2016
05.31

OSMAN AND I

SYNOPSIS:  Still going… just like the energizer bunny.

The layover in Dubai went quicker than I thought.  Once again, I scoured the airport for travel alarm clocks to no avail.  There literally was a watch shop — Rolex and up, if there is an up from Rolex — at every corner, paired with a perfume shop.  But the watches were even more expensive and gaudy than the ones in Boston.  And, I wonder, can they really sell that much perfume and that many watches to justify dozens of stores?

Over my preoccupation with alarm clocks I almost forgot to look for cigarettes.  No, I have not started to smoke, but the Lonely Planet Guidebook (my ever-trusted companion on these trips) recommends packs of cigarettes as gifts for the chiefs in the villages, the guides, and anyone else you want to make happy in Indonesia.  I have to find out, but I infer from this that cigarettes are expensive and most people still smoke.  Even at the duty free, cartons of cigarettes add up!  I had forgotten how expensive cigarettes are.  I hope they will be as effective as predicted.

I spent a few days in Dubai several years ago, as the guest of the family of one of my former WCC students.  I remember how awestruck I was by the architecture, the ostentatious, slick malls, the brand-new roads — and how I could not wait to get away from it all.  It just is not my cup of tea.  I also remember that I have never seen more stylish ladies in hijabs than in Dubai.  The heels are as high and thin as they get, the handbags are glitz and glitter, and beneath the hijab fake hair pieces make the head scarves bulge out into monstrosities resembling beehives or alien eggheads. 

I looked around the variety of people who assembled in the waiting area for the flight to Jakarta.  Among the 500 or so passengers, there were about 10 Europeans.  Everyone else resembled a most remarkable spread of ethnic mixes.  Some dark-skinned, some with more distinctly Asiatic features, some short, some tall.  If all of them really were Indonesians, what are the common racial features, or are there any? 

I sat next to Osman from Turkey, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who was visiting his friend in Jakarta for a few days.  We had some interesting conversations but for the most part we snoozed, exhausted from this never ending journey, his only slightly shorter than mine.  When I filled out the customs declaration there was a 200 limit on imported cigarettes.  I had 3 cartons with me, which for a moment I thought amounted to 300 — that’s how much I forgot about smoking — but I actually had 600!  Osman agreed to be the carrier of one carton, but thankfully, in the end, nobody even cared.

The Jakarta immigration area was crowded and chaotic.  Two lanes moved slowly but steadily and we were second to last as we had sat at the very rear of the plane. 

All of a sudden voices were raised at the counter and an exchange of words followed, presumably in Indonesian.  But suddenly the officer switched to English and we all could hear what he said:  “This is immigration.  If you want to enter my country you have to show me your face!”  A man had reached the counter with four women in tow, covered in niqabs (the black dress that leaves a mere slit for the eyes).   I had noticed him before.  I had assumed that they were Indonesian and had been surprised by the strict Islamic dress of his four women.  That was a custom I had associated with Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, perhaps.  And indeed, he was not a native, but a foreign visitor.  For a moment, I pictured a US immigration officer yelling this very sentence to a man with four niqabed women.  All hell would break loose, CAIR would file a lawsuit, and most likely the officer would be fired.  And yet, here was a Muslim officer, presumably of a much more moderate bent who was not going to have it.  “If you want to enter my country you have to show me your face!”  He was not even offering to get a female officer to do the looking.  The women were asked to go behind the glass barrier and show their faces.  Only then, did he let them go.  As they walked away, he shook his head in obvious contempt. 

I parted from Osman and took a taxi to my hotel which I had chosen for the fact that it was both near to the airport and cheap.  What should have been a 10 minute ride turned into 25.  And what should have cost $1.50 ended up costing $10.  Was that really all due to construction, or perhaps due to the fact that I was an ignorant foreigner?  I will never know.

Pop! is the name of my hotel and the idea is great: a green hotel, energy-conscientious, filled with 6 floors of modular small rooms in the brightest primary colors possible.  All the essentials were there, from hooks to a shower stall.  Everything seemed new.  And best of all, the internet was fast!  I plowed through dozens of emails and with the help of a sleeping pill forced myself to sleep.  You would think that I would just zonk out after 36 hours in transit, but the body is a funny thing: my internal clock was on the opposite end of the spectrum and signaling the beginning of a new day.

But night it is!  Let’s sleep. 

2016
05.30
EMIRATES - MY 2nd /3rd PLANE

EMIRATES – MY 2nd /3rd PLANE

SYNOPSIS:  It’s about the boring part.  Getting from here to there.  

There was the typical mix of muffled noises: the baby crying somewhere in the distance, the laughter of a woman with that uncomfortably shrill voice, the low humdrum of conversation. 

There was the typical set of uncomfortable circumstances:  the swollen ankles, the stiff neck, the frequent whiff of perfume. 

There was the gentle sway of the Boeing that lulled me into a slumber and made me too tired to read — I tried, but before the end of any paragraph I realized that my eyes were closed — but then it all kept me too aware to sleep.

