Monthly Archives:November 2010

A Few Words On Stamp Collecting

30 Nov 10
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My childhood was, to say the least, not the best. So in order to avoid as much regular turmoil as possible, I would search for ways to run away, at least mentally. Early on books provided just such an opportunity – the welcome chance to escape into another world remains a constant pull for me, even today.

Listening to the shortwave radio was another way to get away. And I loved collecting stamps.

Stamp collecting was one thing I could sometimes do with my dad that didn’t involve fighting, unless he was taking my stamps, which happened occasionally. So no doubt that was part of the appeal. But the most important part of stamp collecting for me was the opportunity to travel to other places, and at least for a moment or two leave my normal life behind.

Collecting stamps was a great escape for someone with an unhappy home life. It allowed me to mentally become a new Captain Cook, exploring distant shores through little slips of paper.

Through collecting stamps I also acquired valuable knowledge, something I appreciate now as a parent. When you work with stamps, it’s hard not to want to learn more about the countries you are collecting, whether it’s the United States or Ceylon (the country adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972, but it remained Ceylon while I was actively collecting).

Perhaps it was the time period during which I was collecting. It was a tumultuous period in what was then called the Third World. Many former colonies, especially in Africa, became newly independent countries in the 1950s and 1960s (with one impetus for the change occurring here in Bandung in the 1950s – the subject of a future blog post). It was an exciting time to be a collector, with stamps from newly-minted countries so readily available.

Regardless the circumstances, through my stamp collecting I learned much about cultures vastly different from my own, as well as world geography. Stamps tell you a lot about a country’s way of life and what it holds as priorities. It seems impossible for someone to collect stamps and yet show no interest in learning about the countries that collection represents. I know this was an important part of collecting for me.

Here’s the thing about stamps. Governments reveal their national zeitgeist when they issue stamps. Generally a great deal of thought goes into the selection. In the United States, a special commission goes through thousands of public submissions to select less than three dozen new stamps issued each year. Similar processes occur in other countries.

Each year’s stamps reveal what the nation thinks of itself at that moment – a snapshot of how a country’s citizens see themselves, and often more importantly how its leaders want the rest of the world to see their country.

I was reminded of this recently when the kids had a week off from school and we visited the stamp museum in Bandung. The Bandung bureaucracy doesn’t make such visits easy. Our driver, Aris, had to inquire about its location several times before we finally found the museum, tucked away in the northeast basement corner of the regional government complex near central Bandung.

As you approach the gate there is a lovely park to the east of the government complex. Turning through the gate though, everything looked like any other government building in Indonesia – except for the old-fashioned colonial-style mailbox standing on the edge of the parking lot.

Up a set of metal stairs at the edge of the parking lot and a left turn onto an open walkway we found a couple of wooden cutouts with large representations of stamps on them, each containing a place for the kids to stick their heads. Now this is what I was hoping for. Because to be honest, selling the kids on a visit to a stamp museum wasn’t exactly easy. In an age when e-mail is now considered too slow and old-fashioned and twitter feeds and Facebook seem to rule, the mail service just doesn’t mean much to kids.

After the obligatory pictures, we continued down the corridor to a small stand holding a guest registry, where we signed in, the only Americans to have visited in many months. Then down a stairway of this old Dutch Colonial building, stepping over cables, loose boards and other signs of construction that littered the stairwell, sawdust puffing up in little clouds as we walked.

Finally we entered a basement room containing rows of wooden display cases that could frankly use a good cleaning, and dioramas that from their appearance must have been built around the time of Indonesian independence.

Clearly this museum was not a priority of the government, or whatever group served as its patron; rather, it was more of an afterthought. Which is too bad, because its contents were thrilling.

If you know what to look for, a stamp collection can speak to you, and this collection was talking loud and clear. Arranged in an odd chronological order, this particular collection has on display the pride and history of a nation.

The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English all tried their hand at controlling the Malay Archipelago, an area which today includes both Indonesia and Malaysia, and encompasses much of the spice trade of long ago.

The Portuguese set up fortified bases in portions of what would eventually become Indonesia by the 1500s. The Spanish, Dutch and English all tried to develop bases of their own, but it was the Dutch trading company, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), that eventually won the competition. By 1605 the company’s forces had overwhelmed several Portuguese bases and began occupying the Spice Islands.

