Posts Tagged ‘culture’

According to indexmundi.com, Ecuador’s ethnic groups break down roughly as follows:
72% Mestizo (mixed Indigenous and White (Spanish colonizers))
7%  Indigenous
7%  Afro-Ecuadorian
7%  Montubio (a rural peasant class found on the coast, which recently became an ethnic classification as well.  I still don’t understand this very well, nor do I know much about this group other than what I just read here.)
6%  White

I would say it’s generally understood that there is a hierarchy to these categories: Whites and Mestizos have the most status/power, Indigenous and Montubios have less, and Afro-Ecuadorians have the least.  Let me recount a few anecdotes that I find revealing about race relations in Ecuador…

1.  As Prepared At Home
There is a popular Ecuadorian fast food chain called Menestras del Negro.  This roughly translates as “The black guy’s lentils.”  It’s important to note here that the Spanish word negro (pronounced NAY-grow), means black, as in the color black, or a black person.  It does NOT have the derogatory connotation of the English word negro.  So the name of the chain is not really problematic in and of itself.  However, you might have other thoughts when you see their logo:


EVERY North American that I have had a conversation with about this establishment is HORRIFIED by this image, and immediately comments on how racist it is.  Interestingly, every Ecuadorian I have had a conversation with about this establishment doesn’t see anything wrong at all.  In fact, one Ecuadorian friend, a lawyer, attempted to give me a language lesson to explain that the word negro in Spanish isn’t racist.  Which I already KNEW.  I asked him to describe the logo.  He said it’s a black guy.  I asked what’s in the black guy’s hair.  He thought about it, and then his eyes got HUGE, and he said I was right, it IS an insulting logo, and he had never noticed it before.  (He is also thinking about filing a class action lawsuit on this, but that’s another story for another time.)  My point?  This is a well-known image all over the country here, and no locals (that I know of) even notice it.

2.  Criminals
One of my Fulbright friends who taught in a town 2 hours south of Quito was mugged a couple years ago.  By two black guys.  When she told her local friends and colleagues about it, many of them asked if (or assumed that) the thieves were black.  My friend started lying and telling people that two mestizos robbed her, because she didn’t want to perpetuate racism.  (Relatedly, when I was recently robbed, no one asked if the criminals were black, but a few people insisted that “they must have been Colombian.”  I’m not sure why, but my reaction is they got my purse – does it really matter WHO got it?)

3.  It’s All Relative
Among a group of friends, it’s quite common that the darkest skinned person will have the nickname Negro or Negra, even if they are not ACTUALLY black.  And the person with the smallest eyes will often be called Chino or China, even though they are not ACTUALLY Chinese.  It’s a way to identify a friend, and is somehow a bonding term, a way to show inclusion in the group.  (I will admit I have referred to my old salsa teacher as El Chinito, but he actually IS half Chinese and half Ecuadorian, so I feel like that’s a little more accurate in his case.)  In a similar vein, two or three of my Afro-Ecuadorian friends have taken to calling me Negrita.  Obviously I am NOT the darkest skinned person among our group of friends – not by a long shot.  Although I do kind of love the ridiculousness of my new nickname.

I got to see the band perform their hit at a salsa club in Quito.  I'm such a groupie.

I got to see 3D Corazones perform their hit at a salsa club in Quito. I’m such a groupie.

4.  Blacks Are In Style
A suuuuuuuuper popular salsa song this year, sung by a Colombian group, is called “Los Negros Estan de Moda,” or “blacks are in style.”  Ironically, the first time I heard this song was during an English summer camp for teens on the coast, most of whom were Afro-Ecuadorian.  The theme of the camp was Black History Month.  During our campfire party the kiddos played this song, and went CRAZY.  In fact, every time I’ve heard this song in a dance club, the black patrons seem to LOVE it.  I do see how the lyrics promote black pride, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it.  But I guess, as a white person, it doesn’t really matter how I feel about it.

