Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dedicated to the Muses

Although neither locale would be pleased to hear the comparison, Jakarta reminds me a lot of Delhi. Or at least what Delhi yearns to be – modern, clean, semi-efficient in that way that only developing countries seem to get away with. Even the ever-present graffiti seemed to the mold.

I attempted to walk down the tree lined street, bordered as it was with three lanes of traffic on the one lane road, but soon found myself confronted by that most un-Nairobi-like of obstacles – the heat. While it may be pleasantly “dewy” indoors, outside the sun bore down and left my skin slick with sweat. Not even pulling my hair into the world’s most unattractive bun helped slake the humidity from aura.

My goal yesterday was to visit the Museum Nasional, which I eventually arrived at 100,000 Rupiah poorer thanks to a taxi driver who decided to take me 12 km out of the way before turning back around in the correct direction. (Evidently I agreed to this, although I can’t recall doing so.) Not knowing the way around is one of the key reasons I hate taking taxis – as soon as they pick up the scent of “tourist” they always take the scenic route!

Lonely Planet boasted that the National Museum in Jakarta is one of the finest in all of Southeast Asia. And if you speak or read Indonesian it may well be. Since I don’t, and I missed the English tour in the morning, I can say it’s a fine a museum. I’m just not quite certain what everything was.

The best exhibit by far was the room with all of the ceremonial weapons. Sadly, it was in a photography forbidden zone or I would have taken dozens of photos of the beautiful daggers, spears, and other assorted accoutrement.

A Belgian woman I met (and spoke French with) urged me to see the beautiful (and also unphotographable) jewelry exhibit next door. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I greatly preferred the jeweled knives across the way to the frippery to be found amongst the golden rings and other such adornments.

On Hubby’s behalf, I took some note of the Batik exhibit. I found it interesting to see that for the most part, this ancient method of dying and printing fabric hasn’t changed much over the years. I even recognized a few of the print blocks from Hubby’s depressingly large collection of locally-made shirts.

But then who am I to complain? In this museum even the puppets wore batik!

A great deal of space, in more than one gallery, was taken up with musical instruments of various shapes and sizes. From my mother’s school bells to elaborate xylophones (for lack of a better term), a love of music seemed to be an important message throughout the museum. One of my favourites was a series of hanging gongs that could be played almost like a series of base drums.

Even the weapons exhibit boasted its own instruments. What I had perceived at first glance to be a scabbard or perhaps even a ceremonial scroll holder (because you can never have too many of those), turned out to be a flute. Once apprised of its purpose, the six evenly spaced holes did seem a poor addition to a container meant to keep important military documents safe and dry.

More than anything else, even pottery jars, there seemed to be surplus of stone carvings of every shape and size. Most seemed to be religious in nature with random decorative pieces thrown into the mix here and there. Few, unfortunately, were labeled in any language, which made guessing their purpose and history a fun game.

My favourite item, however, appeared to my Canadian sensibilities to be a canoe. Again, there was no signage that I could find whilst the guards were yelling at me and pointing at their watches – they were apparently annoyed that it was almost closing time and I was making them work.

Writing imagined histories is my favourite part of visiting any museum. I wonder what adventures were met in that boat. Was its great voyage to a nearby island to kidnap a local princess? Or perhaps a simple trading mission to obtain new musical instruments. Who knows?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

In Which Guilt Wins Over Pain

Last thing’s first – we are never, ever moving to Jakarta. I know what I said the other day, but that was before my feet turned into the local fly-through McDonalds for all of the bugs in Indonesia.

If it weren’t for my world-famous self-restraint, I would have hit bone days ago in my quest to rid myself of this persistent itch. As it is, I am walking around with my arms and feet drenched in Off and reeking to high heaven of bug repellant, all in the vain hope that the mosquitoes (and all their other Satan loving, Typ0 devouring, evil friends) will stop nipping at me. The other people in the house keep talking about the lack of mosquitoes and reveling in their itch-free existences.

I hate them all.

Of course, they’re not being eaten alive – I’m here to protect them! Why settle for a Hubby snack when you can feast upon the wondrously tasty treat known as Typ0?!

But I am no longer allowed to feel self-pitying about my itchy (and I mean itchy) state. You see, without meaning to, I did a very bad thing yesterday. And worse, I actually feel really badly about it.

