Sunday, August 2, 2009


Departure: Out of Jakarta

Set off for the airport—heavy traffic—didn’t know if I would make it. A Friday night and the millions of Jakartans heading out of the city, and construction on the toll road out towards the airport did not make for a promising situation. I was glad to be leaving this mess that I call home and I needed a break from this country. I hadn’t seen my family in a long time and what better of a meeting place was dropping into a small dot in the middle of the ocean, somewhere east of northern Australia. A map is testament to the fact that there really seems to be nothing there until you reach South America. Aside from Hawaii, the pacific was a vast blue that I knew nothing about—and only very generally knowing the names Tonga, Tuvalu, Nuie?, the Cook Islands, the Solomons, and Fiji. And my sister had been assigned as a peace corps volunteer on the volcanic islands of the latter. I didn’t know what to expect but here I was taking off for Sydney. Australia, also a place I know very little about.

I picked up the book suggested by many as the definitive work on the history of the Pacific—Blue Latitudes by Jonathan Horwitz—and it was nice to do a little leisure reading finally. It’s not about the pacific, per se, but it is about Captain Cook’s journeys and discoveries of the world over. Cook, on his voyages on the Endeavor and the Resolution, set the modern world in motion. This was the first mission set forth with the main focus for discovery, of new lands and of new cultures, without the overwhelming emphasis on trading. He paved the way for navigation throughout the world and his crew of scientists, recorders, and discovers, paved the way for the first understanding not only of other places, but also of ourselves. There would be no Darwin for example, without a Cook. Not only that, Cook ventured into the most Southern latitudes into arctic conditions that was not done again until modern times and created maps that were still being used by cartographers up until 1996—until the USGS began applying satellite imaging. And he did it all with little more than a sextant.

As I was approaching Sydney, I had just come to the part where Cook and his men landed in Australia, and about Botany Bay. Cook described the Bay as one of the best harbor locations they’d ever found. Apparently he had just arrived during a very wet season and failed to understand the harshness of the area, and, he overlooked the more advantageous Port Jackson, which would become modern day Sydney. It was a clear perfect morning as we descended and encircled the city and this was exactly the reason why I always insisted on window seats on the plane. Sydney was amazing. I was first struck by the zoning and the clean air, which are such a contrast from the mess that is Jakarta, then by the sheer beauty of the surroundings—the upper water catchments, upstream plateaus, the greenery of the blue mountains, and then the cliffsides and coastlines. With a five-hour layover I thought I could at least run into town for a cup of coffee but immigration rejected me without a visa. A drawn out zombie airport moseying ensued. People are really bored in airports and the only interaction I could conjure with anyone was the coffeeshop girls that ripped me off for my American dollars. People say that Australians are laid-back but a few attempts at chatting up some of the service personnel in the airport made me immediately aware of my culture shock that I was no longer in Indonesia.

This trip was a family rendezvous and vacation, to a central location, as well as a chance to explore an entire region that I know almost nothing about. And most importantly, to keep tabs on my sister to see what she has been doing in her peace corps experience.


Finally boarding for Nadi (pronounced Nandi) and this was a crosslisted Qantas flight for Asia Pacific (Fiji) Airways and while apologizing for the flight delay, the flight attendant welcomed us to the concept of “island time”. Well that sounded familiar. The woman seated next to me wore traditional Indian garb and she told me she was Fijian. Funny I thought, the first Fijian I met would be Indian but it turns out that 35% of the population are actually Indo-Fijians, descendants from a major migration of workers sent by the British to tend to the sugar cane plantations. If you like Golf, you might know that Vijay Singh is a Fijian.

