Monday, July 20, 2009

When They Were Headhunters

When they were headhunters, many of the people of Borneo lived in “long houses” that were built on stilts 10 to 20 feet off the ground. Measuring up to 1/8th of a mile in length, the long houses were single structures that were home to an entire clan. Between 600 to 700 people could reside in one structure. These unique buildings were crafted because the various tribes were often at war with each other, and a single homestead afforded the greatest protection.

Less than 50 years ago, the Iban people, the island’s most ferocious tribe, hunted heads not only for ceremonial and spiritual purposes - but for sheer glory. Women would not consider a suitor unless he had separated an enemy’s head from the rest of his body. Distinctive tattoos adorned the bodies of those men who had shown valor on the battlefield. The severed heads were hung in a special place of honor because the spirits captured within provided protection to the inhabitants of the longhouse. And there they hung, for seven generations, until a burial ceremony was performed that - at long last -released the spirits.

The Iban, Kayan, Kanyen, and all the other tribal people of Borneo are disappearing rapidly, as are their ways of life – good and bad. Only the old men and women have memories of the old ways. To me, this loss seems rather tragic. But when I asked the 89-year-old Iban chief pictured above what he missed most from the past, he smiled mischievously and said, “Life is good. Before, old men had to work in the fields until the end. But I don’t have to do that. I get to relax.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Tale of Two Volcanos

Considered one of the top ten locations in Indonesia, Mt. Bromo is as impressive at sunrise as all the guidebooks claim. Actually a live volcano, Mt. Bromo is one of three peaks that formed within the caldron of an even larger, more ancient volcano. In the pre-dawn hours, with drowsiness urging one back to sleep, the landscape is surreal – more reminiscent of a beautifully rendered canvas than a living, smoking presence. As can be expected with any sight that required time and skill to reach, the local people imbue the mountain with all manner of spiritual significance. Their perspective is easy to appreciate as the rising sun paints the sky soft shades of pink and blue, slowly revealing the fog-shrouded mountain peaks below.

As compelling as Mt. Bromo was for its dreamlike qualities, it was another, unexpected, volcano that captured our attention – a volcano of mud. A few hours drive from Mt. Bromo lies what used to be the town of Sidoarjo. While drilling for oil, PT Lapindo Brantas, a local company owned by a leading Indonesian politician, struck not crude but an untapped geyser of mud. The earthen sludge shot out of the ground over three years ago, yet it continues to discharge 150,000 cubic meters of mud every day – enough to fill forty Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to an April 2008 study.

Within weeks of the initial eruption, entire villages – home to more than 40,000 people - were completely submerged, as was the highway and the railroad track leading to Eastern Java. The pollutant ran into a nearby river, a primary source of water for the people of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, turning it unusable. Much of the population is now forced to drink bottled water. Pictures of the early days are unbelievable.

Recriminations abound. Local people, and a number of engineers, claimed that in their rush for cheap access to oil, Lapindo Brantas had failed to use established drilling practices, resulting in a preventable tragedy. The company counter-claimed, blaming the disaster on a earthquake that had occurred days earlier about 260 kilometers (160 miles) away. Regardless, the politician, who owns Lapindo Brantas, promised to compensate the people who had been divested of their homes and livelihoods.

Years have passed, a dike has been built to push the mud flow back into a contained area, which is filling up like a lake. The people who were displaced are trying to re-establish their lives, but instead of their previous homes, they are now forced to live in shacks. Work is scarce to non-existent. Neither the government nor Lapindo Brantas ever made reparations to the people.

In a few days, Indonesia will have a presidential election. Candidates from all three parties are promising to pay attention to Sidoarjo. But the people there don’t believe it. So far, they have received nothing but promises. And it is unlikely that a man of political strength will ever be held accountable in a country where cronyism and corruption are part of the political landscape.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Guest Blog: A View from the Top

Since I have been so busy lately, my husband, Mike, decided to write a entry about his recent trip to Taiwan. There will be more from me soon. In the meantime, Mike...

“When you come out of the train station, look for the tallest building.” I was doubtful about the helpfulness of these directions for finding my accommodations in Taipei. I had come to this part of Asia to visit my Mom of all people. I had seen her only once since my wedding five years ago, so I jumped at the opportunity to see her when I found out she would be presenting at a conference in Taiwan. She and her friend Sharlene agreed to my idea of staying in a hostel in Taipei – Sharlene was actually quite excited about it as her family runs one in Miami. The hostel was located in a high-rise next to the Shin-Kong Life Building, once the tallest in the city.

