Merry Christmas, Indonesia

by Will Sanders on December 25th, 2009

Happy Christmas Makassar
I am writing from Makassar, the port city of an island called Sulewesi, which is part of Indonesia.  It is now Christmas eve, and I sit here alone drinking bintang beer, haunted by the first of what I expect to be three ghosts.  The first is Christmas past, here goes:

When I was a kid Christmas eve was always spent with my Dad’s side up in Hartwell Georgia.  My Grannie used to stuff us silly with beans, squash casserole, roast, the most amazing biscuits ever and just for me, she always made pound cake.  It was food cooked with equal measures of sugar, crisco, and love.  Really from the heart love went into every drop.  A lot of crisco too.
Every time I came to see her in my life, as a matter of fact, she made pound cake.  And man, she is gone now and I miss her.  Gone too is the pound cake, I can still taste it, I didn’t know it then but for the rest of my life I will always miss that taste, and the taste of her biscuits and her cream corn, and I will miss her laugh, which my sister and I secretly did impressions of.  It started strong and full of energy and always ended with a final sigh of contentment accompanied by a smile.  It said that she really enjoyed and appreciated that laughter, it was a HA HA HA HA HA!  Ahhhhhhhh.  My sister does it better than I can.

Sometime during the day we would always make a trip to Lake Hartwell, my father would tell us stories we had heard before about relatives and about his childhood, and how our family had a house somewhere under Lake Hartwell back before a dam made it a lake and it was still just a harmless valley minding it’s own business, unaware of impending progress.  It was always my job to climb the trees by the lake to fetch the missle toe from it’s branches.  Even in my memory the trees weren’t that big but everyone played it up like I was the greatest tree climber in the history of the sport.  I could go pro if kept it up, they all told me.
And on the ride home my sister and I were in the backseat convinced that if we could stare into the dark starry North Georgia night, above those North Georgia pines, North Georgia mountains, and North Georgia blue jean outlet malls we could be just lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Santa flying around doing his Santa thing.  I hardly remember the years when I actually believed this, but I do remember years after when watching for Santa was such a part of what happened on Christmas eve that it would’ve been sacrilege not to at least pretend.  Even in the teenage years I kept my eyes focused to the sky on the way home, not in hopes of seeing anything anymore, just because that’s what we had always done before, my sister and I, and it had always been so nice.
And my Father always had a new story he had read in the paper about why Christmas had been canceled.  We never believed him but always looked forward to hearing what he would come up each year.  The year the Libyans were taking hostages they had gotten Santa too and his Elves, “this Khadafy guy is just plain nuts.”  He explained to my sister and I “so we can’t have Christmas this year.”  Another year the reindeer all got hoof and mouth disease.
When we got home my other grand Parents would meet us.  My Grandfather would read ‘a child’s Christmas in Whales’ by Dylan Thomas and/or recite some of the countless poems he had memorized over the years, Casey at the bat, The night I Cremated Sam Mugee, Samuel the Camuel just to name a few of his regulars.  We would all sing Christmas Carols, and when I protested my mother would counter with “It’s Christmas” which meant we would sing.  My grandfather singing the deep bass of the fat guy in a barber shop quartet and my mothers harmonizing always seemed to take ‘here we go a waselling’ to the next level.
And we would carefully lay out the sugar cookies for Santa, another tradition that lasted for it’s own sake way after my sister and I knew better and we would all dash off to bed.
The Buddists would tell us that the only thing that will never change is that everything changes, and clinging onto attachments is an excersise in futility which leads to suffering, something I was didn’t learn until I got to China.  My parents divorce, the death of all my Grandparents one after another along over the years with our ever changing lives turned Christmas into a changing thing.  At first I admit that I mourned the loss of rutine.  Now we had Chrismas with dad and Christmas with mom.  It didn’t take long though, Christmas still seemed to be Christmas and it was a very happy time, every year.  A time when my family sat around giving each other things and laughing our asses off and loving each other.  The hell with everything else, right?  Old traditions died and new ones were born.  The new ones will one day be replaced as well and we will just have to come up with new shit when that happens.
When I was in China, I spent Christmas with a Canadian couple.  We taught English in an area where finding things like bacon, or cheese, real cheese was cause for calling friends for a party.  We had managed to hoard supplies for that Christmas diner, it was salad, with ranch salad dressing, I made spaghetti with store bought sauce I had jazzed up nicely, and I think we also had hamburger helper.  It was the best we could do and after diner we gave each other little nick nacks we had found in our travels.  I gave my friend a b b gun which he proceeded to demonstrate was nowhere near as cool as the one he had already bought for himself, it didn’t shoot straight and the plastic grip was way off but thanks anyways.  It was the best we could do, it was at least something.

