Atchafalaya Swamp

Sunday, November 5, 2006

My First 'Lebaran'

Selamat Hari Lahir di Bulan Nopember

Not only did I miss Idul Fitri with my family this year (being away at work in Indonesia), I had also missed some birthday celebrations of my loved ones back home. My son turned thirteen on November 1 - coincidentally on the same day as my eldest sister’s birthday. Through some mysterious twist of fate, most of the members of my family share their birthdays very close to each other; November 1 (my son and my eldest sister), November 2 (my dad), November 3 (my younger sister) and last but not least, November 11- my wife’s!

It’s a good thing we don’t practice lavish gift giving on our family birthdays, or else it’ll cause quite a dent in the family finances – especially when the bithdays are so close together. Mostly it’s just buying cakes at the nearby bakery and having some immediate family members over. But for the little ones - it's customary in this day and age (how it got to be like this I don’t know) - to prefer to have their parties thrown at McDonalds, Pizza-Huts, TGIF’s and the like, and have their kindergarten or primary school friends over. Which in turn obliges the parents of their invited friends to hold their children’s parties at similar venues in the future. Some parents in a subtle game of one-upmanship, will go ‘upscale’ and rent a whole Jungle Gym that you find in malls these days, for their Little Emperor's or Little Emperess' do. I bet it’s expensive as hell - because when I took my little 5-year old there one time, it had costs me something like 15 or 20 ringgits for an hour. That's just for my boy to humor himself going through plastic tunnels and pelt other little kids with soft balls. The other kids will have their Indonesian maids stand nervously by. I don't have a maid, so I nervously watch the maids instead, while pretending to look out for my boy. I suspect the Jungle Gyms were invented to fill the need for parents to dump their children (and maids), so mom and pop can shop in relative peace.

Anyway, I wish a very happy birthday to my first-born, to my beloved sisters and to my old man too.

Menyambut Lebaran Pertama di Indonesia

My boss had called me way too early I think, to go to Indonesia to stand by for work. Unfortunately I stand by’-d all right, but in a Five Star hotel with absolutely nothing to do except bang my head against the wall swearing silently to myself, ‘ what the hell am I doing here when I should be with my family celebrating Eid'?

Well, it wasn’t my boss’ fault because the job I was supposed to go to was cancelled at the very last minute, and I shouldn’t blame him. After all he was from Beunos Aires, so what does he know about Eid / Lebaran? So I ended-up in Balikpapan three whole days before the BIG DAY. The BIG DAY – of course - was Idul Fitri, which billions of Moslems around the world also know as Eid Mubarrak, or Hari Raya Puasa, if you happen to come from Malaysia.

So what do you do in a hotel room during the festive period, all alone without relatives or friends? And also as a Moslem - in one of the largest Moslem countries on earth? Not much, for me at least - except go to the mosque nearby, eat bland hotel food, flirt with the comely girls in the reception, sleep, wake, then flirt with the girls some more.

In the spirit of Ramadhan - this is the only time of the year when the hotel girls – be it F & B Manager, Captains, reception area staff, waitresses – all exchange their black skirts and jackets for kebayas. Regardless, they all still look delectable and ravishing either way. And I do mean, ravishing. The kain batik now cover their previously exposed exquisitely chiseled calves, thus limiting the view of their petite ankles dipping seductively down into black hotel-issue high heels. But the kebaya exposed their cleavages instead, since it's cut a trifle too low - accentuating the female form perfectly. So instead of a view at the bottom, we now have a view of the top.

I don’t know how they do it, all of them unquestionably youthful-looking, slender and pretty. I was (pleasantly) surprised that upon enquiring, most of them were already married – some even with kids to boot! Erna, Fitri, Novi, Dewi…aah, the list goes on. And by any standards, they are beautiful.