Fighting however continued for more than a century in the region, taking its toll on the VOC, and in 1799 the government took over control of the trading enterprise, turning the trading company’s holdings into a Dutch colony.

In addition to exporting spices, the Dutch government turned the region into a plantation, growing rice and produce for great profit, but in so doing it created a great deal of resentment through the use of forced labor.

The oldest stamp I saw in the museum was printed in 1864. Reflecting this colonial presence, it references “Wilem,” who I presume to be William III, King of the Netherlands and Grand Duke of Luxembourg. The stamps either say “Nederlandsch – indie,” or “Ned – indie.”

The theme of royalty continues until the mid-20th century. Wilhelmina, Queen regnant of the Netherlands first appears in 1891, one year after ascending to the throne. She ruled the Netherlands for 58 years, which is longer than any other Dutch monarch. That explains her constant presence on the region’s stamps until World War II.

The stamps during this period are rather bland – if not the Queen’s profile, they showed village scenes, fishermen throwing nets, and other scenes of happy life in the colony. It’s not until World War II that the stamps really become interesting.

The Japanese Imperial Army marched into the city then called Batavia on the 5th of March in 1942. The city was quickly renamed Jakarta, and all Europeans found in the city were arrested. Oddly the Japanese were initially viewed as liberators, an opinion that fast faded as their reputation as cruel masters grew.

The Japanese began quickly to issue stamps that attempted to show some level of normalcy throughout the region. Many of their stamps displayed cultural images of rice paddies, historic architecture and the area’s well-known puppets, along with images of birds and other animals.

While the Japanese were in many ways cruel, they did allow the people of the region some level of responsibility in their governance. They also promoted some nationalist leaders, in particular Soekarno and Mohammed Hatta, who were to soon become Indonesia’s first President and Vice President.

After the Japanese surrendered to the British to end their occupation, both the Dutch and the British were involved in efforts to re-colonize Indonesia. But on December 27th, 1949, the Indonesian flag was raised over Jakarta and the fighting ended. (However, August 17th, 1945, when a proclamation of independence was signed with Japanese support by Soekarno and Hatta, is celebrated as the official Independence Day)

This is when stamp collecting gets interesting. You can really begin to track the new country’s view of itself by the stamps it issues.

Stamps in 1948 were militaristic, as would be expected for a country concerned about its tenuous freedom. Soekarno first appears, with planes flying in the background. There is an odd stamp that has both Soekarno and Abe Lincoln on it, an obvious attempt to curry favor with the U.S. And stamps in 1948-49 display many images of planes, soldiers and Indonesian maps.

By 1951 Soekarno has the country in firm control, and that year features a complete series of stamps focused on the president himself. This is quite common in the development of new nations led by strong figures.

Kids begin appearing by 1954, with a series focused on what would appear to be the Boy Scouts in 1955. In the late 1950s images of industry appear, showing that the country is one focused on economic growth, another important milestone for a new country.

In 1960 Indonesia moves onto the world stage, with a series honoring World Refugee Year. The images of babies showed that Indonesia was no longer looking only inward, but outward to the broader world as well. Same for the 1962 stamps honoring the Asian Games.

The 1970s showed an Indonesia more confident in itself and its traditional identity, taking pride in its history with stamps honoring the cultural tradition of puppets, ancient costumes and traditional housing styles.

We had only a short period of time at the museum that day, but this partial listing of what we found should begin to show what can be learned about countries and their development, all from the comfort of your armchair when you’re a ten year old boy.

I only wish kids were interested in the same experience today.

Ring of Fire

26 Nov 10
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Unless you live in Alaska or along some parts of the west coast, it’s not likely that you spend much time staring up at volcanoes. In Bandung though, we can’t avoid them. The town is literally ringed by volcanoes and mountains.

Indonesia is one of the most volcanically active areas in the world, and the island of Java, where we live, has the largest number active volcanoes in Indonesia – 45, including Mt. Merapi some eight hours away from us. Merapi, which erupted this past October, has in fact erupted more than 80 times since 1000 BCE.

