Time Traveling Laundry

And Other Tales of Bahasa Indonesia

"She is useless" - "He keeps beating me"

“So will the laundry be ready by tomorrow morning?” I asked. 

“Yes,” the woman answered, “or maybe yesterday.”

‘Yesterday?’ I thought. I wondered at her comment in my head, although my surprise must have also shown on my face. At our previous accommodations, laundry had come back the next day or even the same day. But this was something new – the phenomenal return time she proposed was a bit unbelievable.

Of course, it was just a language mix-up, one of many which we have grown accustomed to. Like all the other times, it was cleared up quickly. She had obviously meant ‘today’, which made more sense, although it was not as much fun as imagining our t-shirts and underwear traversing the fourth dimension.

Plenty of people in the small towns we’ve stayed in speak a little English, mainly thanks to the presence of other surfers and travelers like ourselves. But that wasn’t always enough to get by, so Paul has been working diligently to learn Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian language. I’ve picked up a few things too, since it’s not a terribly difficult language. But along the way we’ve discovered a number of similar sounding words that have very different meanings. For example:

Tiga (TEE-gah) – Three
Tidak (TEE-dah) – No


Bawah (BAH-wah) – Below
Bawang (BAH-wang) – Onion

Don't forget your bucket

Kelapa Luckily, we haven’t had many problems with those sets, and mixing them up wouldn’t be a big deal. But I discovered another pair that could result in some major confusion. Most small towns have a village head, the kepala desa, whom you would ask for if you needed to stay a night in town and there were no regular accommodations available. However, it would be bad to mix that up with kelapa, the word for coconut – you might find yourself asking for The Village Coconut. And before I looked up the exact meanings of each word, I worried that a mix-up could have you calling the chief The Head Coconut.

With problems like that, it is important to be able to say what you mean. Our guidebook was a good start – it helped us learn useful phrases like, “Where is the bathroom?” and, “I’d like to order the grilled goat, please.” But it is fairly limited, and when we are away from the vast resources of the internet, and we most often are, it frequently comes up short. It provided little aid in communicating truly important things, such as: “My room has bees,” or, “There are goats in your rice,” or, “Come quickly! The third monkey is back!”

The Third Monkey

Soft Values In our quest for a larger Indonesian vocabulary, multilingual product packaging has been fairly helpful, and often amusing as well. As with many languages, translating Indonesian into English is less of a science than an imprecise art, especially when attempted by those with a limited and fuzzy understanding of the real meanings and best uses of words. The intentions are sincere, but you end up with things like toilet paper that will bring your family ‘soft’ values, or sauce that provides ‘a delicious taste of food’.

Delicious Taste of Food While most labels are useful aids to communication, they can also be deceiving. The front of a package of margarine featured the word ‘serbaguna’, which we assumed to mean ‘margarine’. However, when Paul tried  to purchase more, repeating “Serbaguna, serbaguna!” only produced blank stares and a few chuckles from various food store staff. It was only after returning home without success that he had the time to research the word and find out that he had been insisting, “Multipurpose, multipurpose!” to the baffled locals.

Sometimes, no translation is necessary – the Indonesian words are entertaining by themselves. For example, the word for water is ‘air’, the word for hour is ‘jam’, and the word for for paint is ‘cat’. We’ve gotten used to some things like that, but it’s still a bit odd to consume beverages whose main ingredients include air. Despite that sort of confusing translation, there are plenty of cognates – words that sound similar in both languages. Es=ice, botol=bottle, and so forth. And most importantly, as this image of our feline friend demonstrates, the word for tea is teh.

Overall, learning Indonesian has been an entertaining process. From bees in our room (it was really a gigantic wasp-type thing) to time-traveling laundry, we’ve experienced the joys and the challenges of the age-old problem that is multi-lingual communication. I encourage you to try it some time, with a language of your choice. For now, this is The Village Coconut, signing out.

