Monday, January 10, 2011

lifestyles of the rich and famous

PART 1

All my life I’ve wanted a sugar daddy, just without all gross older man stuff I’m not actually into. It’s been a life dream I assumed impossible, until now. Turns out, the whole time I should have been wishing for a sugar aunt and uncle. It’s rare you make it to 26 years of age without knowing all of your family, but somehow I did. Ok, so they’re not blood family, but if I’ve learned anything from my time in Indonesia, family is family.

My father has been with his Indonesian born wife for well over ten years, yet I never knew a whole lot about the life or family she left behind long ago. I had the vague impression she came from money despite her being the biggest coupon clipper I’ve ever known. She also always encouraged me to visit Indonesia and when the chance for my backpacking trip to collide with their vacation here, I jumped on the opportunity to join.

After a few solid months of being a dirty hippie scavenger, I was ready for some indulgence and vacation. I arrived quite literally penniless and in need of both a meal and shower (I had been stretching my money my last few days in Cambodia and making a bag of chips last as two meals. A joke the family likes to now tell.) I was rescued at the airport and promptly brought to one of the many malls in Jakarta. After being stuffed with food we went shopping and I was told if I wanted or needed anything just to let them know. At first I appreciated the gesture, and after some time I learned that they literally meant anything.

But before I can get into the absurdity and amazingness of my situation here, let me introduce the cast of characters.

First and foremost is The Godfather. He’s my stepmom’s brother (aka my uncle) and very clearly the head of the family, the main breadwinner, and the official decision maker. His name is Ping and when he says “jump”, you say “how high?”. Well, I don’t. In fact I don’t know what he says most of the time because he doesn’t speak much English. For the most part, I can tell he enjoys having me around though and likes to show off his bule (white foreigner) niece to others. He insists I join him at lunches, 5 am jogs, or afternoon karaoke just so I can be introduced to his circle of friends.

And I do it dutifully too; it’s the least I can do for the roof he’s put over my head, the food in my belly, and the clothes on my back. And accessories, massages, and plane tickets. Yes, Ping is The Godfather for the reason that he makes a shit ton of money and loves to spend it on his family. And by the grace of God I am his family.

Yes it’s true; somehow I’ve slipped into a world where money has no value, mostly because there is a seemingly endless amount of it. At first I could tell they had money. It’s only after living with them for over a month I get just how much of it they have, and who they lend it to. Because that’s pretty much what they do, lend people money. It’s as simple as that, yet Bank of Ping lends out hundreds of thousands on a regular basis to government officials, oil drilling companies, and God knows who else. Over time he’s collected favors from every business you can imagine: jewelry makers, whorehouse owners, and senators; and I’ve met them all.

But the best and most absurd part of all of this: Ping lives in a shack of a warehouse. Despite his huge financial success and ability to buy several properties a year (and he does) he prefers his 30 year old deteriorating office building as his castle. He is a man who likes simple comfort and is unwilling to change, even if this makes him the butt of jokes amongst his class.

Ping loves routine and sticks to his regimented schedule of waking at 4 am, exercising, and then commencing his day. There is no specific daily work schedule; he comes and goes as he pleases; but mostly people come to his office to ask for money. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere as the room is small, no frills, and filled with yelping dogs. The walls are covered with countless photos of Ping with various high ranking government officials and military and one of him with the infamous Indonesian major mob boss. Because he wants you to know who his friends are if you decide not to pay him back.

If Ping weren’t a big time loan shark he’d be a bartender because he won’t let anyone pass through his doors without a drink. And when he says “one for the road”, he really means three or four. While he starts asking me early on in the day if I want a drink, he respects my ‘no’ answer; that is until 4 pm. Whenever 4 o’clock rolls around, if I’m anywhere near Ping I’m destined to have a drink in my hand. First he offers beer, then whiskey, and when I’ve declined both, he just gets me whatever he is drinking. No doesn’t mean no to Ping. (And this refers to all aspects of life.)

If Ping is king of his castle, then his queen is Alio. Or indentured servant, I’m not quite sure which anymore. Otherwise known as Auntie ATM, she handles the money and loves spending it. It took some time to get used to, but whatever I wanted, I would not pay for, no matter how hard I tried. And I did try. It honestly became a mission and I did everything I could to buy my own earrings and I failed over and over again until the one time I succeeded, only to discover she let me pay because she ran out of cash.

In the end though I still wasn’t paying because since the day I arrived my pocket had been stuffed with their cash. I felt uncomfortable with this at first, but after one month it’s become routine. And my biggest fear is that I’ve become far too comfortable with having other people pay for everything for me. I’ve been fiercely independent for as long as I can remember and take a certain pride in paying for all my own travels, despite what other people assume. This is the first time someone else has footed the bill. And to be honest, I kind of like it.

Alio is by far my favorite person here as she is my interpreter and protector. She speaks English, although not entirely perfectly, but always has a sense of humor and kindness about her I adore. As a good Christian, she goes to church regularly and prays often and I can tell it’s her faith that is her fuel in life.

The truth is Ping has worn her down. He is most demanding on her, requesting her schedule stay similar to his, that she only rarely goes out at night and with his permission, and is at his beck and call. A dutiful wife, she feels she has no other choice, but doesn’t complain. But I can tell it wears her down, physically and mentally. Whenever questioned about the irrationality of a situation, she simply sighs and says, “This is Ping”.

