Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vacation Nightmare in Indonesia - Part 3

I headed to the north part of Bali with a view to escaping the noise, dirt, and hawkers to a black sand beach area with the promise of a possible dolphin watching trip.  The journey through the Bali started off by going through all the dirty and polluted areas but once we got into the forests in the central mountains the views started to become rather beautiful and I was treated to seeing a huge number of monkeys on the side of the road.  The monkeys were sitting on the road, playing around on the barriers and swinging through the trees, producing quite a unique experience.  The mountains were also a lot cooler making the journey far more pleasant than the first part of the trip.

I was heading to a place called Lovina beach, when I got there I checked into some accomodation and was amazed by what I got, a massive room with two beds for about 5 pounds a night.  I thought it was too good to be true and it turned out that it was.  Such a big place was easily accessed by a number of creatures, the most troublesome being the mosquitos, and I was hammered by them the first night.  More welcome guests were the Geckos.  They were the biggest I had ever seen and very colourful, fascinating little animals.  The problem with them, however, is that when I woke up in the morning I could see piles of their excrement all over the floor and sometimes on my bed.  The main problem with the room, though, were the beds, they had horrible mattresses that were uncomfortable and made me extremely hot.  The combination of an uncomfortable bed, a hot room, piles of poo, and mosquitoes made my two nights there far less pleasant than I had hoped.

I also discovered after booking the room that the trips to see the dolphins were all cancelled due to rough seas and my hotel was miles away from anywhere, the staff offered to give me a lift to the main part of town, but it was expensive.  This is what I discovered all over Bali; accomodation was cheap but transport wasn't especially taxis.  Something I knew all too well about a few days before, as I had to take a taxi from my first hostel to another over the other side of town. 

I made sure I got a reputable company that used a meter but this still didn't help me.  I was informed previously that the taxi drivers in Bali have no idea where anything is (one would have thought knowing your way around is a essential trait of a taxi driver), so I made sure I printed two maps with an address and telephone number.  I got in the taxi, told him the hostel name, which he didn't know.  I then showed him a map, which he worryingly squinted at moving it towards his eyes and then further away trying to focus (one would have thought good eye-sight is another essential trait of a taxi driver).  I told him it was near a Toyota garage on one of the main roads through Bali and he seemed to know it and we were on our way.  When we got near the vicinity of the place he was confused and asked me if it was the first or the second Toyota garage.  I showed him the map again, he pulled the car over, squinted again at the map and said that maybe it was further up.  I had an instinct that we had gone too far and told him to go back.  We passed the first Toyota garage again (there was no second) and he still didn't know where the hostel was.  He pulled over and looked at the map again and said he couldn't see well, so I asked him whether he had glasses, to which he responded with a eureka moment and pulled out a pair from the glove compartment, my blood was beginning to boil.  He then asked me, 'Do you know the area?'  To which I replied, 'strangely, no, I am not from Bali and I'm not a taxi driver.'  He then asked me to call the hostel, but I had no phone for Indonesia.  He then tried to use his phone, which was out of credit and didn't work.  I was starting to lose it with the guy as the meter ticked steadily higher, I sensed that he was not deliberately trying to swindle me, he was just incompetent.  I decided to take over all navigation issues completely and eventually we found the place, no thanks to my useless taxi driver.

With the knowledge of the uslessness of the taxi drivers and the expense of them fresh in my mind I decided to walk the 6 or 7 kilometres into town.  This was fine, but was hot, dusty, and dirty.  I eventually found my way to the beach front and the volcanic black sand made for a uniquely beautiful scene.  As I was enjoying the view I was approached by a woman who started a friendly conversation, asking me where I was from and why I was here.  Upon hearing that I was on vacation from South Korea she said that her daughter knew all the words to loads of Korean K-Pop songs, and generally she seemed a nice lady.  Unfortunately though, she was just another hawker.  She showed me to her merchandise and this time I was a little interested as she had done a particularly good job at buttering me up.  I lost interest as soon as she quoted her prices though, which she was reluctant to do and wanted to hear what I wanted to pay.  She wanted about 20 pounds for a head scarf, but the price soon dropped to 5 pounds.  At this point she lost me, as her original charm turned to pushiness.  By the time I had decided that I couldn't really justify spending much money anyway the price had dropped to just 1 pound, one-twentieth of the original asking price and she was chasing me down the street. 

With nothing else to do, I decided to head back to Java early and wait for a few days in Surabaya for my flight and not spend any more money.  After another horrible bus journey, which this time I dressed in warmer clothes for, only to find that they didn't use the air-conditioning this time and was unbearably hot for the whole trip, I arrived in the middle of the night in Surabaya.  Fortunately, I found an honest taxi driver, this was somewhat miraculous as I have learned that when money is involved in anything in Indonesia finding one is akin to finding an honest man in parliarment.  The taxi driver did have some difficulty finding the hostel though, but found it eventually. 

The hostel was great and served up a hearty breakfast as well as the accomodation for just 6 pounds a night.  I met some interesting people at the hostel, which included a very nice American couple doing a around the world trip as part of their honeymoon and a rock climbling, perpetual traveller, who had already been travelling for 3 years and was not planning on stopping any time soon.

