Monthly Archives:May 2011

That’s Using Your…

29 May 11
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As the saying goes, there’s always more than one way to skin a cat.


In this instance, it’s playing a flute. This street musician generates air by blowing through his nose. I guess it’s one way to keep people from borrowing your instrument.

In the Heat of the Night

25 May 11
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It’s the dry season in Bandung – you can tell by the heat. Since the beginning of May we’ve had many more days where the daytime temperature, rather than hitting the high 80s, has well exceeded 90-degrees. At night, the muggy air in my bedroom never drops below 80.

It’s hard to tell that it’s the dry season though, because the rains haven’t stopped, at least yet. Many locals will tell you it has rained every day in Bandung for more than three years. That’s a bit deceptive, because it may rain in the southern part of the city one day, and the north the next. But we still get more than our share of rain. In fact, it’s raining right now. And we have, at least in part, climate change to thank for this abundance of water during the hot season.

The difference in rain between the seasons seems to be one of intensity. During the rainy season most rains came as gentle downpours. Rarely would the heavens simply open up and dump on us. Now that’s changed. More often than not it seems the rains, when they come, are of biblical proportions, with lightning appearing to be everywhere at once, and thunder loud enough to make sleeping babies cry. Streets suddenly become rivers, with cars ferrying people across and along what have suddenly become massive waterways.

Given this, it would seem that Indonesia would not have many water problems. But that would be wrong. Like much of the world, water issues are severe here.

The most visible problem of course is pollution. Batik factories in central Java turn rivers red, blue and indigo every time they dump their waste dyes into the closest water body. Street runoff in Jakarta and Bandung deposits used motor oil, dirt and plastic bags into nearby canals and streams.

Equally a problem is the disposal of human waste. Cities have sewer systems, but just as their water pipes leak precious water, the sewer lines also leak, spewing raw sewage into the ground, and into waterways. And not everyone has access to the sewer system anyway. So poorer households may simply dump their wastes into the nearest canal or stream under the assumption that it will be carried away. Of course, the problem with that is someone upstream is doing the same thing.

This problem with water became very apparent to us recently.

A few months ago we were exploring an unfamiliar area of south central Jakarta, looking for a statue of Barack Obama located in an elementary school courtyard. Not far from the school we stumbled on a street lined with fabulous stalls selling everything from old diving equipment and ancient typewriters to ceremonial daggers. However, lacking the time to really explore, we didn’t get back there until a couple of weeks ago.

The stalls line the eastern side of a one kilometer stretch of the busy street of Surabaya. We had a Tuk-tuk drop us at the northern end, and began wandering in and out of shops. Now and then a side street would open up revealing a canal just behind the shops to the east and more shops beyond. After perhaps 30 minutes of wandering and bargaining, we decided to cross over the canal when we were hit by the smells of raw sewage. Apparently the canal, which was slow-moving, served for some as a toilet. The stench was overpowering, and sent us running back to Jalan Surabaya while trying to hold our breath.

So for Indonesians, much of the country’s surface water really isn’t fit to drink. Those who can afford it rely on large containers of bottled water instead. Those who can’t afford to buy bottled water are often sick.

Out in the countryside, rainwater is sometimes used. We were driving to Krakatau in April during an incredible storm when we passed a young woman standing outside her home in nothing but her underwear. She was showering and brushing her teeth in the relatively clean rainwater pouring off the roof.

I say relatively clean because a report last year by Indonesia’s weather agency indicated that the pH level of the country’s rainwater is dropping precipitously, from 5.6 in 2009 to 4.52 last year in Jakarta, and even less in some other cities. Who knows what that measure is today.

pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity of water. It’s measured on a scale of 1-14. 7 is neutral, while anything lower is considered acidic, and anything higher is considered alkaline. The lower the number, the more acidic. Each whole value change below 7 means the reading is ten times higher in acid content than the higher whole value.

Normal rain has a pH of anywhere from 5.6 to 6. It is slightly acidic because it reacts with carbon dioxide in the air to form carbonic acid, which is considered to be very weak. So a reading of 4.52 in Jakarta means that rainwater is slightly more than ten times stronger as an acid than normal rainwater.