Teh Botol Lol

Third World Oven (2010-03-28)

“Jeremy, you may not sit in the fridge,” Paul’s sister instructed her son.

IMG_1174 We were spending the week in Yangon, Myanmar visiting my in-laws. Paul’s sister and her husband taught English locally. Their 2 year old daughter Rebecca had joined her older brother in his attempt to beat the sweltering heat in front of the fridge. It was the dry season, which also meant the hot season. I normally enjoy warm weather, but this was extreme – sit in the fridge extreme, to be exact.

Jeremy complied readily to his mother’s request, and accepted a drink as an alternative means to cool off, but it was clear that he was disappointed to move from his chosen spot. He was five years old (a fact he reminded us of several times a day) and had spent most of his life in Myanmar or neighboring Thailand. Yet throughout the week, he and Rebecca could be found at times sitting or standing in front of the open fridge door. They never remained there long, as some adult usually discovered them quickly and helped them with whatever they were looking for. But I don’t blame them for wanting that refreshing cold air.

Over the week, I got used to the heat, as much as was possible. It was still incredibly unbearable in the midday sun, which we avoided as much as possible. We spent most of our time relaxing around the apartment and playing with the kids. We read to them, played games, and tried our best to move around as little as possible. In the evenings the heat started to fade, and I began to enjoy waking up to cool mornings, which clocked in at a refreshing 83°F/30°C.

IMG_1333 A trip down the alleyways outside was quite an experience. Dust drifted past our ankles. Beads of sweet dripped down the small of our backs and brow. The street was narrow and the people and stalls around made the place feel close. Men walked swiftly past in long longyi (lone-gee) and loose flip flops. The streets were lined with carts of fruits and vegetables, or food that was cooked too long ago. Their purveyors hovered over them, listlessly shooing away flies with long brushes. The stalls sold dried goods or car parts, or they housed workers bent over sewing machines or offering haircuts. In one a man couched over some hulking car part with an arc welder. The bright point of light burnt a spot into your vision, and I didn’t envy the man wearing his heavy mask in the heat. We stepped aside as rickshaws rattled past over the mix of rutted gravel and pavement. Further down was a square with a cafe, the clients sitting outside on overturned buckets taking their lunch. The sun beat down overhead, as we sidestepped the raw sewage puddles blocking our path and stifling our breath.

Out on the large roads, crossing each street was a game of Frogger. Vehicles bear down on you with no intention of stopping as you hurry across busy lanes in one direction, pause on the middle line while traffic on both sides zooms past at full speed, then make the final dash to the far side. It’s all part of regular life in Myanmar – there are practically no tourists and no infrastructure for tourism. Twice during the week we saw other westerners in the stores, but overall our pale faces were unique among the city full of locals.

IMG_6567Despite the lack of official tourist destinations or activities, there were a few interesting things to see around the city, such as the Buddhist temple not far from the apartment. It was a massive city of white tiles and real gold decorations, with hundreds of large gold plated Buddha statues sitting or lying under high pagodas. Some of the statues even had fans above them to keep them cool. All visitors checked their shoes at the front, though luckily they were watched over so no “slumdogs” made off with them. We walked barefoot, avoiding the dark tiles that soaked up the rays of the sun, and savoring the cool shade of the pagodas. As we went Paul’s brother in-law explained to us some of the tenants and history of Buddhism, and its establishment in Myanmar. Still, we couldn’t help but be taken in by the sights and sounds that surrounded us. The air was filled with the sound of gongs being rung for good luck by the faithful or by mirthful children. Women and scarlet robed monks avoided physical contact as it could hinder the latter in reaching Nirvana.


We also visited a local park near the man-made Inya Lake. IMG_1182The park consisted of a small restaurant, play area, and garden, situated peacefully along the still lake, stirred neither by wind nor vessel.  Signs marked fallen trees that remained as evidence of the 2008 cyclone. It was a pleasant place to spend the hot part of the day, the water and vegetation caused a significant drop in temperature compared to the dusty, barren sidewalks around the rest of the city. We spent the late morning hours admiring the shrubberies and sculptures, or wandering amongst brightly colored dragonflies.