The directions foreshadowed one of the surprise highlights of our visit. While we enjoyed the spectacular Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, dined on wonderful street food at the night markets, and were fortunate to be in town during the annual dragon boat races, the Taipei 101 building, which replaced the Shin-Kong as the tallest, turned out to exceed our expectations.

As someone who is skeptical about superlatives, I am always curious how people reach their conclusions when they claim "biggest", "tallest", "fastest". By my own research, the Taipei 101 currently holds title to the tallest building in the world, but will soon to be surpassed by three others already under development. The building is modeled after a bamboo stalk, the sides flaring about every 10 stories. The elevator ride up to the spire was the first surprise – the fastest elevator in the world (not confirmed by research) was amazing – 87 stories in 37 seconds and pressurized in such a way that your ears don’t pop.

At the indoor observation platform, we were directed to get headsets that provided a guided tour from 14 points around the deck - complete with views and exhibits about the building, the city, and the Taiwanese culture.

Living in Asia has made me realize how little I knew about the cultures in this region before I arrived, and how amazing they are. What I discovered at the Taipei 101, is that MOST of the tallest buildings in the world are in Asia. In fact, 10 of the 12 highest buildings in the world are located here – notable exceptions are the Sears Tower in Chicago (#5) and the Empire State Building in New York (#10). A few months earlier, I had visited #3, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which was already familiar to me because Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones went sky-diving inside it in “Entrapment”. But I had never heard of the others in the top ten - 3 of which are in Hong Kong, and 4 of which are on mainland China.

With all the talk about how Asia is going to overtake America in terms of global leadership – this experience makes me wonder if they already have.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Different Kind of Burning Man

Having just read “Island of Bali”, a classic on Balinese culture published in 1946, we were able to appreciate some of the nuances behind the cremation of three men that took place in Ubud last week. To our na├»ve eyes, the ceremony we saw paralleled what we learned from that text, even though it was written more than 60 years ago.

Tourists and strangers are welcomed at what Westerners would consider a somber event. In Bali, though, a cremation is a joyous occasion where participants play music and cavort through the streets. The spectacle feels more like a party than a funeral because this is the day when the soul will be released to heavenly realms and the day that the family’s obligations to the deceased will end. Since the death, family members had been required to perform daily rituals to transfer the soul to an effigy, “clean” it of impurities attained during life, and protect it from evil spirits.

On cremation day, a huge procession moves through the streets from the final resting place of the body to the cremation grounds. First come elegantly dressed family members carrying the effigy that contains the soul. These are followed by an enormous and beautifully constructed animal-shaped coffin - on this occassion, bulls - carried by dozens of men. Although hollow at this point, the coffin is where the body will be placed prior to cremation. And finally comes an elaborate tower consisting of three sections – the earthly realm at the bottom, a middle limbo that holds the body, and heavenly tiers above, the number of which is governed by strictly-observed cultural rules.

Once the procession reaches the cremation grounds, rituals are performed over a few hour period that eventually result in the body - and the soul - being moved to the coffin where everything is finally set aflame. Unlike India, where wood is used and cremation can take 3 to 4 hours, the three cremations we witnessed were over in less than an hour. The Balinese use kerosene lighters to torch the coffins, and they tease the bodies should they take too long to burn. Firemen are on the scene to safeguard the situation and the thousands of viewers.

On the surface, the Balinese funerary practices are significantly different from what we observed in Sulawesi a few weeks ago, but what struck me were the similarities between the underlying values – the extraordinary concern regarding safe passage of the deceased, a willingness to virtually bankrupt a family to cover the cost, an expectation that hundreds if not thousands should attend, and the high level of familial participation.

When the cremation ends at sunset, the families gather whatever material remains. They wrap it with great care, carry it to the nearest water source – a river or the sea – and release the final elements back to the earth from which they came.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Where a Yurt is Not a Yurt

When most people hear the word "yurt", what place do they think of? Mongolia, of course. Quite unexpectedly, however, in Mongolia, these nomadic homes are referred to as "gar" - which, when pronounced, rhymes with "care" rather than "car" as expected.

Mongolia is vast, sparsely populated outside the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, and highly unpredictable.

Last Saturday was a warm gorgeous day, and I was anxious for some exercise. Just before setting off on a long hike, I snapped the top picture from the door of the gar where I would be spending the night. The next morning as I woke in my toasty gar, kept warm by a small stove that was stoked throughout the night by the evening watchman, I stared in disbelief at what appeared to be snow falling through small openings in the top of the structure. When I stepped outside, the scene in the bottom image greeted me. More snow had fallen that spring night than had fallen throughout most of the winter months.