On the bright side, she can call the masseuse and beautician to come to the house whenever she pleases to try and relax. And since money is no object, she purchases anything and everything “for health”, no matter the cost. Eye mask for $100? Yes please! Bird’s nest soup for $300? Why not?! As long as it’s beneficial to her health, she’ll invest.

As for Ping’s investments, he loves watches. His collection in the hundreds are sprawled everywhere and their value range from $1,000-$50,000, although I’m not sure where he wears the expensive ones to since he never goes at night. Because of his self-imposed 4 am wake up, he goes to bed around 6-8 pm. He won’t leave the house past 4 pm because it will infringe on his schedule; another reason he might be the butt of jokes.

One more of my favorite characters has to be Wei, otherwise known as Uncle Wei Wei the tour guide. Tall, thin, quiet, and patient; my other uncle is also at the beck and call of Ping and has played tour guide and driver since my arrival. He drives us anywhere and everywhere, the mall or overnight trips, and I’m curious as to what his life is like outside of here. More evasive than anyone else, he lives far away despite Ping’s offer to house him next door (he owns the surrounding houses yet does nothing with them; he just doesn’t want neighbors. I think Wei likes his personal space. But he always has a smile on his face and a pleasant demeanor.

What really makes Wei’s driving skills exceptional is the legendary traffic of Jakarta. Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, I’m fairly certain I’ve spent half of my time here sitting in a car. Not joking. It’s not as chaotic as Hanoi or death defying as Cairo, but far more infuriating than even LA traffic. It’s nonstop, everywhere, at all times of the day, and what keeps me from venturing out on my own more often. If there is any place on Earth that has worse traffic than Jakarta, I don’t want to go there, although I’m afraid I already have. And that place is called Bandung.

Roughly 2-3 hours outside of Jakarta, Bandung is the mountainous fresh air escape from the city everyone needs. And since everyone needs it, they go there on the weekends bringing their cars, pollution, and traffic along with them. Once in Bandung a drive that should take 20-30 minutes without traffic, took 2 ½ hours. Two and half friggin’ hours sitting in car going out of my mind. (It was New Year’s weekend. More stories of Bandung to come.)

If there were two words I’d use to describe Jakarta it would be ‘traffic’ and ‘shopping’. This whole place is a clusterfuck of both and I’m surprised it hasn’t sent me out of my mind yet. I suppose free shopping takes the edge off though. I’m not sure why my family here assumes I need to go shopping so much, maybe it’s the holes in my clothes, but it’s pretty constant. I resisted at first, only getting one shirt here, a pair of earrings there.

Really though, they’ve encouraged me to do a lot worse damage and a tiny voice inside of me is screaming to do so. But in the end, I have a new wardrobe, new accessories, toiletries, and set of DVDs to keep me very happy. I even have to be careful not to ask for things. If I even touch something and ask what it is, rather than an answer I get, “do you want it?”. Anything I look vaguely interested in and it’s assumed I want it. And since no doesn’t mean no here, sometimes things get bought I don’t really need or want. The shopping situation here is so absurd that all I can do is laugh.

At least when my father was here I had someone to laugh with. We were the two bules together and I think explaining who I am was a lot easier when he was here. No one knows why this family has a white niece (or nephew as my aunt sometimes introduces me. Her English isn’t perfect). This was my dad’s second trip here and as I’m told he’s done much better this time around.

Adjusting to a strange new world can be surprisingly difficult for most people. Particularly when you’re thrown into another family’s schedule and habits which can be vastly different from your own. My father is a man that shows up not on time, but early. He doesn’t like to wait or make others wait. He makes a schedule for the day and sticks to it. This family couldn’t be more opposite.

First they’ll say we’re leaving at 9 am. Then we’ll leave at 10:30 and we won’t know where we’re going. When we get there the plan will change and we’ll go somewhere else. For a go with the flow person like myself this is fine, exciting even. But for someone like my father, this is infuriating. Apparently last time he became incredibly frustrated. But now he knew what to expect so he didn’t make a big deal of it. In fact, he laughed a lot about the ridiculousness and I think appreciated having me to laugh along with him. I’m sure the endless whiskey helped as well.

In a nutshell, this house runs similarly to a fire station. You pretty much sit around, relaxing, chatting, eating, and suddenly at the drop of a hat they’ll tell you to go-go-go and you have to be ready. You never know where you’re going or what for, but when they start walking out the door, you better follow. If I ever say, “let me grab my purse” they answer with, “what for?”. In reality I’m not sure since I pay for nothing, and can buy anything I need.

As I couldn’t possibly begin to fit all of the tales and observations into one blog, it had to be split into two. But now that you’ve been introduced to the cast of characters and have a basic understanding of this strange world, you might be ready for some actual events. Stories include prostitutes with my father, free range rhinos, and how to cheapen the best steak in the world. Don’t worry, none of these tales are related.

1 comment:

  1. i've been drinking bird nest soup every night (i only get the homemade kind back at home). the only reason why i drink it is because it's supposed to be good for complexion.

    i’ve been taking the store-bought kind online (e.g. www.geocities.jp/hongkong_bird_nest/index_e.htm of famous branded only of course) which is directly mailed from Hong Kong. this would be at a more affordable price.

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