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Indonesia 2005 Trip Blog

Saturday, July 30, 2005
Well, here we are at the airport in Tokyo. Our flight so far has been uneventful. We have about an hour here before we board for Singapore.

By the way, if you are receiving this email, you are on our list for our periodic mailings from our trip to Singapore, Indonesia, Bali (we know Bali is part of Indonesia!) and Japan. If you don't wish to hear of our exciting adventures of greater or lesser importance in the greater scheme of things in the world, please respond stating (in 50 words or less) what your objections are and we will submit it to our panel (Eliza and me) for approval and then, most likely, you will not hear from us again!

For those of you who don't know the nature of our trip, we are spending 3 days in Singapore because it is there. Then we join Plowshares Institute for a 2-week peace and justice centered seminar about the current state of Indonesia in the world - especially as pertains to the Indonesian/USA relationship. We will be meeting with several members of the Indonesian government, including the Indonesian Minister of Human Rights (hmmm - I wonder if the USA could use one of those?). We will also be meeting with leaders of the Indonesian Christian Church and other religious leaders about the dynamic between the Muslim and Christian communities. As you may know, Indonesia is 85% Muslim. Since Indonesia is the 4th largest country in population that also makes them the largest population of Muslims of any country. We will also be meeting with US Embassy staff. More will be revealed!

At the end of this 2-week phase of our trip, we will remain for another week in Bali where Eliza will attempt to master the intricacies of Balinese Batik. After Bali we will stop in Japan for a week and will arrive back at SFO on August 29.

Tuesday, Aug 2, 2005
Highlights of a Sunday in Singapore:

A visit to the art museum with its fine collection of Southeast Asian art of the 20th century, something we don't see much of. Some of the loveliest work was on scrolls using traditional brush painting techniques but with abstraction and really bold calligraphic gesture. A fabulous portrait that looked as though it had been done in about 30 seconds with consummate skill, the giant brush never leaving the paper. Kites flying against a cloudy night sky, where the artist had delineated the kites in brilliant bloblets of acrylic against the wash of india ink. A lake at night with a skyful of stars reflected in it, the stars having been dropped with water against an almost-dry ground of deep gray. The other area where the collection excelled was political social realism of the '50s and '60s from Indonesia, Bali and Malaysia. But the work was more expressive than what we think of as social realism, or political propaganda art, and seemed to draw on a deeper root of tradition.

The Orchid Garden in the national botanical gardens was a stunner. Orchids of every hue and description, some like spiders, some with chocolate spots, all spilling down hillsides, NOT indoors. However, it feels as though you're seeing it all from the inside of a hot shower, which is why they do so well.

Most trying moment: a visit to St. Andrew's cathedral for Morning Prayer. Moral of this story: if preaching is not your gift, don't go on for 45 minutes. And yet... the church was packed for the service in English which followed hard on the heels of a similarly packed service in Mandarin. Later in the day they have services for the Cantonese and Philippino congregations. The church here is very much allied with the bishops of the global south. [For those of you out of the loop, the struggle presents as being about the ordination of gay clergy, the blessing of same-sex unions, etc.] I do believe that it's possible that God is saying one thing to these churches about the current controversy, and another thing to the churches of the north, and that neither may be wrong, the constant in both cases being God's love and faithfulness. And that it's not so much about sexuality as the tension of the transition of power. Ah, but clericalism and arrogance are so much easier to see in others than in ourselves!

It is now Tuesday afternoon and we are in Jakarta. We moved into the PGI (Indonesian Council of Churches) Guesthouse. Tomorrow afternoon we meet the rest of our group and hold our orientation meeting. As in Mexico, the telephone connection here at the Guest House is very poor. There is so much static that it is difficult to get a connection to the internet and even more difficult to keep that connection. If we are unable to get email out from here we will find an internet cafe and send from there. Next time we get a good connection we will send a couple of pictures - until then, just imagine Eliza charming a 10 foot Boa!

Thursday, August 11, 2005
It took us a long time!
Sorry about the length of time since our Tokyo communication, but this is the first time we have been able to get online. We will eventually get caught up so please be patient.

