Wednesday, November 30, 2005

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.

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