According to a Mongolian colleague, when a person's temperament is volatile or erratic, they are said to be like "weather in the spring". How apropos!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ten Years and a Hundred Buffalo

Death is a big part of life in Tanah Toraja, a region of Sulawesi – the third largest island in the Indonesian archipelago. People there spend much of their lives saving money for ritual burials. When a favored family member dies, the deceased is laid out in the home and considered ‘sick” until the time of burial. But that can’t happen until sufficient funds are raised – which could take up to ten years depending on the status of the person and the scale of the funeral that is planned. An extravagant affair will run for 5 to 7 days, during which time all visitors will be housed and fed. Considering that 1,000 people could attend such a funeral, you begin to understand why it could take such a long time to raise the necessary money.

While waiting, the body is preserved with a salve made from plants, herbs, and other local ingredients. Since the lotion is not completely foolproof, in years past family members would rotate to ensure that someone was with the body 24x7. If any part became exposed, more salve had to be applied immediately to avoid decay. Now, however, obligations to earn money or attend school make it hard to perform this ritual. So, increasingly, formaldehyde or other embalming fluids are being used.

To reach the next realm successfully, a spirit needs to be accompanied. Generations ago, slaves, buffalo, and pigs would be slaughtered. Thankfully, in modern times the killing is limited to highly prized buffalo and pigs. But even then, the numbers could get extreme. So the government passed a law capping the buffalo sacrifices at 100.

The last part of the funeral process is the transfer of the body from its ancestral home to it final resting place – generally in a cave or rocky hillside. Tombs are carved out of solid stone and closed with elaborately decorated wooden doors that can be removed to add the next family member. Individuals that have been revered by their families are immortalized with wooden effigies that are placed in specially constructed porticos overlooking the burial sites. Originally, these carved images were relatively crude, but over time they have become eerily realistic.

Of course, not everyone gets ten years and a hundred buffalo. A common person is lucky to get a pig and a toss into a cave.

Although Tanah Toraja is probably the most fascinating part of Sulawesi from a cultural perspective, there are a lot of other interesting things on the island. If you want to see more, check out my photo archive.

Monday, March 9, 2009

From New Orleans’ Slave Quarters to Jakarta’s Center Stage

Jazz, born sometime between 1890 to 1935 from the spiritual cadences and work songs of black slaves in the heart of Dixie. Jazz, a music that has spawned a range of subgenres and found footholds around the world, hit the stage in Jakarta last week with a vengeance.

The 5th annual Java Jazz Festival hosted 19 stages of simultaneous performances by more than 70 international artists. And what a mix! There was more diversity in this line-up than I have seen at any other venue.

The musicians included Oleta Adams, a State-side singer who combines gospel, R&B, and pop. She would have been right at home at the New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival. But then there was Prasada, who whipped up the crowd with his Jimmy Hendricks guitar style, while dressed in a floor length tunic common in his native India. Not to mention Cristian Cuturruffo, a Chilean trumpeter who blew our socks off. But it was while I was listening to the conga drummer from Quasimode, a hip group from Japan, that it hit me. Here I was in Jakarta watching Americans, Chileans, Indians, Japanese, Mexicans, Indonesians, and a host of others engrossed in music that emerged from the swamps of the southern States and the heartache of an enslaved people.

Just imagine what one of those ancestors would have thought if they could have foreseen what I witnessed last weekend. It reminded me to never underestimate the ability of time to create positive change and the unity of our global soul.

Image from Quasimode's website

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why Does Mobile Banking Matter?

For the past two weeks, I have been traveling around Papua New Guinea trying to understand how money works in this economy where 87% of the people live in relatively isolated villages surviving through subsistence farming and a variety of odd jobs. Almost none of these people have bank accounts. Money that is saved is hidden carefully inside homes or wrapped in some kind of container and buried. In the past when money was made from paper, the hard earned -and carefully saved - cash often disintegrated before it was dug-up to be used. Imagine the horror that an impoverished person would feel when they realized the little money they had saved for emergencies had disintegrated. To minimize this type of tragedy, the Government of Papua New Guinea converted all its currency from paper to plastic. That helps. But if a parent dies before they can reveal their secret hiding places, their family is left bereft.

