Saturday, September 12, 2009

Everywhere is not America

A few days ago I almost wrote a post lamenting that everywhere is America, that is, everywhere seems to have taken on the pop culture and social assumptions and expectations of the U.S. I knew better. Where there is imitation, it is sometimes humorous, sometimes pitiful, and sometimes simply to be expected with economic development. Besides, such a view is rather shallow, and indicates one hasn't gone out of his way to find the differences that still very much remain.

Even though I won't have much of that opportunity because of my occupational obligations and the preferences of my host, I am still able to get my feet wet in the differences between Indonesia and the U.S. (Not all of these are unique to Jakarta, of course, either.)

One great thing is bargaining. In the States you can actually bargain, even in big box stores or malls, if you ask the right person (i.e., manager). But here (like most places), it is expected, and I don't have to run to find the manager if I want to make a deal.

Now I actually don't like confrontations with strangers, so you'd think I'd get ripped off every time because I'm not tough enough to stand my ground. But I am also enough of a cheapskate, which tends to win out over my mild personality. Here's an example:

Vendor to me (walking by wares as casually as possible, hoping no one will actually start showing me things): Can I help you? Maybe you like this special Indonesian cloth? Here, in red, or blue, green, yellow (starts pulling out what seems to be half of her supply).
I (slowing to look, because I am actually interested, but trying to stay casual): Well, I'm not looking for exactly that design (non-committally, but really having little idea yet of what I want).
Vendor: How about this? (Unfolds cloth) See how beautiful? You like this size? You want bigger?
I (getting sucked in): Yeah, maybe bigger. It needs to cover a big dining room table.
Vendor: OK, how about this? You like this design?
I (getting serious, examining the weave and quality of the cloth, and the quality of the print): Do you have something nicer?
Vendor: Oh, you want handmade? Over here we have our handmade items. Come. (She leads me to the center of the display area and pulls out cloth that is clearly of higher quality: a stronger weave with irregularities of a handmade process).
I (noticing the prices are about three times as much): Oh, that's nice (returning to non-committal state).
Vendor: For you, I make a deal (knocks 15% of the price).
I (knowing that I actually planned to buy something like this so I better take it seriously. I'm also emboldened by how easy it was to get the first discount): Let's find something in blue. Let's look through these.
(the Vendor starts pulling out ones I indicate I'm interested in. I note the marked prices as well as the quality of each one, and the ones I like)
I (paying attention mostly to those which are a bit under my budget, while occasionally admiring the nicer ones, one of which I'm really after): Well, let me think about these here. Let's hold them up. I wonder how this would look on the table....That other one there is really nice, but probably out of my price range.
Vendor (knocks 25 % off). OK, for you I can give you this price.
I: No, that's a little high. I'll have to go with one of these other ones. What can you offer me for these?
Vendor (20% off the cheaper ones): This price.
I: That's pretty good. (Looks back at better one.) My budget is around this much (mentions about 1/3 of the actual price of the one I want. This is the key counter offer. You have to start really low, even if it sounds outlandish. Some people who are actually good at this claim you should start at 10% of the asking price.) What do you think you could offer me for that?
Vendor (definitely focused on the cheaper ones after hearing my offer!): I can offer you one of these at this price (knocks 30 or 35% off).
I (just stand there and look). I don't know. It's not exactly what I want, I suppose.
Vendor: You get this for your wife? A special gift? Birthday?
I: No, just a souvenir for the trip. Nothing special.
Vendor: OK, I can give you this (cheaper one) for this much (knocks about 40-45% off the price).
I: Hmmm. This other one is the nicest. Do you think you could sell me that for the same price (which is 50% off the price of the nicer one, the one I really want).
Vendor (Looking surprised, and a little disgusted, starting to scold me): No, I couldn't do that.
I just stand there and look at the item.
Vendor: OK, for you, 50% off.

And that's the story of how I got a pretty good souvenir for half price. In a mall, no less. Without being too confrontational. And, actually, it is not a piece of cloth, but the item in the story has been changed to keep the recipient in suspense until I arrive home.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Moria's audacious statement of the day

The American Midwest is more humid than Southeast Asia.

