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The Fragility of Civilization - Update

(Looks like someone's been reading my blog. Notice publication date 13 days after this article. -B)

Sometimes things happen that point up just how tenuous our grasp on civilization really is.

Of course, right now a global revolution is building. For too long, we have served masters who have manipulated us like so many puppets, and who have looted our treasuries and pocketbooks, leaving us destitute and subservient to a fiction called "corporation." We see country after country teetering on the brink of complete collapse: Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Spain...the list goes on. Riots, trials, looting. and burnings; people are fed up with being slaves to our own creations. Financial crises have ravaged both sovereign funds and retirement funds. Multi-trillion dollar bail-outs raid treasuries to rescue corporations and banks, but the individual is forgotten and worthless.

On top of misery of our own creation, there is a volcano repeatedly stranding air passengers worldwide. There is a subsea oil volcano threatening to poison the entire Gulf coast of the US for decades, and may affect oceans worldwide, as well. Earthquakes have ravaged Indonesia, China, Chile, and Haiti, with more likely to come. Though the media reports have been carefully controlled, it still shows the complete failure of our god, Governement, to save and protect us, and through it all, our corporations thrive on the destruction.

In all this noise, something has happened which few are talking about, but which could easily collapse civilization in 24 hours, and there is almost no mention of it. It is a silent menace floating high over our heads, practically invisible to the average person. It is a damaged satellite and it could end everything you know as daily life and create chaos beyond belief.

Many years ago, I was sitting around the magic herb incinerator with friends talking about how one could end the world cheaply and quickly. I know, super nerd noodling. Turns out it's quite easy and even fairly cheap. All you need is a good-sized rocket and a 16-pound cannon ball. Just aim the cannon ball against the geo-synchronous orbit and hit one satellite. It will form a debris cloud which will destroy every satellite in geo-synch within 24 hours. Furthermore, the debris will ensure that the orbit will not be usable for the next thousand or so years, while we wait for the cloud to clear. The result? Almost all communications on Earth would cease overnight.

So now, there is a satellite out of control. Possibly damaged by a solar storm, it has failed to answer ground control and is drifting into the position of a neighboring satellite. If they collide, it will be 24 hours until doomsday. No cable TV, no long-distance telephone, no internet, no news gathering, no newspapers. Everything will grind to a halt. Oh sure, there is local radio and shortwave, but how many shortwave owners do you know? How long do you think the music will play when there is nothing else working? How long before people awake from the TV-induced stupor they have been in for the last 50 years? Almost everything we take for granted in our daily lives is dependent on cheap and fast global communications.

So, the end of the world is nigh. If it ain't one thing it's another. What it shows us is just how fragile is the world we have built. Because we have laid down at the altar of corporate profits and unbridled greed, we have allowed our society to be stretched to the thickness of an egg shell. One small crack, and the egg is on our face. We have built a house of straw, preferring expedience rather than long-term survivability. Our air travel can be halted by ash. Our oceans can be choked by a dead battery. Our communications wrecked by a solar flare. Our cities leveled by shaking them.

If we had just taken a minute longer to think things through, and not act solely for a pocket full of paper with colored ink, how much different would things be?

Bits and Pieces

Bits and Pieces is a collection of observations that haven't fleshed out into full articles yet, but which are interesting, at least to me.

Islam was introduced here in the 1600s by Arab traders. They first converted the Javanese in central Java. It was not entirely a peaceful transition. The first treaty between a Western nation and an Indonesian people was executed by the Portugese and the Sunda (west Java). The Sunda wanted protection from the Java, and the Portuguese wanted safe harbor and resupply ports in the region. The treaty was carved on a stone (recently rediscovered) and erected at the port of Tanjung Kelapa (Cape Coconut), which is now old town Jakarta. The name Jakarta is a contraction of the words Jaya Karta, which mean Free Town. The Portuguese were ultimately ousted by the Dutch, who held the West Indies until the 1940s, when the revolution finally established Indonesia as a sovereign nation.

The Bataknese and Manadonese are strongly christian cultures. The Batak were converted by German Lutheran missionaries in the 1800s, with Neubronner ultimately being credited with the conversion (I joke with Batak that the previous missionaries were delicious, as they were ritual cannibals). The Batak have their own church, called the HKBP, which is styled after Lutheran practices. The Batak are generally adverse to marriages with foreigners, but Germans are considered to be good matches, and so are tolerated. This makes sense since both cultures love beer and have no discernible sense of humor.

