Lost In Translation

Boxing Day: More Misadventures In Capitalism

An envelope, an envelope, my kingdom for a envelope. I wanted this….

“Kerjakan saudara Jual Besar strong amplops?”

–Yours truly, in a local store, asking for big, strong envelopes.

One of my great regrets is not saving Bali for last because of all the beautiful craftwork for sale in many of the island’s shops, especially Ubud. I felt this way the first time I passed through the town and ended up buying $125 worth of dolphin figurines. The lesson hit home even more keenly on my return trip when I went looking for a birthday gift for my friend, Gena Shapiro. 

I’m not a souvenir shopper. I prefer photographs and memories over merchandise. They last longer, are easier to carry, and take less space in a backpack. Ubud was almost enough to make me reconsider, however. All of the shops were filled with beautiful tapestries; brightly colored, hand-carved, hand-painted figurines and decorative furniture shaped like animals. A specialty shop back in Seattle had the same bright orange, yellow and red giraffe table for $200 while it was available in Ubud for around $20, depending on the buyer’s negotiating skill. In fact, many of the items impressed me so much on the first trip through that I stunned both Chris and myself when I saw a large cloth item hanging in a shop and said, “This would make a great comforter for my bed back home.” This from a guy whose ideal comforter had been a bedspread with the logos of his favorite professional sports teams and who thought a duvet was something a bad golfer hacked out of the golf course greens while swinging at a ball. 

There was no way I could buy any of the stuff I wanted because I would have had to haul it with me all over creation as I traveled. I could have mailed it, but I didn’t want to lose another day to the shipping process. Hell, even sending Gena’s gift became a production number.

Finding the right gift for my friend wasn’t a problem. It never is. She only wants the best. Everything that came after I purchased a small, cute hand-carved wooden teddy bear in a hand-carved chair, however, was more problematic. 

The trouble all started when I took the gift to a post office and tried to send it to the States. Instead of digging out a box in which to send it, the cashier suggested a big, strong envelope. Unfortunately, she was out of the ones she needed and sent me to a neighboring apotik (pharmacy) to look for them. Sadly, the few envelopes the store had were either too small or not strong enough. As a result, I spent the next hour going from shop to shop in the tourist district in a fruitless search. Rather than get discouraged, I cast a wider net and looked in grocery stores outside the tourist zone. Although I did not speak Indonesian I figured my charming personality, good manners and Lonely Planet Indonesian phrase book would get me what I wanted in any store in the land. 

Silly me.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that no one in the store where I finally stopped spoke English. What did shock me, though, were my phrasebook’s shortcomings. Although it had sections on visits to the grocery store and post office listing words like “do” “you” “sell” “big” and “envelopes” as well as “who” and “does,” it did not contain list the word “strong.” This wouldn’t have been a problem if I could have found padded envelopes, but all I saw were envelopes so flimsy they didn’t look up to the task of carrying mail across the street, much less around the globe. Refusing to accept the obvious I began moving boxes around in the store’s stationery section hoping to find what I was looking for–hidden under what I’m not sure, maybe a pack of pencils or a ruler. The more stuff I moved, the more attention I attracted from the store’s staff until a staffer asked (in Indonesian) if I needed help.

“Kerjakan saudara jual besar strong amplops?” (“Do you sell big, strong envelopes?”) I asked. 

In response, the clerk showed me the biggest envelope in the store, which was large enough, but not sturdy. So I asked if it was “strong” by clenching my fist and swinging my arm as if I were about to hit something. When she didn’t understand, she summoned another employee who called for the manager when she couldn’t figure out what I wanted. By the time the manager arrived a small crowd had gathered to watch this most curious of transactions.

This time around I decided to use a different approach. Instead of saying “strong” I thought it would be a helpful to replace it with my charade-like punch.

“Kerjakan saudara Jual Besar (fake punch) amplops?” I asked. (I’m sure that one of the clerks went home that evening and told her husband, “We had this strange American come into the store today wanting to beat up envelopes.”)

When that didn’t work, I tried looking for a box. This would have been a great idea if my phrasebook had a word for “box.” Unfortunately, it didn’t even list words for carton, parcel or package, either. And each time I pointed to a box the clerks told me what was in the box and how much each it cost. As a last resort I even fondled boxes, but that just confused the issue.

…but I would have settled for something like this.

I don’t know how long it took me to explain that I was looking for a box, but it took more than five clerks to figure out what I wanted, and one got so frustrated that she walked off saying, “Oh my God!” in English. Thanks to my good sense of humor, stubbornness, and sheer persistence, I emerged victorious and ran all the way to the post office with a too-large box only to discover that the clerk had already found a box for my gift.