Thursday, November 29, 2007

Doing the Camel Running

So, after the standard visit to the Jaisalmer fort, and a night of way too many Kingfishers, Bestman and I went on a camel safari into the “desert” outside Jaisalmer in India. I suppose that there may have been the requite amount of sand for it to be an actual desert, but after living in Mauritania, the bar is set a little high these days. In any case, the way out involved an extremely hungover me rocking back and forth on this great smelly beast and wishing I was dead.

Upon arrival at our sand dune that would be the camp for the night, we climbed up the dune (with the hoards of other camera toting tourists) to watch the sunset, while the guides fed the camels, set up camp and built the fire to make dinner. Eventually, the other tourists drifted away, back to town, or to luxury camps (places where the bathroom isn’t defined as “that thorn tree over there looks secluded” – pansies.) We sat with the crew as they were making dinner. They let Bestman try his hand at making chapattis (like Indian tortillas), which likely was a deeply moving cultural experience for him, but mostly just resulted in lumpy sandy chapattis for the rest of us.

After dinner, we were offered the choice of sleeping or “doing the talking-talking”. (They had set up bona fide beds in the desert for us, complete with frame and comforters. It looked a little out of place on the dunes, but made for an enjoyable night.) We opted for the talking-talking, and so we all sat around the fire and they told us a little about the life and times of a tourist camel guide. After a while, they packed us off to bed because tomorrow we would be “doing the camel running.”

Next day, sure enough, up at dawn and back on the camel. Today, we went on a longer trip, and I learned how to trot on a camel. I wasn’t very good at it because I didn’t like to hit the camel to make him go faster. (The little boy guide on the back of the camel in front of me kept screaming “Heeeet heem! Madam heeeet heeem!” when I fell too far behind.) But nonetheless, up on top of a camel, ropes in my hand, trotting across the dunes, felt pretty damned badass.

After a miserable overnight train ride in a freezing and dusty third class bunk, we arrived in the blue city of Jodhpur. A hike up to the fort confirmed that many of the houses were in fact blue. (This is due to the blue being the traditional color of the Brahmin elite, and because apparently the blue paint confuses the bugs.)

Then, after a little more of doing the drinking-drinking, back off to Delhi. The last day in India, I had been planning on maybe doing a little rug shopping, but that was not to be. I was traveling with an Englishman and it was the fourth day of the five day test match between India and Pakistan. We were going to the Cricket. (Definite articles must have been on sale this week because they are turning up everywhere…)

I have to admit, I was expecting something truly exciting. Cricket is the most popular game in this part of the world, and the India-Pakistan rivalry is comparable to the Yankees-Red Sox, had New York and Boston fought a couple wars against each other in the last 50 years. I was all jazzed up when we get to the stadium. But, much to my chagrin, cricket is *boring*. It’s boring to a baseball fan- with infinite patience for slow moving sports. They stop for tea, which is weird enough, but you wouldn’t know they stopped because the level of activity involved in drinking tea is about the same as that is required to play cricket. And people watch this stuff for days…

But all in all, a good cultural experience. And, if I ever need to pick an Indian up in a bar, I can tell him that I saw Sachin Tendulkar bat.

The way home was bit of a nightmare, as I flew from Delhi to Singapore to Jakarta to Tokyo to Washington. And I almost missed the plane in Jakarta because man made the factories, that heated the air, that melted the glacier, that fell in the sea, that raised the water, that flooded the road, that led to the airport. Yes, global warming’s first victim, the rising water level, coupled with a full moon and high tide, renders the road to Jakarta airport impassable. Fortunately, my driver knew a short cut through the ghetto (he made me lock my doors), and I just made the flight. About 60 out of 600 of us were on the plane when it took off for Tokyo.

But I am home now. Back to the daily grind in DC. I should be here through the holidays, so I wish everyone the best and I will be back in action in January.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Nuptials and Camels

The advertising slogan for India these days is Incredible India. And it certainly has been incredible. The noise, the dirt, the colors, the energy - it is all here in excess.

The first few days that I was here, I was in Udaipur, for the wedding of a friend from graduate school. This was the single most beautiful, opulent, over-the-top experience I have ever attended, bar none. The wedding was three days long, with the first and third days being at the City Palace and the second being at a white marble temple in the middle of the lake. These are places where Bollywood stars get married. Even the fireworks over the lake after the marriage was official would have been sufficient for the July 4th celebration at a mid-sized American city.
After the festivities ended, I packed up the ballgown and glitzy jewelry, picked up the ol' backpack and went to join a small group of wedding guests headed for the Pushkar Camel Festival. A yearly event in which the tourists are outnumbered only by the camels, Pushkar is a bit legend on the India backpacking scene. Thousands of camels and horses and all matter of things hoofed are brought to the town to be sold and traded. It coincides with a religious celebration at the town's sacred lake, so there are a couple thousand pilgrims in the mix too. All this, coupled with the magicians, stilt-walkers, snake charmers, acrobats, thieves and hustlers give the place the air (and likely approximate level of sanitation) of a medieval carnival. It was mayhem. One of the bridesmaid's and I walked around fair grounds to try to get some good shots, but it was difficult to capture the scope from eye level. Hmm... what around here is higher than eye level... Buildings (not tall enough)... cell phone towers (likely guarded)... hills (way too far)... half finished water tower on the edge of the camp (bingo). What are the chances that the workers speak enough English to tell us we can't climb up? Admittedly, they seemed a little surprised, but as long as we didn't step in the wet cement, they seemed pleasant enough about it. A couple stories up were some great views. (Again, I will post pictures as soon as I can.) And, as there have been complaints in the comments section lately that I haven't been engaging in an adequate level of death defying behavior, I made sure to lean out over the edge of the platform, holding on to the rebar, to get a shot of me with the fair in the background. (Editor's note: I had no idea actually how dangerous it was climbing up this thing until we started down. The steps were narrow and covered in loose gravel. They hadn't gotten to installing any handrails yet, and we had to climb over the horizontal waist-level bamboo support poles at each landing. I was happy to get to the bottom...)