Fortunately for us, there is little volcanic activity nearby. But around us they sit, including a large one just to the north of our home.

The country of Indonesia is made up of more than 17,000 islands, the product of something called Plate Tectonics. While the older folks among us may not know of the theory, I’m teaching Elana U.S. social studies while we’re here, and I was quite surprised to find it mentioned in her 5th grade text book.

Tectonics was first theorized in the early 1900s by among others Alfred Wegener, who died while exploring Greenland’s ice cap in 1930, more than three decades before his theory became widely accepted. Like many great ideas in science, Wegener’s theory ran counter to the conventional wisdom of the time, so he was at best ignored, and often ridiculed. It wasn’t until the development of the concept of seafloor spreading in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the theory became a part of mainstream scientific thought.

According to my admittedly simplistic understanding of plate tectonics, the Earth’s crust is made up of about 11 large and five smaller plates that move in various directions relative to each other. These plates drag the continents along, sometimes at the fantastic speed (in geological time at least) of 100mm a year, though usually it’s much slower.

The margins of the plates interact with each other in three basic ways. Divergent plates – those moving away from each other – lead to what is called “seafloor spreading.” This process causes the formation of mid-ocean ridges and active areas of rifting on land. Perhaps the best known example is the famous Rift Valley of Africa.

Other plates are side slipping, meaning that they move almost parallel to each other. The most familiar side slipping fault in America is the San Andreas Fault in California. Plates typically don’t slide smoothly. Friction causes the plates to catch, and when they release it can cause an earthquake.

Finally, some plates are convergent, meaning they are moving toward each other. These create what are known as subduction zones – an area where one plate slips under the other. The upper plate can also catch and fold, creating mountain ranges such as the Andes in South America. Such zones can also form islands, as happened in Indonesia.

Just south of Indonesia is the Java Trench, where the Eurasian and Australian Plates collide. This trench is a subduction zone, where the Australian Plate slides under the Eurasian Plate. This movement led to the formation of the Indonesian islands, and it’s why there is so much volcanic activity here.

Bandung, at 750m (2460 feet) above sea level, sits in a basin formed by a ring of volcanoes and mountains. No one seems to know just how many are actually volcanoes, but you can’t miss them. The city is defined, in part, by craters.

Most of the volcanoes have been dormant for many years. The most recent eruption appears to have occurred in 1969.

Because so many volcanoes are nearby, it’s only natural to want to explore, so when the kids had a week off from school recently we did just that.

Tangkuban Perahu, which means up-turned boat in the Sundanese language, is an active volcano about 30km (18.6 miles) north of the city, which places it about 20km north of us. It is considered to be a stratovolcano, a type noted for its steep-sided symmetrical cones. Perhaps the most well-known stratovolcano is Mt. Fuji in Japan. Tangkuban though doesn’t look quite like that. Its crater long ago collapsed into the mountain, giving it a flat top, which led to the local legend that says it is an overturned boat (the story is quite interesting, and a short version can be found on the mountain’s Wikipedia page).

The volcano is quite a tourist trap. Because a road leads right up to the main crater, and it is so close to town, the volcano is almost impossible to visit on the weekend. Some friends tried to take us there during one of our first weekends in town, and after a three hour drive spent mostly sitting still in traffic we gave up.

This time we were more successful, and after 45 minutes found ourselves staring into Kawah Ratu, the volcano’s main crater. There appear to be 11 or 12 craters in total. This particular crater is quite large. Unlike American tourist sites, where safety is a major concern, there is a short railing near the edge, but nothing else to prevent anyone from sliding down to the acidic lake below.

The crater is surrounded by a hiking trail, so we set off to try and walk all the way around, a trip said to take about two hours. But we were quickly stopped by the large number of people trying to sell us just about every type of tacky tourist gift imaginable, from little heads made out of coconuts to “eggs” made from nearby petrified wood. The huts lining the trail for a couple of hundred feet reminded me very much of the traders in the Andes of Bolivia. I guess trinkets are the same just about anywhere in the world. Of course, it didn’t help that nearby someone was playing a reed flute with music similar to that also found in the Andes.

