Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Javanese Culture in Jogja

Indonesia is big. It consists of more than 17,000 islands. Indonesia's population of over 252 million people live on 6000 of these islands making it the fourth most populous nation on Earth. There are hundreds of different ethnic groups scattered across the archipelago which is about 1000 wider from east to west than the continental U.S.

Yogyakarta, the city where I currently live, is a special kingdom within Java and continues to be governed by a royal sultanate. It is on the island of Java. I have recently had a chance to experience some Javanese cultural events.

The first was truly a special opportunity. The owner of the boarding house where a friend lives invited us to a Javanese traditional ceremony. The gist of the event is that a 7 month old baby is brought into a chicken cage where s/he gets to choose from indicators of potential futures that have been placed in there as well. For example, there might be money, books, a stethoscope or other toys that indicate desirable profession. When describing the ceremony, Javanese are quick to point out that the cage is new and that the baby is only in it for a little while.
Baby and his mom in a chicken cage

This festival was huge. They took up the entire street in front of the house and also had seating areas in several other places where people could enjoy a simulcast of the main events as an MC gave a running narrative. We were also entertained by live gamelan orchestra playing traditional Javanese music. And the food... 2 full buffets and individual stations of traditional Javanese foods. It was a thing to behold.
Gamelan players and singer at the party
Last weekend, I visited the Kraton, or palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. On the weekends, there are cultural performances at the royal residence. On Saturdays, they have traditional shadow puppet shows called wayang, and on Sunday, traditional Javanese dance.
Javanese dancer... LOTS of makeup

The royal residence is not ostentatious, but it is spacious and displays a lot of history, particularly of the previous sultan. And they show many of the items used in royal ceremonies, such as carriages, instruments, and yes, the royal chicken cage.
Royal birdcage
Following a turn around the kraton, we proceeded to Taman Sari, or the water palace. This was my first visit to the complex that used to be used as a recreational area for the royal family. Upon entering the water palace, you are surrounded by the smell of jasmine. The buildings are built of cool stone and offer many dark places to hide from the heat of the day.
Approaching one of the pools at Taman Sari

Example of the reliefs at Taman Sari
In addition to beautifully carved reliefs and pools, which are now quite green, the complex consists of a series of underground passageways and buildings. Many of the underground buildings are gone, but one of the most interesting, a 2-story, round structure at the center of which are Escher-like stairs, still exists. The passageways and the buildings have an ingenious construction that allows a remarkable amount of natural light to enter.
Passageway in the underground complex.

Escher-like stairs at the center of the bulding

Passage in the round building. The second story protrudes
above ground.
A really interesting community has sprung up around the water palace. Above the underground complex is Kampoeng Cyber (Cyber Neighborhood), a tidy neighborhood of narrow alleyways that have been decorated with painted walls, potted plants and stunning orchids. The neighborhood has extensive wi-fi connection as well as numerous galleries and stores selling locally produced items.

Wall in Kampoeng Cyber painted with motifs drawn from traditional Javanese
Orchids in a yard in Kampoeng Cyber

While at first Kampoeng Cyber appears to be a strong contrast to the historic and ceremonial surroundings of the Kraton and Taman Sari, I also see it as bringing Javanese culture into the future. Many of the galleries build on traditional art forms by adding modern elements. Javanese culture seems to highly value aesthetics and nature. Both of these are demonstrated in the new, vibrant community built on the foundation of a historic complex.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

1 month down... 12 to go!

I have been doing what I always warn my friends not to do. I have been letting perfect be the enemy of good and have not written blog posts in  a long time because I can't make them great. Well, I am going to throw this one up here and try to do a better job in the future. It is an overview of month #1 in Indo 2015. If anything catches your eye and you want more information, let me know.

I arrived in Jakarta after some flight adventures. Summary; several route changes, a night in Tokyo, lost baggage and about $500 in flight vouchers and cash from the airlines (cha-ching!).

How awesome is Tokyo? The hotel has a vitamin bar at the breakfast buffet

I thought I was going to have to stay in Jakarta for about a week to get my immigration stuff done... but it took less than 2 hours. Sort of. I still don't have the correct visa and permits, but that is another story. It turned out that I had to do the majority of my hop-jumping in Manado. I was able to shoe-horn in some meetings on Tuesday before I flew to Manado to start the Great Immigration Trials.

Manado is a city at the northern tip of Northern Sulawesi. It is 1000 miles closer to Davao in the Philippines than it is to Jakarta. This is to say, not a short jaunt.

