Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Next Adventure: Kazakhstan

I suppose it is time to update this blog. We are almost a month into our next adventure: Kazakhstan. Our trip here was a mix of the enjoyable and the annoying. The enjoyable part was a few days in Vienna, walking around the centre of the town, seeing what there was to see. We are thinking of returning to Vienna over Christmas, as we hear it is quite beautiful. The annoying part of the trip was that for both legs of the trip, we were in older planes without entertainment for individual seats. The kids (and I) were not amused. I thought each seat having its own entertainment was now the norm, certainly for international flights, but it seems Austrian Air is a bit of budget airline. I am pushing for Lufthansa in the future. We arrived in Kazakhstan on 4 August, early in the morning. We had no problem with immigration and were met by people from the university. The same people had made sure that our apartment was ready for us. Our apartment is very comfortable, being both spacious and modern. The apartment was originally designed to be two, with the wall knocked down between a one and a two bedroom apartment. Katie has her own room, with the younger girls sharing a bed in a very large room that was meant to be a living room and kitchen. (There is no obvious sign that a kitchen was ever there.) Lori and I have a largish bedroom with an ensuite bathroom. We also have a bedroom that I am using as an office. In total we have three bathrooms, each having a shower, and a bathtub only in our ensuite. The kitchen is small with very little counter space. I think we had gotten spoiled having an island in our last place of residence, so this is taking some time to adjust. We have a reasonably sized fridge with a largish freezer section, a microwave and a water filter system. The water is filtered when it enters the building and then we filter it again in our apartment. Dishes and cookware were also provided. They are adequate but not good quality. I think we will supplement when we find better stuff. Adequate but not good quality sums up the whole apartment quite nicely. It looks nice but if one looks closer it just isn't built very well, with some very odd design choices. For example, in our master bedroom, there is only one electrical outlet, and it is in a corner. I think we will enjoy the apartment, but I suspect maintenance will be an issue, as things fall apart. The living room is comfortable, with a nice tv and dvd player provided. We haven't used the dvd player yet and I don't see us ever using it. We can't find English language dvds here. We have cable tv with some English channels, including CNN International, BBC, some Discovery channels, as well as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, for the kids. We also have internet that is usually quite fast but occasionally bogs down. There is a large industrial sized air conditioning unit in the living room, which we have used extensively. It has been hot here and our apartment warms up. In total, we have three air conditioning units in the apartment and we are grateful for all of them. We live on the 17th floor of the building and have views on both sides. The one side looks out over a large park with many paths and fountains. We have enjoyed walks in this park and the girls have enjoyed biking through the many paths with the bikes we recently bought. On the other side, our view is partially blocked by another apartment building under construction, but we can see some of the old city, as well as the American embassy. Something I had never seen before, but understand to be common in this part of the world, is that our building has multiple entrances and that only one of them can be used to access our apartment. So, when we get off the elevator, there are doors to only two apartments. When people come to visit us, we not only have to tell them our apartment number, but more importantly we have to tell them which entrance to the building they have to use. Our building is one of three completed apartment buildings, each of them very large. The ground floor of each building has commercial space, though a lot of this space is still vacant. However, we have two smallish grocery stores, two restaurants, a pharmacy and some other stores. We haven't tried the restaurants yet, but one of them is probably a bit too expensive for us. The complex also has a fitness center with a pool. We will get a membership once my first paycheck comes in. What makes this particularly attractive is that we can access the fitness center without having to go outside, a bonus when it is very cold outside. That sort of sums up our current living conditions and I will post more about my university and our first impressions of Astana. Phil

Friday, December 11, 2009

This Past Year

It's been awhile. I am not sure why I haven't posted since last Christmas, but there has been no shortage of noteworthy events in our lives during this time. Life in Jogja remains fascinating, full of the curious and strange.

