Indonesia: A Happiness Journey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA From Malaysia, we flew to Pekanbaru, Sumatra. We were the only westerns on board of the flight. Pekanbaru had a small, cute airport. Got our visas for Indonesia with no problem. Driving through the city, it reminded me of Pakistan: small houses, muddy roads, dogs, children, vegetable and fruit stands. We saw lots of wicker furniture for sale along the streets.

“Our” house is a spacious bungalow on the edge of the rain forest. The Chevron encampment where the school is, is quite isolated. There are lots of little black and larger brown monkeys on the lawns and in the trees. Amazingly, the house in which we stay while doing school presentations, comes with a house boy. He cooks and cleans, serves us every meal. I almost get the giggles as we sit across an ornately carved table, and get served eggs and french fries for breakfast. We soon find out that he not only cooks and cleans, but does laundry and makes sure we don’t have to do ANYTHING. I am measuring him up to see if he fits in my suitcase, he is a keeper. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On Tuesday Kees hired a taxi to go into town. First to a huge islam mosque, brand new, very expensive. He says “I had the same impression as years earlier in Spain where the churches are incredibly rich in design, materials and art work while the people outside are too poor to have shoes on their feet”. Then to a museum. While the building was nice and new, the displays were pathetic. Four guards followed him around and took about 200 pictures of that western guy looking at their ‘displays’. Surreal but interesting.

We went for a jungle walk with one of the teachers. It took a while to find someone willing to go in there. Many people did not want to go into the rain forest. Many locals are too afraid. The person who took us knew the path well. It was overgrown with liana’s and vines. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARotan, which is used to make furniture, turns out to be a spiky vine. We saw foot prints of wild pigs by some water and heard gibbons in the distance. We also saw two spiders the size of Kees’ hand… In the afternoon we boarded the bus to Duri, a three hour ride across a high, winding road. The road is not wider than two cars. The traffic is crazy in that everyone passes even in curves going uphill when they have no idea of what is coming. The road is lined with palm forests and small villages of wooden shacks. Kids on bare feet, scrawny dogs and chickens scurrying around. It is very, very hot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKees again: The security here is very tight. Camps such as Rumbai and Duri are heavily guarded. Not only do they have large fences around them, but the school even has a 10’ high berm all the way around the school against attacks. The gates are all crawling with guards and every car entering the compound is checked with a mirror underneath the car. There are guards at the gates, at the school entrance, driving around the compound day and night and even on the busses when people leave the compounds. Yesterday we traveled on a bus between Rumbai and Duri and we did not see a guard to my surprise. However when we got to Duri 3 hours later we discovered that a Jeep with armed security people had been following the bus the entire way. By the way, they only do that when there are westerners on the bus.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other day when I took a taxi into Pekan Baru the taxi driver was told to not let me into any store or shopping center by myself. Malaysia is different, I would not hesitate one minute to travel anywhere I wanted there as I did in Kuala Lumpur. But not in Indonesia. The bus trip itself is interesting. The road winds through some small villages. Wooden shacks with thatched roofs. Some shacks on wooden stilts. Many palm forests. Shacks along the road selling jugs of gasoline, or cold drinks, or rambutans (spiky red fruit with slimy white fruit inside). Some shacks are restaurants selling nasi. We saw two trucks on their side along the road. One tank truck, one truck carrying logs. Both had obviously hit the edge of the pavement and flipped. Traffic is crazy, as we said before.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack in Pekanbaru, I visited a batik store to buy a kaftan. Another fabulous massage and nasi goreng dinner. Pekanbaru was very busy with motorbikes and cars, people going to work and school. The streets are continuously being swept by city workers with tiny bundles of branches. I don’t understand how the people, especially the children, stay so immaculately clean while living in shacks and dirt roads. The children all wear bright white socks, school uniforms clean and pressed, hair all combed and perfect. Yet all around is dirt and dust. Everyone is very friendly, smiling, helpful. As I leave at the airport, a young man immediately started a conversation, wanting to practice his english. He said “Everyone says we live in such a beautiful country but we have to learn to protect our forests and wildlife. And our government is so corrupt.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My Bahasa vocabulary so far:

Bahasa = language = what people speak here.