I have an affiliation with Sam Ratulangi University in Manado. Fortunately, my friend and fellow Fulbright recipient, Jaimie, is already in Manado. She was amazing help in getting me in contact with the university's very-helpful International Office. She also shared some of her favorite pass times including watching beautiful sunsets over the ocean.

Manado sunset
I spent a great week in Manado. The immigration stuff was extremely stressful, but the work meetings and the non-work socialization made up for it. One of the highlights was a trip to the community of Tomohon to see a concert by the local university's extremely talented chorus. We also squeezed in a trip to a Buddhist Temple.

After Manado, I finally got to return to my base in Yogyakarta. I had left thinking I would be back in a month, but, in the end, it took 5 months. I was very happy to have a little stability, While I really loved the magical 4 months that I spent in the U.S., I felt like every day was a bit of  "Sleep well, I will mostly likely fly to the other side of the planet tomorrow."

Some of the statues at the temple in Tomohon.
Volcano in the background.
Yogyakarta, or Jogja, is home to my language school. My days are mainly spent going to language class, hitting the gym and then studying. I have had some fun weekend trips though. The first was a jaunt to some local beaches. Then I took a jaunt to the port city of Semarang two weekends ago. Last weekend, a friend invited me on a tour to local archaeological sites.
Very old cemetery

I have also been sucked into helping out with a St. Bernard who is pretty much neglected. My friend Jenny, a veterinarian from Australia, has a heart too big to let her walk by this poor caged animal, so she built a relationship with the family and got permission to start walking him. We were walking him each day, but it really didn't seem to help his situation much. He is so unaccustomed to walking, that he was soon quite lame. Since the family doesn't ever let him out, his cage is filthy whether we walk him or not. I am walking him less, but now I am focusing my efforts on getting him a new home where he is not in a cage 23.75 hours a day.

The effort to find the dog, Budda, a new home is also worth a note. Most of my language class consists of me chatting with my instructors in Indonesian. I already finished the grammar and now I need to practice, learn vocabulary and ask questions. This is accomplished by me rambling on about my days, the news, or Indonesian culture. Budda was one topic. After hearing about Budda, my teachers came together and have decided to help me find him a new home. They are spreading the word, asking friends, making suggestions and generally being the type of amazing human beings that I have come to consider typical of Indonesians. It is pretty amazing.

Next week I am supposed to go to Manado again to take another step in the immigration. We will see if this happens. It is sort of crazy. Imagine flying from Denver to Boston for a 15 minute meeting and then waiting there a week to pick up a document. Fortunately, I am sure that I can make good use of my time. There is always dissertation work to do!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Indonesia 2014... let's get this party started!

This image is appropriate for Indonesian bureaucracy. Both lanes of
traffic go the same direction, The sign says "Fast Lane Entrance".
Here I am again. Indonesia. 

I have been here for almost two months (which is hard to fathom) and this is my first blog post because life here has been... well... it has been routine. I spent a week in Jakarta shuffling through bureaucracy to secure all of my research documents. 

Then I came to Yogyakarta, which will serve as base camp until March. Life in "Jogja" has consisted of writing reports  due to people back in the states, going to language class, having meetings, sending emails to set up meetings and generally, just leading a pretty ordinary life, but in an extraordinary place.  There were a few really fun short outings with some great new friends (another post will cover these).

Well, now I am hitting the road and things are getting interesting. I just went on a fascinating jaunt about Indonesia to check out a research site and meet with organizations who can potentially help with my research. I finally have some pictures to share and stories to tell!

I have so many in fact, that I won't burden the reader with all of them in one go.

Chapter 1: Northern Sulawesi

First stop on the pan-Indonesia tour was the Manado, the capital city of North Sulawesi. I read while I was there, that Manado is 1,000 miles closer to Davao in the Philippines than it is to Jakarta.

Manado is culturally distinct from the other places that I have visited in Indonesia. The dominant cultural group there are the Minahasa. Frankly, I know nothing about the Minahasa other than that they have a reputation for eating anything, including dog, snake, rat and bat.

I am not going to pretend that this job doesn't have
its good points. Inside BNWNP.
I had a very short night in Manado before catching a ride with some stunned Indonesians (She is going where? By herself? In our car?) toward Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, the potential site of my research. The road to the park skitters along the hilly, northern coast of Sulawesi offering amazing vistas of turquoise ocean that stretches to the Philippines. After several hours, the route turns sharply inland toward the rice paddies and coconut plantations of the Dumoga Valley. The valley is ringed by forested… well, mostly forested… mountains that form the boundary of the biologically rich Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park (BNWNP).

