Friday, December 28, 2007

This is Indonesia

I realize that we've been a little remiss in talking about life here in general. We've had some amazing travel, which is always fun to talk about, but I hope this new series will be entertaining.

When you live in a place like Indonesia, a lot of the time, things just don't make sense. Those of us who live here use a few phrases so that we can just shrug our shoulders and go on with life. This new series will try to describe the meaning of "This is Indonesia" or more commonly, "T.I.I."

We haven't been invited to any weddings yet, but we've heard a lot about all that goes into them for wealthy families here. A wedding is even more of a social statement here than it is in the U.S. While we usually send a save the date card months in advance and then the invitation weeks in advance, Indonesians try to have the invitation arrive as close to the date as possible. The reason for this is that when you receive a wedding invitation in the mail, you normally just throw it in a container you keep by your door. Then when the weekend comes around, you look through the stack and see if there are any events you need to attend. Of course, if you sent your invitation too long ago, it'd be buried in the stack and your special day might be forgotten.

In that same spirit, I interviewed a couple planning to honeymoon in the U.S. next year and they handed me their wedding invitation. It was about 4 inches by 6 inches and at least an inch thick. It opened to reveal a very fancy inviation, but on the outside, it was surrounded in denim complete with pockets and a zipper to look like blue jeans. Not only do you want to keep your invitation at the top of the pile, you want it to be memorable. T.I.I.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Four Nights in Bangkok

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, we did what all good Americans do and took a weekend trip to Bangkok. We had worried before we went there that it was not going to feel like much of a vacation going from one big Asian city to another, but Bangkok is really nice. It's still a developing South East Asian city in many ways, but at the same time, nothing like Jakarta. It's clean and organized, nice sidewalks, great public transportation, etc...

We waited too long to book a cheap hotel, so we cracked open the piggy bank and stayed at the J.W. Marriott. It was an awesome hotel. We also ended up getting a mini suite as they were out of non-smoking regular rooms, so it made staying there really worth it.

I had heard that sex is on display and for sale in Bangkok, but we were shocked by how in your face it really is. Near our hotel in the area called Nana, there are prostitutes on every corner and in every bar. They even have "strip clubs" where the girls stand on stage in a bikini top and thong with a number pinned to their chest, presumably so that you can just say what number you want to order for the night. We also found a bar called Hillary Bar on the same street!

One really cool thing we did was eat at this restaurant called Vertigo. It's on the very top (62nd floor) of the Banyan Tree Hotel. It's a converted heli pad that's now a trendy bar and restaurant. It's completely open air, so our table had a rail, a small hedge, another rail and then a straight drop of more than 600 feet. Not for the acrophobics! It is definitely the most unique and coolest dining experience we've had.

Another thing that made our trip was we found a place with homemade corn tortillas, carnitas, barbacoa, margaritas, the whole bit. It was awesome.
Oh yeah, we saw some temples and stuff, too.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Marine Ball

Every year the Embassy hosts the Marine Ball. It's held to honor the marines and celebrate their anniversary, but it's also a chance to dress up and dance with a 5-course meal and an open bar! John and I went to the Marine Ball in Athens in 2001. However, because September 11th had just happened, they held it at the Ambassador's residence for security reasons. It worked well as Athens is a significantly smaller post than Jakarta. This was much different, as it was held in a big hotel ballroom with a ton of people.

Some friends decided to have a pre-party beforehand, so we were all ready to go by 4:30 in the afternoon! Everybody joked it felt like prom. By the time we left the ball at almost 1:00 in the morning, I decided my feet have never hurt quite that much before.

It's not often you get the chance to see co-workers and friends all dressed up (with real bow ties!) Our friend Alex is the marine in the picture with us. Each marine is posted in Jakarta for just one year, so we've already had to say goodbye to a few.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Welcome to Beijing

After four full days in Shanghai, we hopped on Southern China Air and took the short flight to Beijing. The flight attendants provided endless entertainment for the rest of the trip because even though their announcements were in English and Chinese, it all sounded like Chinese. As a result, our friend Brent spent the rest of the trip giving us his best attempt at recreating the experience.

Our friend Perry had planned to come to Shanghai, but his wife had come down with what they originally thought was chicken pox. When we arrived in Beijing, they still hadn't been able to diagnose what was wrong, so they were keeping her in the hospital. They did a spinal tap so that they could test the fluid for a few possibilities. Over the next several days, the spinal tap continued to leak, so there was nothing supporting her brain! They ended up staying in the hospital for the entire time we were there, so we were worries and it was too bad that we didn't get to hang out. Fortunately, she's recovered.

Beijing was a more tourism oriented time for us. On our first day, we went to one of the less touristy areas of the Great Wall. It was really great because you had to hike up the mountain to get up to the Wall. It was nice to be in cool fresh air. The views were amazing, as was finally getting to see the Wall in person.

You see some really funny signs when you're overseas, but I think those in China top the list so far. Click on the photo and read the instructions for climbing the great wall. The funny thing about our trip to the Great Wall was that after we left, we weren't talking about how we'd just seen one of the wonders of the world or how beautiful the view was. All we could talk about was the tube chute you could ride to get to the bottom of the mountain! (click on the play button if you are so inclined)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Into the Orient

A couple weeks ago, Hillary and I made our first trip to China for some sightseeing and visiting friends who are stationed there. The trip all came about when one of our friends in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia wanted to take advantage of the week long holiday at the end of Ramadhan by visiting the East.

