Sep 15, 2013

Self, Sidewalks, and Social Change (with apologies for my addiction to alliteration)

            Just back from walking to All Fresh, a smallish upscale grocery store close to the house.  As I was walking there I passed Teman Kencana, the garden after which the neighborhood is named.  I saw a lot of dogs and heard a lot of yapping.  It seemed to be both a gathering of people who have dogs and an equivalent to a puppy mill.  A little beyond the puppy mill were several people walking civet cats on leases.  So not just a puppy mill but also a mill to buy civets, probably not just as pets but to (force?) feed them to eat coffee beans for the expensive luwak coffee.  Total conjecture on my part.  Also in the park were a bunch of guys with snakes. Yesterday in Yogkakarta, I saw a sidewalk full of birdcages with little birds flapping wilding in them.  These birds were not used to being in confined spaces yet.  A street over were vendors with baby chicks dyed in the most lurid flourescent colors. The hidden liberal in me surges up as I struggle to deal with animals in capitivity. 
            Finally got to the store which is not to far as the crow flies.  But getting through the streets clogged with cars, motorbikes, hawkers and gawkers takes time.  Only the poor walk it seems, and they don’t need footpaths (the term for sidewalks that I grew up with, and I imagine is still used in India).  Of course, if there are sidewalks or footpaths there (and in Colombia, and here) are multifunctional.   Walking on them is only possibility.  They are a great venue for warungs, penjuals or their equivalent. I’m okay with the multifunctionality of sidewalks (something that used to drive Robert crazy in Cali). But not having them makes it hard to get around, and adds another dimension to the dilemma of wanting to be car free here.  It’s a pain to have a car –it will add to the macet (traffic jams) and global warming, besides my having to deal with one more thing (the car) and one person (the driver)!  It’s also a pain to have to get around a city where on has to rely largely on public angkots.   I’ll see how far I get with this.   
            Both the examples above reveal (to me), my ineffectual struggle to come to terms with my role in bringing about the change I want. “Being the change you want to see,” is a nice slogan, but it doesn’t get me very far – literally.  But being getting very far, very fast isn’t the point.  Maybe it is our hurry to do that has brought us to the impasse of macets.  And if this were not turning into a personal blog, I’d go on to ask who is “we” and what do I mean by all the points I am making here!  But that’s for my academic writing.

Sep 13, 2013

Learning Bahasa Indonesia,Yogyakarta, and T-shit Shop!

I started learning Bahasa Indonesia a few weeks after I got to Indonesia.   The language is grammatically simple but culturally very complex and nuanced.   Irr, my teacher is fantastic and we have had some great conversations about semiotics and different cultural logics.  This is the first time that I am learning a language formally with a teacher, and while surrounded by people speaking another language I know.  The latter makes my progress slow.  So after three weeks of lessons with Iir, I decided to go to Yogyakarta for intensive language training at one of the many language schools in this city. 

I arrived in Yogyakarta on a Sunday, and it was immediately evident that this is a smaller and less crazy city than Bogor, and certainly less so than Jakarta.  It is also full of a lot of tourists.  One of the brochures said that it is the second largest tourist destination after Bali.  I bumped into a lot of them at Jalan Malioboro, a long street full of shops selling batik (mostly batik prints) and handicrafts. Many of my friends and recommended one of the largest of these shops. Mirota Batik is a multi-storey shop which sells beatiful stuff and a lot of junky things.  It is a place where tourists and locals shop.  I got a lot of basic things for my house, and had them shipped to Bogor.  And since I hadn’t yet taken a lot of language classes, that took a bit of figuring out.  As usual, people here were amazingly nice. 

Then back to my hotel (Yogya Plaza hotel), where the food is mediocre but the gym superb!  Outside the hotel is a sign that says “No pets, no durians!”  I’ll try to put up the photo I took of the sign.  Those of you who know durians will know why there is such a sign.  Those of you who don’t durians, suffice it to say that the smell is intense!  The hotel was my home base for the next 6 days while I took classes at Alam Bahasa.   I took 4-6 hours of classes a day and learnt a lot.  I think I could have learnt a lot more had the classes been more intense, and had I done more home work in the evenings!  Still I learned a lot and enjoyed the “Direct Communicative” method of teaching (speaking only in the language that one is learning), which involved excursions to the local fruit stall and a visit to a street with incredible batik shops.  At one of the shops, Batik Winotosastro (, I saw the craftspeople involved in the incredible labor of making batik.  Needless to say, any of the pieces I liked were between $200-500/-   I was glad to have had witnessed the beauty and am okay with not possessing them.