Since last Christmas we have been to Singapore and Bali for holidays. Singapore is nice, but it isn't really for me. For shopping, it is an incredible experience. Orchard Rd. is worth the trip to Singapore, but I am not sure it is worth a return trip. Lori disagrees. Shortly before we left, the girls came down with a flu. The rumour in town was that it was swine flu. We were very nervous as to whether the girls would be healthy enough to travel, and whether they would get through the health checks in Singapore. Fortunately, the day we traveled, they felt better. On arrival, however, I became sick and so appreciated Singapore even less. The rest of the family enjoyed the trip. As for Bali, well we enjoyed that as usual.

I also traveled to Hong Kong for a conference. It was on this trip that I learned the hard way that we need permission from the government to leave the country. This is not permission to return, but simply to leave. Even if we have no plans to ever return, we need to apply to Immigration for a special permit that allows us to leave the country. So, after finally getting permission to leave, I arrived in Hong Kong a day later than planned. Because of the schedule of the conference, I wasn't able to see much of the city, but I did skip out of an afternoon session in order to wander around. What I noticed was the remarkably well designed parks. They are designed for all age groups and well maintained. I was there during the beginning of the swine flu scare and saw city workers spraying down the children's play equipment with disinfectants. Hong Kong is a city I would visit again.

Our kids were more sick this year. We had the flu thing before our trip to Singapore, but we also had Chicken pox. Katie had the shot so she was not effected, but Mia and Sara got it. Fortunately, both had mild cases and the worst of it was the fever. We are not sure about Raina. She also had a fever but never showed spots. Chicken pox hit the girls' school hard, leading to the cancellation of the Halloween party. Katie was not impressed with that development as she had her costume all planned out. In general, it seemed as though our kids had more fevers. Fortunately these were never serious. We have very little confidence in the health system here so ill-health is always a concern of ours. Curiously, there are some well-equipped medical labs here, so we can get quite a wide range of tests done. And there is a reasonably good supply of drugs here, though I am not confident in their quality. The problem lies in diagnosis. I was recently told that Indonesian doctors are first introduced to human biology when they enter med school, a fact that did not inspire me.

Lori and I continue our teaching. Lori is still teaching English to theology students at the local Christian university. She is also continuing an ESL correspondence certificate from the U. of Saskatchewan. She says that the courses she is taking for her certificate have been very helpful in the courses she is teaching. I continue to teach at a local Islamic university. I am enjoying teaching and am regularly surprised. Recently, in one of my graduate courses, I had a student give a defense of terrorism. I doubt this would be something I would experience if I were teaching in Canada. I keep thinking how remarkable our time in Indonesia has been.

We are now preparing for Christmas. The girls had their school Christmas event and all three of them were chosen to give a short speech on why Christmas is special for them. I, of course, continue to think it is wrong to celebrate Christmas when I can't stop sweating. Last year, I played the Scrooge and refused to buy any Christmas decorations. This year, our neighbour undermined my opposition by giving us an artificial tree. So, we have a Christmas tree in our house. I continue to play the Scrooge, but I can't argue with free. We haven't planned a holiday for this break. One reason is that I am teaching until the end of the year (I have Dec 25 off), and Lori thought she began teaching the beginning of January. We just found out that Lori begins teaching a bit later and so perhaps we will try to fit in a trip to Bali.

Hopefully, during this coming year, I will be more diligent in posting to this blog.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Jogja

Celebrating Christmas away from familiar settings requires a great deal of planning and initiative. In N. America, all the trappings of Christmas are easily at hand. Most people have a variety of traditions they follow at Christmas time that include such things as family gatherings, a particular menu, gift giving and church services. When the Christmas season begins gearing up, people easily engage these various traditions which often make Christmas as meaningful as it is. Obviously these traditions involve work, organizing events, preparing food, and choosing gifts, but they are made easier by the fact that there is an already established tradition of what to do. Changes in one's life, for example getting married, having children, or moving, require one to reconsider what one does at Christmas, and with it, how one celebrates Christmas.

