Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Final Thoughts on Indonesia 2009

What a treat this morning … I checked email and found two short emails from the Indonesia Red Cross (PMI) IT/Telecom technician in Banda Aceh, Pak Adi who was my right-hand man. He’s the glue that will hold the radio network together. The first email only contained two words but was a thousand words strong for me. It simply asked “How aryou?” The second email duplicated the first but in Bahasa Indonesia. Pak Adi has minimal English and 99% of our communication was through Salman, our interpreter. Still, somehow, we had a bond that I thought was more me than him. Of all the people I worked with in Aceh he was not one I would have expected to hear from. So you can imagine my delight to see his question. Today is going to be a good day!!

As I reflect on my three months in Indonesia (I’ve been home for two weeks now) it’s almost always the people I worked with that come to mind:

- PMI technicians: Pak Adi, Sayed,
- IFRC technicians: Pak Edho, Andrea, Alex, Helmi,
- Interpreters: Salman, Jumari,
- IFRC HQ staff: Bu Dian, Tina, Ari, et al
- Drivers: Dharnisal, Muslim, Mursalin, et al
- IFRC delegates in Aceh: Susil, Shesh, Odette, Andy, et al
- American Red Cross delegates in Aceh: Ken, Dr. Ayham, et al
- My partner for the first month: Glen
- And, last but certainly not least: Sarmad

My view of Muslim people, primarily formed by the western media, has been forever changed. Everyone I met was friendly. I wonder if “radical Islam” is present in Aceh. If it is, I sure didn’t see it. Then it could be the ‘rose-colored glasses’ I usually wear!

The next thing I remember is the wonderful food – everywhere I went we ate very well. I love spicy food so I was in heaven.

And of course, the scenery – what a magnificent country from the coastal beaches to the high altitude mountain vistas.

I miss Indonesia already, especially Aceh where I spent the bulk of my time, and hope to get back there sometime.

Emails, like the one I received this morning, bring it all back. Thank you Pak Adi.

It goes without saying that life goes on. I mowed the lawn for the first time this year; I’ve scheduled some work to be done on our boat; the motorcycle is in the shop having all of it’s bodily fluids refreshed; and the long list of projects around the house looms!! Before I get started on the list however Ann and I are making a trip out east to Virginia and DC to first visit with some friends and then to call into the Red Cross HQ and complete my debrief from the Indonesia mission.

I'll close now, I don't expect to make any more entries but you never know...

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's Over!

My Indonesian adventure came to a close last night at about 9:00pm when I pulled in to my driveway after renting a car and driving the final leg from Chicago to Appleton. Mother Nature had the final laugh as she gave Chicago really bad weather that resulted in all of the Appleton flights being cancelled. It was only 3:30 pm in Chicago and the thought of getting this close to home and having to spend another night in a hotel with no guarantee of a seat this morning made me decide very quickly to call the Red Cross travel agent and rent a car. I wondered if I might be too tired to drive safely but a large coffee did the trick and it was an uneventful trip up the interstate.

The final week in Jakarta/Banda Aceh/Jakarta went by in a blur. I'll have time to reflect on everything over the coming weeks and will make one final post before I close this blog down. If you've been following along I hope it gave you a small sense of what I experienced. For friends and family that I'll be seeing in the next few days/weeks/months prepare be deluged with stories!!!! How long does it take to look at 1000+ photos anyway ...

I've Been Pocari'd

After I posted the entry on Pocari's wondering if anyone had ever seen one, a friend our's from Arizona issued a "challenge" daring me to try the Sweat of the Pocari. Here's evidence, un-PhotoShop'd, of me finally succumbing and trying the stuff... It's actually very good!!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Size of the Effort

In the Jakarta newspaper this morning there was an article reporting on the wrap-up of the Aceh-Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation agency commonly referred to as BRR. BRR was created as a four-year entity to oversee all of the 15,000+ projects that arose after the tsunami and subsequent earthquake on Nias. They coordinated all of the efforts of the Indonesian government, donating countries, UN agencies, and the NGO’s. NGO’s are “Non-Governmental Organizations” such as the many Red Cross National Societies, Habitat for Humanity, Feed the Children, etc.

The following numbers from the article give a dimension to the size of the undertaking here that we have been just a very small part of:

BRR had a US$3.25 billion budget.

Projects Overseen by BRR Built:
   • 140,304 Homes.
   • 13 Airports and Airstrips.
   • 23 Seaports.
   • 1,115 Medical Facilities.
   • 1,759 Schools.
   • 3,696 km of Roads.
   • 363 Bridges.
   • 996 Government Buildings.

BRR also:
   • Assisted 195,726 Small and Medium Sized Businesses.
   • Trained 155,182 Workers.
   • Trained 39,663 Teachers.
   • Rehabilitated 101,240 hectares of Farmland.

Numbers that boggle the mind …

The article made no mention of the 40 radios rehabilitated by the Red Cross recently.. but that's ok! :-)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Day Off in Jakarta

On Saturday I had a day to myself so I did a little research and headed off by taxi to the Maritime Museum. First I should comment that Jakarta hasn’t really invested heavily in tourist sites so you have to take what you can find. My first clue was when the taxi driver first asked for directions from the hotel staff and then stopped again when we were close to get further directions. The areas we passed through from the hotel to the museum had declined from relatively modern, to old but nicely looked after, to derelict. The driver’s last request for directions had the comical result of the person pointing across the road at a long white building and saying in Indonesia “That’s it!”

