Saturday, December 25, 2010

We're not in Java anymore...

One of my goals when I arrived in Indonesia was to visit all the major islands in the archipelago. I spent the first four months getting settled into Jakarta - doing a little traveling around West Java, but that's it. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to go to Pontianak, West Borneo (Kalimantan), I was beyond thrilled. Borneo is known for its rain forests, orangutans, and head hunters, so who could resist, really?

Ok, ok, so we weren't going anywhere near orangutans or tribal villages where head hunting is still a major past time, but getting out of Java still made the trip well worth the while. So, Michael (another ELF in Jakarta) and I boarded the hour and a half flight for Pontianak.

The city of Pontianak is located on the west coast of Borneo, not too far south of Malaysia. There are a few wonderful things about this city. 1). There is another ELF there (Cary), whom we were going to get to see in all his teaching glory, 2). Three of my former police students are posted in the city (Robert - my adopted little brother, Edy, and Jhon), 3). The city is located on the equator, 4). The city is not located on Java, 5). There are no bajai, and 6). The city is a mix of numerous cultures each bringing their flavor to the city.

A few fun signs

First off, Pontianak is a proper city about the size of Akron, and it's walker friendly. So, Michael and I spent a lot of time doing just that - we walked. The traffic was still pretty heavy, but the air was perfectly pleasant. The most notable difference (apart from the lack of bajai, which were replaced with the much cleaner and less noisy becek - bicycle ricksaws) was that there were far fewer foreigners. This meant far more attention for two tall bules getting lost on the main streets of the city. On more than one occasion, a friendly and curious citizen crossed traffic and pull up alongside us on their motorbike to talk about...anything. Here's a typical conversation:

Citizen: Halo, mister (regardless of gender being addressed)! Where are you going?
Bules: Halo! Over there. (points with thumb in any general direction - pointing with fingers is very disrespectful)
Citizen: Where are you from?
Bules: America!
Citizen: America! Obama!
All: Obama, ya! (much laughter and high fives).

This is where the conversation usually died out because of  a lack of English proficiency, but it was a enough to generate smiles all around. Sometimes there were no words exchanged at all. One such memorable moment, I was standing outside of a shopping mall when an older woman caught my eye. She pointed to her nose, then my nose, then her daughter's nose, and said, "sama" with an ear to ear grin. You see, while in America it's typical to desire small noses, here in Asia a big shnoz is a mark of beauty. I've even heard that it is thought if a bule touches a baby, he or she will grow into a fine "bule" nose. This woman was fiercely proud of the fact that her daughter possessed a nose just like mine. Light skin and big noses - I may never leave (just kidding, Mom!). 

In between these great little, impromptu conversations, we had some great adventures. One night we got to meet with my former students for dinner. I also had the extra special treat of meeting Robert's (far left) little twin sisters, Richa and Reni. These girls are adorable and have joined Robert in my growing Indonesian family.

We also visited Cary's English club, which was staging its very own version of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. They did an extraordinary job, and officially put me in the Christmas spirit!

Of course, we had to go visit the equator. There is a special monument built by the Dutch to mark the spot.  

Straddling the Equator. Sweet!
Michael and his official Equator certificate

We rounded off the trip with a visit to the oldest mosque in the city and the sultan's palace. 

Stain glass and prayer rugs

Apparently there are quite a few Sultans still ruling in various parts of the country. The last Sultan of Pontianak died in the 70s, but you can still visit this house complete with the throne and four bedrooms - one for each of his wives.
Some pictures of the kampung (village) on the river.

House on stilts.

Add one more thumbtack to my map! When I make it to my next island, you'll hear about it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Just don't tell my mother

I eluded to the splendors of Jakarta in my last blog. It's not an easy city to navigate. It sprawls on for miles and miles in under passes, over passes, traffic circles, and u-turns, and every square inch of that is covered with hurling buses, bumbling bajai (motorized rickshaw), jammed mirkolets (minibuses - same concept as the jeepney from PI), taxis, lima kaki (men pushing mobile food stands) and hundreds and thousands of motorbikes. At any give moment of any given day, there is a traffic jam somewhere in the city that looks something like this:
Bumper to bumper traffic. The government is working on this problem. The bus system has its own lane, there are talks of restarting a failed mono-rail project, and they even made public schools start a half hour earlier to relieve some congestion. The ominous projection, though, is that Jakarta will be grid-locked by 2012. The authors of Culture Shock: Jakarta give this advice about getting about the city: Don't. I can understand their stand point. Any plans I might have for a Friday night in the city fizzle out quickly as I survey the unmoving glow of taillights from my balcony.  

Yesterday, I was determined to meet some friends for dinner at a mall that is about a 15 minute drive from my apartment (with no traffic). I walked out to the street to check the traffic situation and devise a plan for catching a taxi. Things looked pretty hopeless. Traffic wasn't moving. My only hope was to walk to another street and hope the situation was marginally better. Well, this wasn't true. There was another solution, one that I'd been avoiding since I arrived in Jakarta: The Ojek.

So, the only vehicles that move in a traffic jam are motorbikes that squeeze and weave through any space available (usually the side of the road or the sidewalk). There are many bike owners in Jakarta who take advantage of the desperate traffic situation by offering a helmet and a ride for a pretty cheap fee. These entrepreneurs can be found on just about any street corner usually under a crude cardboard sign that announces their presence. Ojek - the motorbike taxi.

My fears about taking an ojek were not unfounded. We were warned during orientation to never take them. They're just too dangerous. They can and will take advantage of any available space on the road, putting themselves and their fare inches away from other vehicles. But given that most Indonesians don't think twice about them, that the girl in my post before me took them without any troubles, and that sitting in a taxi for hours as the meter rolls is really, really frustrating, it was time for me to make friends with the ojek.

I was weighing these pros and cons once again in my head as I walked to the next street. Before I could even summon the courage to go looking for an ojek, one came to me. A young man on a bike pulled up to the curb with the familiar, "Ojek, Miss?" Why not? I did a quick check of the bike (looking for what, I don't know), asked him the fare to the mall, and took the helmet from his hands. And we were off!

We did all the things that ojeks do: weaved between cars in spaces that appeared only slightly bigger then my foot, rode up over sidewalks, and came close enough to buses that I could have shaken hands with the passengers who hung from the doorway. I kept a cool facade, but my inner monologue sounded something like this: "Please don't let me die. My mother is going to kill me. Huzzah! I'm going to want those kneecaps later.  Please don't let me die. Do I hold on to him? Bus! Nice move. Haha...suckers. Maybe I'll just hold on back here. Please don't let me die"

Despite all my reservations, I arrived safely at my destination in a mere 30 minutes (it could easily have been four times that in a taxi). I paid my driver and walked away with the same grin and feeling I have any time I figure out one more piece of Jakarta. I did it. Slowly, I'm finding my way to be independent in this crazy metropolis. Just don't tell my mother.