Now to put that in a little perspective, Indonesia does not hold a lock on acid rain. The pH of rain around Washington, D.C. according to the U.S. geological Survey is between 4.2 and 4.4, or just a bit worse than Jakarta. But it is still an additional pollutant load for the waters here.

Carbon dioxide is not the only way rainwater can become acidic. As we know from the Adirondacks, other pollutants can cause acid rain as well. Sulfur emissions from Midwest power plants for many years turned Adirondacks rain into a brew of sulfuric acid, ruining thousands of lakes in the region. Car exhaust added to the problem, spewing nitrogen into the air to form more acid. Scrubbers on power plant smokestacks eventually reduced the sulfur, and the lakes have partially recovered. But that improvement has stalled because the car exhaust remains.

The same duo of problems faces Indonesian water. Cars and motorcycles are everywhere here, spewing a potent brew of gases and particulates. With emissions testing non-existent, it’s not a great leap to see how nitrogen releases are causing major problems. And the traffic keeps getting worse – we have noticed a major increase in traffic jams just in the nine months we’ve been here.

Coal is a major power source for Indonesia, as well as a major source of income. The country is a major coal exporter, with 2/3rds of its reserves in deposits on the island of Sumatra, which lies to the west of us. Because of this ready supply, coal power is a major energy source on Sumatra, and the prevailing winds blow emissions our way.

So Indonesia is faced with the same pollution that causes acid rain as the U.S. Unfortunately, they seem to do little to reduce those emissions.

Pollution is not the only problem with Indonesia’s water – how its use is allocated is also at issue.

Indonesia grows many tons of food each year to feed its fast-growing population, and many additional tons of food are exported to other south Asian countries. All that agriculture though requires a lot of water. While in the United States about 42% of fresh water use goes to irrigate crops, that number is more than double here. 91% of freshwater withdrawals are used to help feed a hungry nation, according to figures presented by another Fulbright Fellow at a recent conference.

A major cause of water loss is poor irrigation. Rice is an important food crop here. Most rice farmers divert water from a source – a stream or a well – into one end of their fields, where it flows downhill from one paddy to the next until it flushes out at the bottom. Canals moving water to the top of the fields are not lined, so a large amount of water seeps back into the ground. More water evaporates. The canals are sometimes used to dispose of trash, and weeds clog them, causing them to overflow in heavy rains.

Canals here are generally part of the problem. Long ago when Indonesia had many fewer people canals made sense. In a land of abundant water it was an easy way to grow food. But today, with more than 130 million people crowded onto an island the size of Florida, better water management is not just a good idea, it’s a necessity if they want to continue feeding everyone.

Other farmers not growing rice use similar techniques to water their crops. The result is a massive waste of this resource.

I was at a conference years ago when a speaker, talking about so-called urban renewal in American cities, said “Tearing down an old stately building shows a lack of vision.” That comment resonated with me, and I’ve thought a lot since then about the difficulty in changing the paradigms we use in our lives. So it was with some interest that I listened to that Fulbright presentation on water use. The scholar went on about pilot projects aimed at helping to reduce water loss in canals, and how to help farmers reduce water loss even further.

After the presentation I pointed out that they were making incremental reductions in water usage. So I asked if they thought instead about teaching permaculture methods that would simply end the need for most irrigation, marking a dramatic change in water use. He said that wasn’t part of their project.

Introducing permaculture techniques can be challenging. Last year I led a workshop in Zambia where we taught introductory permaculture to journalists, so they could then produce stories about these better farming practices. But our two day workshop barely covered the most basic information.

It’s a shame so much knowledge of permaculture has been lost. After all, this is not a new science – rather, it’s a return to the farming methods used by our ancestors. Permaculture respects the land, and uses local knowledge to grow better crops using no chemical inputs. The land is healthy, and so are those who depend on it for their livelihoods.

There are many answers to problems, including those plaguing Indonesia’s water supplies. But in my mind, one universal impediment to solving those problems is simply a lack of vision – a vision that would allow us to re-think the way we define things. Until that occurs, Indonesia’s water problems will no doubt remain.