We started our trip in Shanghai where our friend Justin is living. On our first full day there, we went to Shanghai's famous fabric market with stall after stall of fabrics and tailors. Hillary and I both had several dress shirts made for about $11 each (amazing price since these are now the nicest shirts I own). I also had a tux made since we're going to be going to the Marine's Birthday Ball soon and I figured paying $100 to have one made to my specifications was a better deal than renting one for the same price! I also had a suit made for about $70. Not to mention that they had all this ready for us two days later!

We did our fair share of sightseeing, but the trip was also great because we were able to hang out with our friends who we got to know well in DC. Our friend coming from Riyadh provided entertainment as he was trying to make up for lost time in the land of women in burkas, where they are completely covered except for their eyes.

I don't want the post to get too long, so I'll just say that Shanghai is an amazing city. It feels very European in that there are huge sidewalks and people walking everywhere; cafes and stores lining the streets. Very different from Jakarta. I'll also recommend that if you go, the fall is a great time to go. Our friends say that the pollution there is horrendous, but we only had one night in Beijing that was as bad as they say it is most of the year. More to come on the time in Beijing.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Happy Birthday - Indonesian style?

To celebrate John's birthday weekend, we had a party at our apartment on Saturday night. It was a fun time and a lot of people showed up. One great thing about the foreign service is getting to know people from all over the world. Of course there were Indonesians and lots of Americans there, but also Australians, British, Irish and even some Italians. There is a quintetto of 5 Italian women playing violins, viola, cello and piano who are here for a six-month stint performing around Jakarta. Three of them showed up with one of our guests after their show was over, and even played a bit of music for everyone!

The highlight of the night was around midnight, when we tried to celebrate John's birthday, it being Sunday at that point and his actual birthday. However, four things happened at once. I flipped the light switch a couple times and tried to get people to sing Happy Birthday. One of the Indonesian girls came out of the kitchen with a flaming banana(?) One of our guests on the patio wanted to come in and see the festivities, but instead walked straight into our glass patio door which was closed. She was fine, but unfortunately almost everyone saw her do this and started laughing hysterically. While everyone was laughing, John was suddenly doused with water and wine, which some of the Indonesian girls poured on him and completely soaked his hair, face and shirt! Supposedly it's an Indonesian tradition to do that to someone on their birthday. Needless to say he never got his birthday song or even the banana! However, it was one birthday celebration he won't soon forget.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The mildly attractive game

After a great deal of searching, I finally found a team for full field soccer. The league is made up of teams from all over the world, usually dominated by one nationality. The team I found is mostly Brits and Irishmen.

We played our first game on Saturday night under the lights in South Jakarta on one of the widest soccer fields I've ever played on. Our team is decent, but we were up against the team that one every game last year by several goals. Our opposition featured a few ex-professionals, several ex-semi-pros and even one guy who played for Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup. (Pic at left.)

It's a little sad when you say that 6-1 is respectable, but with that kind of opposition, I don't feel too disheartened by the loss.

Monday, September 3, 2007


A friend of ours rented a villa on the island of Lombok for a month, so we went out there for a long weekend with a few other friends. The island is just east of Bali and everyone says it's a lot like Bali used to be before it became a tourist destination.

It's an amazingly beautiful island. We pretty much just hung out the whole time, cooking fish that we'd buy in the markets, relaxing in the pool, or playing bocce ball on the beach. We also made a trip to the south side of the island, which really hasn't had much tourist infrastructure develop, but has amazing beaches. While we were there, we hired a boat to take the six of us out into the bay. If there was anything you could say about the boat, seaworthy would be the right word.

The entire time we were there, we noticed a bar that advertised "Crazy Time" from 9:30-10:00 that included buy one get one free on all drinks. We had talked about going there the entire weekend, but since we were cooking big meals every night, it was hard to make it before 10:00. On our last night we succeeded by setting an alarm clock. We made it to "Crazy Time," and with four drinks in front of each one of us Hillary requested Country Roads by John Denver (a song that is infinitely more famous outside the U.S.). The best part was when the fiddle player asked Hill to play a solo in the middle of the song.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dreams and Quakes

You may have heard about our recent earthquake in the news. On the night of Wednesday, August 8, we went over to our boss' apartment with other coworkers to watch Office Space. At about 10 p.m. we went home and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up and checked my email before going to work and saw an email with the subject "Earthquake" from my parents, which just inquired as to whether or not we were okay. I checked out the news and sure enough there had been a 7.4 magnitude earthquake only 65 miles from Jakarta at around midnight. We slept right through it...

But that's not to say that it didn't affect us. Right after we woke up that morning, Hillary told me about the awful dream she'd had. She dreamed that we were at a dinner party and that through the window we watched the three other towers of our apartment building explode, and ours was next. Her brain definitely knew something weird was going on and somehow worked that into a dream.

At work, we found out that our boss had been evacuated from his apartment and that he said it sounded like the building was falling apart. He ended up sleeping on a coworker's couch since he had no where to go. When he went back the next morning to get dressed, there were new cracks in some of the walls and chunks of plaster on the floor. Luckily, there was no real damage from the earthquake in Jakarta. But hey, now Hillary and I can say we've been through our first earthquake. Plus, it's good to know our building seems sturdy!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Everyone's gotta make a living

Just north of Jakarta, there are hundreds of tiny islands and many of them have small resorts. A couple weekends ago, we decided to go out there for a getaway. To get there, we had to take a large speedboat that had been converted into a ferry for an almost two hour ride. It had rows of seats like an airplane and no air conditioning. That ride sucked.

It was really nice to be out on an island. No pollution and no traffic, and the water was crystal clear. We were able to just relax, read, play scrabble and snorkel.

On our way back on Sunday afternoon our taxi was passing through an area of town not too far from our home when we approached a police check point. When the police saw a car with two white people in it, they made us stop. We were asked for our passports, which we didn't have. John had his drivers license, but I didn't have any ID, as I didn't want to bring my purse to a small resort. Then the shakedown started...

