Sunday, December 14, 2014

Day 84: So this is Christmas

I've mentioned the mall culture before. So much weekly routine takes place in a mall -- meeting friends for dinner, buying groceries, getting my hair cut... This weekend were my first visits to the mall during Christmas season - and Jakarta's glitziest malls did not disappoint, even if they did make me feel a bit displaced and bewildered in this religiously plural country (a predominate majority of whom are Muslims). I guess it is because I did not expect eggnog lattes, santas, trees, and carols blaring from every crevice here that it caught me so off guard.

On Friday, I met a colleague for dinner at a fancy mall and got lost amidst the Versace, Louis Vuitton, Christmas wreaths, shiny packages, chipper store attendants in stocking hats, and holiday marketing, and busy shoppers. I suddenly felt sucked through a vortex of space and time untied to place. I guess I feel like that in malls anyway, but the decor amplified my desperate lack of context.

On a Saturday mall excursion I witnessed an interpretive dance of the nutcracker to pop music with a backdrop of teddy-bear themed trees and a gigantic snow-covered cottage for Santa (really sorry I did not snap a photo). Today, I wandered upon a Christmas themed Elvis singing "The First Noel" with a back up choir in red santa hats. Indonesia seems to know how to dig in and amplify the whimsy and joy of a holiday -- 'Tis the season!

A rather "muted" tree in the lobby of my apartment complex

Said Elvis and his back up group cater to the crowds.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Day 83: Indonesia goes country @America

To celebrate the 4th Anniversary of @America (a programming space sponsored by the U.S. Embassy), Indonesian and American cowboys gathered to kick up their heels in a very hip surreal display of country western, Jakarta style.

The Honorable Ambassador Cowboy Blake kicked things off.

A former National Rodeo circuit roper from Arizona told us about growing up in the West, his family history with horses and ranching, and his past in the rodeo. The presentation was complete with a roping demonstration together with a young "sheriff" from the crowd.

The Indonesian country western group "Old Friends" rocked us out to classics while a local line dancing group worked on getting boots on the floor.

There are times abroad when the set up is so unbelievable - in a cool way. This event caught me off guard, made me tap my toes, and left me with a goofy, homesick grin. Happy anniversary, @atAmerica!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Days 77-81: Papua

Perhaps you have been wondering where I've been this week? Where else but the farthest flung, largest, most sparsely-populated island of Papua in easternmost Indonesia. An overwhelming number of tribes, languages, religions, plants, and animals can be found there, including the symbol of Papua, the cendrawasih or bird of paradise. It's really far away from Jakarta - a trip long enough to feel as though going to another country (or continent). We began our travels at midnight to arrive in Manokwari (via Makassar and Sorong) the next day at 2:00 p.m. Although I did not get to stay long enough to explore much of Papua's diversity, it was a memorable and a privilege to have been able to visit.

Have you ever noticed that some of the best real-life moments do not end up well documented, even with digital devices in each pocket? I've often thought that I have the least pictures of those people closest to me or strong memories of certain places -- perhaps this is because the pictures I do have do not do them justice. In any case, I was not a good documenter during my Papua encounters, so you'll have to bear with some general impressions. 

My camera lens fogged up, but we were met with dancing and music (and a banner, of course) at the airport. The students, ornamented in traditional, feathered headdresses, presented us with beaded necklaces and danced to a lilting melody to drum and guitar.

Each of us took turns putting our feet on a Papuan platter, symbolizing our welcome as guests and future return visits.

Looking down towards the university campus - pretty mountains, sky, and green!
A blurry photo of UNIPA, the University of Papua
A view from Manokwari

Before heading back to Jakarta, we took a day to enjoy the scenery and visited nearby Mansinam island by boat (see it between the trees?). The water was warm and we did a bit of snorkelling in the surrounding reef. Unfortunately, no pictures of the vibrant little fish beneath the blue water.
Need a snack? Why not stop on Lemon Island for some "kelapa muda" or young coconut?
Thirst quenching!
Fresh catch of the day grilled up and served with six or seven different kinds of spicy sambal (chilli paste/sauce) So good that we went back a second time!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Day 76: Monkeying around

At first glance, you might think this monkey is cute... until you realize that he has flown onto our boat, stolen our fruit, and is inviting his friends. Because where there is one monkey enjoying some fruit...

