Sunday, September 22, 2013

Quick update

Sunset beyond the temples at Prambanan
Modern sculpture near the Javanese Sultan's
Palace and the Dutch era Post Office Building.
World coexist.
Today I move from Yogyakarta (Java) to West Kalimantan. It requires taxi, bus, taxi, airplane, airplane and finally car. Knowing that calling life unpredictable in Indonesia is being overly generous, I took at 6 am bus, so that, about 4 hours later, I arrive 3 hours early for my flight. Fortunately, the airport lounges are lovely and I am making use of the time by updating about the first month in Indonesia.

The most important thing to note is that it feels like I have been here for 3 days. It has flown by. It has flown partially because I have been having a blast with some great people, and partly because each errand that I run takes days longer than expected.

Yogyakarta is a fascinating place. It is very international, but also very homey and friendly. While waiting for a computer at an internet cafe, a young Indonesian woman introduced herself. We had a nice chat about her

life (just graduated, looking for a job in computer programming, fluent in self-taught German and English and no interest in going to the States ever). While walking between two touristy areas of town, a man pulled us aside to warn us that we should not buy batik from the tourist vendors on Malioboro St. (a tourist mecca) because they are not real batiks. I am accustomed to a warning like this being closely followed by an offer to drive me to his "friend's" shop to check out "almost free" goods... but this was not a hawker, he was just a nice guy who was excited to meet 2 foreigners with somewhat passable bahasa Indonesia.

In the same area of town, on a Sunday afternoon we were surprise when a bunch of guys in military uniforms (see pic below) marched noisily down the street accompanied by a chorus of mopeds racing their engines in time with the marching. The stopped at an intersection... and... of course... broke out into a choreographed dance routine. Grown men. Uniforms. Dancing to... what was it? Robin Thicke? And they seemed pretty happy about it too.

Kids with chickens
When I was not studying, at the gym or in search of food, I spent a lot of time walking around the narrow "gangs" (alleys) and being surprised at most turns. One day I came upon a bunch of children playing with live chicks who were dyed vivid colors. I wanted to take a picture of the chickens (these would really brighten up the micro-farming trend in the U.S.), but the kids wanted me to take there picture too, so you get to see both.
Chickens, ready for Easter (in the world's most populous
 Muslim nation)
And then there were the outings with friends. In my first week, we discovered that 3 of us have October birthdays. We are each a decade apart. Carin will turn 20, Ash will be 30 and I will be 40. When there was general agreement that I do not look or act 40, I knew that these were friends for life and we began to plan a way to celebrate our birthdays before I left. 
Wuv... Is what keeps us together
when hitchhiking on an intercity bus.
I think we did it fairly well.... Part 1 of Operation Birthday celebration was attending the Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan. The ballet is more of a traditional Indonesian dance performance that tells part of the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. It is performed at night with the Hindu temples of Prambanan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the background. Carin and I headed out early to see the temples before the performance. The entire experience was awe-inspiring. One of the highlights of the evening was being stranded about 30 minutes outside of town unable to get a cab to come pick us up. Eventually, we were able to hop a "direct" intercity bus that brought us close enough to home that the promise of a hefty tip secured a cab for the rest of the way. Terrifying, but fun when you have a group of friends including several who are fluent in Indonesian!

The ballet with the temples in the background
We decided to chow down at a fancy breakfast buffet at a nearby hotel. The highlights of the buffet were real lattes (not from a packet), real cheese (the cheese they sell here is designed to not melt in the tropical heat) and a juice bar that would make any kind of juice you wanted. After lunch, Ash led us in an impromptu jam session on the gamelan, which seemed to entertain the hotel staff immensely.
Jamming on the gamelan.
The final part of the celebration was brought to us by Elizabeth. She found a bakery, got us a cake, and, when she was unable to sneak the cake into the house past us, recruited the owner of the neighboring warung to hide the cake in her refrigerator.  Her valiant effort was a bit tweaked when the warung owner came over to ask us when we wanted to cake, but Carin and I remained clueless, so it was a lovely surprise. I don't have any pictures of the cake yet, but I will post a picture for Elizabeth...

