Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I should have thought harder

Today I bought an i-pod. It's black and it is one of the 30Gb jobbies. You can get it engraved. In a fit of imaginationless thought I went with 'put your hands in the air like you just don't care'. Justice told me tonight I should have gone with 'Just an Object".

Damnit, he's so right.

You Can Call Me Al

"Cranberries!", Mr Richard. "You like Cranberries?"
"Um, sure, why not?"
"Def Leppard, Mr Richard!" shouts Akok as I twig that he is talking about music. I am sitting in a four wheel drive in Banjar, Central Java, and Akok is driving me back to my hotel so I can collect my power adapters.
"Lin-kin Parrrk, Mr Richard! Lin-kin Parrrk."
I start to giggle.
"Bon Jovi!"
More band names are coming.
"Nirrrvana, Mr Richard! Currrt Cobain". To emphasise this Akok points his fingers at his throat and pulls the trigger. The giggling has metamorphised into thigh slapping. This carries on for the ten minutes it takes to drive to the hotel. Then, of course, he has to spoil it all.
"Phil Collins, Mr Richard. Phil Collins".

Work has sent me to central Java for a week to teach flood forecasting. Banjar is about eight hours drive from Jakarta. Nobody has heard of it. It is a small town yet somehow over 100,000 people still call it home. But then on an island smaller than England where about 120 million people live, I suspect it is a small town.

Akok is my driver for the trip. He speaks very limited English (I speak very limited Indonesian; Hatur nuhun - thank you, goreng nasi - fried rice, ayam - chicken and pasi - can, being the sum total of my Indonesian), but when he does speak English he speaks much like English tourists speak to the inhabitants of the country they are visiting. So very loudly and slowly with hand gestures Akok will tell me what is happening. I find him extraordinarily funny. He is also an exceptionally gifted driver. No one can judge the exact amount of room it takes to pass a truck and get back on the right side of the road as well as he can. After the first few trouser filling moments of seeing this skill, I relax. Jane, having driven with you in London and seen how nervous you get, don't go to Indonesia...

Akok is also very fond of The Horn, as is, it seems, the whole of Java. Akok uses The Horn at the following times: When something is in the way. When something might be in the way. When he wants attention. When it is raining. When it is dark. When the Cranberries are on the tape deck. When he's happy. Akok is always happy.

Much of the roads in Java are exactly what you imagine they would be like. Narrow, rough two lane roads that somehow manage to accomodate a truck and two motorcycles in each direction. The motorcycles have a minimum of two people on them. Three people was common. I saw four on one averagely sized bike. Only the driver wore a helmet. This was small and the straps were not tied up. Surprisingly I only saw the aftermath of one accident. This was a truck that had tipped over while climbing a steep hill. It was precariously perched on a ledge overlooking a paddy field. Its cargo was in the process of being looted. On the steeper hills there are people waiting for trucks to stall. When they do, they all get behind it and push. I don't presume the Indonesian Highways Authority pays them for this. I also suspect that there are no Accident Compensation or National Insurance payouts here either.

Where there are motorways, these are just as scary. Technically there are two lanes in each direction. In practice this means four. The two lanes get three cars in them and hard shoulder is used as the fast lane. This is a risky business at best as there a lot of broken down vehicles

For more on third world driving, I recommend PJ O'Rourke's book Holidays in Hell.

The pace of work in Banjar is slow. But to be fair it did get up early. I arrived at work most mornings at about 8.15. The pace of work would then make an initial check on the flood forecasting system to see how many metres of rain fell over night. Then TPOW decides it's time for a sit down and a snack that comes in a box. TPOW mulls over this and then slowly wanders off. Around 12pm it comes back for a boxed lunch and a couple of cigarettes. A little while later you realise it has gone again. At about 3pm it appears again for another cigarette (although you suspect that while it was away, it was behind the bikesheds smoking). It then demands an hours hard time, before winding down for 5.30pm, when it slopes off. TPOW has, at all times, at least three friends.

On the third day I bought a tennis ball and spent parts of the fourth and fifth day bouncing it against a wall.

