Monday, May 19, 2014

All The Blog Posts In My Head

I have to apologize for my long silence but since I joined the "appreciating the work/life balance" crew (full time mom and full time employee) I struggle to find the creative space to sit down and write a post- though I haven't really been as neglectful as it may seem; I think about our blog readers all the time. I see something, I go somewhere or experience a new taste sensation and I think, "I must write a blog post about this!"  Such as Martabak, an amazing dessert that somehow made it onto my fork.

One of my favorite things is my once a month book club. We're a small and loud (I think we would
prefer the word "robust") group but over the months we have read some really good books; some are better than others of course, but a few in particular have been fist-pounding argument-provoking autobiographical summaries of women's lives. I've learned a lot- such as the fact that I am susceptible to mom guilt due to my subletting some of my previous domestic details. The fact that view these things as "my domestic details" proves that I've got a way to go. Even though I am working I still consider my family time as a measure of how well grounded I am to the commitments I have made as a parent- this fact means that no matter how many freeing lines I highlighted in my copy of Lean In, I still willingly invite the mom guilt fairy to come in and nest on my head. Rest assured, as I read the book I had several blog posts bouncing around in my head, such as, Does The Author Of Lean In 
Have Real Problems Or Does She Have Some Upgraded Version Of Reality?" but then I applied
some of her basic "sit at the table" concepts and when that went well I asked myself the one basic question the book asked over and over. "What would I do if I weren't afraid?" The answer?  I got up the nerve to apply for the one job I had wanted since I first learned about it- CLO Coordinator.

This is a pic of a few ladies in my book club on the night we reviewed Lean In and Bossy Pants. Our 
cake says it all!

Here is another blog post that I wrote (in my head)- This Spring I was lucky enough to have my dear cousin Phil and his wife Carmen make the long journey from Texas to visit us. They were such fun guests because they didn't mind a little discomfort (such as picking any random reflexology foot massage place in the rougher side of town) in order to have some new experiences. Well, Phil had done his research on the various fun things to do in Jakarta. He had barely stepped off of the airplane when he said that his goal was to visit the Jakarta cobra markets. And that we did! Phil was a trooper and hung in there as he unknowingly ordered a magical tincture made of the blood of one cobra and two other black and yellow snakes and some local "jamu" (herb based medicine), oh and the "squeezins" of the cobra's gall bladder (or that's what we assume it was). Poor Phil believed he had walked into a restaurant where he could order up a basket of fried snake fingers- not an old Javanese traditional version of Viagra. 

Ah, drink up Cousin Phil, you only live once!  Actually, he didn't want to drink it but once he realized that a few snakes had been volunteered to the cause, he felt morally obligated. What a trooper!

So see... I've been writing all of this in my imagination for months!

Here is another blog post I've had in my head- island hopping. This is a shot from the beach of our favorite Indonesian get away- Gili Trawangan. Gili T. is a tiny island located in the gorgeous turquoise sea between Bali and Lombok. 

There are also the sad blog posts that I feel compelled to write. Here were some wild animals being sold in random outdoor markets. 

Neither one are happy in their cages. It's heartbreaking. 

Jakarta has enough going on that I could write about it every day. I'll try to check in sooner and not let so many things stack up in my mental blog file. 

Btw... I got the job! 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Home is Where the Stomach Is

One of the drawbacks of living overseas is missing all the food from back home. We are lucky and blessed to have a commissary at our post, so if you just can't live another day without your favorite junk food or beer, you can probably get it here, as long as money is no object. Somedays, only a Pop-Tart (c) will do, you know what I'm saying? 

But what you really begin to miss are the ethnic and local foods available at restaurants back home that just aren't available, or even more frustrating, they have something with the same name here but it just isn't the same. But lately, good things have been happening.

We have managed to find, not too far away even, a taqueria. It is a little hole in the wall joint that seats about 17 close friends, it's cheap, of amazing taste but dubious healthiness. Almost like what we enjoyed in Laredo!

Then, last night we had dinner at some Foreign Service friends' house where we got to enjoy for the first time since we left the DC area:

Oh, yeah, all the favorites. Injera, doro wat, that spinach dish :-), and small cups of atomic-strength Ethiopian coffee for dessert. Our friends bring t'eff from America when they go home and make injera for their family every week. They have said come over any time. If we went as often as we liked, they wouldn't be saying that any more.