They say the journey is the goal as much as the destination.  And in principle, I agree.  But as I am getting older, I am increasingly annoyed by that part of the journey that transports me to my destination.  36 hours in transit from Detroit to Jakarta …  And that was one of the shorter flight sequences I could find (and afford).  I wish I could snap my fingers and be there.

What did I forget?  That was the nagging question when David and I left the house at 3 AM on our way to the airport.  I had packed so carefully over the last few days; I could not possibly have forgotten anything.  But I did: my travel clock.  As minor as that sounds, I was mightily mad at myself when I discovered this. 

That clock has been with me for years, and halfway around the world.  It is perfect: small, with an alarm, a date, a temperature and a night display.  It is always the first thing I unpack at a new destination and the last thing I put away when I leave.  It marks my presence and it grounds me in the reality of the passing days.  I even looked at it this morning!  But I forgot to pack it. 

A four-hour layover in Boston, I hoped, would fix that problem.  When you travel without a phone — just imagine this: I will be without a phone for two months! — there is no substitute device for keeping time.   A hike up and down terminal C did not yield a single travel clock.  The only thing left for me was to buy a wrist watch.  And I hate wrist watches.  I have not worn one in over 30 years.  I have to say, there was a colorful choice of wrist bands and monstrous digital clocks with all kinds of gadgets; wrist watches have come a long way.  But I am not going to walk around with a big clunky thing like that.  And so I got the “classic”, the most basic black face with a black band, but I had to pay an airport designer price for it.  Oh well.  Thank goodness for credit cards …

I hope the rest of the journey will be uneventful.    And if it isn’t the one baby crying, then it is for sure another … 

There won’t be any sleep; I can tell.

2016
05.29
Wheel of Life 1

BUDDHIST WHEEL OF LIFE

The weeks before the trip filled up with unrelated events.  There has hardly been a trip for which I felt so unprepared.  I did not even get through a single one of the history books I was going to read to have just a rudimentary idea of the complex past of this country… I have to read as I go and I know just how hard that is.

There were days spent with the Arts Club, unexpected meetings at school, an online class to get going (yes, I will be teaching from afar for the first time).  There were my grandchildren and the family, a graduation ceremony, a wedding, a funeral.  The list seemed to get longer as the days before the trip dwindled away.

At one of the more reflective moments at the wedding, it occurred to me that each of my trips is a bit like the life of a person: it is conceived at some point, has a gestation period, it is born (the flight there), it grows and is punctuated by highlights and failures and at some sad moment, its life will come to an end (the flight back).

And like a person, the trips are remembered, more or less.  The challenging ones become part of a near-legendary past.  Someday, I can tell my grandchildren. That I was there, at Tahrir Square when the Egyptian Revolution happened.  That I stood on the roof of the Baal Temple in Palmyra just a couple of years before ISIS blew it up.  That I went to Mali when for years no tourist had dared.  That I was in Pakistan when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.  I might not talk that much about my trip to Japan.  It was a long trip and I saw an incredible amount of beautiful temples.  But it was an uneventful trip.  It was expensive.  It was smooth and easy.  And perhaps just like people — we don’t remember the good but ordinary ones as much as the ones that create trouble.  The ones who lived exemplary lives, walked the well-trodden road may be forgotten to but a few.  The ones who made us suffer, challenged, and changed us, are the ones whose memories we will carry forever.

What will this one bring?    

I don’t expect a political revolution or a volcano erupting.  I don’t expect a catastrophe of any kind.  But I also don’t expect completely smooth sailing.  I will not dwell at the destinations most typically associated with holidays in Indonesia: the pristine beaches and coral reefs.  I will not lie at the beach, snorkel, or surf.  I will, of course visit the Borobudur, the most famous UNESCO site in Indonesia.  It is a monument I am familiar with from graduate school, a Buddhist Stupa that has been part of my Monuments Class for many years.  But most importantly, I will make stops on several islands trying to get a feel for a few of the multitude of indigenous populations on this archipelago.  I will visit a  predominantly Muslim area as well as a Christian, and a Hindu one.  I had 10 weeks to explore a homogeneous county like Japan, a fraction of the size of Indonesia.  I will have only 8 weeks to prick this huge and complex country in a few spots… 

Let’s go!

2016
05.28
Indonesia Map

MAP OF THE INDONESIAN ARCHIPELAGO

It has been on my horizon for a while, this humongous archipelago called Indonesia, with its 17,000 islands (really?), its 250 million people, its 300 languages, its unexplored jungles, its crowded urban areas, its variety of ethnicities and religions.  It is 4000 km wide (or is it 5000?), rivaling the width of the United States.

For sure it is intimidating!

For weeks now I have wracked my brain on how to get a handle on such a diverse landscape in the just 60 days I will have to explore it; and I am still trying to figure it out. If you are curious, I hope you will follow me on this year’s journey.   From orangutans to UNESCO sites, there should be plenty of adventures!

First I need to get through a hurdle:  36 hours in transit!  They say it’s the journey that counts, not the goal.  In this case, I beg to differ.  Spare me the journey and just get me there in the blink of an eye if possible!  If I were one of the many heroes of Indonesian folklore equipped with magical powers, perhaps I could.  But it’s just me.

Hope to see you at the other side of the world, soon!  ET