I was a little nervous at the location and wasn’t sure what I should do when a very nice man, Catur (as in "chatter" - a good name for a tour guide), introduced himself in English, he asked where I was from, and told me he would take me on a tour. We walked through the Maritime Museum (it needs a lot of work) and he gave me the full history of Jakarta: Dutch rule, British influence, independence, Japanese occupation, etc. One of the main themes was foreigners profiteering from the natural wealth of Indonesia at the expense of the native population.

From the Maritime Museum Catur took me through some narrow back alleys full of small shops selling everything you can imagine.

We ended up down on the banks of the old harbor where the traditional wooden schooners that still carry goods to the other islands are all tied up. A boat tour in a boat resembling a dugout canoe into the harbor was offered but I gracefully declined.

We then backtracked to the museum where I thought my tour was over when Catur asked me if I liked motorcycles. When I replied “Yes” a helmet was quickly produced and we were off on a riding tour of the old city, including Chinatown.

Lots of small streets away from the main traffic and into parts of Jakarta most visitors wouldn’t get to see. Riding as a passenger on a motorcycle in Jakarta was an adventure all on its own. Along the way Catur stopped at a Chinese temple and was a little disappointed that I didn’t take more photos. I didn’t have the heart to tell him of our years in Beijing.

The tour ended up at another museum that occupies the old City Hall. It also needs more investment to bring it up to be a true tourist destination. It was good nonetheless. The main features Catur pointed out was the place where executions were performed (beheadings), the dungeon where the prisoners were kept prior to execution, the balcony where the Governor stood to watch to executions, and the sword used in the beheadings … Oh, and the stairs that someone had to climb to ring the bell announcing the executions. Have you got the main theme of the museum tour!!
This photo was taken from the balcony looking down at the place of execution.

I bade farewell to Catur and thanked him for an enjoyable couple of hours. He insisted in hailing a good taxi for me (blue taxis are good as are white ones – avoid the others) and instructing the driver where I needed to go. I have his number if anyone needs a guide.

I guess, thinking back, there was a certain element of risk involved in joining up with a complete stranger in a very poor part of Jakarta but my faith in basic human nature prevailed and it was a great way to pass a part of the day.

I'm now back in Banda Aceh for two days before starting my homeward trek through Jakarta - Singapore - Hong Kong - Chicago - Appleton. Home Sunday!!!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Getting Gas ... The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

In Aceh on the main coastal highways they have some of the best looking gas stations you could ask for. They match anything you can find in the US and even include “mushollas” or prayer rooms for the Moslems to use when they travel. Snack shops aren’t quite up to western standards, but maybe that’s a good thing. They all appear to have been built since the last tsunami.

In the cities, towns, and villages there are thousands of scooters on the roads that need only a small quantity of gas. There’s a good income to be made catering to them and you’ll see these “gas stations” everywhere. The gas is in small plastic bottles and you simply pull up, empty a bottle into your tank along with some oil, if it’s a two-stroke, and you’re on your way. Not the safest way to handle gas but it works.

On the island of Simeulue there’s not enough traffic to spend cash building a gas station so they handle it in bulk. The gas arrives in tankers, gets offloaded into storage tanks, is then piped into open top tubs, and then ladled into buckets where it’s poured through a funnel into your vehicle. I would not recommend smoking anywhere near this station!!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Adapting to Life in Indonesia.

Here are a few questions, that come to mind, as someone adapting to life in Indonesia ...

Question:  You have a breakfast buffet at the hotel to choose from including dishes from around the world. You choose:

  a. An egg omelet with bacon and toast
  b. Fresh fruit and yogurt
  c. Ham, cheese, and bread
  d. Rice, spicy chicken, and bok choy

Answer:  (d.) – The Indonesians eat very similar food for all three meals. There are some things specifically eaten at breakfast but the meal can often resemble lunch and dinner to Westerners.

Question:  You get back to your hotel room after a particularly hot and sweaty day. Your hotel room offers both a shower and cistern full of cold water and a ladle. You …

  a. Take a hot shower
  b. Take a cold shower
  c. Reach for the ladle and start pouring cold water over your head

Answer:  (c) – It’s unbelievable how good this feels …

Question:  On an airplane your meal is served and it’s spaghetti. You have a full complement of cutlery. You ...

  a. Take the fork in your left hand, knife in your right, 
      and eat with the fork.
  b. Take the spoon in your left hand, fork in your right, 
      and eat with the fork.
  c. Take the fork in your left hand, the spoon in your right hand, 
      and eat with the spoon.

Answer:  (c) – Most Indonesians use a dessert spoon for eating things like fried rice, noodles, etc. They will often, especially in Aceh, eat plain white rice with the fingers of their right hand. Eating with a spoon is easy to adapt to.

Question:  You’re dressing for work and know you may be visiting a Red Cross branch or Indonesian Office. You …

  a. Wear your work boots
  b. Wear your best pair of shoes
  c. Wear Crocs
  d. Wear flip-flops

Answer:  (c) or (d) – You’re probably going to be taking your shoes off when you enter the Red Cross branch or office and walking around in bare feet. Easy to remove footwear makes it much simpler.

Question:  Your meal is served and you immediately …

  a. Reach for the salt shaker and sprinkle some all over your food.
  b. Dig right in.
  c. Reach for the sambal bottle and squeeze a teaspoon size 
      dollup of sambal on the side of your plate – or all over your food. 
      Sambal is a hot spicy sauce with the consistency of ketchup.

Answer:  (c) – It's second nature!