Air Soda from Yogya in the Semarang airport lounge
So, off I go to the field portion of my trip. The next 2.5 months I will be in a rainy area of West Kalimantan volunteering with an organization that uses health services as an incentive for conservation. I don't really know what to expect, but if the last month has set any precedent. This is going to be AWESOME!


The food here is frightening and inspiring. One of the first things that I learned in Indonesian was "Ada makanan vegetarian?" (is there vegetarian food?). Most of the time I am told that there is nothing, but when there is, I order it. It is an adventure each time. Indonesians like food that is either so sweet that you soon begin to sweat sugar from your pores or so spicy that you find yourself briefly praying for death to end the pain. I have spent time in Mexico and Thailand, so I am no stranger to spicy food, but here I find myself looking around for a cooler full of icy water in which to submerge my blistering lips on a fairly regular basis.
Takeout (they use paper, not boxes) from our favorite vegan place
The next thing that I learned to say regarding food was "sedikit pedas" (a little spicy) which is still alarmingly hot.
$1 Japanese food at the mall
Food here is ridiculously inexpensive... I have mixed feelings about this.Knowing the poverty that pervades the agricultural landscape outside of this city, I wonder how farmers can survive when I am paying less than a dollar a pound for the most important staple. This price also reflects price manipulation by middlemen and vendors. On the other hand, I am mainly eating where Indonesians eat, and Indonesian city dwellers are not rich either. Affordable food is essential. So, I eat cheaply too.

This is what $10 (total) buys you at a warung... Fed 6 hungry ladies
I eat at "warungs". These are tiny restaurants that have a very limited menu and food is cheap. Most warung owners cook a bunch of things in the early part of the day and serve it from a display window until it is gone. Most warungs specialize in a particular kind of dish. One of my favorite places serves lotek and gado-gado (variations of steamed vegetables and peanut sauce). The entire menu of the place is lotek w/or without rice, gado-gado w/or w/out rice and lotek with sauce on the side.Generally, my meals consist of vegetables of some sort, rice and tempe or tofu.This is the land of tempeh, and there was a nationwide panic recently when tempeh producers went on strike.

Then there are the odd things.
They serve fish finger pizza at Pizza Hut too
Rice is such an essential part of a meal that, when you go to a "warung", they ask you "pakai apa". "Pakai apa?" means "with what?", and they are asking what you want with your rice... not the other way around. If you don't have rice with your meal, Indonesians don't consider it a meal. Bahasa Indonesia has a lot of works for rice. It is one thing when it is cooked, another when it is raw, another after it is harvested, another while it is still on the plant. I find it fascinating that the language reflects the central place of rice in this culture.

Then there are the special meals out. We eat out a lot because grocery stores are few and far between. The traditional markets, where one would buy vegetables and staples are open at hours that don't work well with my schedule. So, there are lots of fun outings. Occasionally, we splurge on western food or other ethnic food. An extravagant meal runs about $10 per person.

One night was pizza and beer...

A NOTE ABOUT BEER. As many of you know, beer is one of my favorite things. However, this is a Muslim country where drinking is not common. When a restaurant does have beer, it is about as expensive as it is in Fort Collins. I have had a total of 3 beers since I got here. The locals drink kombucha or "tape" (fermented taro root, dyed green and served in soda water. Yes, it tastes just as good as you would think it would) to get a buzz.

So, eating has been a central component of my life in Yogya. While it is a biological necessity, it is also frequently a bonding experience. I am leaving Yogya tomorrow and I will miss laughter-filled meals with my friends here. However, I have a few pounds to shed and I hope that I will be able to do that in Kalimantan as I explore the rainforest. Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Riding in the Desa (sung to the tune of 'Running with the Devil")

So, yesterday, I got to naik sepeda (ride a bike) in the desa (village) with a big chunk of new friends. The outing was generously organized by Wisma Bahasa (my language school). The obtained bikes for everyone, and at 6:30 on Saturday morning, after a nice little box breakfast of savory pastries, rice (in Indonesia there is ALWAYS rice) and a donut, they loaded us into vehicles and brought us out to the country.

My apologies for the poor quality of the pictures... I tool them with my cell phone and mostly while I was riding!

