Days Gone Bayah (2010-05-06)

“You wear sarong. It’s good.” a middle aged Indonesian man said to me as I walked down the path to the beach in Sawarna. A day later we would meet Pa Ma’ani again at our homestay there. It turned out he was an English teacher at a high school in the nearby town of Bayah (pronounced bye-ah in case you couldn’t tell from the bad pun in the title), as well as at a private school he ran out of his home. We spent a long time talking to him about our trip and our backgrounds, and he told us about his students and school. That week while we were staying in Sawarna we made two trips by ojek to Bayah to talk to students. We also agreed to come back a few weeks later to stay at Ma’ani’s home.

Paul Taking a Nap With The Kucing

Two weeks later we were bouncing down the rutted and potholed road from Bayah to the city of Serang, five hours to the North-West. There were seven of us stuffed in to the Unsera Universitas SUV: Ma’ani; Pa Irwan, who was part of the faculty at Unsera, and who had become our guide/translator; Pa Malik, the Dean of Social Politics and our host; our driver; and a young boy who lived in Serang and was hitching a ride. The day before we had visited SMA Bayah to speak at the opening of an English speech competition, and I had unfortunately come down with my first illness of the trip with severe stomach cramps, so I was more than a little wiped out. Apparently corruption in the region has caused the roads in the area to be left in total disrepair, and we regularly have to swerve left and right to find a passable way, or slow to a crawl as we pitch and roll in and out of man sized divots. But was have many interesting conversations, about the language, the school, local politics, and differences between Indonesia and America.

A Parade Through Serang Once in Serang we went to the home of Pa Malik, where we would spend the night. After a delicious dinner of goat satay with peanut sauce and stir fried vegetables we went for a walk and ended up taking a Bemo over to the university. There we met with some students who were setting up for the opening ceremony of their “English Day Club” which we were to speak at the next day. It was with some chagrin we discovered our names had been put on the banner for the ceremony. Apparently our visit, was a big deal for the students. The students were a very interesting group of people, from many backgrounds, and with varying English ability. Some were from Serang, and some were from other parts of Western Java. Some spoke nearly fluently, others were shy and didn’t say much, although we thought they were all very talented, especially considering English is a third if not forth language for many of them. Finally we went back to Pa Malik’s for a dessert of pisang goreng, showers and bed.

Unsera English Day Club The next day is a bit of a blur; we went to two ceremonies at two different schools where we spoke with students. At the opening ceremony for the English Day Club there was a very involved and amusing skit performed by the students. There were musical performances, including an impromptu performance by Jen of Let It Be, and finally a short question and answer session. A good time was had by all, and we was very impressed at the length to which the students went to put the ceremony together.

Next we went to an Islamic university that was working to improve their English program. There we spent some time speaking with some of the faculty, and then had an involved interview and question and answer session with the faculty and students. There we received some more interesting and thoughtful questions about America and our culture and education.

Overall, our spur-of-the-moment journey as either ambassadors of the English language, or oddities from overseas on display (I’m not sure which), was a great experience. We met many fascinating Indonesian youths and teachers. We had many interesting conversations; sometimes the same one, ten or twenty times with different students. And we learned a lot about Indonesian culture, while at the same time hopefully creating a good impression of ours.

These are the kind of experiences that make traveling so worth while. The kind you don’t expect and never know quite what they’ll look like until you’re in the midst of them.

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