An army marches on its stomach and so does an English teacher, as Daniel Pope found out.
Despite my earning a living from editing, writing and teaching English, I do not have an aptitude for languages. During my 20 years in Indonesia I’ve accumulated a vocabulary smaller than the average ten-year-old’s. A chimp’s, not a human’s. Foreign words just don’t stick in my head.
I have even more trouble putting words together. Slips of the tongue let me down. Once when a taxi driver asked me the route I wanted to take to my destination, instead of replying, “Saya akan kasi tahu“, meaning I would let him know, I said, “Ikan saya kasi tahu,” which translated as the more surreal “My fish will inform you”.
I was once the resident English language teacher on an army base in Cimahi, a small military town near Bandung. My room was on the edge of the base, but while this put me out of earshot of the noisy parade ground – the shouting of ‘kiri, kiri, kiri-kanan, kiri…’ and the stomping of boots – it also put my computer out of range of the Wi-Fi mast located next to this lively rectangle of tarmac.
I discussed this problem with the officer who had the unenviable job of making sure that I, a finicky civilian guest, was looked after properly. I respectfully called him Officer Bantu – ‘assist’ in Indonesian. A quiet but confident type, he promised that he’d look at the technical issues and see if the Wi-Fi’s range couldn’t be extended.
He assured me that Indonesian soldiers were the most disciplined people in the country and that the selection process for new army recruits was tough. I wasn’t so sure. I’d heard that it cost just one goat to join the Indonesian army for those who didn’t have the equivalent in cash. But then most jobs in the public sector are for sale in Indonesia.
I hoped the men that Officer Bantu detailed to fix the Wi-Fi had more of a clue than the odd-job man who did domestic repairs around my Jakarta neighbourhood. This man was responsible for acres of clumpy, dangling electrical wiring and crooked, twisted plumbing. Once when I found him doing carpentry while squatting on the floor, I set up a work bench for him. But he simply hopped up and squatted on the bench, continuing as before but higher up.
All expatriates in Indonesia have tales of workers bodging jobs, but my favourite concerned a pair of replacement back doors my friend was having built. He instructed the workman to install a cat flap. Since cat flaps are not common features in Jakarta doors, he had to specify what he wanted done. He then left, confident that when he returned Tibbles would have a little door all of his own.
And so it proved to be. Except that he hadn’t counted on the workman’s apparent acute sense of symmetry. For when he came back he found not a single cat flap in one of the doors – whether the left or the right he’d left to the workman’s discretion – but one in each of them. A pair of matching cat flaps.
But lack of Wi-Fi wasn’t my only complaint on the army base. There was also little food of a quality able to sustain my morale. Don’t get me wrong. I like Indonesian food. It fascinates me. I’m especially intrigued by telur balado. This dish originates in North Sumatra, and features shelled boiled eggs that have been rolled around in the frying pan – combining two methods of cooking an egg for no obvious reason other than to produce a plastic-like skin.
Which brings us to the next item. Ask any seasoned expatriate in Indonesia to name a popular local food that’s best avoided, and they might choose sambal, a sauce made primarily from chili peppers. The common bottled form of this stuff is found on dining tables throughout the country.
Indonesians dollop it onto almost every meal. In most fast food restaurants sachets of sambal are heaped onto your tray, while ketchup has to be requested. I once taught a friend how to make an egg mayonnaise sandwich, but trying to stop him from adding half a bottle of sambal sauce to the mix was like trying to stop a vampire adding blood.
The same friend, unemployed, used to go to great lengths to scrounge money from me. He once sent me a letter, imploring me to pay his hospital bill for a leg injury. It would have been more convincing had he not included a photo of his leg, which he’d daubed with sambal to create the illusion of blood – bright orange blood. I replied that I would send him money for a bottle of tomato ketchup so that next time he could do a better job of the deception.
But what I was being fed at the base was not Indonesian food. This was army food. This was slop served in a mess hall. Indonesia army cooks need to learn two things in my view. First, fried eggs are meant to be served hot. They aren’t supposed to be rubbery on the outside, spongy on the inside, and filled with tiny pockets of cooking fat. Second, heated bread is not toast. Toasted bread is toast. There’s a difference.
Taking pity on me as I ate gloomily each day, Officer Bantu proposed that I compile a menu of meals agreeable to me, which the cook would do his best to conjure up. This arrangement was an improvement until the evening for my pizza arrived. Because the kitchen didn’t have suitable ingredients, and I didn’t fancy a pizza with a noodles topping, a soldier was sent out on his motorbike to the nearest Pizza Hut to fetch me a takeaway.
But the nearest branch was 11 kilometres away in Bandung, and it was rush hour. Unfortunately, it also poured with rain while he was gone, making him 90 minutes late returning with my American Supreme – by now cold and soggy.
But it wasn’t the condition of the food that ruined my appetite. Pizza after all is famous for remaining edible when all other foods have become fit only for the waste bin, and as such might well be the food that sustains the survivors of the apocalypse.
It’s just that it’s not easy to tuck into your pizza when outside the window the delivery boy is ordered to get down among the puddles and do a hundred press-ups for being late bringing it to you. Unless you’re completely heartless, it does put you off.
Returning to the problem of my Wi-Fi, neither Officer Bantu nor the might of the entire regiment seemed any closer to providing me with a signal. Each attempt invariably failed. I was surprised by this. I might have understood had I been staying with the infantry or the cavalry. But my host was the Indonesian army’s communications regiment – the equivalent of the Signal Corp in the British army. If they couldn’t successfully accomplish the mission to get me online then nobody in Cimahi could.
In the end, Officer Bantu saved face by claiming that I hadn’t been allowed Wi-Fi access because I didn’t have security clearance. I wondered if they thought I might be James Bond. I surmised anyway that the joke going around the mess hall was ‘Oh yeah, our guest James Bond. Licensed to bloody well complain about everything’.
Despite everything, I agreed to return to Cimahi for a further teaching stint. But this time I insisted on living in a hotel in Bandung and commuting to the army base. Of course, this entailed my fish informing taxi drivers where to go in the mornings, but this was preferable to being subjected to army-style ikan smothered in sambal sauce for supper each night.