Here comes the ghost of Christmas present, who I prefer to picture as portrayed by the lady who was Ladka’s wife on the show Taxi like in the movie Scruged with Bill Murrey.  Lee Majors Christmas, that was so great.

Christmas eve, like I said.

Last night a girl kept me on the phone till late.  I had gotten home late anyways having sunk a few beers with my boys Luke and Allen after work.  I am back working in Surabaya now, by the way, it is nice to be back.  As much as I loved Jember, it is nice to be back.
So, up till maybe one last night and the alarm woke me up at 4:30.  Zombie will poured himself into a taxi and went to the airport to catch his 6 am flight to Makassar for a two hour flight next to a baby that managed to scream the entire flight, convincing his parents and everyone else this kid had no future in the airforce.  I tried in vein to sleep but no dice.  Instead I began making a list of things I had neglected to pack due to sleep depravation, the memory card for my camera was the biggie, charger for my phone, pen and paper (always a must for backpacking) and socks.  I almost left the metal detector at the airport without my bag, having given full attention to emptying and repacking my pockets, I got half way to the check in counter when I said to myself  ‘I feel lighter somehow.’
New bag this time, by the way.  I don’t know how to feel about that, my old backpack was a Christmas gift from my Grandmother years ago.  I remember her taking me to the store before I left for China, neither of us with the first clue about what an international backpacker needed in the way of a bag.  Afterwards she had second thoughts about the bag, it was too big, and it was a silly bag,  and I told her it was the best bag in the world and she was satisfied.  That bag has been with me all over China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, twice to Hong Kong and five times to Macao.  Many of it’s zippers are shot and the straps are coming off.  I also wanted a bag which zipped vertically in an arch over the back, that way you can open the whole bag and get something out of the bottom, my old bag had one opening at the top which meant unloading everything on a hotel bed to get to the underwear at the bottom.  I tell myself a bag is just a bag, I try not to think about it, but when I got home my old bag was sitting in the corner, easily in sight of the new bag and I felt like an unfaithful husband.  ‘wasn’t I a good bag?’  my old bag asked me though sad bad eyes.  I am sorry old bag, I promise we will have adventures again!
From the airport I went to the hotel mentioned in my lonely planet book which was booked full so I walked around the corner to find a hostel which seems to also house a beauty salon on the first floor.  The room is cheap and has a fan and a bed and little else.  The bathroom is hiding behind the kitchen down the hall and has a cold water mandi to scoop water from in lu of a shower.  The lady who runs the place was concerned with my plan of trying to go to Tana Toraja tomorrow.  “The busses are all booked,” she explained.  “The only way is my friend Harry, I will call him.”  I sort of wanted to figure that out for myself, and she kept pushing so I left to find a memory card for the camera.  After finding it at a near by indoor market I went back to my room for a much, much needed nap.  Two hours later I got up to find the in keepers friend Harry waiting patiently in a chair next to the door of my room, how long he had been there I don’t know, but I think I heard him talking to someone out there at least an hour before.  He wanted to be my personal driver for my whole trip, which is not the kind of money I have any need to spend.  That is big money.  Like, I am a doctor from Sweden on Holiday with my kids kind of money.  No way is it I am a backpacker trying to stretch a rupiah kind of money.  He, and the lady seemed annoyed that he had come out here and I wasn’t interested.  I would figure it out myself, that’s just the way I want to do it.
Next I wandered the streets for a few hours, walking randomly with headphones.  I just downloaded the best of the proclaimers, and am a bit disappointed, they have a few catchy tunes but I found myself just listening to the I would walk 500 miles song over and over, such a great song for walking, otherwise I didn’t find much that did it for me.
And everywhere, I mean everywhere along the streets in Makassar are becak drivers waiting and hollering and clapping urgently for buisness.  A becak is a bicycle with seats welded over the front wheel and is cheap transportation in Indonesia.  They can not seem to get their heads around my not wanting to ride with them, I really just wanted to walk.  On the wall of my hotel they sell a shirt with a backpacker throwing his middle finger screaming ‘NO, I DON’T WANT A @#$%$ING BECAK!’, that’s not my attitude at all.  Even though it gets annoying I think of how much I have and how little they do, at night they are still parked in the same spots sleeping in the tiny seats of their becaks.  So when they wave and holler ‘hello, where you go?  De mana mister?  hello, hey hey hey’ at me I try to always smile and wave and shake my head no to them while smiling and walking.  It just seems more polite, it also seems like I am miss America on a macy’s day parade, standing on a float waving down the street to crowds of screaming becak drivers.
