Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Logic

If, indeed, there was anything remotely interesting going on in my brain they go through this fancy percolator these days called social media filters. Simple days are gone, I tell you, they are gone.

Is the Remotely Interesting Thing:

a. In the form of a YouTube clip?  Post it on facebook.
b. Something that would lose its Remote Interestingness if more than a sentence long? Post it on twitter.
c. A link about climate change, green shit, renewable whatevers, and law? Post it on twitter.
d. A (rare) thought about climate change, green shit, renewable whatevers, and law? Post it on green blog.
e. A rhyme? Post it on twitter but wait till Friday.
f. Something which Remote Interestingness would be enhanced by loyal likes and adorably sarcastic comments? Post it on facebook.
g. A rather long nice quote? Post it on facebook.
h. An extremely random attention-seeking thought? Post it on twitter
i. A fragment of a fictional plot? Don't post it.
j.  Something to do with family, romance, work, friends, ex-es, bosses, the past, daily life, future plans? Post it on pseudonym blog. Ha.Yes.
k. A neutral nondescript depiction of something not too significant? Post it here.

Divided, we fall.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Children of Desa Indong, Halmahera

In a sense, we saw the children before we even saw the island.  There were dozens of them, in brightly colored clothes, standing with their toes on the very edge of the little port, looking expectantly at our approaching fishing boat.

Our friend from college, Fitria, had been living in Desa Indong for 6 months teaching them as part of the Indonesia Mengajar program.  Our arrival was an event. They don’t usually get visitors.
As soon as we alighted on dry land, they crowded around us and followed us everywhere. They ran ahead of us, tailed behind us, played alongside us. They would just look at us curiously, but when we talked to them they would shy away. One or two just sat outside on our doorstep, staring at us endlessly. Their main entertainment was simple: rubber elastic bands.  They either twisted it to different shapes on their fingers, or they made a long chain of rubber bands to play skipping with. For hours and hours they would play in the scorching heat of the Maluku sun.  Poor and completely happy.
The next day we taught at the school. At some point during the “what do you want to be when you grow up” session, Fika asked them whether they knew what a lawyer is.  Nobody knew. And then she said ooh well we have a lawyer here who can explain what it is! I stared at her resentfully.  I started sweating a little bit. Thirty pairs of little eyes were all looking up expectantly at me.
“A lawyer is…” I began desperately, “… well… similar to a police officer! Who wants to be a policeman?”
One little hand shot up.
“Good! And what do the police do?”
“They catch bad people!”
“Why? What did the bad people do?  Give me an example!”
Scattered voices. And someone said “stealing!”
“Stealing!  Now is stealing bad?”
“Says who?”
“Allah!” they said in unison.
I smiled. “Okay. Yes. Very good. Who else says it’s bad?”
“Pak Ustadz!!”
I grinned.  “Yes, very true. Who else?”
Confused silence.
“Have you ever heard of rules, laws?”
Some uncertain nods.
“Well the government makes all sorts of rules and laws that people have to follow. And when people break the rules, they get caught by the police. And what happens to them then?”
“They go to jail!” said someone at the back.
“Immediately?” I asked.
Silence again.
“Not immediately,” I said. “First they have to go to court, where there’s a judge who decides whether they really broke the rules or not.  Because sometimes people are accused of things they didn’t do, and sometimes actions that seem bad are not always wrong.”
I was on fire. But only for half a minute.
“Now, a laaawyeeer… a lawyer… a lawyer… reads the rules and knows all of it! And a lawyer can help judges tell whether someone really broke the rules or not. A lawyer reads a whole lot of books!”
One boy was now staring out the window.  Another one was singing to himself.
I carried on bravely.
“Because not everything that seems wrong is wrong according to the law. For example, is lying wrong?”
“Yes!” they said.
“And sinful,” I added, to blend in a little. “But it won’t always make you go to jail, unless the lying caused harm to someone else.”
Around about this time Fika perhaps realized what she had gotten me into and attempted to save my ass by calling on our other friend, Adra, to explain to the kids what advertising was about. Advertising!
After Adra attempted to explain “product essence”, we quickly turned the forum over to Aji, who had been sitting quietly at the back observing everything.
Tactfully, Aji preferred not to explain his real occupation and decided to tell the children that his occupation is as an “adventurer”. They got excited as he told them of the many places there are all over the world.  At the end he said, “Do you want to travel the world?”
“Yes!!” they all said.
“And do you know what you must do so that you can travel the world?”
“Yes!!” they said.
“What is it?”
After Aji explained that prayer comes third after first study and second hard work, and the guest teachers had all finished laughing inwardly, Fitria the resident teacher could be seen shaking her head at us with a smiling look that said, “you’ve ruined my kids”.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

