Fugee fun, part 3: Back to Bangkok and beyond

August 28–September 7, 2011

We arrived back in Bangkok that day and headed straight to backpacker heaven. Yep, we’d arranged to stay in the Khao San Road area—where old hippies don’t die, they just start up pad thai noodle shops bars serving younger, hairier hippies. Anyway, the Fortville Guest House (fortvilleguesthouse.khaosanroad.com) would be our stay for the next few days, with a short break to Pattaya, the self-styled “extreme city.” Hmmm.

Fortville served THE best coffee.

But first things first: a same-day, mind-warping trip to the British Consulate via a splashy water taxi to get an emergency travel document (in this case, an emergency passport), all of which was unusually easy (administrative and bureaucratic nightmare stories will resonate with many expat readers). Actually, I have to give full credit where it’s deserved: Rebecca shouldered a lot of the organizational work and much of the stress; she even picked up the forms I’d need for a new passport when finally in Jakarta. Assuming I got there eventually without further deportation issues…

River taxi for the penniless. Only 11 baht per person one way!

Bless her heart, Rebecca also arranged our time there in Khao San, making logical and informed purchasing decisions on everything from new luggage to sun hats. (The latter a challenge for me as I have a big head. No, I mean it literally: my head is huge.) The room, while functional, was a lot better than an airline security office floor, and since that time I’ve started to see a bed to lie on and a working pillow as a God-given reason to count my blessings.

Matt, with the only hat that fit his large head.

We even managed a few nights out in Khao San Road, including Rebecca’s birthday, singing along to a local duo in a packed second-story bar in which I was perhaps the oldest person there (notable favorite: Wonderwall by Oasis).

Khao San's answer to Hard Rock Cafe

In between, and also organized by Rebecca, we managed a trip to Pattaya (“Good Guys Go To Heaven, Bad Guys Go To Pattaya,” or so the T-shirts say). We almost didn’t make it, though. Our driver, arranged by the guesthouse, drove literally at breakneck speed (I have what is medically termed ankylosing spondylitis, or, as we sufferers like to know it, a pain in the neck) and I really did fear for my life—so much so that I complained to him in my best Thai. We ended up at the port for the island of Koh Samet, about an hour from Pattaya. Total travel time: five hours. Still, we saw the X-Men movie prequel.

Hilton Pattaya, NOT where we stayed.

In Pattaya, we managed to fit in all the cultural and intellectual activities on offer and after those 30 minutes were up, we hit the strip bars and go-go joints. Well, when in Rome…

We returned, packed, checked out and headed to the airport. To be honest, my memory of that time is now a little hazy, partly as I was so spooked that I’d somehow get turned away at Jakarta airport, and partly due to lack of sleep. I shouldn’t have worried. We departed Thailand early morning with no fuss and arrived in Jakarta a few hours later.

Needless to say, our arrival was somewhat rushed and hectic. Rather than check in to my serviced apartment, I headed straight to the office where some of my luggage was stored from a previous trip. Along the way, we took some musghot photos for my new passport application, and on arrival, I filled in the form and had it ready for posting. And without pause for breath or thought, I launched straight into a full-fledged magazine proposal that very afternoon.

At the time of writing this, I now have a new passport, ID card, KITAS, work permit, police book and police registration card. I’ve even registered with the embassy. I am the most legal expat in all of Jakarta. Life, at last, is good.

*The Fugees were a band in the 90s who had a brief but shining time in the spotlight with a cover of  “Killing Me Softly,” originally by Roberta Flack. The band name is a contraction of “refugees.”


Cunning trilinguist

I just ordered a cup of coffee in Bahasa Indonesia And this without hand gestures, broken English and confusion on all sides. A small victory of sorts.

When I first got together with Rebecca, learning Indonesian was not (I hate to say) a major priority. She is basically natively fluent in English, albeit with a cute American accent, and a journalist (in both languages) and PR pro. Communication was never an issue.

But having met her family in April and having now moved here, and commanding a staff of 72 Indonesians and one Malayasian, learning the local lingo has become a must. As with Thai, I think it also shows a certain respect for the country one is a guest in.

Bless her little white cotton socks (she does have some), Rebecca did teach me the basics, and while she perhaps thought I didn’t take it seriously, I still remember them. But two lessons down and I am starting to get to grips with conversational Bahasa. Yes, I still talk “like a robot” (she says) since I have to recall each word: sentence construction is not easy for me yet. But hey, it’s two hours of lessons and I can still ask for coffee, tea, and so on.

