I was reflecting with my friends Tabitha and Holly while recently in Yogyakarta, about how blogs about all our incredible trips and experiences having fun by beaches are not nearly as interesting to folks back home as the random, day-to-day blogs. Of course I love writing about how much fun I had traveling around Indonesia, but lots of people go on vacations—I am living here every day, having not nearly as carefree a life as my trips make it seem. That being said, my life is incredibly low-stress, and actually, it’s really good. Not to brag or anything…
On my way to school, I pass the hotel where I stayed the first week I was in Indonesia—before my orientation. I was picked up from the airport, after two days of travel and many plane rides, and brought to Hotel Anugerah. It is funny to consider how I felt when I was there, and how I feel now. I wish I could go back and tell that girl hiding in her hotel room that Palembang isn’t as bad as it looks. (Sorry to anyone from Palembang)!
My first impressions of Palembang were: busy, crowded, industrial, (a teensy bit smelly—although I might have been biased by the Lonely Planet I read before), and well, just completely foreign. I have traveled a bit—I’ve been around Europe—more so the Eastern part, but this was the first place I visited where I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was (am) hyper-aware of the stares, the nudges and pointing fingers, and of course, the calls of “hello mister!” As I’ve said before, the feeling of being constantly watched, gawked at, and stared at, does not by any means make me feel unsafe (usually)—it’s more just an uncomfortable feeling that people are judging you by what they see.
Many people want to take their photo with me, which is something I found charming and fun at first, and now I have started wishing I wore a hijab so I could blend in more. One time, I was running at Kambang Iwak last week (a pond/park with a track around it), and a 15-16 year old school girl stopped me, mid-run, sweaty, beet-red, panting, to request a photo. Seriously?! Sometimes I feel seriously annoyed and even to the point of completely ignoring people, but I guess it’s true what they say about exercise: those endorphins really do kick into gear and make you happier, so I gladly stopped running and took a sweaty, horrible picture with this girl. Later on that same run, a boy started running alongside me, and asking me questions. Again, sometimes I choose to ignore people (when I’m feeling grumpy), but I just took out my headphones and answered his many questions, “where are you from?” “Where do you live?” “How old are you?” etc. It is nice to have someone to run with sometimes!
Another time, my friend Calum and I decided to go the Pasar 16 (pasar is Indonesian for market)—this place is a humongous maze of stalls in a massive building alongside the Musi River. It’s set up so you go up and down to different floors, with each turn spitting you out in another area—Ibus (women) selling produce, clothes, Tupperware—basically anything you could want. Calum was on the hunt for some shoes, realizing he was getting ripped off at the Malls, we went to the market. This in itself is an experience. It only took me 5 months to try it, but I don’t think I was brave enough at the beginning. It’s knowingly throwing yourself into a situation where hundreds of people are around—hundreds of people who maybe have never seen an orang bule (white person). We tried a few stalls and tried to haggle—Calum doesn’t like haggling—I love it. I think it’s so fun when they realize you can speak enough Indonesian to not get ripped off. And yet, there is still the possibility you are getting ripped off. But we had wandered through a few different levels and areas of the huge market, and we came across three high school aged kids in uniforms watching us, and then one of the boys starts in great English, “Can I help you all with anything? You might get a bad price because you’re white.” We started talking to him, and he told us his English was good because he goes to this place called the Chit Chat Corner, where there are a few Westerners working who speak English with kids. He and his two friends accompanied us to a few more spots in the market, and reassured us that Calum wasn’t getting ripped off. They were really sweet, and it was fun to talk to them. Afterwards, we went out to the main road and took the obligatory few photos with them. Then we parted ways. It is silly, but going to the largest market in Palembang felt like a huge accomplishment for me. You know you’ve put yourself seriously far out of your comfort zone if going to a market is a big step.