Yes, that's a rat eating the trash

Heard on TV – Part 1

17 May 11
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Advertising for new Hawaii Five-O episodes, broadcast on the AXN cable television network:


“The hot bods, in the hot rods! Hawaii Five-O…”


Television promotion writers are apparently the same around the world.

Challenging Comfort Zones

12 May 11
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One of the great things about living overseas is that you’re sometimes forced to move out of your comfort zone. That’s actually a good thing – as the post-modernist French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said, “To open our eyes to the absurdity of our own customs is the charm and benefit of travel.”

By nature of living in another country, your eyes are opened a great deal. Especially when it comes to food.

We’ve been exposed to many new foods during our time in Indonesia – rice porridge, cooked rabbit on a stick, tempe, even sea cucumbers. But I was still not prepared for my first visit to a padang restaurant.

I gave a talk at a U.S. embassy facility in Jakarta last week, and I was returning to Bandung in a van with another professor and a group of students from UNPAD, the school where I teach. My professor friend Dandi loves to eat (I made sure we had donuts for the early-morning trip to Jakarta) and it had been a few hours since his last meal, so we stopped at one of the many rest areas found along the toll road for dinner.

If you were to take a poll on what type of food is most available around the world, it is likely that Chinese would win by a large margin. The Chinese have been traders for thousands of years, settling just about everywhere, and they bring their food with them. I’ve never traveled to a country that hasn’t had at least a few good Chinese restaurants.

Padang is the Chinese food of the Malay Archipelago.

Padang is the capital city of the province of West Sumatra. The people who live in the area are known as the Minangkabau. The Minangkabau people have been quite mobile historically, finding their way across the Malay Archipelago. And just like the Chinese, they are known for their food.

Padang food uses coconut milk and chili to achieve its famous taste. And the Minangkabau people are known for their love of cattle products, especially offal – the entrails and internal organs. So a meal in a padang restaurant provides an interesting assault on your taste buds, and for many westerners your gag reflex as well.

There are no menus. We sat down at one of a number of long tables, and within a minute or so a waiter brought an array of dishes balanced on his arm like a waiter in a Groucho Marx movie. Except this waiter never seems to drop a plate, despite as many as ten or 12 dishes balanced precariously, lining his arm from his wrist to his chin.

All the dishes are deposited along the length of the table. Diners simply pick through the dishes, eating what they like. When done, the waiter returns with a pad and pencil and using some seemingly magical formula he determines precisely how much was eaten, and at what cost.

The dishes are mostly things rarely found on a U.S. menu. A squishy dish of cow brains sits right in front of me, next to one containing dark brown slices of fried cow lung. Balanced across a dish of squid and another of cow feet sits a satay containing skewers filled with cow hearts.

There was also a shrimp dish cooked in chilies, some fried chicken, a tiny fish that is eaten whole, a plate containing jackfruit, some papaya leaves and a green chili paste.

All this is eaten using the fingers of your right hand only. Rolling a small ball of rice, you use the rice to scoop up the rest of the food. When you’re done, a small metal bowl of water sitting to the back of your plate is used to rinse your fingers.

The older I get, the less I enjoy eating meat. It’s been a struggle to get our cook here to cut back on meat dishes. So while I’m perhaps as adventurous as the next guy, the idea of eating cow brain and lungs simply did not appeal to me. While the rest in our group plowed their way through the various dishes, I contented myself by eating rice, shrimp, and the oddly dry and tasteless papaya leaves.

Americans laugh when they hear of such dishes. We would no sooner eat cow brains then we would shoe leather. But every culture has dishes that others might find offensive. The Muslims of Indonesia look at our consumption of pork the same way we view the eating of rabbits or horses. I love the cultural understanding we’re gaining while here, and at least some of that comes from eating the different foods. Except this time, I got all the understanding I needed by just watching.

Toward the end of the meal Dandi disappeared for a few minutes, and when he returned he had paid for the bill. I asked how much I owed him and he laughed. “You hardly ate anything,” he said. Here I thought no one was watching.

