Monthly Archives:October 2010

Up In Smoke

30 Oct 10
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I may have forgotten much of my childhood, but I think I will always remember that day in third grade when we learned that a classmate had lost his entire family to the Pittsfield (OH) tornado of 1965.

It was April 11th, Palm Sunday, and unsettled weather across much of the Midwest spawned 47 tornadoes in total. By the time the rains stopped, some 270 people were dead in at least four states. That weekend has gone down in history as the second biggest outbreak of tornadoes ever in the U.S.

Seven people died in nearby Pittsfield that weekend, including my friend’s family. He survived when his bed was blown through an outer wall. As I remember the story, he woke up in a bed balanced precariously in a ditch, with his home, and his life, in pieces all around him.

Every region suffers from its own mix of natural disasters – earthquakes in California, flooding along the Mississippi, wildfires for some and hurricanes for others. But knowing this still does not prepare you for the variety of natural disasters shared across most if not all of Indonesia. And these disasters can strike almost simultaneously, as they did recently here.

Less than two months after we arrived, Indonesia was hammered by an earthquake, a tsunami and a volcano, all within about a week of each other. And when it was all over, life went on for those left unscathed.

Indonesia sits smack dab on the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Ring is a horseshoe-shaped region starting around New Zealand, running through Indonesia and up the coast of Asia before swinging across to Alaska and heading south again along the U.S. left coast.

The Ring of Fire is a direct result of something called plate tectonics. The world’s continents sit on large plates that slide along the earth’s crust. Where those plates collide, and where they pull apart (areas called ‘faults’), earthquakes and volcanoes can happen. And there is nowhere on earth where these plates seem to bump and grind more than in this region.

The movement of these plates account for earthquakes (think San Andreas Fault in California), volcanoes and even sometimes tsunamis. And about 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur along the Ring.

Indonesia meanwhile records the most earthquakes in the world each year, and has as many as 129 active volcanoes, 22 of which are considered to be “on alert” for eruption. More than 6,500 people are killed on average by all natural disasters here each year, and yearly economic losses from such disasters range around 20 billion dollars.

All of this means that such things as earthquakes and volcano eruptions are if not common, then common-place enough to be met with resignation more than fear. It doesn’t mean of course that people are happy when deaths occur, just that they seem to treat them with more of a fatalistic attitude. And they know it probably won’t be too long before something else happens.

Volcanoes are of special interest to us, since one is still puffing ash to our east. Remember that carnival game, Whack-A-Mole? Think of Indonesia as a giant Whack-A-Mole board, with the volcanoes standing in as mole holes. Waiting for one to erupt is a bit like trying to decide where the mole will next appear.

Okay, that’s certainly a silly analogy – but you get the idea. And if you need more proof, take a look at this “Seismicity” map from the USGS. There are a lot of volcanoes around here, and one erupted close by.

It was the end of October. For a week or more, Mt. Merapi, about 375km, or 230 miles east/southeast of us, had been showing signs of activity. Thousands of people living on its sides were evacuated as a precaution. But on October 26th, Merapi erupted. Hot gas clouds killed more than 30 people who had refused to leave. And for a couple of more weeks continuing eruptions caused about 400,000 people in total to leave their homes and move to temporary refugee camps. There have been more than ten eruptions in all, with ash clouds at times reaching 8km, or five miles high. The most powerful eruption, at least so far, occurred on November 5th.

President Obama, visiting Jakarta more than 400km from Merapi, had to cut short his visit to Indonesia, leaving before ash caused the cancelation of air traffic. And perhaps more importantly, two World Heritage sites (Borobudur and Prambanan) south of Merapi were both covered in a layer of ash the consistency of moist clay.

We are actually quite a distance from all the recent natural events. The earthquake and tsunami hit the island of Sumatra, the next major island to the west of us. And Merapi, while on the island of Java as we are, is still an eight hour drive away. But we awoke one morning to find a thin layer of ash on the streets of our neighborhood, and on the floor tiles in the garage. Our driver worries the ash will damage the car’s paint. And I’m worried about its effect on our lungs. But the ash quickly washed away, as did any concerns about it having a lasting impact on us. At least for now.

You Need a Small Boy

11 Oct 10
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Many years ago, while traveling around eastern Africa, Beth and I spent a couple of days in Mombasa, a sleepy Kenyan city on the Indian Ocean. For our first morning there we had planned a long, lazy walk around town.

As we left the hotel we were stopped by a young boy, perhaps eight years old, maybe a little younger, who insisted that we should pay him to show us around.

It’s not unusual to be confronted in this manner by people of all ages. The world is filled with entrepreneurs, and in less-developed countries this creative energy is often directed toward selling things, such as food or water, or even services, as this young boy was now doing. Those smart enough or lucky enough to learn a useful language, which often means English, can make a relatively decent living by hounding tourists.

So this boy was just one of many people trying to get our attention. What made him stand out though was his pitch. Beth and I were ready for a quiet day, wandering and exploring this amazing city. But the boy refused to accept our polite ‘no thank you.’ Finally, after following us for a bit and offering his services several times, he yet again jumped in front of us and said “You need a small boy to protect you.”