Other than that, not too much going on. I am currently in Jaisalmer, up north near the Pakistan border, because I apparently haven't gotten enough camel yet in my life. I will be camel trekking in the desert tomorrow night with the Bestman. And now, if you will excuse me, Pushkar is a pilgrimage site, meaning no meat and no booze. I have some catching up to do...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dili to Delhi, by Way of the Incredible, Edible, Singapore

So I am on vacation (finally!) in India. Things in Timor finished up mostly uneventfully (though we did get to dash through an angry crowd under the cover of Australian UN police with automatic weapons at the ready. Fortunately the crowd hadn't turned violent yet, so it was more dramatic than dangerous.)

From Dili I flew to Jakarta, checked into a 5 star hotel to enjoy the last night of my WB expense account, swam in the pool, and had dinner with a friend from grad school at a posh Italian restaurant. Early the next morning, I was off to Singapore for a couple days of concentrated shopping and eating before heading to India. I have two friends living in Singapore, one of which was generous enough to have a spare bed and one of which was generous enough to be a government employee for the tourism board with a free museum pass. So it worked out well for me.

The first day the friend I was staying with took me on a walking tour of the major sights in the city. Singapore is a somewhat strange place. Despite its fairly long and colorful history, it is a completely created place. Most of the the people (at some point in their history) immigrated from somewhere else (more than half from China), the land is mostly reclaimed, the buildings are all new or recently remodeled. The two newest additions are a giant ferris wheel and a theater house that looks like a pair of giant sleeping metallic hedgehogs. For a number of reasons, this is likely not the place to try psychotropic drugs.

That night we went out to the tourist beach island to drink beer and watch the sunset. (Island entirely created as well, down to the imported and bored looking peacocks.) And behind the planted palm trees, cargo ships and super tankers filled the horizon. But the beach was nice and the beer was cold, so the combined experience was quite enjoyable.

Over the next couple days, I also did a walking tour of Chinatown, a visit the Asian Civilization Museum, and some shopping in a few of the thousands of stores and malls in town. Blah blah blah.

But let's get down to the real business of Singapore - eating. The food there was out of this world. A perfect storm of Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisines merged into one place. Singapore had been known previously for its street food, but the government decided that that wasn't in keeping with the image of the new Singapore. So the street vendors were rounded up and places in "hawker centers," which probably damaged the culture a little, but they are convenient for us. The first night we had sitay and stingray accompanied by noddles and rice. I don't know why the rest of the world doesn't eat stingray, it's delicious. Next day it was fried tofu for lunch, and then "steamboat" for dinner.

Steamboat is a cousin to Mongolian and Schezuen hotpots, with dinners selecting raw food from the buffet and then boiling it at their tables. The guys were nice enough to get a half spicy and half broth hotpot, because spicy in Singapore would actually probably prove lethal to my bland American palate. It occured to me that there was a chance that the open air collection of meat, fish, vegetables, etc might not be the most hygenic thing in the world, but, as the wise-but-insane Peace Corps nurse Molly once said, "Boiling continuously for one minute kills anything. Bacteria, germs, pathogens, ants, mice, anything." So I loaded up a plate with clams and made sure they were in the pot for at least one minute. If I am going down with food poisioning, I am going to earn it. Street shellfish in a tropical climate, here I come. And this may be blasphamy to many on this list, but clams do not necessarily have to be eaten with lemon and melted butter. They are also quite tasty with a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, cilantro and green onions. Many other things went into the pot that night, crab, shrimp, meat of all forms, mushrooms, but those clams were really good.

The next day I went shopping for clothes for this wedding I am in India to attend. (The groom is a friend from grad school. In typical male fashion, he didn't think to mention to me that the three day wedding was black tie until the night before I left. Consequentially, I was shopping for my life in Singapore.) Grabbed a flight that night, and here I am in Delhi.

It has been over three years since I have been here, but the place is generally the same. Same crowds, noise and chaos. They have since added a subway system that I have yet to try. It somehow though seems calmer and cleaner here than last time. I must be getting older and more mellow. I guess we will see if I still feel that way after being here for two weeks.

One last thing before I go. My friend that was nice enough to take me to the sites works for the tourism board and his bonus depends on how much tourists spend in the country. To thank him for his hospitality, I am starting a grassroots internet campaign to encourage tourism in Singapore. (Hey, if it works for Ron Paul, anything can happen...) So if at all possible, please visit Singapore in the next six years.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

So I have been in Dili about 10 days and nothing has happened to me. But that doesn’t mean that things have been quiet! Last Wednesday, a boat carrying smuggled gasoline caught fire in the harbor right outside the office. As I drove by a lunch, the explosion had just happened. Huge flames and black diesel smoke was pouring out the left side of the big wooden fishing boat. There was still a guy standing on the very tip of the bow though, staring at the flame, hands on his hips, and a look on his face that could best be described as “Hmm. Guess they meant that bit about the no smoking…” The fire burned almost 24 hours. Coming home from a video conference just before midnight, the fire was still lit up the harbor. Fun stuff.

Other highlights: Food shortages are anticipated in some of the IDP camps around town. Some have already turned violent, throwing rocks and occupying roadways with their tents. There are rumors of renewed guerilla activity in the mountains, new government slightly shaky. Politician’s house on the same road as I live, though on the other side of town, raked with gunfire on Friday night, man stabbed in neighboring IDP camp… Etc. etc. etc.