I had been really hot for days starting with the uncomfortably hot hotel in Lovina beach and Surabaya was no better.  Their was a gym not far away (apparently) so I decided to walk there and do a workout as I had some time to kill.  What I didn't realise was all those itches I had on my body that I thought were from mosquito bites from Lovina were actually the beginnings of heat rash.  After I had walked two kilometres to the gym and done a workout I discovered, to my horror in the shower mirror, that I had raised red blotches all over my body.  All the dust, dirt, heat, and sweating had blocked my pores causing the rash.  I spent the next two days inside the hostel having cold showers every hour or so and drying myself by standing naked in front of a fan.  Going outside in the oppressive heat was out of the question.

Finally, it was time to go home and I wondered whether anything else was going to go wrong, I really did just want to be home to Korea and see my wife, but Indonesia had one more nasty surprise up its sleeve.

I arrived extremely early for my flight as I was so keen to leave, but they didn't start checking in until about an hour before, much to my annoyance.  When I got to the check in desk, the man checking in got in some confusion about my Korean visa.  On my visa is has a part that says, 'Final entry date.'  This is 3 months after I applied for the visa in England and is the last date I can enter the country for the FIRST time, the visa itself, however, is a one year visa, which it clearly states.  So confused with this and not willing to take my word for it, he called his supervisor.  She didn't believe me either and started making a bit of a fuss about it. 

What I couldn't understand it that I could enter Korea as a tourist even if my visa was out of date, but they wouldn't accept this either.  Numerous calls to Airasia officials in Kuala Lumpur and 45 minutes later they were saying that I could not board the flight.  I was having a serious panic at this point, as the stubborn and ignorant woman was explaining to me that I would have to apply for another Korean visa from Indonesia and apply for an extension of my Indonesia tourist visa also.  I also had to be back to work the next week as well of being truly sick of Indonesia. 

10 minutes to go until the flight was supposed to leave and I was in a back room of the airport pleading my case with this dumbass woman, who I increasingly felt was also being dishonest with me.  She then categorically stated that I would not be getting on the flight, to which I shouted and screamed in massive frustration.  Showing her my Korean alien card made no difference, as she said the date on it could be almost anything, and not necessarily the validity of it, as she couldn't read Korean.

I was now slumped in front of customs 5 minutes after the flight was supposed to leave and holding my head in my hands, this was a nightmare.  In the depths of despair, however, I was thrown a life-line.  The flight was being held up for a Korean woman and her daughter, who was half-Korean and half-Indonesian, because of problems with their baggage.  Her daughter spoke perfect English and Indonesian.  I explained my situation to them and they explained the alien card and the visa to the horrible Airasia woman, who then brought all of us to a backroom again to make more phone calls.  It was impossible for her to be dishonest about the situation now as I had Indonesian speakers with me, and with a quick phone call and more help from the Korean mother and daughter, I was back on the flight.

It was now 25 minutes after the scheduled flight time so we ran through customs and to the departure gate and hastily boarded the airplane.  I thanked the two of them again and again, and I think they were quite amused with what a state I was in, I just wanted to be out of Indonesia and I was so relieved to be on the flight.  They would later inform me that if I had offered the Airasia woman some money she probably would have let me on the flight.  They said, 'This is Indonesia!'

It took me a good hour to calm down on the flight, as my blood pressure must have been soaring through the roof.  I began reflecting on what had been a terrible vacation, relaxing it certainly wasn't but I did experience some real culture both at the volunteer camp and in general.  One of the things to realise about experiencing a different culture, however, as I have learned in Korea, is that you are not always going to like it.  Indonesia's culture, I had discovered, was not to my liking at all.  I had been educated but now I was happy to be escaping my nightmare vacation in Indonesia.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Vacation Nightmare in Indonesia Part 2

I had left the conservation centre, and to their credit they did make sure that I was safely booked into a hostel in Malang.  I now had to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of the trip.  I had two weeks without much of a plan, except for one place that I wanted to go and that was Mt Bromo, which was part of a string of volcanoes not far from Malang. 

Before visiting Mt Bromo, I decided to explore Malang city with a couple of fellow Westerners from the hostel I was staying at, one from Germany and the other from Switzerland.  The place was pretty grim and was also a place I didn't fancy walking around very much at night.  During the day, all day, it was incredibly busy.  Mototrbikes were everywhere and the noise pollution and the actual pollution, along with the general filth of the place and the heat made the general atmosphere oppressive and uncomfortable. 

The one plus point about the place was that it was extremely cheap and a person could easily have breakfast, lunch, and dinner for about 2 or 3 pounds a day.  All you had to do was stand your ground when the locals would, not so subtly, try and rip you off.  At dinner in one restaurant, I was handed a menu that had prices on and ordered from it.  When it came to pay, the cashier tried to charge us five times what it said on the menu.  When I pointed at the menu he pointed at the most expensive dish on the menu and said that we ordered five of these.  In possibly the worst attempt at a swindle ever, I explained to him that there were only three of us and that there were only three plates on the table, and even if we had ordered what he said we did the total he calculated was still too expensive.  I gave him the look of a professional tight-arse and I think he realised that I was not going to budge and agreed to the amount I wanted to pay.  This wasn't a one-off, every single time a monetary transaction was made there was confusion over the bill.  They either charged too much, didn't have any change, gave the wrong change, or didn't know how much to charge.  Believe me when I write this, it was EVERY TIME I paid without fail.  After one day I had had enough but I still had two more weeks of this.

