is originally from Montreal but lives in Toledo, Ohio. She currently
teaches political science at the University of Toledo and will stay
in academia at least until she can find a grant to spend a year
living somewhere exotic and exciting. Karen writes...
carry toilet paper...
carry toilet paper. That was the best advice I received before
leaving on a five month trip to Australia and Southeast Asia.
As with all important lessons, I was destined to find out
the hard way.
Westerners in Asia learn
quickly that stomach disorders can strike without warning.
One can be sitting with a group of people, when suddenly a
panicked expression will cross a person's face and she will
run from the table.
Popular myth, fostered
by Hollywood no doubt, suggests that the police and the Mafia
always determine the exits from a room before they sit down.
While in Asia, I developed the habit of determining the location
of the toilet before I made myself comfortable. And since
the use of toilet paper is a Western custom (Southeast Asians
use water), I always carried my own.
I was in a panic...
of my hard-learned lesson was Lake Toba, in northern Sumatra,
in Indonesia. My friend and I were staying on Samosir Island
in a village called Tuk Tuk. The island was beautiful. At
that time, there was no electricity, the accommodations
were spartan, the food delicious and
the tourists tended toward the bohemian.
a week a boat circumnavigated the island, picking up tourists
from the various villages and bringing them to a spot famous
for its hot springs. The island was not very big, and it
shouldn't have taken too long to get to the springs, but
the captain circled the island several extra times in an
attempt to collect more paying
passengers. He had a bullhorn, through which he repeatedly
called, "Hot springs, hot springs, boat
to hot springs."
I realized that we were not going to make it to the springs
in time for me to take care of an urgent bodily need. Fortunately,
there was a toilet on board, or rather a small cubicle with
a hole leading toward the hull. However, to my consternation,
I discovered that for the first time I was not carrying
toilet paper. And, the cubicle did not even have the customary
bucket of water and ladle. I rummaged through my bag in
a panic. The only serviceable item I found was my English-Indonesian
dictionary. I made a quick decision-I was unlikely to need
the words beginning with X, Y, or Z-and ripped those pages
out of the book. Problem solved!
Lessons Karen learned along
- Be patient. In Indonesian
there is an expresion "jam keret," which translates as "rubber
time." Western expectations of punctuality don't apply.
Busses leave the station when they are full, not according
to a schedule. A full bus has people sitting three or four
in two seats, and more in the aisles.
- Be patient. Business
transactions have a more sociable aspect than in the West.
Before a hotel manager will discuss room rates or even availability,
he will want to chat, ask you where you come from and how
many people there are in your family.
- Many, many people
will ask you where you come from and how many people there
are in your family. They will also want to know where you
are going. Remember that a woman travelling unaccompanied
by a man is unusual in their culture. I never experienced
any sexual harassment, but was always subjected to people's
curiosity. That curiosity is usually genuine and utterly
lacking in hostility. In spite of the absence of overt harassment,
we must remember that these are conservative cultures. Immodest
dress is considered offensive.
- Don't use your left
hand for handling food in public. The left hand is only
for use with the bucket and ladle found in rest rooms. It
is considered extremely rude even to hand something to someone
using your left hand. Familiarizing yourself with as many
of the cultural taboos as possible will make your visit
- Be open to the possibility
of exciting experiences from unlikely sources. On several
occasions I asked people for directions and ended up being
welcomed into their homes and shown places I would have
not seen otherwise.