All here.

"I can’t tell you how nice it is not to have to pretend with you. I don’t have to pretend I’m not as smart as I am so you won’t find me intimidating. I don’t have to pretend I don’t hate this culture so you won’t think I’m crazy. And I don’t have to pretend I want you, because I really do. All of me. I’m not divided: brain here, body there; body here, brain there. I’m all here. No hesitation.”

(Derrick Jensen ~ Songs of the Dead)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


"Contemplation is the essence of story-telling," I say.

"I could listen to your stories all day," he says, "but it is your contemplations that I love."

How would I someday explain the contemplations that have led to this state of mind? It is hardly a spiritual eat pray love journey. But if you only knew how far I have evolved, inside. It is a thing of wonder. A shape-shifting metallic creature.

Sometimes I write my own stories. Sometimes I write other people's stories. In most of the books I've read, there are always two characters. No, no, not the protagonist and antagonist, nothing that bleak. There is always the person who is content to live in a default comfortable cave, and there is always the person who feels there is an ocean out there. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. All the Buendias in 100 Years of Solitude. They all rattled the bars of their cages like any normal living breathing intuitive beast would. As for those who have accepted their fate without a struggle, I do not know what to say of them. Are they sub-human? Are they half-dead? Or are they just peaceful? Or are they just coping?

I could write stories about the cave-people. With the polite interest of an observer who finds them anthropologically interesting. But socially numbing. Their allure lies in the very fact that their accepted realities are swallowed whole, peppered with either a smile or a petty complaint. And my evolution centers around the notion that I used to consider that normal. Alienatingly normal.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


"They've announced the 2011 Nobel for literature," a friend said.

"Who is it?"

"Tomas Tranströmer. Swedish guy. Because, 'through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality'."

"Wow. How cool are they in giving their reasons for the literature prize."

"Garcia Marquez won 'for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts'."

"I love it."

"Jose Saramago 'who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an illusory reality'."

"I think reviewers have to put 'hard-core pseudo-intellectual' in their resume."

"I wonder what they will write when you get yours. The 2046 literature Nobel is awarded to Teez 'who, with her lyrical compositions, softens the harsh realities of those who feel out of place in their own cultures'."

"Not bad. Thanks for giving me 34 years to work on it."

Monday, October 17, 2011


I woke up today and lay in bed listening to the calls for prayer from surrounding mosques. It is the anniversary of the month that I returned to Indonesia.

I’ve spent a year trying to feel comfortable about coming home to Jakarta after spending a year away, with its impossible traffic, relentless gossiping, endearing chaos, and wonderful tireless people that hold you spellbound, forever torn between love and hate for the city. I’d escape to Bali’s beaches now and then, but it remains just that: an escape.

I’ve always viewed life as a lucrative sandbox with a spot of quicksand in the middle, which the curious mind will happily venture into, letting itself become sucked into new realms. Or to borrow that famous American’s famous line: the known unknowns. Who knows how many quicksands have led us to this particular spot in life? So often I have ventured into new things simply because other people knew and I did not. In the sandbox the only thought is of yourself, it’s your playground and yours to become the king of the pit.