5.  Who Can Get A Taxi At 4am
Once, after a night out dancing, a group of friends came back to my place to continue hanging out.  Around 4am, when most of us couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore, some of them were starting to settle in to sleep on my couch.  They were welcome to stay, but I asked why they didn’t just take a taxi home.  One of them said “We’re 4 black guys.  We can’t get a taxi at 4 in the morning.”  Oh.  That stopped me in my tracks, because I NEVER would have even considered that being a problem.  But it is.  Wow.  I just don’t usually have to think about things like that.  (I ended up calling one of my regular taxi companies to order two taxis to take everyone home.  But I still went outside with everyone to make sure the taxi drivers would accept the four guys.)  I have also chatted with taxi drivers who have told me they will not pick up certain would-be passengers (i.e., blacks and Cubans).

6.  Savage Rhythm
ritmoBy now it’s no surprise that I go salsa dancing a TON.  There are a handful of salsa clubs in Quito, and I regularly frequent many of them.  One of the clubs, Ritmo Salvaje, is what one of my Afro-Ecuadorian friends refers to as “la casa de los negros.”  It’s the black salsa club.  When I go there, I am usually one of only two white people in the entire place (the other being my friend Maggie).  I wanted to check it out when it opened last year because my friend Frank (an Afro-Ecuadorian) and his brother own the place.  So Maggie and I went.  Frank was so happy to see us, but I will say it felt like I was in a cliche sitcom scene:  two obviously-out-of-place white girls stumble into an all black club, the record screeches to a halt, and all of the black people stop dancing to turn around and stare at the terribly lost foreigners.  Okay, I’m exaggerating.  But it felt a liiiiiitle bit like that.  I also felt like I couldn’t ask anyone to dance, because it would play into the stereotype of white women “stealing” black guys.  Plus I just didn’t really know anyone to ask, besides the owners, who were too busy WORKING.  So the first few times I went, I didn’t dance a whole lot.  But they play great music, and Frank is always so happy to see us, so I have returned.  And the more I go, the more I’ve met people, so that now I know a few of the regulars and get asked to dance much more than before.  I’m still usually one of only two whites in the whole place, and I still feel like some people look at me like I don’t belong there, but I feel a lot less uncomfortable going there now.

Dancing here is unlike any other salsa club I know.  People don’t do a lot of showy moves and turns, but instead tend to dance very closely, emphasizing their hips.  And everyone knows how to MOVE.  They FEEL the music.  They ENJOY the music.  It’s not technical, it’s not robotic – this is salsa de la calle (street salsa).  They play a lot of salsa urbano and salsa choke and salsaton, which I love.  And when a particularly popular song comes on, the whole place just ERUPTS – everyone belting out the lyrics and dancing and radiating sabor.  And when they play an occasional bomba song (a musical/dance style from the Afro-Ecuadorian population in northern Ecuador), everyone goes crazy.  And when they play reggaeton – it is a sight to behold.  (An R-rated site to behold, but it’s incredible.)  I don’t think I will ever ever EVER find a place like this anywhere else that I live.  I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to frequent Ritmo Salvaje now, and try to soak up the experience.

Patrons at Ritmo Salvaje tend to get several large bottles of beer (or a whole crate of beer) to share.  But instead of each person drinking their own bottle from the stash, they will all share one bottle at a time, using one or two plastic cups.  One person pours some beer into a cup and drinks it, then dumps the remaining foam on the floor.  Then they pass the now-empty cup to a friend, who pours a little beer, drinks it, and tosses out the foam.  I used to think this was gross, but now I see it as just one more example of how communal Ecuadorian culture is (as opposed to U.S. culture, which is very individualistic).  I haven’t yet figured out if this sharing and dumping of cups is more of a racial phenomenon, or more of a coastal phenomenon, or more of a small-town culture phenomenon.  But this is the only club I’ve been to where everyone is dumping out their cups on the floor all night long.  Which means that the floor becomes quite wet, until everyone is eventually dancing in puddles of discarded beer foam.

And THAT is why my shoes were completely soaked after a night of salsa dancing.

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La Fiesta de la Mama Negra

What Ecuadorian festival is a mix of Spanish, Indigenous, African, Ecuadorian, Catholic, and Pagan elements, with a good amount of black face thrown in?  The Mama Negra festival, held in Latacunga each September and November.

