Home » All, Sumatra, Sumatra Part 01

Cross-Cultural Confusion

Submitted by on November 26, 2015 – 1:18 am

Thursday, November 26, 2015

I had some newish experiences yesterday on top of some familiar ones. The familiar ones came with another camera walkabout. This time, I put my 120mm macro lens on the Olympus. This lens is meant for taking close-up pictures of very small things – like insects. But since it is a 120mm lens, I can also use it for portraits. I would prefer to use my 150mm lens (because it is much sharper and brighter), but I wanted to test the 120mm lens and refresh my memory on how to use it.

I walked to a nearby neighborhood across yet another bridge. This neighborhood stretches out along a river, and I hoped it would be interesting for that reason. The new experiences began almost immediately because as soon as I crossed the bridge, I found myself in front of a very large prison. It took me a long time to even figure out it was a prison. The very front of it looked like any government building. I knew it was a popular place because there were a lot of tricycles (becak) out front. Becak drivers called out to me and I stopped to chat with them and take some pictures. They eventually told me that this was a prison. And that explained the large numbers of people and becak. They were there to visit inmates. I’m fascinated by prisons, and I always enjoy it when I stumble across them. I’ve even sought them out a few times. I made a deliberate effort to visit the prison in Tacloban in the Philippines, and I ended up going up a couple of times to bring care packages to an American prisoner being held there. I thought about asking the guards at this prison if there were any foreigners inside, but I didn’t bother. I knew the chances of that were pretty much zero. I think I am the only foreign tourist to visit Tanjungbalai in a very, very long time. There is almost no possibility that a foreigner could have shown up in this neck of the woods and found himself in prison.

As far as prisons go, this place seemed pretty casual. It was casual enough that I’m now wondering if there is a chance of going back there and getting a tour. The thought of a tourist getting a tour of a prison is ridiculous from a Canadian point of view, but it could easily happen here. People seem confused by my presence and think I’m an important person sometimes. I was told that there were over a thousand inmates in the prison and that most of them were incarcerated for drug offenses. That seemed odd to me since this hardly seems like a place where drugs are available or widely used. I said the prison seemed casual, but I was still very careful about how I behaved. I made sure to keep my camera dangling at the end of my arms and not raised to my face. I was also careful never to point it anywhere near the front gate or the prison walls. I was actually surprised that no one gave me a hard time over the camera. At the beginning, I didn’t know it was a prison, so I had marched right up to the place with my camera prominently displayed. But no one reacted in any way. Anywhere else, I’d have been approached by the guards and told to put the camera away.

When I left the front of the prison, I was astonished to see just how large the prison bulding was. They were in the middle of some kind of expansion and a vast and high cement wall with barbed wire and guard towers stretched for long distances in seemingly all directions. It reminded me of the dinosaur cages in the movie Jurassic World or the stadiums in the Hunger Games and the Maze Runner. It looked like something from the future, not a place that made any sense in the Tanjungbalai that I had come to know.

Beyond the prison, I turned right and walked along a row of houses beside the river. Lots of men were in groups in various shops and places just talking or playing cards. (The women were all somewhere working – doing laundry and cooking – while the men relaxed and enjoyed themselves.) The men called me over and invited me to sit down and have a drink. Sometimes I said yes, and I was offered various snacks (like banana bread) and drinks. Then I would pose for selfies and move on to the next place. I wasn’t in the mood to get my own selfies, so I let the opportunities pass. I took a few nice pictures with my Olympus and a couple with my smartphone but none of me posing with anyone.

The children in this neighborhood were quite a bit bolder and a lot louder and more annoying than in other neighborhoods. I gathered up quite a large group of rambunctious boys, and I made the mistake of engaging them in some goofing around. That set them off, and after that I couldn’t get rid of them. They stuck with me for a very long time shouting and yelling and otherwise causing trouble. There were so many of them that they blocked traffic. And that made the drivers honk their horns. And the noise level went up and up and up till I started to go a bit nutty. I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. Some of the boys followed me on their bicycles all the way back to downtown and my hotel. They stayed out on the street for a while staring at the hotel after I waved goodbye and went inside.