It is an interesting state of affairs when upon doing a little sightseeing around a city you simply can't bring yourself to take any pictures, this was the situation in Malang.  Most of it was so disgusting and horrible I couldn't bring myself to take the camera out of the bag.  I wished I had taken pictures of the animal market we visited just so it could help to explain the absolute horror of the place.  Animals of almost every kind were packed into small cages to be sold as pets or meat.  All of the animals were miserable and visibly suffering, and some even looked diseased and on the brink of death.  The animals included; many kinds of tropical birds, bats, owls, insects, dogs, cats, lizards, snakes, goats, several kinds of rodents, and the odd monkey.  The scene was distressing, I just couldn't take a picture of it, I didn't want to appear like an interested tourist.

Everywhere you went you could see a cage at someone's front door with a beautiful tropical bird in it.  So beautiful a creature in a tiny cage, I was dumbfounded as to what the owners got out of it.  Why did they keep animals like this, why not just let them go?  Did it make such a big difference to their lives?

Even in such a dire and seemingly poor city, there were the usual signs of big business; KFC, McDonalds, numerous car garages and shopping malls.  But walk a block or two in any direction and you could see the city slums not too far away and usually sitting beside the river.  You could normally smell them before you saw them, and I shudder to think just what was flushed into the river everyday.  Despite what inevitably ended up in the river, you could still see people washing themselves and their clothes in it.  What a way to live, and a real eye-opener of just how fortunate we all are.  No wonder everyone was trying to rip me off if they had to go home to that everyday.

Above: A slum area of Malang, quite a flattering picture, but I can assure you it wasn't good.
Another little bonus about Malang was that the hostel I stayed at was great, cheap, and with a nice breakfast every morning.  I also managed to arrange a trip to Mt Bromo with some others from the hostel, which inevitably there was some confusion about paying for, but all in all the trip was probably the only success story of the whole trip to Indonesia.  Mt Bromo was amazing and I was incredibly lucky on the day, as it was the wet season and had rained a lot on previous days.  The views of the volcanoes were extraordinary and we ended the trip with a visit to a waterfall near the volcanoes about an hour away, which was incredible, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie and my pictures didn't do it justice.  Another huge bonus of the trip is that the volcano was not busy with tourists and no one at all was at the waterfall, it felt like an untouched wonder of the world, just what I was looking for.

The area around Mt Bromo was so vast it was truly awe-inspiring and the climb up to one of the craters was made harder by the fact it was standing at about 3000 metres, just high enough to feel the effects of the altitude.

At the base of two of the volcanoes was a hindu temple, quite possibly one of the most precarious of buildings, as Mt Semeru, the highest and most active of the volcanoes, erupted volcanic ash regularly.  This could be seen as the steps up to the crater were dug out shortly before we arrived a few weeks earlier after they had been buried in 6 feet of ash.

There were hawkers present as usual, but they couldn't spoil anything for me and I was fit enough not to require a donkey ride or anything.  However, we were running late and on the way back we decided to catch a lift with some of the scooter riders who were offering their services, for a price, back to our driver, who was waiting for us lower down.

To fit in the trip to Mt Bromo in the best possible weather we had to leave the hostel at 1am.  Because of this we were shattered when we had finished looking around the volcanoes but I was determined to still go to the waterfall as I was told it was so beautiful.  Sure enough, even after about an hour hiking along a stream through the jungle, it didn't disappoint.

 The whole trip was awesome, it was a combination of an alien-like world at the top where the volcanoes were, harsh jungle, and beautiful scenery.  I had made the right decision to leave the conservation centre and I still had the wonders of Bali to come, as this was next on my list of places to visit.  Bali, however, was to prove a huge disappointment.

To get to Bali I had to suffer a 15 hour bus trip along some of the worst roads imaginable and with drivers worse than those even in South Korea (hard to believe, but true).  I had already been introduced to the horrors of driving in Indonesia when I was in the frontseat on the drive to Mt Bromo the day previous.  It was best just to close your eyes and try and forget about what was going on in front of you on the road, so I tried to get some sleep on the bus.  Unfortunately, the Indonesians had other ideas.  Immediately upon entering the bus I was greeted with thunderous and terrible music blasted out over the speakers.  After half an hour they switched this off to play something on the TV, 'great' I thought, thinking that it might be a western movie as they appeared popular in Indonesia.  It wasn't, but they did play the loudest, most obnoxious, irritating, and unfunny Indonesian comedy, which at regular intervals included a high-pitched squeal of a laugh by one of its main characters.  Impossible to sleep through.  It seemed as if there was a plan to keep everyone awake until a particular time and then everyone would sleep at the same time.  I wouldn't put this past them, as it was quite clear by the noise pumped out through the speakers in the towns and villages that everyone had to wake up at 4 in the morning to pray, regardless of if they were Muslim or wanted to or not.  To make things worse I had worn minimal clothing anticipating a hot and sticky bus trip, however the bus driver turned the air conditioning on full blast the whole journey.  Even for someone like me, who is always hot, it was like travelling in a fridge.  The poor German girl next to me was curled up with about 4 layers on and was still cold.  My seat was also broken and wouldn't stay in its upright position but constantly slid back into the fully reclined position.  15 hours of sitting like this did nothing for my back, which was shot to pieces by the end.