Before actually getting into the park, I met a friend conducting research there, whose assistance I was leveraging to make contacts for my own work in the future. We met in the small city of Kotamobagu, just outside of the Dumoga Valley. This is NOT a tourist place, as was clear by the parade of children that formed behind us as we took a stroll around town to shake out the kinks that I had formed after 2 long days of sitting in airplanes and cars. However, everyone was friendly, and enjoyed chatting with us.

Image of a bentor stolen from a motorcycle web page. If
anyone wants me to take it down, I will.
By far, the highlight of the time in Kotamobagu was our trip around down in a bentor. Bentors are a common form of local transportation in Kotamobagu. They are unique to the area… they are just unique. The picture gives you a start of an idea of what a bentor is like (a lowrider, motorized pedicab), but what the picture does not show is that most bentors have elaborate light displays as well as high quality sound systems that the drivers dj as you tour around town. There is intense competition for riders, as most people want the best music and style as the run routine errands. One persistent bentor driver attempted to attract our business by following us around blasting Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”… needless to say, we went with another driver who could provide a variety of house/club and the Indonesian version of R&B as we enjoyed touring around and shopping for the next day’s breakfast.

My man Jemmy at the border of the park (the
white column). You can see that the
coconut garden spansthe border of the park.

The next day it was off to the village of Toraut to stay in a research station directly adjacent to the national park. I arrived at the research station without even enough information to start to make a plan. It was a giant, terrifying, but necessary step into the unknown. Would I be able to research there? Should I research there? Are there issues there for me to explore? Would I like spending months in these villages?

The manager of the guesthouse, Jemmy, ended up being extremely helpful and informative. He has been with the park for nearly 30 years and clearly enjoys facilitating research activities in the park.

Inventorying biodiversity before it is gone.
Day one an introductory hike in the park started by passing through coconut gardens that penetrate into the park eating away at the biodiverse forest. Eventually, we entered beautiful, intact forest and made our way to a lovely waterfall. After a quick rest by the cool water of the river, we made our way toward my friend’s research plots. There we met up with his crew and watched as they climbed impossibly tall trees to get leaf samples so that the trees in this forest can be identified.

A word about this forest… In the northern hardwood forests of my youth, you might be able to see four to five species of trees at one time. In the forests of BNWNP, you might see more than twice that. The forest inventory currently being conducted in BNWNP had identified 70 different tree species in 2 50m x 50m plots.

This is what happy rainforest looks like. I wish I could put the sound
and smell in the blog too... I love it there!

Yep. That is mercury (with gold in it). It was
just in the water in the tub below which will be
dumped into a nearby canal.
After my intro day to the park, I was able to visit with community members and gather information on how health-environment relationships could be investigated in the area. One of the biggest potential disasters in the valley results from illegal gold mining and processing. The mines, high on hillsides within the park, result in forest destruction as trees are cleared for camps and burned by accidental and intentional fires set by miners. In the valley, gold is processed using mercury, which contaminates water discharged into the valley’s irrigation system. Workers in the gold processing plant work barehanded with mercury before it is burned off in open fires. The potential health damage from mercury poisoning is stunning.

Gold... and mercury... and a bare hand
In the four days in the valley (isn’t that a movie?), I got a good sense of the people and the issues there. The natural beauty is astounding and the people are welcoming and fun-loving. They are easy to laugh, but most of the time it is at me, and seem to be willing to share their opinions. There are a lot of different opinions that conflict, which is very interesting from a social science perspective. There is indeed something to investigate.

I finally dragged myself away from the forest to carry-on with my travels and meet with scientists and conservationists. Conveniently, I had a meeting in Manado on Friday and meetings in Jakarta/Bogor the following week, so I had to find something to do with myself for the weekend. The answer was Bunaken Island, but that is for another post!
Bunaken Island... stay tuned!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

So then I went to Malaysia

It has been a while, but I have some pretty cool pictures from my trip to Malaysia to get a new visa. Malaysia is a crazy mix of so many cultures that it is hard to categorize. Unlike the U.S. melting pot, these cultures stay distinct, and well-represented. This made for a refreshing, if confusing, little trip.

First a little geography.... Indonesia is made up of over 17,500 islands and I am on the biggest one. I am on the island of Borneo, which is the third largest island on the planet (after Greenland and New Guinea, which is also an island partly in Indonesia). Borneo is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia (the provinces of Sarawak and Saba) and the sultanate of Brunei. The Indonesian portion is referred to as Kalimantan and has 4 provinces (North, South, East and West Kalimantan).

