Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jakarta, a city of traffic jam

Jakarta is the capital city of Indonesia. It's city where you can find just about anything in Indonesia. To many, especially the wealthy, it's a paradise. To the middle-class it's a city of opportunity. The remaining are marginalized (poor, behind) yet resilient. It's probably the last city I would ever want to live.

Everyone who live or visit the city have one thing in common, they all despice the traffic jam, perhaps one of the worst in the world. With constant heat, high humidity, air polution from vehicle and open sewer, it is almost unbearable to me. Catalytic converter is optional, another contributing factor to the air polution.

My mom took me for shopping and I had quite an adventure on April 20th. We hopped from one bus to another, most of them are mini (more like tiny) buses. We hopped into and out of moving buses, it reminded me of my childhood. It took 4 buses to get to the shopping area, called Glodok, one and an half hours each way. Inside those buses I was sweating like crazy, smelled body odor of very packed passengers (which made it even hotter) mixed with exhaust from vehicles. I don't know how much damage I had done to my lung. But when I looked at those passengers, presumably used those buses on daily basis, their faces were humble and without grudges. The next day I shared my experience with one of my highschool classmates who has been living in Jakarta since we graduated from highschool. He said that's what he and our other classmates went through while they were in college. It makes you think how much we should be content with what we have. How often we complain when we feel a little uncomfortable.

What is considered unthinkable in the United States you may be able to find it in Jakarta. It is similar to what I saw in a TV ads in US, people selling goods during rush hour. I couldn't help myself from shooting my video camera. With slow moving traffic many people are desperate to make a living by selling food, drink, newspaper, etc. They walk on a narrow shoulder (about 3-4 feet or 1m) and between lanes carrying a lot of stuff on their shoulders while inhaling vehicle exhaust smoke constantly, not to mention intense scorching heat and humidity. It was a hard for me to emphatize.

The traffic was not as bad on Sunday. Most businesses and schools open Monday to Saturday. We were cruising on a Pay-toll highway and something caught my eyes. Concrete blocks were placed on both sides of the road and the shoulder on each side was only about 3-4 feet (1 m) wide and yet I saw a car stopped on the left shoulder. Half of the car sticked out into the left lane and I thought it was dangerous especially with high speed vehicles passing by. I was even more stunt to see the driver was taking a pee on the concrete block. That was bizzare, he could be killed. It may sound funny to hear someone get killed taking a pee on a highway. What I saw was not unusual, highway exits are too far apart. Having said that, drivers in Indonesia are very alert and horn is frequently used to avoid accident.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Medan, Binjai, first few days in Jakarta

From April 9-12 I stayed in Medan and Binjai, about 3 hours drive (including traffic jam) from my hometown (Pematang Siantar). The first night was with my cousin in Medan, 2nd and 3rd nights in Binjai at my other cousin's place.

In Binjai I stayed in a rural area, about 20 minutes away from the center of the city of Binjai. He showed me around his business such as egg production and eel plants. It's pretty smelly, coming from chicken poops on the ground with tons of maggots. I walked around stepping on thick piles of overnight dried chicken poops and live maggots, some even crawled into my feets but it didn't freak me out. It was early in the morning before they cleaned the poops up. Later that day I went back to video taped the plant including the floor with some remaining poops and maggots. He has about 30 thousands chickens and producing over 20 thousands eggs daily.

On April 12 my cousin drove me up to Medan to catch my flight to Jakarta. Unfortunately I missed my flight and had to catch the next flight. This time was all my fault. I guess I don't do well with flights in this trip. My brother, his family, and my mom picked me up in Jakarta. We went out to a restaurant and had wonderful dinner (going out to eat is so routine, it may be trivial to mention it over and over again).

The next day, April 13, my brother took me to his church, Gereja Kristus Yesus (translation: Church of Jesus Christ). It was a pretty big and nice church. As a visitor I was asked to raise my hand. Someone handed me out a form to fill. All of those forms were collected and submitted to a pastor on the altar. He called up each visitor's name and invited us to stand up and so others could see and greet us after the service. I thought it was a wonderful way to show hospitality.

After the service I was asked to play guitar in a Sunday school. I was impressed by the dedication of those Sunday school teachers. There were three teachers on each classroom.