On arrival in Bali, we were immediately pestered by taxi drivers with 5 or 6 of them shouting prices at us upon leaving the bus.  After 15 hours of freezing cold and an uncomfortable seat I was really not in the mood for this.  I did eventually decide on a driver at a reasonable price and finally got to our hostel and had the usual confusion paying at the end.  The hostel was great, with very clean and comfortable dorms and I went to sleep immediately and woke later in the afternoon looking forward to a stroll along the beach.

I was told directions to the beach, 10 minutes away so I thought I'd watch the sunset and relax.  I found my way to the beach, but relaxing and beautiful it wasn't.  There was trash everywhere, it was dirty and disgusting (better beaches could be found anywhere in England).  In fact this was not just confined to the beach, the whole island was dirty, smelly and disgusting.  I didn't want to stay in this area for very long, but before I left I went on a trip to see some monkeys and go to a famous hindu temple by the sea.  The temple was nothing special, but for some strange reason lots of Indonesian people wanted to take photos with me.  One girl even went cheek to cheek with me, resting her chin on my shoulder and hugging me posing for a photo, just as well my wife wasn't there, she might have punched her in the face.  I must have had 7 or 8 requests for photos, it was as if I reminded them of a movie star or something.  The excursion to the monkey forest was much more enjoyable, however, as the monkeys were charming and surprisingly well behaved, as I did hear some horror stories of them stealing people's sunglasses and cameras but they were very nice with me.

There was another thing really bothering me about Bali, Hawkers.  They were everywhere trying to sell you all sorts of exactly the same naff things.  I moved out of the nice hostel and relocated to another part of the island to see if matters would improve.  They didn't.  It was just as dirty over the other side of the island, but at least I found a nice beach front.  I took a stroll along it for a few kilometres one day, I could see many more expensive hotels just set back from the beach with a lot of beach-side restaurants.  It was all quite pleasant and peaceful but for the constant annoyance from the hawkers.  'Foot massage, sir?' 'Pedicure, sir?' 'Snorkelling?' 'Kite?' 'T-shirt?' 'Radio-controlled car?' 'Sunglasses?' 'Pirate kite?'  The list of things went on and on, I couldn't walk for two minutes without being pestered by someone.  It was all cheap tat too, nothing worth buying and if I did want to buy something I had to go through all of the hassle of bartering them down from a stupidly over-inflated price because of the fact I had white skin.  I just couldn't be bothered with it.  Sometimes people would come along and seem like they wanted just a friendly conversation with me, asking some questions about where I was from and why I came to Bali.  This happened on many occasions and I gave all of them the benefit of the doubt that they were just being curious and friendly, so had a conversation with them.  Every single one of them used the friendliness to try and blackmail me into buying some of their rubbish, however, which was very depressing after a while.  I had gotten used to Korean people coming up to me and talking, but they do it with genuine interest in you and a desire to be friendly and welcoming.  This was something I took for granted living in Korea and now because of my experiences talking with Indonesian people I have much more time and affection for people that do take an interest in me in Korea and I make sure I chat with them a little more and show a little patience.

I noticed a couple getting married on the beach, with some traditional Indonesian style dancing going on to celebrate it, which I suppose was quite nice.  I think they were a British couple, I didn't hear them speak but they just looked British.  The groom was a normal looking guy and quite slim, his bride would not have looked out of place lying on the beach with a colony of elephant seals I was watching on the TV a couple of hours beforehand, she was huge.  I Felt sorry for the guy, terrible place to get married and with a whale of a wife.  Though it made me feel better about myself and my miserable vacation.

Bali was such a disappointment, I had even lost enthusiasm to do anything at all.  I had planned on doing a dive or two there, but reasoned that it would probably be as disappointing as everything else was and decided to save my money.  I needed to get out of the busy, smelly streets and get away from the hawkers and go somewhere peaceful so I headed north, which was also on my way back to Java, where I needed to go to get my flight back home.  Things, however, continued to take a turn for the worse.

Final part next week.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

My Vacation Nightmare in Indonesia Part 1

When you think of popular holiday destinations in Asia, the most popular these days seems to be in parts of South-East Asia; Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Bali, and maybe India also.  In the two years that I had been living in Korea teaching previously, I had only visited Japan outside of Korea. It was harder to get away in those days as I had no vacation time from my private school.  So this time around with the opportunity to travel during my vacation from school, I wanted to sample some of South East Asia.  I decided on going to Indonesia, but my experience has left me in doubt on whether I should travel to any other countries in this region again, as I left with a profound dislike of the place.

