Wednesday, 16 April 2008

A binge too far

I should have seen the warning signs when Shezza got out the Tesco's Value Gin at 5.30 in the afternoon.

Shezza is a bad influence. One of the last times we got together we ended up drinking the best part of a box of wine and for some reason best known to my drunken brain, I ended up weeping over the kitchen table. The following day, we drove to Crawley. Shez - eyes like pinpricks - had to sit in the back with her 11-year-old daughter illegally on her lap, groaning loudly and threatening to hurl at every roundabout.

'It may be cheap, but it makes me happy!' said Shez brightly, pouring a monster load of gin into several tall glasses. It was drinkable - the tonic probably took some of the edge off it - and by the fourth swig it tasted as good as a Gordons.

Like old pros we eased naturally onto the white wine. Just as the words were beginning to slur and stories were starting to be repeated, dinner of ham, potatoes, peas and parsley sauce came to forestall our descent.

Sparkling wine and toffee cake followed (in deference to my impending birthday) and we were all feeling warm and fuzzy when Shez had the hairbrained idea of 'strolling' down to the beach.

The rain was lashing down hard and in regular gusts. "Come on! This is fun isn't it? I love the sea. Can never be far from it," enthused Shez. Unable to resist in any coherent way, we followed like lambs. Half an hour later we got back to the house, soaked down to our knickers.

That's when we could - should - have stopped, but invigorated by our 'stroll' , Shez opened another bottle of wine. We sat as Shez told of her life and loves, munching through a giant packet of Walkers. At some unspecified time later, I managed to stumble up to bed, just about in control of myself, but Shezza was weaving all over the kitchen.

I got up twice in the night for some water - brain lurching at every turn, head hammering with the mother of all headaches. Unable to get back to sleep, I lay awake, longingly visualising ice cold flannels and huge lozenges of paracetamol. About 7am I resolved to get up and find some. The bathroom had no medical stuff in it at all, but a desperate search through the kitchen cupboards brought success. All that activity proved too much for my poisoned system and barely minutes after downing the painkillers I was bent over the kitchen sink, wretching them all back up again.

Shezza woke up to find herself sprawled over the living room floor, phone off the hook and her address book open at her ex-boyfriend's number. She had no recollection of anything after the packet of crisps.

I've made a resolution. Next time we meet, I'm not going to get drunk. But as I said, she's a bad influence.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Memories of fieldwork

In my build-up to starting writing my thesis once again, I've been looking up information on the city in Sumatra where I did my fieldwork. The other day, I came across a website containing hundreds of photos of that very place some of which I am borrowing for this post, including the one above (source: Palembang daily photo)

I've become fascinated by these images of the tropical metropolis which was my home for thirteen months. Though I can barely recognise many of the locations, brief threads - nuggets of memory - are filtering into my daily consciousness. Slowly but surely I'm being transported back 20 years to an extraordinary time in my life.

I found a picture of the monument (which I can't find again) where I once stood for a photo with the trader I called Young Etek: she done up in her traditional-style sarong from her Minangkabau homeland and me in a thin blue cotton dress down to just below my knees. My face is the usual puce from the heat and humidity, hers deadpan for the important picture - testimony of our friendship. I remember her house now: the wooden walls; the woven, plastic mats on the earthen floor; the simple plastic garden chairs used for guests; her husband cooking for the next day's trade in the rudimentary kitchen at the back; her pregnant daughter selling ice shavings from a stall just outside and the constant but comforting noises of neighbourhood life. I stayed the night there once, sharing a bed with her youngest daughter who gossiped about boys and make-up almost all night. We could hear the neighbours chatting and arguing through the walls - their proximity made me feel the warmth of a community who by necessity have to live cheek-by-jowl.

This picture reminds me of a shop in town where I used to get my photos developed and sparks off a memory of a bizarre time when I went there with my friend Kath who was working with VSO. The shopkeeper had asked me whether I wanted a matt finish on my photos and I hadn't understood so to demonstrate he had brought out another customer's pictures and with a flourish, confronted me with an image so surreal that I was forced to double-take. There I was, in the middle of an Indonesian city in the mid 1980s, staring at a photograph of a bullfrog,wide-mouthed and apparently grinning, dressed up in Elizabethan ruffs, a shirt and puffed up shorts, sitting on a hand-made swing, webbed feet demurely crossed.
Just for info - this is what a normal, nude bullfrog looks like, so imagine it if you will:

Photo: A bullfrog in mid-jump

'Oh yes,' Kath had said casually,' those are Mrs Brennan's.' Mrs Brennan was one of the handful of Western expats in the city - a Kentucky lady whose husband was teaching at the agricultural college. The poor woman, presumably sent doo-lally by the life of a trailing spouse in a Southeast Asian backwater, had developed a hobby of catching bullfrogs, making clothes for them, training them, photographing them and then setting them free.

I had been to her house a couple of times - in fact she had been the first person I met. I had bumped into her in the city's first shopping mall (very like the one above) , a day after my arrival, wandering around and feeling lost. She took me to meet my contact at the university, gave me some tea and offered me the key to their video room, where they kept copies of Cheers and American films and where I would spend a number of happy hours in an air-conditioned place, touching base with my Westernness.

The photo of the river brings back another time with Kath, when we had gone on some boats with some of her students and Kath had split her trousers right up the back and we'd had to find all kinds of ways of preventing her from exposing herself to the boys.

A picture of the local buses reminds me of a terrible journey I took with a newly found Minangkabau friend, with very curly hair and a moony face, who took me with her to her home village over Eid. The seats on the coach were far too small for my massive Western frame and my friend had been sick all over me. Worse, the bus broke down and we were stuck at a truck stop for what seemed like an age (6 hours) while all manner of folk had stared prodded and poked at me, laughing at my pointy nose, thin lips and ghostly skin.

Lastly, a photo of the river Ogan reminds me of Ogan lane and the first family who took me into their home. I had a room to myself while the other girls shared. Four children, a niece and a Javanese boy, plus me and Mr and Mrs C made up the household. There was a chicken farm outside managed by Mrs C which stank to high heaven and contained a MADDENING cockerel who crowed ALL THE TIME. Inside, was the main sitting room with a fantastic faux waterfall as a centrepiece on one wall. Just by my room was the mandi (bathroom) with a tiled concrete square about three feet deep containing water and goldfish from which we washed ourselves using plastic scoops. The toilet was outdoors - a squat toilet into which I secretly smuggled tissues - I never got the hang of using water; it always ended up all over my knickers and dress.

I could go on and on - but perhaps that's enough for now.