Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Indonesian Minivan

Sometimes I think one of the biggest limiting factors to even more rapid population growth here is the size of a motorcycle. When you consider that you can buy a small motorcycle for around $700 and it only costs a couple bucks to fill up, it's the obvious transportation option for a family of limited income. But you don't want to have more kids than you can bring with you on your bike or you'll run into other problems. We see four on a bike everyday; we've yet to see more than five. One kid in front of the dad and two squeezed in between him and the mom. A motorcycle really is the Indonesian equivalent of the Minivan.

You see all kinds of crazy transportation here. During rush hour, we can see people riding on top of the train that goes near our apartment. I can't blame them too much since the alternative is being packed like sardines.

You also see amazing innovation for moving the goods that you're trying to sell. There's the boy who rides in front of the embassy with teapots tied to the back of his bicycle to the guy who attaches a massive amount of freshly cut rice to the back of his bike.

And then there's this guy:

Monday, December 15, 2008

44 turns

We ended our trip in Sumatra with a vacation for a few days in Bukittinggi, which is a cute semi-resort town way up in the mountains in northern Sumatra. The town is small enough that we could walk most of it, although we rented a motorbike to get around. We finally felt like Indonesians zipping through the streets. Although, compared to them we were very tame on the bike, with good reason. Sometimes I really think they are just asking to get hurt!

The first picture is the mayor's house which we could see from our hotel balcony. Many of the buildings in this area of Sumatra have roofs which are styled this way, after water-buffalo horns.
We took our motorbike about an hour to the west to reach a volcanic crater lake, which was absolutely gorgeous. Here was the view from the top of the crater: Then, to get down to the lake, it was a series of 44 hairpin curves. There was a sign at each curve that told you which number you were at, so you knew how many turns were left to get to the bottom (or the top). There were a ton of random monkeys along these curves; they liked to sit on the guardrail posts, or play in the middle of the road - only getting out of the way at the very last second! Here is a typical scene by the lake, with a guy working the rice paddies. We also saw a local with a monkey on a chain, who he "employs" to climb up trees and get the best coconuts. I never knew people did that until I saw it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Lost In Translation 2

If you have seen "Lost in Translation", then I don't even need to explain this picture of one of the TV interviews John did. You can just imagine for yourself....

Thursday, December 4, 2008

102.7 FM

Our next stop was the city of Palembang, only 11 short hours away by night train. Of course, over here we can afford the "executive class" train seats - the best of the best. Well, the best of the rest anyway. Really, the cockroaches didn't bother us too much - we made sure to put our socks on before trying to sleep. The broken windows? We came prepared with ear plugs! It was basically like coach class on a plane, except for the constant stopping.....and starting.....and stopping.... and starting the whole ride due to mud on the tracks! Needless to say 11 hours on a plane actually sounded nice after that trip!

We did a radio interview to get the word out in Palembang about the Diversity Visa program. While John did most of the interview, the radio host kept asking me questions on-air, so I got to be on the radio speaking Indonesian as well!

After the show we did the requisite photos with all the radio station staff, which involved every possible combination of people and poses, with each person's camera, cell-phone camera, etc. That can sometimes take awhile......

Monday, December 1, 2008

TV star?

John recently had to do a whirlwind work tour around the island of Sumatra. I decided to go with him on the trip so we could explore together. The main purpose of the trip was to get the word out to the public on the Diversity Visa Lottery. The Diversity Visa is an annual lottery through which nationals of countries which the U.S. considers to be under-represented through other immigration channels can apply for an immigrant visa (legal permanent residence) in the U.S. We covered five cities in one week, so needless to say we were busy.

The majority of Indonesians don't know about or don't understand how the program works. John did TV and radio interviews, as well as meetings with governors and university students to spread the word. One very important thing he wanted to get across is that it is free to apply for the chance to win a green card. For most Indonesians, the opportunity to live and work in the US would give them a much better standard of living that what they have in Indonesia. That said, not everyone is interested in that chance.

