Friday, May 27, 2011

On Being Schooled by a Cigarrette Toting 8 Year-old

In my last post, I recounted tales of seeing the headliners of Komodo National Park, the komodos themselves; however, my favorite day was a long trek to see a waterfall hidden in the forests of Flores.

The trip started with a mini-van ride an hour out to a dirt road that was only meant to be crossed by four-wheelers or motorbikes. Our van took up the entire width of the road and then some as the brush on either side scraped along our closed windows. At one point, Michaela and I sat nervously in the back seat as our driver and a motorcyclist who was following us had to reconstruct a part of the road that had been completely washed out by a stream coming from the hill side. Gulp.

We pulled into a small kampung (village) and were greeted by our two, barefooted tour guides. One was our age, and the other was my young friend pictured above. I have no idea how old he was, probably 12 or so, but we'll go with 8 for better effect.

They grabbed our lunches and headed down a path leading away from the kampung. We quickly learned why our guides choose to go barefooted. It had rained hard the night before, turning our down-hill path into a veritable slip and slide. While our guides navigated the path with ease, casually smoking and chatting in their language probably about clumsy Americans, Michaela and I tried to stay upright and not lose our shoes. Ten or so feet into the woods, our young guide was dispatched into the brush with his machete to cut down two palms, which were fashioned into really effective walking sticks. Still, poor Michaela, with her treadless Vans ended up horizontal more often than she would have liked.

An hour and four or five spills later, we landed next to the river. With all the rain water, the river was swelled and rushing over some large rocks that spanned its width. When it became clear that our guides wanted us to jump the rocks to get to the other side, Michaela and I decided that plunging into the rapids wouldn't be the best way to end our vacation or lives, so we camped out on a rock instead. Still, I wanted to see this waterfall that we'd risked our lives to come see. With broken bahasa Indonesia and many hand gestures, I managed to ask our guides where the falls were and how we could get to them. Turns out there was another option, one that required getting wet.

Option B was to jump into the river above the rapids and swim up to the waterfall. After clearing all possibilities of the river being full of man-eating crocs or piranhas, I decided to go for it. My little friend doused his cigarette and jumped in. I followed suit, swimming hard up the river. We reached another group of rocks on the other side and climbed up. From this vantage point, the falls were visible, but still slighted shrouded by outcroppings of rocks on either side. It was then explained to me that jumping back into the river from our cliff (which was at least four or five meters up, I swear) would allow me to see the whole display.
I contemplated this suggestion while staring down into the murky river water - that possibly contained numerous sharp rocks just below the surface. Seeing my concern, my guide did a cannon ball off the cliff and emerged unharmed. Still, I stood at the edge with knees knocking, until little man started heckling me. "Jump! Jump!" he insisted with arms crossed and a tone to suggest I was a nancy-boy. Fine. I jumped and emerged on the other side of the river unscathed. As a reward, I got to see a slightly less obscured view of the falls. It was worth it of course, though I think I was more concerned about measuring up in the eyes of an 8 year-old than about seeing the falls at that point. 
We made it out of the river and back up to the kampung. We ended out trek with a sit-down visit with a family and half of the village. A very animated, older gentleman ushered us into two chairs clearly designed to extract money from tourists' pockets. Once seated, he hacked into a fresh coconut and served us the water inside. We had a very awkward chat with everyone until we indicated that we wanted to leave and our hosts indicated that they wanted our money. Michaela forked over some rupiah in exchange for another coconut and a bunch of bananas, and we headed back to the van (where we would later abandon our purchases).

We waved goodbye from our van window after slipping tips to our guides. They'd kept us alive, after all. It's amazing how this trip, with dragons, mud slides, and cliff diving (c'mon...give it to me) was my favorite in Indonesia so far.

Here dragon, dragon, dragon...

You know that episode of Sesame Street where Burt and Ernie go fishing? Burt gets real mad at Ernie because he just sings, "Here fishy, fishy, fishy" into the water, and all the fish jump into their boat. Well, this technique, disappointingly, does not work with giant lizards.

I had the occasion to go on such a dragon hunt when fellow, fellow Michaela and I booked flights to the beautiful island of Flores in South East Indonesia. From there, we were able to hire small boats to take us on day trips out to Komodo and Rinca islands, part of Indonesia's Komodo National Park. The park covers four islands reminiscent of  Jurassic Park and that contain the world's only population of Komodo Dragons - giant, man-eating lizards; the perfect tourist destination.

