Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas "Wonder" Land

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, so you would not expect a Christian holiday to garner much interest. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Christmas is a VERY BIG DEAL in Indonesia, in the cities at least. It is enthusiastically celebrated with an extraordinary mix of Western tradition and Eastern interpretation. The surprising results make my inner being smile repeatedly. Yes, that is a person in a Santa suit riding a bicycle in a tank of water alongside a shark. Go figure.

Christmas is a national holiday here, as are significant events from five religions - Islam, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity - all of which are represented in Indonesia. Integration is part of the culture here, I have come to learn. Rather than arguments, Indonesians prefer harmony. When presented with new ideas, they will blend those concepts into their existing world view creating a richer, more nuanced result. Thus the culture can support women in hajib, ballets depicting the Ramayana (Hinduism's great epic), and Christmas - all with equal flair and exuberance.

George Lakoff, a language professor, wrote that when most people are faced with facts that do not fit their world view, they prefer to toss out the facts rather than reconsider their beliefs. Perhaps we could all learn a lesson or two from the Indonesian approach, because, after all, isn't acceptance - as well as the depth of love that it is requires - part of what Christmas is all about?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Day of Decadence

After two months of living solo in Jakarta, Mike arrived to spend his vacation with me. Not only was this his first visit to our new home here, it was also his 43rd birthday. So I put together a special welcome package for him - a day of decadence, Indonesia-style.

Our day started with a soothing massage at the lovely Ritz-Carlton Spa. Since it is literally downstairs from our apartment, we didn't even have to get dressed after our leisurely breakfast. Instead, we hopped in the elevator and went straight to the sauna rooms - still in our robes. Body oils and scented perfumes were followed by lunch at the Koi Gallery & Restaurant in the trendy Kemang neighborhood.

Our meal was topped off several blocks away at the Dharmawangsa Hotel, my first home in Jakarta. There we imbibed on their legendary chocolate martinis, accompanied by a particularly tasty version of Mike's favorite dessert - Tiramisu. Notice that the martini glasses have been dipped in chocolate, which is excruciatingly delicious. The best part of the cocktail is licking every bit of the chocolate off the glass. My first visitor, Kip, will attest to that as he started the trend when he helped me test the martinis in advance of Mike's visit.

Wayang, traditional Indonesian puppet theater, was the way we ended the day. Although we could not understand a word of the performance, we did enjoy it and were amused to learn that the story intertwined parts of the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic, with the puppeteer's hopes for the Obama presidency.

We did not have time for a movie at the Velvet Room in the Blitz Megaplex, where you curl up in bed and dine with 16 other couples while enjoying a good film. We will have to wait until later in the week to try that bit of decadence.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Art is the Heart of Indonesia

A 1959 quote in reference to Sukarno, Indonesia’s first President, says, “He’s an artist. But then we are a nation of artists. We understand beauty better than politics.” That sentiment, I believe, still resonates today. Art permeates the culture here. From paintings to textiles to fashion shows, the opportunity to enjoy the creation and exhibition of a cornucopia of art abounds.

This past week, I was introduced to art galleries as well as a "village", where artists from all over the country congregate to work, display, and sell their creations. The limited space that each artist has to work is crammed with supplies and canvases. Shoes, however, stay outside.

Fashion shows for both men and women are a regular occurrence. As many as 3-4 events take place in Jakarta every month. During the show that I attended, in which six designers paraded their styles, a huge section of the audience disappeared as the first models left the stage. In my naivete, I thought they did not like the show. Afterward, I learned that the semi-mob had rushed backstage and bought out the entire line-up, which certainly suggests the hard times facing the United States may not be global - at least not for the wealthier in Asian society.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Fountain of Death

In 1619, the Dutch moved into Indonesia and took control of the islands - first through the Dutch East India Company and eventually as conquerers. During the 300 plus years of their rule, Fatahilla Square was at the heart of the capital city, Batavia.