We experienced this when we were in Nigeria. For the first time we weren't able to celebrate Christmas with family and friends, with snow and Christmas trees, with turkey and mashed potatoes. It was hard. Even though we were surrounded by other Christians celebrating the season, they did it very differently. For example, on Christmas day, there was a tradition of slaughtering a cow on the volleyball court in front of our house and then dividing up the meat between those who had pitched in to buy the cow. Having vultures hovering around the house picking at the remains of a slaughtered cow had not been part of my Christmas experience growing up. But we did the best we could. We listened on the radio to the BBC's presentation of lessons and carols from King's College. We gathered together with other expats on the compound. But it wasn't the same, and it was hard.

Christmas in Jogja has not been as hard. In large part this is because we know that Christmas will not be the same. But it is also easier because the marketing of Christmas has begun here. We can buy artificial Christmas trees (we didn't), Christmas decorations (nope), and Christmas music (yup). The malls had Christmas decorations including Christmas trees, reindeer and candy canes. This marketing is interesting given that Indonesia is over 90% Muslim and a leading Muslim body issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims to say 'Merry Christmas'. The fatwa was issued in order to protect Muslims who might be led from saying the greeting to converting to Christianity. I have had colleagues wish me a 'Merry Christmas' so I am not sure how seriously Indonesian Muslims take this fatwa. Also, there was no fatwa against Christmas decorations so they apparently decided that Christmas trees and reindeer won't tempt Muslims to stray, though I have heard many Christian sermons suggesting that such trappings might cause Christians to stray. Not sure what this says about the piety of Christians in N. America compared to Muslims in Indonesia.

So, we (read Lori) decided we needed to be more intentional about celebrating Christmas this year. I had a hard time with this. I just can't get my head around celebrating Christmas when I am happy to get to my office and turn on the air conditioner. Perhaps I am superficial and don't get the real meaning of Christmas, but Christmas cannot be properly celebrated on a day that is too hot for a midday walk. And I am pretty sure it was cold in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. I'll bet there was even snow. If that was good for God and Jesus, it's good for me.

Anyways, we celebrated Christmas by opening gifts, listening to Christmas music, and doing a Sunday School lesson on Christmas. Our church didn't have any Christmas programs, which was a bit disappointing. I can't say this was my most meaningful Christmas, in large part because many of the traditions I associate with Christmas were not there. But it wasn't as hard as it was in Nigeria because we are getting a bit better at figuring out ways of doing Christmas in new places. I wonder though what the girls are learning about Christmas. Katie remembers Christmas in Canada so she realizes that it is different here and misses the traditions the most. We discussed the Christmas story but Christmas is also about so many other things that make the Christmas story more meaningful. How do we make Christmas meaningful for the girls?

I suppose what we will have to work on is how to create new family traditions for celebrating Christmas in a Muslim country that doesn't have any snow.

Phil Enns

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Four Things I Noticed Recently

1. Asking about something is the same as asking for something. This is more a problem for Lori, and it may be language mis-communication, but we have encountered on a number of occasions a problem with asking questions. For example, in a restaurant, Lori will ask about the vegetables in a particular dish, whether there are a lot of vegetables, how much garlic is used, and the waitress will promptly write down the order. Lori will contact a hotel to find out their rates for a date in the future and we will get a response confirming a room for that date. Lori continues to insist that she should be able to get information without having to make a commitment. I, on the other hand, have responded by only asking about things I already want. Which means that I rarely try, for example, food that I haven't already tried. Which makes sense to me since it seems irrational to try a new dish and risk not liking it when I can get a dish I know I like.

