Saturday, May 31

A Month in Jakarta: The poverty

I think it is a failing of mine that I rarely create adequate expectations for whatever lies before me, much less make expectations in the first place. I just kind of make a decision and stumble into it with only the vaguest ideas of what lies ahead. On the one hand, this does tend to mitigate the inevitable let down when the experience fails to live up to the expectation. On the other, the experiences just wash over me, and I never drive for anything in particular, opting to just take suggestions and options as they arise.

In the case of Indonesia, I really only had one expectation. I would be working at an orphanage, serving there "the poorest of the poor" and "the marginalized of society." I was expecting something Dickensian, inadequate lighting, an irremovable dampness and an unusually drab assortment of grays everywhere. Rough types would probably prowl just outside the nine-foot stone walls topped with barbwire. For this middle-class kid attending a private university, it would be his first experience of poverty.

That expectation was wrong. Except for the barbed wire, but everyone uses it here. The orphanage is a decent place, lacking a number of Western conveniences but nothing intolerable and really quite nice. It is even in a decent part of town, and a private security force makes it feel safe enough that women freely walk alone at night.

Thus, the first exposure to poverty did not come until maybe a week after arrival, when I tagged along with a veteran member of the organization as she and one of the kids visited his parents. Turns out orphanage is a bit of a misnomer. Corruption at high levels has produced death certificates for parents in order that officials and criminals might benefit from otherwise well-meaning grants and charities.

It was strange. From this neighborhood where every third mailbox has the title 'Doctor' on it to what can rightly be called the slums, it was only a ten minute, fifteen at the most, walk. Literally, we crossed a road and went from two- and three-story opulence with small yards to cement brick, two room homes which were barely larger than my room at university. With a step we went from asphalt-paved roads to dirt tracks better suited for off-road biking enthusiasts than real transport. Occasionally there was a motorbike but the cars had disappeared along with any suggestion of a disposable income. And the place was filthy. Do not get me wrong, Jakarta in general is a filthy city, but the presence of a nearby dump and a slum population which undoubtedly routinely goes through it, do not help matters in the least.

I wrote earlier this was strange. That is not quite precise. The transition was incomprehensible. The only way to make it was to stop thinking, stop paying attention for a while and only consciously realize you were in the slums by the time the middle-class neighborhood was out of sight.

It took another five minutes of walking through it all to arrive at the kid's house, and this was no case of a prostitute with a heart of gold, of an ugly exterior hiding a beautiful inside. There was no such thing as glass windows. Protection from the elements came in the form of sheet plywood shutters and covered the square hole in the wall which offered the only light besides the door. The floor was a cold cement slab with a mere layer of floral print paper between it and myself. There was no furniture but for a single end table, and the only decorations were paper posters with religious imagery. If they had not been scavenged from the dump, they had almost certainly been on those walls for years, they were so tattered and faded.

It was mortifying, the visit that is. Soon after we arrived, the mother slipped out and came back minutes later with iced tea for us guests. It was my first iced drink since arriving in Jakarta. Not only did this family make less money all day than I did in a single hour of work back in the States but also that money supported five people while I provided only for myself and still received help from my family, and they gave me this gift. I sipped it and sat quietly for a half hour as they all spoke in Indonesian. When our time was up, I offered the greatest thanks I could. Twenty minutes later, we were back at the orphanage and had running water and air conditioning available once again.

So that is what poverty looks like. There is more to it than that: the hope for even a single, simple meal each day; the crime; the begging and indignity, but that is all I could understand by myself in my short time there.

I fear that fetishizing it after this briefest of encounters is all too possible. There is a lot to be disgusted with in American culture, and it is all too easy to see its antithesis in the slums. By Western standards, I saw the most severe material deprivation possible, but I saw easy smiles too. In the streets, they did not look bitterly at me so far as I could tell, and the family even gave me the gift of a cool drink for being nothing more than a guest. The people who lived there obviously did not have club memberships or wallets full of credit cards, and they seemed okay with that, still capable of generosity. Does that not sound idyllic? I was probably there for less than an hour. What do I know?