After finally dodging the sales pitches, we continued along the trail until we reached a barricade blocking our path. As it turns out, the sulfur gas being released from the crater often blows to the north, creating what is known as Death Valley. Even tourists are not expendable I suppose, so we were forced to turn back after stopping off at the “Holy Spring,” where water collects in a pool but there is no information to indicate why this spring might indeed be holy.

Back at the parking lot we visited a one-room “museum” about the volcano. It did not take long to realize that little real information was available, so we went back outside. About this time, the afternoon rains began, slowly at first, but after reaching the car it became a downpour. It was time to call it a day.

It was only while researching this post that I found the most interesting information of all. Twice in less than the past 20 years, the area around the volcano has been closed. That’s because seismologists were concerned about activity under the volcano, activity that may have indicated an eruption was imminent. No one mentioned that while we were visiting. And no one mentioned the possibility of an eruption when we rented our home, which sits on lava flows from past eruptions of this same volcano. In Indonesia, eruptions apparently don’t move people the way they do in the U.S.

Creepie Crawlies – Part 1

19 Nov 10

The ant is an incredibly resilient insect. I know this because we have killed at least a couple million of them since we’ve lived here, or so it seems. And yet they continue to rule the house.

We find the ants everywhere. In the cupboards. On the floor. One evening we found a swarm on half of the egg strips our cook had prepared to go on top of our noodles. She simply scraped them off and brought the rest of the eggs back out. They quickly find anything sweet on the coffee table, especially if you’ve left your glass of Coke sitting there, or a stray cookie. I think they would open the fridge if only they could, and carry off the food – in fact, being industrious, I’m sure they’re working on a way to do just that at this very minute. They are even on the bathroom counters, and sometimes appear in my toilet at the most inopportune times.

One night when I got up to go to the bathroom I was thirsty, so I took a quick drink of water out of the coffee mug I keep on the counter. You can see it coming – I hadn’t turned the lights on, so along with the water I got a few ants. I suppose it’s just some extra protein.

Don’t get me wrong – the house isn’t a swarming nest of ants. As I sit in our living room writing this I cannot see a single ant. But they’re out there, plotting something (maybe how to raid the fridge) or boldly doing ant things, oblivious to the giants who live among them.

These particular ants are tiny – perhaps no more than .5 centimeters in length. But what they lack in size is more than fully compensated for with an amazing speed, which makes them rather difficult to kill. It takes a quick hand or foot to dispatch them to ant heaven, which is probably E.O. Wilson’s basement in Cambridge. And they’re social insects, so they never seem to travel in packs of less than ten, with their groupings often containing many more than that. This makes it an interesting challenge to try and wipe them all out before they scurry off.

While this seems to be the predominant ant in the house, we have found others. There are red ants, slightly larger than our black ant friends, who come in the front door periodically. Rarely a flying ant of some kind will appear, usually on one of the curtains. But fortunately none of these species have managed to hold onto a beachhead here – yet.

To deal with the ants we do a couple of things. Any open food goes promptly into the fridge. Cookies, chips, anything that might attract ants most certainly will unless secured in the refrigerator.

We also spend our time killing these tiny ants. For Adam it has become a game of sorts. Like most boys, he’s both fascinated by watching the ants while at the same time scheming about how to best dispatch them. His favorite choice right now seems to be a quick hand slap, but sometimes he also enjoys using his heel (a technique I’ve adopted when I’m too lazy to get up and actually do something about the ants – but even I won’t stoop so low as to use this method when they’re on the coffee table. At least not when someone is watching). He’ll also use the blunt side of his knife in some way I don’t quite understand.

It’s actually difficult for me to write about this. After all, I’m here researching noted British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. For god’s sake, he collected Romblonella ants while on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (known as Celebes in his time) in the mid-1800s. But somehow I think he will forgive me, or at the very least understand. In his writings from his years spent in the region, he mentions several times the difficulties ants caused him. He took to placing the legs of his work stand, upon which he would prepare his specimens for shipment, in cans of water to prevent ants from destroying his specimens while he slept. The water seemed to be the only thing that would slow them down, because ants generally can’t swim. But even with that precaution, he writes of one species of ant that still seemed able to swim across the water and wreak havoc. (Actually, it turns out that ants are very intrepid. While most can’t swim, some have ways of making it around water barriers anyway. One species, the Jerdon’s jumping ant, can synchronize the movement of its mid and hind pairs of legs to, well, jump across small stretches of water. Other species can form chains to cross short distances, while still others can form floating rafts). So wherever Wallace is now, I suspect he’ll forgive us.