The Manadonese were converted in the 1600s by Dutch missionaries. They are widely considered to be the party animals of Indonesia. Of all the cultures here, Manado is the most Westernized. The people are also the most Western looking, with bridged noses and long oval faces. They are also relatively tall, as a group, compared to most other Indonesians. Manadonese are given to large celebrations and liberal consumption of alcohol, the most legendary variety being "cap tikus," which more or less translates as "mouse piss." Cap tikus is distilled coconut milk, which is then stored for several weeks with a fetal deer, not unlike the worm in mescal. It has a very high proof, though the actual number varies by who is telling you. I would guess about 80-proof. By iteself, it is clear, but with the deer fetus, it takes on a slightly reddish color. The deer is eaten after the booze is consumed.

Both the Bataknese and Manadonese eat dog, bat and squirrel. In Manado, dog meat is called RW, which is an abbreviation for two words that mean "small head." It is a specific breed of dog that is raised only for eating. It is considered a delicacy and is most often served at the groom's feast before a wedding. It is incredibly spicy (called rica-rica), as a lot of Manado food is. The Batak serve bat by battering and deep frying the entire animal. It is eaten, wings and all, with the hands. Places that serve it often go to great lengths to arrange the bat on the plate so that it stands up, balanced by the wings. The effect is somewhat disconcerting, though the flavor is very good, and the wings are crunchy like potato chips. It is served with a hot sauce that is quite formidable.

Although drinking alcohol is generally frowned upon in the open, many Indonesians enjoy various local creations. In addition to Cap Tikus, the Balinese are famous for Arak, which is an orange liquor not unlike Gran Marnier. The Javanese have two types of wine, one called simply Anggur Merah, red wine, and the other called Anggur Orang Tua, or Old Man Wine (also referred to as black wine). Orang Tua is seasoned primarily with anise, so that it has a light licorice flavor. It is normally served over ice in a single glass, which is passed around the group. Indonesians as a whole have a very low tolerance for alcohol, so it doesn't take much for everyone to be pretty well snockered. Drinking wine is considered to be low culture and is usually accompanied by low-class music, called "dangdut." Dangdut is the equivalent of folk music and shares many characteristics with C&W and street rap. The lyrics fall primarily into to two categories: drinking and love.

Magic is still a very strong influence in Indonesian culture. Though it is kept under wraps, it is still widely practiced, with spells, hexes and other practices even being a common feature in soap operas. The Dayak of central Borneo are said to have the most powerful magic. Many people are still deathly afraid of Dayak because of it. They said to be able to appear and disappear at will, make heads float through the air, and kill at a distance without weapons. A common form of magic is for a man (usually) to entrance a woman (usually) and have her give him all her money, including cleaning out bank accounts. The way this works is the man finds a woman who looks somewhat confused (say, at a mall). He taps her on the shoulder and begins speaking to her in a particular way that causes her to become bewitched. Variations include handing the victim a card or other object. Basically, it is a form of hypnotism, and lower class women especially seem to be susceptible to it. There is also a rather strange phenomenon in which primarily women are said to be invaded with spirits. I have witnessed this with individuals, who appear to go into a trance-like state and become completely flaccid and unresponsive. I have heard reports of large groups of women, for instance at a factory, all falling into this state simultaneously. The cure is usually a type of exorcism, performed by an imam. In any case, even reasonably intelligent and educated folks still have a strong belief in "hantu," or ghosts.

As far as the genders go, Indonesia is somewhat of a mixed bag when it comes to equality. In some ways, it is one of the most equitable cultures I have ever seen. Except in places where foreigners frequent, bathrooms are unisex. Indonesian language has a neutral pronoun that refers to either gender, analogous to the use of "they" in English as a general reference, though "dia" is singular and does not mean "it." There is no concept in the culture of, "women and children first," and good manners do not include holding doors for women or allowing them to pass first. One is just as likely to have woman hold a door for a man, that the other way around.

On the other hand, being a housewife and mother is still considered to be the highest ambition for a woman. There is a strong division of labor between inside and outside the house. In the household, the man is considered the highest authority and a woman will always defer to her husband. It is almost unthinkable that a man would clean house or do dishes and laundry, though in some cultures, the men cook on special occasions. A muslim woman is expected to give "salim" to her husband, which involves taking his right hand, bowing slighly and touching his hand to her cheek or forehead.

Table manners here are far from the Western norm. For one thing, Indonesians traditionally eat with the hands, though the use of fork and spoon are more common in public in larger cities. Elbows on the table and belching are common, though eating with the mouth open is considered "karas," or low class. When using a fork and spoon, both are used simulaneously, with the fork used for cutting and corralling food on the spoon, which is the primary utensil. Belching is not only tolerated but encouraged, because one of the most dreaded maladies here is "masuk angin," which means "wind enter," and is blamed for just about everything from stiff muscles to indigestion and headaches.