Let me preface this tale by telling you a short story. You see, in both Delhi and Nairobi, the primary sport of most businesses (be they taxis, touts, or simple hawkers), is to “screw the white guy.” The game doesn’t change whether you are gora or mzungu – you will be overcharged, double charged, or shortchanged. This is all part of being a “rich” person in a “poor” country.

Like most good games, this one is played by two people. You know you’re being charged twice as much so you haggle good naturedly and only overpay by a little rather than by a lot. You both win since you both feel that you got something over on the person and you each look forward to the next round of tournament play.

That’s the game. And those are the rules. Only, no one told me that taxis in Jakarta didn’t know about or even play the game.

So yesterday I called a Blue Bird taxi to take me to meet Hubby et al for a cup of coffee. After waiting the requisite 30 minutes for the darned thing to show up, I hopped in and told the cabbie where I wanted to go.

Upon arrival at the café, the meter read 18,500 Rupiahs so I gave the driver 20,000R and considered it all good. “No! No! Must pay,” he pointed at a sign beside me on the door. “You call?”

The sign stated that anyone who called ahead for a cab had to pay a 25,000R minimum. My Mzungu Meter immediately went off. We had never been ordered to pay a minimum on any of the other taxis we had ordered during the week. I threw my shoulders back, pulled out my patented uber-bitch voice, and gently explained that this was not my first trip to the circus. “I take taxis everyday and I always order ahead. I have never had to pay a minimum. I will pay what is on the meter!”

We back and forthed for a few minutes while I tried to explain that I wasn’t a stupid foreigner he could trick and he tried to urge me to pay the extra 5000R (or 50 cents). In the end he admitted defeat and I exited from the taxi as the victor.

Only it turns out that I am a stupid (and as it turns out mean and untrusting) foreigner. When I regaled the awaiting crowd at the café, Canuck Girl explained gently that Jakarta wasn’t like that. In fact, she continued, Blue Bird is famous for the being honest with foreigners. The 25,000R charge was valid and I should have paid.

I felt (and still feel) beyond horrible. I honestly thought the taxi driver had been trying to fleece me but it turns out he was just doing his job. Can you say GUILT? *sob*

Wherever you are, Mr. Taksi guy, I’m really sorry. I didn’t know. But that doesn’t excuse my bad manners. Sorry.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Turning the Page

Two years ago, when I first moved to Kenya, I made a commitment to myself – a literary commitment. I felt that if I were to truly understand what it meant to live in an African country then I had to do my homework.

I made a pact with myself to read at least one book a month (fiction or non-fiction) about Africa or by an African author. Initially, I tried to narrow my scope to Kenya but quickly realized that my somewhat voracious reading habit would not be satisfied by such constraints. My subsequent selections took me from pre-Apartheid South Africa through Mugabe’s torturous reign in Zimbabwe, to white Kenya’s checkered past and the battle for the souls of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.

I have kept more or less to my resolution and during those months where finding time to read was difficult, I made up for lapses by reading an extra “theme” approved book the following month. Since I usually read my fair share of books each month, my challenge simply expanded my literary horizons to a genre with which I am now obsessed.

Curiously, I have recently discovered that my small reading convention has taken on a wider audience. The “African Reading Challenge” has provoked hundreds of readers around the world to do what I’ve been doing – travel Africa through literature. Despite inadvertently participating for the last two years, I haven’t joined the Challenge but would like to recommend some of my favourite applicable titles.

Keep in mind, that as a temporary Kenyan, I allowed at least some of my choices to be determined by geography. So in no order in particular I would like to recommend:

A Long Way Gone – Ismael Beah (Sierra Leone)
Last King of Scotland – Giles Foden (Uganda)
White Mischief – James Fox (Kenya)
Facing Mount Kenya – Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya)
House of Stone – Chistina Lamb (Zimbabwe)
Swahili for the Broken Hearted – Peter Malone (trans-continental)
Where We Have Hope – Andrew Meldrum (Zimbabwe)
God’s Bits of Wood – Sembene Ousmane (Senegal)
Emma’s War – Deborah Scroggins (Sudan)
The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith (Botswana)

Early next month, I will continue my real-life African adventure and move to Cairo. Because of this impending move, I decided to focus my reading on a part of Africa I had not yet read about in my literary journey – Egypt – and the Islamic world in general.