Sarawak State House in Kuching
So, I went to the Borneo portion of Malaysia to a city called Kuching in the state of Sarawak. I had never heard of this place and was a little skeptical. The city's name means "Cat" in Indonesian and Malay... The imagination runs wild about the possibilities in a city named "Cat".

After our trip to Tajung Puting, I flew back toward Sukadana with my friends, and I stayed on the plane to go on to Pontianak, on the equator. There I caught a night bus to the Malaysian border. The bus was a large, long-distance bus with huge comfortable seats. I paid $29 for the 11 hour trip and there were 6 other people on the bus... apparently it is the super luxury version. No matter how nice the bus, it couldn't make a pleasant ride out of Indonesia's non-existent road system. As the bus swayed from side to side like a drunk with lead shoes, then dropped precipitously into the massive craters left in the decaying asphalt... well, let's be honest, the road was more dirt that asphalt, so maybe the bus was just climbing onto asphalt relevant buttes... I marveled at the driver's nonchalance.
Indonesia truck stop
I managed to sleep for several hours and was rousted to get off the bus and go through customs. After much confusion as well as much attention paid to the only white person at the border crossing, I was in Malaysia.

It was Tuesday morning, and my plan was to meet Erica from ASRI (also on a visa run) late Tuesday night. So, I got our room at the appointed guesthouse and got the remaining hours of sleep that I needed before venturing out to check out Kuching.

View from the riverfront walkway
I arrived on the Eid al Adhar holiday and thought that the uncrowded sidewalks and complete lack of motorbike traffic might be related to that. I later discovered that Kuching is just a chill place. I enjoyed the quiet streets and the clear evidence of Chinese, Malaysian and indigenous cultures. A beautiful walkway along the river offers beautiful views of modern architecture and old Chinese temples. There are the occasional vendors offering fruit or snacks as well as a more-or-less continuous line of busking musicians.

After a few hours of exploring, I landed at a Lebanese restaurant on the river walkway. I can't tell you the joy of having raw vegetables after months of cooked, fried and steamed one. The ice cold Tiger beer was also a treat.

Erica arrive that night and we awoke early in the morning to trek out to the very inconveniently located Consulate of the Republic of Indonesia. I had read online that Wednesday, the day after Eid al Adhar, was also a holiday in Malaysia, but both Erica and I had been assured repeatedly that this was not the case. So we arrived at the Consulate bright and early to discover that it was indeed a holiday, though perhaps only for Indonesians in Malaysia.... So the rest of the day was spent trying to run errands and indulge in things that were not available anywhere within driving distance of Sukadana.

Kaiten sushi... so yummy
Wine and Cheese
This included my first experience with sushi on a conveyor belt, a trip to the movies and some serious research and tactical planning for returning to Indonesia with groceries. We also splurged on a bottle of wine, dark chocolate and cheese that for a little in-room wine and cheese party later that night.

The next day was more successful in that the Consulate was open... oh boy was it open! We pushed our way through crowds and waited to leave our passports. After much confusion that included my number never being called, we were told to come back in 6 hours to pick up our visas. Erica, being brilliant and goal-oriented, had read online about a water park with an Olympic size lap pool within walking distance of the Consulate. After a brief stop at a food court to get lunch from astonished Malaysians, we found our own private pool. It was BEAUTIFUL. For about $2 each, we spent 5 hours lounging and swimming laps at a sparkling clean, yet nearly deserted pool. It is hard to put that kind of luxury into words.
Our oasis
We collected our visas and headed back to enjoy a little bit of nightlife... which, compared to Sukadana is anything after 7pm.

The last day in Malaysia, we headed out to Bako National Park. Malaysia national parks are lightyears ahead of their Indonesian counterparts in terms of infrastructure, services, safety and management. Bako is reached by taking a city bus to a boat launch and then chartering a boat out to the park entrance. The trails are clear and well-marked so we wandered  through rainforest, open grassland, and beach ecosystems for several hours... In Sukadana, we are not allowed on the trails of the national park without hiring a guide. The trails are confusing and there are no maps. It was so exciting to be on trails again!

One of the beautiful views in Bako
Our chosen route ended on a beach where we enjoyed swimming in the ocean until we had to head back to catch our return charter.