Also on the third day I went down to the local school and spoke, um, about being Richard. The reason I ended up there was the wife of Subuh, one of the Indonesians I was working with, was the head teacher. So at 1.30pm I found myself in front of a class of teenagers. I gave them a few minutes about me and then told them they could ask me anything they liked. There were a few questions about New Zealand. After a while the questions started to dry up, and because it was hot, I started to sweat. This provoked a young girl to ask "Are you nervous, Mr Richard?". "Always". We all had a good laugh and the questions came thick and fast, although "Mr Richard, you look like John Travolta", didn't really qualify as a question. Besides, one of us is short and fat and belongs to a cult, and the other is tall and gangly and belongs to a cult. In these situations there are the correct things to say: "Mr Richard, is New Zealand pretty?" should be answered by "Almost as pretty as Indonesia". Then there are incorrect things to say: "Mr Richard, what is your favourite Indonesian food?". This should NOT be answered by the first thing that comes into your head. Answering "tempi" resulted in me being fed tempi for the rest of the week.

After the questions finished, I had tea with the head teachers. And tempi. The mandatory photos came and went, I turned down a couple of marriage proposals and then I was done. It was utterly surreal and utterly delightful. It was one of the most entertaining experiences I have ever had, and I don't mean this in a patronising way.

However... it is much to my chagrin that I am nowhere near as culturaly adaptable as I thought I was. There were times in Java, a lot of times, that I really had no idea about what I was seeing and what I should be doing. I really struggled with the food. I simply cannot stomach fried rice for breakfast. To be fair, I generally can't stomach food for breakfast. Banjar has been hardly touched by western culture, and I found myself clinging to it when I could find it. For a long time I felt like Al in the Paul Simon song You can Call me Al.

A man walks down the street,
It's a street in a strange world.
Maybe it's the Third World.
Maybe it's his first time around.
He doesn't speak the language,
He holds no currency.
He is a foreign man,
He is surrounded by the sound, sound ....
Cattle in the marketplace.
Scatterlings and orphanages.
He looks around, around .....
He sees angels in the architecture,
Spinning in infinity,
He says, Amen! and Hallelujah!

I did have the currency (I was a millionaire for a morning as I carried the 1,200,000 rupiah to pay the hotel bill) and instead of cattle it was motorbikes in the marketplace. I'm not going to beat myself up about this, you have to start somewhere, it just came as a bit of a shock. I don't think I did very well and there were times when I deliberately tried to insulate myself from it. And that is patronising. I clearly didn't do it very well because I've been sick all week.

On the window of the hydrological office (more of a wee hut, really) I was working in there was a poster advertising a reward for the capture of the Bali bombers. There were pictures of the two bombmakers and pictures of the bloated heads of the suicide bombers. My colleague Tom descibed yesterday how and why the suicide bombers always leave behind an intact head. This resulted in my colleague Emily running from the office. And the Indonesians would cheerfully point out that the masterminds were Malay. In the same breath they would mock me for putting on insect repellant and tell me how much I could look forward to Avian flu.

When I came to leave Banjar, all of a sudden TPOW decided it needed to make up for lost time. It also decided it needed some reports done. About 6 copies of them. Then it needed engineering explained. Finally it declared it needed another report because it hadn't read the first one. This took about five hours and nearly resulted in violence.

Akok managed to negotiate the drive home and after four hours of delay in Singapore and sleeping pill induced sleep I made it home.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

High in the Sky

I'm posting this at 40,000 feet. Due to the wonders of wireless internet and Boeing and Singapore Airlines I can surf the web, sorry, work, while a 747 takes me to Singapore. And then on to Java tomorrow morning. This is pretty sweet.

Which is not entirely a good reflection on how I really am. I'm feeling rather drained emotionally and physically. I've been putting a lot out recently, some on other people, but mostly on myself. I think sometimes when I give it is done selfishly, that is I also give to my own ends, whether wittingly or unwittingly. As a consequence I think I give too much and then I resent it. It all becomes a bit unsustainable, really. I've been pondering this for some time now and have been rather useless in looking after myself. I need to become aware when I am burning myself out and I need to realise that there are times when I need to take energy in and that there are times when I need to leave well enough alone.

Right now I'd like to give the screaming child in front of me something. I'm not a nice person on long haul flights.

The way this flight is scheduled I'm landing at midnight UK time but in the morning Singapore time so I don't realy get a night so I best work now and then get some shuteye.

Au revoir from somewhere over the Middle East

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Higher Lower

Most of us have been in the situation where we know a fact and we want to demonstrate that knowledge by playing the game of higher-lower with a friend. On Saturday night as I walked through the streets of Hammersmith to see 'The Constant Gardener' I played that game with Jane. 'Jane', I said as we walked past a Starbucks, 'guess how many new Starbucks open every day.' 'In the world?' she asked. 'Yes'. She paused for a second and then said 'three'.

'Damn, yes' I replied instantly deflated.

Don't you hate that.