The cop asked John if he would step into his "office." We were on the side of the street and the only things around were little shops and stalls. When he got out of the car, the guy started to explain how his commander couldn't just let us go. John told him where we worked, but he still kept rambling on about how his commander needed "something", which translates of course as a good bit of money. John finally asked how much. We weren't going to try and pay off a cop, but we were curious to know how much it would have cost us...

After calling the embassy's security staff, I think the cops realized that they weren't going to have much success with us. They finally just let us go. An interesting experience. Oh, and the government here issues embassy employees a local ID card so you don't have to carry your passport with you, but it takes about three to six months after arriving here to get your card. From then on we have been carrying a photocopy of our passports with us!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A gentlemen's pub crawl

Oh my. Where to begin?

Last Saturday some friends had arranged a guys only pub crawl. Seven of us met at a restaurant at one of the older malls in South Jakarta where the party began by ordering a round of Indonesia's domestic beer, Bintang. Our waitress didn't quite understand why we only wanted to order one beer each and then leave. One bar sold out of beer when we ordered 7.

On our walk to the next bar, the cap tikus came out. Cap tikus means rat brand. When I googled it, I found this quote from an Aggie anthropologist living on the island of Sulawesi (where cap tikus is made). Cap tikus is a "harsh moonshine sort of fluid that grabs the palette by the uvula. People drink cap tikus here but also use it to prime their chainsaw motors." I would say it tastes something like bad tequila mixed with lime and turpentine.

We made our way from place to place, five beers and a quarter bottle of cap tikus down, finally arriving at the place where we decided to eat. At that point, I sent Hunter a short text message that really got to the point, "WTF?" It worked; 30 minutes later he showed up.

After a round of bowling and a few more Bintangs, we stopped for a drink at Aphrodite, a trendy restaurant at a building that happened to be hosting a wedding. Luckily, we didn't come off too much like jack-ass Westerners...I think.

From there it was time to test fate. We knew the roads would be jammed all around the stadium, so the only option was to take ojeks - motorcycle taxis. I certainly won't make a habit of riding them because I value my life, but it was definitely exhilarating to zip through traffic at nighttime.

We entered the stadium and headed for the upper decks where we watched the game with 80,000 of our closest friends. Our assigned seats had long since vanished, so we spread out amongst the crowd and passed the cap tikus back and forth in the plastic sack that they made us pour it into. Indonesia lost in a heart breaker when Saudi Arabia scored the winning goal in stoppage time.

After waiting for traffic to die at an expat bar near the stadium, we went to Blok M, an area with a strip of bars popular with expat men and scantily clad local girls apparently making a living off the men. Our group stuck out like a sore thumb as we were all still wearing identical Indonesia soccer jerseys. It was a good time, and our apologies to the Canadians for soiling their reputation by claiming their fine country as our own whenever asked.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Bagus, Bule

I just returned from a little cultural immersion through one of my favorite activities. There is a park near our apartment where I've often seen people playing soccer, so today I decided I'd walk down there and see if I could join in.

When I say park, it's not really what you might think. It's basically a big slab of concrete where they've erected a volleyball net, a basketball court and two futsal courts. Futsal is a game that's like soccer, but a little different. It's played on a court that's about the size of a basketball court and it has small goals. The ball is also smaller and heavier.

When I arrived, I immediately started gathering stares. Eventually some kids came over and we talked for a little bit. They asked me about soccer in the U.S., where I lived, how I got to work, etc... Then they let me play with their team. They said they were all 15, but I was still a good head taller than them (but then again I do have towering height). The team we played against was a little older, so some of them were almost as tall as me.

It was a lot of fun, and it felt like I was getting to know the people a little more, which was really nice. Our team won, and everyone was high-fiving and celebrating after the game. One kid wanted to do the sort of handshake/handslapping that I guess he's seen on t.v., so I showed him how. I'm sure he'll try and teach it to everyone else. As I grabbed my bag, one of the kids on the other team to me said, "bagus, bule." (Translation: Nice job, white guy)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Indonesians do Tex-Mex

Yesterday we were craving Tex-Mex and we knew there was a restaurant a good ways away from us called Amigos. So we made a few other excuses to fight traffic to go to that area of town, and we went to get our fix.

It was about what we expected Indonesian Tex-Mex to taste like. We ordered two margaritas, chile con queso, a chimichanga and chicken enchiladas. The margaritas definitely left something to be desired. The queso was decent enough, as was the salsa. The chimichanga was actually pretty good. The enchiladas were topped with a green sauce, but something about them tasted distinctly Indonesian.

Oh, Austin, how we miss you sometimes...

Monday, June 25, 2007

Extreme Bocce

This past weekend, a friend of ours who works at the embassy invited us to this retreat that the embassy owns up in the mountains south of Jakarta. The area's only 55 miles away, so tons of people from Jakarta go up there on the weekends to get away from the city and enjoy the cooler weather. The only bad side is that because so many people go up there, it took 3 hours to get there and then 3 hours back.

It's a really cool place with immaculately manicured lawns, a frigid swimming pool and two houses. Eleven of us went up there on Saturday morning and spent two days playing bocce ball, croquet, board games, etc. It was really fun to get to meet and hang out with some other people our age who don't work at the embassy.

It's a little hard to describe why it's such a great place until you live in a city like Jakarta where there's no green space, no clean air, and no peace and quiet. We've only been here a few weeks, but it felt so nice to be in a place where you really felt like you could relax.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

And then it rained...

During our first two weeks in Jakarta, we didn't see a drop of rain. It's the dry season right now, but we were still really surprised. But our luck could only hold out so long...