Not interesting trails

Interesting trails

Ghosty trees in Bako
The next day we had an early flight back to Pontianak and then my first trip on the Pontianak-Sukadana speedboat. The boat is a rather large speeboat with rows of tightly packed benches. Protection from the sun and rain is provided by a tarp... the tarp protects from sun and rain, and also does a great job of trapping the omnipresent cigarette smoke. Fortunately, they put foreigners in the second row so we had some fresh air except for when the driver was smoking. A short 5 hours later, a smiling Hotlin greeted us at the port in Sukadana and our vacation was over.

Sukadana from the ocean on the speedboat

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Tajung Puting... the orangutan experience

Several weeks ago, I traveled with other ASRI volunteers and the founder of ASRI to Tajung Puting National Park to see orangutans.

Our little slice of the rainforest
Early on Saturday morning, we piled into cars and made the 2 hour drive to our nearest airport. We then took a 30 minute flight to Pangkalanbun in Central Kalimantan, where we were met by drivers and whisked away to our awaiting yacht... Well, not exactly... We were headed to a "klotok" or house boat. The houseboats here resemble houseboats in the U.S. about as much as the houses here resemble those in the U.S.

There are other cool things in the rainforest
including this pitcher plant
Still, it sounds pretty luxurious, huh? Our plan was to spend 3 days and 2 nights on the boat. Anyone who has spent any time in the rainforest will tell you that one of the best ways to get around in the rainforest is to stay out of it. Rainforests are incredibly biodiverse and amazing. Unfortunately, a lot of the biodiversity is trying to kill or injure you. There are sharp plants to rip at your skin, insects that not only annoy but carry disease, leaches who penetrate clothing with a nightmarish persistence. And then there is the heat and humidity which basically makes you start to rot... But it is really pretty and rainforests serve globally important ecological functions and are home to some really cool stuff (even the stuff that hurts you sometimes).

This is a huge, dominant male.

A non-dominant male kind bummed
that he doesn't have a lady, but didn't want
to tangle with that other guy.
At another site, this non-dominant male hung out until the
dominant guy wasn't looking and then swooped in for as many
sweet potatoes as he could carry.
The wise folks around Tajung Puting have realized that the best way to get pasty, overweight foreigners to cough up good money to protect one of the last bastions of orangutan habitat is to provide river transport. The boats vary in their facilities, but are generally 2 levels with a kitchen and crew quarters below and an open lounging and sleep area for the guests.
Mom and baby... I bet a lot of human moms wish that they
could use their feet as hands

A gibbon joined us at Camp Leakey. He was
my favorite.

Well, actually, this guy was my favorite. Look
at that belly!
Guests are virtually guaranteed that they will see orangutans on these trips. The park has become home to families of rehabilitated apes... no, this is not monkey AA, these guys are usually rescued from the exotic pet trade and need to have a place where they can get acclimated to being in the wild.

One of the sites that we visited is dubbed Camp Leakey and is named after Louis Leakey, the famed naturalist. Leakey's legacy has been carried forward by three female researchers known as Leakey's angels. Most Americans know about two of them, Jane Goodall and Diane Fosse, but the third, Birute Galdikas is not as well known. Camp Leakey in Tajung Puting is the research site established by Birute Galdikas, and it was exciting to experience proximity to such greatness.
So a gibbon and some orangutans walk into a bar.... or...
One of these things is not like the others. Occasionally, the big
male would bop the greedy gibbon on the head and the gibbon would
storm off to the end of the platform and sulk for a minute before returning.
This is the face of a sulking gibbon
Each day there are orangutan feedings at several places in the park. This is a tough issue... these animals are supposed to be wild, but they are habituated and food conditioned. They are not really wild, and this is sad. However, interpretive materials at Camp Leakey indicated that feedings continue because there is not enough habitat left to support a viable population of these endangered apes. Feeding is the least horrible option.
The Gang... George, Shannon, Jaelin, Hotlin, me, Sophie, Jesse, Karen
We arose early each morning and ate a hearty breakfast on the dock where our boat settled for the night. We would then be packed up and shuttled off to a site to take a walk on well-established trails to a feeding area. We went to three of these, and the animals at each place had their own cultures. I could have spend a month there watching interactions and observing the different personalities.

Tree full of proboscis monkeys... You watch us. We watch you.
After a morning trip, we were fed lunch on the boat on the way to the next site... more orangutans, some proboscis monkeys and/or macaques on the way and then back to the boat for dinner.

The klotok jam outside of Camp Leakey
Our crew put us to bed immediately after dinner. They set up a long line of sleeping pads on the covered part of the upper deck and hung mosquito nets. As the chatter of the monkeys in the trees all around us began to die down, the boat's gentle rocking lulled us to sleep.