And yet, I was sitting in yesterday’s security briefing with this nagging sense that something was missing. It just didn’t feel right, you know, just not quite… complete. Then, as if to answer my dark prayers, here he was! PESTILENCE! Galloping across the metaphorical World Bank parking lot to join his brothers Famine, War and Death, the Fourth Houseman of the Apocalypse finally arrived! In the form of an anthrax outbreak on a neighboring Indonesian island no less! I relaxed and smiled, as the security officer sternly warned against importing livestock from the affected areas, knowing that Dili was packed and ready for the second coming.

It’s not all bad though. [If there is any country in the world where the Ministry of Tourism has enforcers, it’s here. I have to make sure to offer balanced coverage.] I got to do some touristy things this weekend. I haven’t had a day off since I went to Bali, working straight through the weekends, so I decided that this week, I was leaving at 5 pm on Saturday and not coming back to the office until 7:30 on Monday morning. Drawing a line in the sand.

Saturday night I went with another of the visiting consultants to climb Jesus and watch the sunset. You always have to be careful of the guys that are the same age as your parents and want to climb things. They are in dizzying shape. The run-up to Jesus was a long series of steps climbing the hillside, with distance intervals marked by the stations of the cross. Finally a practical use for something I learned in St. Pat’s. “Oh thank god, Jesus just met the women of Jerusalem, more than halfway there…” The view from the top was nice though. Dili, which despite being the capital has a population of less than 100,000, looked like a tiny fishing village on the edge of the sea. We had just enough time to make it back down the hill, take a quick swim in the ocean, and walk about to a beach bar for a beer and sunset.

The sunset was spectacular yes, but it was definitely the secondary show that evening. There are 1600 UN police patrolling Timor Leste, most based in the capital, it was a beefcake convention on the beach. This guy running, that guy swimming, this guy lifting something, someone doing push-ups, someone else doing one-armed push-ups, a beach volleyball game likely to induce combat trauma. A Creatine circus at its finest.

The next day I truly took a day off and went diving. You can dive straight off the main beach road in the capital here, but I decided to head a little further a-field to the volcanic islands about an hour’s boat ride north. Highlights of the trip out include: meeting hundreds of dolphins who raced along side the boat and generally did the SeaWorld thing until they grew bored of us, a pod of pilot whales lazing about on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and a splash way off on the horizon that might have been a humpback whale (or dynamite fishing.) It was a much needed relaxing day on the water.

I am here until the end of the week then *I am on vacation*! Provided that I can get out of Timor. But really, what are the chances of the airport being closed because of riots at the nearby IDP two Fridays in a row?

P.S. I am trying the new video blog feature. The fish video itself is nothing interesting, but if it works, I can shoot better things. Like fires.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What the Dili yo?

So I am in Dili. Dili is the capital of the world’s newest country, Timor Leste (established 2002). You probably have older things in your refrigerator.

I haven’t seen much of the country yet, as the hotel is right next door to the office and I spend most of my time in one of those two places. I will give you a little bit of fun background on things that I have learned in my security briefing yesterday. (Delivered by the biggest Ken doll I have ever seen.)

In addition to your general corruption, pollution, poverty, power cuts etc. problems of a standard developing world city, Dili has a smidge of a problem with politically motivated riots and gang violence. Though the curfew has recently been lifted (you can now go out after 6 pm), it is recommended that people don’t travel alone at night and that women don’t take taxis after dark. (We just fit so easily into the trunk.)

The World Bank office is directly next door to my hotel on the road that faces the beach (great sunsets apparently). It is safe to walk between these to places, and to any nearby restaurants in the direction of Jesus. (Catholics. Always with the giant Jesus overlooking the city.)

Do not, however, walk towards the restaurants in other direction late at night. While the WB building is on one side of the hotel, the other next door neighbor is a particularly militant IDP camp. [IDP means Internally Displaced Person, UN lingo for refugees.] And once the IDPs get to a-drinkin’ all hell can break lose.

Arriving at the WB building, there is a concrete slab and with a simple metal cross on it just outside the gate. I thought it was a just remnant of an old fence, but apparently it is marks the site where someone was killed.

World Bank Timor Leste: “No one killed out front since May!”

And I have this great driver named Ano. He looks like the guy that your mother won’t let you go out with in high school. Sunglasses all the time, tattoos, tricked out black Nissan… It even has one of those weird ultimate-spoiler things on the back, like the cars in Jersey. I felt like such a badass rolling up to my meeting with the UNDP.

I am making it sound worse that it is. Mostly to get a reaction out of my mother who has been in full blown panic mode since I arrived. Don’t worry Mom, I will be fine.

And happy Halloween to everyone. (I am sort of hoping they don’t celebrate it here.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Coming Soon to a Tsunami-Affected Islamic Separatist Province Near You!

So I am at the end of my time here in Aceh. Nothing too thrilling happened here this week, most the usual drill of survey piloting. I don’t even have any pictures. For those of you looking for excitement, this is not the posting. For those of you that just want an update, I will offer a typical day here in Aceh.

At 4:45 in the morning the mosque next to my hotel window starts the morning prayer call. Normally this doesn’t bother me, I actually think for the muezzin that do well it is really beautiful. This one, however, is bone-jarringly loud and goes on for a half hour instead of the usual few minutes. I roll over and eventually get back to sleep, until the alarm goes of at 6:30.