"Masuk angin" is so ingrained in the culture that there is a whole industry built up around it, including medicines, teas, massage, and a peculiar practice called, "kerokan." Watching an Indonesian get a massage is almost comical. Both the massager and massagee are belching like a frog chorus while releasing the "wind" that has invaded. There are scads of folk remedies and specially formulated teas to relieve "masuk angin." The practice that is most curious, though, is the "kerokan," in which eucalyptus oil (kayu putih) is liberally applied to one's back, then the masseuse takes a coin and scratches long swaths across the body. The theory is that if the lines turn red, then the wind is being released from those areas. If it is not properly done, then the wind will re-enter, but many times worse than before. Typicallly, someone who has received kerokan looks like they have been flogged. The Indonesian euphemism means "tiger stripes."

Speaking of euphemisms, there are quite a few in Indonesian. "Mati" means to be dead, but a person is said to be "meninggal," or in a continuing state of stillness. "Okelah kalo begitu" translates as OK if that-way, and is used something like "alrighty then." "Malu-malu kucing" means "shy-shy cat" but would translate as "coy." A cat nap would be "tidur-tidur ayam," or sleep-sleep chicken. One of my favorites is the term for speed bumps in the road. They are called, "polisi tidur," or sleeping police. Probably one of the most apt descriptions I've ever heard.

So until we meet again/sampai jumpa, your intrepid reporter is signing off.


Dear Mom - Part 4

The vast selections of cuisine take a while to get to know. Every region has a local specialty and when you meet someone, one of the first topics of conversation is have you tried this or that from their home region. Among the most popular is Padang, recently famous for being destroyed by an earthquake a couple of months ago. It is very spicy and is well-known for having quick box lunches and amazing buffets. When you sit at a Padang restaurant and you haven’t ordered at the counter, the waiter will start piling dishes and bowls on your table with a serving or two of everything the restaurant makes. You pay for what you eat and the rest is dumped back into the pot for the next person.

Javanese and Sundanese food is very popular, of course. One of my favorites is gado-gado, which is a hot salad with spicy peanut sauce. Another is gurame, which is a fresh-water fish that is filleted, battered, deep-fried and served with a sauce of your choice. My personal favorite is asam-manis (sour-sweet). Another common favorite is mpek-mpek, which is some kind of root that is served in about one thousand different ways. It is not unlike a potato, but is rubbery and takes some getting used to.

The most common meats are chicken, beef and goat. Wives encourage their husbands to eat goat as it is well-known for a rather salacious effect on certain parts of the male anatomy. Certain groups, such Batak and Manado, also eat dog, bat and tree rat (read squirrel). The Manadonese recipe for dog is very spicy, even for my tastes. I thought it was good, though a big chewy and lots of bones. I have yet to try the bat and the rat, but your intrepid reporter will let you know as soon as I can find it.

One other interesting culinary delight I have enjoyed is cobra blood (darah kobra) and sate cobra. Steve, Karina and I went out one evening in search of the legendary folk remedy, which gives health, fortune and fertility. We found a street stand with a cage full of black cobras. After ordering, the man pulled out a snake, put a large wooden clamp on its head, and handed us each a cleaver. In turn, we slaughtered our snake, which was then quickly drained into a glass. The spleen was removed and squeezed into the glass with the blood. Then a reddish liquid (of unknown content) was added along with some pieces of fruit. The amount of liquid filled a cocktail glass. While we enjoyed our blood, the snakes were skinned and the meat diced and skewered and grilled. It was served with peanut sauce and soy ketchup, which is a thick, black and sweet confection. The sate was very good and reminded me of conch or other shellfish in both taste and texture. The blood was surprisingly inoffensive and did not have the rusty flavor I associate with animal blood. I don’t know if it had any of the intended effects, but three days later I went blind.

So, now that I have thoroughly bored you with my observations of Indonesian life, perhaps a word of two of a personal nature. In my time here, I have gone bind, been through my first earthquakes, been in three motorcycle accidents, and lost almost 80 pounds. I have spent the last year and a half teaching English though various chain-schools, international schools, Indonesian public schools, and private tutoring. Steve and I are still chasing that ever-elusive Big Deal, but I am rather enjoying teaching, as the interaction with the students is always entertaining and educational for me, too. Students here are extremely polite and well-behaved. They greet me with salim, which is taking my right hand and touching it to their foreheads or cheeks. It takes some getting used to as the first few times I reacted with shock. The most nakal (naughty) behavior I have encountered is rowdiness.

I have had several girlfriends who all think they can get me to marry them, but I usually chase them away with my steadfast refusal to inflict marriage on myself again. I found a happy medium by hiring my maid last month. Yanti is 24, from Yogyakarta, and she has been with me since the beginning of the month. She cooks, cleans, washes the clothes, does the shopping, and never complains. In all, she is the perfect wife, and only costs me $90 per month. Such a bargain! She also helps me go around, especially at night when I have the most difficulty seeing. Jakarta is the antithesis of handicap-friendly. It is an obstacle course even for fully-sighted people, so Yanti’s help is invaluable. In the morning, my shoes are shined, my coffee is waiting, my breakfast is cooked, and she checks my clothes to make sure they are clean and match. She is also an excellent cook. I have gained back some of my weight, thanks to her. I would probably still be married if Western women were even remotely as helpful and efficient as Yanti.