Yesterday while we were still at work, we had a downpour for about an hour. It was 2:30 p.m., but it looked almost like night time it was so dark. It wasn't the hardest rain I've ever seen, but it was up there. And then after about an hour, it pretty much stopped.

A little while later, an email came out saying that there had been flooding in various parts of the city and that we should plan for a longer commute. So far, our thoughts on traffic had been that people make it out to be a lot worse than it is. Of course, we're only a mile or two from the embassy, so we have a short commute. Don't get me wrong, traffic is always bad. There are no lanes in the roads and even if there were, I doubt anyone would pay attention.

But yesterday with the rain, traffic was bad...really bad. To go the mile or so that we live from the embassy took about 35 minutes. We could have walked faster (not that you can really walk here). The rainy season is going to be interesting!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How did we ever survive before?

Following pretty much everybody we know here, we hired a woman to work in our home last Thursday. She cleans, does all our laundry and ironing, shops and does some cooking for us. In Indonesia, almost everyone who is middle-class or above has domestic help. We found Ibu Tati because she worked for another embassy employee who recently departed Jakarta.

While we pay Tati quite a bit more than the normal salary, it is just a fraction of what you would pay for help in the States. No doubt we are feeding her entire extended family and then some.

It's so nice to come home from work and have all our clothes folded and put away, the apartment immaculately clean, and a stocked fridge. It really makes us wonder how we'll ever survive once we leave...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Long Awaited Conclusion

As I said before, I tried to finish telling the story about our trip to Indonesia last spring when we stayed with families and traveled all over Java and Bali with our teachers. I'm going to try and finish it now, so bear with me for jumping around in time.

As I mentioned before, the family we stayed with in Bali was incredibly generous and nice. But in some ways, that was the problem too. We began to feel a little smothered because they didn't want to let us take a taxi anywhere, and because we were in the center of the island we couldn't walk anywhere. On the day I was recovering from my durian experience, Hillary and I decided that we needed a change of address for our last few days in Bali. We decided we wanted to be by the beach, so we looked in our guide book and found a couple cheap hotels that we could stay in for $30 a night. But before we moved over to the cheap hotel, we decided to call Stan, who we'd met in Bandung, because he said that he was a part owner in a nice hotel in Bali and could get us a good rate.

When I called Stan, he said he'd see what he could do to find us a cheap room. He called me back and told me that he didn't want us to stay at the hotel because they'd have to charge us. However, a house that he owned with a friend was vacant. He gave me the number of the driver who he keeps employed year round and told me that he was happy to help. I told him he was far too generous, but I knew we'd insult him if we turned his offer down. We told the family we'd been staying with of our plans. They were a little hurt I think, but they insisted on driving us over to our new digs...

The place was incredible! It had five huge bedrooms, three set on one side of the pool and two set on the other. Each bedroom had an outdoor bathroom with either a big bathtub or a nice shower. The pool had a waterfall cascading into it and there were two huge covered patios with couches. On one of the patios, there was a full size kitchen and dining table. There were also two beautiful birds in cages that repeated Indonesian phrases!

We spent four days at the place, which was a short walk from the beach and several restaurants. There was also a salon across the street where you could get...... you guessed it, a massage for $5. It was definitely a nice place to spend our first anniversary.

On our last night there, the family we'd stayed with the first four days picked us up and took us to a chinese restaurant we'd eaten at previously with them. They gave us some very nice jewelry that they said they'd had specially made, as they own a jewelry shop. For me she had a bracelet with waves on it to commemorate my surfing experience. I think it represented the entire trip, because like a wave, there were peaks and troughs.

If you want to see other photos from the trip that didn't make it onto the blog, click here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fantasy World

On Saturday, Hillary and I were invited by a group of the Indonesians who work in our office to join them for a day at Indonesia's amusement park, Dunia Fantasi, in North Jakarta. It was a really fun time getting to hang out with them and great for getting to know them better since we'll work with them everyday. They're a pretty entertaining group of mostly 20 something year olds with a few more seasoned veterans thrown in to oversee the mix.

It was pretty funny to see some of the rides they had set up. It seemed like most of them were recycled from other countries. That definitely made it a little more nervewracking to hop on a roller coaster. On one of the rides that was a swinging boat, we sat down in front of a plaque that said the ride was built in West Germany. I suppose it's better than it having been built in East Germany or Russia, but still alarming since W. Germany hasn't been around since the 80's. We survived though, so all in all, a good day.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

A new home on the other side of the world

There may have been some confusion about the blog, but I'll try and clear it up. For the last 3 months, I've been writing about the trip that Hillary and I took to Indonesia for 3 weeks in March. I had hoped to finish telling that story before we left for our real move to Indonesia, but I took too long. There are only a few posts left to finish that tale, but I wanted to get this thing current for once.

We arrived in Jakarta on Wednesday morning to begin our two year assignment here. After flying from Washington to San Francisco to Tokyo to Singapore, we finally made it. We spent about 22 hours actually flying, not including layovers. Just a hop, skip and a jump away, right?

We started moving into our apartment, a 3 bedroom/ 2 bath apartment on the 14th floor of a luxury apartment building in central Jakarta. The view is great when not obscured by smog. I'm going to break protocol, and post this without Hillary editing it first, so my apologies if it's rambling, but I wanted to let everyone know that we made it here safely. The adventure is just beginning...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The evil that is durian

In Southeast Asia there's a famous fruit named durian. It is a large spiky fruit about the size of a football and it has a terrible smell. We had learned about it in language class, and our teacher always encouraged us to try it when we moved to Indonesia.