2. Businesses here are not customer oriented. We lost our internet connection recently and I knew what the problem was. We repeatedly called the company and were told that a technician would come. At one point we had a technician call us to say that he was coming the next day, but a week later, nothing. This went on for over two weeks, a delay that was very frustrating for Lori since she needs the internet for her work. Finally, an Indonesian woman who works on our compound had pity on us and took up our cause. After a few days of calling she managed to get someone to come to our house, and shortly thereafter, the problem was fixed. This is typical of most medium to large businesses here in Indonesia, which focus on the system rather than outcomes. The people we were calling insisted we would get someone to help us because they had made the necessary note to the necessary department. The fact that no one came for over two weeks was irrelevant. The proper procedures had been followed and so everything was working properly. Unfortunately, we are clueless when it comes to working the system so we don't have much luck with outcomes. This focus on the system is also true for the educational system, but that is a different post.

3. Electronics can be priced in either rupiah or US dollars. To get our internet working again, I had to buy a modem. When I went to the computer store, I had a choice between a variety of modems, some of which were priced in rupiah, some in dollars. The cheaper models were in rupiah, but the better models could be in either. But it wasn't simply a matter of price. Certainly the most expensive computers and gear were in dollars, but in the mid-range, a laptop, for example, could be priced in either. For the last few years, the rupiah has been relatively stable and yet there still would be goods priced in dollars. I can understand this given current conditions where the rupiah has weakened, but then it isn't consistent since not all the products are priced in dollars. And the rupiah price tag will change according to how the rupiah is trading. Most, perhaps all, of these goods are coming from outside Indonesia and yet only some of them have their costs pegged to the dollar. I don't understand this.

4. Javanese are very superstitious. A girl who eats in a doorway will have a hard time finding a man to marry her. It is okay to shower under rain pouring off a roof, but if you stand under the rain falling directly, you will get sick. Drinking the rain from the second rainfall of the rainy season will make you very healthy. Until recently, rice farmers would perform a ritual for the fertility goddess before planting and before harvesting. I also find it interesting how Islam in Java has lived comfortably alongside what often appears to be incompatible traditional beliefs. In my opinion, what we are encountering here is what we also saw in West Africa where religion is only a surface expression of much deeper traditional and cultural beliefs. Javanese Islam is, therefore, very different from Islam in the Arabian peninsula. This difference isn't a matter of one being corrupt and the other pure, but rather that Islamic beliefs and practices have taken on the character of the culture in which it is found. The same is, of course, true of Christianity.

Phil Enns

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Islamic Javanese Wedding

Last night we went to an Islamic Javanese wedding. Islamic weddings are often multi-stage events with the official ceremony involving only the immediate family, and a reception occurring later, sometimes months later. For example, recently I went to a reception for the marriages of two brothers, both of whom had been married months earlier. This reception was very elaborate involving almost a thousand guests and involved a long greeting line with dozens of tables filled with food at the end. However, the event is only one of congratulating the married couple and then eating.

The event Lori and I went to last night was a much simpler event. As is customary, the wedding took place at the house of the bride. The road was blocked off to traffic and a sitting area was set up on the street under a canopy. The marriage ceremony took place in a small room in the house with only the couple, a few family members, and the Muslim official. The ceremony involved readings from the Quran and a prayer in Arabic, even though I am pretty sure neither the couple nor the family members understand Arabic. And then there was, of course, the paper work required by the state. It was a very simple ceremony, which I understand is the norm for Islamic weddings.

While the ceremony was simple, the bride and groom were in elaborate traditional Javanese dress. (See pictures) Both bride and groom had makeup on that lightened their complexion, making them whiter than normal. As I understand it, the desire to appear whiter is related to the association of physical labour with tanned skin. To have lighter skin is a sign of belonging to a higher economic class that does not have to engage in physical labour for a livelihood. A similar sign is men having long fingernails, usually only the thumb or pinkie.

After the wedding ceremony came the reception. The food was traditional Javanese food with rice, spicy vegetables and meat with peanut sauce. What was interesting was that on the tables were we sat were cups holding cigarettes. Many men smoke in Indonesia but I have never seen cigarettes distributed like this. All cigarette advertising in Indonesia comes with large warnings that are very explicit, but cigarettes are very cheap and boys start smoking when they are young. I haven't seen women smoking but I find it hard to believe that it doesn't happen. There might be some sort of social stigma attached to women smoking in public. Anyways, the men were helping themselves to the cigarettes but they didn't smoke around the table, which we greatly appreciated.