One thing that is a bit disconcerting is that the master-servant relationship is a formal one, and formal Indonesian is very strange to Western ears. One always uses titles and never pronouns and it is spoken almost exclusively in the passive voice. A sample exchange would sound something like: Mister would like Yanti to prepare the meal which is dinner? Yes, Mbak, and (she) would please use the sauce which is spicy, thanks.

Indonesian has three levels of formality, and only the most informal approaches something like American English in its structure (if you don’t count the lack of pronouns and the fact that the verb to be is almost never spoken). It is something I was ill-prepared for, coming from an egalitarian culture (at least in name). And lest you get your politically correct panties in a bunch, the word which Yanti uses to refer to herself translates directly as servant. So get over your amero-centric self-righteousness. When in Rome, one always follows the Romans lest you cross the line of prudence and offense.

I could go on for hours. The details about this culture are endlessly interesting, amusing and frustrating. I have made a point to avoid contact with Westerners and prefer the company of locals. As a result, they are always surprised at my command of the language and mastery of manners here. I hear regularly about foreigners who have lived here for many years that can barely speak a word of Indonesian, and know even less about the history, culture and politics of the archipelago. Most Westerners take Indonesia’s culture of deference and subservience as a sign that they are a people easily dominated and commanded. They are wrong. Controlling Indonesians is like herding cats. They may not attack you directly, but they will drive you crazy trying to get them in a line. They are fiercly proud of their country and always appreciate a foreigner who appreciates them.

When I stepped off the plane, I stepped through Alice’s Looking Glass. Everything was the same, but…different. Side to side and top to bottom, Indonesia is about the same size as the continental US, but it is mostly water. It has about the same population, the same crazy quilt of cultures, the same philosophical goals and aspirations. But, it is the differences which make it so intriguing and strange. Just like Alice’s experience, everything looks the same on a gross scale, but once you dig underneath, you see a vast world of differences, some glaring and some more subtle.

Indonesians are a study in contrasts. They are at once warm and curious, yet cheaper than a Scotsman on Sunday. They will do anything to help you, even if it’s wrong, because they hate to say no or I don’t know. At first blush, they all look the same, but one day you realize that they are a rainbow with different colors.

Sixty-five years ago, they had a dream that they would throw off Western colonization and blend 20,000 islands, 300 cultures and as many languages into a single nation. So far, it has worked. In the recent elections, SBY became the first freely re-elected president in their history. Their economy is blossoming, they have vast natural wealth, and they all share a common desire to be taken seriously by the world.

There are times I feel like I share their passion.

For New Year, I am going to Bali with my (current) girlfriend. Her 16-year-old daughter, who very bright and talented, has been asked to dance with her troop on a nationally televised special. We are going a couple of days early to rent a car and drive around the island, then we will attend the live broadcast on New Year’s Eve. I am quite excited, as you can imagine, as it is my first trip to the legendary paradise. Mother, grandmother and both brothers are coming, as well. At my request, we will avoid the tourist areas until the last day, and instead go to some of the less popular and still wild places, where monkeys still swing in the trees and the beaches aren’t a sea of sun-burnt Australians. I will, of course, report on my findings.

The seasons are changing now and Rain has already begun. The afternoons are windy and the evenings are wet. The end of Dry was almost unbearably hot, but now the highs have dropped into the mid-80s and the nights are almost pleasant. The day is still 12 hours long, as it is all year. The difference is that the sunrise and sunset are about 15 minutes earlier, but still around 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The mosques have adjusted their calls to prayer to match. For those who like routine, living on the equator can be a great source of comfort.

Blessings and love to all. I end, as always, with an open invitation. You buy the flight, I’ll give you room and board and be your native guide. Don’t get much better. Sorry for the length of this letter, but be thankful I didn’t go on for another 10 pages.

Sampai jumpa!

PS- One of my Indonesian jokes is that locals, for the most part, only use one name their whole lives. I go one better and only use one letter.

Trust me, it’s funny in Indonesian.


Dear Mom - Part 3

Religion is a very interesting dynamic here. Though Indonesia proclaims to be a secular state, muslims dominate government, politics and social discourse. Every evening at 6 p.m., every broadcast station stops to play the muslim call to prayer. The morning is punctuated with calls beginning at roughly 3:30 a.m., and continuing every few hours throughout the day. There is more or less a mosque every 100 meters, and every one of them has a poorly tuned public address system, which on a scale of 1 to 10, is turned up to 11. With the exception of Manado, and possibly Bali (I’ll let you know in January), there is no escape from the audio assault every 3 hours of every day of every week or every year. One of the appeals of my apartment, when I moved here, was that I had found a pocket of relative peace. However, about two months ago, someone discovered that my ears weren’t bleeding, and now there is a speaker seemingly aimed at my bedroom window.

