts slowly, one voice rising above the loud hum of an electric generator nearby…you almost don’t notice it at first. Then another, in another part of the city. Soon all the mosques are sending out their calls, harmonious, above the din. I don’t know how they do it, how they make themselves heard in such a raucus place…but they do. I quite like the idea that the sound of faith is always stronger than the sound of progress, and even the construction crews on the 37th floor of an unfinished highrise hear it and stop what they are doing for a few moments. I like that, for a few moments every day, there’s one thing that everybody does together, at the same time. In an age of increasing isolation and changing communities, moments like those are becoming rare. Even though I am not Muslim, the call reminds me, too, to stop, take a moment of peace, be thankful, say a few words to God, breathe deeply, and enjoy the moments of peace I can find in the middle of urban chaos.

Culture Shock (alternate title: 101 Ways to Die in Indonesia)

There’s one word that keeps coming to mind every time I try to describe Indonesia: CRAZY.

Absolutely nuts.

Everything, really, from that first phone call three weeks ago inviting me to an interview in Madrid, has been crazy. Even finding out mid-journey that I was going to go halfway across the world was crazy. But actually being here, that’s the craziest of all.

A little geography lesson for everybody first:

Indonesia is HUGE. Little islands, you say? Yes, 17000 of them in all. In total, they take up more space than AUSTRALIA. Crazy! It’s bordered by Singapore, Australia, if you count “bordered” as being “the next-closest landmass that’s not Indonesia” and places like East Timor, which probably don’t help you get any sort of idea of geographical placement. I live on the island of Java, where Jakarta, the capital, is. Other well-known islands within Indonesia include Sumatra, home of orangutans (incidentally, I’m trying to learn Indonesian and Orang Hutan is literally ‘person of the forest’), Bali, home of Hindu temples and sun-worshipping tourists, and Komodo, home of the Komodo Dragon.

Also, it has the world’s 4th largest population. Never heard of Jakarta? Well, it’s about three times as big as Chicago, but without the nice grid system to help you navigate it. It’s a good thing we have a driver to take us everywhere!

In addition, it holds the world’s largest Muslim population. Don’t conjure up images of Osama or turbaned, bearded men in deserts. This Islam apparently allows scantily-dressed women to frequent nightclubs and do dances that are, well, let’s say, less than immaculate. Sure, some women cover their heads, but really, it all seems fairly liberal.

Climate: Indonesia sits pretty much ON the equator. Enough said. You may know it, if for nothing else, as the place that was ravaged by a tsunami in December 2004. In addition to being prone to hurricanes and rainstorms, the country sits over something like three different tectonic plates, making it a center for earthquakes. As if all that natural goodness weren’t enough, Indonesia has one of the world’s richest concentrations of biodiversity (yet, incidentally, the third-highest level of pollution) in the world, second only to Brazil’s Amazon rainforest….this translates into many very large and dangerous things that want to bite, sting, hunt, and kill you. They can fly, run, slither, swim, and some have more legs than God ever intended creatures to have.

Oh, and I almost forgot: the entire landmass is pretty much made entirely of volcanoes, most of which are active…and they drive on the left side of the road!

So, let’s recap: lots of people, heat, humidity, pollution, earthquakes, volcanoes, tropical storms, dangerous animals, and left-side drivers with little to no actual driving ability. Welcome to Indonesia!

* * *

My general first impression of the place is a vast and absolutely incomprehensible difference between rich and poor. Our hotel is swathed in black marble, polished to a high sheen that makes every surface reflective, and orchids pour out of enormous gilded vases on mammoth glass tables under glass chandeliers. There are men to open doors for you, sweep the floor after you, drive your car for you, clean your house for you, cook your food for you, pull out your chair for you, and take care of basically any other detail that might cross your pampered mind. Everything is “Yes, Miss” and “Excuse me, Miss” and bowing as you pass. Then you leave the hotel.

From the quiet calm of the hotel you step (rather drive, as you cannot walk anywhere in Jakarta, not only because of pollution but simply because sidewalks don’t exist) into a seething mass of humanity. Even along the hotel’s long palm-lined driveway, shabby warung, little street food stalls, crowd close together, food piled into their little windows, mostly involving fruits or unidentifiable fried pockets whose contents are anyone’s guess. The people sit under tarps or on the curbs, smoking, talking, laughing, admiring the motorcycles and 4x4s that whizz by at breakneck speed. Traffic is a way of life here, and I’m quickly getting used to the idea of spending an hour in the car to go not very far, people winding their way between the moving vehicles, helping “direct” traffic for a small sum, motorcycles honking to announce their itentions of cutting you off, and vehicles merging and swerving (as there are no marked lanes) with only centimeters of safety between them. It no longer fazes me.