I am not an average traveler, I don't like to relax; I don't like beaches, sipping on cocktails, and lazing around by the pool.  I like exercise, adventure, nature, and culture.  In the past I had completed two fantastic volunteer trips in Nicaragua in Central America and Fiji, which were amazing,  and not wishing to be too cliche, almost life-changing experiences.  Having fond memories of these two experiences I decided to volunteer again, this time in Java, Indonesia.  My job was to help educate visitors and to help maintain a conservation centre in the foothills of mountains outside of a city called Malang.  I was to live in a local village in pretty basic conditions, which I had no problem with because I had done it all before.  It all sounded quite idyllic and was a real chance to get up close and personal with genuine Javanese people, and was a world away from any tourism.  Even before I had left for Indonesia, I could sense that I may have some problems.

Two weeks to go until arrival in Java, everything was looking good and I had even prepared some material for teaching people when I got there.  I had one niggling little doubt in my mind, and this was that I assumed that everyone I would be teaching could speak English, maybe they couldn't?  But I thought to myself that the organisation wouldn't be encouraging English speaking volunteers to go there unless they could use us for something.  I e-mailed the project leader just in case, and he replied that none of the people we were supposed to be educating were going to be able to speak English.  My prepared material went into the shredder, and I began to think, 'how the hell am I going to be able to teach them anything?'  One week to go and now my two day weekends off from volunteer work had turned into Sundays off only.  Disturbing my plans to visit places on the weekend.  No problem I thought, because volunteer working itself was so good before that I didn't require an extra day off, and maybe I would just finish a little early instead.

A day before travelling to Indonesia I had, rather stupidly, arranged to run a marathon in Yeosu, a city near me in South Korea.  It was a very hilly marathon too, which was a real test, but I completed it and felt a little less guilty of taking 3 weeks off exercising in Indonesia.  The only problem was that I was horribly sore for travel the next day.  I had 30 hours of travelling to do until I finally got to my destination, and after the first 7 hour flight while waiting in Malaysia I was noticing how worryingly swollen my ankles were, and I could hardly walk.  This is an extra worry for me as I am slightly paranoid about long haul flights as I have had problems, inherited from my parents, with varicose veins.  This means that my circulation is not as it should be in my lower legs, making me more prone to developing DVT's (Deep Vein Thrombosis).  Swollen ankles can be a warning sign of this, so I basically crossed my fingers and hoped it was down to the marathon the previous day.

Once I finally arrived at the conservation centre, I was ready for bed and hoped for a good long sleep.  At 3.30 in the morning the first of the many unwelcome surprises to come shook me out of my slubber.  Indonesia is mainly a Muslim country, and indeed the most populated one in the world.  I knew this but did not realise what this meant in practice, and nothing was mentioned on the organisation's website.  At an unearthly hour every morning (about 3.30am) there was to be a call to prayer.  This wasn't a private matter, where people would wake up themselves and pray in silence, but the prayer was pumped out of large speakers across every village and usually lasted about an hour.  There really was no sleeping through it, and it went on for so long that it kept me awake once it woke me up.  I was incredibly tired.

Below: This is the village I stayed at in the mountains as seen from the conservation centre.

The internet site of the volunteer organisation that I went with made it sound as though volunteers came in and out all the time and that I would be part of a team of foreign workers at the centre.  On arrival, I ended up being just one of two people from overseas among a myriad of local workers.  Immediately, I noticed that the majority of these workers did literally nothing all day.  They pretty much just sat around all day, and occasionally did a pointless and menial task.  In fact, I noticed this at the airport in Java (Surabaya) as well.  There were 5 people working in a tiny convenience store, all doing nothing, and this was the same for every store, restaurant, and cafe in the airport.  All this made me wonder how busy I was going to be for the next three weeks.

Below:  The spectacular view from our conservation centre of Malang city and the very active and smoking Mt Semeru volcano in the distance.

Day one, and after my unexpected very early morning wake-up call I was due to meet the volunteer supervisor at 9.30.  An hour later and he was still not there.  This would be a sign of things to come as by the end of my stay at the conservation centre I had developed the art of twiddling my thumbs to a whole new level.  The time did, however, afford me a chance to drink lots of the coffee which they produced at the site, with fresh coffee beans roasted each day by the Kitchen staff, who were probably the only people who did anything on the site.  This was the one and only good thing about the place; fresh, strong, and unbelievably good Javanese coffee everyday, and was probably the only reason I could keep my eyes open for the first few days.  When the supervisor did finally arrive, he told us that some school children would be coming the next day, and later in the afternoon he would brief me on what he wanted me to do.  We had a little chat and after ten minutes the morning meeting was over, which at least gave me the chance to change some money and buy some snacks in the city about 45 minutes away.  The only problem was that everytime I needed to go to the city (which was frequently as their promised internet connection at the centre was non-existent), I needed their help to drive me.  As genuine and picturesque our location was, we were up in the mountains and miles away from anywhere, this made for a prison-like feel to where I was staying.

Left: The back of our house.

Below/left: Our kitchen/bike garage.