I walk into the bathroom to use the squat toilet. I dump a scoop full of water from the tiled basin to flush, then dump the second scoop over my head to wash my face. I brush my teeth from my water bottle, then take another scoop of water to wash the soap and toothpaste down the drain in the floor. I put on a full length skirt and long sleeved button down shirt, my wannabe Mormon missionary get-up from Tajikistan. I twist my slightly greasy hair into a bun, liberally apply sunscreen, grab my hijab and head to breakfast.

Breakfast is leftover rice with too much chili. Normally I won’t eat much, but I skipped dinner the night before to get a couple more hours sleep. (We didn’t get in from the field until after 10.) Chili rice it is. Over breakfast we de-brief our survey team from yesterday and set out the plan for the day. Load the bags, pile into the Kijang 4x4, and head out.

The first interview I observe is with an ex-combatant from the Aceh independence movement. The top half of his arm is completely scarred and he carried a photograph of himself topless in his shirt pocket. His back looks like thatch because of the scars from a whipping he received from soldiers when he was caught as a rebel. Our survey indicated that his faith in formal government systems of justice is somewhat minimal.

Second interview is with a widow in a bamboo house. Since I can’t understand the language being spoken, I spend most of the time making faces at two little girls playing on the floor next to us – both of us trying not to get caught. When they are chased out, I spend the rest of the interview trying to figure out whether the tickling on the back on my legs is sweat or ants.

Lunch was served on the floor of the unfinished mosque. It was rice and sauce, with a piece of chicken – take-out from a nearby town that came wrapped in a banana leaf. I showed my usual dexterity eating with my hands (plus my headscarf kept falling when I leaned forward to eat.) I spend five minutes outside picking the bits of rice off of my scarf and skirt.

At the interview immediately after lunch, Dad was stuck watching the kid during the interview. Little boy was about three and his father was one of the richest and most educated people in the village. Boy starts out by knocking the tea glasses down because he doesn't have one. Then he screams and hits Dad's leg until Dad forks over what even I consider an obscene sum of money to give to a toddler. Then Boy discovers the cigarette lighter, which he is obviously an old pro at because he knows how to turn the flame all the way up and singe an eyebrow. Grandma comes home to see Boy sitting on the rug, having removed his pants, drinking a cup of ultra-caffeinated sugar tea, and trying to light the money on fire with a small blowtorch. In another testament to the universality of humanity, her expression was vintage "I can't believe my daughter married this bonehead, no matter how much money he has..."

We push through with the rest of the surveys, and just after dark, load up the car to head back to the main city, about two hours drive. We stop for duck and shrimp dinner at a roadside joint. Back in Banda Aceh, we check into a nice hotel and crash. Back up at 6 to incorporate the edits from the day before and head out to survey tsunami-effect areas.

Yeah, like I mention, not every day can be an adventure. I am heading down towards Timor Leste tomorrow (I saw towards because the Indonesian low cost carrier I am flying was naughty and customs impounded six planes from its fleet this week – throwing a bit of a wrench in the schedule…)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Islam and Kristen

So I spent the last week on the Maluku islands, out near Papua. You generally know that when you are headed to a place described as “out near Papua,” it is going to be an interesting week.

A brief history of the Maluku islands: They were commonly known in the 17th century as the Moloccas, or the original Spice Islands. They are the starting point for things like cloves and nutmeg that were eventually grown in tropics around the world. The islands are divided between Muslim and Christian populations (“Islam” and “Kristen” as it is in local language) and a few years back there were riots between the two groups. Now, the World Bank is doing a program to increase access to justice in these areas, and I am here to write and pilot a baseline survey.

My partner in crime for this little adventure was a Jakarta-based Australian who, for our purposes, shall be known as Captain Kangaroo. The two of us, plus three local consultants from main city of Ambon, one happy-go-lucky chauffeur (who was a terrible driver), and a Kijang 4x4, set out the next day to cross the bay for Serum Island, where we would working for the week. As with all best laid plans, the hope was to start out early. That was over before it began when we hit a snag at the ferry dock. After the “troubles” a couple years back, NGO workers descended on the province to do post-conflict reconciliation work. I will reserve my judgment if their programs had any lasting effects beyond firmly establishing the precedent that white people pay more for the ferry. As it is against World Bank official regulations to bribe the harbor mafia, and therefore a complete bitch to expense, we weren’t going to do that. After a few hours squabbling, we were finally off.

With this delay, the first day was sort of a wash. The second day we decided that we should go to a remote indigenous village. The survey we were testing was designed to assess the impact of access to justice programs for vulnerable groups, included in which are both remote and indigenous populations. Fine. I guess we need to go there and figure that out.

The night before we got out the map and selected a village that looked to be about an hour drive followed by an hour walk. Seemed remote enough to suit our purposes but still within reason. We set off the next morning at 6:30 am. (Again, best laid plans…) The drive takes about an hour to get to the small village where we pick up a guide. Always a bad sign, he carries a stout and well-used walking stick. We drive another hour as the road steadily deteriorates.

Eventually we run out of road and hop out to start the walk. We are informed at this point that the walk is actually 2.5 hours. Shit. We are past the point of no return in terms of having time to go to another remote village so there isn’t much choice but to go anyway. We walk up a hill through thigh high grass to top of the first hill. The guide points to where we are going. It is a tiny wisp of smoke rising from the thick forest. The good news is that it is about the same elevation at which we are currently. The bad news is that the only way to get there is to walk into the valley then back up the other side. We are informed at this time that the walk will actually take 3.5 hours because 2.5 is the time that is takes the locals to do it. (We are not locals, Captain Kangaroo and I are foreigners and the other three are “city people” from the thriving metropolis of Ambon.) I look down at my collared shirt and full length sensible skirt, already dark with patches of sweat. Then it starts raining.