Another thing I was way too scared to try when I first arrived in Palembang is the ‘public transport’. I should probably devote an entire blog to this subject…we’ll see. The most hilarious, and the scariest form is the Bus Kota. City bus. My friend Femmy told me an American Fulbright ETA who was here a few years ago had dubbed it the “buskotequa”–like discotec. That is because these old buses, which look like they are just another few miles from falling apart completely, blast crazy loud, thumping house music out of their speakers, and have young guys hanging out the back, yelling at passers-by to get on the bus. They sound like a bad college party on wheels. The guy’s job is to round up more people to ride this bus. I had seen them all over the place, usually those guys hanging out the back yell at me, and I avoid eye contact. However, I had never been brave enough to ride the buses, most importantly because I have no idea where they go. There is no map, no route that I know of. You just have to know. Or ask. But when I ask questions usually people respond way too quickly for me to understand. So I’ve just avoided the buskotec. UNTIL our market day. I feel much braver when I am with other people, so Calum suggested we try to take one back to his school, even though he didn’t know if it went there. Ridiculous as it may sound, taking a bus was actually a little nerve-racking. My students and acquaintances here say, “Miss, don’t take the city buses! They are dangerous. There are robbers.” So, of course I got on clutching my bag, and made Calum shove over so I didn’t have to sit near any of those robbers they spoke of. However, who’da thunk, the people on the bus seemed normal enough to me! Just regular people going about their business. Until a 3 piece band boarded and started singing to everyone. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even live in reality. Is this normal? I mean, we have buskers on streets and they are on the NYC subway and stuff sometimes, so I guess it’s not that strange, but it’s still funny to me.
Sometimes getting off your butt and out of the house is the hardest thing—even in the US where there is much less to be nervous about. Walking to the post office is another adventure I have had a few times now. Again, in what universe should walking somewhere be a big deal? Yet I tell people I walked from my house to the main post office near Ampera Bridge and they gasp, “why?!” First off, it is bloody hot here. I don’t care what they say, dry season, rainy season, it is just the same: flippin HOT. (I will regret those words when the dry season is upon us again and I can’t breathe). So that means walking places is a little dumb. Second, sidewalks are a rarity. I always think of Kelly Clarkson’s song about straying too far from the sidewalk, and my step-dad’s hilarious joke about how in our county (Floyd) we don’t have sidewalks so what then? (I think there was more to that joke…) Anyway, no sidewalks + INSANE driving on motorcycles, cars, and buscotecs means walking around Palembang is a little bit dangerous, not to mention, just not done. People don’t walk much if they can help it. Most have motorcycles or use angkots, buses, etc. However, sometimes you just feel like you need a walk. So I walk to the post office. If you are my facebook friend, you saw the stats of last week’s adventure:
And today on my 25 minute walk from home to the post office & back–the totals:
17 “Hello misterrrr!!”s
6 “hello miss!!”s
3 “how are youuu?!”s
1 “what are you doing?!”
and a low show of just 1 “I LOVE YOU!!”
So this is what walking places involves: you must be okay with the fact that everyone will be looking at you, and many of them will want to shout out to you. Reflecting on it, this something I both LOVE and at times strongly dislike about Indonesia. There is a need to call out and talk to you because you’re a foreigner. I love it, because usually you can feel the warmth of the people, who are just so excited to be speaking to a foreigner, and when it’s a toothless old becak driver, it’s rather amusing and endearing. Other times, it’s just frustrating if you want to walk down the street to be yelled at by a young guy on a bus, who actually looks like he is compelled to shout out “BULE” (pronounced boo-lay & meaning foreigner with white skin) when he sees you. It’s like something comes over them, and they actually can’t keep that word inside. We used to play a game on the high school band bus where we’d yell out “COW” every time we’d pass them. Upon reflection, we were seriously lame; yet, that’s what it’s like sometimes here. People just have to yell it out, or it’s not real or something! An American friend here in Palembang suggested when people yell out “BULE!” (which technically could be construed as a negative word although I don’t think it is often meant so), that I should yell back “DI MANA?!” (WHERE?!) I’ve tried it a few times, and it seriously amuses me, and that’s all that matters anyway.
I think this is all a matter of your attitude though; when I tell myself that I think it’s funny and amusing, it really and truly is funny and amusing. But if I go outside thinking, “if anyone yells at me I’m just going to scowl”, then everyone will annoy me.
I do think I’ll miss the call of “hello mister”, because no matter what, that is just funny. I am not worried that they think I’m a man, I know it’s just the only phrase they probably know in English. However, that hasn’t stopped me from trying my friend Holly’s trick of yelling back to the man (it’s almost always a man) “HELLO IBU!” (Hello Ma’am.) That stumps em.