The next day and the real tribulations began.  A whole school of 12 year olds and we were told they didn't understand a word of English.  My other foreign co-worker and I were told to run a couple of games for them and it became clear that the conservation centre was much more about stupid games than any real education about the environment.  In a day lasting an unimaginable 12 hours of 'work' I took a game for ten minutes and then spent the rest of my time watching helplessly not knowing what on earth was going on as the entire dialogue was in Indonesian.  During the ten minute game it was also noticable that most of the children could in fact speak English, something that our Indonesian supervisors and co-workers failed to mention.  At least we could ask the children what the hell was going on, and we did on many occasions.

The following day was another marathon, this time 14 hours long on a field trip to a local river in the mountains and was more of the same, but at least we could have a chat to the kids, which was nice.  Apparently K-Pop is very popular in Indonesia and many of the girl students were fans of 'Girls Generation' and a few other famous K-Pop groups.  They were interested in us and asked many questions and conversation flowed until they asked me what religion I followed.  When I answered that I don't believe in any god and have no religion, they all fell silent.  I would later learn that in Indonesia a person cannot be registered as an atheist or agnostic and must choose a religion, usually Islam, Hindu, or Christian.  It was, in fact, illegal to be an atheist.  After I returned from Indonesia, a man hit the news worldwide for being beaten and then jailed for posting that he didn't believe in god on his facebook page.  He currently still resides in jail for this 'offense.'

With nothing to do at work and nothing after work either, after a week I had just about enough and decided to leave the programme, it was driving me insane.  The one day of enjoyment was on our Sunday off where we hiked to a spectacular waterfall deep in the jungle, but every other day was like pulling teeth.  I made arrangements to be dropped into Malang, the closest city, and arranged a hostel to stay at.  The only problem was that I had budgeted to stay at the conservation centre for 3 weeks, which was very cheap, but now I had to find accomodation, entertainment, and food on a very tight budget.  There was the other factor of Indonesian dishonesty, disorganisation, and dirtiness to cope with, which was on display wherever I turned my head.  I was now on my own and I would have to watch my back, my wallet, and my health for the next two weeks and see if I could salvage something positive from the trip.

Part 2 next week.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Top 5 Awkward Situations in Korea

The cultures of the Far East and West are so different that you can find yourself in awkward situations on a daily basis, but since I first came to Korea there have been a few that have stood out the most:

1. Scuba Diving in Yeosu Harbour

I was visiting a festival in Yeosu for the day with an American friend, visiting different tents along the harbour with different themes, and there was also a battleship in dock.  I noticed that one of the tents was about diving, which is an activity I have done before and have a great interest in.  As I approached somebody called my name from inside the stall, it was a Korean man I had played a game of squash with in a tournament a week or two earlier.  He asked me if I dived and when I said yes, he invited me to join him on a dive the next day.  I was delighted to accept the invitation as I had been wanting to do another dive for a while.  Something didn't feel quite right about it, however, and for some strange reason I was a little suspicious.

I showed up the next day and he lent me a wetsuit, but the festival was still going on and I wandered where we would dive.  After a delay of one hour, I put on all my gear and walked through a crowd of about 200-300 people all staring at me, asuming I was making my way to a boat.  The man in front of me then pulled his mask infront of his face and jumped into the harbour!  This is where I was to dive.  To make things worse it had rained the day before, which made the dirty, murky water even worse.  I jumped in after him and before we went under I had to carry a banner around with him, swimming around the harbour with hundreds of Koreans taking pictures of us.  When we finally went under matters got worse as the visibility was actaully zero, I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face and therefore had no idea of my depth and how quickly I was descending and more importantly how quickly I came up.  Needless to say, I didn't see much and after the dive the man said sorry and he said he would contact me again for a better dive.   I never heard from him and I was very glad about that.  I left with the distinct impression I had just been used as a publicity stunt for their diving company.

2. My Boss Collapsing and Fitting on the Floor

My second job in Korea was hastily arranged as I needed to come back quickly to be with my wife.  I didn't get enough information about the school and got a bit of a stinker with a very strange boss.  Apart from being a horrible man to work for because he couldn't speak a word of English, was paranoid, unscrupulous, devious, stupid, and creepy, he was also quite ill with a bit of a mysterious illness.  He had an annoying habit of keeping all the doors open in the school (Hagwon) to make sure the teachers were doing their jobs properly.  This backfired on him disasterously one day, however, as he promptly collapsed in the middle of the school, in full view of all the students and teachers, and started having convulsions on the floor.  An ambulance was called and he was taken away on a strange upright stretcher, which he was tied into, a bit like Hannibal Lecter.  He would later explain that he had eaten some dodgy sushi earlier that day, but I believe it was down to his long term mysterious illness.  The kids were shocked and concerned.  I, on the other hand, was quite relieved to be rid of him for a couple of days.  Sounds heartless, I know, but he was truly one of the slimiest, most horrible men I have ever had the misfortune of meeting, and especially having as a boss.

3. Meeting the In-Laws for the First Time

This was my the first time I ever saw them, and my now wife's father didn't know we were seeing each other, her mother guessed that we might be but wasn't sure.  I met my wife's mother first in a restaurant and immediately she tried to give me lots to drink to try and make me drunk.  I would later learn that this is a bit of a test to see a daughter's boyfriend's character when they are drunk.  After an hour or so they both persuaded me to go to a Karaoke room with them to sing some songs.  At this point I wasn't drunk but they were.  To my horror when we arrived my wife's mother invited my wife's father to join us doing Karaoke.  I was required to sing some songs and even dance with them, which was horribly uncomfortable.  While I was singing 'Let It Be' my wife asked her father what he thought of me.  His reply was that he liked me but that if I was a boyfriend he would kill me.  To make matters worse this was less than two weeks into our relationship, I was wondering what the hell I was getting myself in for.