I was really hoping to find skype to call people.  I went to so many internet cafe’s today.  Here they don’t even seem to have headphones with mics, which makes it pretty much impossible.  Tana Toraja will hopefully have it, more tourists there so hopefully that means backpacker hostels, which usually means skype.  We’ll have to wait and see.
I found a street stall that had coto Makassar, a famous dish from this city.  Coto Makassar is a spicy soup with buffalo stomach inards and liver.  Not bad either.  The secret seems to be the sauces and lime wedges they give you to experiment with, it is on the eater to fashion their own buffalo inards soup.  Yum yum yummy.
After a good wander I took a taxi to the bus station, hoping the lady at my hotel was simply misinformed or lying.  But no, sure enough, the next bus is Saturday morning, the day after Christmas.  I can proudly say that all of these negotiations are now happening in Indonesian.  I know enough to get by with people, answering their questions, simple observations, buying things, that sort of thing.  No great conversationalist yet though.  So I took Saturday morning to Tana Toraja, meaning I will spend Christmas day in Makassar.  Tana Toraja would have had backpackers to hang out with, that was the plan.  But Makassar is just me.
On the way home the I had the same taxi and asked him to take me back to where he had picked me up.  He went back a new way which took me very close to my hotel, so in my best Indonesian I said “cine bagus” which means here’s good.   The driver seemed to ignore me, so I said it again “cine bagus”.  He kept driving, finally I pointed to the ground and said it a bit more emphatically, “cine bagus!”  The driver turned to me, and in perfect English he said “OOH…., you mean stop.”  He apparently thought I was admiring the neighborhood.
My last adventure today was taking another taxi to a fish restaurant recommended in the lonely planet guide book.
This taxi driver wasn’t very nice and just dropped me off in the general area to fend for myself.  I found it, the front had a barbeque grill covered in fish next to a long cooler with the fresh dead ones on ice.  I picked out two good looking ones, I got two small ones instead of one big one.  The tables were all long communal, I found a spot on the end of one.  A guy sat directly across from me and proceeded to mean mug me, about what I don’t know.  Don’t really care either.
They brought me some vegetables and rice which I got into.  Finally they brought my two fish.  They were whole fish that had been gutted and grilled, along with bowls of different sauces.
I started on the first one.  Man it was good, the book was right, this was some good fresh fish.  Living in Asia means not eating fish unless you find yourself within a hundred miles of the ocean, it is just rolling the dice otherwise.  Makassar is a sea port, which not only means fish it means today’s catch.  I was digging in and I was focused, didn’t want to swallow a bone and I wanted to get my sauce right.
I looked up and saw the guy across from me had taken my other fish and just started digging in.  He was ripping the skin with his hands.  It was pretty much now his fish.  I have been on the shit end of many misunderstanding for obvious reasons, ok, I thought, he is clearly eating my fish, maybe this man simply doesn’t understand how this works.  Maybe he will be embarrassed when the bill comes and I explain to him that he has to pay me, as I am sure as hell not paying for him to steal my fish.  MY FISH!!!!
The big bits gave way to small bits clinging to bones, pretty soon we were both looking at fish skeletons.  I asked for the bill, now I was thinking of how to tell him the situation without his losing face, very important in Asia.  Right in front of the guy I explained in Indonesian to our waitress that while I had ordered two fish, (pointed a casual thumb at my table mate) that I had really only eaten one and could she split the bill.  The guy showed no change in expression.  After the waitress left I asked the guy in Indonesian if he had enjoyed MY fish.  He pointed to the fish itself and gave a thumbs up, then to the sauce and shook his hand in the just so-so gesture.  And it finally dawned on me, this guy ate my fish on porpass AND DOESN’T CARE.  He sat right in front of me eating my food and complained to me about the sauce!   I went to the front to pay for my end not the other, and I told the lady behind the counter about it, or tried to.  Later I realized that instead of telling her “that man ate my fish”  I said “that man ate my verb to go fishing.”  She stared at me blankly, I smiled and she didn’t.  So I split.  I got some steamed peanuts and sat by the warf  looking at the twinkling boats on the black sheet of ocean which spread from the wall on which I sat straight out to forever.  And for just a second I cought myself looking for Santa, not expecting to see anything, even though without my sister it wasn’t the same.