We climb to the top of the hill, then start down the valley. The going is slick as the dirt trail becomes mud. Even though I wore my most sensible flats that day, they are not meant for this. Passing the other direction are a steady flow of people from the village carrying sacks of cloves – the major crop of the village where we are headed. They shake their heads and tell us to be careful. Grabbing on shrubs and long grass, I skid down the path to the bottom of the valley.

Here is where it gets interesting. The fields are behind us and we are standing on the edge of a dense rainforest. The only way to the other side of the valley is to cross the river about one kilometer through the forest. The only way to get to the river is to follow the stream that cuts a path through the trees.

I look down at mud-splattered leather shoes. There is no way I can walk through the river in these. The others are rolling up pants and sticking shoes into backpacks. Well, I guess some part of me always wanted to walk barefoot through a jungle. I un-strap my shoes, hitch up my skirt, and step in. (Worker’s Comp covers bilharzia right?)

The rocks are sharp and we pick our way through the calf deep water. We walk intermittently through the stream and on the path beside it. The path is nice because it is just mud and therefore soft, but I am constantly worried about stepping on snakes, spiders, centipedes or any other jungle-dwellers that might be hanging about the place.

We eventually make it to the river. The water in the center was up to my thighs (no hitching the skirt high enough here) and the current was fairly swift. More than once I stepped on something sharp and almost lost it. Relieved to make it to the other side, I wrung the river out of my now quite-bedraggled sensible skirt and strapped my shoes back on.

The walk itself would have been pretty had it not been almost completely vertical. The trail wound through the forest, through pineapple patches, thick undergrowth and past giant drum trees. As the hours wore on and we got higher, we passed people up in the trees harvesting cloves. Finally, after nearly three hours, soaked through with sweat and rain, we arrived in the village.

The village chief was surprised to see white people. Apparently we usually think this is too hard and turn back at the water. Captain Kangaroo and I also were the only ones in our group that kept pace with the guide the whole time. We arrived 15 minutes ahead of the rest of our team.

First off I drank a half a pitcher of water. We hadn’t anticipated the hike and didn’t have a half liter between all of us. It was untreated local water – which had the distinctive flavor of smoked gouda cheese – but at that moment I more than willing to trade dehydration now for dysentery later. Properly hydrated, we went to work, spending the afternoon walking through streets covered with cloves drying on palm mats, and testing the surveys. At three we had to call it quits to make it to the car before dark. Back down the mountain and across the river we went.

The driver was waiting for us with bottles of water when we got back to the car. Captain Kangaroo and I were the first ones to arrive – 2.5 hours flat. The driver had said that he had met some of the villagers walking with the clove harvest. They told him about the two white people on the mountain. They were amazing! They were able to walk just as fast as the villagers and the lady was even wearing a skirt! Major street cred for the World Bank.

The rest of the week was much tamer. The Captain and I decided that one remote village was plenty and stuck to places that can be driven to. The days are long, we work from usually 7 am (we stopped doing that up-at-dawn thing because it always seemed to backfire) and we have gone to midnight almost every night. But the food is good. Pretty much the only thing to eat here is fresh fish (and shrimp and squid) grilled on a coconut husk fire, which is pretty much okay with me. We were even able to find a Christian place for dinner one night that served alcohol. (Those crazy Kristens and their beer.)

Now I am back in Jakarta, desperately trying to fit a week of work into a couple of hours. Headed out to Aceh in the morning...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bali Birthday

There are times in one's life when there is a tendency to be reflective. To look at your life, and where you are, and wonder if you took the right turns along the way. I had one of those moments – sitting alone, on my 28th birthday, looking at my dusty backpack, knowing that I was still single, owned no assets, and had a checking account that would be stretched to put a down payment on a new car – much less anything else.

Then they made the boarding announcement for my flight to Bali. The path of life looks a lot better when it goes through Bali.

And so I set off for my Bali Birthday adventure. There was a long weekend here for the end of Ramadan (Selamat Idul Fitri 1428 h!), four days in Bali for me. I arrived late on Thursday night in the village of Ubud in the center of the island. The extent of the birthday festivities that night was thoroughly checking the room for spiders, and then going to sleep.

The next day I did all the things that women like to do on their birthdays, shopping and the spa. Ubud is know for its chic galleries and many jewelry designers. I spent the morning collecting Christmas gifts (and just a couple little things for me). Eventually, my enthusiasm for consumerism started to wane, so I decided to do something cultural. I went to the Sacred Monkey Sanctuary in the south of town. I should have know it was going to be a complete shit show from the sign at the entrance. The first thing I hear is the high pitched squeal of a spoiled American three year old, "No Monkey! My Banana!" I left the little blond curly thing to the mercy of the God of Rabid Things and continued into the park. The little vermin were everywhere (monkeys – not three year olds), crawling and climbing. I walked through the tress, admired the carved stonework and the Hindu temples, and just generally kept to myself. After a while, my spirit was sufficiently calm and I decided I was ready for round 2 at the shops. As I headed for the gate, I suddenly felt a sharp tug on my shopping bag full of Christmas gifts, and heard the high pitched squeal of a spoiled American 28 year old, "No Monkey! My Shopping!" I found myself in a tug-of-war with a sizable grey monkey. Neither of us was giving up any time soon, and I might still be there if the bag had not ripped. I gathered my gifts from the ground and strode off as dignifiedly as I could while that little grey bastard bounced up and down on a nearby tree branch, shrieking and waving the scraps of black plastic at me. Damn Monkeys.

Sufficiently unmellowed by the experience, I sought refuge in a spa. The rose petal pedicure helped. And things were going well with the facial until the special 15 minute "relaxation time" came. I was supposed to lay back and listen to the waterfall as my mud masque dried. I lasted about 5 before I peeled off my eye patches and dug out my paperback.