I feel quite proud of myself. In Thailand, it was three years before I could hold an actual conversation. And that was simply: “Barman, 10 more pints!”

I do remember Thai, and I can still speak it I think. But I do have to simply “turn off” the Thai in my head and switch to a Bahasa head.

*As written in coffee shop outside Bank Mayapada on Forbes Indonesia business… See attached pic! Now onwards into a meeting with some rich people!

Writing this, before Forbes meeting

How I met your father

Kids, it was simple. But damn it was not easy. It took several career jumps for me to reach the stratosphere where he was at. Then I finally met him, gave him my number, and a week later, he gave me a call, a sweet surprising long-distance morning call.

In 2008, after successfully launched Mother&Baby Indonesia, I thought I should go international, or go regional at least, publishing or no publishing. So I applied to two interesting posts: promotion executive for Singapore Tourism Board and editorial position at DestinAsian magazine. STB never called back –thanks! DA called me in for an interview. It was a swift process landing the job, but it took two months, a massive 3-day fair, and one thick anniversary issue till I finally left M&B.

I was happy with my new desk. Luxury travel was a completely new world for me. I could give you a list of several painful placenta abnormalities, but I didn’t know there’s a hotel brand called “W”. I needed references from (rival) magazines and hours worth of armchair travelling every day. I ploughed through back issues of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia over my daily dose of cafe latte. I only focused on its “Stylish Traveller” page to get fashion shoots ideas. But, like many avid readers do, I always read magazines’ editor’s note.

At one point, I read one TLSEA editor’s note too many. Just from the wit and humour, I felt the pull. It drove me wondering how great it would be if I worked for this charming editor-in-chief. I dropped this fantasy pretty quickly. I didn’t think that highly of myself to apply to him for a job. Then again, it was merely a daydream.

Two years and one big move to Bali later, I was dispatched to Singapore, representing Bali in a travel trade show. For three days, the crème de la crème of travel and tourism industry gathered at Suntec Convention Center, networking and contracting (and partying too!). It was not a surprise that I bumped into a friend, lovely sales manager from TLSEA. But I had completely forgotten about my old daydream when she introduced me to “her editor”. He was standing there in all his glory: suited, handsome, with a hint of coffee breath (granted it was at a coffee stand).

But yeah… there he was. Matt Leppard in the flesh.

So kids, that’s how I met your father.

Jack of all, master of one?

It’s often a question people ask, and often I don’t think they want to hear my hours-long explanation and observations. After all, ask me how I am and I will tell you, from my impending alopecia to a stubbed toe to my suspected but never proven blood sugar issue. So here, in a nutshell, is a summary of the various non-editorial jobs I’ve done, and some perspectives about each, looking back in the first instance to me aged 13. And that’s almost 30 years ago. Wow…

Your 5am news call, sir!

My first job was as a paper boy when I was 13. In fact, as soon as I was 13, I started working with the strong encouragement of mum and dad. Being the all-or-nothing person that I tend to be, I took the longest, deepest, darkest, remotest and, yes, rainiest job of all the rounds (it rained on more than anyone else, I rather feel).

This was in Sway, in Hampshire, in the UK (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sway,_Hampshire). This means I was delivering across the vast open and unforgiving hostile steppes (this was my 13-year-old perspective, of course), in a national park, in some areas with no real roads, and many wild horses—most of which seemed as worried to see me as me them at 5am on a Tuesday morning.

Note that during this time, I also delivered a Thursday-afternoon freesheet and did a Sunday morning round (before my kung fu lessons, but that’s another post). Perhaps my love of print came from this? Who’s to say. My dislike of early mornings may well have done so…

When I left school to go to college at 16, as we do in the UK, I had to graduate to a new job. Forcing newspapers through waay-too-small letterboxes with snappy dogs or huge hounds the other side wasn’t cutting it for me any more. So I trod the path that many Sway teenagers had done before me—and I don’t (just) mean to the off-license. One fateful Saturday lunctime at the behest of mum and dad ( and I love them for it), I trudged to the White Rose Hotel (now Sway Manor, http://www.swaymanor.com), then run by the Winchcombe family, or “sir” and “madam” as the senior owners liked to be called. My question at the time: got a job?

It was Peter Cutler (now of http://www.oldfarmhouseinburley.co.uk/) who, when I walked in at about 12pm, said: start tonight. Yikes!

