The Far East is full of mysteries. I’m sure you’ve heard. For expats and travelers this can be fun, fascinating, frustrating, or infuriating as I discovered myself. For two years I sojourned on the tropical island of Java, Indonesia, with the man of my dreams and our two blond daughters.

Borobudor                                                           The caged Buddhas, Borobudur, Java

I did not attempt to unveil the mysteries of religion, mysticism, spiritualism and other high-minded affairs, since my mind only lives on the lower plains of existence, just so you know. Even so, in daily life, I found some mysteries to deal with. Such as that people on Java like to pinch the cheeks of cute little kids hard, as our girls painfully discovered. And when you’re in a car accident, logic as you know it does not apply. Let me tell you a scary tale:

Culture Crash

So one day I am in traffic, in my little car. I’m on my way home from shopping at Pasar Johar, the open market in Semarang, the town where we live. I buy my vegetables and fruit there, and fish and meat as well (and no, we’ve never been sick).

I have to make one more stop at a small store along the street, so I slow down and signal my turn. Behind me a cool kid on a motorcycle decides to pass me at the same time. On the wrong side, the curbside, illegally. Either he does not see my turn signal or he just ignores it because he is sixteen and therefore immortal.

As you will understand, disaster strikes as I turn my steering wheel. With a horrifying bang he crashes right into the side of my car, behind where I sit in the driver’s seat. Then he bounces over the top, bike and all, and ends up lying in the street on the other side. My heart rate is off the charts.

People stop. Traffic stops. The daredevil cyclist clambers to his feet, apparently unscathed except for an injured elbow, praise be to Allah. His motorcycle is a mangled mess.

Long story short: The hara-kiri biker and I end up at the police station, where a report is drawn up. Witnesses to the scene have confirmed that the motorcyclist was at fault, passing me on the wrong side, and that my signal was turned on. Why did he pass me when I had my turn signal on? He shrugs and says he didn’t believe I was going to turn.

Oh, really?

The officer in charge of our case now suggests to me that I should pay the young man some money so he can go fix his bike, if this is even possible. I am not sure I hear him right.

“It was not my fault!” I say. “Why should I pay?”

The officer assures me the accident was not my fault, and that it says so in the report, so why don’t I give the boy some money so the case can be closed and I can go home?

The full shock has finally hit me and I am trembling. The kid could have been dead, and guilty or not, I would have carried the image of his bloody corpse with me for the rest of my life. I am enraged he did such a stupid thing and now I have to give him money? No way!

The officer looks confused. The kid looks confused. Why don’t I fork over some rupiahs and be done with it?

I tell them I will not pay money. Not even a token little bit. Absolutely definitely not. I did not cause the accident and I will not pay!

“But the young man is poor,” the officer says. “He needs money to help with fixing his bike.”

My husband and his colleague Jim arrive at the police station to give me aid and succor. I pour out my story, while the hara-kiri kid watches us as he nurses his painful elbow. More talk with the various officers who have gathered to watch the drama. I stand aside. I’ve had enough. I’m hot and sweaty. I’m mad and tired. I want to go home, have a shower and a stiff drink or two.

A while later my husband takes my arm and leads me out of the station.

“They’re letting us go? What did you do?”

“I gave the kid some money,” my man says, cool as a cucumber.

I’m sizzling like a chili in hot oil. “Why?” I wail. “It wasn’t my fault! Why should we pay him even a single rupiah!”

“It’s not a matter of who is at fault,” Jim-the-colleague tells me. “It’s a matter of who has money. That’s how it’s done here. You have the money, so you pay. That’s fair.” He grins his American smile at me.

You’ve got to be kidding.

“And,” my husband adds, “the other logic goes that since you’re a foreigner, the accident wouldn’t have happened in the first place if you hadn’t been here.”

Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

* * *

All over the world people have different ways of thinking, of making sense of things. I’d love to hear what you’ve come across that surprised, angered or amused you. I’m waiting!

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. . . you go to check up on the house back home.

You get on a plane. You’re an expat living in a foreign country many time zones away from the house you own in another country. You’ve not been in your house for 6 months and it’s standing empty.

If you’re an expat spouse no doubt you know what this means. Let’s say you live in Moldova or Uzbekistan or Guinea-Bissau and you own a little country house in the USA. You arrive and find the yard needs weeding. No surprise there. It’s one of the reasons you crossed the ocean: to weed the garden. The Best Neighbor in the World cuts the grass and trims around the edges when needed so the place does not look abandoned. He is a big, tall mountain man who keeps watch so baddies don’t break in, and he has a gun. This is, after all, the USA.

You get inside the house and all looks fine. No bugs, no smells, no dust, no problem.

No problem?

