Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Keeping our heads while travelling

We headed north to the island of Madura. If you google "Madura" and go to the images, the first picture is of a man from Kalimantan holding the severed head of Madurese man. Rowan discovered this when she searched for pictures of the island.

Madura, and the Madurese, have a reputation of being rugged, a rough land where the men are quick with a knife.

However, we found the people to be amazingly friendly and helpful. We had some lengthy conversations despite the fact that we barely speak the language.

Although the island is a short ferry ride from Surabaya, we headed to the main city of Sumenep, which is over four hours inland by bus. Fortunately, we had air conditioning for the ride there.

We arrived at our hotel, which cost about $5 a night. After eating a late lunch, we went in search of a Chinese temple that was briefly mentioned in some of our travel literature. We could not find it, and none of the locals we asked had any idea what we were talking about.

So we rode a becak to a restaurant/cafe/karaoke place/gym/pool hall.(Our becak didn't look like this, but we didn't have to ride with ten other kids, either.)

We sipped some non-alcoholic drinks and shot some pool. (We had heard rumors that Madura is a dry island, and while alcohol is difficult to find, we did track some down the next evening.)

The following morning, my friend Ian and I checked out the sprawling local market. We got a mixed response: some people simply said, "Buy!" over and over again, some wanted to say hello and ask where we came from, and some wanted their pictures taken. We smiled and shook hands and spoke Indonesian poorly.

Some interesting things were for sale.Later in the day, we commissioned a van and went to two of the island's beaches. The weather was nice and the water was warm, and we had our pictures taken with piles of local kids.

After the beaches, we went to Kalianget, where we stayed in the best rooms in the only hotel in town for less than $4 a room.

That evening, we bought some beers at the local convenience store (an accident, really; we weren't actively looking for beer, but my beer-dar started going off like crazy when I entered the place) and then sat on the second-story balcony of the hotel and watched the rats run around in the courtyard below.

The next day, we took a big wooden motor-powered canoe across a small channel to a nearby island. We wandered into the village, and also looked at some of the utilitarian beaches the island had to offer.
Then, our friend Ian asked one of the becak drivers if he could pedal for awhile.We took a boat back to the bigger island, and then climbed on a crowded, A/C-less economy bus for the six-hour journey home. (We would have had to wait five hours for the better bus.)

It was slow and sweaty, but we made it back in one piece, our heads still firmly attached to our bodies.


For more pictures, visit:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Seeing life where we live

We stayed in town this past weekend. We have left town for many weekends in a row, and decided it was time to explore the homelands.

We hopped in a bemo (a cramped little van that serves as public transportation; it can get a person across town for 30 cents, as opposed to $5 in a taxi) and headed toward the so-called "Arab market," which is, of course, located right next to Chinatown.

We visited two markets: a small one selling some clothes and other items, as well as massive amounts of dates and golden raisins, which are somehow important to Islamic culture; and a sprawling market filled with spices and other food, most notably garlic.While Rowan was paying for some cinnamon sticks, an old woman tried to take the money out of her hand. We then had a small group of women following us for a little ways just repeating, "Money. Money. Money..."

Rowan and our friend Sinead also were groped and grabbed several times, always by women. I don't think they thought it was a pleasant experience.

After we walked out of the market, we wandered the neighborhood for awhile. The locals, when they noticed that I had a camera, would insist on posing for pictures.Also, the locals like saying any English they know, even if it is not contextually accurate. I was walking down a narrow street when a truck passed slowly by. A man leaned out the window, waved, and yelled, in a friendly manner, "Hello, Mister! Non-smoking!" He nodded happily and waved again. (I will point out that I was not smoking anything at that moment.)

I had some amusing little conversations with my small amount of Indonesian, though some people would just randomly answer with their little English. For example, I would say, "Apa kabar?" ("How's it going?") Sometimes the response would be, "Yes?"

And the entire day we heard, "Good morning!"

After the markets and the neighborhoods, we wanted to walk to the nearby cigarette factory. However, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the river, so we needed to take a boat across.Local price for the ferry is 500 rupiah. The first ferryman quoted us 5,000. This seemed a little absurd. We went to the next ferryman, who quoted 1,000. This seemed like a more reasonable foreigner markup.

The cigarette factory offers random art exhibits in partnership with the French Cultural Center. Currently, they have a photo exhibit on loan from France.We also took a brief look at the cigarette museum. I was surprised to find that Indonesia is only the fifth largest cigarette market in the world. Everyone here smokes constantly; I expected us to be higher. (In the 2008 rankings, WHO places us behind China, the US, Japan, and Russia.)

We then went for ice cream. Because Rowan loves ice cream. This was followed by a movie (Yes Man with Jim Carrey; it sucked, but movies are only $1.50 during the week and $2.50 on weekends here) and even more ice cream.