Schools in Indonesia

While in my hometown I had a chance to visit my former school from grade 1-12. There are lots changes in the buildings and curriculums. To keep up with big cities standard, they implement American, British, and Singaporean teaching methods. Starting from kindergarten three languages are taught, Indonesian, English, and Chinese. There are three different flavors of classroom : standard, standard plus, and international, and their tuition fees are not the same. Relative to standard of living (income), schools are expensive. Having children more than two is very rare these days, they all blame it to high cost of education.

I was given an honor to give speeches in two classrooms at my former high school. The idea was to motivate and inspire high schoolers. I proposed a discussion format where students were given more opportunity to ask questions. Those speeches/discussions turned out well, I think. As a gesture of appreciation I was given a souvenir and lunch together with teachers. It was a rewarding experience.

Insane Driving

Every time I visit Indonesia somehow I can never get used to how people drive. Yielding is optional and erratic driving often gives a near heart attack. The general rule is as long as you put the bumper of your vehicle in someone else's way first then he/she has to yield. Changing lane suddenly without signaling no matter how close that car is, and making a turn without yielding to incoming traffic for examples. I was asked several times if I would like to borrow and drive their cars and I firmly refused, not to mention they drive on the left side of the road. I don't want another disaster to hit me.

Road conditions are not that great either, many pot holes, driving fast is always not a good idea. In some places I was stunt to see trees in the middle of the lanes. I learned from my relatives those trees were planted by people who were so sick of the road conditions and planted trees on pot holes. It's pretty bizarre.

Air pollution is another turned off. On daily basis I have been inhaling black smoke coming out of vehicles and it makes me cough. Catalytic converter is not required for vehicle, lower quality for gasoline refinary requirement, and gasoline is not led-free are contributing to the air pollution. It's good I don't bring my little children this time. Probably another 10 years before I bring my entire family.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hometown Experience: part 2

On the third day, I went to an outdoor swimming pool with my uncle early in the morning, around 6 AM. The water was a little cool and it was quite a crowd, mostly elderly. During the day my other uncle took me to visit many relatives, again. He went back to Jakarta in the afternoon and I have been free to go my own but still obligated to visit other relatives. I have been getting phone calls and SMS for reminders.

In the past 2 days I have been hanging out a lot with former school classmates and occasionally with relatives. On the third night one of my cousins (I have more 60 cousins that I know well, I stop counting for some aunts' and uncles' children that I barely seen in the past) took me an outdoor restaurant. It was very delicious, they specialized in freshly smoked seafood. I sat there and could see and smell the smoke. It came with smoked rice too, wrapped in banana leaf. For drink I got avocado ice cream. Yummy.

On the fourth day one of my cousins took me to an interesting social group called "Hash". There are two groups, one spun out from the original one. They are sponsored by their core members who are middle-age businessmen. Perhaps it has to do with mid-life crisis. There are also some young people, they participate for free. On weekly basis they get together on Sunday afternoon around 1:30 PM and car pool to a rain-forest. There are several rain forest locations and they rotate them weekly. Locals were paid to provide three different routes around each rain-forest using papers. There is a short route that takes about 1/2 hour, intermediate for 1 hour, and long one may be for 2 hours. It rained hard for 1/2 hour when we got there and they decided to take the intermediate route. Just because they were middle-age men didn't mean it was an easy thing to do, as a matter of fact it was pretty risky and energy consuming. Perhaps mid-life crisis drives them to taste the thrill. That day was made more difficult with an earlier rain, it was slippery and muddy. At the end of the route my legs and arms were filled with scratches from branches and leaves. There were lots of climbing involved, as steep as about 45 degree angle, going down hill, and walked around hill sides. Any misstep could lead to serious injury. We also crossed some rivers using a bamboo pole as a bridge, it took a team work to ensure no one fell into those rivers. We had to make many stops, it was pretty exhausted and I was sweating like crazy. Surrounding by thick trees and plants was like doing exercise with an oxygen tube (plant releases oxygen). It took us 1 1/2 hours due to slippery ground. The event was concluded with food and chit-chat. I had a blast and it was very refreshing.