That Saturday night in May 1986, after a busy (120 or so) service, I walked out of there vowing never, EVER to return to the stinking, disgusting pots and pans, the loud and brash attitude of my colleagues, and the endless ribbings I took as the newbie (AND losing my Saturday night freedom). That was 1986. I actually did leave in the very end… but in 2000 (I even worked part-time as a national magazine editor). In between was one of the best and most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done. For 16 years and not one night.

Being the ambitious type that I can be if I try, I ended up as third chef and either to my eternal shame or eternal luck, I graduated to assistant chef. Peter Cutler will always be my head chef, but I was a pretty good number 3. Or number 2 from time to time, and occassionally number 1 on breakfasts. My remit was starters, salads and sweets, and I still remember the recipe for salad beaucaire. Julienne of leeks, bacon, egg, something else… I think (I may need to look it up). They even offered me to stay and become a fully trained chef.

I worked there also to support my time studying biology at university—Portsmouth Polytechnic as was—during breaks, and worked every summer. Once I graduated, I was happy enough going in at 8:30, finishing at 2pm, then starting again at 5:30 then nipping into the bar at 9pm. And cycling home later on, often crashing into rose bushes (always roses, always). I made some of the best friends I have ever had, many of whom remain so in my heart if not on my Facebook page), and learned (and I do mean this seriously) how to think “on the fly” and how to prep a good “mis en place” to prepare and second-guess the service. And I made the best custard my chef had ever tasted. Just the once… Later on, Anne and Paul, the brother and sister team who ran operations, become close confidantes. Well, I did spend one or more nights propping the bar up, as I said.

Of course, this couldn’t go on forever, despite my love for the job—I did, after all, study chemistry, biology and physics at A-level. So when I was offered the job of assistant scientific officer at the UK Ministry of Agriculture’s Horticulture Research International (HRI) at Efford, Lymington, it seemed like I was going to find my life-sciences feet. But a monthly-renewed contract and laughable pay put paid to that. Nonetheless, again, I made some of my closest friends there and, among the roses, the magnolias, the trees and the glasshouse tomatoes, we had so much fun (and mutual suffering). This was in 1994/5. I know as I remember hearing “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls when counting tomatoes in a glass house.

No more flowers…

After a brief interlude during which I obtained a post-grad diploma in environmental management, I returned to HRI briefly, but then saw another opportunity: science graduates needed as editors! Well, I’d always had a passion for reading and writing, and was an avid magazine collector. So again, I jumped in and got great hands-on education in the dark arts of sub-editing.

Onto editorial…

This was for science journals, not magazines, mind. Not for Nature, or for New Scientist of whatever. No, this was for Computers and Structures, Applied Mechanics, Theoretical Physics and the like. Here, grammar was the rule of law and I learned to wield it. I’m still sure many of my colleagues who went to journalism school have NO IDEA what a “comma splice is” or could not talk about conjunctions and coordinate clauses.

That lasted for a year or so, but when I saw an ad looking for a staff writer for magazines about the Internet, I jumped. After all, ad my dad’s behest, I had taken a Higher National Diploma in graphic design and did work experience at my dad;s ad firm and elsewhere…He must have seen the potential of a cynical writer with an eye for cover design.. (Charlie Brooker: I was only a few months behind you…)

You see, I did fancy myself as a writer and I had always wanted to try the Internet, so in the first few weeks, I wrote 300-odd website reviews. And the rest is editorial history…

Rebecca Leppard

Rebecca was the Account Director for Travel Works Communications International when all of this started. She is now spearheads communications of Bali Hotels Association, which means she commutes between Jakarta and Bali.

Her strength in media relations is due to her experience of working with big names in Indonesian and regional media under her belt. Started creative writing since she was 9 and public speaking since 12, Rebecca pursued to study Mass Communications in University of Indonesia. Prior to joining Travel Works, she was the Senior Writer at DestinAsian magazine and a successful leader and senior editor at Mother&Baby magazine. During her days in Bali, she was also a contributing editor for Australia’s leading travel trade magazine, TravelTalk. She is now still doing everything she used to do: writing, emceeing, teaching, consulting. But she admits doing it on a freelance basis is a great way of working and living!

Her all time passion is teaching. She recognized from early age that education is the key to quality life. She taught herself English from American pop culture and then taught her housekeepers English using flash cards. To this day, she uses every opportunity to open a class and give practical lectures for Bali’s tourism industry professionals to this day.

She lived alone for 10 years and enjoyed every moment of it. Now that she has to share an apartment with a man and a baby, she will have to store her shoes somewhere safe.