While we will never love Surabaya (it lacks good bars, comfortable cafes and coffee shops, and events such as concerts and art exhibitions), we are becoming more comfortable here. It was good to see another part of the city, and to get a feel for the ways of life. I don't feel that I can ever truly understand the people here or have a completely objective view of the culture, but I think it's important to expose myself to as many different aspects of the city as I can. We can't spend a year in a bubble; that would make this year almost worthless. So far, I feel like we are getting a lot out of the experience.


Chinese New Year is fast-approaching. We have no school on Monday because of the holiday. For the long weekend, we are heading to Madura, a somewhat large island just north of Surabaya across a narrow strait.

The Madurese are somewhat distinct culturally from the Javanese; they are known for bull races and their jamu, or herbal love potions. Madu is the word for honey, and some people say the island's name refers to the sweetness of the women.

Our travel guide offers minimal information about the island, so we will leave it behind and do things the way people did things before travel guides: by talking to people. This should be a good chance to practice and polish our Indonesian speaking skills.

Wish us luck.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rats and sinking ships

Above our windows, which for some reason are not screened and therefore offer no air flow, we have little ventilation gaps covered with screens. Yesterday, our roommate looked up and saw a rat in the vent-hole, face pushed against the screen, staring in at us. Perhaps this would have been a cute scene if the creature wasn't a rat. I grabbed the feather duster and bopped it in the nose about five times before it ran away.

Only afterward did it occur to me that I should have had Rowan videotape the proceedings. However, I do have this artist's rendering of the creature:

Over Christmas vacation, two of our coworkers were on a boat that sunk. They survived unscathed, but lost everything they had taken with them: laptop, iPods, cellphones, and most of their clothes. The company reimbursed them for their troubles to the tune of about $300 apiece.

Today, I came across the following article: "Why don't Indonesians know how to swim? Plus, why are their ferries always sinking?" Everyone except our parents should feel free to read the article.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The weekend, and other musings

A week back now, and life is settling into its familiar routine. We had initially intended to stay in town this weekend, but soon changed our minds and headed to Tretes, which I've heard described as a resort town.

While there were several hotels, it wasn't really a resort town, since the people seemed surprised to see tourists.

The town lies high in the hills, so the weather offers a coolness that is far different than Surabaya. Some of us packed sweatshirts, and we actually needed them.

This is the view from one of the terraces of our hotel.The hotel was only $10 a night per room. That price and the view made up for the amount of cockroaches roaming the premises. As Rowan said, at least none of them crawled into the bed.


When we had visited nearby Trawas several months back, our friend Dr. John informed us that Tretes has a relatively large Australian population, mostly because the Australians visit on vacation and eventually end up marrying their prostitutes.

We randomly met an older male coworker of ours in Tretes. (Rumor is that he also married a lady of the night. Surabaya is home to southeast Asia's largest red-light district, which draws many men seeking certain nocturnal activities.) He tried to get the men in our party to join him in his quest for women. "The girls are just 200 meters down the street," he said. "Come on, it will be educational."

I politely informed him that I wasn't interested in that sort of education.


During Christmas vacation, people spoke English almost everywhere we went. While there were occasional breakdowns in communication, things mostly went smoothly.

Back in East Java, though, communication is a little more difficult. However, I feel like I am picking up enough of the language to function a little more ably here.

At the hotel, I asked the staff how late they served food. They just stared at me. I then asked in Indonesian, and got an immediate answer. I felt victorious.

Later, my friend was not so successful. The hotel offered breakfast, including separate options of toast and jam, or eggs. I mused to my friend whether they could do toast and eggs.

When I found him later, he told me that he had asked and it was "no problem," according to the waiter. When his food arrived, he had only toast and jam.

I believe that humans are, mostly, communicative creatures, and I tend to get frustrated when communication breaks down. I wonder if we are just that poor at communicating in this strange world, or if there are broader cultural aspects at work. We've often lamented on the seeming inability of some of the people here to "think outside of the box." If we make any requests, no matter how reasonable they seem to us, we have no idea what to expect. But I don't want to label an entire group of people as uncreative.

We've learned not to expect anything to ever be done the way we expect. That way, when things do work, we feel elated. A strange way to think about the world? Perhaps. But it is what I do to keep my sanity. And I like my sanity.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Back in the big city

We are now back in Surabaya. We started teaching again this past Monday. Vacation was long, and great, but it's always a little difficult to get back into the flow of work. The week will drag a little, but then life should be back to normal. Or as normal as life gets here.

A couple highlights from the vacation:

We saw some amazing sunsets.We did some snorkeling.
We took in some culture and stuff.At one restaurant, we overheard an obnoxious Australian lady talk about how she was in Bali for the culture, such as the beaches and cheap massages. Yup, good old indigenous culture, that stuff is.

And, of course, there were the previously mentioned monkeys.

For more monkey pics, go to

For more vacation pics, go to