I was in Latacunga for an EFL conference that happened to fall on Mama Negra weekend, so I made a point to watch one of the many parades celebrating the “Black Mama.”   From what I can gather, the celebration is for La Virgen de la Merced, who locals believe protects Latacunga from the nearby Cotopaxi Volcano.  They honor the Virgin with days of parades, dancing, and drinking.  The parade starts off with this guy, setting off bottle rockets in alarmingly close proximity to people and buildings.  I guess that’s one way to clear a path for the parade.

So what does the volcano-protecting Virgin have to do with a prominent local businessman dressed as a black woman?  He (or she?) is the festival’s namesake, and the 2011 Mama Negra was the owner of a local dairy factory.  Why is he in drag?  And black face?  According to Lonely Planet, “a priest that wanted to earn favor by hosting the Virgin’s procession failed to provide sufficiently grand quantities of food and drink, and during the night an apparition of a black woman berated his negligence.  She terrified the priest and the rest of the town, so they introduced a new figure to the procession, that of the black mother astride a horse.”  Mama Negra carries a black baby doll named Balthazara, which I guess is the name of the black wiseman who brought gifts to baby Jesus.

Next we have a little more Catholicism in the form of El Angel de la Estrella (Angel of the Star), representing the Angel Gabriel.

Then came El Rey, a king who either represents a Moorish king, an indigenous king, or another one of the three kings who visited baby Jesus, depending on which internet site you believe.

Along with The King we have El Embajador (The Ambassador).  This piece is purportedly Spanish.

Up next: huacos (shaman).  Their job is to cleanse bystanders (which entails spitting alcohol on them in the wilder parades – luckily I witnessed one of the more somber religiously-oriented parades).  They carry deer skulls or antlers, but I don’t know what that symbolizes.  Probably something from indigenous mythology.

There were also several Camisonas.  They wear long night gowns and wire masks. They also carry snacks for the kiddos and whips to keep back parade spectators, though I never saw either of these in use.

There were Curiquingues (bird men – see?  they have wings).  Their job is maintaining the parade route, which they did by walking along the outer edge of the parade.  Better than whipping spectators, I suppose.

There were some Ofrenderas, women carrying baskets of goodies.  This has dual meaning: 1) giving thanks for a successful harvest, and 2) showcasing the city’s generosity/hospitality.

And bringing up the rear was the Virgin of the Merced herself, followed by a throng of devoted spectators.

But what was my favorite parade unit?  No, not the marching band.  My favorite part was this horse, with the little pirate kid stuck in one pocket…

… and this chiquita stuck in the other pocket.  I guess they start them pretty young on the black face.

The parade ended at the Iglesia de la Merced, where El Capitan and his company made a show of placing the Virgin back where she belongs.  (Pssst – the Captain is supposedly Mama Negra’s lover!)

And with the religious celebration concluded, the party could really get started.  The rest of the afternoon featured several bands, yumbadas (dance troupes), ashangas (roasted pig offerings surrounded by roasted guinea pigs, chickens, packs of cigarettes and bottles of whiskey), and a whole lot of alcohol.

You can learn more about the festival here or here.

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How to talk like an Ecuadorian

I’ve been living in Ecuador for 8 months now, and have noticed a few features about Ecuadorian Spanish to work into my speech:

Use terms of endearment liberally, especially when talking to women (mi princesa, mi corazon, mi vida, mi hija, etc.).

Use articles when referring to your friends.

El Diego, La Cris, El Esteban, La Steph, La Cristina

Use diminutives whenever possible.
una agua  –> una aguaita (a tiny bit of water)
2 dolares 
–> 2 dolaritos (2 small dollars)
un momento  –> un momentito (one teeny moment)
mi princesa  –> mi princesita (my little princess)
los pasos lindos  –> los pasitos linditos (the pretty little dance steps)
Stephanie –> Stephi (they never change my name to Stephanicita; there’s probably an orthographic/phonemic rule for that which I have not yet discovered)

Use any of the following words.
chévere = awesome
que bestia = How great!  (This is often used sarcastically.)
un ratito = one moment
chuta = mild expletive, similar to “shoot” or “darn”
fresco/a = cool/neat
una guagua
= a baby (This is actually Quechua.)
los manís = peanuts (because cacahuates is soooo Mexicano)
la frutilla = strawberry (they rarely use fresa here)
una chompa = jacket
no seas malito/a = pretty please, I’m begging you
una chapa = disrespectful term for a cop (like “pig” in English)
miercoles = literally, Wednesday.  Ecuadorians sometimes say this as a polite substitute for mierda, just like we might say “sugar” or “shoot” instead of “shit.”