4. The Worst Christmas Eve Ever

If you had read my previous blog on being negative in Korea, you might remember I had a rather disasterous start to my Korean experience and it took a while to meet people and make friends.  On Christmas Eve in my first year I was still short on buddies but I did have a Korean friend who had helped me out a couple of times.  It happened to be his birthday and he invited me out for a few drinks.  Even though I was a little uncomfortable with the guy, I thought I owed him at least showing up for his birthday and thought that there would be some others around too.  When I got there he was with a friend and two girls, one of which was his girlfriend, all Korean.  I said hi, and wished him a happy birthday and bought him a drink.  He finished his drink quickly and after 5 minutes was getting ready to leave, saying he was going home.  He then whispered into my ear that he was going to say goodbye to his friend and escort the girls to a taxi and then come back after 10 minutes, but not to tell his girlfriend because she thought he was going home too.  So he did as he said and came back with two other girls, both of which were his students.  He whispered again in my ear which one he liked and I could 'have' the other one.  Having never met them before and at the time I spoke not one word of Korean, it wasn't the ideal situation.  He made us all go to a bar and do drinking games doing 'hug shots' with the girls, who looked just as uncomfortable with the situation as me.  After a couple of hours I had enough of it all and the girls did too and was glad of returning home and not onto Karaoke as I was predicting.  I was definitly missing my usual Christmas Eve night out with friends back home.

5. The Shampoo Gift Set

These days, I don't play hardly any squash in Korea.  It used to be quite a large part of my life and in my first couple of years here I tried to continue playing, at least a little bit.  I showed up to my local squash club one day and there was a tournament going on and only one court free.  There was no one to play as the players I usually had games with were playing in the tournament, so I practiced on my own.  A middle-aged Korean gentlemen saw me playing on my own and asked if I wanted a game, to which I agreed.  He was not too bad a player, but I had to tone down my game to make a game of it, something he obviously appreciated.  After the game he looked delighted with me and thanked me, and then promptly disappeared for ten minutes.  I had wondered where he had gone, but he came back while I was stretching and presented me with a gift, wrapped in red paper with a pink bow and then disappeared again.  I opened the gift in the changing rooms and discovered it was two large bottles of shampoo.  A peculiar present at any time and especially after a game of squash and made even more odd by the fact that at the time my hair was shaved short (number 2 on the clippers) so shampoo wasn't much of a necessity for me.  Still, it's the thought that counts.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Morals in the West - An Eastern Perspective (The Wando Incident)

In my last blog post I was pretty scathing on the standard of morals in this part of the world.  But in the light of recent events here in Korea, I thought I had better balance the books a little and criticize the moral behaviour of people from Western countries.

Last weekend there was a big beach party in Wando, an island in Jeollanamdo, South West Korea.  I did not attend, as that sort of thing is not really my cup of tea, but news of it reached every foreign teacher in the region via facebook messages and a very angry regional foreign teacher coordinator via e-mail.  What transpired was that at least some of the revellers disturbed local residents in a number of ways, which included; too much noise late at night, drunken behaviour, topless women (in a very conservative country, as our coordinator put it 'classy'), rubbish left on the beach, and the worst of all the vandalism of a locked public toilet.  The toilet was locked because there was no plumbing to it and therefore no water.  Apparently, many party goers decided to relieve themselves anyway (number 1's and 2's), including in the sinks as well as the waterless toilets.  I was told by a responsible visitor to the beach that weekend that the toilet smelt like death the following morning and I dread to think what the sight and smell must have been like on the inside.

This kind of behaviour is, of course, despicable in any country, but especially in a country that is not your own and a country that you know is conservative in nature and already a little suspicious of foreign people.  It boggles the mind that so many people can be so irresponsible, disrespectful, uncultured, and stupid.  As a result of this behaviour, one of the more beautiful parts of Korea is in effect closed to foreign visitors for the time being.  Local residents have had enough and have decided to not serve foreign people in restaurants, maybe not even allow them on the beach full stop, and generally be as unwelcoming as they can.  There were, undoubtedly, some responsible people at the beach that weekend that cleaned up and tried to be respectful, my criticism is not aimed at those who responsibly enjoy a drink or two.

What is even more galling is not that these people should have known better, but that they are supposed to be teachers too.  Every Korean person must know that almost every non-Korean they see is an English teacher in Korea, and when they see behaviour such as this they must wonder why they send their children to school to be taught English by a bunch of irresponsible hooligans.

Such incidents are not that common in Korea, because the country is not particularly geared for tourism, it is mainly teaching that attracts foreign people.  However, in other countries this kind of behaviour is a common practice, especially in places like Thailand, where full moon parties have become infamous.  What a crazy situation this has become, that people go all the way to Thailand to get hammered, something they could do just as well back home.  They aren't interested in the culture of countries, the history, the people, and must have little interest in the countriy's natural beauty also as they appear set on ruining it.  What does it tell you about our culture that such 'booze cruises' are so popular?  I wonder sometimes whether all the drinking pushes out their brain cells.