On Thursday, I went on the Prambanan temple on the outskirts of Jakarta.  It was really quite spectacular and I also saw an incredibly beautiful cat there.  Will try to upload pictures of both! Back at the school, there was a community lunch of excellent Indonesian food!  While Indonesian food is famed to be good, I haven’t had much luck with finding good food even when it is expensive.  For instance, a few days before I went out with a colleague from Bogor to Kedai Tiga Nyonya, supposedly one of the best restaurants in the country.  The food was alright but not so much that I want to go back.  Most of the food here is way too oily for my taste. 

What has been feeding me well is a tiny restaurant called Loving Hut on a street adjacent to the hotel. It’s been a really and unexpected blessing.  Their menu is varied enough and everything is vegan so that makes eating easy.  I even got to eat a vegetarian baxso and some very spicy (pedas) fried rice (which I could not finish).  This evening I walked to Jalan Solo to check out some more batik clothing stores.  Most of the them were closed by the time I was walking along the street.  But my long walk rewarded me with many interesting sights.  Two of them I will remember for a long .  One was more of a sound than a sight – mynahs getting ready to roost at dusk in a large palm tree in front of a huge mall (yep, here too)!  It so reminded me of India home.  The other was a shop called “T-shit shop”!  Need I say more?

I’m looking forward to returning home to Bogor tomorrow.  Before that I hope to to go Kota Gede (Old City) famed for its silversmiths. 

Sep 12, 2013

Racking up debt in my first month in Indonesia

I'm well into the second month of being in Indonesia and these posts are long overdue.   As you all may imagine, there is a lot going on and lots to share.  I do miss Robert, our menagerie, my friends and family (not just in the US but in other parts of the world!). But despite the adventures and misadventures of settling in a new place and job, I have the feeling of familiarity and newness.  

If you want the highlight of my first month, the subject heading says it all:  I’ve racked up debt past counting in my first month.   It isn’t monetary debt but like the debt that third world countries owe to the World Bank, it is unpayable.  The debt I have incurred is with the many Indonesian and expat people who welcomed me and helped me settle in Bogor. Thanks to them, I find myself saying “Saya pulang ke Bogor” (I am going home to Bogor).  If you want details read the posts that follow!

Sep 11, 2013

Moving and settling into a new house and beginning language lessons

I moved into my new house on Saturday, August 17, Indonesia’s Independence Day.  So the last two weeks of August I focused on settling into a new house.  Since I moved here with only a few suitcases, I had very few things.  The house comes with some basic furniture (including three mattresses) and a beautiful teak dining table.   There is enough for my needs.  A CIFOR colleague was moving away from Bogor and selling a lot of her stuff.  Thanks to here and to the advice of another friend, I bought most of my kitchen stuff from her, including a juicer for all the lovely fruit  here!  Beyond that the next few weeks involved the adventures and misadventures of settling in.  I don’t know if it is okay to name names here of all the colleagues, friends, and random people who helped me with the above and dozens of other things.  They fed me, had me over for yoga sessions, took me to parties and shopping, brought bottles of wine (no small thing given that wine here is sooooooo expensive), set up emergency internet and then permanent internet, dealt with inexplicable loss of electricity (just n my house not neighborhood), ith made dripping water dispensers work, helped deal with dead fish in the pond in the back yard, helped commicate with the old retainer associated with the house (he does not speak any English and my language skills were rudimentary though they are improving), find domestic help, give me rides to and from work.  The list goes on and on and on, and I was accompanied at each step (even by Robert who was hearing about all this by skype, including hearing about my first sighting of a civet cat, which is not a cat), and never felt alone! 