The afternoon after we had tried our luck at surfing, Hillary was taken off to a spa by our hostess and Hunter and I returned to their house. While we were hanging out, they offered us some fruit and they asked if we wanted to try durian. We decided that our teacher would appreciate it and it'd be a good cultural experience if we gave it a try. It tastes as bad as it smells!

We only ate a few small pieces of it, but we felt like we'd given it a fair chance. Later, Hillary came back from the spa with a few beers our hostess had bought for us. She gave one to me, which I drank before we went down for dinner. At dinner, Hillary also was talked into trying durian.

Later that night, all hell broke loose in my body. I won't get into the details, but I was incredibly sick. We assumed it must have been a bad beer or something like that the next day because no one else was sick and we'd all eaten the same food. I spent the day recovering. Two days later, Hillary went through the same thing!

We've come to the conclusion that the durian is to blame. We've read all sorts of accounts of how durian mixes with alcohol to cause a chemical reaction that makes you really sick. I got sick that first night because I had a beer after eating durian, but Hillary had her beer an hour or so before she ate durian. The night she got sick, we had gone out to dinner and had a few drinks, so it was the first alcohol she'd had since eating durian. Bottom line. It's an evil fruit!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Massage gone wrong

You've read so far that massages vary by style depending on where you are in the country and how westernized the place is. Our host in Bali, Pak Wayan, called the guy who he normally has do his massages for us. The massage was great, but he used some sort of tool, dragging it down my back. Hunter had the same experience. It didn't hurt at all, and I didn't even know there was something wrong until Hillary saw my back. She thought something was seriously wrong at first, but it was similar to a blood blister and went away the next day.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Surfing, a relaxing sport

That's not either of us in the photo...but it could have been. That is, if we could stand up on the board and ride a wave. Surfing is really hard.

After dropping the rest of our party at the airport to head back to the states, Hunter, Hillary and I went with the daughter of the family we were staying with to Kuta beach, a popular tourist beach. There were Australians everywhere trying to learn to surf. Most of them were just as bad as us.

We rented surfboards from some random guys for 10 bucks for 3 hours. It was a good time - except for the general soreness of fighting the waves while holding a 6 foot long buoy and Hillary getting smacked in the head by my surfboard. There was also the worrisome moment when one of the fins on Hillary's board broke by slamming into her, but luckily it was cheap to fix and didn't set us back too much extra.

We'll try it again someday, but next time, it will probably be a good idea to take some lessons...

Welcome to Bali

There are some places that everyone has heard of, regardless of their ability to locate them on a map. I would say that Bali is one of those.

It's a pretty amazing place that's full of great culture, kind and friendly people, and some beautiful beaches and mountains. Everywhere you turn in Bali, you see Hindu statues. They're in front of every business and house and they always have offerings to the god laid out before them.

We were met at the airport by a couple who were the parents of an Indonesian college student who our teacher knew through his church here in DC. The kid had contacted his parents, and being the generous people that they are, they brought us back to their place where we stayed in their really nice guest rooms free of charge. The only bad part about this was that the house was close to the middle of the island, which isn't near any beaches or restaurants.

The next day, they took us to one of the many large temples on Bali. There was a mix of tourists and natives who come to pray and everyone must wear a sarong to enter. When you leave the temple, Balinese and tourists are forced to walk a seemingly never-ending gauntlet of shops with storekeepers trying to sell you souvenirs. The tourism industry was really devastated after the bombings, so anytime they see a Westerner, they try very hard to get your business.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Another day, another volcano

Since traipsing around on one volcano didn't satisfy us, we drove a few hours south of Surabaya to Gunung Bromo, another of Indonesia's active volcanoes. It last erupted in 2004. It's one of the most famous places in East Java, so our teacher thought it would be an interesting place to go.

The plan was to spend the night at a hotel near the mountain, wake up really early and take a 4-wheel drive jeep up a nearby mountain to watch the sunrise. It was really nice to stay in a hotel and just walk to the restaurant for dinner, where we were able to relax and have a couple Bintang beers.

It was a short night since we had to wake up at 4 a.m. There had been some rain during the night and fog had rolled in, so our teacher, his wife and one of the students backed out of the trek up the mountain. Hunter, Caryn, Hillary and I decided that we would make the trek regardless and hope the fog would lift before sunrise.

The trip up the mountain also turned out to be more adventurous than expected. There had been a landslide on the road, and even the jeeps couldn't cross it. We decided to traverse it on foot and walk the rest of the way to the top. The fog was so thick, we could barely see each other, much less any bit of a sunrise!

After we left the peak, we drove to the base of Gunung Bromo, where we had to hike up a trail before reaching 245 steep steps that led to the brim of the volcano. The entire way up to the steps, we were harassed by Indonesians who wanted you to pay to ride their horse.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Every traveler has one

We set out the next morning for the airport to fly across the island to East Java, since it would have been a 17 hour train ride. We left one of our teachers behind because he had some personal matters to attend to.

We were taken on a brief tour of Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, and it was lunch time. Our teacher's wife had joined us for the rest of the trip when we arrived there, and his sister who lived in Surabaya was giving us the tour. It was lunchtime and they suggested Chinese or Indonesian food. After twelve days of little other than those two choices, the thought of more was not appealing.

So, where else does a traveler go when they're having one of those rough days? We had our McDonald's moment. And it was sooooo good. It's a funny thing about McDonald's: so many of us hardly ever eat there in the States, but when you're overseas and you need a little comfort, it's the place to go.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Who's the cowboy?

The guy standing with me in the picture above was our host while we stayed in Bandung. He had a business making shoes, but he specialized in making cowboy boots. Unfortunately, I never got to check out his handiwork.