Pak = man, sir

Ebu = lady, mother

pisang = banana

nasi goreng = fried rice

bami goreng = fried noodles

saté = fried meat on stick

hati hati = slow

tehema kashi = (“terra makasi”) = thank you

selamat datang = welcome

sama sama = you are welcome

tempel = tire

tempel ban = flat tire

bintang = star

orang = person, men

orang utan = forest person

toko = store

Common fruits: mango, mangosteen, jackfruit, pisang, durian, rambutans, pineapple, coconut, watermelon, apples, oranges. There are also many Dutch words or words in which you can easily see the Dutch history: kantir, apotek, knalpot (=oil change) etc.

Next stop for me: Balikpapan, Borneo via Jakarta. The security man at the airport smiled and wished me “A happiness journey and a happiness day!”

Outside the airport, in the heat under a roof, were hundreds of people in colourful dress sitting on the sidewalks, waiting for flights or rides. They all smiled and bowed. I stood out like a sore, white thumb.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday I visited an orangutan reserve. It was a WILD ride through town and several other towns along a narrow, winding road. The towns and road hug the coastline. There is no beach because they’ve used all the sand for building. The driver kept passing motorbikes, cars, trucks and pedestrians in curves with absolutely no views and without changing gears…. We passed racks of pineapples, chickens scratching in the dust, boys bathing in the river, women laying out laundry, scrawny dogs, tables of fruit for sale, carts of gasoline jugs. It is such a colourful jumble of life.

After an hour we turned left up the hills and jolted along on red dirt roads with deep ruts until we reached the orangutan reserve. Pak Pete first showed us the enclosures which house the sun bears, small black bears with a “sun” pattern on their chest. As with all other wildlife here, their habitat has diminished greatly and they are endangered. Here they live protected but without the freedom they should have. The orangutans live on an island in relative freedom. They swing in trees and have a lot of space but can never be returned to the wild. They all have hepatitis. We went up into the eco-lodge, a gorgeous building with roofs made from the thready fiber of palm trees, where you can stay overnight and wake up high over the canopy of trees and look out over Borneo. Apparently Prince Bernard was a great supporter of this place and they still have special ties with The Netherlands.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStopped at a batik shop but I couldn’t find the kind of shirt I’d like to buy. So we drove to a small alley, lined with carts selling all sorts of different foods. There we found a tiny shop with fabrics. It was more like someone’s home, with a baby sleeping on the floor in a backroom. The lady showed us fabrics. I chose two different ones. I left her the shirt I was wearing and she promised to make me two shirts in the right size by Saturday! It costs 5 dollar to have a shirt custom made.

My friends here just went to Kalimantan. They had photos of funerals there. People who die there are completely preserved for about 2 years until the family has saved up enough money for a funeral. They fill the body up with formaldehyde to preserve it for so long.. The family needs to buy about 23 buffalo, depending on their status. They all need to have a cave chipped out in a huge granite cliff. After two years or more, hundreds of relatives and villagers get together for the funeral: dancing, singing, eating. They sacrifice a buffalo. All the while, the deceased person is present. I saw photos of this beautiful elderly lady, with her hair all done, her best dress on, nails polished, make-up on a good looking face… But she had been dead for 2 years. Absolutely unbelievable. The children and grandchildren sit with her during all the days of the “celebration”. Finally she is put to rest in the cave, with others. But a look-alike statue sits upright on the edge, overlooking the valley where they lived. Amazing…

We walked around the local markets. You can go anywhere again here without any worries, unlike Sumatra. We walked around the markets. People smiled and bowed and pointed at their wares. Beautiful, friendly people everywhere. We saw stalls of papaya’s, durians, mango’s, bananas. Fish, meats, chickens both dead and alive. Plastic trinkets, slippers, cloth. It’s all a feast for the eyes. We bought cloth and I had 2 shirts made at Ibu Ari’s.

My flight to Surabaya was an hour late. Again I was the only westerner. Everyone looked and smiled and was friendly. A lady came to sit next to me and never left my side until I left the airport in Surabaya. She didn’t say much but made sure I knew what to do and where to go. Had a window seat but it was mostly cloudy. Coming into Surabaya the plane goes low over miles of shrimp farms, large rectangles of water with small shacks on narrow paths connected the shrimp ponds.