...there is sure to come a second.

On our boat tour, we traveled to an island inhabited by only wild monkeys. Hundreds of wild monkeys used to humans coming by to stare at them.

It got a bit dicey when one landed on our boat and started in on some fruit. A bit dicier with two. When third and fourth jumped in the water and started swimming our way, we panicked and pushed off our unwanted guests to finish their snacks on shore.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Day 75: Breakfast on a boat

You must get up pretty early in the morning in Banjarmasin if you want to catch its famed floating market, but you will not regret the 4:30 a.m. wake up call for an instant once you've experienced the cool breeze of the early morning in the jungle and engorged yourself on feasts of ripe, tropical fruits.

For those geographically curious, Banjarmasin is a "small" Indonesian city of about 3-4 million inhabitants on the island of Kalimantan.

Guided by four enthusiastic home town guides from the university, I enjoyed every minute and discovered another dimension of Indonesia. Take a look.

A new delicious fruit - Queenie (kind of like mango but not as sweet and a bit more pungent)

Fresh rambutan, although it is not quite yet their peak season

This Banjarmasin cake called "untuk" is basically a cousin of the fried donut hole and filled with coconut and sugar

Want to buy something to take home? Float on up and bargain away.

Did you know there are many kinds of bananas? These bunches (with jackfruit in the background) are a bit green, but we bought some really mild bananas called "pisang susu" or "milk bananas."

Along the river banks of the town you can see houses built on stilts and take a glimpse inside the lives of their dwellers, busy starting their day

*For those super-attentive, you may notice my daily accounting is a pinch off. I was out of country for a week and thought those days should not count towards my 100 first, so I am picking up where I left off at day 75.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Days 65-70: Experiencing Sumatra

The largest Indonesian island. 50 million people. 4th most populous island in the world. Home to over 52 indigenous languages. Sumatran tigers. Sumatran orangutans. Sumatran rhinos. Sumatran elephants. Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire - powerful earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis, including the 2004 disaster in Aceh. Lake Toba, largest volcanic lake in the world. Flora and fauna seriously threatened by large-scale deforestation. Largest producer of Indonesian coffee and rich in natural resources like oil and gas.

Sumatra, complex and beautiful, where I spent last week traveling and working in Aceh, Medan, and Jambi.

It was a whirlwind week of early morning departures and long days of visits, and I spent plenty of time in airports, trains, and cars going to and fro. Obviously, I need to go back for more exploration (and to see some of Sumatra's natural wonders), but here are some highlights...
  • A strong cup of coffee (and subsequently purchased beans) from Banda Aceh's most famous cafe, Solong Coffee. I was so enraptured with my caffeinated beverage and local snacks, that I did not snap a photo. Clearly this local establishment is the place to meet with friends or to do business over a cup of coffee - it was bustling and busy the entire time I was there.

  • Acehnese food served in a local restaurant, full of flavor and spices. I was seated in an open-air restaurant and promptly brought 5-6 dishes full of scrumptiousness and surprises. Fried chicken pieces with fried greens, fried squid filled with egg and spices, mussels and vegetables in sauce, chicken and potatoes in curry, and, of course, rice. Spicy. Delicious. Wonderful.

  •  Nighttime festival in Jambi to which we had special, front-seat invitations from the governor to view the song and dance. My favorites were a fusion between modern music styles (rap) and traditional singing. All accompanied by hundreds of drummers.

  • Picture with the traditionally dressed Jambi beauties -  festival royalty.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Day 64: Queen for three days

Indonesians do know how to make you feel extra special. They are lavish hosts and ensure that their guests feel like royalty. During recent visits, I've been treated to banners welcoming me to local schools, conferences, and even the mayor's office. It's a bit disconcerting to know that not only do the participants know your name--they know exactly what you look like before you arrive.

