June 2010


Sunday morning we slept in till 8. That may be the latest I’ve slept since arriving to Indonesia. The adhan, the call to prayer, had woken me up about five in the morning. It didn’t even solicit an internal prayer I was so tired. It was a slow start of finding our driver from the day before was already taken. I had wanted to see the Kraton, the Sultan’s Palace, in Jogja. We agreed to hire becaks again for the morning and find a private driver for the afternoon ride to Prambanan and then the airport.

Outside the hostel were several becak drivers looking for customers. They congregate there, and you have to admit it makes good business sense. As one should, we agreed to a price beforehand explaining that we didn’t want to shop only go to the Kraton. Katie and I rode together. Mid-morning was already too hot to be comfortable in an unshaded becak, but we rambled along.

At the Kraton, there was a man performing a traditional Java dance with a gamelan, an ensemble playing traditional instruments such as xylophones, drums, gongs, bamboo flutes and metallophones. Gamelans are common to Bali and Jave islands in Indonesia. What struck me the most was that the dancer’s movements and the music were not synchronized as they are in Western dances. Sometimes the music would be allegro, but he would be still and vise versa. Did you know the sultan is the only precolonial ruler still governing in Indonesia? History is fascinating. The Kraton had displayed awards and foreign gifts accumulated by the Sultan. The gifts included what looked like Dresden porcelain. Also on display was a warang kulit, leather puppet for the shadow plays that are part of the Java tradition. Katie and Dana were accosted by a group of school children who wanted to interview them. This was in the one building where photos weren’t allowed; the children were so cute I was disappointed I couldn’t capture the moment. Throughout the rest of the palace, we were asked for our photos. We’ve gotten better about turning people down.

Back with our drivers, we asked them to open the tops to the becaks before we started again. We told them to take us to our hotel. They abruptly stopped at a batik painting shop along the way. Good-naturedly, we got out and watched a demonstration of the technique. We looked around the shop but found nothing to purchase. The drivers were surprised when we said we were ready to go back to the hostel. They didn’t seem happy. When we arrived, there was a dispute about payment. They said if we didn’t want to pay them IDR 30,000 then they didn’t want to be paid. Everyone was frustrated. The conversation broke down several times, and we almost walked away. But finally handed them the desired amount. It’s really not much at all in dollars. We had been surprised because we paid more for less time than we had the day before. However, I surmised that the drivers are likely to get a commission at the places they take us to. Saturday night, we bought a lot of stuff as a group of three, so the drivers didn’t mind. These drivers clearly didn’t believe that we wouldn’t be shopping today. If they had, they might have tried to negotiate a higher price for the drive. I just wonder where we would have taken it based on our experience the day before.

We had arranged a private driver at a place across from the hostel. He took us to Prambanan. The traffic was light there and on the way to the airport. It’s hard because you never know about these things. You have to allow for more time on the road here. Prambanan was almost better than Borobudur. For one thing, it was less crowded. It was also spread out–there are several temples. It’s just really breath-taking. Even though it’s a Hindu site, one of the temples is Buddhist.

The flight home to Jakarta was fine. I got home with the single goal of showering and was it amazing!

This week was the more advanced week long course. Patrick has left us. The week went well, and now I’m about to catch a flight to Bali. I have a feeling I would like Lombak better–less tourists. But it will be very nice to get out of Jakarta.

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Saturday morning Dana, Katie, and I got up early and met in the hotel’s lobby restaurant for breakfast before grabbing a Silver Bird taxi to the airport. Blue Birds are the recommended taxis because they are metered and the drivers know where places are. Silver Birds are their luxurious Mercedes Benz cousins. We had all bought our tickets for Lion Air two days before. Here, you have to go in person with cash to the airline office to purchase a domestic flight. With work, that was impossible. We paid a nominal fee for the hotel to do the legwork. We got on the one hour flight to Jogya (Yogyakarta) without any real plans beyond seeing the two famous temples: Borobudur and Prambanan.

When we got to the Jogya airport, we went to a counter to look for a hotel.  This being high tourist season now that school’s out, all the rooms at the nicer hotels were full, and all the air conditioned rooms were gone everywhere. The three of us decided to share a room with a fan, $6.50 each. The Metro Guest Home was not fancy, but it was all we needed. Talking with a friend online when I got back, I wanted to describe the weekend as “good, clean fun” while the spirit of that phrase was true, we were anything but clean. It was a hot and humid weekend. The fan cooled us down when we finally got back to the hostel, but the shower was just too dirty to contemplate. After all, it was only one night. After the plush Mandarin, it felt good to be roughing it a bit, to be real again.

