I hope this finds you all sangat baik. I’ve recovered from the chicken feet and am finding it particularly amusing that in the past week two new ceker ayam vendors have popped up on my street.
I hope you enjoy my second piece. Still no blog but to tell the truth I’m enjoying just tapping away in Word!
Much love to everyone,
About a month before departure I emailed my counterpart (who didn’t turn out to be my counterpart – a regular occurrence apparently) enquiring about work appropriate clothing. “Our office ‘business clothing’ theme is ‘not too formal and casual’,” replied Retzy Azizah. “Oh, you better bring your sport shoes because we always have a morning exercise every Friday. It starts at 7am and all of the staffs join.” Brilliant! ‘Staffs exercise’. This is going to be hilarious, I grinned, picturing old Bapaks and Ibus in gym gear, the women wearing ‘sports jilbab’, shuffling languorously to terrible techno. I smiled at a sweet memory of strolling along the esplanade in Pondicherry in the south eastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu; a top spot for watching big wobbly Indian women in saris and sneakers a la Bend it Like Beckham, out for their daily constitutional by the Bay of Bengal.
I was staying on kampus the morning of my first staffs exercise. I was woken at 6:12 by Indonesian power ballads blasting from the carpark. If you’ve got a sound system you might as well use it, right? I wandered down just before 7. Only a handful of staff were gathered in front of the steps leading up to PPPPTK IPA, SEAMEO QITEP in Science’s host organisation. PPPPTK IPA stands for Prima Pengembangan dan Pemberdayaan Pendidik dan Tenaga Kependidikan llmu Pengetahuan Alam, or Prima Development and Empowerment of Teachers and Education Personnel in Natural Sciences. I’ve been here over a fortnight and I’m still confused.
At the top of the stairs a curvy little instructor in black top and cargo pants adorned with metres of fluoro green straps clutched a microphone. Right on 7 the power ballads switched to an intriguing mix of Indian, Indonesian and Middle Eastern instruments and vocals with ‘90s techno backing. It wasn’t bad! The moves were somewhat akin to Les Mills’ Body Attack; high knees, star jumps, uppercuts and lunges. I went hard from the get go, but after 15 minutes or so realised that unlike in Oz where the sessions are split into tracks, this was one continuous mix. The humidity was heavy and I was swiftly saturated, sweat trickling through my headband into my eyes as I wondered what the word for ‘beetroot’ was in Bahasa. I was the beetroot bule!
By this stage the carpark was filled with about 50 staff, and while those up the back were indeed shuffling languidly and chatting quietly, there was one remarkably agile old man up front with more bounce in his steps, depth in his lunges and height in his jumps than anyone! After particularly vigourous combos he’d shout “Ha!” or “Hoi!” or “Ho!” which other men would echo. His high kicks were incredible! I nearly lost it though when the Indonesian vocals switched to Bahasa Inggris and “Put your fucking hands up! Put your fucking hands up! Put your fucking hands up!” roared forth. No one flinched.
After 30 minutes of ‘Orientechno’ the tempo dropped and the moves became unnervingly erotic; a slow, sultry mix of belly dance and salsa, all gyrating torsos and twisting hips. The Ha! Hoi! Hos! reduced to soft sniggers. The instructor had her back to us almost the entire time, accentuating her sensuality. I never expected staffs exercise to get so sexy. I snuck a peek at the Paks and Ibus behind me; swaggering moustachioed men and sashaying women in jilbabs, twirling fingers and thrusting pelvises. I was relieved when it was over as I was dying to race upstairs and collapse in a heap of cackles. This was not to be, however. The moment the music stopped everyone assembled in straight lines. I was ushered to the front. The instructor passed the mic to Pak Sediono Abdullah, Director of PPPPTK IPA. I figured it’d be a quick wrap of the work week, a few news items. But this was not to be, either. After 20 minutes of deep, rumbling Basa Sunda and Bahasa Indonesia of which I barely understood a word, I heard “dari Australi” and realised why I’d been ushered to the front. Sweat was still trickling into my eyes when Pak Sediano beckoned me to join him. Excellent, I thought, wiping sweat from my upper lip; exactly the get up I had in mind for my first speech in Bahasa.
Naturally it was one of those scenarios where the moment you’re in the spotlight you forget everything you know. I struggled to understand Pak Sudiano’s rapidly rolling words but did catch “Berapa lama akan Anda tinggal sini?” How long will you be here? “Sepuluh tahun,” I replied, which was met with shrieks of laughter. Ack! “Bulan, bulan! Sepuluh bulan!” I corrected, now even redder than before. “Ten years,” was my first reply. Ha! The staff’s gleeful reaction to my Bahasa blunder blew all my beetroot bule and language barrier blues away, and I descended the stairs laughing with them.
Finally it was over. One of my colleagues said with a smile, “Now we get a snack.” I was wondering why everyone was racing towards the back of the carpark. Wiping my face with my sweatband I sidled up slowly as people swarmed around two silver trays. White bread with margarine and chocolate sprinkles. Of course!