This morning, I finished the first of my initial selections – “The Yacoubian Building.” Written by the man who will soon (I’m told) become my dentist, Alaa Al Aswany, the book tells the tale of the residents of the titular block of flats. From the troubled son of the doorman to the numerous rich businessmen with libido issues, the characters are drawn vividly and sympathetically, urging the reader to discover the twisted roots at the base of the Yacoubian Building.

The building, we are told, actually exists in Cairo exactly where the author placed it; so too do the conflicting and intersecting worlds of Western values and excess and Islamic traditions and fundamentalism. These different faces of Cairo live together not only in the author’s early 1990’s Egypt but also inside the Yacoubian Building and on its roof where the majority of the people who call the building home live.

My follow-up book, which Hubby picked up as a surprise, has thus far proven to be magnificently interesting. “Nine Parts of Desire” by Geraldine Brooks explores the outwardly silent world of Muslim women. Only a few chapters in and I can already say with conviction that it is definitely in the running for my top ten “Best Reads of the Year.” The current reigning number one is Reading “Lolita in Tehran” which I have recommended and happily gushed about ad nausem to any and all who will listen.

So what does any of this mean? Am I recommending that you join my reading safari through Africa? Perhaps – if that’s where your books take you. More importantly, I urge you to discover your own backyard or immediate universe through the books it has inspired. You never know – you may even find new heroes to exalt or new dreams to chase.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Big Straw

From the little bit I’ve seen of it, life in Jakarta would be terribly difficult – delivery McDonalds, malls filled with nothing but cafes and free Internet, and wine bars with incredible food and even better vintages. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m well aware that this is not how most Indonesians spend the their days but for an expat wife on vacation it wasn’t a bad first day.

Hubby, as you may know, is in Jakarta completing his final business trip for the Organization. And since leaving me behind in Nairobi wasn’t an option (that I was willing to discuss), Hubby said I could tag along. Thanks to the Organization, which is too cheap to pay for a hotel when something free is around, we are currently staying in the home of one of Hubby’s colleagues. For the most part, this is actually rather nice since we are living in a local neighbourhood and the home is tastefully decorated in traditional Indonesian style. On the downside, we are also situated uncomfortably close to a mosque and the morning call to prayer may soon be the morning call to the police if I can find the guy who “sings” the prayer off-key in apparent glee at waking up his “non-believing” neighbours. I realize that this is simply good practice for living in Cairo but (and this may come as a shock to those of you who thought you knew me well) I’m not a morning person and being jarred from my slumber prior to the crack of dawn is not my idea of a good time.

But news from the Indonesian island of Java isn’t all bad – after spending less than 48 hours here, I am tempted to tell Hubby that he may happily apply for a job and move us here when our time in Cairo is done. Despite my continued status as every insect’s favourite three-course meal, I have rather enjoyed the dewy heat and remarkably friendly people we’ve met here.

This being the developing world, however, not everything works quite as well as one might hope. Case in point is the taxi we called yesterday at 11:15 a.m. to take us to meet Hubby’s colleague, Coola. We finally gave up on the taxi at 2:00 p.m. and decided that despite what the dispatcher kept promising, no car was going to show up “in ten” minutes. Luckily, Coola was able to pick us up in his car to take us to one of the local malls, Citos, where we were amazed at the sheer number of cafes that one structure could support.

From our seat at Excelso, I counted no less than six cafes (including the one we were in) in my line of sight. And that didn’t even include the Starbucks I knew to be a few shops down the way. And it is here that today’s blog really begins.
Our local host, Coola, recommended that we enjoy a “siphon” coffee at his favourite café. As I’m not much of a coffee drinker, I optioned for a chocolate chip frapachino instead. Sadly, this meant that I could only be an observing bystander to the performance art portion of our meal.

After an exhaustingly long wait, our drinks finally arrived. In front of Hubby and Coola were placed two Bunsen burners and a glass contraption with water in the lower bubble and coffee grinds in the top. When the flame below the water was finally set alight, all non-coffee conversation ceased as we immediately sensed that something cool was about to occur.

Slowly, the water began to boil and through the grace of magic (Coola’s words, not mine) the water and steam rose into the second bubble and began to make coffee. After a few minutes we assumed the coffee was made when the top bubble filled with the dark elixir – but we were wrong. Suddenly, the coffee fell back into the bottom bubble. At this juncture, our waitress took the pieces of glass apart and poured Hubby his first cup of siphon-made coffee, which he declared to be quite lovely independent of the cool science show we had just witnessed.