My friend Tim thinks we’re brave, and says he couldn’t live like this. He blogged about his experience with ants in a hotel room in Niagara Falls last summer, an adventure that didn’t end well. And that was for one night. We’re doing this for 10 months.

Let me be clear about one thing. We believe in the sanctity of life. Ours is not a family that normally seeks out ways to randomly kill small invertebrates. We don’t pull the wings off flies, or go hunting for the sheer joy of killing. So initially, killing the ants was difficult. But frankly, now it’s us or them, and I say, let the best man win.

Housing – Part 2

17 Nov 10
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Getting to a final decision on a house took us the better part of two weeks, and during that time my expectations of the place where we would live for ten months changed drastically.

Traffic here is a nightmare. Noise is a constant. Pollution is everywhere. So I quickly began craving a home that could provide a respite from all those assaults on our senses and psyches, or at least most of them. Rather than a quaint village, I wanted a safe, secure refuge.

One major reason for this change of heart turned out to be medical. Malaria, while rampant in some parts of Indonesia, is almost non-existent in the largest cities, including Bandung. But it turns out that Dengue Fever is common here.

Dengue is also called break-bone fever. It got that name because of the way it can make you feel – like pretty much every bone in your body has been snapped. It is transmitted, just as malaria, by mosquitoes (although human-to-human transmission has also been documented). The mosquito species carrying malaria, can more easily be avoided, because the Anopheles mosquito comes out mostly at night, and it’s only the female that transmits malaria. So if you stay indoors at night, and use mosquito nets in regions where malaria occurs, you can drastically reduce your chances of becoming infected. But malaria is not much of an issue here.

Dengue, on the other hand, is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, and near as I can tell it is carried by both males and females of the genus. More importantly, these mosquitoes feed during the daytime, when people are outside. This makes them harder to avoid. The disease can be transmitted by a single bite, and outbreaks often occur in crowded areas, because more hosts are available. In other words, the denser the population, the more targets that are available, and consequently the greater likelihood that the disease will spread.

Several of our new friends here have had dengue, including one just a few weeks after we arrived, making the threat real. So my new priority became finding a neighborhood with low population density. And that meant a wealthier Kampung, with bigger houses and more open space. In other words, bye-bye local color, we’re moving uptown.

Since I was going to be a single parent for 10 months, I wanted the area secure as well. Crime is not a problem here (although that could be changing – our neighbor had his house broken into recently and a computer was stolen, all while he was asleep in another room) and I really feel safe whenever I am out, any time of day or night. But I just didn’t want to have to worry.

After a day of looking at houses, we settled on the very first one we had been shown. Komplek Parahyangan Rumah Villa, or PRV for short, is about 10 minutes north of the kids’ school. It’s what we would call in the states a gated community. It is filled mostly with Indonesians, but those of some amount of wealth. Our landlord lives two doors away from us, and owns at least three buildings here. She is a doctor, her children are doctors, and her granddaughter, who was married in this house just before we moved in, is also a doctor, and she married a doctor. Families like this can easily afford to live here.

PRV has just one car entrance, and it is protected by gates and several guards. Other posts throughout the compound of about 75 houses are also manned by guards, including one right outside our front door. Needless to say, we feel relatively safe here. And when we have food left over from dinner, we will generally offer it to the guards outside. They really like us now, which is a good thing.

The house itself is not all that large, at least compared to other expat homes we have been in. There are four bedrooms and three full bathrooms, but its total space is not much larger than our three bedroom home in the states. There is no basement, and the construction is concrete, with tile floors everywhere. Other than some ornamental trim, there is little wood. One night I began worrying about a lack of smoke detectors until I realized there is very little in the house that could catch fire.

We have a small backyard, with a patio, a small patch of grass, and a fish pond with a water fountain. Most days there is a good breeze blowing out back, which is a puzzle to me because there is a brick wall behind us that rises at least 30 feet, blocking us from a farmer’s field.