I realized today I didn’t really want to crave comfort in Jakarta, or anywhere else in the world. I didn’t want to be thinking of myself all the time. I want to be thinking of other people. Just being useful without expecting comfort in return. Is there ever really such an achievement?

I’m judgmental about giving, brain-verdict said. I excuse myself on the basis that it might be too forward, or allocated incorrectly, or not the right contribution. A few months ago I made vague plans to teach children pro bono at the local mosque on weekends, and it never happened because I was sure the kids wouldn’t like me. I never give out money at traffic lights, because I’m vaguely sure the beggars are part of a syndicated gang and the money would go to some mafia. I’ve wasted countless opportunities.

I’d like to give as if it was a natural part of living. I could see that as a sandbox I haven’t conquered, but the thing is I shouldn’t be seeing it as a thing to conquer. It’s not about me, right?

*This is piece is originally posted on the3six5

Monday, August 22, 2011


I've resumed piano lessons with my dearest mentor, who has recovered from his illness, coming out of a long dark tunnel with a new piano and a new wife. But the term piano lessons is a bit ambitious. What really happens is that I drive down there and we end up spending 3 hours playing music and eating delivery chicken noodles from a styrofoam box. We gossip and digress and generally pity people with no music in their lives. Like his own son, who prefers software.

I harbor no ambitions of musical greatness and he knows it. We simply have conversations and fill gaps. When I play a melody he fills in the bass lines. When his melody is about to end I know it: something about the subtle finality of that third note from last, like a bird about to make a sweet turn in the sky, leaving a pattern imprinted against the clouds. I see it, in its invisibility, I mirror it. I come to meet it and make it last a little longer by repeating the pattern, somersaulting in the sky at a higher octave before taking off to my own heart's desire.

Isn't that the essence of a good conversation?

The launch of a thought, met with other ideas. Agreeing in the middle with enthusiastic nods before branching out again with new and old thoughts. Harmonized, encouraging, comforting, in a way that is as if to say, "I understand, I know what you mean, and here is what I think."

"Isn't jazz like everything in life?" he would say, "doesn't it help you improvise when dealing with people and doesn't it make life a little less serious?"

I really am not sure if I understand life that well. But I no longer needed to say anything. Nothing on life, nothing on my fears, nothing of my insecurities about love, my insipidness at work, self-imposed cages, millionth outbursts of half-baked ideas, thirsts I have no idea how to quench, forever belonging and not belonging.

At the end of the song it was like everything had been said.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


A weekend in Bali can be a blank canvas filled with sketches of your imagination of choice. And when I say imagination I'm not implying that mushrooms should be involved at all times. I mean there is anything for everyone if everyone doesn't mind not following anyone.

My friend Rio likes to say that most people don't know how to enjoy being alone. I think being alone is only fun when it is a choice. We agree that most people don't even choose to be alone.

So that weekend in Bali, he and I headed to echo beach, just the two of us as usual, armed with style. His scarf and shockingly stylish sunglasses, a bottle of wine, two proper glasses we bought at the mini-mart, an effective number of joints. The skies opened out limitless above us. I lay back on the warm sand staring at the white cirrus clouds rippling across the sky like the surface of a light blue lake being gently stroked by the breeze. The actual breeze was stroking my skin. The scent was as familiar and comforting as the sound of crashing waves. Nothing else I wanted to do, nowhere else I wanted to be.

"I wish this was an hour away from Jakarta and I could escape here every weekend"

"No. It doesn't work like that. It won't be as magical," he says.

"I wish people would be more relaxed about finding the one to marry."

"I decided to be gay so no one could pressurize me into getting married."

He says the silliest things sometimes.

"I know plenty of married men," I say. "They try. They tell me how interesting I am. God, they seem so lonely."

"That's because they thought they got married out of personal choice, but really it was a choice wrought by social conditioning. Society expects them to find the one after a certain age or milestone or checklist ... and they are encouraged to think that they've found the one... But they don't think it's important that in order to find the one ... they have to first of all find themselves."

He says the most profound things sometimes.