I have actually speculated that this is the case for a number of years now. I recall my days trekking around Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, hot and sweaty, but not unbearably so. Years later I moved to the Midwest, and always struggled through the summers. There would be days I would go lay out--perfectly still--and still sweat like a glass of ice tea.

That's the evidence. In the Midwest, you can break a severe sweat doing nothing. But in Southeast Asia, it takes some intense working to get that sweaty. I was walking around outside in Jakarta Sunday afternoon and didn't break a sweat. I sit outside for my meals here and don't break a sweat. It's hot, and not that comfortable, but not that humid, either.

To be fair, not every day in the Midwest is like that, and this past summer was amazingly mild. Really enjoyable, actually. But it still seems that, in general, the Midwest is more humid than Southeast Asia.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I keep hearing how awful the traffic is in Jakarta--from others who have visited, from the guidebook, from my hosts. I have yet to experience the traffic, because I have only been here on the weekend. Hopefully I won't have to experience the traffic. My acquaintances here are duly cautious of it, and practically refuse to go out in it at all.

We did manage to get out and about a little yesterday, being Sunday. There is a church supply store here, which we only spent a little while at, because it closes early enough in the afternoon. The products are certainly inexpensive, although there was not quite the selection of things that I had been expecting based on reports from others who had visited before me. There is a huge selection of crucifixes, and while I suppose one can't have too many crucifixes, I'm not sure how many I really need to pick up at this point.

Kota is the old colonial center of the city, a large plaza with a few buildings originally used by Dutch rules, such as the governor's office and courthouse. The buildings are various states of disrepair, although a few house museums. One building that is restored similar to its 1930s appearance houses the Cafe Batavia, a coffeehouse, restaurant, and bar with high ceilings, polished wood decor, and portraits of various figures, some famous and some not, some in risque poses or dress, covering most of the wall area. Huge shutters adorn large framed windows, which now remain permanently closed thanks to the air conditioning.

I ate dim sum while I was there. It was decent, although I've had better.

We managed to get to a couple different malls, too. Sunday is a shopping day for many people, again, because of the traffic on other days of the week. I picked up a few necessities since my own suitcase had only made it as far as Detroit. I also found a few souvenirs.

The first photo is the plaza at Kota. The second is the bar in Cafe Batavia, and the third is the restroom--pictures even there.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

How has travel in Asia changed in the past 10-15 years?

Not much, really. At least air travel. Airports are airports, and airplanes are airplanes. And it's not that I expected it to have changed that much, anyway. Security is a little tighter, obviously. The same kinds of limits to liquids in ziploc bags in carry-ons apply as it does in the States, except everything is expressed in metric. 500 ml bg, 100 ml of each liquid.

Seems like I am always flying to the same places. When I first traveled around Asia in 1994, I flew to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and a few other places, all from my main destination of Tokyo. This trip, I'm flying through Tokyo and Bangkok to Jakarta, and back through Singapore and Tokyo. The Bangkok airport is brand new, built three years ago, but, as I say, it's hard to remember any real differences from the old one, as airports are airports.

I guess that's not completely true. The Jakarta airport is small enough that it reminds me of a regional airport. The corridor floors are a reddish color, and the large windows invite in the greens, oranges, blues of the flora: all kinds of trees, grasses, bushes and flowers. I am struck by the variety of flora here. It is very beautiful.

15 years ago the language most often heard in Asia travel seemed to be Japanese. I suppose that had to do with how I traveled, since I went through Tokyo so much. Still, I remember that many of the passengers I heard, even going to SE Asia, were speaking Japanese. That is no longer the case. Japanese was still used for announcements flying out of Japan, but Mandarin seems to be much more prevalent now. And most of the travelers on my flights were not Japanese.

There doesn't seem to be much sightseeing to do in Jakarta, and since I am here to work, I won't get away to other destinations. That is a slight pity, considering the promising beauty I've glimpsed. Maybe some day I'll have to come back for a vacation :).