Our trips to the islands started with these sea-worthy vessels that only occasionally (every time we stopped) requiring one of the crew to jump in and presumably give the motor a jump start by hand spinning the propellers. The crew was great actually. The two hours allotted me plenty of time to practice my bahasa Indonesian, which went really well until we passed the pleasantries and along with them all of my vocabulary. Until then, though, I had them believing I was 'sudah lancar di bahasa Indonesia" - already fluent in B.I. This often backfired when they would tell us important things like when to come back to the boat or 'don't swim here; there are piranhas' only in B.I. Aduuuh.

Once we disembarked to begin our treks to find the dragons, we were greeted by happy tour guides armed with a long sticks which branched into a V-shape at the top like a divining rod. These sticks, our tour guide would explain, were the only defense we had against an animal who was both faster and bigger than all of us...and, oh, that have bacteria-infested teeth that result in fatal bites. Now, now, to be fair, the beasts spend most of their time lounging in the sun near the camp kitchen or eating medium-sized buffalo...bones and all. Nothing to worry about.

In fact, we only saw one dragon outside of the camp as we followed (very closely) to our guide through the savanna-like island. We came upon a part of the trail that was flanked by several old komodo nests. The nests were roped off because A) momma komodos tend to be very protective of their young, and B) daddy komodos like to dig up their own eggs for a snack. So, when our guide spotted a male komodo kicking up dirt as he dug into a nest, we were a little concerned when he lifted the rope and beckoned us to get a closer look. We were later reassured that we could easily escape the dragons by either climbing a tree (the same thing baby komodos do to avoid being eaten by their mothers) or just run in a zig zag pattern and use their poor eye sight to our advantage. Check.

Despite our tour guides' less-than-reassuring tips and tales of tourists whose only remains were their bags and a pair of binoculars, our treks were pretty uneventful. Breath-taking, yes, but life-threatening, no. Still, I was content to rethink my Ernie hunting method and just let come what may.

I was pretty happy with this find of civet poo. The first stage of what will become a delicious, $50 cup of coffee. Mmm mmm mmmm.

Our dragon hunts were followed by serene snorkeling around the hundreds of uninhabited islands that dot the Indian Ocean. The coral here is relatively untouched and famous for the large variety of sea life that enjoy them. We saw dolphins, coral fish, blue star fish, and a ton of other species that I can't totally appreciate as a non-diver. Still, it was really, really pretty.

That bit about piranhas wasn't true, of course, but on our first snorkel spot, one of the boat crew got into the water with us and kept announcing things like, 'I see shark. Don't worry; not dangerous.' Or 'Look! Barracuda! Don't worry; not dangerous.' Right, buddy. So, on our second dive, when a large school of fish continuously jumped out of the waters surrounding our anchored boat, I decided to have a little fun and tell Michaela that they were piranhas. Ha should have seen the look on her face. What I didn't anticipate was that I would actually convince myself that they were, indeed, piranhas. That was a short dive, even though the piranha wannabes didn't even so much as nibble at my toes.

All in all, I highly recommend this trip. It was every bit as beautiful as Lonely Planet said it would be. And, don't worry; not dangerous.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


In Ohio, I was surrounded by great, secluded trails to conquer. In Jakarta, you can either run on pavement or on pavement enshrouded in smog. There are a few of your conventional running groups, expat and Indonesian, who try to make the most of it. The expats lead a group at the zoo, which offers tree cover and the occasional giraffe sighting.

Indorunners meet on 'Car-Free Sundays' on one of the main drags through the city. The government shuts down a few of the lanes in the morning, and joggers and bicyclist crowd the 8k stretch of road. While people watching is plentiful, the monotony of running a straight, flat road combined with the merciless sun, makes me still yearn for the days of running trails back home.

This week I was introduced to a running group that breaks from the pavement and just about every other running convention I've ever known. I joined my first Hash. Hash running is far from new, and I've flirted with the idea of joining one since arriving in Indonesia, but hash culture is...unique. For someone who has lived a borderline 'prudish' lifestyle, I wasn't sure if I could hang with a group whose tagline is, "We're a drinking group with a running problem." That's what I thought it was: a hound and hare style running club that drinks a lot of beer. Little did I know I would be stepping into a entirely new dimension with near religious-like ceremonies and traditions. I hesitate even writing about the topic because doing so would be something akin to revealing the secrets of the masons. So, I won't reveal all here...