Question:  After getting dressed and before leaving for work you …

  a. Liberally cover all exposed flesh with suntan lotion 
      and insect repellant.
  b. Grab a hat.
  c. Make sure your mobile phone is in your pocket.
  d. Make sure you’re carrying your passport.
  e. Make sure you have a pocket-pack of tissues with you.

Answer:  All of the above! And (e) refers to the fact that many Indonesian toilets do not provide tissue – bring your own.

Question:  You see an Indonesian man wearing a sarong and you think …

  a. Why would a man wear something akin to a skirt 
      (Scots are included here as well)
  b. It’s looks very comfortable for the environment but you’d 
      have to be Indonesian to wear one
  c. Damn that looks comfortable and I think I’d look good in one!

Answer:  Maybe (c) but (b) is the best answer!

Question:  You’re getting ready to go in for a swim at a local beach. You …

  a. Strip down to your swim suit and walk into the water.
  b. Remove the legs from your convertible shorts, 
      leave your shirt on, and wade in.
  c. Walk in to the water wearing long pants and a shirt.

Answer:  (c) is probably most correct but (b) is OK too. (a) is definitely out especially if you’re a woman. I’ve seen the men remove their shirts once in the water but put it back on to walk back to the beach.

Question:  You’re out on the street and need to find a ride to another location. A becak comes by and slows down. You …

  a. Wave the becak on by and wait for a taxi
  b. Wave the becak on by and start walking
  c. Hop in the becak, say a quick prayer, and head off
  d. Hop in the becak and don’t think about it

Answer:  (d) Note: If you read my comments about the becak you may be inclined to think that (a) is the right answer but, what the heck, go local!! You may be inclined to offer up a prayer mid-journey!!

Question:  You want a cup of coffee and go the kitchen area to find Indonesian coffee, Nescafe instant coffee, powdered creamer, and sugar. You …

  a. Make a cup of coffee with the Nescafe instant and powdered creamer
  b. Put a table spoon of finely ground Indonesian coffee in the mug, 
      add hot water and two teaspoons of sugar
  c. Opt for tea

Answer: (b) -- The Sumatran coffee is delicious if you don't mind a pile of grounds in your cup. And it does taste better sweet.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Top of Indonesia - The Final Chapter ...

I've just returned from a visit to an island off the northern tip of Sumatra call Pulau Weh.

Just outside Sabang, the principal town on the island, I visited my final Red Cross chapter in Aceh Province, the 22nd of 22 chapters. The radio work went well and they now have a fully functioning setup.

The town of Sabang is on the northern side of the island. When I went for a swim off this beach I was about as far north as you can get in Indonesia, not the furthest, but just about. In the foreground you can see a father teaching his small son how to fish off the beach. 

The island is very different from the others we've been to. It’s only a short 45 minute express passenger ferry ride from Banda Aceh and so it’s a major “get-away” spot for people needing a break from the city. The streets are all well maintained, lots of flower plantings, and all of the streets are tree-lined. It does offer some fine diving and snorkeling – I had to settle for a short swim! But don’t come here if you’re looking for a tourist center like those offered in Florida, the Caribbean, or the Mediterranean. The places I’ve visited on this trip are “un-touristed”. It’s life as the Indonesians live it. I love that so I’m in heaven but many people would go crazy looking for western-style restaurants and bars – there aren’t any outside the large cities!! One or two resorts on the island tucked away from the town of Sabang cater more to a western clientele but it’s still a very simple lifestyle.

Here's a photo of a street sign. If anyone has any idea what it’s meant to indicate I’d love to know. Strong winds maybe ...

As a follow on to the election coming up next Thursday, that I commented on earlier, I saw another poster recently which outlined 44 political parties registered. I guess 6 of those don’t have candidates in Jakarta as their poster only showed 38.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Have You Ever Seen a Pocari?

Neither have I ... and I don't want to. There are either a lot of these beasts or the ones they have farmed have a perspiration problem. Either way they sell this stuff by the can and people love it. Apparently it's a very refreshing drink. 

I think I'll add it to my list of things I've seen but have never tried ... like sea cucumbers!!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Simeulue Island

I’m running out of superlatives to describe the scenery one passes by as you travel around the coast of the islands. I’ll let the following take care of 6,000 words. The village ladies in the final photo are sweeping dead leaves off the grass and the bunker in the background is Japanese from WWII.

The Becak

One of the cheaper forms of transportation available throughout Indonesia is the becak (pronounced “beh-chack”). It’s essentially a small motorcycle with a two-seat sidecar bolted on the side. 

The number of people who can ride on a becak at one time is only limited by the size and flexibility of the passengers. One morning I saw four high school girls in the sidecar and two more behind the driver. They run the range from well-maintained to “take your life in your hands”. The photo is of a becak we rode back to the hotel after dinner on Simeulue. You can see it was badly in need of a wash. The headlamp put out all of one candle power. It was a good job that the roads on Simeulue are pretty much deserted after dark. I rode behind the driver on the motorcycle and my two travelling companions rode in the sidecar.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

They're Getting Smaller

On Monday we travelled to Simeulue another large island off the west coast of Sumatra. Earlier in the trip we had travelled to Nias on a 50-seater Fokker. The plane we flew to Simeulue in made that look like a 737. I’m not even sure what make of plane it was but it was a single engine, 12-seater, with no facilities.

Cabin service was a bun and a small container of water on your seat. The plane had four rows of seats, three in front of the stairway and one against the rear bulkhead.

I was sitting in one of the bulkhead seats and could stretch my legs out - nice. Some of our luggage was lying on the floor by my feet. One of the best things about the flight is I had perhaps the biggest window I’ve seen on a plane – it must have been 1.5’ x 2’ – made for great views when I could see the ground.