The reason I was (pleasantly) surprised was that most of them had all openly flirted with me, making me feel genuinely ‘desirable’. And I, thinking they were all single and available (and of course desirable too). Alas, it was a comedown to know that they all go back to their husbands and kids at the end of their shift. I suppose it’s in The Indonesian Lass’ psyche to treat men in this particular way, which perhaps is a normal thing for Indonesians females. In this regard, I consider Indonesians to be more cultured than Malaysians, since flirting is a very fine art. The girls love to flirt for its own sake, not because they find me desirable in any way (though I prefer that they do) , but for the fun of it. Which is a good thing, since I too, am married.

Looking for something to eat during Lebaran became a nerve wrecking experience for me. You can’t even go to restaurants in town because they were all closed for the festive season. So I was forced to eat all my meals at the hotel. Which you will find boring because most hotel restaurants serve the same damn menu everywhere; Nasi Goreng this, Mie Goreng that – all variations of the same theme.

Malays (technically ALL are Moslems) in Malaysia, will look forward to tucking-in into Ketupat, Rendang, Nasi Himpit and Lemang upon coming home from the Sholat Eid prayers. But in Balikpapan that Eid morning, what was there for me to look forward to?

After performing Eid prayers at the AT-TAQWA mosque, perhaps the largest mosque in eastern Borneo, I became ridiculously aware of my predicament. I did not know a single soul, not one, amongst the sea of the faithful. Well, I did have a chat with the amil (officially appointed tithe collector) two days prior while handing him my obligatory tithe, but he doesn't count. Certainly not someone I can be chummy with and say, “can you invite me into your home for Lebaran, Pak?”

Halfway while walking back to the hotel, I had a brainwave - or so, I thought. Immediately my stride picked up a little. Someone once told me that Balikpapan has a Malaysian Armed Forces military attaché – but where? So upon returning to the hotel (hungry, mind you, but I do have my hotel breakfast coupon with me, but no self-respecting Moslem would eat scrambled eggs and toast on the First of Syawal), I borrowed the thick Balikpapan telephone book from Devi the duty receptionist that morning, and eagerly took it to my room...

It was not meant to be. Try as I may, there was no listing. But even if I found out where the attache lived, I would inevitably embarrass myself - because exactly how does one invite oneself into a stranger's home? Even if he was a fellow countrymen?

Impotent and despondent, I trudged back down to the lounge and failed to notice my favorite waitress wishing me “Selamat Hari Lebaran, Pak… Minal Aidin Wal Faizin”. I glanced over my shoulder and watched her cherrubic face and eyes light up as always. She was not called 'bosomy Lia' for nothing. I noticed the strain of her too small kebaya top had caused the exposed ‘upper extremities’ to ripple. Lia was working that Eid morning because she was Catholic. The hotel had given all the Moslem staff the first part of the day off so they could spend the morning celebrating Eid with their families at home.

Upon crossing the threshold, I became distinctly aware that I was the only patron in the stately restaurant lounge. And when I handed Lia my breakfast coupon, she too sensed my state of depression, and decided not to flirt with me that morning. But I wish she did flirt with me, because at least it would make me feel alive. That would've been nice.

“Yes Lia, Coffee… and Orange Juice would be fine. Perhaps Telor Dada (omelette) today. And why isn’t the hotel serving special Idul Fitri meal this morning Lia? At least you should have ketupat", I ventured.

Ma’af ya Pak, you are the only muslim guest in the hotel Pak, so the kitchen didn’t cook anything special Pak…maybe tomorrow I bring you some ketupat...and I ask the cook make some rendang for you also, ya Pak?”

Terima kasih Lia… but please don’t bother thank you, just pass me the asbak (ashtray)…and bring me the Koran (newspaper) – oh I forgot, even the Korans are on holiday today!”

I dragged my cigarette deeper, even as I saw her pert rear jiggle suggestively against the soft brown kain batik as she went to get the asbak - causing me to inappropriately wonder about invisible panty lines. There and then I knew - deep down and without a shadow of doubt - that this was by far the worst Eid that I have ever spent, even as my finger traced those imaginary lines on the napkin.

I opened the pack of Dunhills, pulled another cigarette out and immediately lighted it from the smoldering tip of the half-finished one.

It was to be the longest Lebaran day, ever.