The complex has a swimming pool with a great community center. There are tennis courts, a playground and a Mosque. Oddly, the playground is on the Mosque’s grounds, and has a replica of what I would seem to think is Noah’s Ark. But clearly that’s just me.

We’ve been here for more than a month now, and life is good. I’m comfortable with the kids running around outside, and while they haven’t made any friends in the compound, they enjoy playing. It’s good that they can get out and get some exercise. We try to swim on the weekends, and several friends live nearby. (The party in the picture is Elana’s birthday, likely the only November birthday she’ll have outside at the pool)

While it’s not the idyllic little neighborhood I had hoped for, in the end it’s probably the best place for us to spend the rest of our time here. And it’s a pretty great option.

Housing – Part 1

14 Nov 10
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Moving your family overseas isn’t something to be considered lightly, so the planning can sometimes take on epic proportions something similar to the attack plan for the Dirty Dozen, as my brother Don would say.

What goes with you, and what stays behind? How do you find a place to live, a school for the kids, and a life, even if for just ten months? Even the slightest details of a daily life often taken for granted at home need to be resolved before you leave.

A large part of the Fulbright, for me, was the opportunity to have the kids experience life overseas for an extended period of time. Most American kids never travel to other countries, and for those who do it’s often for a week or two at some resort. Our kids though were going to have time to feel the rhythms of a country – to take its pulse up close as it were. It’s one thing to read about driving in Bandung traffic. It’s another entirely to be riding on those streets, daily risking your life along with the thousands of others in cars, on motorcycles and traveling on foot.

It’s a lifetime of memories packed into ten months. No pressure to deliver on this of course.

Where we were going to live was an important part of the planning. Now I realize just how many expectations I loaded into that seemingly simple question.

I had an image of living in a house in a small village, or Kampung. The kids would walk home from their nearby school, finish their homework and step outside to play in the street with their Indonesian friends. We would enjoy sharing traditional dinners with our neighbors, and milk and honey would pour forth from our faucets. Or so it seemed.

As it turns out, we had about as much luck of achieving that dream as we would if we were trying to find a truly honorable politician in DC.

These neighborhoods, at least as I imagined them, simply don’t exist in the Bandung we have come to know. This city of 3 million does contain many Kampungs. Located off main roads, these are actually small neighborhoods slightly isolated by walls and blockades of various designs.

There appear to be two broad types of these neighborhoods – essentially gated communities for those with money, which encompasses a small slice of Indonesia’s overall population, and crowded, dirty neighborhoods for the rest of those living in the city, who spend their lives living on top of each other in a claustrophobic life dance. Of course, by nature such gross simplifications leave many people out, but a large part of the population falls into one of these two categories.

Hotel Majesty, 12th floor view

When we first arrived, we lived in the Majesty Hotel next door to the kids’ school. Hotel living can be fun. Adam enjoyed using our hot plate to make nasi goreng (fried rice) every night. Having daily maid service is a wonderful luxury, and access to a pool and a gym a real treat. But as they say, a hotel is not a home.

So we worked with a real estate agent known to the school, and used by previous Fulbrighters, to help us find a place to live. Tine is of Chinese descent, and grew up in Yogyakarta. She is a strongly-built woman who clearly has a lot of money and enjoys the perks such money brings into one’s life. When I asked her at one point whether our kitchen would be supplied with dishes and utensils, she laughed. “You’ll need to tell us what to get for you,” she said. “Indonesian women don’t go into the kitchen, so we don’t know what’s in there.” Of course she doesn’t – she has a cook to take care of that for her.

So Tine spent a day taking us around Bandung. My major concern was that we be near the kids’ school. The campus where I will teach starting in February is more than an hour away from their school, and I wanted to be the one doing the commute. So that narrowed our choices.

Tine took us to three different neighborhoods, none of which looked like anything I had hoped for. Most of the houses were lovely though, and large – some had 5 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms. Clearly expats live quite differently from the rest of the population.

Now we had to make a quick decision.

— To be Continued —

Currency Inflation

09 Nov 10
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I can’t believe it’s just Tuesday, and I’m already down to my last million. Rupiah, that is.