I think finding oneself needs a bit of imagination.

It's his birthday today, by the way. I think another bottle of wine is in order. We could make a toast to blank canvases.

Thursday, July 07, 2011


Continue scrolling down for previously unpublished posts on Brazil :-)

Monday, January 03, 2011


Not My Final Post

At 3 in the morning, my friend and I sat on our bed in our hotel room in Dubai, unwilling to sleep. I was transiting from Brazil, she had flown over from Bahrain to accompany me on my transit. It was the final leg of our year in Harvard, the accumulation of a life built from scratch that had developed into a utopic paradise filled with people we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with, just chatting around a table exchanging ridiculous ideas. After the summer started, one by one these people dropped off, went home, said innumerable ‘this-is-not-goodbye’s, turned their backs, boarded planes, and left a little vacant space behind that felt like a mistake. I visited most of them before heading home, in New York, Lima, Rio, Sao Paulo, Dubai, just delaying, just living. In Dubai the two of us realized our time was coming soon. We talked of our favorite moments and cried a little.

I told her how at the airport in Sao Paulo, our friend hugged me for an eternally long time, not saying a word. When we finally parted we said, “I will see you again,” and thought, “I don’t know when I will see you again.” I turned my back, glanced back for a final brave smile, and walked to my gate slowly. Some people were quarelling in Arabic in the queue, a nasal voice spoke in Portuguese announcing a flight delay, all around me the shops were closed and dark. One shop-window displayed bottles of dende oil. I remembered the bottle of dende oil in my luggage bought at Mercado Municipal, and my friend’s mother, her friendly eyes shining, had promised to teach me how to cook Muqueca with it. But we never got around to doing it. On the drive to the airport she had turned to me and said, “Don’t go.” I stood at the boarding gate queue with an assault of memories and tears running down my cheeks thinking, “What am I doing?”

In that hotel room in Dubai I asked my friend, “What am I doing?” She was still figuring it out herself. She felt out of place in her hometown in Bahrain. We started childishly complaining, stereotyping, compartmentalizing. She said Bahraini women became religious after some point because they had nothing better to do. I told her Indonesian women only think about getting married. We laughed and decided then that we would be okay, that the future is bright. We decided we would both find the career of our dreams, the perfect partner, and other banal resolutions more befitting of teenagers rather than grad school alumnus. In the end we knew we both had our Reasons for returning, and that’s all that mattered.

That was three months ago. In the beginning, there was the uncomfortable scrutiny regarding weight-gain and lack of interest in what I’ve actually been doing. There was the shock of meeting relatives who seemed to have multiplied overnight and sent a cascade of toddlers running amok. There was the ever-inevitable visit to the malls, watching girls dangling their Venetas and Vuittons at a certain angle so as to be in full unobstructed view of onlookers. There was the constant stream of private idle chat on facebook and twitter feeds, and blackberry chatgroups, which did not exist when I left last year. There was a little loneliness among the crowd. There was the guilt of having these thoughts, afraid I was being anomalous, aloof, judgmental.

This is now just white noise to be accepted as part of life, like the hum of a refrigerator that you grow accustomed to and eventually embrace or ignore. Time must not be wasted dwelling on past perfections or present imperfections. After all, I have future plans like everyone else. This place has soul, has untrammeled gold buried under the mud, has all the good problems to be solved. My real enemy, as T.S. Eliot puts it, is in the shadow:

Between the idea and the reality,

Between the motion and the act,

Falls the shadow.

Between the conception and the creation,

Between the emotion and the response,

Falls the shadow.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


It was a brilliant Wednesday morning in Rio de Janeiro, and Ipanema beach was packed. A long stretch of white sand covered in red umbrellas, fleshy bosoms and shapely bottoms. I asked my friend whether all these cariocas didn’t have anything busy to do and he just smiled an amused smile.

A man suddenly appeared out of nowhere and advanced at me with a pineapple in his hand, shouting: “HA!! Abacaxi!! Abacaxi !!!” Pineapples were arranged in a basket on his head, and a whole pineapple was clenched like a sword in his fist. I jumped at first poke.