There is a quasi-government agency called the MUI, whose task it is to set religious holidays and to guard the public from being Christianized. Its most important function is to calculate the feast of Idul Fitri, which is the end of Ramadan and of the month of fasting. The exact moment of the appearance of the New Moon is of keen interest to all hungry muslims. This year, there was some controversy, as the MUI set the date on a Sunday night, and other groups set it at Monday morning. The media spent an entire week covering the debate as to who was right. In the end if was determined that the individual should follow their conscience. In other words, most chose the earlier time. The MUI has recently called for a ban on the film “2012,” as only Allah knows the time of Doomsday. This has naturally led to huge crowds flocking to see the film.

If you get the sense that Indonesians are somewhat relaxed about religion, you would be right. Certainly, there are rabid voices of intolerance, not unlike the far Christian right in the US, but the rank and file really can’t be bothered too much. The vast majority of mosque-going muslims attend services on Friday afternoon, analogous to Sunday in the West. Just as in the States, there are those who loudly proclaim that it is an Islamic nation, founded on Islamic principles, virtual mirror images of the Christian right in the States. Equally, the unwashed masses ignore the whole thing, much as at home.

From what I see, the call to prayer is primarily heeded by working men and students who use the excuse to take a break.

The most obvious adherence to muslim practice is the use of the jilbab, or headscarf, worn by girls and women. There are shops in the malls devoted entirely to selling jilbab, and the myriad of designs and decorations are rather intriguing. Girls begin wearing the jilbab at about the age of 3, and continue the practice for life. In the big cities, many schoolgirls wear them at school, but generally pull them off once they are off school grounds. Given the sweltering heat here, especially in October, one can hardly blame them. Honestly, I believe that the long clothing and jilbab are used more to keep the skin from turning black than from any religious consideration. Bathing suits are another article of clothing that is a throw-back. The suits have long leggings and sleeves, and expose only the hands, face and feet. Curiously, I find the suits more alluring than the most revealing bikini, as the tight fabric gives more to the imagination, which is a powerful aphrodisiac.

One other sidebar here…marriage here is only a religious affair. The is no such thing as a court wedding. The marriage is registered in the mosque/church/temple, and from time to time, a government representative comes around and makes note of the registry. I mention this because a muslim marriage involves a contract in which the man promises to feed his wife at least one meal a day. If he ever fails to do that, she can leave him and is entitled to a sum of money that is negotiated into the contract. One that I kow of has the sum of $100,00. No one lives together here unless they are married, or unless they have a contract which states that the man will support any children that result from co-habitation. That includes female servants who live with male masters. I had to sign one with my maid before she could move in.

Time is another fascinating concept here. From the idea of “jam karet” or flexible time (analogous to manana in Mexico) to the dizzying number of words for time and unfamiliar ways of measuring time. Things like 6:30 is half-seven, Sunday night is on Saturday, an appointment is a theoretical thing, and the lack of tenses familiar to English speakers requires the use of a myriad of time statements to pin-point when something did or will happen. The word for yesterday, kemarin, can refer to anytime in the recent past. Ditto for tomorrow, besok. If something happened before now, one uses dulu up to a point, and then lalu further back in time. If you want to indicate something must be done before something else, you would use sebelum, which transliterates as “a not-yet.” If you want to indicate that you will never do something, you say “ga pernah.” If you want to say that you have not yet done something you say “belum pernah.” If you want to say you always do something you say “pernah,” as in “Saya pernah ke mol,” or I always go to the mall. To say you will/intend do something, you must use akan. If someone wants to meet you on Saturday night, you have to remember that they are referring to Friday night. If someone says they will meet you at 11 a.m., you can add anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on weather, traffic and excuses. They will never be early.

If Indonesian culture can be summed up in one word, it is FOOD. Everything here revolves around food and eating, and one has not eaten until the rice is finished. A very common greeting among familiars is, “Hey! Have you eaten?” I recently learned that Chinese culture has the same peculiarity. If you ask someone to do something, it is very common to hear, “Makan dulu ya.” I want to eat before doing that. Indonesians typically eat five times a day. Without a full-blown vocabulary lesson, it amounts to breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, and dinner. Every meal, without exception, includes rice. If you go to McDonald’s your burger comes with rice. If you eat pizza, you have a ball of rice with it. There are food carts and restaurants nearly every step of every road in every square inch of the country, and I don’t exaggerate. You can find something to eat every hour of every day, even during Ramadan. Worst case scenario, you can pick a banana, hair fruit, coconut, or avocado nearly everywhere. The fact that you pay for those fruits in the market is basically paying labor and shipping for someone else to pick it.