It was a lovely evening with colleagues who had been posted to Addis Ababa, talking East African politics, eating until we burst, and listening to Teddy Afro.

So, in the last two weeks we have had two homecomings for our stomachs, and things are good, really good. As long as we meet Mexican and Ethiopian friends at all of our Foreign Service posts, we may just be able to make it in this life.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Long Absences and State Brain

So, obviously we haven't written in a while. Christmas Season at the house for L and Christmas travel season at the consular section for me made for a hectic end of the year. So, yes, we are still alive, still in Indonesia, and still gainfully employed. 

Since our last post, things have gotten way more hectic in our lives. L starts work at the embassy tomorrow, and we have had to adjust for two full-time working parents in our household of three kids and a dog. My job has also changed a great deal recently.

In our consular section, we are small enough that every six months or so we rotate through portfolios like non-immigrant visa (NIV), American citizen services, etc. I started, as all new officers do, in NIV. It takes the most time and personnel of anything that we do, even after we rotate away from strict NIV work into one of the other rotations. Any day people are out sick or away, or for some reason we have a large number of applicants, we leave our rotations and go back to NIV for as long as we are needed. So really, when you take a rotation you don't get to change one job for another so much as add one job to another, at least some of the time.

Between this development, front office projects, outreach and VIP activities, etc., let's just say that I have had to expand my capacity for work. Rest assured that in my diseased mind this is a good thing, and I am loving it. The increased pace has led me to adopting what I call State Brain, but any organization that demands a constant high pace probably has the same thing.

With State Brain, your mind is full of one concept or task and completely engaged for as long as it takes, some times hours, some times minutes. Then an email, phone call, or person comes to you with the next thing to focus on. You quickly have to dump out of your head what you are working on, load in the new task, and concentrate fully on that one. Repeat, either several times a day or here recently many times an hour. The capacity for your brain to act like a rail car or commercial truck for which the cargo carriers are being loaded, moved some distance, and then replaced with another one is what I mean when I say State Brain. It's not multi-tasking, just high demand fast switching between tasks. A to-do list is an absolute must to avoid anything being dropped. Lunches are no longer anything other than mandatory nutrition loading. You start taking work with you to the bathroom. Any first year associate at a large law firm or medical resident knows exactly what I am talking about.

Prior to taking the full time job at the embassy, L worked for three weeks on a special project. She is starting to develop State Brain too, for she has begun to communicate with me in dreaded three-letter acronyms, and recently gave me provisional instructions on what kind of flea prevention to buy our dog, because she wanted time to check out different brands and prices. A normal person would say "I am thinking we should buy brand X but let me check around some first before you go to the store." What she actually told me was: "Brand X at Store Y. Get the variety for our dog's weight. Green package. HOLD UNTIL I CLEAR." 

To which I can only say, "Welcome, L, to you your new brain."


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Now, That's The Stuff

We didn't join the Foreign Service just to interview people for visas and talk to people in our host country's government, as important as those things are. We also wanted to meet ordinary Indonesians and serve them in some way. After a little while getting the lay of the land, we were fortunate to meet a local lawyer who put us in touch with the Yayasan Pemimpin Anak Bangsa, or the National Youth Leader Foundation. Sounds like a big-time NGO, but it's basically a school where both children and adult students come for several hours every Saturday to either get primary or GED education, or help with preparing for the national university exams. 

Lainie's first visit- This is a group of older students who are working
hard on their high school/middle school studies.
*Note the Indonesian bunny ears thing.
Kiki, the founder of the school, wanted to give non-traditional students a place to learn at an accelerated pace, in English (somewhat), and eventually have the students pass the national exams. The location itself is hosted by a retiree from the national power company and is located on the grounds of his house in Central Jakarta. It is not in the glitzy high-rise part of Jakarta, although you can see them past the huge electricity towers located there. It is in an area one step above a slum, with lots of poverty, single-parent families, and people who had to stop their education because they had to work to eat. Besides the land owner and the founder, the school is staffed on a rotating basis by lawyers and other professionals who want to give back to the community. Classes include English, mathematics, and national test preparation for the older students, and basic skills for the younger ones. Lainie went last week to see the school and couldn't stop talking about it. You could say this kind of thing that is right up her alley. She talked me into going back out yesterday with our local friend.