The trip started out quite nicely with smooth air, then we got to the mountains… a line of thunderstorms had developed in the early afternoon and although the pilots tried to avoid the big ones they still had to fly through some thick cloud and one heavy rain storm. Suffice to say that it got a little bumpy and cork-screwy for a while. Some of the cloud formations were spectacular. 

The air cleared as we left the coast of Sumatra and the rest of the flight was good. When we arrived on Simeulue and deplaned one of my two travelling companions said he was still shaking. I don’t think either of them will make the afternoon flight again!!

Staff from the local Red Cross chapter picked us up and took us to the hotel and I had to chuckle when I saw the name of the hotel, “Wisma Hallo Mister”.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Indonesia Red Cross (Pelang Merah Indonesia)

As I’ve travelled around Aceh province and to some of the outlying islands I’ve come across a variety of Red Cross chapters. By and large all of the chapters in Aceh are either already in new chapter buildings or are planning to move to new chapter buildings within the next few months.

Many of the new chapter building follow a standard blueprint providing excellent work space for the staff. All of them are being funded by other Red Cross national societies including Canada, France, Japan, and others.
For those that have not moved yet their existing accommodations in city centers can best be described as extremely crowded and bordering on marginal accomodation. The new buildings are often being built outside the main city center on large plots of land allowing the chapters room to grow and provide additional services.

The chapters run the gamut from “almost empty” to very, very busy. Most are on the busy side delivering programs like avian influenza and HIV-AIDS awareness, and providing ambulance services to the local community. Some chapters also run the regional blood banks. In Tapaktuan I was asked for my blood type as they urgently needed some blood. Unfortunately my type didn’t match.

 One fact that you cannot help but notice is what these dedicated people are doing with a very limited amount of money. It’s true that a great deal of money has flowed into Aceh because of the tsunami but most of this money has gone to infrastructure building like new homes for the survivors, the chapter buildings, chapter vehicles, water and sanitation projects, agriculture and fishery projects, EWS radio network, etc. Money for ongoing programs is still very much in demand.

And of course Aceh is only a small part of this vast country.

BTW – speaking of vast countries I’m visiting another island this afternoon when I travel to Simeulue on the west side of Sumatra, north of Nias, the other large island Glen and I visited.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Want Another Political Party?

Indonesia has a national election on April 9th. There are many people in America that wish we had at least one more legitimate choice other than Republican or Democrat (apologies to Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, and others who have tried). Well, be careful of what you wish for. This photo displays a list of the 38 different political parties that have candidates running for election in Jakarta. Can you imagine trying to sort out who to vote for?

This election is to vote for three representatives: municipal, district, and provincial. The Indonesian people will return to the polls later to vote for a new President. As I understand the current President can run for re-election as many times as he wants, no term limits like the US.

Regarding yesterday’s object: It’s a tool for grinding out the inside of coconuts to remove the hard, white flesh for cooking. Split your coconut in half and grind away. The shell of the coconut protects your hands from the spiky reamer.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What is this?

Here’s an object for sale at a local market. You see them being used in many places around Banda Aceh. What is it? I’ll provide an answer tomorrow.

Hint: It’s nothing medical … :-)

I just got back from a stay in Jakarta where we installed two radio systems at the PMI (Palang Merah Indonesia) HQ.

The antenna's were installed at the top of this four story building occupied by PMI.

Wonderful view looking down from the roof.

The HF antenna was hoisted up using a commercial tower and the VHF antenna was mounted onto the top of a standard IFRC 30’ mast which we put up on the top of the structure covering the (blue) stairwell. The antenna cables were fed down to ground level and then across to the radio room in a converted sea container (top of the picture) next to the HQ building.

All went as well as can be expected, without the assistance of my expert installers in Banda Aceh, with 90 degree temperatures, and 90% humidity - talk about sweat – I drank a lot of water, nobody wanted to sit beside me on the trip back to the hotel! The VHF radio tested fine but the HF radio is giving me problems. All of the equipment is new but the radio just won’t produce anywhere near its rated output. Unfortunately I had to leave to return to Banda Aceh so I’ll be debugging the HF radio when I return to Jakarta on April 7th. Obviously, the problem lies in one of the three major components: radio, antenna cable, or antenna. It's figuring out which one that will be the challenge.

Very frustrating.

Today and tomorrow I’ll try to wrap up some sites in Banda Aceh then it’s off to the island of Simeulue to move an HF radio from the Australian Red Cross HQ to the PMI chapter building.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jakarta Traffic Observations

Spending a fair bit of time in Jakarta has presented a few things that strike me as "funny haha" or "funny peculiar" - your choice.

On Monday I had to run out to pick up some grounding wire and during the trip we had a tropical downpour - comes on fast and the drops are big. Needless to say all of the people on scooters and motorcycles are caught without rain gear on. As we proceeded down one street I saw all of the traffic moving over to the right-hand lane and could see a mass of stopped traffic on the left that I, at first, thought was an accident. As we got closer I saw that there were about 30+ motorcycles stopped, side by side, blocking the inside two lanes - most strange. Then I realized that they were all stopped under a bridge affording them some protection from the downpour. The rest of the cars, buses, trucks, etc. just moved to the right and funneled around them with minimal horn honking. Must be a standard procedure. Try that one in Milwaukee or Chicago!!

Yesterday morning I saw a man standing beside an on-ramp signalling with one or two fingers, then I saw another, and another. Sarmad asked me if I knew what was happening and of course I didn't. He explained that ahead the road system provided an HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane much like you see in many US cities. These young men were signalling to the drivers that they were available as extra "passengers" to make up the HOV minimum. True entrepreneurship at work. He thought they charged one or two dollars for the service.