The following two emails were composed in Jakarta and Yogyakarta respectively. We will attempt to send pictures at some point but we are now on a 28,800 bps connection so hang in there.

I will say more later, but for suffice it to say it has been an intense and unbelievable & wonderful journey!

Thursday August 11, 2005 (post 2)

As we flew into Jakarta yesterday I had the sense of dropping into something familiar. What could it be? SMOG! Like flying into Los Angeles, like sinking into the haze of Mexico City, the stench of carbon compounds bathing a giant city felt a little like home. In many ways Jakarta is quite a lot like Mexico City - the same intensity, the poverty, the SIZE. Besides the smog, the air is hot and sticky and the traffic is unbelievably awful. You can get stuck for hours. We visited the public market, also a lot like Mexico with the same assaulting smells and the challenge of seeing poverty on a grand and crowded scale. In this scene people do not look happy. Yet we heard that, when Indonesians must emigrate to find work, they all come home again, too homesick to stay away. Having been here only a couple of days, it's difficult to tell if the frowns and blank looks connote having nothing to hope for, or only that it's a hot, sticky, smoggy afternoon.

Personality of the day was an exquisitely beautiful 25 year old woman named Nabissia. Born in Indonesia, she was adopted as a baby by a Swiss family and has grown up in Zurich. And here she was, visiting for the first time as an adult with her boyfriend, a Swiss fitness instructor. You could tell she was not used to travelling in a "two-thirds" world country. She didn't say much, perhaps shocked into silence. She was so lovely that men on the street stopped and just stared. They were planning to visit the village of her birth - they had the name of the mountain village, and even the family name. But she just hadn't decided if she really wanted to look up her birth family. How brave she was to make this trip! And how difficult to make such a decision now, in the middle of all the intensity. Or maybe she just had no idea how very far Jakarta is from Zurich...

The whole Plowshares group arrived last night and we had our first three hour meeting. Remember, these people had just got off a 24 hour trip from the east coast. It's all coming back now, the breakneck pace of these trips, the total immersion. No, it's not a religious cult, but we sure will know a lot about Indonesia two weeks from now. Our meeting included an introductory session by Judo Poerwowidagdo, our host in Jakarta and founding director of the Center for Empowering Reconciliation and Peace. He gave us a comprehensive briefing on current issues in Indonesian political life. As an emerging democracy, Indonesia faces huge problems in so many areas - the economy, health, education, employment, religious tensions and violence, internal struggles for independence, implementing local and regional direct elections, huge corruption in government, and an energy crisis. All of these are in addition to problems relating to recovery from the tsunami and the 30-year war in Aceh. Over the next two weeks we will meet with cabinet members, religious leaders, the American ambassador and others who are working to find solutions to it all.

Thursday morning we met with three cabinet-level government ministers. Dr. Hafid Abbas is the Director General for Human Rights. He outlined a program that was brilliant in its simplicity for transforming Indonesian society into a thriving democracy. By providing decent education, by respecting the rights of all, by implementing true equality at all levels, Dr. Abbas proposes to reinvent a struggling nation of 225 million. He is a true visionary and a Big Thinker - but can it be pulled off?

Dr. Hamid Alawudin, the Minister of Law and Human Rights, was the chief negotiator for the Indonesian government in the recent successful Aceh peace negotiations in Helsinki. His disarming sense of humor and his unassuming demeanor give an idea of what a great negotiator he must be. He gave a fascinating - and funny! - account of how the peace negotiations finally broke through to what everyone expects will be a successful conclusion when the agreement is signed on 8/15. Most of the leaders of the Aceh independence movement were living in exile in Sweden, which is how the negotiations came to be held in Helsinki. Now Hamid worries that they'll come home accustomed to hot showers, free health care and all the wonders of Swedish life and expect things to be like that in Aceh. Well, not quite. But he does worry that it will be hard for them to come back to the privations of life in Aceh and expect the government to do more than it has the resources to do.