At the entrance to universities, conferences, or schools, dancing and music ceremonies greet guests. These pictures are from a local high school where a banner with my name (of course) hung outside, student dancers and musicians met me, and they even threw rice as we entered over the threshold.

Entire assemblies of people are gathered to pay respect to guests. Microphones and emcees appear to formalize the meeting. One visit this week involved over 200 students, the Vice Mayor, and entire administrative and instructional staff of the Islamic boarding school.

Adding to the special welcome are the interest in a foreign visitor. You are a VIP by virtue of the visit (and this sometimes feels like a lot to live up to with any integrity). This gracious and well-meaning attention is sometimes a bit bewildering to an American not of the Hollywood sort. A funny recent encounter at the airport left me grinning and feeling more like a movie star than a government official.

Because of the timing of my flight and Friday prayers, I ended up at the airport quite early. Actually, I was content to sit in the air-conditioned lounge with my computer and to catch up on some work. As soon as my hosts departed, I sunk back into the chair, opened my laptop and mobile phone and started away. After three days of busy activities, I welcomed the opportunity to retract, contemplate, and wipe some to-do items off of my list. However, the airport staff had something else in mind. Seeing I was alone, a wholly unacceptable state, the two women and man working in the lounge room swooped in to ask questions, nevermind that to another eye I might have appeared engrossed in a task.

We exchanged pleasantries. Even with my floundering Indonesian language skills, they were not deterred. "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" "Where do you live?" "Do you have a husband?" "Do you have children?" "How long have you been in Indonesia?"

It ended where every good exchange ends... with a photo. The two women insisted that we take a picture together (with my camera). I have these memories of being a special visitor to the Bima airport.

What I thought of as time to soothe the introverted side of my extroverted nature turned into a lively parade of characters. A police commander came in and sat with me to repeat the same series. Someone from the mayor's office appeared and sat with me. Another guy from the airport appeared with coffee and questions.

Yes, even in your grubby travel clothes or your grumpiest mood, Indonesia greets you with a smile and humbles you with its hospitality and warmth.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Day 63: Woven in Bima

Tucked away in the streets of Bima is a district where the traditional cotton-made cloth is still manually woven. The process is painstaking and it takes many hours of tedious work to finish a piece of cloth. The product is stunning with bright colors and golden threads.

A street in the weaving district of Bima

Photo op with a local weaver
Perusing exquisite cloth

After much deliberation (those of you that know me well know how overwhelmed I get when shopping with too many choices), I purchased this pretty blue and gold swatch.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Day 62: Napoleon fish

Seafood and fish abound in Indonesia. While in Bima, I had the heavenly experience of eating fish for every meal. My favorite is pictured above, the sweet meat of the Napoleon fish. More mouthwatering seafood, a special treat to this land-locked native, was served throughout the visit. Shrimp, fish, crab... seafood paradise.

Cultural note: While dining with my hosts, we had a long discussion about food customs and rice. Rice is grown throughout Indonesia and served with every meal, at least three times a day, even breakfast. I've seen rice served together with noodles or in addition to potatoes to complete the meal. The thought is that unless you've had rice you will still be hungry!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Day 61: Island hopping

Looks like simple skip and jump, right? This week I traveled to West Nusa Tenggara.  A small town by Indonesian standards with 150,000 inhabitants, Bima is located right on the coast of the island of Sumbawa.

Indonesia is deceptively big, and it is easy to under-estimate a simple journey. Thanks to the cancelation of my morning flight, I had to fly out late Tuesday evening, stay overnight in an airport hotel in Lombok and get up at 4:30 a.m. for the early morning flight to Bima. Although the travel is not uncomfortable at all, it can be time consuming. I left my home in Jakarta at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday only to arrive in Bima at 7:30 a.m. the next morning. I plowed through almost an entire novel, answered countless emails via blackberry, and was rewarded with a grand welcome, tropical island treasures, and new friends.