Dear Mom - Part 2

The Javanese people identify most strongly with the central part of the island, including the cities of Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Solo, and Tegal. Javanese culture values politeness and deference above all other characteristics. However, these traits are carried to the extreme and so they can be very frustrating at times. A Javanese person will never tell you “no.” Rather, they will seem to agree and consent, even when they have no intention of fulfilling a request. If you ask directions from a Javanese, they will tell you even when they don’t know, which can lead you in circles quite often. When you make a request to a Javanese, you must listen for words like, “Yes, but…” If you hear that, then they have just said no. Many Westerners complain about Javanese because they think they have an agreement for something, when in fact they only heard the “yes” and not the “but.” Javanese have a reputation for being very polite to your face, while acting quite differently behind you (or in front of you, as the Indonesian expression goes). The Javanese have been very successful in government and diplomacy, as you can imagine. The national government is dominated by Javanese, much to the consternation of many other groups.

The Javanese are lowlanders and their counterparts are the Sundanese, who are the mountain people of central Java. The Sundanese language is cognate to Javanese. For instance, saying “thank you” in Javanese is “matur nuwun,” and in Sundanese is “hatur nuhun.” In both cases, the response is “sami-sami.” The Sundanese are an unassuming and generally uneducated people. They are very small, even by Indonesian standards. Of the many I have met, on average they come to my solar plexus. They are highly prized as household servants and nannies, however you will be strongly cautioned, as they have a reputation for thievery. More than once I have been told to be very careful hiring Sundanese servants, as once they have the key to your house, the family will back the truck up and start loading.

I could go on ad nauseum. I have not even begun to describe the Betawi, who are the native inhabitants of Jakarta and West Java, nor have I mentioned the Dayak, Banjari, Manadonese, or the dozen other groups I have encountered so far. Each group sees themselves as the best and is prejudiced against some other group. Almost without exception, however, is the pervasive dislike of Papuans. Papuans are Negroid, not unlike aboriginal Australians and Africans. Their biggest problem is that the color black is considered dirty or filthy, therefore black skin is reviled and the Papuans therefore are looked down on. I have only met two Papuans, so far, who are both successful business people, so I can not describe the culture there with any authority. But, their general reputation among most Indonesians is one of savagery and illiteracy.

Having mentioned skin color, this would be as good a time as any to discuss a rather interesting topic, at least to me. There is a strong identity with white skin and wealth, status and success. There is a large industry here which caters to the desire of almost every Indonesian to be as white as they can be, which is remarkable since without exception, Indonesians are black haired, black eyed and dark skinned. The supermarkets are full of whitening creams and TV commercials hype products that lighten the skin and hair. The most successful actors/musicians, and the like, are mixed European-Indonesian. Prized features on mixed people are pointed noses, rather than broad, flat noses, narrow lips, and hair, eye and skin color which is shades lighter than average. The obsession with being white would be almost comical if they were not deadly serious about it. Being dark skinned is considered a sign of being low class, meaning you are an outdoor laborer. Many women aspire to marry Westerners, or at least breed with them, as the result is considered very attractive and desireable. A single white male will find himself pursued not very sublely for his DNA, if not for marriage. It is difficult for me to discern if this desire is the result of centuries of colonization, or if it in fact existed previously. At any rate, the level of attraction to people of mixed heritage is genuine and pervasive in the cuture and media.

This segues nicely into some observations on love and romance. It is endlessly fascinating to me that in Indonesian, love and pity are more or less equivalent. The local word used in the same context as “dear” or “honey,” is “sayang.” A dictionary will translate this as “to pity,” but it is used as an adjective, a verb and a noun. Lovers will say, “Sayang kamu,” instead of “cinta kamu,” which more directly means “I love you.” “Sayang” is also a term of endearment, not unlike sweetheart. In effect, it is more common to tell your lover, “I pity you,” rather than “I love you.” This would not be so strange, except that one also pities less fortunate people, in the same sense as in English. You can also say something to the effect of, “This is my sayang,” though more common would be to say, “Ini pacar saya,” or this is my boy/girl friend. By adding –an, pacar becomes a verb, so that you can say, “I want to pacaran her.” “Mau pacaran wanita,” thus transliterates as “I want to love-friend her.”

Another interesting concept is “cium.” Cium translates as sniff or kiss, and in fact, the way Indonesians kiss is by touching lips and making a swift inhale through the nose. Indonesians are deeply attuned to smells. There is a separate word for good smell (wangi) and bad smell (bau). Indonesians bathe almost constantly, spend millions on laundry scents, and aroma therapy is a huge industry here. Therefore, it makes sense that kissing and sniffing are the same thing. My theory, which I will expand on shortly, is that this practice is related to food. By sniffing someone, you can tell if and what they have eaten in the recent past. To a Westerner, this can be rather disconcerting, as we don’t generally acknowledge personal smells and don’t conceptually think of kissing in terms of smelling someone else. The exaggerated sniff associated with kissing here will seem somewhat shocking, if not downright impolite, the first few times. The practice is not just for lovers either. It is done with the social kiss on both cheeks, as well. The only other culture I know that has a similar practice is the French, where one takes the hand of a woman, bows slightly and sniffs the back of her hand (thus the floral nose-gays popular at prom time).