Brilliant colors were also the theme at the large restaurant we visited on a subsequent day. It was shaped like a huge gold temple pagoda and a boat, poised as if floating on another of Yangon’s lakes. The dinner buffet featured a generous and delicious sample of regional cuisine, along with a few foreign imports. Paul enjoyed the local liquor, a clear gin-like spirit, which was a fraction of the price of the imports. The entertainment went on over the noise of dinner. It included traditional instrumental music, Burmese dance, and very talented puppeteers. It went on for hours, starting before we arrived and was still going after most people left for the evening.

Everywhere there were signs of poverty. Cars and buildings suffered the wear and tear of the tropics with little attention to upkeep beyond maintaining basic functionality. Some places looked great inside, like the apartment we stayed in and some fancier stores, but all still suffered the daily afternoon power outages. No electricity IMG_1264meant no elevator and flashlights for the dark trip down the stairwell. Luckily, the power was always back whenever we were coming back up. The water pressure also dropped to nothing since the usual pulsing flow from the tap required electricity from both a main building pump and another in the apartment. Even at the somewhat fancy dinner show the power went out several times during the evening.

We embraced a bit the Burmese culture as much as possible during our short stay. We purchased and wore our own longyi, which helped us follow the sweltering style of dressing modestly. Our hosts introduced us to many delicious local dishes.

Between spending time with family and the vast differences in culture and weather, it was an interesting and enjoyable week.


No Shirt, No Shoes, No Worries (2010-03-18) – Part II

Continued From Part I

Jen on the steps of the St. Mary's CathedralThe next stop was St Mary’s Cathedral, which is the largest, although not tallest, cathedral in Australia. We didn’t intend to linger long – there’s only so much standing around and staring you can do in a place of worship without feeling intrusive. After admiring the sandstone architecture from the outside as much as possible, we slipped quietly into the dim sanctuary.

The atmosphere was hushed as we viewed colorful stained glass scenes and the grand roof, arched high above our heads. Sounds echoed up to it, and I had the urge to raise my voice in song to the vast resounding space. This is a common feeling I have in large cathedrals – there’s something about the beauty of the structure and the way the answering walls promise to be forgiving and love your voice back that makes it seem like I could and should produce a sound that would be lovely enough to add to and match well with the surroundings. However, I refrained from emitting more than a soft sigh of longing, as there were fervent worshipers in the pews whom I was loathe to interrupt. But to sing in a cathedral like that, just by myself, is on my list of things to accomplish in life (#52 to be exact); one day, I will enjoy that ultimate musical experience.

Amid our wanderings inside, I found an amazing painting that seemed out of place from the rest of the decorations. The stained glass and art on things like the Stations of the Cross were of an older style often found in Catholic cathedrals, which coordinated well with the building’s design. But there was one strikingly beautiful painting around a corner that really caught my eye. The modern, photorealistic style showed a simple, dark, desert background behind a beautiful girl smiling softly and holding a baby with intense dark eyes. They both had peaceful expressions – the infant was curious yet contemplative, and his mother showed a gentleness, and a willingness to be protective even through hard times. There were so many other feelings in that painting, many of them hard to express in words, but it brought more emotion to me than all of the other art in the whole building combined.

I would have liked to stand in front of that lovely image for a long time, but we had one last stop for the day: the Royal Botanic Gardens and The Domain. They were a combination of cultivated natural areas and gardens that spread over a peninsula on  the bay. It was a short walk from the city, and we were soon wandering on paths through grassy lawns and beneath a variety of trees. I am sadly lacking in botanical knowledge which would have given me greater appreciation of the multitudinous flora, but I still enjoyed the foliage as a whole.