We hired the man who drove us to the hostel to take us around to Borobudur once we’d dropped our stuff in the room. He was very nice, even stopping at the town’s University Gadjah Mada, which Dana told us was one of the best colleges in the country. He pulled off to show us a cemetery on a neighboring hill. I spied fresh coconut juice for sale along the road and later a man planting tobacco. We stopped on the way back from Borobudur to capture shots of some women in the rice fields. Throughout Indonesia, the rice goddess has been revered throughout history. Women conceal their knives in their hands while harvesting in order to not provoke the goddess’s irk.

Borobudur was amazing. The temple is not only an impressive site in and of itself, it boasts impressive views of the surrounding mountains. While we had been prepared to snap hundreds of pictures during our visit, we had not expected to be as interesting a spectacle as the temple itself. Borobudur is known as a main tourist attraction, but neither Dana, Katie, or I realized most of the tourists would be nationals. We spied two other white couples at the temple that day. Coming from all over Indonesia, I’m sure some of these local tourists don’t see many white folks. Every time we stopped to talk amongst ourselves about a stone panel relief or to take pictures, someone would come up us asking to have their picture taken with us. Sometimes it was a young girl, sometimes it was someone older, sometimes it was a guy. Once Katie had a baby shoved in her hands as the father made camera snapping motions with his hands. Another time we were surrounded by middle school girls and their teacher. I am never being rock-star famous—end of discussion. The paparazzi made it difficult to enjoy the temple’s grandeur.

Dana, Katie, and I arrived back at the hostel after experiencing Yogyakarta traffic, which was just as slow as Jakarta traffic or at least it felt that way. We wanted to see a little bit of the city and decided to ride around in becaks. These “Environ cabs” are three-wheeled bicycles with the passenger seat an enlarged and lowered front basket with the cabbie pedaling from behind. Becaks are banned in Jakarta but used widely elsewhere in the country. We bargained beforehand (an absolute must), and each got our own driver. First we went to a silver store, then to a shop selling batik paintings and then to a local restaurant. On the way home, we stopped in at a touristy shop, but there wasn’t much we were intrigued by. The shopping was actually fun because I was getting to admire craftsmanship instead of trying on clothes that didn’t fit what I needed to buy.

For me the best part was riding in the becak along the back streets. The quiet neighborhoods were hidden from main roads with the street lights and the noise of the motorbikes and their dirty fumes, which were a good reason to not want to ride out in the open. The sun had set, the full moon had risen, and the stars were visible. It was so peaceful; the first real quiet and calm I’ve felt since coming here. The hotel is wonderful and relaxing, but it’s artificial for all its beauty. I might have been worried about being driven around completely alone if I hadn’t known Dana and Katie were behind me. As it was, it was just perfect.

Below are some stories of small mishaps I don’t expect to be of interest to anyone outside my close circle, but since that’s likely you, I’ve included them in this post.

June 19, 2010

I had just arrived at the hotel after a grueling international flight. The first leg of fourteen hours had been quite fine. The eight hour layover had been bearable. The second eight hour flight had been no fun at all. It had taken another two hours to de-plane, collect belongings, arrive at the hotel, and check in. I was tired, felt grungy, and was starving. I called room service, and they said it would be half an hour. I had just drawn my bath and gotten in when my doorbell rang. Throwing on a towel, I discovered it was room service. Somewhat embarrassed, I directed the placement of the tray and was signing the receipt when the door rang again. It was housekeeping to turn down the bed. Trying to stay out of her way and too tired to process anything much, I sat at the desk waiting for what seemed an eternity. Finally, she was done turning down my bed and straightening the bathroom. She asked if I wanted her to drain the tub. I explained that I wasn’t finished in as nice a voice as I could, but she was embarrassed. What was amazing was that the bath water wasn’t frigid. Supper was ok, and I managed to unpack before heading off to sleep for some much needed rest.

June 29, 2010

If you got my photo updates in Israel, you probably noticed that most of the time I wore the same khaki jacket. Made of linen, it’s perfect for hot climates because not only does it help me stay modest in the local culture, I don’t have to grease up with sunscreen. However, I have a feeling the designers at Sigrid Olsen hadn’t envisioned their jacket being used so enthusiastically. This weekend, I got holes in both of the sleeves near the elbow. Digging through my bag, I realized my sewing kit was back in Jakarta. Yes, a stitch in time saves nine. The holes of course grew substantially before I returned to the Mandarin. Immediately I raced to the bathroom to find the free sewing kit. Most of the threads were dark, but there was a strand of white. I quickly began to sew up the hole. I didn’t finish before I ran out of thread. So, yesterday, with a new sewing kit, I used the next strand of white. That still wasn’t enough for both holes. I’m hoping to complete this feat tonight–wish me luck!

I do love roughing it on my trips. I enjoy the cool people who frequent hostels and feeling of adventure when you aren’t really sure that anyone else would decide that the twenty minute rail ride to the city center of Vienna was worth the cheap hostel fare. I’m trying new things, solving the puzzles of using foreign public transport, figuring out how to make a baguette last for two meals. It’s fun.

However, I am quickly learning that traveling for business has a lot of perks as well. It’s seeing how that other half has always lived. I’m expected to take a taxi from my apartment in Alexandria to Dulles and expense it. I was on the waiting list for business class. A side note on that: if you are waiting to be upgraded to business class, do not under any circumstances wait anywhere but at your gate for the flight. Luckily, I did manage to get upgraded anyway, mostly thanks to Katie. Business class was amazing. I was in the first row, so there was even extra room for me to scooch passed my neighbors when I needed to get up. For once I felt comfortable drinking all the water I needed to stay hydrated. Also, the food was good. On United all of these perks were impressive. The seats were like Laz-E-Boys but reclined a bit farther. I actually slept most of the flight—such a nice change.

Even the airport in Dubai, our layover, screams luxury. Katie C and I meandered around gawking at some of the Duty Free. A new Malback was on display. The backseat has a convertible top, but your driver will still be under a solid roof.

I could read some of the Arabic words, and it felt nice to hear Arabic over the loudspeakers again. Still, I was a little confused by the large number of Asians in the airport. Of course it makes sense they were there because Dubai is on the eastern side of the peninsula, but last year I saw almost no Asians outside the small community of Philippinos who had immigrated for menial jobs. The layover was eight hours, and I will save you the details of the second flight by simply saying it was not comfortable.

I shared my first impressions of Jakarta yesterday. What I didn’t discuss was our hotel the Mandarin Oriental in the Welcome (Selamat Datang) Circle of central Jakarta. My room is bigger than my room at Mar Elias, which was quite substantial. The bathroom is bigger than my kitchen at home with a shower stall and a full-sized porcelain bath. There is a king size bed that gets turned down every night. The other side of the room has a nice desk I want to take home, a couch and coffee table, and a flat screen TV that would seem an appropriate size to Uncle Van.
The Mandarin is truly a five-star hotel. The staff have learned our names. I am finally “Miss Pharr.” They are so nice and always ready to help us. Because the hotel recently re-opened after renovations, they are having amazing deals, which is how we can afford our jet set lifestyle. The gym with its large windows and hardwood floors has changing rooms complete with steam rooms and saunas. There are other spa amenities like massages as well but for a fee.

Additionally, the hotel has perks for club members, which we are since we’re staying here a month. We get free breakfast for room service, at the lobby restaurant or in the club on the 21st floor. Katie and Patrick are in love with the bread pudding. The pain au chocolat is as good as those I’ve had in France. The watermelon comes in red and yellow! The fruit is amazing. There is also a high tea in the club from 2-5, which we sometimes can catch if we get back in the evenings soon enough. Regardless, we as a team have decided to always gather at the club for the free happy hour when we meet to call back to Washington. Happy hour might be misleading; there is alcohol. However, we’re going for the food: sushi, salad bar, hot dishes, fruit, and mini desserts like delectable chocolate mousse. Normally, we don’t pay for any meal besides lunch.

Additionally, we rarely walk unless its to the malls in our traffic circle: the Plaza Indonesia and the Grand Indonesia. We take taxis though motor pool picks us up in the mornings for work. It’s strange not to take public transportation, but it all fits together in this strange but interesting new twist on traveling aboard.

With the taxis and the elegant hotel, I’m not entirely sure I’ve left the States as I work out in the gym and gaze at the high rises. This lifestyle is so clean, so removed; it gives a whole new meaning to the term “Ivory Tower.”

As we’re descending onto Java Island, I look down. Finally, below the clouds, I can see rice patty fields. The island is so green, so beautiful. We slowly circle lower and lower. I look but don’t see a city–nothing but fields and small homes. I have a half-second of panic. Did we get on the wrong plane? No, the pilot has just said we’re coming into Jakarta. Then I get more confused. Jakarta is supposed to be a big city, yet there is nothing here. We are practically landing in a rice patty field. We touch ground. When I see Katie C, I find out she had the same internal dialogue. We assure ourselves that we know Jakarta is a big city. There is some logical explanation. In the airport, documentation is a breeze, but we wait for almost forty minutes for our bags. Our driver is waiting for us when we get through customs, which was pretty much just walking through a metal detector. The drive into town takes about forty minutes. And yes, there are skyscrapers and shanties along the river. The airport was just a bit more like Dulles–far from the main city.