And lastly, if U-turns in heavy traffic bother you, don't drive in Jakarta. At a lot of intersections there is no easy way to install a flyover for traffic wanting to turn right across the flow of oncoming vehicles (remember they drive on the left hand side of the road here). To turn right you first turn left, proceed anywhere from a few hundred yards to a 1/2 mile or more and then you make a U-turn from one heavily trafficked roadway through a gap in the median, onto an equally heavily trafficked roadway heading in the opposite direction. The oncoming cars know this is happening and allow the cars making the U-turns to filter in ... eventually - but it does require a bold driving style. Tentative drivers wouldn't last long.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In Jakarta

I’m spending a few days in Jakarta installing two radio systems at the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) headquarters, one of which will allow Jakarta to communicate directly to Banda Aceh, all part of the Tsunami Recovery Project.

It was quite a shock to arrive in Jakarta, Thursday night, to discover a city of anywhere from 9,000,000 to 23,000,000 people depending whether you’re talking about Jakarta proper or great Jakarta. Either way it’s a massive population. The expressway coming into town from the airport, albeit later in the evening, flowed well and we got to the hotel quickly. Friday was totally different. Jakarta is known for its major traffic problems and I got to see it first hand as we slowly worked our way to the IFRC office building.

On Saturday Sarmad and I had a few things to pick up for the radio installations on Monday and we spent a long time stuck in long lines of backed up traffic. They do have white lines dividing the road into lanes but these are largely ignored, the number of lanes is more dictated by the width of the vehicle. When we got back to the hotel one of the staff commented how lucky we were to actually make it to the places that we did on a Saturday.

Sunday was my day off so I took a taxi to try and locate the only two geocaches in Jakarta. If you haven’t heard about geocaching it’s basically a treasure hunt using a handheld GPS to locate items that have been hidden by others. It first started in May 2000, when Dave Ulmer from Portland, Oregon, hid some trinkets in the woods outside Portland posted their coordinates in a newsgroup posting and challenged people to find them. As of a few minutes ago www.geocaching.com, the center of all things related to geocaching, are reporting 752,612 caches worldwide. Better get started soon!

The first cache in Jakarta was placed within a national monument, called Monas, located at the center of the city. It’s a 450’ tall tower topped by a huge flame with a central elevator. Unfortunately, it had a very long lineup waiting to get to the top. I declined to wait in the heat and humidity, so I didn't get to answer the question that I needed to claim that cache.
The second cache is what is known as a ‘traditional’ cache located in the Tarman Prasati Museum where they have collected grave stones and monuments from all over Jakarta, one dating back to the late 15th century. The cache was a small container hidden at the base of a tree. The geocaching experience is searching for caches that take you to places with interesting features that you would not otherwise see. You then log your find's so that the owners of the caches have a record of everyone that has found it.

BTW – the Sunday traffic was much better!

In each hotel on my tour of Aceh province I found that the only TV channels available were Indonesian. But, here in Jakarta I have found channels from Australia, UK, USA, France, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, China (mainland), China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan, perhaps an indication of the international nature of this capitol city.

At the IFRC on Friday I met up with Bob McKerrow again, whom I'd first had the pleasure of meeting last week in Banda Aceh. Bob is the Head of Delegation for the IFRC in Indonesia and as such he coordinates the work of the dozens of Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies working in the country, a huge task. He’s a fascinating man with a wide range of interests and experiences. He’s also a writer and a blogger and his site is well worth a visit: www.bobmckerrow.blogspot.com. Check it out. Bob has a background in radio communication (13 months in Antarctica to name one) and has taken a keen interest in our work. He’s an avid supporter of what we’re doing so we are thrilled to have his enthusiasm on our team!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Some Traveling Left To Do..

I'm writing this entry from Java, my fourth Indonesian island. Some years ago Ann and I had the good fortune to visit Bali (#1) for a vacation, my project here has been primarily in north Sumatra (#2), and I did get to travel to Nias (#3) to check some radio installations. I'm now in Java (#4) to visit the IFRC headquarters in Jakarta and install a radio for the early warning system.

Checking Wikipedia I only have 17, 504 islands left to visit!! Wish me well ... only about 6,000 of the islands are inhabited so it may be a bit lonely.

And as an aside I'm now in the southern hemisphere having crossed the equator on the flight from Singapore last night.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Back in Banda Aceh

The long road trip ended on Sunday afternoon when we returned to Banda Aceh – 14 days, 1,300 miles, 11 different hotels, and ten Red Cross chapters.

The final stretch of the west coast road lived up to its reputation by providing some of the most stunning coastal scenery tempered by a mostly dirt road that is either washboarded or topped with very bumpy rocks. The stretch of road down the west coast from Calang to Banda Aceh is under repair. The tsunami washed away major sections of the road and all of the coastal bridges. 

USAID has stepped in to fund the reconstruction but it’s a massive task that will take a couple more years to complete. Different sections of the road were allotted to different companies for reconstruction – some got relatively flat terrain, some got mountainous terrain. At one stretch we dropped out of a mountainous section to find a new smooth, wide, level road, and just when we thought we’ll be back in Banda Aceh in no time - the wheels drop off the tarmac and it's back to rough, slow going again.

To bypass the washed out bridges they’ve built a temporary dirt road for much of the route. The dirt road snakes its way back into the interior adding miles to what will eventually be a relatively short distance. When completed I think you’ll be able to drive the distance in a couple of hours. It took us six! 