The first city we stopped in was Bandarlampung, which is on the southern end of Sumatra. One of the things he had to do that day was go to a TV station and do a talk show interview. The TV station was quite far up in the mountains, but the further away from the city we got the more we wondered what the station would be like. Finally, we turned up a dirt road and came upon it:

John did a great job as the whole interview was in Indonesian. Here are some pics of John and the host of the show, along with the camera guys.
Afterward, he was interviewed quite a bit more outside. Everyone wanted to get him on camera and have him speak about the program, and we know the information reached a lot of people this way.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mom and Dad - World Travelers

My mom and dad recently made the long trip to Indonesia to visit. They flew the twenty something hours in coach, and then had to wait two hours in line at immigration in Bali with all the other tourists. And the Indonesians sometimes wonder why more tourists don't come here...

After that, we had a great and relaxing time. We went to the beautiful islands of Bali and Lombok and stayed in awesome private villas. We spent our days relaxing by the pool or beach, taking naps, eating and doing some limited sightseeing.

My dad and I played Nirwana Golf Course in Bali, which is one of the top rated courses in all of Asia. It was a beautiful course, but it kicked our butts. We had caddies who would do a good job fetching our stray balls, but we still lost around a dozen.

After Lombok, we brought my parents to the Big Durian, Jakarta, to show them what life is normally like for us. It's not all fun and games here as my dad realized when he got a cough from all the pollution we deal with on a daily basis. They really enjoyed getting to see where we lived and to see what Indonesia is like. Without a doubt, it was the trip of a lifetime for them and I know they're not too disappointed that Lisbon is significantly closer to home.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Marine Ball

We attended our second Marine Ball in Jakarta last night, celebrating their 233rd birthday. As always, they are a lot of fun. This year there was an Indonesian band, which made the dancing that much better. Here are some pics from the night.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Indonesia needs a Band-Aid

Indonesia has had its fair share of disasters. In fact, a lot of people would say that Indonesia is disaster-prone. To be fair, it's partly due to Indonesia being in an earthquake-prone zone, and partly due to the sheer size of the country - it will have a larger proportion of accidents. These disasters are both man-made as well as nature's gifts. Here is a brief listing of some of the larger scale disasters in the past few years:

- Dec 26, 2004 - Nearly 132,000 Indonesians are killed and more than 37,000 missing after a 9.15 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami in the Indian ocean.

- Feb 21, 2005 - At least 96 are killed in a landslide that sweeps through two West Java villages near a garbage dump.

- March 28, 2005 - Nearly 1,000 are believed killed after a quake of magnitude 8.7 hits the coast of Sumatra.

- Sept 5, 2005 - Domestic airliner crashes in residential area of Indonesia's third biggest city Medan, killing 102 aboard and 47 local residents in an inferno on the ground.

- May 15, 2006 - Mount Merapi volcano erupts with clouds of hot gas and rains ash on surrounding areas.

- May 27, 2006 - Earthquake rocks area around ancient royal city of Yogyakarta killing at least 5,000 and destroying or damaging 150,000 homes.

- July 17, 2006 - A tsunami after a 7.7 magnitude quake in West Java province kills at least 550 people. At least 54,000 people are displaced.

- Dec 30, 2006 - A ferry with at least 600 aboard sinks during a stormy night voyage as it travelled between Borneo and Java.

- Jan 1, 2007 - An Adam Air passenger plane flying from Surabaya to Manado with 102 people aboard crashes into the sea off the west coast of Sulawesi.

- Feb 22, 2007 - At least 42 people are killed when fire breaks out aboard a ferry which was heading from Jakarta to Bangka island off Sumatra.

- March 6, 2007 - Two strong earthquakes kill at least 31 people and injure dozens in the West Sumatra provincial capital of Padang.

Now, mind you, these are just some of the more major incidents that Indonesia has suffered. There was also a quake in September of 2007, but as you can see there has been a significant drop-off in disasters since John and I arrived in the summer of 2007. And yes, bringing this topic up does mean that something will inevitably happen (soon) but let's just say that we are grateful. Especially given the fact that the section John and I both work in responds to disasters!