I am slowly establishing new routines.  But in addition to missing Robert and the animals, I really miss the Mill River, our neighborhood, and especially the Y and my yoga classes. I’ve had no luck finding an Iyengar yoga teacher in Bogor, and I’m not yet up to the ordeal of facing the macet (traffic jams) of Jakarta for classes.  So I invoke my wonderful teach Suzie Goldstein of the Rivervalleyyoga studio in Florence ( as I focus on my home practice. 

Another kind of home practice involves settling new routines for cooking and eating.  The CIFOR cafetaria is great and convenient though the food is mixed.  They always have Indonesian dishes and other cuisines (wednesday is Indian food).  They also have local vendors sell all kinds of things periodically (bread organic rice and veggies, tofu, etc).  Though CIFOR had an orientation session, none of these most important things were covered there – things that are basic to living!  A few weeks ago, I hired a part time pembantu to help with the cooking, etc.  Like many who claim to have a social consciousness and/or come from or have lived in the west, hiring domestic help is a complicated issue.  It remains complicated for me.  But it is equally complicated to face work, home and in a new place, in a new language, with all kinds of logistical and cultural challenges.  I soon realized that I need an Ibu (literally mother though the term is used as a prefix to the names of all older women as a mark of respect.  I am certainly Ibu Kiran – no mistaking middle age here!).  Once again, the help of friends and particularly my friend Iir was invaluable.  There is also a gardener and general factotum, Pak Hasim (Pak, pronounced Pa, is the short form of Bapak and is the term used as a prefix to the names of all older men as a mark of respect) who has been associated for  40 decades with the house I rented.  Whether I like it or not, he turns up at the house and hiring him was inevitable.  That’s another story, which I am sure I will tell you when we talk in person! 

Sep 10, 2013

Indonesia: The first ten days (August 1-10, 2013)

-->I arrived at the beautiful CIFOR campus and guesthouse late on Wednesday night, July 31.  After a nice deep sleep, I walked over to the campus awake enough to handle the many logistical tasks that awaited me and meeting my new colleagues.  Among my logistic tasks was a trip to the US Embassy in Jakarta the next day to apply for a new passport.  As the crow flies, Jakarta and Bogor are close.  But the infamous traffic in this part of Java means that a round trip could take anywhere between 2 hours and 6 or more.  It took me five and half to get to Jakarta and back! 

The next week was Lebaran, or Idul Fitri, the holiday/holy day marking the end of Ramadan, and the biggest holiday in Indonesia.  Many Muslims go to their home villages (pulang), non-Muslims go to (pergi) Bali or elsewhere, and Jakarta empties out. So does the CIFOR campus.  Consequently, things were slow for me during my first ten days.  It gave me a chance to get some work done, travel to Jakarta (called the Big Durian) when it was not so crazy, and to have some local adventures (like try all kinds of tropical fruits!).  I also got to hang out with my old friends Amy, Or and their children; meet and make new friends, and find a house!  Piggy backing on the experiences of others, I liked and decided to rent the first house I walked into.  It is a huge house (for me though not necessarily by expat standards).  I meant to look for a place in Jakarta (so much going on there compared to the more provincial pace of Bogor).  However, considering the high costs (in terms of money and time) I decided to take the path of least resistance and settled on living in the very green neighborhood of Taman Kencana.  A lot of CIFOR folks live there and that meant instant community.   It also meant racking up unpayable debt to that community! During the Lebaran holiday I also got to hang out with CIFOR colleagues who were new like me and staying at CIFOR, and many students and scholars who stay at the guesthouse.  Mealtime conversations means crash courses or personal seminars on all kinds of fascinating research!  Happy Me!

Sep 9, 2013

Shopping and malls

Responding to my post about malls in Singapore, my niece told me a similar story about her trying to find a way out of a mall in Hong Kong, and remarked something to the effect of “Huge malls seems to be an Asian thing.”  Seems like it though I would add that Asia may be trying to emulate the US, but boy does the US have a long way to go!  Anyway, malls certainly seem to be the place for buying basic groceries and household things for the middle class.  After moving into my house (actually a day before that ), my first stop was Botani Square, which is one of the newest of giant, ugly malls.  But it is close to the house and has a huge department store where I could get a few more things I needed.  Giant and Ace Hardware, are two of the stores that carry many of the comfort of home (in both senses of the term) for many expats.  The former is a huge grocery/department store where one can get all kinds of things or rather most things that one would need.  The latter is a very fancy version of Ace Hardware in the US.  The one I have been to is a short of combination of Ace, Walmart, and Target.

