Saturday, July 14, 2007

Her island home


I didn’t decide to stay – I just fell in love!” says Tanja Bindemann when I asked why she decided to settle down in Langkawi.

Nine years ago, Bindemann was a carefree, single German girl visiting Langkawi. She ran into an ex-boss’ friend who offered her a job as a German tour guide.

“I liked my job (as a draftsman in an engineering firm) back home, so I wasn’t planning to move. But when I got home (near Frankfurt), it was grey and -17°C, so I thought: ‘Ok, maybe I’ll do this for a few months, just for the fun of it’.”

So Bindemann took a year’s unpaid leave and returned to Malaysia. In between her tour guide job, she waited tables but this landed her in the Kuah police station.

“Someone told immigration I didn’t have a work permit so they locked me up for one night and released me with a stern warning,” says Bindemann, smiling.

“I just wanted to have fun and go home. I never even fell in love with Langkawi. For me, it was just an island,” admits the 37-year-old.

But at the end of her one-year-stay, Bindemann had fallen head over heels in love with Langkawi resident Rosle Khalid, now her husband.

“I was so madly in love,” says Bindemann. “But it was important to go back because I still had a job and I wanted to make sure our relationship wasn’t just a holiday romance.”

Over the next 12 months, the couple chalked up massive phone bills and travelled back and forth to be with each other.

Reality hits

Then someone offered the couple a chance to run chalets for backpackers on the island. So, they put a deposit down and Bindemann moved to Langkawi for good. At the time, Rosle (everyone calls him Oli) was doing landscaping jobs for hotels.

“When you’re in love, you believe everything’s going to work out because it has to,” says Bindemann. “But once the butterflies are gone, reality sinks in.”

Running the chalets kept Bindemann busy but after a while she got sick of cleaning up after messy backpackers. The couple, still unmarried, also found it hard to escape the religious department’s prying eyes, so in 1999, they got married in Penang.

Since Oli’s parents live in Kuala Lumpur, Bindemann only sees her in-laws once or twice a year. Their son Noah is seven now. Five years ago, they set up their first Italian restaurant, the Red Tomato Garden CafĂ©, a popular fixture with tourists on Pantai Cenang.

“To me, wherever you are in the world, if you don’t have friends, you won’t be happy. I have a few good friends now, mostly couples from intercultural marriages like locals married to foreigners,” she says.

Things are going well for Bindemann and her family. They opened a second restaurant by the beach called Red Tomato Splash Beach Cafe in 2004. Her days are spent taking care of their son, baking fresh German breads, and running the business. But deep down, Bindemann is a city girl at heart.

“Nothing happens here,” sighs the peppy lady who practises pilates and is training for a half-marathon next month. “I miss going to a nice concert, and dressing up for the evening other than just wearing beachwear all the time.”

Bindemann escapes to Kuala Lumpur twice a year, if she can, to revel in the city’s chaos and energy. It’s been six years since she went back to Germany. She misses her family and friends, but not the country. Her son speaks Malay, English and Chinese and goes to a Chinese primary school.

“Looking back, if you’d told me what I was going to go through when I moved here, I would have said, ‘You must be out of your mind’,” says Bindemann, who is frustrated with the red tape here when it comes to things like applying for a passport for Noah.

But her husband Oli, 49, loves the place and can’t imagine staying anywhere else, she shrugs.

“I’ve no idea if I’m going to stick around for a long time. But we have friends here, we’re building a house, and the restaurants are doing well,” says Bindemann, who can now get ample supply of her favourites things – Italian coffee, German bread and French cheeses.

“We can’t have everything in life. But life is good.”

The Star


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