Immediately after I arrived in my hometown my friends took me out of town to a village called Karang Sari. It's in a remote area with great food, known for BBQ and smoked seafood. We went to a restaurant, sat on a floor (traditional way of eating, no table and eat with hands) and had a great time chatting and eating.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Hometown experience, part 1

The night (almost) immediately after I arrived in my hometown I crashed into a bed (right after shower). I had a jet lag as expected, went to bed around 9 PM and woke up around 2 AM. During the day I have often been sleepy.

While awake there was a loud noise at 4 AM. I realized I was in Indonesia, a muslim country where you can find mosques just about anywhere. They put 4 big speakers facing 4 directions to ensure everyone one could hear it and they are very loud especially when a mosque is close to your house. It reminds me to my house before, a mosque was just right across the street from my house, just imagine having the Riverhills church Praise team (with bass, guitar, keyboard, and drum) playing in front of your house 5 times a day and one of them is at 4 until 5 AM every single day.

My uncle got up around 4:30 AM and we went to a school to do exercise. All of the people in the school were over 50, that made me the youngest one. It started with Tai Chi, based from an ancient chinese martial art. It's a slow and smooth motion sort of imitation the flow of air or water. Then they changed the music with higher pace and different moves. They have been doing it for many years and I was pretty impressed with how well they did it. I underestimated them but later after sweating a lot, boy, it's much harder than I thought. After an hour later I went for a walk with uncle to cool of for half an hour then went for breakfast at a restaurant.

After shower I went with bunch of relatives to our ancestors' cemetery. Worshiping ancestor has been an ancient Chinese ritual for thousands of years and integrated into Buddhistm. I was there to observe, flashback to when I was a little kid before I became a Christian.

After visiting cemetery my uncle spent the entire day taking me to countless of relatives, felt like a long day. Pretty much I was asked same questions over and over. Anyway I am back in the culture that revolves around food. All conversations begin with something like "Hi, have you eaten yet ?". One question that every single person ask as far as living in US is something like "so, do you eat bread every day, right ?" Everyone has been trying to feed, asking me out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The good thing is all of them come with small portion, that's the way it is in Asia, half the size of typically restaurants in US. So here I keep eating out, most dishes cost less than $1.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Rough trip all the way to Indonesia ..... hm...

After 11 hours in the Singapore airport finally I departed and arrive one hour later in Medan, Sumatera island, Indonesia. I was totally exhausted and so looking forward to getting out of airport. Another obstacle was on my way, the airport custom.

I made a big mistake by speaking Indonesian with a custom officer, thinking I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible after a very long flight (I left Mar 31st and got there on April 3rd). Before I even picked up my luggage they searched my carry-on bag. Not getting anything what they would like to see they asked for my luggage. Instead of opening my luggage (it's locked) in the search area I was immediately escorted to an office, in a closed door and was faced with 3 unfriendly officers. Growing up in Indonesia I knew I was getting into, they tried to extort money or belonging. All I have to do is minimizing the damage.

After unlocking the luggage they couldn't find anything illegal. Then they picked up a bottle of calcium supplement and Omega-3. They asked for the prices and I told them they were around $25, it was a long day I didn't quite remember the exactly price plus I didn't have a receipt to prove it. Probably they were more like $30 or slightly more, bought from Sams Club and I was not far off. They said they didn't believe me, with about 15 bottles (many small bottles) they said the total would be very expensive. The limit according to the law is $500. I remember my receipt was less than $200 from Sams Club. To minimize the damage I had to find a way to negotiate. I said I would not let them take any bottle and I might report it to the US Embassy about it. They offered to pay me for those supplements for their prices, $25. I knew they could hold me for a long time. They would not let get out of the room without getting something out of me. Reluctantly I agreed just to get out of there and of course I was not happy. After carrying them for a long distance only to give them up, it's not about the money. As I packed my luggage to leave the office, two other officers said they had bone problem too and wanted to buy a couple bottles of calcium. This time with subtle and firm way said "no". My relatives told me later that they were surprised that I was paid, usually they just take them away without paying. Perhaps they wanted to protect themselves just in case I report to the US embassy, saying they paid for them. I believe they thought they could sell them for higher prices.

While I was waiting for someone to pick me up one of those officers followed me and asked for some money. He said something about being American I have a lot of money. Instead I offered to buy him a drink in a shop next to the airport. Without my permission he picked a pack of cigarette up. He asked for my address and another one later approached me to give me a ride. Again in a subtle way I turned it down. The way it works is once they know your address then you'll come later to ask for money. That's the way in Indonesia, government officers are not your friend. I grew up dealing with them and always had to spend extra cash. I should have spoken in English and refused to speak in Indonesian to make the communication difficult so they might have let me go. I was just too exhausted to realize that.

