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.