You will be happy to know however that I was able to recover enough to spend the rest of the day shopping. That night I was supposed to go to a traditional Balinese dance performance. I lingered over my chardonnay at dinner. I really didn't want to go. I got the tickets because I thought it was important to see some traditional aspects of the local culture. But dance bores the living crap out of me. And I felt vaguely wrong about spending the last night of Ramadan in the world's most populous Muslim country at a Hindu dance performance (Bali is the exception in Indonesia, they are 95 percent Hindu.)

I got there 15 minutes late and had to stand in the back. The first half was nice. Dancers in extravagant costumes re-enacted scenes from the Ramayana (which I did actually read in Mrs. Fleming's 9th grade Global Studies class, but can't remember at all) around a fire chandelier. They were surrounded by a large group of what seemed to refugees from Old Timers Day at suma wrestling arena, who clapped and chanted and generally served the function of a Greek chorus.

For the second half, the chandelier was removed. A man carried out a basket that could have comfortable contained a European economy car, filled with dry coconut husks. He dumped them in a pile in the middle of the stage. Then a boy danced out with a bottle of clear fluid that unmistakably smelled like lighter fluid. He doused the pile. An Indonesian woman in the front row gathers her two children and moves to the back. A man with a torch walks out and woosh, we have a bonfire. As the fire crackles, a man in a straw rooster costume dances out with bare feet.

Now, to quote that cultural icon famous across the world, Eminem, things are about to get heavy.

The barefoot guy in the straw costume runs into the fire, kicking sparks and flame everywhere. He dances out and two fire sweeper guy sweep the coals into a pile again. Straw Rooster runs into it again, kicking sparks and flame. The smoke by now is thick and people in the first row are covering their faces and fleeing for the back. Clearing space for me to get a good seat. Another pile, another pass by Straw Rooster. This time the burning coconuts land in the first row of seats of the left side, scattering Japanese tourists and sending 10 megapixal digital cameras flying. The English guy in front of me calmly tapped out his smoldering tee-shirt sleeve. This goes on for another 10 minutes or so until the embers are burned almost completely to ash. Then the house lights come on, the bucket brigade arrives to extinguish the stage and Straw Rooster sits down, his legs black to the knees, and collects tips from a blackened and slightly traumatized audience. I left with a new respect for dancers.

The next morning I got up early for a walk about the rice paddies. The Lonely Planet had mapped out a nice route, on which I promptly got completely lost and spent two hours wandering around, trying to ask directions from very confused farmers. Got some good pictures though.

That afternoon I headed for Amed, a fishing and scuba diving village on the east coast. For a whopping $9 a night, I got a big room at a hotel on the beach, with a balcony overlooking the ocean. Black sand beach and excellent snorkeling a couple meters off the beach. Which was nice and all, but let's be honest, I was there to dive.

A twenty minute drive away was the wreck of the USS Liberty. A supply ship sunk by Japanese torpedoes in WWII, it has since broken apart and has some beautiful coral growing on it. The first drive I did was a night dive. There is something excitingly clandestine about walking across the beach in full scuba gear under a moonless sky. You feel ready to invade a country. The dive itself was one of the best I've done. Night time is feeding time, so it is neat in a sort of Nature Channel way to see them eating each other. And there are huge parrot fish that are out at night. They are up to five feet long and three feet tall. They look like tropical fish on steroids. Plus they have these huge buck teeth for gnawing on the coral. So they look like hillbilly tropical fish on steroids.

But the best part was the flashlight fish. They have glowing strips about their foreheads. When you put out your dive lamps, they will swim around you. Suspended in water and in the pitch black, you are surrounded by hundreds of shimmering blue lights. It's like being in space. Incredible feeling.

The next day I made two more dives, one on the wreck in the daylight and one on a nearby coral wall. Both were really nice, and generally I would say that there isn't anything comparable to swimming around something man-made under the water, but they paled in comparison to the night before.

That evening I set out for Titra Gangaa, a cute little village in the rice terrace country. In the morning I took a tour of the local rice terraces, sunlight hitting the green with the volcano in the back and the ocean in front. Beautiful. Peaceful. Relaxing. Or as relaxing as I ever find anything.

I am going to stick in a couple extra pictures here at the end because my mother doesn't think I post enough pictures.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Shootin' the Breeze in Jakarta

So I am in Jakarta. Working. Travel to exotic locales is infinitely less interesting when all you ever see is your hotel room, the back of a taxi and the inside of an office in a high-rise building. (There are a bunch of high-rises here in Jakarta, rising out the smog like mountains above the cloud line.)

The trip over was uneventful – though I did have my most interesting breakfast to date at the airport hotel in Tokyo. Boiled fish paste with wasabi, seaweed, pickled vegetables, and a stack of silver dollar pancakes. Not bad, all things considered. Way better than the in-flight eel.

Today is Sunday, so I took the day off to see the tourist sites that Jakarta has to offer. In deciding how I was going to get across down to the historic district, I had two choices. Go WorldBank, and take an air-conditioned taxi, or let the inner backpacker come out a play a bit, and get on the public train.

[Little background on the transportation scene here: it sucks. The city is built to handle the traffic of a middle income developing country, then apparently surprised the city planners one morning by waking up the fifth biggest city in the world. Gridlock is the rule during rush hour, and it can take 2 hours to go 6 or 7 miles. Walking would be faster, but those same forward looking city planners opted not to include sidewalks in their designs. Nothing moves fast enough to kill you if it hit you, but it hotter than hell here with dizzying level of pollution. The train serves a limited area but is the fastest way to get around many times, if you can get on. The cars look like low-rent versions of the NYC subway cars from the 1980s, with the graffiti and less than subtle eau d’urine flavoring. At rush hour, the cars move slowly along the tracks, with hundreds crammed inside, scores hanging off the holes-that-would-be-doors-had-there-been-doors, wind-surfer style, and a couple hundred more sprawled across the roof.]