At Giant, the food is not so fresh and for that there are other stores (and local markets stating though I’m told the meat is not safe to eat.  Later I went to one and it had a great variety of fruits and veggies).  So I went to Giant.  One can get most basics there but everything is expensive (e.g a crappy plastic dish rack about US$10) and western food particularly so.  For example, two pounds (1 kg) of oats are about 10 US $.  250g of Edam cheese is about $20, a jar of jelly about $4-6.   I did not see nuts on the shelves but other things you normally eat are all super expensive.  But in addition to going to buy some basics (like glass jars, mothballs, etc) I went to check out what it was like to get around without a car.  It was doable.  I went by angkot and came back by cab (available because it was a huge mall probably impossible had I been at a local market).  

Since then I have been twice to some local shopping streets.  They are busy and crowded, and certainly cheaper than the mall.  They reminded me very much of the parts of  Bombay I used to frequent with my mother as a child.  As in Bombay, a row of shops along a street (or along one street of a neighborhood) sell electronics, the next household stuff, the next fabric, etc.  I also used to shop in such crowded places in Cali, Colombia.  Unfortunately, this area of Bogor is not within walking distance of the house and so I don’t know whether it will become my regular go-to place.

Sep 1, 2013

Five days in Singapore, a Sci-Fi city

I’m in Singapore for a few days to deal with some visa issues.  I arrived here on a Wednesday night.  It had been a long day because I had to leave Bogor early as an insurance against being stuck in Jakarta traffic and being late in getting to the Jakarta airport.  Luckily, the traffic was mild and I arrived at the airport 3 hours before my flight.  Another global airport with no natural air and neon lights.  In a bid for natural light, I sat down in Starbucks. Time not lost in traffic jams was lost in a flight delay and I arrived in Singapore late at night. 

I had read much about how clean, organized and well run the city is.  I felt I was in a sci-fi novel and that feeling intensified over the next few days.  That evening the taxi rode drove swiftly through eerily lit streets, free of traffic and brought me to my hotel in Chinatown (  I had chosen it because of its proximity to an Iyengar yoga studio, and because it was not part of large hotel group, or in a high rise.  It was billed as funky boutique hotel where each room was different.  It was funky and different alright.  My room was small and half of it was the bathroom, which was rather large for so small a room.  The room had just enough place for a bed, a plank of a desk, a vintage chair, and a wash basin.   But what completely frightened me was that the room was a box without any natural light and felt like a prison cell decorated by some designer.  Well, not quite a box as it was it was all angles with three slits for windows high up above along one wall.  I felt my claustrophobia bubble inside me and called the front desk for another room, one with windows.   They said they were full up and would move me the next day.  I decided that I would just fall asleep given how tired I was.  I did but as soon as I woke up, I high tailed it out of there.  The front desk had already saved me another room.  They moved me to it later in the day.  This one was funky too.  It had a window (overlooking the back of some buildings and many AC units) and a tiny little bathroom. So much for my experiments to stay at funky hotels.  

The next day I went to the Indonesian Embassy and after a few minor adventures, I managed to process my papers. Having missed the morning yoga classes I wandered into Chinatown for lunch. I ate at a tiny food stall selling vegetarian food that I found from a blog that my friend recommended (  The stall was in the food plaza full of such stall in a shopping center that has not yet been gentrified.   The bowls and trays of food were worn and faded with use, and marked with the number of the stall.   Every few minutes a cleaner would come clear the tables of the used dishes, and another one would come by to return the correctly numbered trays to the stall owners.  The cleaners were both men and women, but I noticed that they were all very old people.  A clear division of labor here, and the feeling of being in a sci-fi set intensified.