Recently there was a gigantic Lego display at one of the malls here in Jakarta. This thing was huge, it took up a ton of space, and it depicted all sorts of scenes from life in Jakarta, with skyscrapers, traffic, the one park, etc. However, as we moved closer to inspect the detailed scenes, we started noticing all sorts of... guessed it, disasters formed from the Legos! There were ferries half-sunk in the ocean, fires, traffic accidents and plane crashes with trees knocked down. The worst part, however, were the DEAD Lego people around the accidents! Needless to say it was mostly children there that day to check out the cool display....

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Weddings-Indonesian Style

Indonesian weddings are a huge part of the culture here. They are usually all-day events, and there are always a TON of guests invited. Depending on how wealthy and well-connected the family is, many weddings can easily have a few thousand guests! Contrary to weddings we're used to, most guests don't show up until after the ceremony. The main focus is the receiving line, in which guests may have to wait an hour or more to congratulate the bride and groom and families.

We recently attended the wedding of one of the Indonesian women who works with us. Almost all of the Indonesians in our office went, in addition to a few other Americans. It was held at a home in a city about 2 and a half hours' drive from Jakarta. Along with our American coworkers, we made sure to arrive late as that was what we were advised to do. However, apparently arriving late is still arriving very early! Seeing as we knew no one there but the bride, we were anticipating the arrival of our Indonesian coworkers. They (mostly women) had spent all day at the salon getting their hair and makeup done and dressing up. They finally showed up around 4 hours after the time on the invitation, and only stayed about an hour and then split! It was a great opportunity to see what a real Indonesian wedding is like.

This last picture shows the happy couple and all of her coworkers. You'll notice almost all the men are wearing the traditional Indonesian batik shirt. Batik is a method of dyeing fabric, and it is actually considered a national art form in Indonesia. Men wear these shirts to just about any formal function, which makes getting dressed pretty easy for them!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bangkok - Buddhas and Beers

Our next stop was Bangkok. John and I were looking forward to it because we had such a great time when we went there last year. We took my parents in the river taxis up the Chao Phraya river to see the temples and palaces along the way. One of the standouts is Wat Pho, (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). The largest Buddha image in Thailand, it is 46 meters long and 15 meters high. It's covered in gold plating and its eyes and soles of its feet are all inlaid mother-of-pearl, which is gorgeous. This temple was also the birthplace of Thai massage. Thai massage is different in that they put your body through a lot of stretching motions in addition to massage, plus you wear pyjama type clothing during it. Afterwards you are not only relaxed, but you feel much more limber and have more energy. It's great!

Here's a couple pictures from our stroll down Soi Cowboy. I won't go into details on why this street is so well-known, but you can read about it here if you wish: And yes, we did check out a few of the "bars".

This is pretty sad, but maybe sharing it would prevent some future tourists from making this mistake. There was a sweet elephant that a couple Thai men were parading up and down the street. For a small price you could buy some snacks and feed them to the elephant. We did not choose to do this, but an American told us that the men periodically take the elephant around the corner, force it to throw up all its food, and then bring him back out and continue to let tourists feed him over and over again! Made me so sad....

You might remember John and I ate at a really cool rooftop restaurant on our last trip to Bangkok on the 61st floor of a hotel. Not to be outdone, my parents suggested we eat at Sirocco, which is the highest rooftop restaurant in Bangkok at 63 floors up! The food was delicious, the jazz band great, and of course, you can't beat the view!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We stopped in Kuala Lumpur for one day and night on our way to Bangkok, since it would have been a long layover. So even though we didn't get to see all that much of the city, it was pretty cool. To us, it was basically a "really nice Jakarta". It is similar in a lot of ways, but they just have their stuff together there. People use the lanes on the road, it's much cleaner and organized, and there are decent sidewalks! Plus there are rolling green hills surrounding the city. To go up in the Petronas towers, you had to get there at about 7:00 in the morning, so we said forget it. Instead we went up to the top of a communications tower nearby. It ended up being better, because you can only go about halfway up the Petronas towers to where there is a bridge connecting both of them. The tower we went up in was much higher than where the connecting bridge was, plus we had a great view of the towers. It was the tallest building(s) in the world at 1,483 feet until 2004 when the Taipei Tower took over at 1,667 feet. What's crazy is a building in Dubai which should be finished in the next year or so will be 2,313 feet tall! That is too tall in my opinion...