30% of the Fijian economy still has something to do with the cane they grow and produce, and the rest I guessed was tourism, which was taking a major hit because of the current political situation and the global financial crisis. Just recently, was the 6th(?) coup in a matter of two decades but it all boils down (or up) to the same thing. The Indians control a significant part of the economy due to their familial control of the merchant and trading activities—from supermarkets to spare parts—and the ethno Fijians control the land. The Indo-Fijians (and foreigners, including the Hilton) jump on any freehold land that consists of 7% of the overall area of Fiji. Everything goes through the chiefs and without their blessing you pretty much can’t do anything. They also control the waters, the reefs, and I guess the sky, and they by no means, it seems, provide any notion of democratic rule to their citizens, much less outsiders. So in my very limited understanding the coup is just political maneuvering by the ehno vs. indo-fijians to figure out how to deal with these rights of land ownership and government. In any case, I saw no signs of any major political upheaval and although these were known to turn violent in the past, people would rather describe the coup as a chance to through a big street party and barbecue. It has really hurt the tourism industry however, and everyone tries to play it down. All the better for us, as this means that everthing was 20 percent cheaper.

My passport was stamped, picked up my bag, and there was my sister Kiva greeting me wearing a bright green flower dress matched identically with the girl next to her, Kelera—her Fijian friend, co-worker, and boss. It was already dark out so my expectation of what my surroundings looked like would have to wait for tomorrow. We walked out, straight past the taxis and Kiva immediately puts out her hand to hitch a ride North on the only arterial road on the main island of Viti Levu. This was the Queen’s Highway and we bumped along on a stretch of road that was more a bumpy gravel country road rather than a highway. We headed for Lautoka, which Kiva now calls ‘home’. Lautoka is the second largest city in Fiji with about 40,000 people, and since it was Saturday night, it was time to sample the nightlife. We walked down into town and I was struck by the open space, as a contrast to the life in Jakarta, where life gets rebuilt on top of everything and people are clawing to use every last centimeter of land. We quickly found ourselves on the main street and walked into ‘the zone,’ which was the hoppin place in town. For a Saturday night it felt rather empty and quiet, except for the group of dentists, which Kiva says are well known for being the heaviest drinkers around. I didn’t have a possible explanation for that one.

We participated in the local drinking custom, which is to buy 3 bottles of beer and pour it into one pitcher. Then we were given one glass a little larger than a shot glass and we took turns drinking it down. I would soon learn about the semi-narcotic root, Kava, which is the cultural staple of Fijian and other Pacific Island customs, and that explained why we were drinking our beer this way—although it did resemble some type of ritual that the frat kids did in college. After a pitcher and feeling the exhaustion set in, we walked home, through the main street, past the transvestite hangout, up the hill, and onto Kiva’s couch where uncle Bob was deeply snoring away.

The next morning I was awakened by the birds and the first signs of the sunrise. It was beautiful. The Cliffside of a mountain protruded in the distance and plateaud on the horizon as the sunrise slowly peaked and rose above it. There was a small garden of cassava and eggplant below and the house overlooked the city further down, and people were beginning to burn their trash and the town began to stir as people prepared for church and the day of rest, Sunday.

My grandfather, Harold, or Doctor as we respectfully call him, awoke and began another day of his 80+year long deep relationship with the birds as he told us all about the red-vented bulbul and Bob added by describing his brief research on the two types of mynahs that were hopping around. Although Google is amazing, there is nothing better than hanging out with two seasoned veteran field naturalists that are virtually like walking encyclopedias of natural history, ornithology, botany, and just about everything.

Horwitz has a quote about Cook that described and captured my admiration for the Doctor, and Bob.

“Reading Cook’s journals is a constant reminder of how specialized our skills have become in the modern era. On one page, Cook discusses astronomy, geology, meteorology, and animal husbandry. On the next, he offers insight into management, commerce, and diplomacy. Then he veers into lengthy speculation about ocean currents and the formation of islands. Few people today would even dream of dabbling in so many disciplines, much less mastering them.” (Horwitz, 254)

We were not in Lautoka long, and by 11 am we were off to the harbor to take a boat to the diagonally linear island chain called the Yasawa’s that lay north of the main island of Viti Levu, and in particular, to the isolated resort “the Octopus” on the island of Waya. Kiva knew all the spots and all the prices to discover this place. It was magical—from the beauty of the rock cliffs that once upon a time rose into the heavens, signs of a volcano that must have destroyed half the island to the reefs lined in three barrier sets from the beach. The things that we saw snorkeling and diving (soft corals, ghost coral, and the teeming wildlife) were incredible. There were the other characters around—like the editor of the reality TV show, “the Dog Whisperer.” Then there was the relaxing. The volley ball games on the beach, the cocktail hours, the swimming pool, the sunsets, and then unwinding to sit in a circle chewing the staple of the island—Kava. They say the Kava of Fiji is weak compared to other areas of the Pacific, and all I noticed was a little numbing of the tongue, and the taste of the stuff was what you might imagine drinking muddy water might taste like.