My last stop in Indonesia. I’m staying with the principal of the International School where I’m doing presentations. On my day off  two parents take me out to see the city: a famous cigarette factory, through downtown etc. But we also discover that one of Indonesia’s mobile libraries is operating in SurabayaA few phonically later we have located stand pay a visit. Driving by the harbour, we see many wooden ships being loaded and unloaded: rice, ratan, and much more. All workmen carry huge loads on their shoulders and always walk on bare feet. These dark, rough men all wave and smile and want me to take their pictures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we drive to the Sapoerna cigarette factory. It was founded many years ago by an Indonesian family and is a major employer. Women sat upstairs in a viewing room so that we could see how they worked. It was absolutely incredible and if you’re ever unhappy with your job you only need to take one look at these workers to feel better. Cigarette paper was stretched over a wooden frame, they had a pile of freshly crushed tobacco in their laps and would pick some up, distributed it, pull the wooden handle to roll the cigarette, cut the paper, trim the ends of the cigarette and add it to their pile. This entire process probably took 4 seconds! Their hands were a blur of motion as they pulled, piled and cut. Too fast to even really see what they did. And they do this all day, every day in sweltering heat. Below the viewing room was an enormous factory floor full of these machines and people, row after row, all going through the same motions to roll the tobacco into cigarettes. It’d be enough to make you stop smoking if you did…. Add to all this a heavy, overpowering smell of fresh tobacco that made my eyes water and your work conditions are not ideal….

We did have a very good cup of… java! In a cute restaurant in the building, built as an orphanage by the Dutch. It could have been in Amsterdam with its dark paneling, leaded glass windows and grandfather clocks. Then we drove to downtown Surabaya. It’s a huge city but consists mostly of very poor shanty town neighborhoods. There are also ultra modern highrises with offices and computer stores. Each day I drive past rice paddies where women are harvesting the long strands of rice plants. Then I see the buildings of the university and gorgeous statues of white horses and dancers along roads that lead into neighborhoods with enormous houses. The contrast between rich and poor is very sharp here and more obvious than it was in Pakistan. Downtown had many Dutch buildings (geveltjes). But most of them very old and in a state of disrepair. One beautiful building was previously known as Oranje Hotel. This is where Indonesia signed its independence agreement with The Netherlands in 1947. Most say that the red and white striped flag comes from the Dutch flag with the blue torn off. The hotel was very colonial with dark wood bannisters and a court yard with palmtrees.

At one point during the afternoon it started to pour. I mean POUR! Buckets and buckets of rain pouring down in a solid sheet, in no time at all you couldn’t see the roads any more. Most roads looked like the canal’s that ran down the middle. Children were bathing, waist deep in the running torrent.

Everywhere you see little food cart, often handpushed cart with a glass display case. They sell nasi goreng, fruit, etc. You can buy a decent meal on the street for less than 50 cents. I also spotted monkeys tethered to a cart, adults washing themselves in the muddy brown canal, stalls of rambutans and oranges, etc. The kampongs are whole neighborhoods of rusted zinc roofs on rough wooden shacks. Sometimes the houses are on stilts but at any time of heavy rain or high water, these entire neighborhoods flood.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally, after driving for hours, we reached a neighborhood on the outskirts of Surabaya where the mobile library would be. After countless phone calls, we found a small neighborhood park in between stone residences, where the van was parked. Smiling Muslim ladies waited for us and showed us proudly the pull-out shelves of books, the TV mounted to the outside to show videos and the glass display case. I’m glad I was able to present them with a copy of my book My Librarian is a Camel, which features a mobile library in Surabaya.

A fitting end to a wonderful time in Indonesia. I vowed to return soon to this land of beautiful people and smiles.


Kenya: Mangoes, Roses and a Black Mzungu

Before I came to Nairobi, I pictured it as flat, yellow, dry and a huge city. It is a big city of over 3 million people. Yet parts of it are beautifully hilly, lush and green.