And then I burst out laughing and shook my head. “Não, obrigada,” I said. He switched to English, which always annoys me because that means I still haven’t got the accent right. Flashing his brilliant white teeth he said, “No?? I Love You!!! No abacaxi?? ”

I laughed again and shook my head. He gaily turned away and started to poke at other people with the abacaxi in his hand, causing outbreaks of laughter in his wake.

As we continued our stroll my friend pointed to one of the condominiums lining the coast.

“That’s my grandmother’s apartment,” he said, “8th floor, 3rd window from the right.”

I squinted up and tried to count windows in the blaring sun.

“That would be a gorgeous view she would have from up there,” I said.

“It is,” he said.

He stared out toward the sea. Cracked up into a sudden laugh.

“When I was a kid I would play at the beach every single day with my friends after school, just hanging out and swimming and surfing the waves. And I still had a curfew back then.”

“Which you largely ignored,” I said.

“Of course. But not for long, because whenever I went too far beyond the limit, my grandmother would hang a big red towel on her window right there. From wherever I am on the beach I would see it and feel guilty.”

I was immediately overwhelmed with a comforting certainty that he was the perfect authority to go exploring Ipanema with. We spent an entire day on the beach and I was taught a multitude of effortless lessons. Like how to differentiate the “safer” locals from those coming down from the favelas. How to ask a stranger to look after your belongings while you go for a swim, and to trust them completely. How to bodysurf when the wave is right. How to let your body dry in the sun and never use a towel.

How to stand as if your only business in this world is to look cool under the sun. And how to walk as if the only place you needed to go to was where you were right now.


The Portuguese term for “you’re welcome” that is pronounced Ji-Na-Da. In a literal sense it translates to “for nothing”.

‘Thank you.”

“For nothing!” (with an audible smile)

But the way the Brazilians express it is a charm that far surpasses the mere meaning of the word. The middle “Na” part of the word is stretched out and curved, like the gentle pull of a guitar string just before it is plucked. The prolonged syllable dips and rises and dips again with a mellowness, enjoying every minute of the millisecond journey, before it swoops to join its next syllable.


Oh, what a difference a syllable makes. The result is a sound so genuine, lilting, and bright, that you can’t help but be convinced that they are, as a matter of bottom-hearted fact, truly happy to have helped you.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


“I have no partner,” I said, when my friend suggested that I join him and his girlfriend go dancing at a traditional samba club. He gave me an exasperated look that could only mean, “shut up and just come”.

So I tagged along with them to Democraticos at the old bohemian Lapa neighborhood. The spacious lobby was unadorned except for a big curving staircase lined with a dirty wall. We went up and found ourselves in a large scruffy crowded ballroom, with a stage on one end covered in a red velvet backdrop and a trail of little hanging light bulbs. I looked at the scene doubtfully and wondered where the music was.

Just then the band walked up to the stage and the crowd perked up expectantly. At the strike of the first sweet samba note the couple took hands and left me to survive on my own, those traitors.

I stood on the peripheries feeling rather nervous and unattractive, watching people whirl by. But a few minutes later the music seeped into my bloodstream (mixing with the caipirinha) and I was moving, uncaring, and ready. By the next song, a quiet-looking man approached and politely extended his hand. In a flustered daft moment I did a little bob while taking his hand and then vaguely wondered whether that wasn’t European. In the next split second my worries had disappeared as he placed a hand firmly on my waist and pulled me into the music.

An hour later, I’d lost count of how many people I had danced with; young and old, short and tall, expert and amateur, polite and dodgy. As each song stopped, there was the awkward pause in which we decide whether to do another song, whether I would be declined from the next song, or whether I would decline him and move on to others. All three situations occurred in rough measure.

The most flattering moments were on being asked, incredulously, “You’re not a Brasileira?” And the most humbling moments were on being told to “Relax. Let me do the job. Let yourself go.” - which I miserably failed to do because he was beyond my crappy league.