The Constant Gardener was fantastic. Lots of handheld camera action set in the slums and wilds of Africa, as well as the Eurostar platform at London Waterloo. Good tense conspiracy action for those of us who don't like big nasty multinationals.

Back to the higher-lower thing I'm trying to drink less. I don't drink a lot but I do drink often. So this week I am seeing if I can go with out. Aside from the instinctive purchase of a beer with my sunday lunch I haven't drunk since Friday night. I've been making it hard on myself by hanging out with Chris last night, and by arranging two meet at two different pubs tonight and then again tomorrow night and then by going to dinner with Rhys, Monica, Megan and Jane on Friday... Not to mention the free alcohol on tap on the Singapore Airlines flight on Saturday. My goal is not to cut it all out, but to not drink as a default activity when out and about. This is going to be tricky.

Java on Saturday....

Friday, November 11, 2005

Boom Boom

A man goes to a zoo. But when he gets there, all he sees is one dog.

It was a shitzu.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

My country needs me

There's an article on the Beeb website about New Zealanders being called home.

The article is here

But I'm choosing to use the get out clause vocalised by Jonathan Hunt:

New Zealand High Commissioner to the UK, Jonathan Hunt, says timing is key - expats must be ready to make the move, and some may need a little encouragement. "I say enjoy what you're doing, but don't fight when your own feelings tell you when it might be time to go back.

And I'm not ready yet.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Looking for meaning in song lyrics

So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet,
brother, and blow it,
If you've got a field, that don't yield,
well get up and hoe it.
(There She Goes, My Beautiful World - Nick Cave)

On the 3rd of November I quietly observed the fact that I have been in the United Kingdom now for four years. Crikey. Where does 40% of a decade go?? Now I qualify for the indefinite right to remain. I originally planned to be away from NZ for two years, and somehow I kept saying to myself "two more years", and after two years I was still saying that. I'm not sure I'm saying that anymore, and I get the feeling that with too much provocation I might end up taking SQ321 back to Singapore and then on to Auckland Airport. Yep, two more years might be a stretch. But... I reckon a year might not be out of the question as I will be able to to Charles Clark's citizenship test and nab a passport in a years time. When I originally quit NZ it was to see a bit of the world, but mostly to see my friends Sarah, Craig, and David, who had moved across in 2001 and 1999 respectively. Sarah, Craig and David have long since gone home, and I have seen them in NZ this year. Of my remaining kiwi friends in the UK, Rhys, Monica, Jane, Megan, Steph, Grace and Jane, Rhys and Mon are off home in about four weeks. I will miss them.

I spoke briefly with my friend Wendy the other day about community and about our commitment to it. Wendy's observation was that it is easy for people to move onto other things and places under the guise of 'it is what I need to do', but that very few people take the time to consider the effect that this will have on the people who are left behind. She figured that if you are a contributer to a community, be it a defineable one such as Hammer and Tongue, or a more intangible one such as my group of friends, then it is not simple to up and leave, but that you should consider the implications on that community. She also argued that the community should fight harder to keep them there. I'm not entirely sure what I think about this, especially since I am not the confrontational type, but I think it bears consideration.

Which is not to say that Rhys and Monica should stay, they go home with my blessing and love; this is more of a reflection of myself. The tricky thing about living abroad is that you invariably split your community and unless you can create this sort of solution, you're kinda screwed. And don't think that I haven't thought through the practicalities of such an enterprise.

And really I have to think long and hard about my movements. The scary thing is that I have a fair idea about what it will be that breaks the proverbial camels back and will result in me going home, and it's a reason that I have mocked a friend over in the past.


Last night I had dinner with my friends Sarah and Mike, who live up the street from me. At least I thought it was just the three of us. It turned out that there would also be four other people. And these four people just so happened to be single. Sigh... lovely people, one and all, but once I spotted this, and decided that it amused me rather than annoyed me, I resolved to do nothing about it. Funny that maybe because they were all a little bit older than me I felt I couldn't really relate to them. Felt a little bit out of my depth really. Odd experience.

I'm off to Indonesia in ten days for nine days. It's all work, I'm afraid, and I'm shitting myself a bit about it (don't really know the material I'm teaching). But I reckon I can wing it. Banjar is the destination. Should have some great material for blogging on my way back. Might get an ipod on the way home.

Have got tickets to the Go! Team next year. Chris (fellow GT junkie), Kate and hopefully Jane will join me. I've done a big thing and lent her my CD to convert her. The last time I lent it out Jon gave it back a year later.

Tonight out with Chris and Jim. Gonna watch the Daily Show and then find a pub.