The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Balloon queen captures DIY spirit

In Cuba Mall, Wellington’s bohemian quarter, there’s no lack of street entertainment.

Competing for the attention of passers-by are jugglers, uni-cyclists, a cacophony of mixed talent musicians, Polynesian hair-braiders and Maori face painters, the odd drunk, Andean flautists, gawkers and hawkers, passionate preachers and sad poets, even one or two beggars.

Then there’s Elena Amendek Sondari, 21, the undisputed Sundanese balloon queen of the New Zealand capital.

The enterprise and initiative of this young Indonesian, raising cash to help her husband study, has earned the respect of the locals because she’s embraced the Kiwi DIY (do it yourself) culture.

The ‘can do, will do’ ethos has made the tiny and isolated South Pacific nation a world leader in disciplines as diverse as film production, dairy farming, geothermal engineering and environmental protection.

It’s an attitude that has also built an egalitarian society where people are judged not by skin color, ethnicity, nationality or religion – but by their work ethic.

All this Elena relishes, but her activities don’t always get applause from Indonesians living in the NZ capital.

“Some think I shouldn’t be doing this, standing in the street twisting balloons,” she said. “They say it’s undignified, not suitable for an Indonesian abroad. For them status is everything.”

There are only around 400 Indonesians in Wellington. Many are post-graduate students, associates of the Embassy, businesspeople or the spouses of professional Kiwis.

Elena’s husband, Amsal Sahban also falls into the category of the elite. His father owns a private business college in Makassar. When Amsal finishes his studies at the prestigious Victoria University he’ll return to South Sulawesi to help run the institution.

Elena could easily spend her time gossiping with girl friends over cappuccinos, helping cook for the Embassy’s VIP guests and chatting through arisan (social gatherings that collect and distribute cash).

Instead, rain or shine, she stands in shop doorways in the world’s windiest city and sells balloons that she rapidly twists into an amazing range of objects to suit customers while they wait.

Most are toddlers accompanied by harassed parents seeking distractions, and indulgent grandparents happy to spend a dollar (Rp 7,000) to keep the kiddies amused.

The boys want swords so they can annoy their siblings, the girls like dogs, preferably poodles to pat or dolls to cradle.

Older children seek floral wristbands and balloon bicycles. Alcohol-fuelled revellers, swinging their way from bar to bar, are occasional customers keen to buy balloon crowns, attire as ridiculous as their behavior.

Although a Muslim, Elena is happy to make crucifix balloons for Christians.

Souvenir-hungry tourists from the colossal cruise liners that call into Wellington also buy, for many have not seen balloon art on their travels, particularly when done by a nimble-fingered attractive young woman.

“I’m not shy about performing like this by myself,” she said, “why should I be? I’m not doing anything wrong or shameful.

“My parents were farmers who taught me to work hard, and my husband is a humble man who says we should never be arrogant.”

Elena learned balloon art when she was working at a Pizza Hut in Bendungan Hilir, Central Jakarta. The restaurant was managed by Amsal. The couple fell in love. “I was attracted by her attitude, determination and spirit,” he said.

Employees had to blow up balloons and made these into simple floral designs for customers’ children, but not all staff were happy doing this task.

“Some of my colleagues were frightened by balloons exploding in their faces, but I didn’t care,” she said. “When we came to Wellington I looked around for ways to get money.

“I saw that no one was doing this so I decided to give it a go. I tried several locations, including the beach before finding success in Cuba Mall.

“On average I can get about NZ$ 90 (Rp 630,000) for five hours work, but on good days I’ve earned more close to Rp 1 million. The money helps pay the rent on our flat and buy my husband’s books.”

Since arriving in NZ in 2010 Elena has used her creativity and imagination, helped by Internet research, to make a wide range of complex toys and fashion accessories. A major manufacturer of cosmetics hired her to perform at a product launch and she’s had invitations to entertain at children’s parties.

Elena’s capital outlay and business overheads are miniscule. A small trolley to carry her basket of balloons bought from a discount shop, a little hand pump and a simple sign advertising her wares.

The only other requirements are a cheerful smile, ability to relate to people, well-trimmed nails – and plenty of puff.

“Most customers are friendly and complimentary,” she said. “Though I don’t speak English well that’s not a problem. Kiwis help me. Once a drunk snatched my takings (she keeps her coins in an open bag on the sidewalk), but other people saw what happened and forced her to give back my money.

“I have a licence from the local council to trade so I don’t get hassled by officials or shopkeepers. If people ask I tell them that I’m Indonesian, but there are so many nationalities in NZ that where you come from isn’t an issue.

“My advice to young Indonesians? Don’t be gengsi (put on airs) or sombong (snobbish) but open your mind to the opportunities that present, wherever you are. Have confidence in yourself. You can make your own luck.

“I like the 2009 song Jangan Menyerah (Never Give Up) by the Jakarta band d’Masiv because it represents how I feel.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 January 2012)


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