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An expat in Sumatra, a diary

As a seasoned expat, when a transfer is announced, you tend to greet it with excitement, certain expectations and a degree of 'been there, done that’!! However, with every new transfer, there are inevitably unexpected events and scenarios that are totally beyond anyone’s control. Here Patricia blogs their first days and weeks of a new posting in Western Sumatra, which demonstrate that the need of a sense of humour is sometimes the only common factor present during the transfer of an expat!

Week one

Here we are at the back end of August, leaving Burma today, filled with sadness. 
We feel huge sorrow that the people here are still living without a society that allows more freedom, however, more of that in other diaries. We leave extra bags of rice and bonuses for all the people who have helped us round the house and garden and I say my farewells, but for once able to say we will be back to visit these dignified, beautiful people.

It has been humbling beyond belief being here. I cannot imagine what Sumatra will be like in comparison.
I am on route to Thailand, then Singapore overnight and finally Pekanbaru, Central Sumatra.

The children and husband will follow tomorrow, straight to Singapore to meet me there!

Why, you might ask am I not taking the easier and more cost effective route with them to Singapore! Ha, my sentiments exactly!

The reason is because of HIM! Who? Him - MMO (Mickie Mackie Mou, or Mackie as he is commonly known) - the dog. He has caused this situation, due to the fact that the direct routing carrier does not carry dogs! Oh hum, via Thailand it is then! This dog, has cost rather a lot in airfares over the years and surely has in theory more air miles than an average twenty year old person!

Day two

My 'enforced free' day in Singapore is a revelation, my first time visiting here, I am overwhelmed by the freedom of traveling alone, without children or partner's needs to consider. I wander around the food halls of a department store and the supermarket, dazzled after the limits of supermarket shopping in Burma.  I know I should be buying something, as I have been warned of Pekanbaru shopping limitations, but I do not know what precisely I won’t be able to find!

Meanwhile, MMO (the dog!) is safely in the airport air-conditioned kennels awaiting our flight.
The handlers were cheerful caring and considerate when they collected him, and advised me against seeing him in transit, it unsettles the animals more as the animal assumes the journey is over. I do however get the opportunity to watch MMO being re-checked-in by the quarantine staff - unaware of me, I can see he is calm, totally unstressed but interested in his surroundings. I am hugely relieved to have witnessed that for myself.

Back inside the airport, I meet up with hubby and the children at our prearranged transit point. Excited to see me, they have had a great time with their Dad and without me - all families need to build some time into their lives for different experiences with each parent alone sometimes! It really brings out the best in everyone.

We fly off to Pekanbaru, on a small airplane, and just a hop of 45 minutes over the Malacca Straight. The landing is announced before we have even settled down, but it is glorious seeing a aerial view of Sumatra as he hardly get to any altitude to speak of. The children are ecstatic on landing – the terminal is even smaller than I had expected. Walking from the plane, we see the entire luggage taken off individually, plus the crate with MMO carefully lifted off and hand carried into the arrivals. It is tiny!
We are met and taken to our temporary house, our home until the house we are assigned will be ready, in a few weeks.

Day three

I take off for a visit to the supermarket. As expected it has some items that I recognize and hundreds that I don't. It is going to be exciting and challenging working with such an array of different ingredients, when I get the time.

The thing that hits me most is the array of snacks on offer on Indonesia! Is this traditional, or has some of the Western influence bought this? I need to read up on the culture!
With children and school snacks in mind, it is always great to find non expensive and healthy local, not imported snacks. However, on the downside food in general here tends to deep fried, as is often the way in Asia, to give a longer life to the food.
However, today is only for essentials - more of food later.

Armed with basics and UHT milk – to my surprise I find pasteurized milk but as in any far flung place it is advisable to check it out over time and ensure that other people have found it safe to drink first.
Here in Pekanbaru, all emergency cases of illness are flown to Singapore – therefore we are not about to take chances with food.

Week two

Feeling fully at home (or as much as one can whilst living in a temporary house) - with one pot, a wok and a stove casserole, the experience becomes quite a feeling of freedom – it is amazing how much variety you can produce for a meal with only a couple of pots!
Actually, I am now finding it great only having one suitcase of clothes. It makes decisions much easier!