Social kissing/sniffing aside, it is considered very impolite, and almost taboo, to perform public displays of affection. Though slightly relaxed in Jakarta, which is comparatively cosmopolitan, one never holds hands or kisses in public. Playing grab-ass or tonsil-hockey in front of strangers, popular in the West, is unheard of here. It would be shocking and could even elicite a response from the FPI, the self-appointed morality police who make it their business to enforce rather archane morality laws influenced by muslim sharia.

As with all things, there are regional variations based on local tribal culture, history and religious mores. Indonesia is dominated by Islam, however Bali in predominantly Hindu, the Batak were chistianized by Lutheran missionaries in the 1700s, and the Manadonese have long intermarried with Dutch and Portuguese and are considerably more westernized in both culture and looks. There are pockets of Buddhists on Java and Kalimantan (Borneo), and smatterings of other religions, including a thriving Rastafarian group here in Jakarta. All must bow to the overarching and government-sanctioned Islam, however.


Dear Mom - Part 1

(Note: This is a multi-part post of an earlier letter home. I thought it might be worth sharing here. -B)

Greetings from the Far Side!

Given that I am now approaching the second anniversary of my arrival in the Indo Zone, it seems appropriate to compose a summary letter of my experience so far. Many of you I am in contact with regularly and will no doubt find some of this repetitive, while others may enjoy some observations of life in Indonesia from someone who is making a concerted effort to thoroughly consume the culture here.

As you no doubt will assume, life here is quite different from anything I have experienced before. Southern Mexico and Guatemala approach some aspects, such as tropical lifestyle, however I was unprepared for the profound similarities between Indonesia and the States. Lying somewhat below the surface, there are a number of ideological and historical matches between the two cultures. Even most Indonesians can not appreciate them since it requires extended experience in the cultures of both countries. Perhaps in this letter you will also begin to taste the closeness of the two, if I do my job right.

When I came here, I had the express purpose of diving in and fully sampling this unique place and its peoples. I have made a focused effort to avoid other foreigners, to learn the language and to delve as far into the culture as I could. Given that language and culture are symbiotic, I knew that I must learn Indonesian as fast and as fluently as I could. However, I was unprepared for the tast I had set for myself.

Even though I am fluent in three languages and speak another eight with various levels of skill, they are all European languages. While this may not seem like a big obstacle, one must fully understand how language works to know why my task has been so difficult.

Languages are vocal pictures and we think in images, not words. The words we use contain not just definition, but shared experience and cultural references. When you learn a second language, you must be prepared to re-context your thinking in order to achieve true fluency. All European languages share a common cultural reference. Despite the superficial differences between Germanic and Romantic, the underlying context of history and culture are the same for Europeans, Australians and Americans. From the way we construct sentences to more subtle things like the way the Black Death in the medieval period pervades our culture, how Westerners think and conceptualize are very similar across national boundaries.

Herein lies the problem. The history of Indonesia, and Asia in the larger context, is quiet different. Thus, the language is framed quite differently from any in my experience. There is almost nothing in common with Western vocabulary or grammar. Certainly, foreign words and terms have been borrowed into Indonesian, but even those are slightly redefined, making more subtle understanding problematic, as it is tempting to use more familiar flavors in the words rather than shift the contextual window to accommodate. For example, the word transportasi may sound like its English counterpart, but in Indonesian, it has no context for private mobility, only public. Similarly, Indonesian has borrowed handuk from Dutch, but instead of meaning a face cloth or handkerchief, it means bath towel. These, of course, are the more obvious differences, but it takes some time to appreciate the more complex things.

One prime example is the Indonesian word “selamet”. It is commonly used in greetings such as “selamet pagi,” or “good morning.” Another common expression is “selamet dating,” which translates as “welcome,” but would more appropriately say “fortunate arrival.” “Selamet” translates as “good,” but if one transliterates the word, it simultaneously means “happy, fortunate, beautiful, peaceful, pleasant.” In other words, one must expand the context of the standard greeting to include a variety of flavors that are expressed with other words in English. Another expression in Indonesian is “mantap.” The dictionary definition is “steady,” however it is used in a variety of contexts that might be translated as “cool,” “excellent,” “delicious,” or even “far-out,” depending on how it is used. It is the same as if one tries to transliterate “take a shower” from English into Indonesian. “Ambil mandi” would be incomprehensible to someone who does not know English, and comical to someone who does.