It may seem that money would not be important to a remote population who live in simple houses made of bush materials, go barefoot most of the time, and grow their own food. But that is not the case. The villagers we interviewed said that their largest expenditure was the fees they pay for their children to go to school. Community cohesion is extremely strong in PNG. When one family is in trouble, the rest of the village pitches in to help. So the second most important use of money is “social obligations.” Often considered both a blessing (because it ensures the survival of all) and a curse (because it makes it almost impossible for any one person to acquire wealth), these social obligations are the warp and woof of village life. People also need money for second-hand clothing, shoes, and incidentals like soap.

Villagers rarely go to a bank. Townspeople and those living in proximity to a town are more likely to do so. In all cases, when people in PNG got to a bank, they are forced to wait in queues under the hot sun for up to 2 or 3 hours. Coupled with the travel time required, going to the bank will take the average Papua New Guinean more than half a day. People who live farther away often have to walk some distance or take a bus that will charge them about $1.25 each way to get to the bank. That's a lot of money if you are making only a couple hundred dollars a year.

When we interviewed some of townspeople waiting in the bank pictured above, we learned that they bank a few times a week because holding onto cash – even small amounts – presents huge security risks. Theft is rampant in PNG. In the West, we are so used to our ATM, debit, and credit cards, we find the PNG realities unthinkable. Just try to imagine what your life would be like if you had to conduct all your transactions in cash, could carry only small amounts at any time to minimize loss through theft, and then had to stand in line for hours every time you needed more money. Your productivity would tank.

The potential of saving money safely, securely, and affordably whenever you want, wherever you want - even at a basic tucker shop near your village - all through a mobile phone can be life changing for people in a country like PNG. The use of phones as a mechanism to stay connected to family and obtain critical information already has changed their lives. In Cambodia where I was traveling before coming to Papua New Guinea, I learned about a new mobile phone solution that could have great potential in PNG as well. I feel very fortunate to be able to do the work I do, at the same time that I have the opportunity to explore our fascinating planet.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hindu Ritual Defies Medical Science?

More than ten years ago, I learned about an annual festival that occurs every January or February in India, Malaysia, and Singapore. Participants pierce their bodies with skewers, walk for miles so impaled, and emerge – as I was told - unscathed. This captured my imagination because there was supposedly no blood throughout the process, and any holes that were created, closed up and disappeared almost instantaneously. If that

was true, then this ritual defied medical science. I had to see it for myself, and last week I finally did.

Thaipusam is a Hindu ritual that celebrates victory by an Indian Lord over a demon. Devotees use the occasion as atonement, a prayer, or in memorandum. Their level of engagement ranges from women who carry heavy pots of milk on their heads to men who pull shrines through the streets with ropes that are attached to hooks embedded in their backs. Many men choose to carry kavadi, huge decorative structures – often taller than then the man transporting it. In what my friends and I called the “skewer-light” version, the kavadi are supported by shoulder pads and thick belts, much like a backpack. In the “hardcore version”, participants actually have metal stakes driven through their waists to support the structure. There are two stakes in front of the body and another two behind that bear the bulk of the kavadi’s weight. In most cases, there is also a network of skewers that crisscross – and impale - the chest and back. This secondary system is also important in supporting the structures. Most of the devotees, men and women, sport decorated skewers that pierce through their mouths and tongues.

While this may sound gruesome, it really isn’t. In fact, the entire event had the atmosphere of an arduous sporting event, like a marathon or an Ironman triathlon. Like those events, Thaipusam requires months of rigorous disciplined preparation, a team of friends and family to provide support and encouragement, celebrations before the actual event, and the ability to transcend pain. In the West, an entire industry has formed to train people for endurance sports as a way of raising money, and awareness, around AIDs, leukemia, and a range of other causes. As I watched Thaipusam, I wondered if those men who were carrying their kavata in memory of a deceased parent were really that much different than the soccer mom who runs a marathon for the first time to support a friend who has breast cancer.

On the night before Thaipusam, we met three men who were going to be participants. They explained parts of the ritual to us, and invited us to come back the next morning to watch them prepare – which we did. Two of them are pictured here, but you can also see them parading through Singapore on YouTube.

Thaipusam was amazing, and I am glad that I went. But did it defy medical science? That was the question that drew me to Singapore in the first place. Was it true that there was a lack of blood and a miraculous closure of wounds? Some of what I had been told is true. There is very little blood involved. We watched some of the participants being released from their implements of torture, and there was limited physical damage. Limited, but not non-existent. Based on what I saw, I think the absence of blood and the quick recovery have more to do with the meticulous way in which the skewers are inserted, the fact that it is primarily skin and fat that is pierced rather than muscle, and the use of ash to quickly protect wounds and staunch any blood flow.