When I rejoined my friends they said they were proud of me. I was exhausted and glowing.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


From where the three of us sat, we could see the smooth oval shape of the entire stadium swelling out before us like a huge beast. And the beast was alive.

That is, half of it was.

The left and middle, where we sat, was filled with a sea of white and green visual noise. Pom-poms and balloons and giant inflatable batons everywhere brandished proudly by supporters of the home team, Palmeiras. The right side was empty except for a few ridiculously outnumbered red and yellows. But they firmly stood their minority ground and kept the drums beating. Pounding them with a samba beat. The sky was gloomy, and the crowd was as passionate as a brilliant summer day. It is impossible to sit in the middle of this and not become infected by the energy, unless you are a vegetable.

My friend’s uncle, however, did seem oblivious to all this. He sat hunched with a portable radio pressed against his ear and his eyes glued to the field. His brow frowned in concentration, straining to hear the radio commentators analyzing the game.

Vendors weaved in and out of the crowd, selling cans of guarana and long cinnamon churros and chocolate bars. M&M’s too, which I buy obsessively, simply to have an excuse to pronounce the brand the Brazilian way: emmy emmy.

“Emmy emmy, por favor!”

A little, cute, sweet-looking boy who looked 8 years old didn’t even notice as the vendor elbowed him aside to give me my emmy emmy’s. His little face was contorted with frustration at the striker. He suddenly jumped up and down and shouted at the top of his lungs this one-breath phrase that can be translated for all intents and purposes to mean:


The crowd swelled in an outburst of dirty language. I happily joined in. The São Paulo home team lost. The crowd became noisily subdued. The shoulders dejected and drooping. The pom-poms abandoned. Only the uncle stayed loyal to his portable radio, intent on listening to commentators analyzing the finished game for another hour or so.

As for myself, I was in high spirits. I grinned at my friend. He looked at me and smiled in a smug way. “See? What did I tell you.” he said.

The thing he had told me was “You’re in Brazil. Come to a football game.”


Here was my night out in São Paulo in the local lingo, more or less.

We went to go balada and came home at madrugada. Balada expansively refers to going out, dancing, drinking, clubbing, having fun and everything in between. Madrugada is an undefined time on the clock that refers to the wee hours of the morning when you stumble home half-consciously.

In preparing for balada I dressed up to the nines in a little black dress. Coming out from my room I was accosted by my host’s brother’s fiancé. She took the hem of my knee-length dress and reprimanded me, saying “Teez!! I will cut all your skirts! They are all too long!”

Her fiancé came out and rescued me by the arm. Only to draw me aside and teach me a song I should be singing tonight to impress people. It started along the lines of “If you think that chachaça is water, cachaça is not water, no.” Cachaça is the national Brazilian liquor that is quite deliciously lethal. The tune was catchy and sure enough, I was an instant hit.

We hopped three different places and were enthusiastically thirsty. When we had ordered enough to sufficiently be categorized as “a lot”, we got ourselves a saidera, which is the free round that bar-owners always give to good customers as a token of appreciation. I became bebada, which happens when you have too much to drink. And the next day I had a ressaca, which happens when you wake up after having too much to drink. When I informed my host’s parents of my ressaca in the morning they laughed happily.

In order to cure this ressaca the traditional way, my friends took me to Mercado Municipal, the municipal market, for breakfast. We started our late day drinking Chopp, a smooth light beer with froth like no other froth on earth. A little bit suspiciously, the more I drank my Chopp the more my ressaca faded. But the point is, how can you not love a country where people drink beer at the market for breakfast to cure hangovers?

I felt ready for anything. Including the hot fresh bolinha de bacalhau which came shortly to our table. A deep-fried bread-crumbed crispy heavenly something stuffed with shredded bacalhau fish and drizzled with a zing of limão juice.

