Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Indonesian story

Meeting in Medan


Medan is the ugliest city in the world I had visited. It may be caused by fact that on our way from Singapore to Vienna, Europe, we had in Medan a 16 hour gap between our connecting flights. Waiting at any airport for so long is definitely not very pleasant. But to do so in Sumatra at Medan airport is, based on my experience, even worse. The female part of our small tour group dealt stoically with this situation. They seem to be able to sit, patiently, on their bags the whole time and wait. This makes me certain that women are stronger and more persevering than men are. After 30 minutes, my journalist colleague and I started trying to find any way to leave the airport. Notwithstanding our multi-exit visas, the customs clerks gave us a difficult time before they would let us leave. They had to do something to earn their baksheesh. An exotic European brand of cigarettes opened the doors to the wonders of Medan as often as we would wish during the long wait for our plane. And thanks to it I have soon realized that Medan has one of the most friendly people I have ever met.

We promptly made a trip to the local Sultan’s palace and a longer trip to a crocodile farm. Due to the absence of other attractions, we also decided to see a modern mosque. Unfortunately, like the other beauties in Medan it was in decay. We had exhausted the sightseeing venues. However, still we had only used up half of the waiting time. We returned to the airport and checked on our patient female colleagues. They had already entered a state of hibernation and looked like sphinxes. For variety, there was a technical pause from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. when all stores and offices in the airport shut down and the employees left -- turning off the air conditioning. The only living people in the airport were the female members of our group, sitting resolutely on their luggage as if even an accidental earthquake would not dislodge them. This was too much for my colleague and me and, desperately, we tried to find another adventure.

The only thing we could think of was to walk around the suburb of the town next to the airport. The main street was lined with rundown shops. They had clay floors, and when we bought lemonade we had to drink it warm, since there was no refrigeration. After our first steps on this street, unbelievable things started to happen.

Passing cars were horning at us. Shopkeepers and customers ran out of the shops to look at us. School children on their way home surrounded us warmly and enthusiastically. A young local teacher of English came to us, enchanted, introduced himself, shook our hands and said, earnestly, how glad he was to meet us. Not that local people hadn’t seen Europeans, but they hadn’t seen two Europeans walking among them. I understood that it was like a mission of „folk diplomacy“ during the thaw in relations between East and West in the ‘80s. Now I felt that this was an extraordinary occasion for the ordinary citizens of Sumatra and Slovakia to engage in some „folk diplomacy“. As we walked along this infinitely long street, the feeling grew better and better. We stopped in front of shabby kiosks to shake hands with people. There was small probability that we could tell them anything important in any international language. But we didn’t need words. It was an enthusiastic mission of understanding an ideal moment to prove that people of good will don’t need any language. The good things everyone can feel. It is rare moment when one has the feeling that he is the messenger of universal understanding and reconciliation.

The feeling ended when, at the end of the long street, we saw a tall, dust-covered man on a bicycle loaded fully with baggage. Beneath the mask of dust, the man seemed to be a European. We stopped, surprised. The man on the bicycle came directly toward us. It was a man of our age explaining that he was on a trek from India to somewhere in Borneo. He and his bike showed signs of this long journey. He started in his German mother language but quickly understood that with us he would have to use the lingua franca of international travelers -- English.

„I say you hello,“ he said. „Advise me the nearest hotel.“

With pity we shook our heads. We had no idea where the nearest hotel could be. Local people were perfect members of non-verbal friendship mission, but this information they couldn’t help with. The German shrugged it off, waved, and in parting said:

„It´s O.k.. By the way, aren´t you from Slovakia?“

We nodded. „How did you know?“

„Simple. Because of your terrible pronunciation. Good-bye.“ Then he pedaled into the distance.

This is how life goes. For some experiences you must go thousands of kilometers to learn, that there is nowhere in the world where you can’t meet a European, or find the footprint of a European. And, if you forget for a moment about our national differences, it’s still the terrible pronunciation of English that divides us . . .