So, on Saturday, we went over to Stan's house for lunch with entourage in tow, me in Indonesian wear and Pak Achus dressed as a cowboy. Stan had prepared an incredible spread of food, ranging from salmon to lamb, and he grilled it all himself. The avocados never materialized. He said they were still too ripe. We spent several hours there, speaking English with Stan without even feeling slightly guilty about it. He opened a few bottles of very nice wine for us, we stuffed ourselves and had a great afternoon.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A meat free diet?

Everyone's heard the saying about how you don't want to see how sausage is made. While I'm sure that's extremely true for sausage, we learned it to be true for tofu after visiting a local factory.

I can't describe the process, because I don't know how it's made. I do know that this factory was open-air and looked less than hygienic. After being formed in bamboo trays, it's taken out to float in these big vats of water.

On the bright side, the factory owner told us that the best soy beans in the world come from the good ol' U.S. of A.

Sulfur, very aromatic

The next day we took a short drive to one of Indonesia's 130 active volcanoes, Tangkuban Perahu. Since it hasn't erupted since 1983, it was clearly a safe place to walk around.... It was our first experience being really close to an active volcano and the smell of sulfur was really intense. It was also exceptionally warm. The area where we walked was on the side of the main volcano where it had an opening that heated the ground and caused the water to boil. It's a large tourist attraction, and there were vendors who sold eggs that you could hard boil in one of the pools. We said no thanks.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Stan the Man

We were invited to visit the studio of Sunaryo, a famous artist in Bandung. He had a gallery on one of the hills overlooking Bandung, and after showing us around and explaining some of his art to us, we were treated to some dinner and a dance performance. After the show, we were invited over by a guy who had randomly shown up because he lived next door, and he offered to show us his house that Sunaryo had designed.

The guy who invited us over was named Stan. He was an Indonesian who had moved to the U.S. a long time ago after his wife was diagnosed with cancer so she could be treated at M.D. Anderson in Houston. They had ended up staying in the U.S. for around 30 years and after driving cabs in NYC for awhile, eventually became very successful. He and his wife had recently moved back to Indonesia after they had hired 600 workers to build their house as fast as possible.

The house was one of the nicest houses we've ever seen. It was so architecturally unique and had an amazing view. He was even in the process of having photos made of it for use in a book. He also traveled around Indonesia a lot and when he found a traditional house he liked, he would buy it and move it to his home to put outside as a guest house! (The picture shows one of them.)

We hung out at his house for awhile talking and had a couple beers (our first alcohol since arriving in Indonesia). At one point, he mentioned that he grows great avocados, and someone in our group mentioned how much they'd love to try one, so he invited us back for lunch that coming Saturday.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Interaction with Indonesians, what a novel idea

One of the really nice things about our time in Bandung was that on our first night there, they gave us the entire schedule and asked us for our feedback. We cut out all of the meetings with officials we didn't feel like we'd get much use out of. What we really wanted were opportunities to interact with Indonesians, so one of our young hostesses offered to take us to her private university, Parahyangan Catholic University.

She had set up a meeting with students who were members of the International Affairs student group, so they were pretty interested in talking to us. We spent a couple hours there speaking with them one-on-one, which was awesome, and we all got a tour of the campus. While we were in the library, the students told us there was a book explaining that Hitler had moved to Indonesia after World War II! However, it was checked out, so we weren't able to peruse it. Too bad...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ahhh, massage

So in case I didn't emphasize it enough in the previous post, the availability of cheap massage is a very nice thing about Indonesia. After our somewhat tumultuous experience in Bogor, we felt we were entitled to a relaxing day off. After class in the morning, we went and explored one of the shopping districts, then ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant in a nice outdoor mall.

Following that, everyone was ready to make a visit to a spa we had passed earlier that morning. This place was definitely upscale when we walked in, so we were a little afraid that it was going to be expensive. It was more expensive, but I'd still say that $7 for an hour-long massage is pretty damn nice. An extra buck-fifty for a private V.I.P. room isn't too bad either. I also was talked into a manicure and a pedicure by Hillary since it was so cheap. Won't be doing that again, but the massage will definitely be part of normal life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Hello Bandung

Our next destination was the city of Bandung, a metropolis set in the heart of West Java with a more laid back atmosphere and cooler temperatures. We made a relatively uneventful cross of the mountain passes to get to our destination shortly after nightfall.

Bandung is the closest thing we came across in Indonesia to a college town. There are several state-run and private universities, so the population that we encountered was much younger and more educated.

In general, we stayed with families that were more well-off than those that we stayed with in Bogor. Our friend, Hunter, was incredibly happy because he was treated to running water for the first time since leaving Jakarta. Unfortunately, Hill and I didn't have that luxury despite staying in a nice house with the amazing garden to the left.

After hanging out at the house that was used as our gathering point and getting to know our hosts, everyone eventually headed off to their respective houses and we called it a night.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Goodbye Bogor

It was our last day...finally. We said our goodbyes at the house. Gave the family a photo book of Washington that we had brought as a gift. One of the daughters around our age gave Hillary a blue jean jacket and a gaudy pink purse, which was very nice. (The gesture, not the purse.) We were feeling really horrible that the only gift we had for them was a little crappy book about Washington after they had let us stay in their home and eat their food for four nights. After saying our goodbyes, the students gathered for our final class session.

That's when we found out we were paying $25 a day per person to stay at these family's homes. Since we were sharing a room, $50 a day is actually steep compared to the $10 or $15 you would pay per night in a small hotel. To add insult to injury, we also ended up buying lunch every day for us AND our entourage.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A new look for formal events

We had been invited to a party for our last night in Bogor and the hostess offered to dress the women up in traditional Sundanese style. Because they were told that would take awhile, the women went directly from the village outside Bogor over to the woman's house. I went back to the house where we'd been gathering most of the time for the birthday party of one of our other hosts.