And I wished myself and all of you a merry Christmas.

Christmas future.

Christmas day.  I am looking through my guide book for ideas, an old Dutch fort with a museum, a small but tourist filled island, more wandering and waving at becak drivers.  I am bummed that I can’t talk to anyone and am alone on Chrismas, but I am forced to remind myself that things could always be worse.  I could be stuck in say, Alpharetta alone for Christmas.  As it happens, I am in a city on an island in Indonesia.  And I am looking forward to an entire week of jungle exploration and beaches.  So the ghost of Christmas future is sitting here reminding me that things are pretty good.  I miss my family though.  And my Atlanta friends.

have a happy Christmas.

And god bless us, everyone, where ever you may happen to find yourself.

fa la la.


5 Responses to “Merry Christmas, Indonesia”

  1. Amy Bugg Burke says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this Will…as we were getting out of the car tonight coming home from my Grandmother’s house, Ryan suddenly said, “It’s already Christmas in Indonesia!” So we were thinking of you, and it’s nice to be able to picture how you are spending your holidays. We are watching “A Christmas Story” (“Scrooged” was last night), and waiting for Santa to show up. Joseph is thumping away in my belly right now, so I think that means he wants to wish you a Merry Christmas too, and tell you that he can’t wait to meet you this summer. So, Merry Christmas Will, from the whole Burke family!! We love you and miss you!

  2. Marcus Rosentrater says:

    Merry Christmas Will!

    I’m glad you’re back in Surabya… at least maybe you’ll connect more.

    I’m in Tampa with the In-Laws. I’ve been watching some Chris Marker. Also we all watched White Christmas. With my father in law I always watch westerns from Movies Worth Seeing. This visit we watched Left-Handed Gun, True Grit (preparing for the Coen Brothers remake), and The Cowboys. Besides not being able to see my family in Colorado, it’s been a good Christmas by all accounts.

    P.S. I love your Christmases as a young little Will-er-snapper.

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