You are wrong. There are a number of problems. The battery in your car parked in the garage is dead. The TV doesn’t work. The land-line phone calls out but doesn’t receive. Your American cell phone receives but can’t call out. The water pressure is down to a dribble and reeks of rotten eggs (you have a well). You have no filters so you cannot change them in the filtering system to get the pressure back. There’s a wolf spider the size of Calcutta on the outside wall near the garage. There is no wine.

There is no wine!

You contemplate having a nervous breakdown. But since there is no one to witness your having a melt down, there is no point.

You take a deep breath and decide you can deal. You are an expat. You‘re used to living in Third World countries. But to your great relief your Internet works, somehow, and you’re online. You can communicate with your spousal unit, but he is not of much help toiling away 7 time zones later in another country.

The Best Neighbor in the World comes over and tells you not to worry about the spider because it’s harmless. He tries to jump start your car, but it’s really really dead, even though he’d started it not long ago and drove it around a bit so it wouldn’t feel neglected. He says he’ll go out the next day and buy you a new battery and put it in the car for you. How fabulous is that?

You decide to forget about dealing with the TV and phones until the next day. You’re jet lagged and all you want to do is crash and crawl in your own nice bed. Unfortunately you have to make it first, since last time you were there you didn’t want to leave it made up for 6 whole months. Who knows what might have crawled in between the sheets. A wolf spider maybe.

 

But before you crash, you want to take a shower, only the water pressure is not up to it. The water has always been problematic in this house.

It’s a tidy little house, built 5 years ago on virgin soil in the beautiful boonies aka countryside. Mother nature is generous and bountiful all around, with woods on two sides full of deer, rabbits, birds, squirrels, groundhogs, poison ivy and so on. We were even stalked by a pileated woodpecker a couple of years ago.

pileated woodpecker

(He has since moved across the road to the Best Neighbors in the World and is terrorizing them.)

Mother Nature has blessed you cursed you with virgin water from the bowels of the earth. It’s rich in iron, calcium, lime and sulfur. It stinks and its virgin color is orange. It passed water inspection and was deemed potable because there are no bacteria in it. The other stuff won’t kill you, or so you’re led to believe. Just the same, you installed a filtering system that is meant to deflower the virgin water and make it usable, rendering it clear and odorless. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work very well.

You take a bath by hunkering down in the tub and splashing water on you from the smelly dribbles that come out of the tap. This is the USA and you feel like you’re in a Third World country. Fortunately you’ve got lots of experience of this nature. You can deal.

You go to bed and don’t sleep well because you’re jet lagged and your Inner Clock is having a hissy fit. This is not good because you have so much to do. You need to go shopping for food. And wine. You need to get the TV and both phones working. You have to buy filters and get your water flowing again. You need to gather a load of documents to get your driver’s license renewed, which has to be done in person in your state. You have a dentist appointment and an eye appointment and you probably need a therapy appointment. And you need to weed the garden.

You need to weed the garden! You need to weed the garden!!

Besides that, more problems await you. Fortunately you don’t know this yet.

Okay, the “you” in this tale is me, Miss Footloose, and I will not bore you with the sorry saga of my struggles. Let me just say that in the next few days I do manage to make some headway on various fronts. Changing the water filters is a joy: The first one of the lot is slimy orange and beyond gross.

Renewing my driver’s license is a chore and it involves driving an hour to the bank to get documents out of the safety deposit box and another hour to take them home. Then when I finally get my license renewed, I have to make the trip again to return the documents to the bank.

Don’t talk to me about paperwork. I hate paperwork. I have paperwork on steroids. This is punishment because I didn’t stay put where God planted me, in Holland, along with the tulip bulbs. Instead I flew away to Africa to marry my American Peace Corps hero and now we are in possession of a funny-looking little marriage certificate nobody believes is real. Later I added American citizenship to the mix, which needed kilos of documentation. Trust me, you don’t want to see my papers – certified copies, internationally codified copies, notarized copies, original copies  . . . And they’re always somewhere where I’m not, it seems.

In the mean time I find that my health insurance card doesn’t work when I want to pay for a prescription, and the pharmacist tells me the insurance company says I’m not in the system. It will get resolved many hours later, but not before I go into full panic mode. This is, after all, the USA, and you don’t want to be without a health insurance card. That I can tell you. Believe me.

Finally I do get to do some weeding. The weather is gorgeous, the birds are chirping, the weeds are everywhere, and I actually enjoy being ruthless, decimating the ivy, chopping off small seedling trees and yanking out weeds. All the while soaking up the vitamin D3.

English Ivy

I make peace with my little house in the woods. The water flows again, the land line works, if not the cell phone (dead zone-what else?). And the Best Neighbors in the World invite me for a barbecue steak dinner before I leave again. This is, after all, the USA: A place with some really good people.

* * *

Ever been away from your house for a long time? What did you find on your return? Or, if you rented it out, what did the renters do to it?

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