Throughout the day, I had been in contact with my friend Rea at the Samsung store. She was the one who had helped me buy a SIM card. I had done some research before I came to Indonesia, and I learned that the best SIM card to get was from Telkomsel. But when she brought me to a cell phone store, they didn’t have any Telkomsel packages. She suggested that I get a “3” SIM card instead. It was cheaper and it lasted longer. I asked her many times if it was as good as Telkomsel, and she said that they were all the same. So I got one. But my connection has been very poor. I talked to her about this and I wondered if a Telkomsel SIM would give me a better signal. To my surprise, she agreed. She said that Telkomsel was much, much better than 3. Which begs the question of why she told me to buy a 3 card in the first place.

Well, we arranged to meet at 7 p.m. at the Samsung store, and she was going to help me buy a Telkomsel SIM card. It was another fun experience because she decided to take me to a van that just parked at the side of the busy main street and sold SIM cards out of the back. We drove there on her scooter, and she spoke to the man in Indonesian about all the details. We eventually settled on a Telkomsel SIM card with a 4 GB data plan. I had hoped for more, but that was all that was available. I made sure to ask about how long the SIM card was valid for and Rea assured me that it was all fine. The card cost 95,000 rupiah, which is about $9.50 Canadian. The man had to do all kinds of mysterious things with the card to activate it. He had to put it inside his phone and then make a phone call and enter codes and such things. Then he handed it over to me. I got on the back of Rea’s scooter and we drove back to Samsung. We went inside and she, being the cell phone expert, popped open my phone and inserted the new SIM card and went through the menu to set it up. (An important thing about my smartphone is that it is a dual SIM. I can have 2 SIM cards running at the same side. So I can keep my 3 card and my new Telkomsel. If the signal strength of one is low, I can switch to the other.)

When everything was done, I checked over the phone myself. I confirmed with Rea the details of this card. I asked her how I can check to see how much credit is left on the card. She dialed in a special number and I got a message on the phone telling me everything. To my dismay, the message said that this SIM card was valid only until December 26, which is only one month from now. I pointed this out to Rea, and she was very nonchalant about it. She just said something like, “Oh, yes. In December you have to buy a new SIM card.” I couldn’t believe it. What happened to that long discussion about making sure the SIM card was valid for a long time? It’s just one of those weird things again about how difficult it is to communicate across a language and cultural barrier. This sort of thing happens all the time, and it confuses me no end.

The same confusion exists in every social interaction. Once I had my new SIM card, there was the question of what to do next. Did Rea expect to socialize a bit? Or was I supposed to just leave? It’s hard to cut through the cultural barrier and figure out what someone else wants or what they expect. I was intending to just go back to my hotel and cook spaghetti. But one thing led to another, and I found myself heading back to my favorite restaurant for a martbak mesir, and Rea and one of her staff members was going to come with us. This, apparently, was a big deal. They were very excited to be having dinner with me. They knew the restaurant well, and we zipped over there on scooters.

I had been to this restaurant by myself many times, and the family and staff there knew me quite well. They were surprised to see me show up on the back of a scooter with friends. Right from the start, things got complicated. On all my previous visits, I walked up to where they were preparing the food, and I chatted with them and told them what I wanted to order. This time, I sat at a table with Rea and her staff member. I thought someone from the restaurant would come over and take our order as a group. But no one came. So I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea if Rea and her employee were there to eat or just have a drink or what. And Rea seemed to be waiting for my lead. It was weird because it’s her country. She should know how things work better than me. But she expected me to know everything.