If some February in the future, you happen to be in a part of the world where Thaipusam takes place, I strongly recommend that you watch it. But be prepared to get up early. Thaipusam starts at 12 am and runs through a 24-hour clock, but the most impressive activities take place in the middle of the night and the early hours of the morning.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In China, it is Everybody's Birthday

Tonight at midnight, Chinese New Year begins. Unlike Westerners whose New Year’s Eve celebrations peak at midnight, the Chinese will just be getting started at that time. Although families may have gathered earlier in the evening for special meals, the events at the temples don’t even begin until the early hours when people arrive by the thousands to light candles and pray. The ceremonies will go on through dawn. Monday will be a national holiday, so the revelers can recuperate from their nightlong festivities.

Wealthy families will pay between $500 to $600 for massive candles that stand taller – and wider – than a man and weigh several hundred pounds. Moving these gigantic wax creations into the temple is a multi-man job. Once lit, they will burn for years. Having the ability to purchase such a gift to the gods is difficult for most, but nonetheless the temples I visited yesterday had rows of these enormous candles standing like giant sentinels.

Tomorrow will not end Chinese New Year celebrations. Quite the contrary. Lion dances, fireworks, and parties will continue for the next two weeks. The 7th day of the New Year is called “Everybody’s Birthday”. In traditional China, individual birthdays were not considered as important as the New Year date. So everyone in the country added one more year to his or her age on the 7th day of each New Year. Chinese New Year ends on Lantern Day, which occurs 15 days after New Year’s Eve. On that day, there will be final parades dominated by lanterns as well as dancing dragons that are made of bamboo, silk, and paper and can exceed 200 feet in length.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rains - and Floods - Have Come to Jakarta

The Christmas holidays had barely faded into the background, before the rains came in earnest. It is now the rainy season, a period I am told will last through February. The ferocity of the storms takes my breath away. As I lie in bed at night, I can hear the rain pounding against the windows. The lightening brightens my room and the thunder booms. The power and intensity of the storms is astonishing - and exhilarating. When the rain wakes me, I snuggle more under my covers feeling safe, protected, and dry. It is a great place from which to appreciate the storm. My first conscious thought, though, is for those who are not as fortunate as I. Rain in Jakarta means flooding. It is not a rare occurrence. It is part of daily life for many people here during this time of year.

The problem is complex and is dependent on a number of factors. One of which goes back to the same Dutch ingenuity that I spoke about in an earlier entry. Remember those canals they dug through Jakarta to make it feel more like home – like Holland? Well over the centuries, those canals have been clogging up with mud, garbage and all forms of debris. They are no longer watery conduits, but breeding grounds for insects, filth and disease. In the rainy season, the canals also limit the ability of rain water to penetrate the earth – and so the extra water floods across many parts of the city.

How do I know about this? Well, it just so happens that the first evening event I attended in Jakarta was a lecture by a World Bank specialist on flooding. You might not think that would be a very interesting subject, but it turns out that the talk was fascinating and the computer-generated simulations that were shown were amazing. He talked about all the different factors that lead to flooding, as well as the myriad ways in which the problem could be attacked. What did this expert believe was the least expensive, most effective means of making a significant difference? Cleaning those canals, of course.

The image comes from

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

The number of high-end night clubs, restaurants, and shopping centers in Jakarta - like the one pictured here with a 7-story slide cascading through it - never cease to amaze me. Prices are high, even by Western standards. But that is only part of the story. Other realities co-exist, like that of a 66-year old man who was recently interviewed by the local paper.

Joyosudarmo is a tukang ojek - or bicycle taxi - driver, and he spends from 6 am to 4 pm everyday serving customers, for which he earns between $3 to $5 per day. When asked when he planned to retire, the dignified man said, "As long as I have the strength to pedal my bike, I will work. I do not want to be a burden to anyone."

If you care to look, disparity here stands out in stark contrasts. It torments me because I know that I don't really understand - or fully appreciate - the nuanced lives of people in this country. I don't know in which ways I need to change my own life - and the choices that I make on a daily basis - to have more of an impact on bridging the enormous gulfs that I see. But I can say, that it is increasingly difficult to enter one of the chic establishments here without being painfully aware of what it would take for a bicycle taxi driver or many of the other 250 million people in this country to earn what I could so easily spend on that night's meal or entertainment. And I do know, that somehow I have to align more of my life with that awareness.