Wishing to make their new land more like home, the Dutch built canals throughout Batavia. The problem was that unlike Holland where the water moved freely, in Batavia the water stagnated and became a breeding ground for all manner of noxious stuff. Fed from the canals, the central fountain teemed with cholera, thypoid, and dysentery. The resultant death rate was so high that in the 18th century, Batavia was known as one of the world's deadliest cities - particularly for white men. One researcher from the time concluded that every soldier sent to Batavia had "perished there". Every soldier!!!

The Chinese, who boiled their water when making tea, fared much better. But the unlucky Dutch did not put 2-and-2 together, thinking instead that disease was airborne. So to combat it, they closed their doors and windows. Without air conditioning in this sweltering humid climate, those poor souls must have suffered mightily before they perished from their drinking water.

Batavia was renamed Jakarta by the Japanese in 1942 when they took possession of the island country. But that was not the end of the Dutch. After WWII, they reclaimed Indonesia and maintained it as a colony until 1949 when Indonesia finally obtained its independence.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Clothes as Art:Fit for a Queen, Made by Street Kids

Who would have thought that hidden away, just down the block from local food stands, would be a mansion museum displaying the wearable art of Harry Darsono. Reputedly Indonesia’s only haut couture designer, Harry has made, sold, and bought back dresses created for Princess Diana, Queen Rania of Jordan, and a host of other royals. Although he was born into a wealthy Indonesian family, Harry caused quite a stir in his youth because his dyslexia and ADHD left him hyperactive and violent. It was only when his spirit was calmed through a deep fascination with a spinning wheel that his true brilliance shone through. Since then, Harry has shown his genius in art, couture, and music. But, he insists that there is no such thing as talent, just dedication and determination. His designs require enormous focus, many of them are hand-made from literally millions of individually tied knots. One of his floor length skirts is woven entirely from threads made of gold. With the same enthusiasm that he brings to his art, Harry has started a foundation that has established hundreds of “transition houses” across Indonesia. These homes have provided more than 4,500 youth - often street kids - who have the same psychological and learning problems Harry encountered early in life with the focus and skills they need to transform their lives. There is no doubt that Harry knows and loves many of these children on a personal level, and that this is his finest work.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Jakarta Landlords are Very Spoiled

Finding a place to live in Jakarata is not an easy task for expats. Most landlords are very spoiled and will not rent their apartments or flats for less than 2 to 3 years. And not only that, they expect payments many months in advance. For those like me, who are here less than a year, the best option is a furnished, serviced apartment. For convenience sake, I opted for the residences in the Ritz Carlton Hotel and shopping complex - right across from my office. Perched here on the 31st floor, I have a dazzling view and everything I need at my fingertips. There is even a spa on the premises - and a morning yoga class! The rainy season, which runs from November through March, is starting. And when it rains, traffic comes to a crawl as streets flood and people rush to get home. A 10 minute drive can turn into an hour-long ordeal. But not for me. I just pop through the underground tunnel connecting the Ritz to the Jakarta Stock Exchange, and I am in my office in less than 5 minutes guaranteed.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sweet Home Obama Bar

According to the Jakarta Post, the two home compound where Barack Obama lived from the ages of 9 to 11, may be up for sale. Currently valued at $3 million, there have supposedly been offers of five times that much - assuming Senator Obama becomes President on November 4th. One prospective buyer wants to turn the premises into a cafe that serves an "Obama-blend coffee," a mix of beans from Kenya and Java and "stroopwafels," a caramel-type treat brought to Indonesia by the Dutch while they were occupying the country. Now that is a place that I would like to go and hang out in the future.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Jakarta by way of Papua New Guinea

My flight was supposed to take me from San Francisco to Hong Kong, and then on to Jakarta. But when I got off my 14 hour flight to Hong Kong, I learned that a "quick" trip to Papua New Guinea had been arranged. So long story short, over a 5 day period, I spent 4 in the air. It was worth it, though. My trip to PNG was a dramatic start to my East Asia adventures, and reminded me of the fantastic experiences I had there 10 years ago on a Mountain Travel/Sobek vacation. I made it to Jakarta on October 24th, and have been luxuriating in my gorgeous hotel - the Dharmawangsa. Keep it in mind if you ever plan a trip here. Image courtesy of Wikipedia