Dr. Alwi Shihab is the Coordinating Minister for Peoples' Welfare. Asked about the role of religion in social welfare, he gave what amounted to a stirring sermon about religious tolerance and commitment to one's own ideology. And he did so after an all night flight from Riyadh where he and the vice president represented Indonesia (which has the world's largest Muslim population) at the funeral of King Fahd. Alwi has also taught courses on Muslim/Christian relations at Hartford Seminary.

We have been overwhelmed with impressions and a staggering amount of information. And it's only the first day. But we also have a sense that Indonesians have an openness and accessibility that makes it easy to come in as a stranger and, even at these government briefings, to have a sense of the real person behind the role. Tomorrow? A seminary and an embassy. stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 11, 2005
We have seen marvels!

Today at dusk we arrived at Plaosan Lor, a Buddhist ashram from the ninth century. It consists of two identical temples surrounded by 126 square piles of rubble, which used to be stupas and shrines. The two temples look like large, dark gray drip sandcastles. Walking on to the site as darkness fell we heard the evening call to prayer from three mosques (that's 12 loudspeakers these days). Some Indonesians find the 5-times daily broadcasts to be a kind of noise pollution, but to me at Plaosan it was haunting and beautiful. We walked up a staircase into one of the temples. The guard gave us flashlights to use inside, as by this time it was completely dark. Out of the pitch black interior you could shine the light at intricately carved boddhisatvas, incised floral borders running around the rooms, tall beehive-shaped roofs. This temple was completely covered by a lava flow from Mt. Merapi ( the local, still-active volcano), was excavated and rebuilt like a jigsaw puzzle. After the group had left David and I lingered to feel what it was like to be alone at night in this magical place. Imagine our shock to feel our way to the temple entrance only to find that the guard had closed the gate and we were locked inside the temple! Fortunately, both the guard and our group were within hailing distance.

Next we came to Prambanan, a huge Hindu/Buddhist temple complex from the same period. The queen was Hindu and the king Hindu, so they built complementary temples. Now that's interfaith dialogue! Prambanan is a series of huge, magnificent, very tall drip sandcastles in buff stone. We arrived at an outdoor restaurant in front of the site, with tables set out on a lawn, linen, candlelight and torches. We sat looking out at the temples, now lit with a golden wash against the night sky. A crescent moon held water. After a pretty sumptuous buffet we moved to an outdoor theater directly on an axis with the largest temple for a ballet performance of the Ramayana. This is the core Hindu myth and it is represented in different forms throughout southeast Asia. It's a battle between good and evil that goes on forever (how like life!). At the end it is not exactly clear who's winning. This seems to me a much more accurate myth than the one of the lone cowboy we seem to be stuck with at the moment. This performance involved a full gamelan orchestra, singers, and about 50 actors. I am still not clear who was who, but there were monkeys, a deer in gold lam?, fierce warriors with knee-length dreadlocks, beautiful heroines and petal girls. At the end of the first half it looked like Hanuman, the monkey king, was about to meet his end. Surrounded by flaming torches he somersaulted over the ring of fire, taking two of the torches with him. Swinging them at his captors he ran up to the top of the stage on the palace ramparts and LIT THE PALACE ON FIRE. A wall of flame rose across the back of the stage. This was not an optical illusion. The whole palace burned to the ground in a couple of minutes and Hanuman emerged victorious from the smoking ruin. Smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air and there wasn't a fire marshal in sight! All I can say is, I really feel that I got my $7.50 worth!

Monday, August 15, 2005
Plowshares Seminar Concludes
Well, the intense part of this trip is over! We bid goodbye to our now close friends last night. This has been an incredible two week immersion into Indonesian religion, culture and politics. Honestly, we will say more about that in the next few days, after we debrief ourselves some more.

We are now at the Alila Hotel in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. We are in the hills above the ocean, actually about 5 kilometers from Ubud, which is a charming village we have yet to explore. Our room looks out over a lovely hillside where we can only see one thatched roof from another part of our hotel. The drive was only about an hour and a half from our last hotel, but the drive was beautiful with views of charming villages, and many rice fields in various states of growth from young seedlings just coming through the ground to vast lakes of young rice plants to fields just burned after harvest. Speaking of rice, the Indonesian diet includes rice dishes at all three meals, every day! There is variety in how they are prepared and served, but they are rice nevertheless! Spicy rice, bland rice, plain boiled rice, fried rice, rice in various wraps - - - you get the idea. Today, David had a hamburger in protest. It was perhaps the best hamburger we have ever tasted outside the United States. Doesn't quite measure up to Fat Apple, but it went down quite easily.