All week I have stayed in a cute little cottage, among huge palm leaves and bright bougainvilleas. Birds twitter and sing in the green leaves.
Last weekend I visited elephants and giraffes. I went to amazing craft places with baskets, weaving, masks, and necklaces. It is hard not to go home with a suitcase full of gorgeous Kenyan art. You can buy huge masks with beadwork, 2 meter tall carved giraffes, tablecloths and blankets of red Maasai and Kente cloth.
All week I got picked up early by ‘my driver’ who took me to school and who then sat studying for his next guide exam while I spoke to hundreds of kids at the international schools. Kids from England, Japan, Spain, Holland, Canada, and many more countries around the world. There was a lot of excitement about my books, about writing their own stories and about books in general. Wonderful librarians stimulate these kids who have a well stocked library at their fingertips.
During the week we ate dinners at lovely places: a large patio in a green forest, in the garden of the principal surrounding by candles, and in many other interesting places.
It’s been warm: 30, 32ºC but often with a nice breeze and it’s a dry heat right now. People are looking forward to the rains, which will rinse off the red dust and bring new flowers. But I’m kind of glad not to have rain while I’m here….
The center of Nairobi is crowded with modern buildings and sidewalks full of people of all races and backgrounds. I’ve never seen traffic like here. Completely clogged roundabouts, 4 lanes of cars completely tied into a knot. Apparently all the traffic lights work but no one looks at them. There’s a policeman at every roundabout directing traffic, regardless of what the lights say… If cars had elbows, that what you use here. You just push ahead, whether space allows it or not.
But my favorite is to drive along the streets with tiny little shops leaning against each other. Corrugated tin forms the walls or roofs, rough wood keeps it all together. A rusty sign announces the ‘Meddle Some Beauty Parlor’ or the ‘Banana Hill Hardware Shop’ – which looks like it is in dire need of hardware. Plastic chairs outside for shopkeepers or customers… A wash basin is used by a barber. Goats, babies, bales of fabric – all crowded onto the city sidewalks while overloaded buses and motorbikes and cars push past. A woman cuts sugar cane, someone is roasting corn. I love the women with broad smiles, swaying hips and long, brightly coloured skirts. Many have headscarves wound around their hair or carry babies in a cloth on their back. Others carry a basket of carrots or tomatoes in their head.
Today I saw women and children washing clothes in a pond, drying them on the grass. I ate the biggest juiciest mangoes you can imagine and I bought an armload of roses for my hosts: 20 fresh, longtime roses for 2 dollars!
This, I think, is Africa.

It Takes A Village…

The ride to the airport today took about 2 hours. Along the main highway you see women carrying babies, bananas and everything in between. Men hail down matutu’s (busses) and cling to the doors. Goats are narrowly missed by the many cars that swerve to avoid potholes. There is red dust and exhaust fumes. When the traffic slows to a crawl you can buy sugar cane to chew or a newspaper or new sunglasses, from all the vendors who walk past the cars. Well outside the city I spotted a forlorn herd of zebra, a sad reminder of days when abundant wildlife still roamed on these planes. Now most animals moved to the relative safety of national parks.
I loved the stories I heard from my driver in Kenya. He told me much about politics, both in small villages, in the capital city and in the country. There seems to be a lot of corruptness, a lot of crime both small and large. But also much kindness. Previous employers of his gave him their car when they returned to Europe.
White employers generally supply a pension for their personnel if they stay with them for more than 15 years. Having a housekeeper you can trust means you can simply go away without having any worries about house, garden, pets, etc.
When I got picked up by Henry, my driver, he was in the kitchen oohing and aahing over the dishwasher. He had never seen one and was amazed that a machine could wash plates and cutlery. I told him not to tell his wife because it made husbands redundant…
I loved driving around on Sunday, when large groups of people walked to church. Children in beautiful, frilly dresses. Men in stiff black suits. One could hear very happy, very loud gospel singing from tents and buildings everywhere. We drove by expansive tea plantations and old, colonial homes.
‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a true saying here. Henry told me long stories about Kenyan weddings. Apparently a child does not belong to its parents here, but to the entire village. He said that, not long ago, the price for a bride, was paid in goats. But now it is paid in other goods such as sugar, drinks, maize, etc. He said “You cannot carry these gifts to the elders in plastic bags. You have to put it in nice baskets.”
The bridal price is paid to some village elders, not necessarily to the parents of the girl. One elder has to give permission for the marriage. He added that you also have to bring cloth for wrap-around shawls for all the women in the village, maybe 200 of them.
Henry’s English was very good but he swaps the ‘r’ for an ‘l’ and visa versa. Hence I had to think for a second when he seriously told me that his daughter wants to be a pirate when she grows up.
It took me a while to figure out she wants to be a pilot…
When I asked Henry if he knew someone who might want my old safari hat, he smiled broadly and immediately slapped it on his head. “Now I am a black mzungu!” he grinned. (Mzungu is a white person).
When we got to the airport, there was security and gates. He rolled down his window and an armed security guy leaned in, shook hands with him, slapped him on the shoulder. They had a laughing conversation in Swahili, the guy leaned across and shook my hand. When we drove on, I asked if this was a friend of Henry’s. “No,” he said, “never seen him before. People are just nice here.”If you ever plan to be in Nairobi and need a driver, or someone to take you on an entire safari – let me know and I’ll give you Henry’s contact information. He is a pleasant person, a very good driver as well as a certified guide.