It seems like you can pass the whole of the real Indonesia on your way from one sheltered universe to another. Something I read said that most Indonesians live on less than $2 a day, but you’d never know it as you step into one of the ubiquitous shopping malls, where the door is opened by a doorman complete with bellhop uniform and white gloves. The polished marble floor gleams under the lights of Banana Republic, Gap, Versace, and Gucci. Windows are spotless, garmets immaculately arranged. Malls are to Indonesia what central plazas are to Europe – where the people hang out, wander around, enjoy their free time. And really, from juice bars (mmm starfruit juice? durian juice? jackfruit juice? papaya juice?) to Brazilian steakhouses to French cafes to American cookie shops, you could live here and go around the world. There’s no excuse for any American to experience homesickness or culture shock here, when you can get everything from Campbell’s soup to People magazine to Pantene hair products to Gap clothes here….and yet I find myself stuck between sheer gratitude that these comforts exist, and a desire to experience the “real” Indonesia that the vast majority of the country’s people live daily. The closest I can get is when I can hear the call to prayer waft in through our floor-to-ceiling windows from the mosques around the city, barely audible above the screech of progress (i.e. nonstop construction on the high-rise next door). It’s only been a few days…the real Indonesia will take more time to discover.

Maybe a trip to Bali will help…

PLAN B

Hey, remember when I said I was going to Greece?

Just kidding.

The company called me today, while I was at the airport waiting for my flight to Madrid, and informed me that I will no longer be going to Greece, but will instead be going to:

INDONESIA!

Man, when they said you had to be flexible and adaptable for this job, they weren’t kidding. Nothing like being sent halfway around the world from where you expected on absolutely no notice! It’s a good thing I am both flexible and adaptable. Plus, I’ve never been to Asia, let alone Indonesia, so I’m pretty excited. What I’m not excited about is spending 18 hours getting there. Awesome!

Don’t worry, I am as ignorant about Indonesia as probably everyone else reading this is, so there will be plenty of lessons coming up to educate the masses (example: Dad: “What language do they speak in Indonesia?” Me: “I have no idea but I’m looking up the Wikipedia right now….Oh….apparently they speak Indonesian. Hmm, could’ve guessed that…”). That’s all I’ve got time to say now, but there will definitely be updates soon!

And thanks for all your information, Erich, even though it will be completely useless now! Have you by any chance been to Indonesia???? 🙂

Bruxelles, je t’aime

Well, this is it.

It’s sad to leave Brussels….I really like this city, despite its dirtiness and chaos and generally ridiculous curiosities. It’s even sadder to leave everyone I’ve met here. It’s amazing how many people you can get to know in just two short months.

Luckily, I was able to spend the entire week enjoying Brussels with the people I enjoy. I went to the pub with Ronan and Moritz, wandered around with Javier, had carbonnade with Fred, had drinks on the Grand Place with Michelle, ate pizza with Pierre and Sofia, and on Saturday I went to a party with Alice, where we danced the night away until the wee hours of the morning. It could have been no better last night out in Brussels than to be in a club surrounded by people from all over the world (as is the trademark of Brussels), and hear the DJ play “Ya Rayah,” “Didi,” AND “Aicha”. I would have expected no less.

I’d like to say that I’ve managed this whole time without a job etc. because of my excellent financial planning and extreme thriftiness. However, the truth is (aside from the generosity of my parents, thanks Mom and Dad) that I could never have made it these two months if it weren’t for the kindness of strangers. Alice opened her home to me even though she’d only met me once, and then only briefly. Nelsy brought me turkey breasts and took me out for hamburgers. Joost let me stay with him for an entire weekend. Mohcin slipped me 20 euros, even though I tried desperately to give it back to him. Fred never let me pay for drinks, or dinner, or speculoos ice cream (oh my god amazing). To all those people I barely know, but who have made my time here worthwhile, thank you.

In other news, I went to Ghent on Saturday, since I’d been wanting to visit and knew it was my last chance. It was cold and rainy and my visit was short, but I liked it, and here are some photos.

The next time I update, I will be in ATHENS!

UPDATE-O-RAMA

I finally have the information about my first job destination….is everybody ready? I’m going to:

GREECE!

Oh, beaches and gyros and islands, oh my! History and culture and music! Figs and olives and sunshine! This is so exciting!

I leave sometime around Monday. It’s GO TIME.

In other news, I have updated my photos. I added more photos to the “Belgium” album, and created a new album… Yesterday I visited several of the comic murals painted around the city by Belgium’s best comic strip artists, so there’s a collection of those photos there. Enjoy!