On the two dives that we did, Cookie our divemaster had said the visibility wasn’t great, but spectacular nonetheless. There were two 3 meter white-tipped reef sharks just around us, and this woman was excitedly shaking her hand above her head. Too bad for me, I didn’t yet know what that meant, and only back in the boat did I know what an opportunity I had missed. Too bad, but I supposed I was too focused playing around on the reef wall in front of me, and that was exciting enough for this time. Regardless I saw some cool-swimming cuttlefish, eels, all sorts of colorful fish, some spectacular rays, and being introduced to a whole new world of corals.

Four days on Waya, and we headed back to Lautoka. Without much time as to blink, except to get in a meeting at the Rotary Club, which Kiva had arranged for the ‘real men’ in town. My mother and I decided to skip it, because we weren’t Rotarians, and we decided to sit over a beer and a pizza discussing her favorite topic “the meaning of life” and also the world’s problems. We somehow came up with an easy solution for solving the trash problem of the world, and especially Jakarta. For some reason, I knew that when I got back home, it probably wouldn’t be that easy. But I would start with an editorial, perhaps, to the major newspapers on the use of plastics. Afterwards I felt sick, because we had devoured pizza enough for eight people between the two of us. But it was so nice to have some time with my mother again.

Rotary ended and we were off. Kiva had rented a dilapidated station wagon from Singh’s Car Rental, Pool Hall, Car repair, Car Wash, Photocopy shop, uh, etc.. Well they pretty much did everything and with the overall look of the place, it reminded of the money laundering barbershop that I used to go to in Richmond, Virginia. The back shocks were shot and with us all and our baggage in tow, the rear bumper pretty much dragged for the 200 kilometers across the southern coastal countryside of the main island, Viti Levu. Bula, bula, bula, and booooooolah… was the response of everyone along the Queen’s highway—hands raised like European soccer fanatics. BULA.

We drove through the dusty towns of the outposts of the resorts of what most people think of if they know about Fiji, and I was glad we were getting the local tour by my now “local” sister. Although all her friends praise her for her skills to speak Fijian, for some reason she was too shy to speak with us around. She feels she needs to be perfect before starts conversating—but she’s wrong.

We stopped in South Central Viti Levu for a river rafting trip and Kiva had found us a fantastic beach bungalow setup in a really cool spacious Bure. Bob admired the Crotons that he said had been crossed to even develop different colors on the underside of the leaves, grandpa did a little reading about Captain Cook, and we all got some early rest to prepare for the early morning trip into the hinterlands for a little rafting. A five rafting adventure through some serious rapids—now that is one brave 91-year-old man. We were up early, drove into the hinterlands guided by some seriously ripped rugby playing Fijians. We had to do a bit of a jungle trek to get to the river. Up and down, mudslides, and the like, and the Doctor was a champ!

After an entertaining quick safety tutorial by our guide Musese, or Moses, we were off on the river. On the first rapids and drop off, bang! And Harold’s cheekbone had smashed into my shoulder. As the day progressed, the shiner would spread and look pretty mean as it changed colors. I hear he has been telling all the ladies back in Redlands about the bar-fight he was in and the unruly man he had stood up to, or some other exciting variations of valor. The scenery was a amazing, and another historical geologic record of the islands. The lava flows that must have layered along the slopes, the uplifts and the formations of rock; and here we were, in the heartlands of the freshwater of the region. My mom quickly deciphered the agricultural subsistence of the region, and we took our clues from thing like the sago palm seeds that we found floating in the river. The jokes, laughter, story-telling, and the rain that signifying some unnerving possibilities of flash floods were all a complete joy.

