Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Elephant in the ...Country

"I can't wait to get back to the States where there are drugs and violence, but at least I'm not the target."

This memorable comment came up during a casual dinner conversation this weekend. I was in Bandung, a good-sized city two hours outside of Jakarta, visiting some of the English Fulbright Teaching Assistants (ETAs) and serving as a judge for an English competition they were having with their high school students. The conversation came up after we all received this message from the US Embassy via text message and email:

Warden Message: Be aware of suspicious packages. Properly screen mail or IEDs
This warden message is to alert U.S. citizens in Indonesia that four improvised explosive devices (IEDs) disguised as books were sent to prominent Indonesians as of March 17, 2011.  Mail handlers at the destinations identified the suspicious nature of the packages (odd smell and exposed wires) and notified the Indonesian National Police (INP).  Unfortunately, one of the IEDs exploded and seriously injured several INP personnel.  All four of the IEDs were concealed in books written in Indonesian entitled “They Have to Be Killed Because Of Their Sins to Islam and Muslims.” 
We don't get these messages too often, but every now and again, the embassy sends us similar warnings. For example, we all received a warden message warning about possible demonstrations when the pastor in Florida was planning the Quran burning (nothing happened). In fact, we've probably only received four or five the entire six months I've been here, and they were all generally about things we don't need to worry about. But, they do heighten one's awareness. 

I live in the center of Jakarta and in the middle of several high rises. The JW Marriot and the Ritz Carlton, both bombed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers in 2009, are both in walking distance from my apartment. In fact, I go salsa dancing from time to time at the Ritz. I have to go through several car checks, metal detectors, and bomb-sniffing dogs to get in any of the buildings, including the one I live in. So, generally, I feel pretty safe. It didn't stop me from having a minor panic attack the other day when I shared the elevator with a lone bag of trash. 

I was leaving my apartment, probably heading down to one of the coffee shops near my building. When I stepped onto the elevator from the 26th floor, I didn't think twice about the owner-less white, paper shopping bag sitting in the corner. After the doors slid shut, I glanced again at the bag; it was full of loosely crumpled up newspaper. Why would there be a bag of trash on the elevator? The Bellagio is kept spotless. My mind quickly began filling up with possible answers...answers that made me sweat. In the decade since 9-11, we've been told exactly what could be in a mysterious, abandoned bag planted in a building heavily occupied by wealthy foreigners. 

It was the longest elevator ride of my life. 

I was literally shaking by the time I reached the lobby. In a barely concealed panic, I told the front desk crew that there was a bag of trash on the elevator. Looking back on the incident, the staff probably thought I was a crazy bule with very high cleanliness standards. I wonder if they also feared for their lives as the stared down a bag of trash. 

I can't stress enough that this is the one and only time that the thought of terrorist attack has ever even registered on my radar. My day to day in Indonesia is very safe. I work for the police and have a group of 14 plus staff who are constantly over protective of their native speaker. Just last night, in fact, one of the instructors crawled into the front seat of a cab I was taking home and wrote down the name and license number of the cab driver, reminding him sternly that she was a police woman, before she would let me get in.

Living in an Islamic nation in a post-9-11 world brings with it a unique set of experiences. I would be remiss if I didn't record them here along with all of my other amazing Indonesian adventures (that vastly outweigh this one non-incident). I do not live in constant fear. A little more cautious, sure, but not fear. I'm more in danger of natural disasters or a traffic accidents than being the target of a terrorist attack. Truth is, apart from teaching English, the other ELFs, ETAs, and I are often told that we are the first line of defense against terrorism. We are sent here as much for soft diplomacy as we are sent to teach English. The relationships we create between the students, other instructors, and even front desk staff, go a long way to build positive feelings toward Americans. There is a reason Indonesia has the highest number of ETAs (43) and ELFs (14) out of the 80 plus countries where our programs exist. The more relationships we build, the less we feel like targets.