When stressing the last word in a phrase, use a higher than usual pitch jump.  Okay, this won’t make a lot of sense to you non-linguistic types.  And I can’t for the life of me find an audio example to include here.  So you’ll just have to ask me to demonstrate this for you the next time we talk.  🙂


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Ecuador vs. Indo

Since I was involved in the English Language Fellow program in both Indonesia and now Ecuador, I find myself comparing the two experiences a lot.  Not so much in terms of the jobs (because those are fairly different), but in terms of general living.  A few comparative observations:

  • Sometimes I wish I had heat in my apartment (usually on rainy nights when temps dip to the 40s in Quito).  I never, ever, ever wanted more heat in my home in Indonesia.
  • They eat a lot of rice in Ecuador, but still not as much as in Indo.  Ecuadorians mix it up a bit with potatoes and corn as their other go-to carbs/starches.
  • Ecuadorians, por lo general, walk faster than Indonesians.  But still on the slow side for my tastes.
  • Quito is loud, but I think Indonesia is even louder.  In fact, I consider my time in Indo a training period that helped me adjust to higher levels of noise pollution.  However, I do have a lot more traffic noise where I live in downtown Quito than I did in my gated community in Indonesia.
  • Ecuadorians like to honk their car horns the millisecond that a light turns green, and are also quick to honk if there is any hint of gridlock.  But Indonesians honk more in general: to let you know they are turning/passing/stopping/arriving – basically for anything they think might require some sort of audio notification.
  • Ecuadorians are way more flirtatious than Indonesians.  Yes, this one was predictable.  And also welcome.
  • This may surprise some of you, but Ecuador is a lot more dangerous than Indonesia.  I always felt perfectly safe living in Central Java.  Sure, theoretically there was a possibility for terrorist attacks, but in my day-to-day life I NEVER felt threatened in Indo.  And I can’t think of anyone in Indonesia who was pick-pocketed, or mugged, or robbed in their own home, or express kidnapped (when a taxi driver takes you around to multiple ATMs and forces you to withdraw money until you max out your limits for the day).  Unfortunately, these things are all too common in Quito, and I know  people who have been victims of each of these crimes.  I exercise a lot of caution here  but know that there is always a chance one of these crimes could happen to me.  I never had to be this careful or aware in Indonesia.
  • I blend in more in Ecuador than I did in Indonesia.  In fact, some Ecuadorians are fair-skinned and/or blond and/or blue-eyed.  I think Ecuadorians often assume I’m a foreigner, but they aren’t completely sure until they hear me talk.  In Indonesia I never ever blended in.  And no one EVER thought I might be Indonesian.
  • People called to me more in Indonesia.  Usually this was because they were excited to see a foreigner, and wanted to shout something to me in English.  I never felt this was a pick-up; it was more because I stood out as a white person.  In Ecuador I sometimes get called to (though not nearly as much as in Indo), but the intent here is almost always the pick-up variety, which I attribute to the strong machismo culture of Latin America.  In both countries my typical response is/was to ignore it.
  • The $5 pedicures in Indonesia were waaaaaaayyyyyy better than the $5 pedicures in Ecuador.
  • Ecuadorians dress much more formally than Indonesians, at least for work.  It’s really common for men and women alike to wear full suits to work in Quito.  A full suit would just be too dang hot in Indonesia.  Indonesians usually wore nice pants (or a long skirt) and a dress shirt or other loose top.  I’ve also noticed many businesses require their employees to wear uniforms (which are matching suits).  Bank tellers all wear matching suits.  High school teachers all wear matching suits.  Office secretaries all wear matching suits.  It’s very formal.  And very matchy-matchy.
  • I dance way more in Ecuador than I did in Indonesia.  This is a very good thing.

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I need to adjust to Turkish body language because it’s different from what North Americans do.  Signaling “yes” is pretty much the same: nodding your head up and down.  Turks tend to just nod the head down once rather than bobbing up and down a few times, but close enough.