Jen going barefoot in the Royal Botanic Gardens

The best part was a sign that I saw repeated throughout the grounds. It invited visitors to enjoy the area to its fullest, including walking barefoot in the grass and hugging the trees. This was all I needed to kick off my sandals from my tired feet and scrunch my toes into the soft grass. This was the vibe I had been looking for; everyone was barefoot at the beach, but this was in the city, a serious place of business that still had areas to be barefoot. It was important too that it wasn’t just something I liked and did that was tolerated – all people were *invited* to do it. This was the essence of the Australian spirit, the ‘No worries’ idea exemplified, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

A Cockatoo, not an uncommon sightThe rest on the time in the gardens was a pure pleasure; I’ve never liked shoes much  (or clothes for that matter), so wandering the paths and lawn spaces barefoot made all the difference. In addition to the well kept greenery, the birds were wonderfully fascinating. As we spotted different species along the paths, it appeared as though the entire exotic bird section of the local pet store had gotten loose in the trees. There were large white cockatoos, and parrots colored with the bright shades of a box of crayons. They were not, however, escapees from a tropical bird show; they were merely the common local wild birds. It was yet another thing in Australia’s favor, to have such interesting creatures as regular inhabitants.

There were plenty of other parts of the day,  interesting things that we saw and heard and learned and experienced, but that almost indescribable vibe was in all of them. Technically nothing magical or vastly unique happened – Sydney was a fairly average city, even if it felt like everyone was driving on the wrong side of the road. It was still nothing more than some big boats and a white wavy building, some grass between my toes, etc., but for me it was much more than that. You can say what you like about adding meaning where it doesn’t exist, but I think it was an example of gestaltAnother unique Australian bird at its finest; all of the objects and places and creatures and experiences were truly greater than the sum of their parts. I had come there to experience the vibe underneath it all, the normal and unadorned parts, to soak up the true feeling. And I am happy to report that the spirit that I found in Sydney that day, the one I had been warming up to Bondi and that filled me in Birubi, was wonderful and drew me in to soak up even more.

It was the laid-back ambience that I had always hoped for; a place with a bit of myself in it. Sydney, and all of Australia, are certainly unique, and while I could make some comparisons to other places, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the real thing. Australia has drawn me in with its own sort of ‘hug’ – one that invites you relax, kick off your shoes, and don’t worry. All I can say to that is, "Cheers mate!"

P.S. – If you’ve been wondering where the "No shirt" part comes in, well, I have to confess that it was mostly just representative of the relaxed attitude. But besides shirtless guys on the beach around Bondi, there’s actually a nude beach near one of the suburbs on the bay. That one you can go check out for yourself 😉

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Worries (2010-03-18) – Part I

The Dunes at Birubi, Seem to Stretch on Forever

Every place has a spirit to it; a vibe, a feeling that makes it definitively *there*, and not somewhere else. It can be a hard thing to put into words, much less define. A good friend once described New York City like a “freezing cold, smelly, filthy, warm hug”, but then said that it was perfect just like that. I couldn’t agree more – despite the negative (but accurate) parts of that description, I absolutely love it as much as my clever cohort does. If capturing a location’s spirit or vibe is difficult, then it can be even more challenging to explain why some places draw you, while others make you want to get the hell out of Dodge. NYC has many features that I usually don’t like, and yet it always feels wonderfully, indescribably right.

For me, Birubi (a beach 2 hrs north of Sydney) was the quintessential Australian adventure. We turned our jeep off-road between big rolling sand dunes onto a long white beach that was largely empty, save but a small handful of similar vehicles spread out into the distance. The only houses visible on the shore were far behind us and shrunk into the background as we cruised past the expanse of dunes until we found some waves that looked just right. There were no lifeguards to tell us to move out of the swimming area, no mass of surfers fighting for each wave or creating a slalom course by hanging obliviously in the path of the break. The water was perfect – cool and clear with broad areas of green and blue, and nothing but soft white sand below.