As I mentioned above the condition of the road is totally offset by the scenery. Some of the best looking beaches are right beside the road with clear ocean water breaking on the shore and totally deserted. One wonders how long it will be before they get developed. The Aceh people and Sharia Law will certainly impact the pace and scale of development but if you want to “get away from it all” it’s hard to imagine a nicer place.

About two thirds of the way to Banda Aceh you have to climb up over a mountain with hillsides that drop straight down into the sea. The road is built into the edge of the mountain and at its highest point we came across a row of coffee huts built on the cliff side of the road. It’s mandatory to stop (of course) …we sit on a covered deck that is suspended out over the hillside and enjoyed a cup of coffee while gazing at the vista – a great rest stop!

Yesterday I caught up on some paperwork and documentation and today Sarmad is here so we will take the day to plan the final four weeks of the project. Tomorrow I fly back to Singapore to get my Indonesian visa renewed for the last time. The first two months have flown by and I’m sure the final month will do the same given what Sarmad would like to get done. We’re adding a few things to my “to do” list.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The West Coast Road

My Indonesian companions on the trip are taking a break at a mosque in a small village for a special Friday prayer service that is important to Muslims. While sitting in the Land Cruiser, I though I’d use the time to post a quick blog. Thanks to Ken for the Telkomsel flash wifi card.

What a treat the west coast road has been after the rough roads in the mountains. The road is primarily flat and well-paved although they did throw in a few hill climbs, curvy sections, and some pot holes to keep the driver on his toes. We’ve been able to make good time between site visits. When the road passes close to the
sea it's very beautiful - there are some great beaches - but no time to stop.

This morning, as we left Meulaboh, the road quality took a bit of a downturn but still it was mostly good pavement.
I’m told the final section which we should traverse tomorrow from Calang to Banda Aceh is another bad stretch so I’m preparing for more hand grip holding. (BTW - Indonesian “c’s” are pronounced like the “ch” in “chapter” so Calang is pronounced “Chalang”.)

The east coast road is the primary route between the capitol of Sumatra, Medan, and Banda Aceh, so it’s full of cars, buses and trucks. The west coast road is much less travelled, that makes the going much easier – although being a quieter road it seems to attract many more animals, especially cows, who use the road like the rest of us.

After the lofty heights of 6200’+ in the mountains I’ve spent the last few days at 50’ or less. The land along this coast is very flat and low until it reaches the mountains to the east where it shoots back up again. Much of this shoreline was badly damaged by the tsunami, particularly the cities of Meulaboh and Calang.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back on the Good Side - and a Wonderful Surprise

Things got back on the positive side of the ledger as we finished our work at the Aceh Selatan PMI chapter in Tapaktuan and both the HF and the VHF radios worked fine. I took some time and set up the bad radio from Singkil just for a test and, lo and behold, it worked just fine The problem back in Singkil must have been the antenna. The PMI technician will have to replace it on his next visit.

On the way to our next stop in Blangpidie we passed by the home of Sayad one of the PMI technicians that are along on this trip. He invited us to stop because he wanted to get us fresh coconuts. No sooner had we climbed out of the vehicles when Sayed shot up to the top of a tall coconut tree and started throwing down coconuts into a small stream that ran in front of his home. An older man who I later learned was Sayed’s father hopped down into the stream to retrieve the coconuts. Two other men with knives then hacked off the tops and bottoms of the coconuts, made a hole in one end, and handed them to us to drink the freshest coconut milk you can get. After the milk was gone they split the coconuts in two, handed us spoons, and we scooped out the flesh from inside – delicious. A cup of sweet Aceh coffee followed and we were well refreshed for the rest of the journey. What a treat! Definitely one of those moments that makes me realize how lucky I am to have this opportunity.

The area around Sayed’s home was very beautiful. They are a little inland from the sea and are surrounded by rice paddies with high hills rising in the background. His father told us that it looks peaceful now but 10 years ago during the separatist war between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government it was a very dangerous area with soldiers from both sides firing from the surrounding hills.

In the afternoon we stopped at the Aceh Barat Daya (aka Abdya) chapter and were told the radio had been broken over a year ago and that no one had replied to their requests for help until we arrived. It took them about 30 minutes to locate all of the parts and then it took us about an hour to get the radio operational again. I think they were pleased.

Tonight we’re staying in Blangpidie and then tomorrow we head to Jeuram to the PMI Nagan Raya branch before heading to Meulaboh for the night.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The First Failure

Up until Singkil we'd had a perfect track record for getting the radios working. I expected the run to continue but, alas, today it ended. After we had completed all of our other work to get the radios up to a decent operating standard - we successfully tested the VHF radio but the HF radio wouldn't cooperate.

The Codan HF radios we're using here are designed to output 150 watts of power. The one in Singkil would only push 10 watts and no more. The radio appears to be faulty so I'm bringing it back to Banda Aceh for repair.

I trust we'll get back on the good side of the ledger today as we work on the radios here in Tapaktuan at the Aceh Selatan branch.

Tapaktuan is a small town stretched along the west coast of Aceh with a hill rising up immediately to the east. I can see the waves breaking on the rocks across the street from our hotel. We got here yesterday after lunch and since Monday was an official Indonesian holiday I gave the team a well-deserved afternoon off.

Indonesian Hotels

The hotels we’ve stayed at have run the gamut from very nice to adequate. The hotel we use in Medan is up to par with many of the better western hotels including a gym, swimming pool, tennis court, etc. The hotel I stayed at in Singkil was much, much smaller but very clean and pleasant and somewhat representative of what you find when you leave the big cities. 