Here we are after a great Balinesian massage (both of us in the same room at the same time), some real down time and a scrumptious and leisurely dinner with gangsa musicians with bamboo keys - sort of a Balinesian version of a mini-marimba - I feel enough rested to begin to take on the "Plowshares Indonesia

The first day after we arrived in Jakarta, we jumped right into the intense political part of the trip. We met with three of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's, (who everyone we have met refers to as "SBY") senior cabinet ministers.

Dr. Hafid Abbas: Director General for the Protection of Human Relations. This is a cabinet position that has no equivalent in the United States. Dr. Abbas is over all domestic departments except those that are security or police related. That includes the Education Minister, the Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare (covering all things relating to the general welfare of the people of Indonesia) and the Minister for Law and Human Rights (the equivalent of our Attorney General).

Dr. Abbas outlined a long-term plan for the democratizing of Indonesia - a process which has had a grand start with the national elections of last October (?), followed by a run-off in December, just before the Tsunami. A couple of months ago the local elections were held and they also came off without major accusations of corruption. Dr. Abbas has outlined a huge dream of the Indonesia most of the SBY cabinet members want to see - an Indonesia free from corruption (in and of itself, a gigantic problem at every level of the Indonesian society that seems intractable), with a big jump in the literacy rate and a corresponding drop in the poverty rate. Any one of the programs he outlined in his presentation would be a daunting challenge alone - for me, it seems all but impossible to take them all on at once! The stakes are very high. The Suharto government ruled dictatorially for 25 years, followed by a couple of administrations that were either corrupt or inept, or both. SBY seems to have his heart in the right place but it is unclear if he can survive intransigent opposition, both corrupt and unwilling to come to the party. Time will tell. SBY was elected for a 5 year term, which can be renewed by the voters for another 5.

Dr. Hamid Analudin: Minister of Law and Human Rights. Dr. Analudin is not only the Attorney General, he has also been the chief negotiator for the SBY government in the Aceh Peace Treaty (which is to be signed in Helsinki today) with the rebels from GAM (the Aceh independence militia who have been fighting for the last 30 years). We were significantly impressed with this man and his considerable negotiating skills, not to mention his patience! I won't go into the details of his style and demeanor in this email, but we will be willing to discuss it with any of you on our return in a couple of weeks.

Dr. Alwi Shihab: Coordinating Minister for the Peoples' Welfare. When Dr. Shihab met with us, he had just returned from the funeral of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Assuming he might not have been in top form would be a mistake. He was very sharp and witty. He was a graduate of Hartford Seminary in Simsbury, CT. in Muslim/Christian Relations and he handles all interfaith tensions in Indonesia. He stated that fighting corruption was one of the main charges of his office. 30% of the national budget is bled away by corruption! He also introduced us to the brilliant program in Aceh of exchanging guns for houses. In a region of Indonesia that had over 129,000 killed by the tsunami, and perhaps 2 to 3 times that many homeless, this may be one of the most effective programs both in rebuilding Aceh and in making the peace treaty last!

That is all I have for tonight. We are on a much more leisurely pace of relaxation and cultural significance, so we hope to be in touch more regularly.

Monday, August 22, 2005
Today it is just pictures! we arrived at our transit hotel in Singapore (from Bali) and we catch a 5 am shuttle to the airport enroute to Tokyo and then a high speed train to Kyoto.

Three of the pictures are from the pre-seminar visit to Singapore and the other three are from preparations for a village public cremation ceremony in Bali. Bali is 95% Hindu and cremation is an essential part of the religious ceremony around death. In the case of this village, they only cremate once every 6 years. this cremation involves the cremation of 30 bodies, some of them have been buried for up to the six intervening years since the last cremation.

More to follow. If these images are overwhelming your internet connection, please let me know and I can send pictures in smaller batches in the future.

Peace and love from Singapore