There are many examples like these and I could easily write a dissertation of the topic, but my purpose is not to bore you with comparative linguistics, but to help you understand my difficulty in fully sampling the culture. I have spent many hours now attempting to understand Indonesians, and language is but one aspect of a larger task. The next hurdle is quite a bit more daunting, and that is the sheer diversity of this country. There are over 350 distinct cultures and as many languages in Indonesia. What appears as a rather homogeneous and bland society at first blush, reveals itself to be highly complex and diverse upon closer inspection.

For example there is a group of people called the Batak whose native land is central Sumatera, and whose culture is centered on the largest lake in Asia, called Lake Toba. The first reference to the Batak in Western literature is in the writings of Marco Polo. An outsider would be tempted to lump them together as a single people, however they are subdivided into ten distinct tribes, each with a separate language, culture and history. Five of the 10 languages are cognate, but the other five are radically different. The Batak distinguish themselves by family names. Those with certain last names belong to this tribe, and so on. The Batak have a distinctive look, which is confirmed when one learns a person’s last name. They are generally larger and more robust than other Indonesians, and because of strong family ties, they have been very successful. On average, most Batak are university-educated and have a strong identity as brutally honest and hard-working. Javanese tolerate the Batak and they are considered valuable employees because of their honesty and trustworthiness, but the honestly is also why Javanese are affronted by Batak. They are legendary warriors, very aggressive and have fierce tempers, and for these reasons many military brass are Batak. They can also be found in journalism and sales all over the country.


How Not To Treat The Natives

Recent events in Asia have gotten me to pondering expat living and the use of language/linguistics. A few weeks ago, an Indian supervisor at a shipyard in Batam called all Indonesians "idiots" while dressing down a subordinate. Reportedly, this was not the first time he insulted the locals publically, but this time they had enough and rioted for several days, setting fires and destroying property. At least report from a witness, the Indians at that yard would most likely be sent home.

Invariably, I see expats (especially Westerners) isolate themselves in their adopted countries. They tend to live together in isolated compounds, eat their own foods and fail to associate with the local folk. Mostly it is motivated by fear, but there is usually an element of superiority.

In all languages, there is an upper class usage and lower class usage. In Indonesia, they have what is called bahasa kampung, or ghetto talk. Now, kampung is strictly translated as village, but in common usage, it encompasses all the connotations of the English words, neighborhood and ghetto. Javanese is the ghetto language and very few expats are aware of it or ever learn it. In fact, very few of the expats here even learn Indonesian, which is the common tongue throughout the country. Consequently, this leads to an "us versus them" mentality on both sides. The foreigners appear to be isolationist and haughty, and perceive the locals with suspicion and apprehension. Since language carries culture, one can easily make severe mistakes, if not simple faux pas, when one doesn't understand the language (e.g.-the riots in Batam).

So, what's my point? Tomorrow is international Labor Day (May 1), and folks are anticipating demonstrations and possibly riots here in Jakarta. I have received numerous warnings to stay home, which I cannot do because of work demands. I remind these folks that I use public transportation, along with all the local working stiffs, I speak both Indonesian and Javanese, and I have taken painstaking efforts to learn customs and manners here. The reasoning is this: public transportation is unlikely to be attacked, because they are full of the regular folks, not the evil foreigners; I need only speak a couple of phrases in Javanese (ghetto talk) and they know I have friends in the lower classes and that I am not an isolationist; and by knowing the customs and manners, I am unlikely to antagonize someone unnecessarily.

The Indian in Batam used the word, "goblok," which translates as idiot, but which has flavors that run along the lines of fuckwad, dipshit, and similar terms in English. In other words, it was a highly insulting and insensitive term to use. He could have said, "dodol." (like dunce and usually has flavors of humor), and avoided a lot of problems. The Indian should also have known that Indonesian culture is all about appearances and "face." Had he dressed the man down in private rather than in front of his peers, many passions would have been un-flared.

My point is this: with so many Westerners bailing out and moving East, it behooves them to learn the lingo as fast as they can, and what's more, to learn both the upper and lower class slang. Also, do not be seen to be isolationist. Visit the local store and hang out regularly, learn the most polite manners and use them with everyone all the time, and stroll the neighborhood in the evenings stopping to talk with anyone who seems friendly. It doesn't hurt to avoid ostentatious life-styles.

In frontier Texas, families who were friendly to the indians received the crossed arrows, which was a sign to others that you were not to be harmed. What I have suggested is the expat's equivalent. Linguistics are a survival mechanism for those in self-imposed exile. Knowing the local language and culture not only protects you in the event of unrest, but also can reduce your costs (to local prices instead of tourist prices) and foster goodwill with your neighbors.

Whoever said, "Talk is cheap," never ventured outside their compound (which, by the way, is an English word that is derived from the Indonesian word "kampung").