That’s where the similarities end though.  We North Americans signal “no” by shaking our head from side to side.  In Turkish, however, that means “I don’t know.”  I asked my students about this today and they told me that shaking your head can mean either “no” or “I don’t know.”  That’s what they SAY, but it’s not what they DO.

How do Turks usually show “no” if it’s not by shaking their heads?  They lift their chin and/or eyebrows up.  It’s sort of like the action that American guys do to acknowledge one another, kind of like a “what’s up?” head tilt.  But get this – it’s also really common for Turks to make a tsk-ing noise while they do this.  Which changes the whole tone in my North American mind.  When I see a Turk lift their eyebrows and tsk at me, I feel like they might as well be rolling their eyes and calling me an idiot.

For example, I have asked a student “Do you have the article I asked you to bring to class?”  He replied by lifting his eyebrows/chin and tsking.  My gut reaction was to smack him.  But I have to continually remind myself that he’s just answering my question and I’M the one interpreting it as something rude or insulting.  He’s just telling me “no.”

A few other differences: our “okay” hand signal is an insulting reference to homosexuality.  So is putting your thumb between your 2nd and 3rd fingers (like if you play “I’ve got your nose” with a little kid).  And the middle finger means “this food is delicious.”  Okay, I made that last one up just to make sure you were paying attention.  But all the rest are true!  After all, would I lie to you?  Tsk.

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I’m coming to the end of my fellowship and am preparing to fly back to the U.S. soon, which of course prompts all sorts of reflection on my past 10 months in Indonesia.  I’m ready to go to the U.S., but there are definitely things I will miss about Indonesia.  And there are definitely things I will NOT miss.  To wit…

Things I will NOT miss
Things I WILL miss
paying $3.00 for a can of garbanzo beans paying $4 for a pedicure or $6 for an hour-long massage
expensive crappy wine mango juice, soursop juice, fresh young coconut juice
views like this:

views like this:

being called to every time I go out in public: “Hello Miss!”  “Hello Mister!”  “How are you!”  “What is your name!”  “I love you!”  “Good afternoon Mrs.!” “Bule!” (which means “white person” or “foreigner”) being treated like a celebrity
a national cuisine in which roughly 80% of the food is fried (usually in palm oil) fried tempeh
being asked where I live, if I’m married, if I have a boyfriend, or how old I am, often by complete strangers being told I am beautiful, often by complete strangers
slow internet a portable modem that allows me to go online almost anywhere, regardless of wi-fi service
watching people answer phone calls and carry on conversations during meetings and workshops cheap (we’re talking $3 for an hour-long call to the U.S.) and easy pay-as-you-go cell phone service
public smoking pretty much anywhere

photo by Maura Phelan

volcanoes (smoking or otherwise)

5 am calls to prayer (loud and annoying) 6 pm calls to prayer (reassuring and soothing)
my neighbor’s rooster, which crows ALL. DAY. LONG. the neighbor ladies who chat with me (“Where are you going?”  “You are so healthy.”  “You are so beautiful and sexy.”  “You are so polite.”) and bring me snacks.  And the security guards in my neighborhood who all say hello to me during my walks (“Good evening Mrs.”), even when I pass them 3 times during my loop.
breakdowns in communication the ease and frequency with which people smile
never totally knowing when a scheduled meeting will actually start the relaxed pace of life
litter bougainvillea
finding things like this in my house:

(it took me 10 months to work up the courage to photograph one of these monsters instead of running away from it squealing like a little girl)

finding things like this in my house:

(they eat bugs (although I’ve never seen one take on a 4-inch spider) and they’re cute, but I did get a little tired of cleaning up lizard poop)

public restrooms with no soap, and knowing most Indonesians don’t carry/use hand sanitizer (there’s a reason the left hand is considered dirty around these parts – it usually is!) cream baths (a misnomer as this does not involve a bath but is actually a deep-conditioning hair treatment coupled with a head/scalp massage)
always wondering if I will get sick when eating at a new place (because of poor hygiene, limited refrigeration, no FDA regulations, etc.) when waitstaff at places I frequent remember what I like to order and how I like to order it (no rice, sauce on the side, etc.)
the noise (I somehow brought up noise ordinances in my writing class the other day – my students were both awed and horrified by the concept of volume regulation) buying pirated movies for $1 each
indirectness a flexible work schedule that allows for a lot of travel
rice at nearly every meal (and being questioned when I don’t eat it)