For dinner we ate at an Indian restaurant in a sort of Little India area of the city (although not the actual touristy Little India). We were the only white people around for blocks, and they didn't quite know what to make of us wanting to eat there. You choose what you want and they slop it all onto your banana leaf on the table. It was GREAT food! Plus we ate a ton and it came to about $12 for all four of us - not a bad deal!

Here's my mom and I covering up to visit the oldest mosque in KL.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Next stop...Lisbon!

After several weeks of stress, we found out last Friday night when one of our friends called at 2 a.m. to wake us up and tell us that assignments had been announced. I checked my crackberry and lo and behold, there was the email saying that we were going to Lisbon in March 2010 for me to work in the Political/Economic section of the embassy. I'll get to brush up on my Portuguese and Hill will start to learn it from scratch when we leave here next summer.

But it wasn't easy to get there. Our previous blog entry talked about how I was able to schedule a last minute Portuguese test, but that wasn't the end of the drama. On the day that I was told that I'd receive my test score, I didn't hear anything so I contacted our HR department. I then found out that something had gone wrong and the tapes were garbled, so they couldn't score them. And they were totally unwilling to do anything another way so that we could get a test score in time. Bureaucracy at its best.

Luckily, there was a guy at the State Department's language school who knew what he was doing. Apparently the only problem was that the tapes were recorded at the wrong speed. He was able to slow them down and my test was scored just in time for it to count.

Hillary doesn't know what she'll be doing there yet. They say they guarantee anyone who wants to work at least 16 hours per week, but hopefully she can find more regular work, either inside or outside the embassy. Regardless, we know we'll be going to a beautiful country with great food and nice people, so we couldn't be happier.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Kecak fire dance

We had heard that seeing the kecak fire dance was one of Bali's traditions not to be missed. The venue they hold this performance at is spectacular - high on the cliffs above the ocean, with a temple in the background. It was beautiful at sunset, and that's when they begin the show each night.

The dance showcases the story of the Ramayana, which, among other things, involves the kidnapping of a beautiful woman, changing oneself into a deer, tortured singing, and a white monkey who sets everything on fire. A typical Saturday night back then, I assume. The performance doesn't include any music. Instead, the rhythm is provided by about 50 men who are seated in a circle around the torch and small performing area in the middle. They are dressed in the traditional Balinese black and white checked sarong, and continuously chant "chak-chak-chak-chak" over and over which sounds pretty impressive with that many voices at once. With a lot of arm movements and swaying, they provide both the music and the backdrop for the dancers.

One of the things that makes Bali so different than the rest of Indonesia is their religion. Bali is a Hindu majority (93%) while the rest of Indonesia is a muslim majority (86%). This makes everything, from their way of life to their culture and art forms very unique. To see a map which shows Bali (shown in green) in comparison to the rest of Indonesia, click here

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Uluwatu reprise

We tried to take my parents to the hidden beach we went to with my sister. When we finally got all the way to the bottom where you duck inside and under caves to reach the beach, to our surprise the ocean was surging all the way up into the caves. We couldn't get to beach because it was high tide. So we decided to go all the way back up to the very top and kill some time watching the surfers. It's a gorgeous view and those surfers were really good!

After a couple beers the tide had receded enough so we were able to make it to the beach for swimming!

Monday, August 25, 2008


My parents came to visit last month, and they wanted to see a lot! Wouldn't you say 5 cities in 2 weeks is a lot?