We had a good time visiting with friends and eating delicious food.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Beginning of Rainy Season

Rainy season began last week. About two weeks ago the weather in Jogja became much more uncomfortable. I am not sure if the temperature is much higher, perhaps a few degrees, and certainly the humidity jumped to around 70%, but I think the main difference was the wind. During the dry season there was a constant breeze in the city, and in our house, we didn't really need fans since there was good air movement. However, about the beginning of October, this changed so that we have all our fans on all the time.

When it rains, it tends to cool down a bit, but we haven't yet reached the point in the rainy season when it rains every day. This means that for the last two weeks, it has been hot, humid and sticky. Of course, it is going to be hot, humid and sticky for the next six months or so, but as with the cold of winter in Canada, it takes a few weeks to adjust.

Indonesians usually bathe twice a day, once in the morning and once late in the afternoon. The lady who helps us with the children isn't particularly impressed by the fact that we don't bathe the children similarly so she has taken it upon herself to do it. It seems to me that Sara and Raina spend a lot of time taking baths. However, with the onset of rainy season, the rest of the family is slowly adopting the habit of bathing before supper.

One of the benefits that comes with the beginning of the rainy season is cleaner air. I have been struggling with a sore throat over the last month or so which I believe is the result of dust and pollution. My 30 minute walk to work is mostly along congested roads so it isn't all that surprising that I am having some sort of respiratory issues. Lori and the kids don't seem to be affected. The rain helps keep the dust and pollution down.

Another benefit that comes with the rainy season is everything turns green. It is not that vegetation browns like we experienced in Nigeria, but the greening is noticeable. Curiously, there isn't much colour. Javanese love elaborate gardens and plants, but most of these plants don't flower. There are plants here that have bright colours and one can't walk around without seeing many different varieties of orchids. However, the vast majority of plants cultivated around homes are broad leaf plants that don't flower. And these plants are almost always potted. I haven't figured that one out yet.

Mostly, though, I am looking forward to the rainy season for the great thunderstorms. In the middle of the season, we get two or three thunderstorms a week and there is nothing as soothing as rain pounding on the roof and some good thunder and lightning.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bali Holiday

We have just returned from Bali. We had a great time, dividing our stay in two different hotels. Our first hotel was more contemporary with a largely European clientele, mostly Germans, Dutch and French. The hotel was by the beach so we could hear the surf from our room. Unfortunately the surf was too dangerous for swimming so we played in the sand. The pool was nice and the girls had a great time there. The downside of the hotel was its isolation so that we couldn't really walk anywhere. Our stay in Bali coincided with that of another family from Jogja we have gotten to know through the girl's school. We had a very nice meal with them at an Italian restaurant on the beach, watching the sunset.

The second hotel was in Sanur. This hotel was a bit more down-scale and traditional, but we liked it as well. The clientele here was largely Australian. Unfortunately it was a 10 minute walk to the beach, but the beach was better for the kids. I am finding that Sanur is my favourite part of Bali. The beach isn't nearly as busy as other parts and it isn't as developed. The beach has a very nice 'boardwalk' that must be several kilometers long. Also, the main street is a nice walk with a mix of restaurants, tourist shops and art stores.

We returned home at the end of Idul Fitri so last night was a bit noisy. Indonesians like to celebrate the holiday with fireworks even though they are illegal. Someone in our neighbourhood was shooting them off late into the night, making it hard to get to sleep. Apparently the night before was even more noisy so I am glad we missed that.

On the other hand, our house has its share of bumps in the night. In our yard, we have a mango tree. This tree isn't nearly as big as the ones we had in Africa, but it is big enough so that it overhangs our house. This means that some mangoes will fall on our roof, making quite a noise. I suppose the mangoes fall all through the day but it seems that the big, heavy ones fall only in the evening as the kids are going to sleep.