Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Heavy suitcase, light heart

Found this blogpost that I wrote exactly three years ago today, the first day I landed in Vietnam. I took the photo at the coffee shop I was in then. It went on to become "my place" in Saigon.

I have often paid excess baggage. It is impossible for me to go somewhere without six pairs of shoes and three bags. A profusion of other accessories. Laptop, two phones, external hard drive and all their attendant paraphernalia. Extra adaptors, back-up headphones, 57 pens (all but the worst one get lost in the ride to the airport), skincare for various parts of the body and times of day, specialist hair care. All of this is somehow doubled on the way back.

But in my head, I travel light. I carry no pre-conceptions, bring no personal agenda. I leave self-destructive habits and personal existential angst at home. I need about a week to pack the smallest suitcase but my mind is travel-ready in about fifteen minutes.

So when people tell me I am brave to come out to a strange country at short notice, I don’t know how to be sufficiently modest – to be effectively self-deprecating, you have to believe the compliment is true. The truth is you don’t need a lot of courage to get on a plane that’s been booked for you, be met by a hotel that’s been pre-arranged for you and work in an office exactly like all the others you’ve known. Within an hour of landing – in the middle of a long weekend –I got a call from my new boss’s PA, asking if everything was okay. It was.

Yes there’s a language to get familiar with, there are cultural idiosyncrasies that you have to recognise and accept. Even more important, you need to be able to separate those from personal behavioural traits. You need to find out where things are and how they get done. It’s not hard to do, it comes to you in the course of living every day. And it will come to me here too, in this unexpected, wonderfully exuberant city that I never knew existed till a few hours ago.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

After three months in Jakarta

It’s hard to get a grip on Jakarta; there’s too much of it. Its not easy to reach around from point A to point B, or any other points – it’s often not clear which is which. Even the food is hard to pin down and understand. Perhaps this is how people feel when they move to India – you sense there is more to the cuisine than the familiar names in restaurant menus, but you have no quick way of getting to the bottom of this. Jakarta is a very big city, with so many levels of life that you spend your first month or so just being overwhelmed. So much so that you give up trying to get your bearings and just take it an hour at a time. But this is the only way to do it – you don’t assimilate, Jakarta absorbs you as you are. One hour at a time.

I had my first inkling of this three weeks ago when yet another flood enlivened my evening commute – I didn’t even look up at the main arteries turned to canals, let alone switch on my phone camera; I simply discussed an alternative route with the taxi driver, and then carried on reading my mail. It wasn’t until I got home that I registered that I was able to contribute to that discussion. Somehow I’d been oriented and inducted into which roads were likely to be dry, which sheet of water would be shallow enough to drive through. 

Indonesian people are unfailingly good-natured and quite philosophical about the hundreds of little daily privationsLike in Vietnam, the priorities are right – it’s family, friends, food, getting together as often as you can, the nurturing of relationships of all kindsThe closeness of client-agency relationships is unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. (My expat client and I are slowly but surely moving to this highly social model, both of us sensing that greater things can be built on this base than the more formal kind). As in all places where you can’t take anything for granted, the strongest, most efficient infrastructure is your network.

76 active volcanoes are strung along the length of Indonesia. Not a day goes by without some activity in one of them – this is no more worthy of headlines than the biblical rain that can pour with little warning out of a clear blue sky.  Alert levels rise and fall, magma ebbs and flows, and life goes on, exhaling and inhaling with the earth itself. Perhaps it's the largeness of that spirit that flows through the Indonesian approach to life.

It hasn’t been too long since I left Vietnam, do... Well, actually it's almost a year but it feels like I left last month. So much has happened so fast that there are days when my taxi arrives somewhere and I alight with a silent nod because my mind is cycling through "cam on", "terima  kasi", "shukran", "xiexie", "thank you", and is not able to select the right one. Anyway, as I was saying, it feels like I just left Vietnam so I’ve thought I was too bruised to appreciate something new. But I was wrong.

Now, as I wait in Singapore for a visa change, I feel that same surge of wonder and gratitude at the way my life twists and turns, and keeps flowing ever onwards along scenic routesMost of all, I find with pleased surprise that I am impatient to get back home.

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