The following contrasts are meant only to illustrate the differences and are not meant to criticize the hotel I stayed at in Singkil because I enjoyed my stay there very much. The owner was very pleasant but spoke no English so we exchange pleasantries and that was about it. It’s a shame I was only there for two nights.

But, if you really want to do Indonesia on the cheap, there’s one type of overnight accommodation that is very basic called a “losmen”. I haven’t stayed in one – yet. But, I’ll let you know if I do.

  • Medan - The same flush toilets as we would find back home.
  • Singkil - The toilet was a porcelain fixture, sunk in the floor with places for your feet. You flush it by pouring ladles of water into a bowl from a giant tub of water in the corner of the toilet room. Interestingly enough this enamel insert in the floor was made by American Standard.
  • Medan - In the bathtub with shower curtain - nice clean towels
  • Singkil - Using the same ladle mentioned above, you pour water over your head, lather up, and then ladle more water over your body until you’re clean - nice clean towels.
  • Medan - King size with nice sheets and a blanket.
  • Singkil - Queen size, no top sheet, but a nice quilt.
  • Medan - Yes, with control in the bedside table.
  • Singkil - Wall mounted type that does a good job of cooling the room and it has a remote control.
  • Medan - lots of channels including CNN.
  • Singkil - All Indonesian channels – I get to catch up on my reading.
  • Medan - Several.
  • Singkil - None.
  • Medan - In the lobby
  • Singkil - Don’t even think about it with Sharia La
Cost Per Night:
  • Medan - US$95
  • Singkil - US$15
  • Travelling around Sumatra for the Red Cross – Priceless!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dining With Cats

So there I am enjoying lunch at a local restaurant when I notice a cat between my legs. There were at least five cats roaming the place. I’m sitting in a very low chair and leaning forward across my lap to eat and the cat is right beneath me looking up.
I took a photo because he was so cute and meowed nicely for food. He must have known that I very seldom feed animals from the table because when I leaned forward to take the next bite from my piece of chicken the little terror stood tall and gracefully removed the chicken bone from my hands and ran off with it! Good job I was almost finished.

A typical lunch in this part of the world is to be given a plate with a serving of white rice on it and then helping yourself to whatever takes your fancy from bowls lined up on the display shelf, usually several different kinds of chicken dishes, several fish dishes, maybe a beef dish or two, and one or two vegetable dishes. Most of them include either green or red chilies so your taste needs to lean towards the spicy. I’m in heaven! The food and one or two Tehbotols and I’m ready to start work again. Tehbotol is the name of a very popular bottled cold tea drink served everywhere I’ve been so far.

p.s. I'll try to post some photos when I get better access. Right now it's back to dial-up speed of 54 Kbps through a Telkomsel Flash wireless drive. Slooowwww!!

I'm Over The Hill(s)

My trip through the central highlands of Aceh province has ended. Friday night was spent in the mountain town of Berastagi at almost 4800', last night we slept in the west coast town of Singkil at 15'. 

Berastagi felt wonderfully cool after the heat of the lower ranges, it's a town where people from the biggest city on Sumatra, Medan, go to get away. It's a busy market town and small tourist center with many hotels and small B&B's. There are two active volcanoes nearby, Sibayak and Sinabung, unfortunately I didn't get to see the smoke as the peaks were hidden by clouds. It's a reminder that I'm sitting on the "Ring of Fire" as this volcanic area of the world is known.

The road from the river valley, south of Kutacane up to Berastagi, could perhaps be the worst road I have ever travelled over, if not, it's in the bottom two. The pot holes along this mountain highway weren't just big, they could swallow a VW Beetle, and some of them were filled with water making it an adventure to drive in and "test" the depth and what we might hit beneath the water. I can definitely certify that my spine has been completely realigned and my left arm, after long hours hanging onto the handle above the window, is now stronger than my right. We did find some well-paved sections, and some sections that were old but still in good condition, but these were far and few.

On one section we passed through an area filled with oranges groves. We stopped at a stall being run by one of the local farmers to try some, I think we ended up purchasing about 20 lbs between us.

Yesterday we traveled from Berastagi to Singkil, mostly downhill, but we still had some passes to cross over. More beautiful views and one good waterfall helped the trip go by. We got in late so I haven't seen much of Singkil but it's very flat and barely above sea level. I believe Singkil's main claim to fame is being the ferry port for trips to Simeulue Island.

Today we'll be working on the radios here at the Singkil Chapter and on Monday we'll begin the journey NW back to Banda Aceh.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Back in the Mountains

I’ve travelled back into the mountains to revisit the sites at Takengon (4000’), then on to new territory to the town of Blangkejeren (3100’), and then on to a town in a river basin (Kutacane). The driving has been spectacular. The one and only road winds its way along the mountainside and I swear, over the last 300 miles or so, I saw less than 1 mile of straight road and less than one mile of flat road. We were continuously winding left to right or heading up and down. From Takengon to Blangkejeren we had to cross over two mountain passes at 6000’ and 6200’ and between Blangkejeren and Kutacane we went back over 4200’. The road is paved but has rough patches where landslides have taken away the road bed, and in some places parts of the road! Along the way you pass through small villages strung out along the roadside which at first look idyllic with the streams and mountain vistas but the reality is that life here has to be very tough. The primary source of income is farming where fields are cut out of every conceivable piece of arable land. I’ve even seen a few small corn fields – nothing like Wisconsin. Try to run a John Deere down a 45 degree slope!