Getting ready to ride!

Riding through rice fields
Riding through a village

The group of riders included teachers, administrators, security guards and students of Wisma Bahasa. The teachers at this school continue to impress. They don't teach us like very foreign clients. They treat us like friends. It makes learning Indonesian a lot less like work.

Our point of departure and return was also our lunch restaurant. It is a series of open thatch-roofed huts linked by bamboo paths that wind around coi-filled ponds. We rode through small villages and even a market. Although the total distance was less than 20 km, we had plenty of rest breaks with snacks. One of the most interesting stops was at a cemetery that contains a memorial to victims of the 2010 eruption of Mt. Merapi, a nearby volcano.
View from my seat at lunch
The day heated up quickly and we were pleased when we returned to our oasis for a group lunch of fresh seafood, lotek (vegetables in peanut sauce) and lots and lots of spicy stuff (oh, and rice). After lazing about by the water in a post-lunch torpor, we were delivered back to the city and sent on our merry ways to bathe, sleep and await the cooler part of the day... and the drag show... but that is a story for another day.
And some folks got more adventurous!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Week 1... Indonesia is awesome

"Light of Heaven" streaming into a cave in the jungle.
I have been trying to put together some posts with themes, like "food" (which is incredibly cheap, tasty and spicy to a level that I have not experienced even living in Mexico and Thailand) and "my homestay"... It is taking longer than I want because I keep forgetting to take pictures, so I am going to just give an update about week 1 and entertain with pictures of part 1 of this weekend's activities.

I spend a lot of time studying Indonesia at a nearby language school. I hope to develop a post about them because they are amazing and they have really created a nice community of expats wrestling with Indonesia. I think that my language is coming along quite well. Indonesians are amazingly friendly and patient with "bule" (foreigners), so practicing Indonesian is fun.

Surface of the stalagmite
I finished my lessons around 3pm and would return to the homestay. Evenings have been spent either studying or with the other residents of the homestay... all of them are fascinating and kind. Other residents hail from America, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Turkey, Germany, Korea and Japan. We are 11 in total.
Part way down to the cave

Ashley hails from Florida originally, but she is studying through a university in Australia and has been in Indonesia for a while. Ash is extremely talented at organizing outings and inviting fantastic people. We have gone out to dinner, to the shopping mall and, this weekend, she rallied a group on a FANTASTIC caving adventure.

Yesterday morning, two cars arrived to drive 7 of us several hours to a cave that has been opened for tourists. The highlight of the cave is amazing light that streams down from an opening in the roof of the largest part of the cavern. To reach this spot, you are first lowered 60 meters off a cliff onto the jungle floor. This was a bit nerve wracking for all involved... but not nearly as nerve wracking as when they pulled up back up the same cliff using 10 local guys! However, the safety concerns seemed well-attended-to, so we took the plunge... literally.
Go jump off a cliff

We left the heat an humidity of the forest into the cool darkness of the cave. After a walk of about 200 meters, the cave opened into a beautiful cavern with the "Light of Heaven" streaming through the ceiling. After climbing a massive stalagmite, and becoming completely soaked by the water that formed it, we descended a steep and MUDDY slope down the the river that formed the cave.

Ladies on the stalagmite

We shed our harnesses and helmets and jumped, fully clothed into the water. I think from that point on we were pretty much soaking wet and filthy for the rest of the day. After a nice swim and slight de-mudding, we climbed back through the muck to the mouth of the cavern where a small lunch waited. We enjoyed the last cool air of the cave as we ate rice, sauce, and chicken or tofu.

"Light of Heaven"
"Light of Heaven" shining on the stalagmite
After we were hoisted one by one up the cliff, we decided that our adventure should not end there. We stopped at a nearby spot where we floated on tubes through another series of caves. We spent a glorious amount of time swimming and floating outside of the tubes as well. I honestly don't remember if I have ever been that relaxed.

We reluctantly climbed out of the river and returned to to the start where we were offered mie (noodle soup) and tea before our drive back to Yogyakarta. As we neared the city, the sky brightened and changed color as the sun set. It was a beautiful ending to an awesome day.
Me in the cave