The founder of the charity I am with here arrived a few days ago, and tomorrow she wants to take us volunteers through through the slums. We will just have to see what happens then, what is revealed and understood.

Tuesday, May 27

A Month in Jakarta: The food

Part of my woefully inadequate preparation for Indonesia included an attempt to familiarize myself with the cuisine. Considering the dearth of Indonesian restaurants in Spokane, I turned to recipes and their accompanying pictures, but there were no determined efforts made in this direction, no searches of online cookbooks or orders from Amazon. At best, whenever I found myself in a bookstore, I would peruse the cooking section. There was always an Asian section and plenty of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai samplings within it but, disappointingly, never any Indonesian.

Shortly after my arrival I thought this was so because a cookbook completely composed of "Make white rice. Make sauce. Put sauce over rice." would not be terribly interesting to most Americans. Since expanding my palate, however, I am convinced it is because America simply lacks the ingredients.

And that is a mighty shame because they have some excellent food here. I do not often see a single ingredient enhanced with spices treated as a centerpiece as the Indonesians are so keen on mixing everything, but that hardly matters as the food they have developed is so delicious. Rice is, without a doubt, the staple and the primary means of preparation is putting a sauce over, but that is hardly the alpha and omega of the Indonesian kitchen. Tofu, tempeh and this wonderful sticky rice which is stored in a pocket of folded leaves introduce some wonderful textures and are freely added to various recipes, and these weeks have proven my first exposure to rice noodles, a tasty exposure to be sure. Of course the tolerance for heat is at an entirely different level than this northern Minnesota kid is used to, but the spice has been kept in check and been down right tasty. All this is not to disparage the rice and sauce style either. The Indonesians do some exceptional work with a mortar and pestle, especially where raw peanuts, chilis and garlic are concerned.

Of course, all that is not to say Indonesians do not have their culinary failings. First of all, to not have anything fried (goreng) with a meal is unusual, and this is not just a minute in hot olive oil. No, this is the submerged-in-vegetable-oil-for-fifteen-minutes-until-the- outside-is-crispy-and-inside-creamy fried. Maybe breakfast is fried bananas. With lunch and dinner you might enjoy some fried tempeh or eggplant as a side to the rice with sauce, a sauce which, more than likely, has at least one fried ingredient itself. For a snack, and even a topping at times, there are beef rinds. The Indonesians prefer to call them 'crackers.' (I'm actually not sure if that is the proper name, but they are basically pork rinds, just made from cow rather than pig. Eighty-eight percent Muslim population and halal and all that, you know.) To be fair, I had pork rinds exactly once before this, and they had the texture and taste of old Styrofoam. These at least are fresh and edible, but the idea of literal slivers of fried fat as a snack is still enough to make me roll my eyes. I guess these is to be expected in a country where I have yet to see an oven, and the tap water is not for drinking, thus making boiling a much less appealing option.

It is fascinating to me that Indonesians lack an American conception of "fast food." Of course KFC and A&W have made headway here (no McDonald's surprisingly enough) and maybe the people there eat in a on-the-move American style (I would not know as I have not been), but I just do not see people walking and eating here. Even the carts and their owners who prowl the streets with their meatball soup, the Indonesian equivalent of hotdog stands, will pull out a few stools if you buy something from them and wait patiently for you to finish and return them. One of the kids here told me that is because eating while standing, even if it is because all the chairs are taken, is rude. It is just amazing how well ingrained this attitude is.

All of this has amounted to a tremendously nice surprise. With zero exposure prior to my arrival, ignoring the surprisingly accurate Indonesian dinner we prepared to publicize my trip, this has all come as something completely new, and the formerly exotic, in this case meaning the exceptionally high-priced fruits at Safeway, are common here. Literally, I have enjoyed starfruit and Indonesian cherries, which probably go by some other name in the States, straight from the tree. I will miss that.