We started our visit by attending the younger kids' class. It was a mob of kids, more students than usual because word spread around the neighborhood that Bule' (white foreigners) were at the school. We led the kids in some English exercises, sang some songs together, and talked about our family, life in America, and watched them fidget and roughhouse. At the end of class, we handed out potato chips from the States, which was a huge hit.


After that we were milling around in the street waiting for the adult classes to start, and I asked one of the kids if he wanted to get launched like a rocket. After some fear and trepidation, he was ready. So "tiga, dua, satu (3,2,1)..." and I hiked him up into the air and put him back down, with rocket noises. Instantly the entire class also wanted to be launched, over the roof, across the river, or to America. After about 15 of these the launch pad had to be closed because the rocket (yours truly) was out of fuel! Then came re-enactments of Bruce Lee movies, tackle the "monster" and everything else possible when a smiling giant is in town. It was panic in the streets for awhile.

Our Indonesian teachers were thrilled with all this, and they brought us to the small teacher's lounge for a meal. The meal was a box of street food and a cup of mineral water. Unlike other posts in SE Asia and around the world, Indonesian street food is NOT safe for Bule'. However, there was no way in the world we were going to insult our hosts and have them and us lose face by refusing the food. Down it went with a prayer to the stomach gods and a promise to find the vodka bottle for a medicinal dose when we got home. So far, so good!

After dinner we were introduced to the adult class. Here my Indonesian language skills were given a workout. These were non traditional students that have jobs and a very busy life but are motivated to continue to learn to better themselves and their families with education. They have my great respect.

They asked about where we were from, what I liked and didn't like about Jakarta, about my job and things they knew about America. I answered those questions with as much humor, humility and proper Indonesian as I had. I asked them about their studies and families. We had a ball together. And then came the inevitable request that I had been dreading. Would I please sing something?

Now, this is a very Asian thing. To refuse would not exactly be an insult, but it would put distance between us. So, I asked what I should sing. My wife, God love her, suggested an Eagles song. No way. Then one of the volunteer teachers suggested our "lagu kebangsaan." I hadn't heard this term but I knew "lagu" was "song" and "bangsa" was national, and the dime dropped as I realized they wanted me to sing the Star Spangled Banner. In public. By myself. The song with the weird rhythm and crazy range that wrecked a thousand sporting events. But, just like dinner, I could not refuse. With a hard swallow, I began belting it out with gusto, and what did I hear but my wife joining in! You can't imagine how good it was having just one more person to sing with in those circumstances.

After that came what I have learned is a Jakarta tradition after any event. Photographs! Always two or three with everyone being serious, and one with everyone acting crazy, putting rabbit ears behind each other's heads, etc. A long walk down a dark alley to the main road later, and it was a taxi ride home. A long, exhausting, exhilarating experience.
As a Consular officer, we meet with people outside the government everyday at the visa window. But the people rich enough to travel to the U.S. are still in the upper 5% of Indonesian society. Our great fortune in meeting our local friend and her connecting us with this school has given us a chance to meet at length with ordinary Indonesians. For some hours yesterday, we were America for the kids and adults we met and talked with. These people would have little chance of meeting us in other circumstances. Now, it was hot and humid and we were surrounded by mosquitos, burning trash, and all the other marks of poor areas in the tropics. We got out of there late, bitten, sticky and tired and then enjoyed a 1.5 hour taxi ride to travel 10 miles in the usual Jakarta traffic. (More singing together as requested by the taxi driver, this time the Rolling Stones). I still have two more days to wait to see if my dinner is going to send me to Singapore.

But, man, THIS was why we joined the State Department. One of our country goals is "Increase people to people contacts," and that was yesterday to a T. Either things like yesterday drive you insane, or you can't get enough of them. Representing America to people we wouldn't normally have access to, eating with them and belting out the national anthem to a room full of strangers? Oh, let me tell you, that's the stuff, my friends. I wouldn't have traded yesterday for the world.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

The picture to the left is a typical Jakarta surface street on a Saturday morning when traffic is light. What the picture cannot tell you is that the speed limit here is basically, "How fast can you go?"

Most days, that means 0-5 miles per hour. On the rare  light traffic days, it can reach 30 mph. The worst is when the traffic is heavy but moving, because everyone is desparate to get as far as possible before the inevitable traffic jam. But you know what you don't see in that picture or most anywhere else in Jakarta? Sidewalks!

Sidewalks, traffic lights and streetcrossings do exist in some places, but since those are merely lights on a pole or lines of paint on the street, they don't do much to slow down traffic. And yet, many times in Jakarta you simply must cross the street. What to do?

Your first few days or weeks, you wait until a local is crossing the road, and you use the slip stream to get across. Usually this is a little old lady in a hijab, and you feel like a total Wuss-keteer keeping a little old lady between you and onrushing traffic. And then sometimes you need to cross and there are no toddlers and old ladies to hide behind. So, one day you decide to use It. The one device that locals swear by when it comes to crossing a road full of moving traffic without the benefit of a crossing, stoplight, or anything else than your guts and your need to get across the road. 

Here it is:

This is the human hand, also known here as the "tangan dukun" or black magic hand when used to cross the street here. Here is how you use it. First, swallow hard and get very philosophical about whether you are going to live longer than the next 2 minutes. Then, put the magic hand out at shoulder height or lower in the direction of oncoming traffic. Step off the curb and walk at a consistent speed across the road, no matter how fast the cars are coming or how soft and squishy you feel compared to the buses and trucks heading towards you. That's it. I've seen it work a thousand times in my tour so far, and never seen anyone run over. But there are some "dont's" you have to avoid:

1. DON'T look at the drivers, only your destination. If the drivers see you look at them, they know you can see them and should avoid them. This can be hard to do if you are only 1/3 of the way across and have already been buzzed by 20 motorcycles. Stay tough, stare straight ahead.

2. DON'T vary your speed once you start across. The drivers rocketing towards you are assuming a constant rate of speed on your part as they calculate how close they can come to clipping you. If you get scared and stop, or think you are close enough to run the last little gap, you will be crushed.

3. DON'T react to cars and/or motorcycles hitting the horn as they draw even with you. Especially if you are an expat, because getting a "bule" (boo-lay) to jump two feet straight up into the air is great sport. Show some toughness and pride.

The only alternative is to hail a cab so they can go to the nearest roundabout and, depending on traffic, get you to the other side of the street in 10-20 minutes. You can do this. 240 million Indonesians can't be wrong, right?


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Celebrating Three Years Of Having Three Kids

Today, the day after a very special anniversary for our family, I was invited to join some friends who were heading out to volunteer at a local orphanage. Being an adoptive parent, I am particularly vulnerable in such a setting. I love kids and have worked with kids from various backgrounds in the past. My heart is definitely on high alert in such a place but I have no current plans to add to our family. It also helped my resolve knowing that there is no legal avenue for us to adopt a child from Indonesia. There are lots and lots of criteria we could never meet; we have three kids, we have previously adopted kids (that rule sort of fails the logic test for me), we are over 40, and the list goes on. All that to say, I walked into the place knowing I could play and enjoy them without feeling the need to add another place setting at our table. 

Well, I believed my head and my heart were firmly attached in the right places, but it didn't take long before I was beginning to wonder if the rules I had been told about adopting here were actually 
correct. I even began to speculate that there may be a loop hole or two for a child who has special needs. I am thrilled to report that many Indonesians do adopt. This orphanage was not over run with waiting kids. The orphanage was nice, clean and well staffed with very kind nannies.

While we were there we met a lady who is the aunt of young family who is adopting one of the babies. She had stopped by to play with her and check on her. She said they have one more hurdle and then she's home for good. We all cheered and the baby clapped. So sweet.

Indonesian kids are beyond adorable!  

 Then, there was this one little boy who grabbed my heart. I watched him play and interact. He reached over to feed me a bite of his Lego block. I pretended to take a bite and acted like it was delicious. He shot me a shy smile, looked away and then back again to see if I was still there. What a cutie!  I could almost feel the ivy like veins of love gripping around my heart. I decided not to hold him or focus on him. But, as I watched the little boy play it got to me. My eyes and nose burned with phantom tears. I believe that my broken heart went undetected. It would have been silly for me to go to that emotional place when I KNEW going in that I could not adopt these any of these kids. The sweet little boy has a few developmental delays and challenges certainly lay ahead of him. One specific physical defect was obvious. I assumed that defect was the reason he had not been adopted after all this time. He is clearly over a year old. It's difficult for me not to judge people for this. He is beautiful, engaging and intelligent. I could love him and provide him what he needs. His needs seem so minor. If he had the love and attention of an experienced family and some minor medical attention he could overcome in no time. I will certainly be praying someone will see past these minuscule issues and bring him home to be their miracle boy.  Then I remembered our fear as we filled out the numerous papers for our adoption. We had requested a healthy child. My heart stung in the revelation of my own hypocrisy. Pretty sure my eyes leaked a little.

I thought about our youngest son and what he might have looked like as a baby. What did he play with? What did he like to eat?  As an adoptive parent I am incredibly lucky because I have a few of his baby and toddler pictures. I will cherish them always. And yet, I lament. If only I could have held him, protected him and cradled him as he slept in my arms. I literally ache for the time we lost with him but that pain is completely over come by the three wonderful years we have had with him. What a treasure he is!

A picture from Our "Gotcha Day" Sept. 11, 2010. We had an awesome group
of family and some of our closest friends at the airport to welcome him home. 

It was just three years ago as of yesterday when we landed in Houston's airport with our youngest son. It's an anniversary that reminds us that our hope and desire to adopt an amazing kid was more than fulfilled. Our life has been blessed beyond our wildest dreams. He is an incredible person. He is funny. He is mature. He is wise beyond his years. He has got me heart and soul. I honestly can't remember life without him here. All three of my kids my treasures. I am a very lucky mom!

They all look SO YOUNG AND LITTLE in this picture!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Learning Curve

I feel like the last two months I have been living way outside of my previous experiences and yet I feel oddly at ease living in Jakarta. But when I come up against a learning experience that requires me to give myself a little grace I toss the situation into a file I call Lainie's learning curve. We are new to Jakarta, new to serving abroad with the Foreign Service, therefore grace is required as we figure these things out, this is what I tell myself probably 10 times a day.

 Many kind people have inquired, "How is the transition going for you?"  I do a quick mood diagnostic and most of the time I can say "I think I am hanging in there pretty good." I've had a few frustrating situations that had me in tears but I think we are all doing really well for the most part. 

  One of our family members has yet to arrive and oh how we are missing our beloved old Molly dog. We are still working on her import requirements. It's not easy being a FS dog. 

So, here's the Learning Curve list as it stands so far. It is in no particular order.

Clean water vs non-potable water, learning what I can and can't use tap water for. I thought I would present myself as a real world traveler and use local tap water to brush my teeth. I have since learned that is not a good idea. Maybe one day I will have steel plated expat guts but not at this point.

EFM (family member of an officer) Embassy Jobs,  Picture this: 25 over qualified people all want a shot at the four mostly clerical or managerial jobs currently listed (reason for this is that our diplomatic status prevents us from working within the local economy).  Here is a hint: If you are applying don't say a word to anyone. If you do let it slip that you interviewed for a job do your level best to make sure you let it go and are not bothered by the fact someone you know and like well got the job and you didn't. It's just part of life at post, apparently.
Secondly, the interview panel may ask you, "What are your career goals as an EFM?" and it may not be to your advantage to express that you feel that the question is a just a bit condescending. When asked I found myself struggling with the expected (interviewer wants to hear) answer and what I felt was a more honest answer. So, I went with my gut and suggested that a better question would be, "What are my hopes for my career as an EFM?" instead of "goals." And, while it seemed to generate a few nods and smiles at that very moment I don't actually know if they got it. With that brave (and ironically prophetic) moment behind me, I do not regret being true to myself and explaining that I feel my wisest plan for being successful at EFMhood is not to have clearly defined personal career goals (which does suck pretty darn bad). Bottom line, we EFM's are basically powerless in the career dept. There are possibilities but they are not the same at every post and it is rare to find a job in our particular career field or skill set waiting for us at post. EFM's need to have a built in flexibility that allows us to reinvent ourselves at each new location. How do you do that and answer the question, "What are your goals as an EFM?"  I would love for some wiser more experienced EFM's out there to chime in here.