Afterwards my host took me to see the symphony orchestra at Sala São Paulo. We carried a red plastic bag full of passion fruit and mangoes and dende oil we bought at the market, into the elegant concert hall. By now I actually knew how to reject plastic bags by saying, “não preciso um sacola de plastico, obrigada”. But this time the volume of our ransom was too great. My friend said, “Now is not the time to be a silly tree-hugger.” Fine.

So we hastily stuffed the plastic bags underneath our seats hoping no one would notice. But the seats were foldable ones and as soon as we stood up to give our standing ovation, pop went the seats, revealing plastic bags filled with fruit for all to see.

But no one cared. The orchestra was commanding, elegant and graceful. I love watching a swarm of violin bows dip and soar and letting myself dip and soar with them. This is as much a mental state of dipping and soaring as it is a physical one. I literally sit in my seat and something goes up and down, it could by my foot, or my head, or my general happiness. As an added bonus they played Villa Lobos’ compositions. Oh!

By this time I was absolutely content. The balada, so to speak, lasted deliciously longer than I expected. I was feeling very lucky about my life in general.

The Brazilians would say, with this charmingly nonsensical phrase they use to describe someone who is lucky: Ela nasceu com abunda virada para a lua ~ She was born with her butt facing the moon.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Musica Brasileira

When I told the Cariocas I was going to São Paulo, they said, “why the fuck are you going to that hell hole?”

When I told the Paulistas that I was going to Rio de Janeiro, they said, “That boring place is full of lazy asses”.

All this foul bad-mouthing comforts me. Cities filled with people who are fanatic about their own cities are cities that I want to be in.

In any event there was a stronger calling to begin with, which helped me stubbornly defy various obstacles that almost thwarted me from coming to Brazil. I had grown up listening to Tom Jobim and João Gilberto. I’d already memorized the Portuguese lyrics to “The Girl from Ipanema” even before I knew its meaning. Nearing my departure I’d become obsessed with Vinicius de Moraes, Elis Regina, and Chico Buarque.

Leaving the US with a sad pain in my chest, I played João Gilberto’s “Adeus America” to a repeat:

Adeus America,

essa terra e muito boa,

mas não posso ficar porque,

o samba mandou me chamar

Chega de lights, good nights, e de fights, e alrights,

o samba mandou me chamar.

(Goodbye America,

that land is wonderful,

but I cannot stay because,

the samba is calling me

enough of lights, good nights, and the fights, and alrights,

the samba is calling me.)

And because I’m a generally lucky girl, my host in São Paulo is a wonderful friend who understood my musical tastes inside and out. And would patiently tolerate my enthusiastic rants, as well as my singing in phonetically ambitious but otherwise grammatically doubtful Portuguese.

Solid proof of this solid understanding was when he took me to O Do Borogodó. The name doesn’t mean anything, I’ve been told, and besides, the name was nowhere to be found. This was a 10 sqm hole in the wall in the middle of a dark nowhere with no sign board, a cement floor, bare whitewashed walls and a tiny red bar. The band was a modest assembly of a guitar, flute and tambourine. A woman with magnificent curly auburn hair sang traditional songs.

Some sat enjoying their ice-cold beers, and others danced even when there was no space to dance. An elderly couple held each other in a corner, swaying to the music comfortably. The lone waiter was also ready to dance with anyone who needed a partner. It was just, perfect.

Really, I could dance every night. On the streets if I must. Doesn’t that make perfect sense?

So while you Cariocas and Paulistas sort out which city you hate best, I’ve found a unifying theme to São Paulo and Rio that I can love with equal measure.

Monday, August 02, 2010


The plane taking me to Brazil got abducted by aliens, was transported through a quasar at warp speed, and vomited back to a remote southern part of Earth which the aliens had discovered in the 50s. I remembered nothing of the inter-galactical journey, but suddenly woke up in a confused state to find myself in Brasilia.

The landscape was completely flat, completely arid, and completely quiet. In fact it was so dry that the grass had a scorched look, and trees gave off a steam of overheat. Some patches of trees were, as a matter of fact, on fire, shooting up billows of thin charcoal smoke. Contrasting against an otherwise spotless blue sky.

