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.