Name in Lights

03 May 11
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I had my name up in lights today.

I’ve been fortunate during my career to have accomplished things I never dreamed possible when I started in broadcasting as a young kid back in 1974 (every time I say that I feel really old). I anchored NPR newscasts from London during the first Gulf War (the only newscasts ever produced for NPR from overseas), covered presidential summits and inaugurations as well as the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, and produced from Colorado for NPR news shows following the Columbine school shootings. But I have never had my name up in lights – until today.

May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day. Supported by UNESCO, it’s a day to reflect upon the role of a free press in promoting and strengthening democracy.

Despite all the negative rhetoric aimed at the media, especially in the U.S., the reality is that a strong and free press is one of the primary pillars of democracy. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, acknowledged this when he said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” Just think about it – one of the founding fathers of the world’s longest-running democracy placed that much value on a free and unfettered press.

The media folks at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta asked me to give a presentation in honor of World Press Freedom Day. The embassy has a shiny new facility inside one of Jakarta’s most upscale malls where they present any number of events, from musical concerts to dances to lectures. Called “@America,” it’s full of electronic toys, from wide screen TVs showing bits of American memorabilia to a huge computer display where visitors can fly themselves around the world using Google Earth.

It’s a perfect place to give a talk.

I traveled to Jakarta with Dandi Supriadi, my friend and colleague from UNPAD, where I have been teaching this semester. The embassy did not know we worked together, so by coincidence Dandi and I were invited separately. I would be speaking, while Dandi moderated. I was grateful to have my friend along.

When we arrived, we were met by intense security. When entering just about any mall in Indonesia today, guests must have their bags searched or x-rayed, or both, and metal detectors are also common. Cars are given at least a cursory look, with undercarriages checked for bombs by the use of mirrors on the end of long sticks.

Unfortunately, malls and other ex-pat gathering places have been bombing targets in the past, so security is taken seriously. And at up-scale malls such as this one (Pacific Place) where westerners are more likely to gather, security becomes even tighter. Drivers here must open up engine compartments and trunks for further inspection before being waved into parking areas. And passengers sometimes have a metal-detector wand passed over them before even entering the building.

So after passing through the mall’s security we made our way past the Ritz Carleton Hotel, the Mount Blanc store, Tiffanys and Bulgari to the third floor of the building where @America opened earlier this year. Here we were greeted by even more security.

The facility sits in the corner of the mall. Those attempting to visit walk up to a very sparse entrance. Its main feature is a glass window, likely bullet-proof, where you are observed by security officials. Once you meet approval you pass through a door on the left into a short hallway before turning right and entering a larger, brightly-lit room. In this area there are Plexiglas containers where all bags and other belongings are left. I had to leave my small Swiss Army knife in a case along with my backpack. Even my laptop had to stay here initially, despite it containing my PowerPoint presentation.

Finally you pass through another metal detector before being allowed to enter the facility itself.

We opened the door to enter a main hall. Straight ahead was the doorway into the performance space, and there overhead, much to my surprise, was a marque with my name on it. To be honest, the flashing lights were embarrassing, but at the same time a lot of fun to see.

We arrived here after a nice lunch and conversation with embassy officials and a few other journalists, including my friend Harry Surjadi, who is an environmental journalist and trainer. He’s currently working on an amazing project on Kalimantan.

We were early enough to talk to the technicians who would set up my presentation. They discussed the remote I would use to operate the computer, and we discussed the best way to run the short video I was going to play at the beginning of my talk. By the time we were done, many members of the audience had taken their seats on the AstroTurf covered risers.

The audience, I was told, was to be a group of working journalists who would fill the 120 seats of the lecture space. When I began though the majority of seats were taken up by students.

This was an important distinction. Working journalists by nature are skeptical, challenging what they hear and wanting a robust discussion of important issues. Students meanwhile lack the confidence needed to challenge presenters, so tend to be more passive.