I chose train over traffic. And was lucky to get a pole two rows in from the windsurfers by the open door. Good breeze.

So eventually I arrived in the historic district. It was certainly old. There were the remnants of the Dutch colonial presence, your standard cannons, lighthouses and now-fetid canals. The lighthouse was actually pretty neat because no one had bothered to block off the dangerous bits (I love countries without liability laws), and you could climb all the way out on to the shingled roof, balance with the weather vain, and check out the harbor. It was actually not a bad view. Good breeze.

Other highlights included: The puppet museum, with incredible intricate hand cut paper shadow puppets. I had wanted to see a performance, but there are none until the holy month of Ramadan ends [Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world], so I had to make do with poking around the displays. The old Dutch officers club, still teak paneling and ceiling fans, but they let any old yahoo come in now and order strawberry juice. The Chinese quarter, which like every Chinese quarter in the world, is characterized by colorful temples and confusingly inexpensive electronics. And those little turtles.

Sorry this isn’t more interesting this time. Like I mentioned, that whole work thing puts a damper on the adventure. Things should pick up over the next couple weeks, I am going to spend the long weekend for the end of Ramadan backpacking in Bali, then we are going pilot testing in a couple of the more remote parts of the country. I’ll try to take pictures of the head-hunters after we interview them – I am not really sure how the cannibals feel about cameras, but I am not going to push the issue too much.

Monday, July 30, 2007

I just *knew* diplomatic status would come in handy at some point!

So this weekend was supposed to be my adventure weekend. I was going to get out of Dreary Dushanbe and into the mountains that Tajikistan is (comparatively) famous for. I had hooked up a travel partner that spoke Russian. We had plane tickets to Khojand for Friday night after work. What could go wrong?

For the first day and a half, nothing. We flew up on Friday night on what could generously be describes as a rickety Russian built Antonov. Most of these things are a generation old and feel it. One actually crashed this weekend in Russia proper, and Russia and the former Soviet countries actually had a worse airline safety record than Nigeria in 2006. Anyway, this plane shook. And the cabin wasn’t really pressurized, so it was a little tough to breath at 20,000 feet. And it was beastly hot. And the approach to the runway was a little rocky, as in it seemed like the pilot figured out at the last minute that the runway was actually 500 feet to the left of where he was aiming. But no worries, landed safe and sound, took a taxi to town, and checked into the Hotel Leninabad. The hotel was fine except for the mosquitoes and the fact that the room didn’t have a shower. But eh, this is an adventure right?

So the next morning we were up early to see the largest statue of Lenin left this side of the Urals, 22 meters high, and then set off on our adventure proper. We took a minibus to the town of Istaravshan, with its historic mosques and hoppin’ Saturday bazaar. The people on the minibus were fascinated by us. They asked a million questions, my two favorites were “Does your father get paid on time?” (a bit of a rarity here) and “How much does the Tajik government give you to be a tourist here?” They were shocked and appalled that we weren’t getting anything. Why the hell were we here then? One guy was so outraged he paid our bus fare.

The bazaar was neat, huge enclosed space that smelled vaguely like tea and soap. They sold everything under the sun, from dried fruit to car parts to a real-life butter churn. (No joke, we actually saw women on the side of the road churning butter.) I took a couple pictures, one of a table selling hammers and sickles, one of the watermelons (this country is saturated with them this time of year), and one of the old guys selling snuff. This guy was very emphatic that it was really stupid to take pictures of watermelons, and that he made a much better subject. We then walked around the old town, saw the old mosque, hitched a ride with an agricultural NGO consultant from St. Paul, Minnesota, and set about hiring a driver to the two day trip through the mountains back to the capital.

Now getting the right car and driver is important. The car has to be sturdy enough to make it up the hills, and the driver has to be a decent enough human being not to leave you at the top of the pass unless you give him $100 and one of your kidneys. The market was nuts and thank goodness the person I was traveling with spoke Russian. We finally settled on a German built Opel driven by a gold-toothed guy named Xoet (pronounced Hi-Oat and meaning “life.”) Little did we know that we had just signed on to the Tajik tour of our lives, chauffeured in the Magical Amphibious Opel by the Indomitable Xoet himself.

A little background on the trip. We were leaving from Istaravshan and going across the Anyi mountain pass (3300+ meters) and to the lakeside town of Iskander-Kul, where we would spend the night, before crossing a second higher pass the next day on the way back to Dushanbe. The road has been having a little bit of a rockslide problem of late and is in the process of being rebuilt by huge teams of Chinese laborers. As a result, two sections of road on either side of the Anyi pass are closed to traffic during daylight hours while the crews work. Someone had told me this before I left, letting me know that it would add 8 hours to the trip if I got through at all, but eh, this is an adventure right?

So we set out. We hit the first part of closed road, but Xoet was ready. He drove down the hill and into a river bed that ran parallel to the road. This wouldn’t have been as big a deal as it turned out to be had it been a DRY riverbed, but someone had forgotten to mention this to the river. It was here that we got the first taste of the Magical Amphibious Opel. Xoet just drove through the river. There were sheep and goats grazing on the banks that didn’t even blink as we cruised through. I guess this is a standard practice. Xoet just smiled and told us to think of all the German engineers that had put some much time and effort into designing this beautiful machine. How they would be crying if they could see it now!