When I thought about it all a little more deeply, however, an incident such as the one in Wando should never come as a surprise.  Unfortunately, it is now a large part of Western culture.  I used to think it was a problem especially unique to my own country (the UK), but coming to Korea has shown me that Americans, Canadians, Australians, Irish, South Africans, and New Zealanders can be just as bad.

I will always remember my last night in England before leaving for South Korea the first time.  My cricket buddies and I were delayed on getting into Colchester Town centre (my hometown) from our cricket club because of a taxi no show, so we arrived at about 12 o'clock.  Walking down the high street of the town was a very grim scene indeed; people swearing at each other, people fighting, various puddles of vomit on the street, smashed windows, people so drunk they could hardly stand, and broken glass and rubbish everywhere.  I had not drunk that much so I was able to soberly reflect on all the carnage that was going on around me.  I was happy to be leaving.

Perhaps, in many respects, I am lucky.  My body has always rejected alcohol before I can become out of control and I usually feel like death for it, and because of this I have never really understood why people do such terrible things when they are drunk and drinking alcohol is a rare thing for me anyway.  Maybe, if I had a stronger constitution, I would have fallen into the same kind of behaviour.

In Western countries, it has become so easy to fall into the Friday and Saturday night booze-up pattern with Sunday being recover from hangover day.  Back at home in England, I can think of only a few people who I can say with confidence would never be included in the kind of group that wrecked Wando beach at the weekend, and that is a sad fact.  What is even more troubling is that good, kind, decent people can be persuaded to act like morons by a combination of alcohol and a kind of group culture of glorifying ridiculous behaviour.  A simple truth is that, if you want everyone to love you and to make friends easily all you have to do is get stupidly drunk, have sex with a random girl or boy for one night, shit yourself on the street, injure yourself on the street while drunk, throw-up over someone or on someone's property, have a fight, or get thrown in a cell in a local police station for a night.  If you can mange one or maybe even all these things you will be a popular person indeed in my country, and I suspect in most Western countries.

I have remarked to a few friends over here in Korea that a symptom of this can be seen on Facebook.  Post a fascinating article about the wonders of the universe or glorious picture of the natural world and you maybe lucky to receive one comment or 'like'.  Post a comment about how you did a crap on the next door neighbours front garden after a drunken night out, or a picture of you passed out with vomit all over your shirt and see the comments and 'likes' roll in.

Here in South Korea, let's make no mistake about it, people get drunk too.  Take a walk outside on a Saturday morning and you can come across at least a few puddles of vomit on the ground.  What does set apart most Eastern countries is that they do at least have some regard for others when they are drunk and completely liscentious behaviour is very heavily looked down upon and therefore people are not proud of their misdemeanors on a night out.  This is very much different to our culture of being almost proud of one's disgusting behaviour on the night before, sharing the story with friends and having a good laugh.  The reality is that this shouldn't be funny, it's a disgrace and sometimes it takes the perspective of another culture to have your eyes fully opened on the subject.  I can fully imagine that right now one of the perpetrators of the toilet vandalism in Wando or the person responsible for depositing faecal matter in the sink, is telling his story with a grin of pride at just how 'crazy' he is.  I heard similar stories to this when I was younger and I can remember thinking that they were pretty funny, but now as a grown-up, I can see these kinds of people for what they truly are, pathetic losers and attention seekers.

There is only one answer to our alcohol problem in the West, we have to stop glorifying the bad behaviour of drunken people.  They get drunk in the East too but they don't think that out of control behaviour is worthy of any praise and in this they are right.

Different cultures, different problems.  The Far East's problem is they are too much in control and too concerned with fitting in with the crowd and obeying authority.  This leads to the heartlessness I talked about in my previous blog.  Because one of the key values of Western culture is freedom, our extremes of bad behaviour are the result of showing that we ultimately can behave how we want to, without thought of others, ultimate freedom to be a complete idiot.  Westerners often have good hearts but can be easily made to forget about others with a few units inside their system.  This troubles me; are we moral or kind because we think that is what society requires or is it genuine?  If it is genuine then why does a few beers make us forget about it so easily?  Are western people just faking it until the weekend sets them free of their responsibilities?  My wife noticed this when we lived in England.  During the day, people she knew, people on the street, and even her friends were good, kind people with excellent manners and personalities.  Come the weekend, this all went out of the window, when she could receive racial abuse and witness general thuggery and outlandish behaviour.  She couldn't believe the 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' nature of the people in England. 

I am not advocating that we should all be teetotal, alcohol has been a valuable social lubricant for thousands of years.  It helps people to make friends, enjoy themselves, dance, and even to get over the first hurdle in starting relationships, but I think I have had enough of all the nonsense that comes with it.  I am setting myself a new resolution not to just ignore it when people tell stories of their 'accomplishments' the night before, but to ridicule and shame them when they do.  If more of us can do this maybe we can rid ourselves of this cultural virus spreading through Western countries.