Saturday, May 24

A Month in Jakarta: The traffic

While my pre-departure Indonesia research was disappointingly little, I did manage to catch one article that appeared on the front page of BBC News. It tended more towards the novelty aspect of journalism. To keep people from catching rides on the roofs of Jakarta's subway cars and subsequently falling to their deaths, guards were being ordered to spray a special colored solution on rule breakers, so they could be identified and fined later. I have yet to see this subway, but considering what I have seen of the traffic in Jakarta, that exterior seat was probably as safe, if not safer, than the roads.

Since making good my escape from rural Minnesota, I have seen some frightening traffic. The circle around the Arc de Triomphe and all of Istanbul rank high, but at least there was some vague conception of law there. Here, the only rule anyone seems to care for is stay on the left side of the road, and even that is fairly flexible. Fading across the centerline on major thoroughfares in heavy traffic is a common enough occurrence that it no longer draws my attention, and a motorbike may drive, as far as possible on the right, against traffic until the driver spots an opening large enough to cross on.

Passing on either the right or the left is no big deal and made all the more frightening by the plethora of slim vehicles which like to fill every possible gap and improve their position, regardless of dividing lines. Unless the nearest motorbike is 50 meters back, you can never just assume it is safe to go on a right-hand turn because they will make room to get by if they cannot get on the outside.

Instead of slowing at intersections, drivers just lean on the horn to warn others they are coming through. To say it is a change from Spokane where drivers would stop and wave the pedestrians across is an understatement.

The city seems to have accepted this state of affairs. In my near-two weeks here, I have only seen two traffic lights and cannot recall any stop signs. Rather than try to enforce the speed limit in residential areas, speed bumps are used a stronger reminder than signs. The motorbikes still skirt around their edges.

There is one odd thing about the traffic, the vehicles especially, in Jakarta which I would like to point out. Ignoring the obvious examples of the 15-person buses (vans) and banjajs (three-wheeled jalopies that pour blue smoke like a garden hose), there are no old cars. Everything is shiny and new. No rust stains or any of that. Seriously, it surprises me to see anything earlier than 2000. I imagine its because it takes a while for used cars to enter the system, and cars were just not that common a decade or two back. That or the income disparity is just that great. While the majority scrimp by buying fuel-efficient motorbikes, the upper crust buy a new car every other year. Really, I have seen families of four on a single motorbike and others packing tables on the things. I doubt the latter, though, because there are just too many of the things.

Wednesday, May 21

A Month in Jakarta: The only white guy

This month in Jakarta has provided me with a number of notable 'firsts.' It is my first trip across the Pacific. It is my first time south of the Equator. It is also my first time ever being in the minority for being white, and for the neighborhood I have been staying in, this particular minority is even smaller than the non-white communities in either Baudette or Spokane, both very heterogenous cities.

For the most part, this is not such a big deal, even if I stick out all the more for standing at least four inches taller than the average and having lighter hair. People just tend to stare or watch a little longer. Maybe ever other day, some random person who knows a little English will try it out on me. The first guy knew no more than basic pleasantries but was pleased enough that he could pull that off (and that I had to backtrack past him when the road ended shortly thereafter in front of someone's house). The second spoke fluently and with an Australian accent, which was a little off putting. It is to be expected, I guess, because you have to learn English from someone, somewhere, but it is still not what I first expect. British, maybe, but never Australian.

Sometimes, though, it is a little more irritating. Someone yells "Hey, mister," to see if you respond or calls "What is your name?" after you are far past because it took that long for them to work up the courage. It is an act of bravery rather than friendliness to try and draw my attention because, if I turn to look and reply, they are laughing with their friends and pulling away. Maybe my size is threatening or movies have given them outlandish ideas about violent whites. I do not know.

More irritating are the people who say bule (boo-LAY) as I pass by. I have been told it means Westerner and there is no insult in it, but to be picked out like that and commented on in the belief that I do not understand is not the most comfortable feeling. At some point, I want to start pointing at myself and nodding and saying bule, too, just to give them a little start.