On my last day we went to Suva, the capital of Fiji. Everyone describes the place as a dirty slum, which is characterized by landfills along the road and overall poor backwater town, but we found it to be quite charming. Harold was a bit shocked by the hustle and bustle and said “I would be much more comfortable lost in the woods than lost in a city.” We took our chance to explore the museum of Fijian History, which we had heard good things about. As you go in, there is a really interesting exhibit of the nautical mastery of the old Polynesian and Melanesian explorers complete with all their tools of survival, followed by the settlement of the islands thousands of years ago. Interestingly, much of the discovery of the history had been deciphered through the similarities of pottery between regions. And then, as we all had read, there was the stories about cannibalism that so terrified the early Europeans that traveled through the region. There were some disturbing tools of bludgeoning and the overall methodology for eating human prey. It was lunchtime, and upon analyzing a bit of the botany of the front courtyard of amazing fichus trees that Bob enlightened us all about. Oddly, I realized I had ordered the raw fish.

We stumbled into the crowds of the main streets and it was time to head back to Lautoka. We did not have a chance to watch the recently successful Lautoka rugby team and after being privy to one of the most stunning sunsets I had ever seen, we decided that sci-fi would be my final activity before heading to the airport. And so we went to the movie theater.

The newest release was the Star Trek movie, and although I’d never really enjoyed the show, the reviews had been good. Throughout the movie, I couldn’t help but think about the names James Kirk and the starship Enterprise, and the ubiquitous Star Trek closing, which all seemed too familiar to Cook and his travels to the ends of the Earth and back.

Space... the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A new chapter

It's been more than a year since I've posted anything. I just read through the Aceh chapter and realized that it ended abruptly; and I got excited to start up again.. I've seen more of Indonesia -- I've been to Kupang and Sumba, Bali and Lombok, Pelabuhan Ratu and Belawan, flew off Puncak and more -- not to mention a hiatus in Bangkok, Hawaii, and most recently a trip to the mainland US to see family and friends that really put life in Indonesia in perspective.

From that rural frontier of Aceh with all its wonder and quirks and all the travels I have become and been living the life of a city boy - where, someone once said "the people are colder and wear a chip on their shoulder." Well, Jakarta is much more harsh than that. It's no wonder it is fondly called the big Durian - just like the fruit: a smelly sticky yet intoxicating place... Jakarta is one star or five star. Lavish malls or kaki limas (mobile food stands) all covered under the polluted haze and heavy traffic.

Welcome to chapter 2.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My cozy little calang-fornia

I just moved back down the West Coast of Aceh. Driving down the tsunami affected coast is such an awing experience. Imagining the way that those waves completely reshaped the landscape of the coastline, the rebuilding, the stories of initial response, and now the confusion about the future; not to mention the stunning beauty, the cliffs, the beaches, the construction out at sea that used to be villages, the islands, and so on…

We drove down bumpy dusty roads in an NGO shuttle and I finally got to my home in Calang. I live right on the beach but since the town was completely wiped out, after two years there has not been enough time for complete reconstruction/restoration. So I live right on the beach in simple pods and housing, with barbed wire fencing all around it. It’s my cozy little concentration camp in paradise. It’s paradise because it feels almost like a summer camp and right out the back gate is the most amazing bay with perfect waves, views of islands, and the most amazing sunsets wading slowly into the Indian Ocean every evening just around Maghrib—when the minarets sound off and signaling the end of swimming and bodysurfing on a beach that I often have all to myself.

Sinabung Jaya Part III

I was set to leave Berastagi and head back to Aceh. On the left is our family fruit stand. Sad to leave but the first thing I needed to do was get back on the sinabung jaya back to Medan to catch the evening bus for Banda Aceh. I gave myself three hours for a trip that usually takes two. On a crowded Sunday afternoon and some unexpected flooding, the traffic was really bad on the direct two lane road that winds back and forth down the volcano. I got in the front seat snug between two batak guys speaking their local language. These guys are notorious even as migrants in Jakarta as extremely aggressive drivers.