It’s one of the fun things about international travel – figuring out the currency. Each country (with the notable exception of most of Europe, of course, and the Euro) typically has its own currency, and each currency is valued differently. Last year while traveling in Africa, I found myself spending a week in Zambia, where one dollar buys you 4700 Kwacha, followed by four or five days in Malawi, where the same dollar got you 160 Malawi Kwacha. Then I had a brief stopover in South Africa, where one Rand equals 0.1457 of a dollar, or about 6.8 Rand to the dollar. Needless to say, I’m sure I lost money while purchasing food and souvenirs because of all the confusion these different rates created. By the time I got to South Africa I was just shoving my credit card at people, hoping I wasn’t being cheated too badly. (I won’t even talk about the confusion created by two different currencies with the same name)

And all these rates I’ve quoted are just the official starting points. In Malawi, for instance, I got to know an ‘unofficial’ money changer whose office was the parking lot of a local grocery store. This young, dreadlocked guy had the best rates I could find, and so the exchange rate went up to 180 MK – which meant I would get an extra dollar in Kwacha for every 9 dollars exchanged. I think. Or is that in Rand? It just becomes too confusing.

Indonesia has been more of the same. The exchange rate right now appears to be about 8900 Rupiah to the dollar. So we tend to round it up – 10,000 Rupiah is about one dollar, while 100,000 Rupiah is about $10. (I initially typed that as $100 – it’s very easy to get confused while doing your conversions!) So that magic number – one million Rupiah – equals about $100 in our rough calculations. It’s actually closer to $112, but our rough conversion works for us most of the time by at least getting us in the right ballpark.

Everything here is done in cash, except for some larger items – a hotel bill can be paid with a credit card, for example, and some restaurants will accept plastic as well, although they likely will charge you an additional 3% to cover their transaction costs. But for most items, cash is king. I use cash to pay the cable TV bill, the electric and phone bills, even the $800 for Adam’s scuba trip and our monthly Kampung fee.

We live in a little village, or Kampung, and there are monthly charges for water service, street maintenance, the guards, and who knows what else. The bill isn’t completely itemized, and I have no idea what they really spend the money on – I just dutifully pay it, even though there is no indication in all the paperwork what exactly that extra 20,000 Rupiah is for each month.

So since cash is king, it’s important to remember your conversions (as well as your ATM card, upon which I’ve become quite dependent).

That’s easier said than done, of course. Doing a quick conversion in your head can often lead you to be off by a factor of ten – $10, say, instead of $100, as I found myself doing earlier in this posting.

More importantly, the whole currency issue leaves you with a strange, unsettled feeling. Like when you wake up on a Tuesday morning, after having hit the ATM the previous weekend, and realizing you have just a million left. As the late conservative Senator from Illinois Everett Dirksen once said (although there is some doubt as to whether he was the first), “A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Good Friends Make Good Neighbors

05 Nov 10

Everyone should live in a neighborhood like ours.

Our home in upstate New York sits in a development containing about 100 houses in the town of Wilton, about three hours north of New York City. While the forever wild woods directly out our back door and the rolling hills just out the front window make it a desirable place to live, it’s not so much the location, but the people that really make it special.

Like any neighborhood that collects a diverse group of people, there are disagreements. And the political conservatives sometimes try to bait the liberals, while the liberals may tweak the moderates. But whenever something happens, everyone pulls together, often in small yet powerful ways. Kids are picked up from the bus stop when parents are running late. Meals are offered when help is needed. Even money can be raised – countless dollars have gone to many just causes, including well north of $100,000 to help one family cover their crippling medical bills from cancer.

We had a scare last year when Elana had an emergency admission to the hospital. One call to a neighbor and Adam was taken care of for as long as our attention was needed to help with Elana’s recovery (which thankfully was rapid).

Given this, it came as no surprise when concern poured in after the eruption of Mt. Merapi, the earthquake and the tsunami. While Sumatra, the site of the quake and giant wave, is quite a distance from here, most Americans are not familiar enough with Indonesian geography to know for sure that we were safe.

So Beth received many phone calls, from friends and neighbors, all checking on us. And since we’ve been gone, and she’s been alone, she has had dinner and drink invitations that serve to remove her, at least for a moment or two, from an otherwise empty home.

Like I said – everyone should live in a neighborhood like this one.