I think what gets me about all this, considering the apparent lack of malice, is the feeling that I am being treated at these times as more of an amusement or curiosity than a regular person. Take the time I was riding the bus, which in Jakarta means a hollowed-out van with two parallel benches facing each other. I ended up next to a toddler and what must have been her grandfather. She silently stared at me, and with the way he looked across at me, I assume he was telling her something like, "He's not from around here. Maybe across an ocean or on the opposite side of Asia." It was harmless enough, even cute at the time as the there was no ill will in the man's face and, like I wrote, the kid was quiet throughout, but looking back now, they were definitely interested in me as something new and different.

There is a darker, far less amusing side to this that goes well beyond me. Not surprisingly, the developed world has a good handle on Indonesia. Visiting the VCD rental place one evening, the vast majority of the films were American and British, and the most prominent advertising campaigns are from the West and feature white models. Even the mannequins before clothing stores have a distinctly white look to them. At times, this is funnier. One girl told me after I visited her school that her friends said I am handsome. Then there are the less pleasant experiences. One of the boys said he was ashamed for having darker skin than me. My responses then were not the best, telling her to tell her friends they were wrong and telling the boy he did not want to look like me because I am disgustingly white, respectively, but they put me off balance. I guess white is the standard of beauty, and while I see no reason for people to always think they are beautiful, they should at least be comfortable with their appearance.

Being faced with all this, it is uncomfortable. Race is an issue that has never really cropped up in my life. The non-white community has always been small enough and never vocal enough that it just never came up, not that I would have cared. Among the many forms of identity politics and groups, race always ranked near the bottom for me because you could do nothing to change it. You just had to accept it and treat those with a different skin color fairly. Of course it has come up in the abstract, during English and history classes and tap dance most recently, but this is something different. It is a little shock, to find that this sort of thing matters and that the rest of the world does not agree with me on this. Perhaps this is part of the reason Westerners are invited here, to give the kids real exposure to the world outside Jakarta. I do not know, and I have little more to write, this is so outside of my experience. Maybe more later.

Saturday, May 17

A Month in Jakarta: Raison d'Etre

I arrived in Jakarta to begin my on-site work at the International Humanity Foundation's orphanage on Monday. Perhaps you already know this through personal contact with me or this earlier post. Now seems like a really bad time to be considering my reasons for coming here. Last summer would have been a far better time to be having these thoughts, but I guess it is natural. Coming in, you have some hopes of how you will be received, what you will accomplish. Maybe these expectations are unconscious, or maybe you have been daydreaming about them. Regardless, they are there. Perhaps you believe that through brute kindness and good intentions, you will teach the children conversational English and open their eyes to what lies beyond Indonesia, altering the course of and immeasurably improving their lives in a single month. If you are not quite so starry eyed, at least you hope to make a difference, to believe that your presence and actions changed something for the better.

And then you arrive, and a short while later, reality takes over. The organization ran just fine without you and will continue to do so after you leave. There were other volunteers before you and there will be others after you, just as outgoing and friendly and helpful as you, if not more so. You are not indispensable. In all likelihood, it will be something if anyone there remembers you after you are gone.

This whole, "You are not making a difference (at least not a noticeable one)," thing struck me yesterday. In a wonderful example of futility, I was trying to teach a computer class to Indonesian kids whose English skills were lacking on American Windows machines with fritzy mouses. I was forced to physically open all the windows, make all the selections and press all the buttons and hope the children remembered exactly what I pushed because there really were no other options. Even more, the day's topic, which I learned mere minutes before starting, was "Print Area in Excel." The classroom had no printer, which just made the exercise all the more pointless. I know very well that Nicholas Negroponte and Seymour Papert would argue that simple interaction with a computer is enough for children, but there are few times in my life I have felt as useless as I did then.

What then is the point? If I doubt my ability to actually affect change, why then am I here, besides the fact this doubt did not appear until after my arrival? Because I think it's right, and doing the right thing is the only thing worth doing. It is right to try. It is right to care and to actually follow through, not just expressing it in some limp-wristed, "Ah, isn't that sad" way. It is right to break off from everything you are comfortable with and use without any real appreciation to see how you come out of it, to know you can do just fine without conveniences as basic as running drinking water.