In the Takengon area they grow a particularly fine coffee bean which is the prime ingredient of the Aceh coffee I’ve mentioned before. One of their main customers is Starbucks, so if you order a cup of Starbucks Sumatra coffee, this is where it comes from. And Starbucks, if you’re listening, I can buy a cup of that same coffee here for about a quarter.

Yesterday, on the mountain roads, we passed through two roadblocks set up by the police (or whomever) and we were waved through – having large Red Cross and Red Crescent signs all over the vehicles works like a charm. There is a respect shown to the Red Cross. Anyway we didn't know what they were looking for until we got down into Kutacane and saw a drug bust in progress – we didn’t stop! It seems, along with fine coffee, the mountains are also a great place to grow marijuana. I didn’t get a price on that!

One last comment – I think the first two words taught to Indonesian children must be, “Hello Mister!” If we slow down anywhere children are present, or pass by children walking on the street, especially in the more rural areas, we almost always hear, “Hello Mister!” along with a wave and a smile.

The trip is going very well. We’ve taken care of business in each of the above mentioned towns, and later today, after some wrap-up work here in Kutacane, we’ll be heading towards the most south-west part of Aceh province to a town called Singkil.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Can You Speak Bahasa - Does Air Mean Water?

I had first thought that the language spoken in Indonesia was Bahasa. I got educated today by my interpreter and, the news is - everyone in the world speaks bahasa because bahasa simply means language - and everyone here speaks at least one language. In our case we speak bahasa Ingres (English) and for Indonesia the official language is bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian). Locally, in Aceh Province, they also speak bahasa Aceh (Acehnese). So, if someone asks “Can you speak bahasa?” simply reply “Of course!”

Now a test to see if you can speak bahasa Indonesia. Look at the following list of words and see how many of them you understand. I think you’ll be surprised.

Coklat (In Indonesian the “c” is pronounced like “ch”)
Es krim (think Baskin & Robbins)

And you thought you could only speak English. I'm learning a few phrases to get me by and, at a minimum, allow me to say hello and goodbye. Greeting someone can be confusing because you have to know what the time of day is. There are five different expressions. They are 'pagi pagi' (before 7:00am), 'pagi' (7:00am until 11:00am), 'siang' (11:00am until 3:00pm), 'sore' (3:00pm until 7:00pm), and 'malam' (after 7:00pm). If you want to say "See you tomorrow." you have to include the appropriate word for the time of day you expect to see them. 

One of the things that still makes my brain spin is the number one. The Indonesian work for one is 'satu' which is pronounced like 'sah-two'. As soon as I hear the second syllable I’m already one numeral too much. 

And, if you are wondering about the title, the Indonesian word for water is 'air' and is pronounced like 'ah-ear'.

Two final words to leave you with, that tickle my western funny bone: Doorsmeer and Pispot. Doorsmeer means carwash - do you want your doors smeared? and Pispot is a store that sells car parts - not what you were thinking.

Please Send a Money Sack!

Bring a money belt they said. It will help secure your cash! On Friday I received US$600 for expenses, and a US$700 advance for the upcoming trip to the highlands and west coast. This amounts to IR13,800,000. Here’s what it looks like...

...now I don't know about you, but a money belt with this amount of paper cash in it looks obvious. The note on the top of the pile is a IR50,000 note, which is worth about US$5. Does anyone know where I can get an inconspicuous money sac?!

Colors, Colors, Colors

Traveling around this country I'm impressed by all the vivid colors, both natural and man-made.
First the colors of nature: in a tropical setting, like Indonesia, the many shades of green. Green is everywhere, from the rice fields to palm trees, to banana plantations, to jungle shrubs, to majestic trees. Interspersed with all of the green is the blue of the sky, the blue-green of the ocean and dotted amongst all of this are the tropical flowers: all shades of reds, blues, pinks, and yellows.

Next to grab your eye are the flags. There’s a general election here in April and it seems the standard method for advertising your party is to put flags up along the sides of the road and down the median. There are a lot of political parties so there are a many different colored flags, all shades of red, green, yellow, white, and blue.

Finally the colors of buildings: the most common form of construction is reinforced concrete resulting in a cement gray structure. To brighten the finished buildings they paint them in a wide variety of colors, in amazing combinations that we from the west would find clashing. Pink, in all shades from coral to shocking, and orange, in all its varying shades, are most popular as are blues, greens, yellows, and reds. I especially like the Green Bay Packer d├ęcor. The most clashing combination I’ve seen, to date, is a building with orange walls and pink trim. Sorry I didn’t get a picture.

Last week I travelled 8 hours down the east coast for one final pass at all of the locations there to fix sites Glen and I hadn’t got to and to make a few final repairs to sites we'd visited but didn’t have the necessary supplies to complete. I also reprogrammed all of the radios with new and old frequencies. They’re going to reprogram all of the repeater radios with different frequencies so I want the radios to continue working after the change.

Places visited included Tamiang, Langsa, Lhokseumawe, Bireuen, and Sigli. One of the more amusing things I came across was a repeater radio that was double-locked inside a steel cabinet mounted on the wall inside a small toilet, inside a locked office, inside a government office building. No one is going to mess around with that radio!

For the next two weeks I’m going to make a swing back up through the central highlands and drop down to the far SW corner of Aceh Province to a town called Singkil. I’ll then make my way back up the west coat to Banda Aceh visiting all of the radio installations on the way. It’ll be 15 straight days on the road. As soon as I get back to Banda Aceh it will be time to leave for Singapore to get my third, and final, Indonesian visa.