Later that evening, I met up with my college friend Rama in Little India, which has not yet been gentrified  After we had a masala chai and caught up a little, I accompanied Rama to a restaurant and center for migrant works ( which among other things provides meals and a space for to injured migrant workers who are awaiting the resolution of their cases filed with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM as it is unironically known as.  Yes, do your gender analysis or let your feminist critique  at work here).  That evening I also got a glimpse of the back story and back streets of this odd city state.   I also got a glimpse into the work of a great organization ( that advocates and accompanies the workers as they try to negotiate for their rights.

After time with TWC2, we eat one of mnay great Indian meals and went to the what has got to be one of the largest shopping marts anywhere (  Yes, I bought something - travel adaptors.  One more evening engaged in typical Singaporean activities - shopping and eating.  

Over the next two days, I tried (unsuccessfully) to find a “real” café (non-corporate and not inside a mall), where I could sit and write a blog entry in peace.  No luck. One day, I ended up getting off one bus stop later than I neeed to, and wandered the Marina Square mall in an effort to find the Esplanades theatres. I  spent walking a couple of hours to traverse what turned out to be only a couple of blocks.   According to my search there is a nice coffee shop next to the Fine Arts Library in the Esplanades theatre complex.  No matter where I walked I seemed to end up at the same point (Kenko’s Fish Spa and/or the Slimming Sanctuary).  This city is not made for walking.  It is made to herd people into and around malls.   Trying to circumvent such herding is made more difficult by the ubiquitous construction sites (more about those below). So after two hours of wandering I did find the theatre and the library.  There was no sign of the coffee shop I had read about (which was described as cosy and relaxing).  What I found was a shop with a singularly uninspiring menu and no views (the blog I read said it had a view of the Marina Sands, which I did see from the Rooftop Terrace of the building).  I decided to sit down anyway and discovered that I had lost the beautiful scarf I was carrying (to protect me from the intense AC inside and sun outside). This time I retraced my steps through the labyrinth by choice. No luck finding my scarf.  I only hope that someone found it and decided to keep it and enjoy it.  The alternative is that is was cleared away by someone in this clean and hyperefficient city, someone who was instructed to toss away anything they found.

The next day after yoga class, I gave in to the mall culture and ate at a Japanese restaurant that boasted a vegetarian menu.  The food was fine, nothing to write about.  I decided to take another shot at finding a coffee shop outside the malls (which famously line Orchard St).  I located a couple of options on google maps and I tried to walk there.  In keeping with how disoriented I have been in this city, I started walking in the incorrect direction.  I turned around after a few blocks but traversing the Saturday crowds took time.  This time I overshot my turnoff and passed more malls and more outdoor "competitions" or events, and of course construction sites (which of course are neating hidden given that this is Singapore).  When I finally found my destination, it turned out to be yet another mall.  There was no sign of the coffee shop I read about, and the others there were either chains (Starbucks is everywhere) or had menus or music that induced an instant gag reflex.  I gave up.  There may be truly little to do in Singapore other than shop and eat.  Though many websites talk about beautiful gardens and sanctuaries which I had yet to visit

Ended the day back in Little India for a Carnatic music concert at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society , and vegetarian versions of Singaporean dishes at Gokul.  The highlight of the evening was talking gender and race politics (in US academia and Singapore) with my friend Rama

On Sunday, I finally made it to the Singapore Botanical Gardens ( and found a coffee shop in a non-mall space (though of course a stone’s throw from a mall).   This is a truly strange country or city-state.  My friend Rama, who lives and teachs her calls it a corporation focused on competition and sale.  That would account for the construction sites everywhere (most of the workers are South Asian).  Yet it focuses on the welfare of its citizens (not necessarily the migrant workers who outnumber the citizens) through its particular brand of state-capitalism. I suppose no unsurprisingly contradiction there.  It works in many ways. It's the kind of place that Indonesia and India are trying to be. My first reaction was that what works here is related to its many unfreedoms.  That too is true, but talking to Rama I understand that there is more. I'll miss the food, and though the chaos of Bogor is hardly pleasant, this order makes me very uncomfortable.  Over and over again I get a sense that I am in a sci-fi set, something out of a segment if Cloud Atlas. I guess being in Bogor is like being in another novel.  More about that in another entry!