Friday, January 15, 2010

The Club Sandwich That Broke the Camel’s Back

Makassar is a rough town. In 2003 some students at Universitas Negeri Makassar burned down the university library in protest of a variety of things. Even today, my friend Mark reports that the students still riot and throw rocks at each other. It is a city where the rainy seasons bring such intense rains that the streets are permanently flooded with pools of garbage and oil. It is a city where the revolting corpse of a dead cat with bulging eyeballs was left for God knows how long to decompose by the main entrance of the building that houses The American Corner. It is also the city where I ate the club sandwich that broke the camel’s back.

I arrived in Makassar for the ELF/ETA Mid-Year Conference on a cold, wet, rainy Sunday afternoon after having just spent the last 4 days of my vacation in paradise on Bunaken Island. I crash landed back into the world of work, presentations and meetings with a suitcase full of dirty, smelly, wet clothes and the panicked realization that I had not planned a single bit of the three workshops I was scheduled to present at a tourism school and a local high school. Pushing those thoughts aside, I joined a small group of ELFs at a restaurant around the corner from the hotel for a quick bit to eat.

And this is where it happened. Still hungry after a round of fried tofu, I ordered a club sandwich because it was the most appealing item on the menu. When the waiter placed the sandwich of untoasted white bread (sans frilly toothpick) and wilted lettuce in front of me, I looked at it dubiously. When I picked it up and noticed the unidentifiable piece of luncheon meat dangling off the side, all the accumulated stress that had been building inside me reached a breaking point and I burst into tears. I ranted to my somewhat astonished friends that eating food should be a pleasurable, sensual experience and this sandwich was anything but. In fact, all Indonesian food is completely horrible. In a true act of solidarity, Courtney reached over to try a piece of the sandwich and instantly declared it disgusting. Then she buried it under a pile of tissues and garbage, which made me laugh. And then Mark, with a typical male how-bad-can-it-be attitude, proceeded to devour the rest of the sandwich. Go figure.

After this incident, I was reassured to learn that I wasn’t the only one who was tired, headachy and not at all in the mood for a jam-packed week of workshops and random meetings with the teachers, rectors, and Vice Presidents of the schools that we were supposed to visit. None of us, in fact, have been in top form this week as we battle jet-lag, sore-throats, colds, diarrhea, hangovers, exhaustion, holiday flirtations that amounted to nothing, family problems back home and other assorted woes. But we all rallied and managed to pull off our workshops.

However, it is against this backdrop of stress, fatigue, and general unpleasantness of my surroundings that I need to make my final decision about renewing my contract in Indonesia for a second year. I had been leaning towards staying on but to be honest, Indonesia, especially the cities, is not a place I can say I really enjoy living in. For instance, on our way to dinner tonight, we walked by a garbage truck full of such foul smelling garbage that Sarah almost gagged. Then we passed some more burning garbage, begging children and cat-calling men. On the way back to our hotel, I had to roll up my jeans to prevent them from being dragged through filthy garbage and I also coughed up some sort of bug that flew into my mouth. Unpleasantness abounds here. And the food is really and truly awful.

Should I stay or should I go?


  1. Aww, Iszcha, I'm sending you a big hug! Sorry your trip to Makassar was so unpleasant. It sounds like a number of frustrations built up all at once. Don't worry, whatever decision you make will be the right one. Let's talk soon! Love you, Banny and all of us at the beach (Mom, Dad and Antti are visiting.)

  2. This sounds corny but either decision will be the right one. If you decide to leave, you'll go with 9 months of experience, new skills, memories. This will both help your career and also give you many stories in the future, most of which will become happier as distance from them increases.

    If you stay, some of the hassles will bother you less the 2nd year. You'll still notice them and, fairly often, get angry with them, but almost certainly it will be less trying than the first year. Well, that will probably be true *if* you get posted to the same place. If you get sent to a new city, there might be a renewed set of hassles without the same local support network that you've built up there.

    In India, I stayed on after the first year. Didn't "decide" but more or less "had to", and it worked out much better than the first year. In Korea, after a year and a half, I decided to leave and "come back in 2 years". That was 17 years ago, and I've never been back. Who knows if I'd have liked Korea more if I'd stayed on, but I'm glad I didn't stay and didn't return; and with India, I'm very glad that I did both.

    Think about your decision, don't obsess, and whichever your decision, you'll be able to handle it.

    One thought: you might want to do something else for a few years and then apply for a 2nd ELF sometime in the not too distant future. As I understand, people can get 2 ELFs in their lifetime, but they needn't be consecutive.

  3. BTW, when I wrote "this sounds corny" I didn't mean your post but rather meant my "A is OK, and B is OK" response.