"Those trees are on fire," I told my host, because he didn't seem to have noticed.

"Oh. Yes, that happens a lot," he said, and continued to drive.

In an almost defying way, the landscape in general felt green. With lots of colorful flowers. A smooth dark blue lake on the horizon. A stark summer feel.

But even stranger still were the futuristic alien structures dotting the land: a huge white dome-shaped museum, cubic buildings with gravity-defying structures jutting out of its side, a lone white tower, a church that looked like giant intertwined fingers, a twin parliament building that looked like a ball cut in half, one upturned, one face-down. Curving walls, cool pools, defined edges, elegant whiteness. The entire city was a marvelous architectural Bauhaus museum.

Of course I later discovered that the “alien” responsible for this is Oscar Niemeyer, the legendary Brazilian architect who designed the entire capital city of Brasilia.

“Is he still alive? I’d like to meet him. If only to shake his hand.”

“Well it will be a rather shaky handshake because he is almost a hundred.”


“He’s completely mad. What normal person would build a city in a desert?”

“Maybe he finds it cozy.

“He lives in Rio. By the Copacabana beach.”

Sunday, August 01, 2010


In a “diverse market” where various products come together in a single market and therefore create abundant options, consumers gain an increased benefit of choosing the perfect fit. Following this theory, I have discovered that generally the Latin Americans are my soul mates in this world.

I would even happily sit at a table with them and understand nothing of what they are saying in Spanish and Portuguese. I would let the pretty language wash over me and I would feel perfectly warm, perfectly at home. It is strange.

I went to Mexico with a bunch of enthusiastic latinas who took off their clothes and greedily soaked up the sun like a sponge. One of them, hugging her self with a smile tilted towards the sky, described the warmth of the sun like having someone hold you in his arms. For hours they lay on the hot beach drinking mango margaritas, comparing each other's tans when the day was done. When I told them I'd rather be white they were visibly shocked. They say I have perfect skin-tone. They had beautiful bodies but the beach was also filled with lumpy flesh spilling out of bikinis. I never was one to admire the naked human body as an art form or as any kind of statement of freedom. I've always thought bikinis only go well with good bodies. I remembered the tourists in Bali, baring their lumpy flesh on the beach, and remembered how I thought they cluttered the beach and made it ugly.

I told them they should come to Bali and they promised to come. Back home they would spend their weekends on the beach, or on their suburban farms. They asked me what I did on weekends. They asked me whether, since Indonesia is filled with beautiful beaches, I would go to the beach every weekend. I laughed and told them we don't need a tan. I told them I'd go to the movies with my boyfriend, cook at home, or go out to cafes with my friends. I told them Jakartans don't spend a lot of time outdoors because it is too hot and there are mosquitoes. I laughed at how ridiculous it all sounded from where I was on that Mexican beach.

We sang telenovela songs and kept a lookout for tanned cuties. We got along genuinely marvelously. All I needed to do was to slather on a higher SPF.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


How can I not love American co-workers when the meeting goes like this:

"When the rubber hits the road we want to make sure we hit the road running."

"But companies are still tying up their shoelaces now, when they should already be taking baby steps to be prepared for when the shit hits the fan."

"Let me poke my head around this and try to speed-deliver then."

"Good. I guess you could choose your battles if that helps, just make sure we don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Many years I've spent searching solace
On the road, in the sky, on my shoe lace
The answer, found today and ends tomorrow
Brings joy with it and sorrow

Because I'm designed in layers and my face
can give you a lie without a trace
And the unfunny jokes that I pretend to borrow
Will convince you without frown on your brow

There was always something out of place
A smile to fake, a dream to chase
No home that was home to the marrow
Guilt hanging above, a shadow, a crow

The answer just struck me today: this place
was where I could act with comfort and grace
But life is funny, and one year is narrow
it all ends when I graduate tomorrow.

(See minute 2:20)