I was worried I was not going to make the bus I was chasing back to Aceh. Sitting in traffic, the two guys I was squeezed in between, yelling in my ear, decided to just go for it. We took off into the other lane into oncoming traffic and both of them with their heads out of the car yelling for motorcycles to move out of the way. As the cars got too close we squeezed back into our lane and waited for the next opportunity. Everyone honking. We must have zoomed pass several police men and I was starting to worry whether I would make it down the mountain in one piece. I had more reason to worry.

We passed the major holdup of the flooding and then we really began flying. From the video you can see the man hanging onto the dashboard and the extreme concentration (and aggression?) on the drivers expression.

We were starting to get close to Medan and picking up speed when suddenly there was a big explosion in the van. The five women crammed into the backseat started screaming and yelling “stop shooting” or “somebody has been shot.” Tension grew as we slowed down a bit but as the bang returned as a sputter the driver looked over me to his friend, “it’s just the muffler,” and he began flooring the gas petal again. We drove on godspeed with what sounded like firecrackers exploding in the back. But it was just the muffler. The traffic had held us up and I was beginning to worry about making my bus. I was somewhat torn about the reckless speeding because I didn't want to spend a night in Medan. Just then, my friend Taufik called me and asked me to check my ticket. Our bus had apparently left the night before because we had the wrong date on our tickets.

To make things worse, a lazy motorcyclist started crossing the road in front of us. To avoid us he had to veer quickly off the road but there was an oncoming motorcycle next to us. They smashed into each other. Debris shattered everywhere as we crunched over plastic/glass and other motorcycle parts. I was really worried about the people. I hope they are ok but I will never know because the driver quickly made the decision that it was not our fault and without skipping a beat we zoomed into Medan.

I rushed to the bus station and as the bus was pulling out they said they had room for the three of us who had been given the wrong dates and got safely on the bus. I was still somewhat in shock but I cuddled cozily into my spot on the sleeper bus and I was on my way back (home) to Aceh.

I finally got back to Banda Aceh at 5 in the morning. Although the AC was blasting on the bus the night before, and I tossed and turned through the night, I woke up refreshed. I got in a becak—local public transportation (unique and innovative sidecars attached to motorcycles). The becak had some lights attached to the car and as the driver took me home I noticed that the harder he gassed the brighter the lights would shine. I asked him how he put the electrical system together. “It’s attached to the engine. I can’t gas too hard though, because too much energy would shatter the light bulbs…”

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Sinabung Jaya Part II

In Keling we walked through the village and stopped at the tea shop. Teh Telur is the most popular drink and I said I’d have one too. Teh telur, literally “egg tea” is exactly it means. They make tea and dump the raw yellow yolk of an egg into the tea and mix it up. It’s thick and with so much added sugar in it, it is an intense drink. That afternoon we went to the fields.

Sinabung Volcano was in the distance and we walk towards it through fields of cabbage, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, and other vegetables planted in this lush region. Down some cliffs below some people planted rice and there were also fish ponds to add to dinners and to the economy. The system of ownership is as complex and inter-related as the familial ties and I realized this as Sakti kept insisting that the carrots grown over there are “our” lands. We picked some chives and squash for dinner and also took some oranges with us for the walk back. On the way back we walked on the road and stopped by my “Bapak tua,” Sakti’s father’s grave. I remember the last time I was here his wife Nande wailed and wailed when we visited the grave. He was an incredible man and left his imprints on many people. I remember the crying was contagious and almost magical as everyone became extremely emotional remembering him at the place he was put to rest.

We paid our respects and walked on, stopping for lunch at the side of the road. This was one of my “uncles” stops that sell cigarettes, coffee/tea, and also the famous Babi Guling of the region—Barbequed pork. It was refreshing to see the meat because in Aceh even the handling of swine is strictly prohibited. The Bataks laughed about the Acehnese when I told them about the stories of pig-hunting in Aceh. Pigs are an uncontrollable pest to crops in Aceh, and people hunt them but refuse to eat the meet that the Bataks value so much. “The Acehnese don’t know what their missing,” Sakti said.