Finally, something happened and an order was placed for three martabak mesir. I enjoyed mine very much, but Rea just kind of picked at hers and ate only a little bit. She wasn’t reallly hungry and didn’t really want the food. So why, then, did she order it? I have no idea. Her employee was even worse. He sat there in his chair like a prisoner about to be executed. He had this little leather satchel with him and he clutched at like it was a life preserver. He actually started to shake and sweat. I became concerned, and he explained that he was feeling sick because he can’t eat beef and this was beef-based martabak. He was having some kind of allergic or psychosomatic reaction to the beef. THEN WHY DID HE ORDER IT? I have no idea. He ended up tearing his food apart and trying to scrape away all the filling, leaving just the bread, which he could eat. Then he said something to Rea in an anxious voice. Rea translated and said that he was worried about who was going to pay for this food. I guess he didn’t have any money. Rea laughed and told him not to worry about it. Either she or I would cover it. Again, I was so confused. This was not a fancy restaurant. This was not a special or expensive meal. And this guy worked at a high-end store selling Samsung smartphones that went for US $1,000 each. Yet, he can’t pay for a simple meal? And if so, why did he agree to come? Why was he so excited to come? And why did he order a dish that he knew he couldn’t eat? On top of all that, the two of them spent the majority of their time on their smartphones texting and surfing and taking and sending selfies.

The whole evening was weird. Of course I insisted on paying for all of us. It was the least I could do since Rea had helped me with the SIM card (fiasco though it was, she meant well). And this poor employee was shaking and ill and clearly just wanted to go home. I walked up to the owners of the restaurant and paid for all three meals, and I was a bit embarrassed. I had invited friends to their restaurant for a meal, but one person had barely touched her meal. And the other had torn his apart and left a giant pile of beef filling in the middle of his plate. Obviously, they didn’t like the food, so it probably hurt the feelings of the restaurant owners. At least I had eaten all of mine and enjoyed it very much. All I can conclude is that neither Rea nor her employee wanted to be there or wanted any food. So what bizarre social convention or misunderstanding led to them inviting themselves along? It’s a difficult thing to understand.

Another adventure I could briefly mention is a return visit to the BCA bank ATM. I had withdrawn just a small amount when I first arrived in Tanjungbalai. It is poor practice because you have to pay a service fee to everyone for every transaction (so the CEO of CIBC can have another ten million dollars in his bonus this year), and it is better to withdraw a large amount all at once. The problem, though, is that most ATMs limit how much you can take out. So even if you want to withdraw $500, you have to do, perhaps, 5 separate transactions of $100 each and pay a service fee of $5 each time. It’s highway robbery, but that’s the way the rich stay rich and everyone else stays poor.

Anyway, I had run out of money, and I went back to the only ATM in town that I knew would work. I was very nervous, as I always am. I always imagine the worst when it comes to banks and bank cards and credit cards. I talked to some people at the bank, and they told me that the limit for each withdrawal was 2.5 million rupiah, and I could withdraw a maximum of 10 million rupiah ($1,000 Canadian) in one day. (That’s assuming my bank in Canada would allow that, which I highly doubt.) So, with my heart pounding, I went inside the little ATM room and inserted my card, typed out my PIN, and chose to withdraw 2,500,000. To my dismay, I got an error message saying that I should choose a smaller amount. I went down to 2,000,000, but I got the same error. I was worried about trying a third time, so I cancelled the transaction. Then the bank people told me that the ATM machine I had chosen dispensed smaller bills, so it had a lower limit. If I wanted to withdraw 2.5 million rupiah, I’d have to use this other ATM. It dispensed only 100,000 rupiah notes.

These numbers continue to freak me out. 100,000 seems like such a huge number, but it is the equivalent of a $10 bill in Canada. Last night, for example, when I paid for the meals and drinks, I just handed over a 50,000 rupiah note and waited for change. I had no idea what the bill was, but I figured that would cover it. After all, I had given 50,000! But the woman just stared at me and waited for more. The bill was actually 61,000 rupiah. I did a doubletake and wondered how in the world it could be so expensive. But then I remembered that 50,000 rupiah is only $5. Somehow, I thought it was $50.

Even though 100,000 rupiah is not that much money, it is still a very large bill here, and no one ever has change. That’s a problem with ATM machines. They give you these large notes and then when you go to buy a cup of coffee or something, you find that no one ever has change. It would be like walking into Tim Horton’s and trying to buy a coffee with a $1,000 bill. I should have gone into the bank and asked them to change my big notes into smaller notes. I’m going to go back to the bank today and ask them to do that.

And that’s pretty much the end of my day.


A Riverside Walk
Getting Used to Lots of Noise


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