If nothing else, this feeling of futility arose quickly. It may dissipate with equal haste, and I am certain I am doing no harm in being here. Next week I will be taking over some English classes, classes in which I feel much more comfortable in actually transmitting some form of information.

Saturday, May 10


And a happy third year anniversary to this blog. It has been a long while since boredom during my senior year of high school first pushed me off in this direction. It has been cool, this opportunity to consider and dump my thoughts, preserving them for a second-look sometime in the future, and in all honesty, I have been surprised how long I have kept this thing alive. I always figured I would get bored with it someday. Fortunately (except for those who claim I think too much), that assumption has been shown to be wrong.

As a means of celebration, I offer my favorite posts from the intervening years to give you an idea of what has most stayed with me and still fascinates me. It saves you a lot of time from searching the archives yourself, I guess. Of course, any longtime readers who would like to offer their own favorites are welcome to, too.

The oldest of the posts, hailing from an era when rereading what I had just wrote was (more) rare, the idea remains solid. I could have developed it all a whole lot more, but I remain faithful to that central theme of the journey being of greater importance than the destination.

A Crude Life Philosophy and On thinking about yourself
Right here, these two posts demonstrate a large part of this blog's raison d'etre. It gives me an opportunity to see the evolution of my thoughts. Came pretty quickly after one another.

Looking back on the formative book series of my youth with a mature eye and still finding something worth anything in it. Cool. And remembering Marco's truck theft still makes me laugh.

Further thoughts on volunteering
This post was a revelation, and Mission:Possible itself, though I did not realize it then, marked a turning point in my life, the time when entering into social work of some sort after graduation first niggled into my mind.

On the morality of elliptical machines
Not linked to so much because I liked this post but because of the response from my friends who are incredulous that I can have an opinion on elliptical machines but not the upcoming election. I refuse to support any candidate until the end of October. There's plenty of time for things to get complicated.

A modest proposal as regards education
Possibly my most original idea yet. Now to get into Teach for America and implement it.

Running in winter
To change it up every once and a while, I write about an experience. This is one of the better ones.

Considering "Babel" and "Into the Wild"
If you let it, a movie can sneak up and rock you back. These two did that for me.

I love you
It's true.

Also, be sure to check back frequently over the next few days. I will be spending the next month in Jakarta, Indonesia working at an orphanage and teaching English classes. It will be my first time across the Pacific Ocean and south of the Equator. Should provide some good fodder for travel writing.

Monday, May 5

Rain on the river

Quite honestly, this is one of my favorite pictures. Certainly not without its flaws (I am fairly certain that is my shadow down the middle and the only reason the rock is there is to break up the scene, something which could have been more subtly and effectively accomplished with more thought), but there is such a rich texture to this river and a full range of contrast. The ripples on the river suitably set against the rough rock. I thinks it is a wonderful picture, even if it is just the appreciation of a moment, no greater philosophy behind it.

Conditions were just right for this too. It was a light summer rain, enough to be refreshing without being a downpour, and the clouds were just thin enough to provide ample light without glare on the water. I am unlikely to come across that again any time soon.

Sunday, May 4

Too Much Information

In near record time, the Internet posting of the latest issue of Charter is up on Gonzaga's website. Here is my submission, "Too Much Information." In all honesty I do not like it that terribly much. This idea that information without action is useless seems common sense. There is no reason to submit an essay on it. Still, the editor was in need, and I was strung for ideas. Editor said she liked it though, and as I asked her to be honest, hopefully others will as well.

Should you have the time, other essays to check out include Emmett Tribolet's "The Logic of Kabbalistic Mysticism: Defining the Code," Stephanie Scarff's "Identity, Relationship and the Internet," Kaitlin Vadla's "Narrative in the Postmodern Age," and Eric Cunningham's "The Omega Point: When Information Becomes Eternity."

Andrea Crow, writer of "A Hard Habit to Break: Addicted to Information," will be the editor next semester and I a member of her team. The first issue will be on globalization. There is something to look forward to and submit to should you be of the Gonzaga persuasion.