Post Housing. When you do go into your post housing the first time go alone, or at least do not enter it with anyone who has not promised to love and cherish you until death do you part no matter what you say or how immaturely you react to ugly bathroom tiles. I do love our location and I've decided
the house is actually nice. Our house is growing on me all the time, however, my ridiculously minuscule closet space rash may act up again when our HHE (7k lb. of our personal items) arrives. On an amazingly happy note: we were given permission to paint the walls!
And paint we did! 

Driving Bu Lainie. I knew we would have to buy a car and hire a driver when we arrived at post, all of it out of our pockets of course (mentioned just in case some readers thought otherwise). Though I had anticipated a feeling of "lack of independence" before we arrived I had no idea how truly odd having a driver drive me around all day would actually be. Initially, every time I climbed in the 2nd row I felt sort of ridiculous, it's a very used '04 Toyota Kijang, not a limo, it's not a taxi, it's my own vehicle. Then, there are the logistics, was my driver sitting out in the hot car as I grocery shopped? As I had lunch with friends? I hoped not- so therefore- I hurried and worried as if my dad, my husband or my son was outside impatiently waiting for me. I have since learned that the drivers usually have nice sitting areas where they play cards, get a drink of cool water and just hang out- so that burden has lifted somewhat. When we are home, between errands, my driver literally sits at a table under my car port and waits for me to need to go someplace or to send him for something. I really wrestled with all of this at first. I wondered, "Was it my job to keep him busy the whole time he was on the clock?" It felt odd, him waiting outside to be asked to drive me someplace while I was inside reading a book on my couch with no intentions of going anywhere. Dare I say I might have even resented it just a bit because I felt guilty that he was constantly waiting for me. Learning not to feel bad when our driver is driving me/not driving me has been/is one of the major items on my learning curve.
The day I took this photo my car was full of people, which is rare. Usually me and the Pak, our driver. 

Managing Home Staff. Oh, I gotta tell ya... I didn't realize how amazing it is to have a clean house, like a really clean house, and beautifully ironed shirts ready for Sean each day. I am realizing how unwired I am to do those things now that I have seen domestic masters at work. Wow! However, this situation is pretty much the peak of my learning curve here. I am still struggling to learn how this home staff thing works. As a modern American in 2013 I have always believed that it is my duty to undo classism. I still do. But, I have hit a cultural wall. I believe the American ideals of personal empowerment and advancement are the best but- they live here. I am just a visitor. If I raise expectations while I'm here what happens when I leave? It's tough. This type of employee/employer relationship is difficult for me on a lot of levels. These dedicated, kind people are in my house all day. The job we pay them well to do is to take care of us. They work hard and seem to care about us. How can I not care about them? I genuinely want to know about them and about their ideas, thoughts and concerns. I am grateful they are here with me. That's just me, I am this way with everyone. I constantly have to hold myself back from asking them personal questions. Then there is the privacy issue- with our maid in particular, I felt like I had lost all rights to privacy and control over the stuff I had managed alone for years. Though I love not doing dishes as much, it has not been easy for me to give up my territory, ie... the kitchen. I had no idea I felt that way about my kitchen until I had help managing and cooking the meals. Also, for a while, I would not put my own dirty clothes in the hamper. I didn't mind her washing everyone else's underwear but I wanted to maintain my own laundry after she went home each evening. Which brings us to another prickly issue, "How do you say it?" Is it better to be direct from moment one or ease into it all? The answer, be DIRECT and write out a detailed list! I'll spare readers all of the things I've learned on this one topic but suffice to say managing skilled, experienced domestic employees who are in/around my house all day has taken up most of the real-estate on my learning curve.

Things on my "Loving Life" curve are the amazing fun people I've met so far, some are ex-pats and some are local. So far, I really like Jakarta. I think we totally lucked out having this as our first post.