In Bandung we don’t have the services of a small boy, but we do have Aris Permana. Aris is 30 years old, but as do many Indonesians he looks much younger than his actual age. Aris is our driver.

I know, I know, that image of me as Colonialist is now creeping into your head. The last thing I wanted to do while in Indonesia is to have a ‘staff.’ The idea seemed so wrong. But Aris, serving in the place of our “small boy,” has quickly become indispensible.

People in Washington D.C., especially the tourists not familiar with its unusual street patterns, sometimes complain that driving there can be a nightmare. But DC holds nothing on Bandung. As near as I can tell, other than the toll road which travels along the west and south edges of town, there is not a single street that actually runs directly across the entire city. Not one main thoroughfare as we would think of it.  And even what passes for a main street here will suddenly become a one-way street, and then veer left or right, taking you in a totally new direction.

And they drive on the left side of the road.

All this makes it difficult to know just where the heck you are. Unless you were born and raised here, getting from point A to point B with any amount of ease is more within the realm of divine providence than any possible street sense.

Add to this the constant macet (traffic gridlock) and uniformly miserable road conditions, and driving here can be very frustrating.

(This video gives an idea of both road conditions and traffic on the main road leading to our home)

This is where Aris comes in. He’s a native Bandunger (Bandungee? Who knows), having grown up in a kampong (village) near the kid’s school. Aris has intimate knowledge of the city’s smaller streets – the ones they call “rat streets” here. They get that name because they are laid out in a pattern similar to a maze that a rat may be required to run through to get some worthless piece of kibble as a reward at the end. And that’s sometimes how I feel when we’re driving here – waiting expectantly for that dangling food.

When the macet is too bad, Aris generally knows where to go to get away from it. Or at least he knows where to take us so the traffic is less intense.

Aris also knows how to navigate alongside other Indonesian drivers. The style of driving here is quite different from that in the states. If you could imagine the craziness of big city driving – say Washington D.C. or Boston – multiply that by a factor of ten and remove the bad attitudes, and you would have Indonesian driving down cold.

To be honest, I drive on the weekend when Aris is off, and as long as I stick to the streets I know well, I do fine. But then I spent 15 years perfecting my driving in DC. But I like it when Aris is here. I can relax, and sometimes even rest, while we’re stuck somewhere. Sometimes it’s nice having a small boy, even when he’s 30 years old and not really a boy at all.

A Deep Purple Haze

06 Oct 10

When I was a kid, my dad smoked. It didn’t seem too unusual back then – many people smoked in the U.S. in the 60s. In fact, 1966 was a high point for smoking – more than 57% of young men between the ages of 20 and 24 lit up, while more than 42% of the entire population was puffing away. It was big tobacco’s glory years in America.

Dad was rather rude about his smoking. I remember riding in the car one winter day engulfed in a bluish haze of cigarette smoke. As it happens, I have always gotten a little sick when I’m around too much smoke, so I asked dad if he could stop smoking. “Shut up and roll down your window” was his rapid reply.

There has been a drastic change in U.S. smoking levels since then. After years of education about the dangers of tobacco, slightly more than 20% of the U.S. population now lights up – less than half the rate back in 1966. Today, you can walk into a restaurant or bar in a large number of states without worrying about smelling like the inside of an ashtray by the time you leave, because smoking is banned in many public spaces. And when home, I really don’t worry much about getting sick from too much tobacco smoke exposure.

Making cigarettes though is a big, multi-national business. Lost revenue in one country means more effort is needed to increase markets elsewhere. And Indonesia is ground-central for elsewhere. In other words, lives would seem to matter less than profit.

Indonesia, a country of about 227 million people, is now the fifth largest cigarette market in the world. Remember that story from earlier this year about the two year old kid, Ardi Rizal, with a two-pack-a-day habit? You guessed it – he lives in Indonesia. He started smoking when he was 18 months old. (His parents claimed he would scream and cry until he got his cigarettes. But they say they have finally weaned him off them – he apparently went into rehab. If I were to guess, they probably accomplished this feat by giving him Big Macs instead – McDonald’s is also pretty big over here, another successful American export)

Indonesia is a major front in the cigarette wars. About 60% of the men here smoke, according to government statistics, but just 5% of the women do. So cigarette advertising, which as near as I can tell is mostly unregulated, is heavily targeted at two potential areas for growth – women, and children.

The Indonesian government does relatively little to stop this capitalist invasion. In fact, millions of people here are at work hand-rolling a particularly popular type of cigarette, called Kretek. These are cigarettes made with various flavors added along with the tobacco. Clove is a big favorite. In fact, the name of this type of cigarette actually describes the sound of burning cloves.

Indonesia’s Health Minister, Dang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, says his department is in the middle of writing a tobacco control law, but given the economic hold of tobacco on Indonesia, it’s hard to see if any new measure that is finally passed into law will really have any teeth.

In the meantime, part of my task here is to keep the smoke away from the kids.