After an hour and a half of driving out of the city, we wound around some farms and orchards until the pavement ended and opened up to this red-mud trail. It rained hard the whole way out and continued to lightly sprinkle as we gave chase down the slippery path. My shoes each gained an extra kilo or two of mud with every step. We ran/slid along looking for little clues to lead us to the 'hare', but I couldn't keep my eyes off the rainbow over head and the acres of green hills interrupted by small waterfalls. I felt like I was running through was hands-down the most beautiful place I've seen in Indonesia to date.

We finished just before the sun sank behind the hills; soaked and covered in mud. As everyone came in from the run, I was asked to join The Circle - a small, white table with an umbrella covering and several overturned metal beer steins. I was the only woman surrounded by six or so men twenty to forty years my senior. There were two Brits, one Welsh, one German, a Scotsman, and two Americans. Each had a role: Hash master, Scribe, Song-something-or-other, and I didn't quite catch the others. I felt like I'd stepped onto the set of one of the British comedies Mo, Jamie and I used to stay up to watch on the BBC. Or, alternatively, it was like being wedged between the rated R version of Waldorf and Statler and five of their closest friends.

There were crude jokes, talk of politics, comments on Princess Kate's gown (once someone acknowledged the presence of a lady), all melded together and spurred on with distribution of beer in those metal steins. Beer was given out only to select members for select reasons at select times. It went something like this: Wasn't Lady Katherine's gown lovely? To the Lady Katherine look-a-like! (Hands me stein). And then came the song. Each beer was accompanied by a song during which the recipient was expected empty its contents. Down, down, down, doooooown. More banter. To the Yanks for getting Osama! Down down doooooown. Lewd joke interlude. For not wearing proper hash gear! Down down dooOOOooown. This went on for a least an hour if not more; I lost track after a while.

It was the first time calorie intake outweighed calorie loss on a run. Wow. But, if they continue to produce stunning landscapes like this one (kicked myself for not having my camera our pre-run), I'll be back for more.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"A Billion Acts of Green"

230 high school students from Jakarta and Bogor and over half a dozen environmental organizations in Indonesia helped add a few acts to that tally this Earth Day.

Through a massive collaboration between some Indonesian NGOs, a Fulbright English teacher, myself, another ELF, and a lot of other people who are intensely devoted to creating a cleaner, greener Indonesia, we helped a lot of kids get a little dirty.

We joined the students as they slipped off their shoes and slipped into a river flowing through Bogor's beautiful botanical gardens. Together, we pulled out nearly 1,000 kilos of plastic bags, old shoes, bras, pants, and all other manner of trash from the Ciliwung Anak.

These kids were never told to not be a litter bugs. And no one every yelled at them to pick up their trash. More often than not, there was probably no trash can in site to use anyways. Throwing trash on the ground is part of the culture here.

And there are consequences. You can see them everywhere in Jakarta. There isn't a body of water that isn't covered. The people downstream blame the people upstream and vice versa. This program brought kids from both areas together to make them stop pointing fingers and put those digits to better use. I met some many amazing people who are trying to bring awareness and solutions to folks. It was a pleasure to work side-by-side with them.

We incorporated English into the mix by engaging the students in discussions, and we had help. This little lady is a "Water Ambassador." Her public speaking put politicians to shame and put goosebumps on my arms.

Can't wait for next year...

French fries and Flannel

What does America mean to you? The English students at Sebasa had a chance to show off their answer to this question during the school's multicultural celebration last week. Each language class (English, French, Mandarin, and Arabic) had to create a booth and a presentation representing their language and the culture(s) within that language.

I contributed what I could - a small flag, an Obama shirt, and some photos of boy scouts - but mostly they were on their own. Nailing down a visual American culture is a tough one. We don't really have a national food (rather a national portion size), and we don't really have a national dress. The latter took a very long time to explain. Indonesia is big on textiles. Every island and province has its own batik (traditional fabric hand-painted and dyed using wax), and those batiks are still worn with great national pride on a daily basis. The students knew about American cowboys and Native Americans from the movies. Yes, we do still have those, but not every American has a pair of spurs or feather headdress in their closet; in fact, very, very few do. It took a great deal of effort to convince them that neither I nor the US embassy had a full buckskin suit ready and waiting. They settled on flannels and cowboy hats. And as you can see, they also chose to represent America with: Santa Clause, Coca Cola, McDonald's french fries, and alcohol (not pictured) - which is more or less a pretty accurate depiction.

There performance was another beast altogether. They decided to go with the always safe, cross-dressing routine. Who doesn't want to see men in authority dress up in a dress and heels? Unfortunately, I can't show you the whole skit, but here's a taste:

My cup runneth over.

Three months have come and gone quickly. Time to say good bye to another group of students.