By the way, my frappachino was good too. I even got a really big straw with which to drink said coffee beverage. The lesson here, my friends, is that sometimes you get to be part of drinkable performance art and sometimes you get the big straw. It’s up to you to decide which is better.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

It's Birthday Time!

Happy birthday to my big brother, BBS!!
You're old!!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Kwaheri Kenya

This will be my last post from Kenya. In a few hours, I will be boarding a plane that will mark the official end of our lives here in Nairobi. They say that you never really leave Kenya: that she will always be in your blood – Kenya becomes part of your soul. And it’s true. Even as I prepare to heft my bags downstairs into an awaiting taxi, I know that I will always carry a piece of Kenya with me.

As some of you may know, I will be spending the next week in Indonesia as Hubby has one last business trip to complete for the Organization. While I am excited about a trip to a new country I have never visited before, I am even more excited about a new job that will keep Hubby in town instead of traveling all over Africa and Asia without me.

After Jakarta (Hubby doesn’t love me enough to take me to Bali) I will be spending a few days in Dubai before we head back to North America for a few weeks with both of our families. After emptying out all of the shops in both Toronto and the Midwest, we will fly to Egypt before heading to a weeklong conference in South Africa. While this means postcards for some of you, most of you are probably shaking your heads at the silence you think awaits you here at Wandering the World.

I am well aware that I do not have the best track record when it comes to blogging from abroad but I am going to try to post at least once a week (hopefully more!) while we are away. So please check back regularly so that you can witness my metamorphosis from Nairobi Typ0 into Cairo Typ0. There will also be stories about my business class flight on Emirates to Toronto (go air miles!), my BIL’s new triplets, the battle between the H-Buck and the TypoZelle, and of course you can be there for the beginning of our new lives in Egypt.

This entry is not a goodbye – WtW will continue as it always has no matter where we call home. Nor is it a farewell to Kenya as I will be back to see the many friends we have made here. Expat life has taught me that home is where the heart and your suitcase are - and part of my heart will always be in Kenya.

Kwaheri for now Kenya. I’ll be seeing you again soon!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Truth in Advertising

I can't believe how well the guys at xkcd know me.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Weighing In

On Sunday, Hubby and I handed over the keys to our flat, paid all of our final bills, and are now once again officially homeless. Our portable lives have been stuffed into various suitcases and we are counting the passing of time not by phases of the moon but by our access to laundry facilities.

The worst part about carrying our lives around is the fights that it causes. I have brought slightly less than two weeks worth of clothing, one stuffed animal, toiletries, and a few books. Hubby has brought a month worth of clothes, several tonnes of papers (Hubby edit: one notebook) that he simply cannot live without, dozens (Hubby edit: six) of books, two stuffed animals, and a bunch of “stuff” (Hubby edit: read, our bills, taxes, birth certificates, etc.) that really could have gone in one of the shipments (Hubby edit: Yeah, right). Other expats will understand my frustration and are likely already nodding in sympathy. For those of you who live near malls and modern conveniences, allow me to elaborate.

You see, when we go home we do pretty much one thing: shop. We buy a year’s supply of new clothes, deodorant, shampoo, books, and anything else we think we may need whilst we wait for our next trip home. All of these things – new and old – must then be stuffed into suitcases and carry-ons and flown to our new home. And the one truism of home leave is that suitcases that arrived in North America empty will always be overweight on the flight home.

Normally, this wouldn’t be too bad since we like to fly on airlines that love us and give us an excess baggage allowance. (We love you Emirates!) Our trip home to Egypt, however, will take a slightly less happy route – three flights from the US to Cairo all of which are on airlines that don’t think we’re cute and will charge us obscene fees when they see our bulging bags.

So when I gripe that Hubby is over-packing, I’m not simply being selfish and thinking about my future shopping trips which he kindly curtailed by bringing thirty dress shirts and fourteen pairs of pants (Hubby edit: I don’t own that many clothes period!). I’m also thinking about all of the money we will have to pay because of those extra items that are really just taking up space that my new things could have used! See, not selfish at all!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Happy Canada Day!!

Happy 141st birthday to my home and native land!!

And happy 41st anniversary to my lovely parents too!
See you soon!!