To top it all off, I caught a ride that just went on and on… I was just standing on the board watching the white sand and grassy dunes for ages. It wasn’t just surfing – it was Surfing. The rest of the session and the day went wonderfully too, but that experience—going out to that beach and getting that ride—that’s what Australian surfing is to me; that’s a big part of what Australia is to me.

And yet, this post is not officially about that awesome day, although I could happily go on at length about it. While the openness of the beach, and the experience of Surfing there certainly explain some of what made it all definitively Australia, there was much more to the Aussie experience. We arrived there with a good helping of ‘no worries’ already in our system, from the first two weeks of our overall Australian adventure. That iconic attitude was gently reinforced both from being in Bondi and, a little surprisingly, from Sydney as well.

A simple ferry ride was the start of our day around downtown. The route brought a classic scene into view – beyond the naval shipyard, the tall buildings of the city rose  shining in the golden sun toward a blue sky that arched over the famous opera house in the foreground and the bridge just to its side. The Abstract Imitation that is the Sydney Opera HouseThe juxtaposition of the imposing ships of war near the architecturally stunning opera house brought to mind the dichotomy of human progress. It is truly a marvel that we can construct such large and amazingly complex physical forms, and bestow upon them our endless creativity in the form of abstract imitation. Yet at the same time, we also craft such massive tools of destruction, capable of quickly obliterating ourselves along with the aesthetic wonders that we value so greatly and toil so diligently to produce. All that from a couple of boats and a white wavy building! It was easy to tell that it was going to be a big day.

Our first stop was Hyde Park. At the entrance was a fountain with four metal sculptures on it, depicting different figures from Greco-Roman mythology. The one directly in front of me, Artemis/Diana, caught my attention; there was something familiar about her pose, something I identified with. I’m not Greek by a long shot (try Polish/Russian) and I’m certainly no expert on art or mythology, but I stillThe Hyde Park Fountain, Diana on the Left, Jen on the Right felt a connection with her. She was a kindred spirit in which I could see one side of myself, the controlled wildness of a hunter. It was strength and power and beauty all contained in the directness of intense focus and patient intention. Looking at that statue was like watching a panther stalking its prey; that light in its eyes is what I felt with Artemis.

The park stretched down the long block and the broad walkway in the middle was lined with tall trees. The trunks reached up over four stories, with crowns of leaves on the high branches. Walking between them was like entering a natural grand hall. They were a refreshing sight, almost a hallowed space, although they barely hid the hustle and bustle of the city, and only lasted for one block. Each new section of the park we passed through was a bit different, and we enjoyed them all.

At the end, we started looking for some lunch. The place we had researched didn’t seem toMy 3x5 Bruise Developed an Evil Smiley Face exist, so we decided to wing it and walk around until we found just the right place – a little nice but not too fancy, a little bit local, but not too grungy and not fast food, with a good ambience too. This was quite a tall order, and it was made worse by the fact that we didn’t know the area and were getting tired. We had rushed several kilometers to reach the ferry on  time and my leg was hurting from the large hematoma I had received the day before from a wipeout with my surfboard. Every block seemed to drag on as we wandered nearly aimlessly in search of our elusive ideal.

Finally Kicking Back at the Café HernandezJust when we were about to settle for anything edible, we spotted some wide stone steps off of the kitschy thoroughfare we were on, going down towards a smaller street. “I would put a cafe down there,” Paul said, and I had to agree that it would make the perfect location, although after our otherwise fruitless search, it seemed too good to be true. But down we went, and there it was; Café Hernandez, quaint and picturesque, serving  simple European inspired cuisine. It was everything we had hoped for, and we could barely believe our luck as we finally relaxed at a shady outdoor table. Of the several small plates we ordered between us, everything was delicious and satisfying. In fact, the whole experience was quite satisfying, and with a second wind we happily departed our chance find.

To be continued… Part II