We did some things with them in Bali that we hadn't done before. We went to a gorgeous temple on the west coast of Bali, called Tanah Lot. The temple itself sits on a huge offshore outcrop of rocks. During high tide you can't get across to the temple. At the base of the rocky island, poisonous sea snakes are believed to guard the temple from evil spirits and intruders. There is said to be one giant snake which also protects the temple, but to see it you had to pay money and enter a cave. Indonesians are very creative when it comes to making money. The funny part is it was mainly Indonesian tourists paying to see the snake!

When we travel outside Jakarta, Indonesian tourists always want to get a photo with the white people. Many come from small villages and may never see people other than Indonesians. You'd think we were famous or something. It's cute the first or second time, but at some point you just want to say "no more photos, please!" But when children want a photo, we usually cave.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Joys of Bureaucracy

One of the funny things about the Foreign Service is that as soon as you start to get settled in a place, you have to start getting ready to move to the next place. We've been in Indonesia for more than a year now and have about 10 more months here, but right now, we've been busy trying to choose our assignment for when we leave.

The way it works is we get a giant list of all the jobs in the world for which we're eligible and they tell us to rank our preferences. There are hundreds of jobs on the list, but only a very limited number work with all the rules that are involved. For example, because they taught me to speak Indonesian, they won't teach me another language from scratch for our second tour. If I speak a language at a medium level of proficiency, they'll give me what's called a top-off course to get me to the minimum job proficiency.

Last month when the list of jobs was sent out to us, we saw that there were tons of jobs in Brazil and one in Portugal. I fought through the bureaucracy and was able to get a last minute language test scheduled, so I crammed for a few weeks, hired a tutor for a couple hours and then took the Portuguese test since I studied it in college. They had to mail the tapes back to Washington to get the results, so hopefully I'll get a score that will allow me to put jobs where I'll need to speak Portuguese on our list. We're up against a ticking clock though since the bids are due in just a couple weeks.

The other bureaucratic rule we have to deal with relates to timing. They don't want to leave embassies with staffing gaps if they don't have to, so they only let us bid on jobs where the person working there now will be leaving right before we're scheduled to arrive. So right now, we're ranking our favorite 20 out of 35 or so options. We'll post something as soon as we know how things turn out...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Save the Orangutans

In case you couldn't tell by the inordinate number of posts, John and I really loved this trip. The orangutans are such amazing creatures, but they really won't be around for much longer. They're really threatened by loss of habitat from palm oil plantations, the illegal pet trade, and climate change in general (just to name a few).

Speaking of the illegal pet trade, we learned of a hotel in Bali that keeps an orangutan caged as a tourist attraction. In Indonesia, orangutans are considered national treasures and the laws make it illegal for anyone to keep them in captivity. The Melka Hotel blatantly violates this law by bribing anyone who could put a stop to it. I encourage you to send them an email to let them know how reprehensible it is to keep these beautiful animals trapped in small cages. The email address is

But in an attempt to end this post on a happy note, we've added some video clips from our trip that we hope you'll enjoy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Looking after the little ones

Once we made it all the way back down the river to the port town of Pangkalan Bun, we spent the night in a hotel and got up the next morning to go to the Orangutan Care Center and Facility. This was a really unique opportunity. The center is closed to tourists, but a friend who works for USAID was able to arrange us a visit.

There are currently 340 orangutans being rehabilitated at the center, many of which were held captive as exotic pets. The center's main goal is to teach the orangutans the survival skills they will need once they are finally released back into the wild. (They are then released back into one of the camps we previously visited, where they can still be monitored while they adjust.) The women who work at the center act as surrogate mothers for the young orangutans. You can tell that most of them are very comfortable with humans and were very curious to meet us.

We got to see the entire facility, including where the juveniles played in the forest. The one in the photo was very strong as he tried to climb between me and the tree! All of it was so neat to see, but the best part was when we hiked to the area where the baby orangutans were playing. We sat down in the brush, and the babies immediately came over, wanting to play with us. Having one climb into your lap, stare into your eyes and give you a hug was just heartbreaking! Another one played a balancing game on my leg, and a rambunctious one jumped straight into my lap, landing on his back. They are more used to women, so John didn't attract too many babies. But at least he got some good shots of me!