Continuing back walking on the road we heard some very unique and strange music coming from the house. “You know what their doing?” I shook my head. I looked in and saw an old woman dancing. “They are raising the spirits. Somebody has died and that woman is consulting her husband and other ancestors and loved ones.”

It was Sunday morning and women were on their way home from Church. Sakti continued. “We are all Christians up here in the mountains but we still very much believe in our traditions, customs, and the belief of our ancestors. They are separate types of beliefs, the traditional view and the christian view, but I also believe in both, both in their separate ways.”

To be continued…

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Sinabung Jaya, Part 1

Last weekend I had an opportunity to get out of Aceh. A friend of mine, Taufik, said he was taking the 10 hour bus to Medan from Banda Aceh and I have history/friends/family in the upper volcanic fertile lands in the mountains above Medan, so several hours before the bus was departing I decided to get out of Aceh for the weekend.

Off work and straight to the bus station. I got on the sleeper bus, struggled to sleep throughout the night but finally woke up in a bustling Medan. The light was barely beginning to show signs of the day but the city was already alive. I was mobbed by Bechak, cab drivers, and others gawking “mister, where you go” and grabbing me. Luckily my friend got us out of the bus station and we had a nice lontong breakfast. Curries and spices and these delicious rice cakes. I could feel the difference in atmosphere in Medan. I was not in Aceh anymore.

This region is the beginnings of my history of becoming a part of Indonesia. Long before I was born, my father first came to Indonesia and lived in a mountainous town and favorite scenic destination called Berastagi. I was practically imbedded into a family structure there, even before my existence.

Sakti, my adopted cousin, came down to Medan and after going to a very traditional Batak Karo wedding, we caught the Sinabung Jaya up into the mountains. Sinabung Jaya is a bus company and route that has not changed for decades. It is difficult to describe but basically it is a very colorful miniature version of a bus, with a distinct call of horns on the front, and very carefully restructured in the interior to seat an extreme over-capacity of passengers. They are notorious for their aggressive and borderline suicidal driving. I was stuffed in the back in a row that could probably seat five, but was filled with seven passengers, and having the longest legs of everyone I was stuffed in the middle—and crushed by the proximity of the row in front of me. The bus regularly stops and picks up passengers that wave them down from the side of the road. I wish I had a picture because at one stop, the bus was entirely overfilled, and twenty high school students hopped onto the roof of the bus. Up the mountain we went, overtaking every car in our path and taking the windy curves that made my stomach churn. The woman holding her baby in front of me had decided to rest her drooling baby on my lap, and the man next to me dozed off and decided to rest his head on my shoulder.

Finally, we arrived in Berastagi, and I had some trouble walking. I think I had strained my calf muscle from the bus-ride. It was a magnificent day; the air was cool in the mountains and to my left the Sibayak Volcano looked as if it had just blown its cap off and was still fuming. To my right the much younger and taller Sinabung Volcano was visible on this clear day.

Sakti and I met up with his eight year old son who is required to call me “Bapak Tua” (eldest father) because I am his adopted uncle and the eldest born. Three of us hopped on the motorbike, drove through the weekend fruit market and arrived in Keling—a small rural village.

To be continued…

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Turbulence to Banda

Flying to Banda Aceh on the United Nations Plane. After take-off we flew over the town I’ve been living in for the past two months: Meulaboh.

We proceeded over the long West Coast of Aceh and then inland over the beautiful West Coast of Aceh over pieces of the 133 million hectares of serene forests of the Leuseur National Park Ulu Masen Conservation Area. There is serious illegal logging activity there and a new moratorium against logging passed through law this month has brought up some new controversial issues. I was now flying North though, to the tip of the island of Sumatra; to the capital of Aceh, Banda Aceh. Our small plane had to pass between two massive volcanoes and the wind was really strong. It felt like our plane was being tossed around like a toy in the wind. Some people actually screamed. Enjoy...

We arrived safely: