Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cut from a Different Cloth

Posted by Danielle and John

Our walk to Indonesian language class took longer the other day when a traffic jam developed in front of St. Canisius Catholic Elementary School next to our usually tranquil Yogyakarta street.

Weaving our way through cars and motorcycles, we quickly realized the source of the roadblock. Rather than the standard 7:30 a.m. drop-off, parents were taking pictures of their children wearing traditional Javanese costumes. Girls were dressed in kabaya kain (check out the sample on the left: cloth wrapped tightly like a skirt and a fitted tunic), with traditional hairstyles and lots of make-up. Boys were wearing Javanese hats and jackets, with toy daggers tucked in their waistcoats.

We were unaware of any national holidays, but then again Indonesia has so many holidays honoring its religious traditions, including days off for Buddha’s birthday and Chinese New Year. So we figured it was entirely possible that April 27 was some sort of important occasion.

When we asked our host family about the Javanese costumes, they explained that the students were honoring Kartini, an early 20th-century Indonesian women’s rights advocate who promoted the girls’ and women’s education and professional opportunities. We had read about “Kartini Day” (April 21) in the Jakarta Post last week, but our neighborhood’s school was late in its celebration because of exams last week.

The Kartini Day custom is for women to dress in traditional costume—a picture in last week’s paper showed a woman pumping gas in a movement-constraining kain — not what you see at your local Shell station. But as one Jakarta Post editorialist pointed out, dressing in traditional costume to honor a women’s rights activist seems somewhat incongruous. In order to celebrate how far women in Indonesia have come, females get all dolled up. It’s not clear how that honors Kartini, and we never did quite understand why the boys at the school were also wearing traditional attire.

People in the United States often ask Danielle about the condition of women and gender relations in Indonesia. In many respects, the Kartini Day celebration is a useful illustration of this complicated set of issues. On the one hand, Indonesian women (thanks to pioneers like Kartini) are fully integrated into the public sphere today. They obtain education at the same rate as men and are employed in all sectors of the economy. Indonesia’s previous president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is a woman and is still the reigning opposition figure in Indonesian politics. (Our resident political scientist notes, however, that “Mega” is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president and deeply revered national hero, Sukarno, and thus her popularity and success is attributable to a “successor” effect.)

On the other hand, Indonesia adheres to tradition and social change happens at a slow pace. For example, we also read in the newspaper last week that five high-school girls were prevented from sitting for their national exams because they are pregnant and unmarried. What would Kartini have to say about that?

Clothes reveal something about cultural values in all societies, and here they often speak to Indonesian attitudes regarding modesty. Today, we saw a throng of Indonesian high school boys and girls running for their PE class. They wore standard-issue gym uniforms like in the U.S., but with three-quarter-length shirt sleeves and long pants. Some of the girls wore headscarves, color coordinated with the uniforms. With the prevailing emphasis on standards of respectful physical appearance, students endure gym class in 90+ degree heat in clothes seemingly designed for much cooler temperatures. No one seems to think much of it. Presumably, if you never wear shorts or a tank top, you have no idea how much more comfortable it can be.

Indonesians’ propensity for uniforms also stands out. They are standard issue not only in many restaurants and hotels, but also in shops, banks, and all government agencies. The subtleties inherent in how the uniforms are worn, however, do seem to tell us something about the diverse spectrum of people wearing them. Prefer the long-sleeve option even though it is hotter than Hades in the cramped office? You’ll find a clothing store happy to oblige. Would you like a headscarf to match your outfit? No problem!

It should be said that the “Muslim Wear” shops in Yogyakarta, where mannequins sport brightly-colored jilbabs to match any outfit, are probably not what most Americans envision when they think of an Islamic woman’s wardrobe. It’s a far cry from the burqas of Afghanistan. And while discussions about Muslim religiosity often put a spotlight on the headscarf, we often overlook similarities in other religions--Russian Orthodox women cover their heads before entering a church and Orthodox Jews cover their heads in public.

More this weekend, after we make our pilgrimages to the Buddhist temples at Borobodur and Hindu temples at Prambanan.  

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Obama and Osama on the Streets of Yogyakarta

Posted by John
When Indonesians start conversations with us on the street, their favorite question is, “Where are you from?” More often that not, the answer “Amerika Serikat” elicits a thumbs up and an approving shout of “Obama!”

Some variation of this conversation is probably occurring anywhere in the world Americans are traveling in 2009, but Indonesians feel a special connection to the 44th president owing to the four childhood years he spent in Jakarta. One t-shirt on Yogyakarta’s busiest street today testified to Obama’s Indonesia connections, “From Manteng to the White House.”

The Manteng district of Jakarta does still seem like an improbable launching pad for a U.S. president. Indonesians and other citizens of the world seem to recognize that whatever their politics, Americans did something potentially remarkable for the 21st century global community when choosing Obama to be their leader. The 2008 U.S. presidential campaign often cast Obama’s peripatetic childhood and global connections in an unfavorable light, but half a world a way, it’s encouraging to see how much goodwill Indonesians extend to Americans based on their love of our president. The barber around the corner has even renamed his shop “Obama” — I’m going there tomorrow and am hoping they can give me the presidential cut.

Most Indonesians, of course, probably wouldn’t be any less welcoming if John McCain were president. They pride themselves on their hospitality and it’s evident in virtually every interaction. Here in Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia’s largest island of Java, bus conductors stop us to make sure that we, the only obviously non-Indonesian passengers in a carriage stuffed to the gills with passengers, have all the information we need to make it to our destination. And while it can become tiresome to fend off bicycle taxi rides from Yogyakarta’s seemingly endless supply of becak drivers who want to take us to the city’s even more numerous batik boutiques, most seem genuinely curious to know who we are and why we’re here, especially once they hear Danielle answering them in perfect Indonesian. And five-year-old kids often shout “Hello, Mister!” or other lines they’ve picked up from pop songs and Hollywood films.

This spirit of goodwill may not extend to everyone, of course. As we were waiting at a bus station today, an older woman cycled past us sporting a smile and an Osama bin Laden t-shirt. To be fair, however, we didn’t get the best look at her whizzing by the station. It was definitely bin Laden, but her shirt may have been one of Indonesians’ many ironic commentaries on life in T-shirt form, commentaries that often incorporate English phrases that are either unintentionally hilarious or intentionally subversive. Not long before we saw the Osama t-shirt, another t-shirt vendor proudly donned a shirt saying “F*@#k terrorist.” (Several Indonesian shirts make liberal use of the F-word, either showing Indonesians’ previously hidden rebellious streak or a profound misunderstanding of the word’s use in polite company. Also, their English subjects don’t always agree with verbs, and plural nouns are placed next to singular adjectives, but I really shouldn’t be critical considering the woeful state of my Indonesian.)

We were also noticing a number of pedicab drivers in red Party of Democratic Struggle (PDIP) t-shirts. At first, we surmised that this might have to do with the fact that PDIP fashions itself as a party of the people, and taxi drivers from the lower economic strata would form a natural part of their constituency. But before long, we saw pedicab drivers with other parties’ paraphernalia as well. Then we realized that for pedicab drivers with little money, a free t-shirt is a free t-shirt. Our host family confirmed this today, joking that that some becak drivers are outfitted by a different party each day of the week. The red and blue star of the ruling Democratic Party on Monday, the Gerinda eagle on Tuesday...

Counting political party t-shirts on the street may seem like a poor form of electoral analysis, but you could probably do worse in Indonesia, where the picture emerging from this month’s parliamentary election remains murky. Perhaps as many as 40 million voters out of a country of 230 million were left off the rolls, a discouraging sign to many in a country where competitive democratic elections only began in 1999. There’s no sign of intentional fraud yet, but there are questions whether certain regions and classes of voters were disproportionately affected. One of my Indonesian teachers was among the individuals left off the voter rolls. Some parties have talked about boycotting the July presidential election in protest, but so far it’s just talk. Nine parties received more than 2.5% of the votes for parliament, which qualifies them to run a candidate in the presidential election, and no one wants to sit this one out.

The Democratic Party, formed just four years ago to support former general and current President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono (SBY), came out on top in the parliamentary election with 20% of the vote. This party came out of nowhere to become the leading force in government and SBY has established a reputation for strong economic stewardship and anti-corruption. Most analysts expect SBY to win re-election, and horse-trading has already begun with a number of smaller parties to help SBY form a coalition in the parliament.

Two potential wild cards remain: Golkar—the establishment party during 35 years of authoritarian rule, and PDIP, the party at the forefront of efforts to end authoritarian rule in the late 1990—still remain potent forces in Indonesian politics. Each polled 15 percent in the parliamentary elections, and it’s not clear whether SBY can form an effective governing coalition without at least one of these parties.

PDIP seems a poor match—there’s still bad blood between SBY and PDIP’s Megawati Sukarnopurti, Indonesia’s democratization hero who was floundering as president in 2004 when SBY unseated her. Golkar had formed an important part of SBY’s coalition over the last four years, but problems have emerged in the relationship between SBY and Golkar’s Jusuf Kalla, SBY’s current vice president who won’t be re-nominated for a second term. The SBY-Kalla soap opera seems part and parcel of the perennial drama that unfolds in many presidential systems—the vice-president swears his loyalty while trying to hide his own political ambitions, while the president claims the vice- president’s political ambitions are compromising his loyalty. Add to that the fact that the president and vice-president don’t belong to the same party, and it’s especially prickly.

There’s an outside chance that Golkar and PDIP could team up to run a joint presidential candidate, but that remains unlikely. As Danielle points out, that would require the party that controlled every aspect of political life in Indonesia for more than three decades to join forces with the party that was formed explicitly to overthrow that authoritarian system. Ideological incompatibility aside, neither Megawati nor Kalla seems eager to step aside and let the other steal the limelight.

If that’s not enough political complexity for you, there are also three Islamic parties with good track records on social services and anti-corruption that grabbed a combined 20 percent of the parliamentary vote—not enough to rule, but one of them could well serve as political kingmaker before it’s all said and done. Plus, two former generals from the army (which most Indonesians revere above any other national institution) have thrown their hats into the ring by forming new political parties. That’s in addition to SBY, the former general who is already president. In case you’re still keeping score at home.

Reading the political tea leaves here in Yogyakarta, we’ll be watching the wardrobes of bicycle taxi drivers closely and report back with any news.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

You’re Not in Jakarta Anymore

Posted by Danielle
They say that there are several stages to culture shock. First comes the “honeymoon period” when everything is exciting and new (like on the “Love Boat”). This is followed by a period of frustration and rejection of your adopted home. The last stage involves adaptation. I’m not sure which of these stages John is currently experiencing, but it has him too exhausted to post a blog entry today.

The cultural differences between Jakarta and Yogyakarta, where we arrived yesterday via a Garuda Airlines flight, are probably just as great as those between San Francisco and Jakarta. Aside from crazy motorcycle drivers and streets crowded with vendors, Jakarta is a lot like major metropolitan areas around the world. Now that we are in Yogyakarta, the center of traditional Javanese culture, the real immersion has begun.

This has already required some meaningful adaptation. Even washing in the traditional bathroom can be a challenge. To be fair, the bathroom in the house we are living in is semi-modern—there’s a flush toilet and a shower head. But, no hot water and no sink. I constantly splash my clothes while washing my hands without a faucet or basin, making a task that should be relatively straightforward look like an embarrassing accident. And John is looking for tips on how to shave when there is no way to contain water to rinse the razor. Add to that the fact that he fried his hair clippers when he forgot to plug in the wattage adaptor, and you have a sense of the challenges we’re facing.

Bathing obstacles notwithstanding, we’re finding Yogyakarta a much more relaxed and pleasant city. We’re living with a host family on a lovely, quiet street in a middle-class residential neighborhood. Our hosts, Bapak and Ibu Sunarto, are a retired couple who have two sons working in Jakarta. They are very friendly and regularly host students from the language school where we are both taking intensive Indonesian language courses. Coincidentally, the couple is among the 3 to 4 percent of Indonesians who are Catholic. It appears that our neighborhood is predominantly Christian — there is a St. Canisius Catholic elementary school around the corner and we can only hear Muslim calls to prayer faintly in the distance.

Four hours of daily one-on-one private language lessons is exhausting, but useful. I’m slowly remembering my Indonesian grammar, and after only one day of lessons John successfully ordered his own lunch in Indonesian and impressed our hosts at dinner with his basic conversation skills. Of course, his favorite part of our language school is the complimentary Javanese coffee.

When not in class or doing homework, we plan to embark on an ambitious cultural program. Of course, I’m not sure how many all-night shadow plays and performances of traditional dance John can to endure…

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It’s a Small World After All

Posted by John
Each time I opened our Lonely Planet Indonesia Guide to the Jakarta section, my eyes darted to “Taman Mini Indonesia Indah.” Roughly translated as “Little Indonesia the Beautiful,” this 250-acre theme park promises a little something from each of Indonesia’s 33 provinces. In many cases, quite literally “a little something.” The park includes, among other things, miniaturized versions of the epic Borobudur Buddhist temple and Pramaban Hindu temples scaled down to 1/30 their original sizes. It all sounded very camp and kitsch, but something about it spoke to my inner 8-year-old who envisioned some sort of Indonesian Epcot Center.

Danielle had already visited Taman Mini during her trip to Jakarta in 2007 and, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom, came away distinctively under-whelmed. Whenever I brought up my desire to visit the park, she did every thing she could to dissuade me. “How’s that blister on your toe doing? Are you sure you want to walk around all day in the heat? There’s still some more museums in the north of town...”

Of course, I understood her reluctance. Pint-sized recreations of United Nations World Heritage sites like Borobudur and Prambanan might fail to inspire connection with the transcendent and feel more like something a model hobbyist might have stashed away among the cobwebs in his garage. Nor does Taman Mini have an entirely uncomplicated history. The driving force behind the park was Madame Suharto, wife of Indonesia’s dictator from 1965 to 1998. She spent millions of dollars creating the park in 1975, while anti-regime opponents complained the money would be better spent on hospitals or schools.
But after several days of pleading, Danielle finally relented and took me to Taman Mini. Even while mindful of concerns about trivializing the intricacies of Indonesian culture, I must confess that I fell in love with the place. I became a shameless shutterbug, taking photos of exhibits (life-sized replicas as well as miniatures) that provinces designed to highlight distinctive aspects of their individual cultures. West Sumatra showcases its wedding dresses (owing to the importance of the buffalo in Minang culture there, the bride wears a veil with horn-like extensions). Kalimantan features a scaled-down 747 to highlight its role in launching Indonesia’s national airline. And in perhaps the most curious exhibit, Jakarta’s display includes a stuffed-animal tableaux devoted to a boy’s circumcision ritual. What made this exhibit more peculiar was that the stuffed animals in question looked, to my eye, a little something like characters from South Park. The boy in question, riding on horseback, is visibly frowning (see picture).

As with any good theme park, there’s even a monorail—offering a bird’s eye view of this “Indonesia’s Greatest Hits” collection. Sadly, the monorail was broken that day, so we settled on a gondola ride over the park instead. Back on the ground, I toured my first mosque. (Danielle begged off, since she did not have proper head covering.) This being Taman Mini, the mosque was a replica of the Diponegoro Mosque in another part of the country. But it’s still in active use, with a dome, a minaret, separate men’s and women’s washing and prayer areas, and dignified green prayer rugs with pictures of Mecca at the center. In the interest of honoring Indonesia’s religious pluralism—both the 10 percent of Indonesians who practice other faiths and the prominent role those religious traditions have played in the region’s history—Taman Mini also features Catholic and Protestant churches as well as Hindu and Buddhist temples.

At the center of the park, a lagoon surrounds a miniature Indonesian archipelago. Each island includes accurate geographical features, such as perfectly rendered coastlines (the Rorschach-like South Sulaweisi alone must have taken weeks) and mini-volcanoes. The archipelago recreation begs the question: When East Timor won its struggle for independence from Indonesia in 1997, did Taman Mini have to sink that island? We couldn’t tell from our gondola ride over the archipelago, and I figured this was a question better left unasked of the park’s staff.

Regarding foreign affairs, the park also makes an effort to place Indonesia in an international context. What other theme park offers monuments to bureaucratic-sounding international relations entities like the Nonaligned Movement and the Asian Pacific Economic Conference?

At a few moments, Indonesian-English translation broke down. At the West Sumatra exhibit, a sign translated into English asking visitors to remove and carry their shoes inadvertently channels a Kirsten Dunst cheerleading movie by advising visitors to “Take Off Their Shoes and Bring It.” Danielle’s Indonesian proved flawless, however, when a group of schoolchildren picnicking in the East Java section noticed us and started shouting “Bule! Bule!” (“White people! White people!”) To a 7-year-old Indonesian, we were at least as much a subject of curiosity as a replica archipelago.

We keep promising some information about the Indonesian parliamentary and presidential elections, so hopefully we’ll get to that soon. We’ve just moved our base of operation to Yogyakarta, the center of Javanese culture where we’ll be doing three weeks of intensive language training. This is a source of excitement for Danielle, multilingual resident of the world who has already impressed countless taxi drivers and waiters with her command of Indonesian. For those of us whose cosmopolitan credentials include struggling through a few semesters of high school Spanish, it’s a bit more daunting.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Move It or Lose It

In Indonesia’s capital, the journey from Point A to Point B is not for the faint of heart.

After one week here, neither Danielle nor I are brazen enough to ride most of the buses swarming around the Kampung Bali neighborhood in central Jakarta. You need a little spring in your step even to board, since these vehicles approach intersections without ever really stopping. The driver slows just enough to allow exiting passengers to jump and hit the pavement running, while a porter peeks out the bus’ back door and shouts stops and prices to potential riders massed along the sidewalk. If the parties reach satisfactory terms at this still-moving transportation bazaar, the porter herds a few more riders on to the bus, sometimes offering a hand to pull up the few last stragglers. Others wait to see if they can get a better deal with the next bus.

It all happens in a flash—which is fine if you know exactly where you are going. But as there are no posted routes at the different impromptu bus stations, those of us new to Jakarta shell out a few rupiah for the Transjakarta Express. This air-conditioned bus fleet has standard rates and stops and zips through special reserved lanes in most places in the city, but it’s hardly luxury travel. Crowding can be such a problem that the bus line has to post beefy guards at the doors to ensure that maximum occupancy limits are observed.

That mostly transfers the problem to the platforms, where there’s much jockeying for position. Indonesians are famously ready with a smile in almost every situation, but that comity largely disappears on the boarding platform. At the Kota station last week, a group of teenagers seemed genuinely annoyed when I stopped to allow a pregnant woman and her child step in front of me toward the train rather than squashing her against the railing. That just meant these kids pushed a little harder when the next bus approached. It’s easy for everyone’s sense of polite decorum to evaporate when you’re waiting in line as a fourth full bus pulls away from the platform.

Much of the time, taxis are affordable enough alternatives for short trips through the city, but they come with their own attendant risks. On several occasions, Danielle has warned me that taking Bluebird Taxis is the only way to be sure to be on the safe side. That seems easy enough, until you realize that there are hundreds of taxis painted blue and white to look exactly like Bluebird.

And when you are suffering from heat-generated hallucinations, as I was on the way to the Jakarta Cathedral yesterday, anything can happen. Accustomed to the New York City or San Francisco taxi protocol—where you have to flail wildly at the first sign of a taxi to have any hope of getting a ride—I flagged the first blue-and-white blur I caught out of the corner of my eye. It stopped, but Danielle flashed me a look of horror as we suddenly realized it was a Bluebird impostor. And the headlines flashed through my head: “Americans Found Dismembered at Bottom of Jakarta Industrial Canal.” Fortunately, after a little exchange in Indonesian, Danielle realized we were in safe hands and we rode the taxi to the Cathedral without incident. Crisis averted, but you can be sure I won’t be so quick on the draw next time.

When you actually do get to your destination, of course, there’s much to marvel over here. At the Bogor Royal Gardens, we were dwarfed by bamboo shoots that were more than 30 feet high (see Danielle in the photo for a sake of comparison). At Mass among hundreds of Indonesian Catholics in the Cathedral, the Body and Blood of Christ were heralded in with a gong as well as the customary bells. And speaking of marvels, I’m eager to travel soon to Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, a theme park that contains scaled-down traditional houses from all the major islands of Indonesia. The story is that Suharto’s wife created the park in the 1970s as a sort of vanity project. When I ask if this is like the Indonesian version of the Disney “Small World” ride, Danielle rolls her eyes.

We are also here in the middle of an election in the world’s third-largest democracy — more on that in the next post.

Friday, April 17, 2009

If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get out of Jakarta

If Jakarta’s tangled traffic and early morning prayers made the strongest first impressions, the deathly heat hasn’t been far behind. The mercury has climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit every day here, and the temperature stays above 75 even in the dead of night.

When you add in the acrid clouds of exhaust from the millions of motor scooters clogging up the city streets, even a ten-minute walk to the bus station feels like a swim through stiff, stale air. We’re drenched in sweat from the moment we step out the door in the morning and would wilt without stops into air-conditioned oases during the daytime, which can be hard to come by in most neighborhoods. Fortunately, Danielle has mercifully arranged for us to spend our first week in Indonesia in an apartment with both air conditioning and a pool, distant dreams for the vast majority of Jakartans.

Tomorrow, we’ll try to beat the heat with a trip south of the city to Bogor, home to Java’s most renowned botanical gardens. Indonesia's President Yudoyono makes Bogor his “Camp David” retreat—perhaps we’ll see him there and can ask him about problems we’ve been hearing about regarding the millions of Indonesians left off voting rolls in parliamentary elections earlier this month.

On Thursday morning, John ended up inadvertently joining a few hundred Indonesian grade school students on a field trip to the National Museum. The collections of statues, ceramics and other artifacts pay homage to the country’s diverse cultural history, including animist, Hindu and Buddhist influences from the pre-Islamic period that remain today. So it was only fitting to arrive at the museum and see a group of Islamic girls in school uniforms and head scarves gathering around an elephant statue donated by one of Thailand’s 19th-century Buddhist kings.

Boys from another school, on the other hand, seemed more excited about the opportunity to run full speed through the halls and scream at the top of their lungs. A group of them found the large genitalia on a prehistoric Sumatran teak ancestor statute a source of endless hilarity. Apparently, girls and boys’ comparative maturity levels remain constant across cultures.

Another trip took John and Danielle to Kota, center of the 17th-century Dutch settlement of Batavia that became modern-day Jakarta. Some of the grandly conceived Colonial architecture remains, including the former State House which now holds a Jakarta City Museum. It’s not much of a Jakarta museum per se, as it mostly includes uninspiring furniture and knick-knacks left over from the Dutch governor-generals’ collections. This imperialist attempt to create a little bit of Leyden in the tropics feels out of place in postcolonial Indonesia.

The highlight of trip to Kota was when five high school students approached Danielle at the Jakarta City Museum and even videotaping her responses. Perhaps Danielle’s call for U.S.-Indonesian engagement will reach a wider audience and inspire a generation. to interview her for their English class. It was all very earnest, with the students asking Danielle about her reasons for coming to Indonesia and even videotaping her responses. Perhaps Danielle’s call for U.S.-Indonesian engagement will reach a wider audience and inspire a generation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The 4:15 A.M. Wake-up Call from Allah

In a country where close to 90 percent of the population is Muslim, it’s hard to miss certain religious symbols. They’re especially hard to miss when a mosque is situated directly outside of your window, and the muezzin starts the call to prayer over the loudspeakers at 4:15 a.m.

The call to prayer comes though melodious Arabic songs five times a day, but none is more noticeable that first one before dawn. We’d certainly hear the call even without a mosque next to our building. Loudspeakers are mounted on mosques in neighborhoods all across the city (we can see two from our balcony, and there’s another one around the corner). These voices sound almost like flutes, and it’s proven a very peaceful way to start the morning at least for the time being – perhaps because with jet lag we’re waking up at 3 in the morning anyway. We’ve brought earplugs in case the charm of the 4:15 a.m. wake-up call from Allah wears off.

These prayers mark Indonesia as distinctive from many of its neighbors—you might have the crowded streets in Bangkok, spicy cuisine in Saigon or street vendors in Manila, but the prevalence of Islam makes Indonesia seem in some ways more like the Middle East than Southeast Asia.

Islam’s influence is also apparent in the number of women who wear headscarves. The fashion varies from neighborhood to neighborhood — I saw more near the Al-Azar Mosque and schools in southern Jakarta, where girls playing soccer in green PE uniforms had their heads covered. But there are also plenty of women wearing heels and make-up near the business district in central Jakarta. I don’t get the sense that there’s much tension about the different choices people make about religion—perhaps that’s possible in a society where it’s presumed virtually everyone is serious about religion and most people share the same one.

Much of our day was devoted to making sure Danielle remains on the good side of Indonesia’s notoriously Byzantine state bureaucracy. There were trips to the Ministry of Research and Technology, the Jakarta Police Headquarters, and the Department of Immigration (all in different parts of the city) and there’ll be return trips tomorrow.

Danielle’s adviser back in Berkeley says the Indonesian bureaucracy makes Russia look efficient by comparison. All I know is that after waiting an hour with 20 other people in an 8-by-12 room in the Jakarta police station, I’ll never complain about the Department of Motor Vehicles again. It was heartening, however, to hear the state employees processing foreign visas in the science and technology office listening to Carlos Santana and Van Halen. One of the Sammy Hagar fans was wearing a head scarf.

I managed a side trip to Indonesia’s National Monument, a 137-meter tall answer to the Washington Monument. One set of Indonesian college students insisted on having their picture taken with me – I had assumed the group wanted me, in the typical tourist fashion, to take a picture so all three friends could be in it. But no, they found me enough of a curiosity to want to have a picture to commemorate the occasion. You see the occasional foreign tourist in Jakarta, but being white is still enough of an anomaly to warrant attention in some quarters.

In the vast, dingy and dimly lit basement at the base of the monument, there are more than 50 dioramas devoted to important moments in Indonesian history. It feels like something of a cross between a 4th-grade History Day exhibit and the poorly maintained Post Office lobby. There are many paeans to anti-Dutch colonialism, but they might benefit from some attention to presentation. Frank Gehry, Jakarta is calling you.

The view from the top of the monument offers wonderful vistas onto Indonesia’s skyline. Well, to be more candid, you can make out the silhouettes of the national telecom headquarters and Supreme Court building when you squint your way through the smog. Smog or no smog, it’s hard to miss the massive dome of the Istiqlal mosque near the center of downtown—it’s the largest in Indonesia.

We concluded the day over at Jalan Sabang, home of Jakarta’s most entrepreneurial and aggressive street vendors. With carts and stalls set up on all sides of the sidewalk, there’s barely enough room to squeeze your shoulders between newspaper stands and satay skewers. Even the slightest hint of eye contact will bring forth a roadside cook who offers to whip up some chicken fried rice in a skillet.

While Jalan Sabang is the most well-known and most extensive of Jakarta’s street vending sections, it’s clear many Indonesians enjoy spending their evenings out on the streets. Some play pick-up chess games on the ground, others swap stories and cigarettes from stoops outside their houses. In a place where the mercury rarely dips below 75 degrees Fahrenheit even in the evenings and where most people don’t have air conditioning, the evenings can be more pleasant with the occasional breeze outside.

Tomorrow, Danielle braves the bureaucracy once again before we head out to Kota, the old Dutch section of the city that still has some 17th-century buildings.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

All Roads Lead to Jakarta

After a few hours in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital that is home to 9 million people, you come away with the sense that every inch of the city is constantly in use.

The crowds begin with the ride from Sukarno-Hatta Airport to the downtown. Our cab driver creates a new lane whenever and wherever it suits him, careening out from behind the diesel trucks clogging up traffic. Meanwhile, swarms of motorcycle riders with rather cavalier attitudes toward helmets and turn signals squeeze through improbably small crevices on the margins of the road, unwilling to cede an inch to either the pedestrian on the sidewalk or the bus creeping along in the center divider. Roads in Indonesia are designed for drivers to stay on the left side of the double yellow line, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that just by watching.  

Miraculously, traffic flows without incident or accident, at least for today, but Danielle insists that actuarial probabilities will eventually be brought to Jakarta’s traffic free-for-all. It’s not hard to imagine this happening, especially when you factor in the windowless, golf-cart style taxis with their lawnmower engines hopscotching through traffic to pick up ride. In addition, this nonstop automotive parade is the thick, acrid layer of smog that hangs about Jakarta, especially in the early evenings.

That’s a taste of life on Jakarta’s roads. Tomorrow, we move to the sidewalks – just as congested and requiring perhaps an even defter touch to navigate.