Anyway, we made it through the river and back up onto dry land. Then we hit our first real checkpoint. It was manned by a Chinese guard that didn’t speak any language other than Chinese and was not under any circumstances going to let us cross. We would have to wait four hours until 7 pm, then we could continue the last 6 hours through the treacherous pass to Iskander-Kul. Now Xoet hates the Chinese. He resents the fact that there are no jobs in Tajikistan and more than half of the male population has to go to Russia for part of the year to try to squeeze out a living doing manual labor, but thousands of Chinese are imported to do local construction. And there is no way that this Chinese guy is going to stop Xoet from showing his extra special American tourists the pass during the daylight. We would miss the panoramas of the mountains!

So Xoet kicked the Opel into low gear and took off up a dirt track. We eventually came to a farm house. Xoet set us up with a couple of bowls of delicious fresh goat-yogurt (which I would sadly soon discover all too vividly was also un-pasteurized) while he checked out the lay of the land. Back in the Opel. Down into another river, through the river bed, around an un-manned Chinese roadblock and onto the closed road. We drove past the construction crews, who were a little bewildered as to how we got there, and up to the edge of the roadblock on the other side. Here is where we hit a little snag. The guard on the other side was *pissed.* We shouldn’t have done what we did. And he was going to be damned if he let us pass. We needed to turn around and go back.

This was a problem. The guard spoke only Chinese. Xoet was apoplectic. All his hard work and only a flag studded string separated him from the pass. He gunned the car a little at the string, but the guys around grabbed a bunch of rocks. Xoet backed down. The drivers waiting on the other side of the string thought this was hysterical.

So I decided that it was my turn to try to fix the situation. I got out of the car with my United Nations passport that I use for official World Bank travel. It reads in part “The Secretary-General of the United Nations requests all those whom it may concern to extend the bearer courtesies, facilities, privileges and immunities which pertain to his (or her) office, and to facilitate by all suitable means the journey and mission on which he (or she) is engaged.” And it fortunately says this in all six UN languages, including Chinese. I smile and hand it to the guard. He reads it. Apologizes. Gives Xoet the look of death, and lets us pass. Xoet was very proud of me. Off to the pass!

The trip up to the pass was on this narrow winding road with great vistas. We stopped on the way up to do a little hiking because Xoet knew that the other side of the road was going to be closed and that we weren’t going to be able to wiggle through that one. The top of the pass itself was a great view of the mountains. Then we hit the second block. Traffic was lined up because it had been closed all day. Xoet sneaks as close to the front as he can. He tells us to be ready. We aren’t exactly sure for what, but we stay close to the car anyway. At 6:30 the guard whistles that he will lift the gate. Xoet yells for us to get in the car. We pile in and Xoet guns the engine. We blast past the other cars and take off down this narrow winding pass edged by a sheer cliff, Xoet yelling “Rally Car” and “Schumacher!” The situation is this, the road is partially blocked by landslides, and in many places only one car can pass at a time. When they open the gate, they let traffic in in both directions. It is key to get as far down the mountain as you can before you meet on-coming traffic. (Xoet gave us a beautiful demonstration of this as we almost smashed head on with a car coming the other way as we swerved around a bolder. The roads are all dust so it is like driving in a blizzard. We didn’t see the second car until it was nearly on top of us.) At one point when we were waiting to get though a narrow point, one of the Chinese laborers jumped in the car with us. We couldn’t talk to him, so he just rode in the back with me for a while until he signaled that he wanted to get out. Can you imagine something like that in the US?

So we traveled along for another couple hours before reaching the lakeside hotel. We are hot and sweaty and filthy from the trip. All we want is a shower, some food and to crash. Now the cabins are described as “rustic,” as in no running water and the distance to the nearest pit latrine is best measured in kilometers. Super. Xoet brings us a couple bottles of river water to wash up as best we could. Dinner consisted of eggs, sausage, bread, more goat-gurt, and a bottle of horribly sweet local brew. And we had to drink the whole thing going around with toasts on every glass. Xoet had been disappointed that there was no decent vodka, I was secretly relieved. After dinner we collapsed, with my travel partner and I taking one room of the cabin and Xoet the other. In the morning we found him sleeping in his car. He said that he doesn't like to sleep alone, so at least he could sleep with his car.

Here’s where the wheels come off. I when I woke up I was feeling a little funny. We walk around the lake a little bit, see the President’s summer house, and by the time they set off on a hike to the nearby waterfall, I am downright green. Xoet pulls out the cushion from the backseat and puts it under a bush for me to sleep on while they hike. By the time they are back, I am puking my life up. I spend the rest of the day curled up on the backseat in the fetal position, having to ask Xoet to stop every hour or so, so I can get re-acquainted with whatever I tried to eat or drink in the last hour. It was a long 7 hour trip through the second pass and down.

What little of the trip that I was able to see from my little ball of torment seemed nice. This pass was higher and there was still snow. Xoet brought me a snowball to put on my forehead. At one point we were driving next to a cliff still covered in ice despite the broiling temperatures. And the view of the Fan mountains from the top of the second pass was incredible. We stopped to get gas again too. The fun part of getting gas is that they have old-fashioned gas pumps, not that they work, the gas is just stored in jars on top of them.

Eventually we made it back to Dushanbe, paid and thanked Xoet, promising to pass his contact information on to anyone that would like to make the trip (let me know if you are interested). I went back to my hotel, thanking my lucky stars that World Bank consultants are well taken care of, and took a long hot shower. I felt a little better, and by the time I went to bed, I was able to keep water in my stomach again. I’m on the mend!

So I think this will be my last entry for a couple weeks. I am headed back to the US on Thursday morning, and I am hoping for my sake that nothing interesting enough happens in the next couple days to be worth writing about. Next stop, as far as I know, is Indonesia sometime in September.