I was able to call my brother's in-law in Medan to pick me up after half an hour waiting. Then my uncle picked me up from his house and we drove straight to my hometown that day. We had dinner in a town a long the way. We arrived in my other uncle's house. After I took shower I headed straight to a bed and snoozed immediately. What a long day .......... I thank God for a safe trip.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I am still in Singapore .... hhhhhhhh

Another bad news, another delay and I am stuck in the airport for 11 hours. It has been way too long of a trip, exhausted, not to mention jetlag ... oh well. My final flight will depart in 2 hours, hopefully no more surprise.

While online I had a chance to chat with a friend who lives in Singapore. It is interesting that the airport is so nice that Singaporeans love to hang around and shop in the airport. It's like a mall with shopping stores, food court, free internet, free electronic foot massage, and impressive gardens.

In the waiting area I saw a group immigrant workers (I guess they are on working visa) from India (I overheard the conversations). They were called by immigration officer as a group. Their ages probably are from 20s to 40s with humbling faces. Probably they have to leave behind their families to work overseas to support their families. It is probably harder for them to leave their families than I do and I believe it is for a longer period.

Stay tuned.........

Trip update: just arrived in Singapore

I just arrived in Singapore around 2 AM local time. Free internet at the airport, awesome, never seen that in any airport. It has been a long trip and delays.

Due to heavy snow in Minnesota my flight was delay. First, the plane arriving from Washington DC was delay for about 2 hours. The pilots for my flight were from Miwakee, Wisconsin, and it was delay too. We had to wait for another hour after we boarded the plane. The total delay was 3 hours. I missed the next connecting flight which was supposed to be with Malaysian airlines. Northwest re-book my flight from Malaysian Airlines to Singapore Airlines but it didn't depart until 12 hours later. They put me in a hotel and I got some sleep.

The next day to my surprise Singapore Airlines didn't have my name in their system and I had to carry my luggages to Northwest counter. LA airport is huge, it was a long walk. Then another surprise, Northwest didn't have my name either, I was a bit upset, it was unacceptable. Then they said they would take my word for it but still couldn't book me on Singapore airlines. It said the plane was full but I told them the singapore airlines told me they were plenty of seats. They were working on booking me for an hour but couldn't. He apoligized that there was nothing he could do, I said it was unacceptable. I demanded to see the manager. She improvised and put my name on the FIM (booking system) for the next day flight in order to put my name on the system (go figure). Perhaps they couldn't do it for that time while Singapore airlines was doing check-in. If that is the case they should have had me on the system the day before when they re-booked me when I missed my flight (with receipts to prove it). It seems like computer synchronization problem.

Then I had to go for another long walk with luggages to Singapore airlines ticket counter. They couldn't find my name until I mentioned that Northwest booked for the next day flight. He said he wasn't sure he could move my name to the flight that day. He said I could either talk to Malaysian airlines (original connecting airlines that I missed) which doesn't open until 5 PM and fly the following day or buy a new ticket at my own expense. I said neither one was acceptable option. They had to work something out and I wouldn't take "no" as an answer. He went away and called Northwest and his manager. Half an hour later he came back and booked on the flight.... phew.... finally. By the way the flight wasn't any near to being full, not even 3/4 full, plenty of empty seats. It looks like Northwest can't access their computer system (but I still wonder why Northwest computer said it was full).

Singapore airlines is very nice, like an upgrade from Malaysian airlines. There is a monitor screen on each seat. There are more than a hundred movies available, play games, and monitor flight status. I watched I am Legend, National Treasure: book of secrets, and Golden Compass (bad movie, not because I am biased but it was truely bad). I sat next to a Canadian who travels a lot. He is an electricians and this time he is on business trip to Singapore. We talked quite a bit.

Ok, now I am at the airport and have another 4 1/2 hours to kill and free internet before my final flight to Medan, a city close to my hometown. I am going to spend time in Binjai (my mom's hometown) and visit relatives, Medan and visit relatives and friends, then Siantar which is my hometown.

Stay tuned.....