The birthday party was an interesting experience because it was very formal, including speeches and recitations of the Koran. The tradition includes the one celebrating the birthday having to prepare a plate first for the oldest person there and then second for whatever honored guest was present. Guess who was named the honored guest...

After getting ready for the party, my host parents and I made the trek across Bogor to where the party was being held. Unfortunately, I missed the karaoke session that happened while the women were waiting on everyone else to show up, but the actual production was very elaborate and entertaining. At the end, we were asked to make speeches, dragged onto the stage to dance with the performers, and had to pose for at least 20 photos.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kampung, that means village

On our last full day in Bogor, we were told we were going to a traditional Sundanese village where they put on displays of Sundanese culture including dance and music. We thought, "Cool, this will be kinda touristy, but there's nothing wrong with that." The village turned out to be a modern Indonesian village that was in no way touristy. We were taken to the house of the head of the village's cultural group (let's just call him the chief) and saw young girls dance to Sundanese music and men dance with musical instruments made of dried rice plants, which was pretty fun.

After the performance, we went inside the chief's house for lunch, a nice spread that fed 30 or so. At some point the chief mentioned that the main industry of the village was shoemaking, and he offered to take us to one of the factories. We thought that would be cool, so we piled in the cars and drove off to one of the shoe factories, which was not much more than a small open air room with a couple machines for cutting leather.

It turned out that the shoe factory was very close to the fountain of youth, so apparently we COULD NOT pass up the opportunity. After seeing the hole in the ground and splashing a little water on our faces, we started walking back, at which point we were immediately assaulted with the type of downpour that we had heard described, but not yet experienced. We stopped at the very modest house of one of our guides to sit out the hardest part of the rain. Literally, we sat on his floor for an hour! By that point, we were late for a party, so we decided to brave the rest of the rain and get back to the cars.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

You're on the sing

One of the unique challenges for even a laid back American in Indonesia is that very little is planned, and that which is planned, you're not told about. We had heard since our first day that we were invited to a radio broadcast at the local outlet of the national radio station. We were told that the broadcast might be distributed all over Indonesia, to which we said, "No thanks!"

We eventually agreed to go to the radio station after we were promised that we wouldn't be interviewed. We expected what you would probably expect. You're in a sound room; someone is sitting on the other side of the glass wearing headphones and talking into a microphone. What we found when we arrived, was a big room packed with people sitting on carpets and musicians in the front.

We took seats in the front and the broadcast audience was immediately told that the diplomats had arrived. The broadcast turned out to be a Sundanese sing along, featuring one of our instructors who was apparently a minor local celebrity.

The songs and speaking were all in Sundanese, a language similar to the national language, but not similar enough for us to understand a word of it....

The sing along ended when we were asked to lead the group in a song. We had learned one song the previous night, and with no other options, all of western Java got to listen to us sing "Halo Bandung".

Monday, April 2, 2007

Bamboo and massage

On our third day in Bogor, we were scheduled to check out some bamboo handicrafts in the morning and a local type of massage specialty that afternoon. We arrived at the bamboo place after having class with our teachers for a little bit.

We were greeted by a little man who had apparently dedicated his life to all things bamboo. He went on to explain to us how bamboo is a great material for building houses, furniture and anything else. We saw some of the workers who were making baskets and furniture out of bamboo and we asked one of them how many small baskets he made per day. He said two or three. The bamboo man had previously told us that those small baskets would sell for about a dollar. It's a little shocking when you realize that if the sales off the baskets only total a few dollars a day, the worker making them really can't make much to support the wife and two kids he said he had.

After a boxed lunch of rice and a little piece of meat, we were told that the bamboo place was also where we were going to learn about the local style of massage. We weren't told anything about what made the massage style unique, but we all were massaged/tortured. I really think these guys tried to see how much pain they could cause before you'd have to say something. Good times...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Texas A&M of Indonesia

Our after lunch agenda brought us to the opposite side of Bogor, an hour long endeavor with the traffic and pothole filled roads. Our destination was the Agricultural Institute of Indonesia, the national university that specializes in subjects ranging from animal husbandry to math.

We initially met with the vice rector of the university where he discussed exciting topics such as the university's involvement in advancing agricultural research in Indonesia...I think. Our discussion was in Indonesian using a specialized area of vocabulary that we really didn't have. Lots of smiling and nodding.

After our meeting with the vice rector, we were given a tour of the campus by three students, which was a much better experience since we were able to talk one on one with them. Most Indonesian college students understand English, but they don't really feel comfortable speaking it.

Afterwards, we had to make the trek to the other side of town, which had now grown to take an hour and a half. Nothing happens quickly in Indonesia.

Eating, Sundanese Style

After our trip to the palace, we were whisked away to eat lunch at a Sundanese restaurant. With entourage in tow, we sat down for lunch and our hosts ordered a massive spread. We sat on the floor in a nice outdoor restaurant with a little pond in the middle and ate our fill of Sundanese food, since we weren't yet sick of it, having only eaten it four meals in a row at that point.

When we were finished, we asked about the bill and one of our hosts said that she had taken care of it. We thanked her for her generosity. More on this later...

Monday, March 26, 2007

Hanging out in Sukarno's digs

On our second day in Bogor, we were taken to the presidential palace that was built by the Dutch and had more recently been used as the weekend home of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president. Indonesia's meetings with President Bush during his state visit last fall were also held at the palace.

We were lucky to get a tour of the palace. I believe it's supposed to be open to public tours, but I think those tours are hard to get and limited in what you see. Because of this, I think our families and the entourage that we developed there took advantage of the opportunity.

