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.