This is what an Indonesian airline gave me once for a flight delay: 3 fried things and a big ol' scoop of rice

rice paddies
(they’re beautiful)

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Taxi talk

Taxi drivers have been one of my most common conversation partners for practicing the Indonesian language.  Our talk is usually me-centered (where I’m from, how long I’ve been in Indonesia, why I’m here, etc.) which is great for a beginner-level speaker like me.  I’ve gotten really good at these predictable topics, although my conversational ability drops sharply whenever a new or unexpected subject comes up.  Often the drivers are excited to be able to talk to a foreigner so they don’t seem to mind my language limitations too much, or keep speaking to me regardless.  This recent conversation is fairly typical of a taxi chat:

(roughly translated from the original Indonesian, with my commentary in parenthesis)

DRIVER:  What country are you from?  The Netherlands?  (They usually guess I’m Dutch first and Australian second, very rarely do they guess I’m American.)

ME:  America!

DRIVER:  Oh, America.  You speak Indonesian?

ME:  Yes, a little.

DRIVER:  America likes soccer.

ME:  Oh, really?  (This was kind of news to me, as I think Americans are not really soccer fanatics when compared to other countries.)

DRIVER:  Yes.  They will go to South Africa.

ME: Oh, really?  (I have not been following the World Cup AT ALL.)

DRIVER:  Yes.  And also Mexico will go to South Africa.  Very good.

ME:  How about Indonesia?

DRIVER: Ahhhhh!  (He then clutched both hands to his head to express his disgust at how awful the Indonesian team is.  I kind of wanted him to put at least one hand back on the steering wheel, but I didn’t know how to say this in Indonesian.)  Indonesia is not good!  They are horrible!

ME:  Oh.

DRIVER:  Horrible!  Elek!  That is “horrible” in Javanese.

ME:  Oh.

DRIVER:  Do you also speak Javanese?

ME:  Not yet (said in Javanese.  Indonesians LOOOOVE it when I throw in a couple words in Javanese.  They absolutely LOVE it.)

DRIVER:  Ahhhh!  You are already fluent!  (He then proceeded to say something in Javanese.)

ME:  What?

DRIVER:  (speaking more Javanese)

ME:  I only know a couple words in Javanese.  “Not yet” and “how are you.”  I don’t speak Javanese.  I speak Indonesian a little bit.

DRIVER:  Oh.  “Horrible” in Javanese is elek.

ME:  Elek?

DRIVER:  Yes, elek. I can teach you Javanese.

ME:  Oh, Javanese is very difficult.

DRIVER:  Yes.  It has the normal form and the polite form.

ME:  Yes, very difficult.

DRIVER:  Ha ha ha, difficult.  What do you study here?

ME:  I’m a university lecturer.

DRIVER: Oh, where?

ME:  Diponegoro University.

DRIVER:  What department?

ME:  The English department.

DRIVER:  Oh.  Do people in America speak American?

ME:  (I’m never sure how to answer this question, and yes, I have been asked this question before.)  Uh, they speak English in America.

DRIVER:  Oh, is that so.

ME:  So I am an English teacher and you are a Javanese teacher.

DRIVER:  Ha ha ha, yes.  When you need a ride home, you call me.  I can teach you more Javanese.

ME:  Oh, okay (I never actually do this even though taxi drivers sometimes want me as a repeat customer.)

DRIVER:  Yes, ask for car 227.

ME:  Oh, okay.

DRIVER:  Do you live alone?  (This is a really common question and not nearly as creepy as it sounds.)

ME:  Yes.

DRIVER:  What?  No friends?  No roommates?

ME:  Yes.  This is normal for Americans.  I know it is not normal for Indonesians.

DRIVER:  You live alone?  Alone?

ME:  Well, I have friends nearby.

DRIVER:  Oh good.  If you are sick it is not good to be alone.  You need friends.

ME:  Yes.

DRIVER:  (upon arriving at my destination) Ok, when you go home you call and ask for taxi 227.  I will teach you more Javanese.

ME:  Oh, okay.  Thank you (said in Javanese, cuz I knew he would like that).

DRIVER:  Ha ha, same to you (said in Javanese).

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