The tour guide spoke entirely in Indonesian, but we were able to get quite a bit out of it. We were able to see the room in which Kim Jong Il slept during his state visit, as well as Sukarno's art collection full of women in various stages of undress. My favorite part of the tour was when we all took a moment at the podium to do our best Suharto impression.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Reflexology massage, aka torture

One of the great things about Indonesia is that massage is a regular part of life for most Indonesians. It is also ridiculously cheap by American standards. An hour costs anywhere from $3.50 to $10 depending on how nice of a place you go to.

On our first night in Bogor, our host dad took us to a little hole-in-the-wall massage place near their home. Hillary, our host dad, and I all got close to a two-hour massage for a little over $4. The only bad thing about this was that the massage was reflexology massage. You would never know it looking at these little Indonesians, but they pack some strength in their hands. Because reflexology is the practice of stimulating the feet to cause a beneficial effect on linked parts of the body, they focus a lot on the feet. They caused me pain in areas of my feet that I didn't realize could feel pain.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Meeting our families

One aspect of this trip that really made it an immersion was that we stayed with Indonesian families. After our meeting with the mayor, we went to one of the homes so that we could meet our families. Hillary and I stayed with the family of a retired Brigadier General with the Indonesian national police force who had a huge house in one of the nicest neighborhoods of Bogor. They were certainly rich by Indonesian standards.

One of the interesting things about Indonesia is that regardless of a family's apparent wealth, they still don't have some of the luxuries that regular American families are accustomed to, like showers, sinks, and air conditioning. The other BIG disappointment with the physical conditions of our housing in Bogor was its location. Our room was located 20 feet from a very busy road and because we didn't have air conditioning, we had to sleep with the windows open. Even with the windows open, it's still freaking hot in Indonesia. The road always had traffic, but one of the weird things about it was that every morning at 5 a.m., a steady stream of loud motorcycles would zoom by for at least a half hour. There was also the call to prayer to look forward to at 4:30 every morning. After the first night, we were given a fan, which helped some.

Even though the father of the family we stayed with had been a relatively senior official in the Indonesian government, he didn't really speak English. Even the daughters who were around our age didn't speak any English. There were definitely many times where our vocabulary failed us and we had to move on to another subject, which made for some awkward moments. They were a nice family, so we were pretty lucky.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sink or Swim

The morning we met in Jakarta, we were told we had a meeting at noon with the mayor of Bogor, and not much time to get there. I had planned to buy a batik shirt (formal Indonesian dress for men) before our first meeting, but since this was sprung on us on very short notice, I had to borrow the shirt literally off my teacher's back.

When we arrived at the city administration building of Bogor, we were taken into the entrance hall, which had chairs arranged for approximately fifty people. Red flag #1. We were seated at the front next to the mayor's chair. A moment later, a stream of people, including the press, started flooding into the room.

After some sort of formal speeches read by one of the mayor's staff, we introduced ourselves. The mayor made a few comments that we couldn't really understand, but so far, so good. Then our teacher blindsides us with, "Do you have any questions for the mayor or the other officials?" . . . crickets chirping . . . then someone thinks to ask, "Can you tell us about the history of Bogor?" Brilliant stall question!

We were all able to ask a question or two, not that we fully understood the answers, but we survived. Apparently we were a big story in Bogor, because our visit made at least five front page stories in the local newspapers. Some of the highlights included Hillary getting a Swedish last name and being listed as the future Consul General of Surabaya, the country's second largest city.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The City of Rain

The first stop of our trip was Bogor, a city about an hour south of Jakarta that was the capital of Indonesia for much of the dutch period of rule. People in Jakarta regularly take day trips to get away from the city, so we expected a nice relaxing little town. What we got felt more like an elbow to the gut...

Bogor is a hectic, crowded, dirty, noisy city with bad roads and the traffic to match. It does have botanical gardens on the grounds of the palace, so I suppose there is more green space than in Jakarta. Our visit here was a memorable part of the trip, so I'll make several posts rather than having one long one.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Selamat Datang!

We arrived in Jakarta on Wednesday, February 21.

Those of you who visit will see how as soon as you clear customs, you're immediately assaulted by a mob of taxi cab drivers. Unfortunately for all the guys just trying to make a living, there's only one reputable cab company in Jakarta, so you just say no thanks and barrel your way through.

It's only a 45 minute cab ride from the airport to the city center on a good day. Our driver got us there in under an hour and a half. Luckily, in Indonesia a cab ride that long still only costs about $15.

We spent the night with friends in Jakarta, and other than a quick visit to the embassy, we immediately got out of town.

In to Eefrow Airport

When you're flying to the other side of the world, it doesn't matter too much which direction you take to round the globe. We decided to go East and take a pit stop in London.

One of the benefits of life in the Foreign Service is that you end up with friends spread out all over the world who have spare bedrooms. Luckily, our friend, Melissa, was assigned to London and was willing to offer her bunk beds in her spare bedroom to us for a night.

It was my first trip to London, and the only memorable events other than Hillary being able to order a "proper Guiness", was our attempt to check out Buckingham Palace.

As we approached the palace, the police started urgently ushering tourists and locals away. As we crossed the field on our way back towards the Tube, we heard a loud explosion. Apparently, the police had blown up a "suspect package" that had been left a little too close to the queen.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

First ever blog post

Hello all!

This is my first attempt at creating a blog. Initially, I want to use this to try and tell the story of our most recent trip to Indonesia. I think this will allow us to tell you what happened in a more interactive way than email, since we should be able to incorporate photos.

I imagine in the future, Hillary and I will use this to keep you updated on our life, wherever we may be.

We hope you enjoy, and please stay in touch.