Oh goodness on my walk today, I have seen a very deadly snake and it was very dead thankfully! Having lived in Burma for a couple of years, I am very aware of snakes and what to look out for, but this one although no longer than my arm would have been very nasty. I hold the dog some distance away and attempt to show him whilst giving him the danger message, but he is absolutely not interested even in smelling it!

The girls begin their new school, which is very small, fantastically resourced and full of enthusiastic, bouncy teachers. The days are absolutely packed, with physical activity every day! They adore the school and the concerns I held of it being too small are quickly being stamped out.

Week three

Any ideas I had of moving into the revamped house are firmly put away - the landlord is 'busy, out of town and unavailable'. The roof still has more holes than a sieve, hence the inside contractors are unable to do structural repairs as the rains will damage the structural work carried out.
Oh joy, there is action, the landlords painters have arrived, which is confusing as the roof has definitely not being fixed - I can see sunlight through it! My joy is very short lived; the 'painters' are a couple of guys who have never done a paint job before. With not a strip of masking tape in site, they have 'attacked' a room and without even a ladder, they are using the existing furniture to stand on, without even covering it!
I have to stop the work as they are now creating more damage than was originally evident.

Hot and disappointed, I climb in the car to go and meet the housing coordinator. The guy who drives us (no one who is not familiar with the driving in Indonesia would drive themselves here) says even he cannot understand the language of the landlord’s workmans. The guy speaks with a dialect from a particular region in Aceh, so what hope have I got, armed with my Indonesian phrasebook?

Each evening, the children and I take MMO for a walk round the neighbourhood, just as we have wherever we have lived. The people are delightful, friendly and many stopping to chat. Particularly around the immediate vicinity, people invite us into their houses. If we were to take up each generous offer, we would never get any exercise! We refuse politely, here and there explaining that we are unable to do so as we have to get home but we would like to come another time.

Week four

After last weeks halt in proceedings on the house, the landlords guys return to do the roof. The one from Aceh, who spends most of his time watching the guards TV, is clambering over the roof, causing new damage and bending the originally straight corrugated panels!
I again have to ask them to stop as I feel even the landlord would be horrified at the further damage being caused. It is very frustrating!

We take off for a weekend in Jakarta and enjoy the fact that we can melt into the crowds, and can wander round a shop without the children being pinched, which is a sign of endearment here, but can be rather painful especially when done too many times!

Week five

We are well into Ramadan here. I am in awe of the fact that the streets are full of food vendors and everyone waits, seemingly patiently to breakfast. 
The same cannot be said on the roads, the impatience and tiredness is plain to see.
Traffic is manic every afternoon as people leave work early to reach home. There are so many accidents on the roads and I fear for all the children (and adults) who are on the receiving end.

The mosques are competing with each other on a noise level now as we lead upto Eid Al Fitri.
For anyone who has never lived in a muslim country, Eid Al Fitri, often abbreviated to Eid, is the celebratory day marking the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Eid is Arabic for "festivity", while Fiṭr means "to break the fast" and so symbolizes the breaking of the fasting period.

We hear sad news that an Indonesian lady has died in the nearby oil camp from bird flu. Although aware of its presence in the province of Riau, where we live, this is a close call. The fact that it has happened, regardless of its source or where the poor lady had visited and picked up the flu, brings home the fact that she visits the traditional market, where I buy our groceries. She was also a middle class citizen, living in an immaculately kept compound, not a poultry farmer or impoverished family living where sanitary conditions are not the best. Everyone, expat and local alike, takes on board the fact that we all need to be more vigilant about how we deal with poultry.

Week six

As Eid Al Fitri arrives, there is an emormous sense of excitement in the city, with some 750,000 inhabitants, only 1/3 are local, the remained have come to the city over the years for work, there is a mass exodus as people leave to spend Eid in their original own or village.
The first morning of the Eid holiday, I spend a blissful couple of hours being driven round the city. It is a ghost town, with not a food vendor or shop open in sight.
It is business as usual for us as the school does not break for Eid and frankly I am grateful for fewer distractions as Paguro calls for my attention.