The afternoon after we arrive, Katie and I walk the twenty minutes to the National Monument from our hotel in the Welcome Statue traffic circle. We arrive at the site about the time as the afternoon shower commences. We don’t get soaked, but the walk back is a bit sticky with the high humidity and damp clothes. The monument is 137 meters tall; a quick elevator ride promises a spectacular view of the city. However, the line is impressive because it is sheltered from the rain. The flame at the summit of the monument is coated in gold. This structure is a proclamation of Independence for the Republic of Indonesia. In the park surrounding the monument, we pass several classes of students who eagerly whisper hello to the two silly Western ladies who are walking in a shower without umbrellas. Leaving the monument, we passed a warung, the local version of a shwarma stand with chairs and a table. Just outside the wooden structure are monkeys chained for sale, we supposed, along with other peddlers. On our way back we decide to stop at the Plaza Indonesia, a mall across from our hotel. The prices resemble those in the States except for the movie theater and the restaurants, which are cheaper. We aren’t likely to make any significant purchases there during our visit.

The intense pollution of the small motorbikes, bajajs–the auto-rickshaws that define the city, and the cars of Jakarta seem to have kicked up my allergies, but I’m still enjoying my visit. Cars drive on the left like most of Southeast Asia. We’ve speculated that this may be because the Japanese, who also drive on the left, occupied the country during WWII. The Dutch drive on the right to the best of my knowledge. (They were the major colonists here for centuries.) Traffic is bad enough in the evenings that five miles can take ninety minutes on a regular commute. However, the country has cool electronic counters at each stoplight to tell you how long it will be red and how long green–very useful.

Traffic in Jakarta ensures that we don’t usually venture outside our neighborhood of central Jakarta. The city layout is interesting because the skyscrapers are separated by kampung, small neighborhoods with one story homes and trees. Many of the women wear hijabs though the style is different from what I saw in the Middle East. There is a small brim at the crown of the head that might be cooler in the humid heat; I’m not sure. The poverty is palpable; like most of the developing world you can’t ignore it whether you are in Jakarta or out. I haven’t been able to capture it well in photos yet.

One of the issues that comes up in any developing country is what is known here the boule tax. Boule is the Indonesian term for whites; it means albino. As Dana points out, “it’s a passport and a tax.” You’re not a local; you’re going to pay higher prices. If you bargain, you might pay less, but it will still be more than locals. Even getting into national temples, monuments, etc. can cost you more as an international. Then again, I’m not so sure it isn’t fair. So many people here are barely surviving on what they make. Is it that unreasonable to expect that foreigners, who clearly make enough to come here on holiday, would pay $15 for a product that costs locals, who may make $15 a week, $3? It’s all relative. Not that it doesn’t get irritating for everyone involved.

Indonesia is exciting for me also because they are an Asian country uses the Latin alphabet. This isn’t surprising considering that Indonesian is a relatively young language and considering their European colonized history. The country has over 18,000 islands and hundreds of dialects and languages. Their new national language is used in schools and government, but, especially outside the main cities, people speak their dialects at home. The Latin alphabet means that I’m already recognizing words, like ayam (chicken) and hati-hati (be careful), that I see on billboards and menus.

Work takes up most of the time of the week since we have a daily check-in call at 6:30 PM. Patrick, our USAID person from Washington, meets me and Katie for breakfast before we grab the motor pool to the mission. We work till its time to catch the shuttle back to the hotel. I’ve usually got a few more things to straighten out in the evenings. Still, there’s a gym with wooden floors inside the hotel that I’ve managed to visit a few times.

On Thursday, we walked to the nearby mall—Grand Indonesia. We got eaten by fish—literally. A famous spa treatment here involves tiny fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. Dana, someone we met who works for a US-Indonesian NGO, joined us in our adventure. The establishment was very upscale looking. The communal pools were tiled, clean, and very relaxing. We all made faces when we stuck our feet in. You just didn’t know what to expect. The fish, which resembled minnow-size catfish (officially Garra rufa and Cyprinion macrostomus), rushed at our feet like a room full of starving teenage boys. It barely tickled; it was gentler than some pedicures I imagine. After half an hour of being feasted on, we sat down in another room to get fifteen minute shoulder massages. All for ten dollars! Then we grabbed some local fare at a nearby restaurant before heading home.