While this gross generalization seems to be true of any journalism group I have worked with, including my students back at Skidmore, it is even more so here in Indonesia. My lecturing at UNPAD has shown me that it is almost impossible to get Indonesian students unfamiliar with you or your work to react and respond. I tend to work very hard when lecturing students here, at times breaking them into groups to work on problems, walking throughout the classroom to call on individual students for responses and trying to find other ways to make them stronger participants. Even then, getting an active classroom is not always possible.

And today it was even tougher. Because I was expecting working journalists, I had not built into the presentation any places for the active engagement needed for students. But it was too late to change things up.

The presentation still went well. My goal is always to make it less a lecture and more a conversation. To do this I had a number of points where I would ask the audience questions, and encourage a broader talk.

This is a risky thing to do here. For American audiences I can usually read faces and determine fairly well what I need to do to engage them. Americans easily show attentiveness, indifference, even boredom on their faces and in their body language. Indonesians though tend not to show emotion, instead closely hiding how they really feel about something. This issue has made its way into scholarly research, with a number of papers seeming to link it to the Chinese concern about losing ‘face.’ I don’t know that such a comparison can be accurately made, but regardless this is a common behavior here.

This issue has even been discussed in regard to President Obama. I have read some comments about his seemingly distant appearance at times, with people linking this to his time spent with his mother and step-father in Indonesia. An interesting pop-psychology approach.

Despite these concerns, the audience became engaged during the talk, and challenged both me and each other during the question period at the end. All in all, it was a great conversation about a free and unfettered press and its role in supporting democracy around the world. We talked about the price journalists can face in doing their jobs – two Indonesian environmental journalists were killed just before we arrived last September because of stories they were covering. And we talked about why it’s important to keep doing what we do.

Finally, it was a great opportunity to meet other journalists, many of whom have continued the conversation through e-mail.

I love what I do, and I enjoy the opportunity to understand my craft even better. Times like this are a gift. Getting my name up in lights was just a pretty nice bonus.

Ujung Kulon

03 May 11
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Our Krakatau trip took us close to Ujung Kulon, a national park on the southwestern edge of Java. It was the first proposed national park in Indonesia. Technically, the islands that make up Krakatau are part of the park. But Ujung Kulon is best known for its largest section on the mainland, where the rhinos live.

The Javan Rhinoceros once had a broad range that included Indonesia, most of Southeast Asia and into India and China. But today they are limited to just two spots – a population of less than 50 in Ujung Kulon, and less than ten in a national park in Vietnam. It is perhaps the rarest animal on earth.

The Javan rhino is also called the Lesser One-Horned Rhino because unlike most rhinos with two horns, this rhino has just one horn that is usually less than 25 centimeters in length. Its decline in numbers is linked to poaching and habitat loss. Its horn is valued in traditional Chinese medicine, and is sold on the black market for as much as $30,000 per kilogram, or $13,600 a pound. One horn can bring in more than $100,000, which is a lot of money in a country where the per capita income barely rises above $3,000.

I was not expecting to see the rhino in the wild. Sightings require many days of hiking through the jungle and are still quite rare, although the World Wildlife Fund earlier this year discovered two new babies by using motion-triggered video cameras. But I didn’t want to be this close to a world heritage site without paying a visit.

So we left Krakatau and headed south, down the Sunda Straight, and stopped so the kids could go snorkeling before landing in the early afternoon on Palau Peucang (click here for an aerial shot), a small island just off the tip of Java. This is where we would spend the night.

The landing site was a beach of beautiful white sand, at the edge of a clearing that was ringed by several buildings. As we waded to shore we were greeted by a crab-eating Macaque missing its right hand. The Macaque is one of 35 species of mammals to be found in the park. Walking toward our accommodations, a monitor lizard scurried out of our way while small Javan Rusa Deer grazed in the open field. This was definitely not Bandung.

We shared two rooms in a large cabin sitting on the north side of the clearing. The guest rooms surrounded a wide common area with a table, chairs and a couch. The common area had large windows that looked out onto the field where the deer grazed.

This is a primitive site. Electricity is available for just a few hours each evening, primarily for cooking. The rooms are sparse with two small beds, no bed covers (it’s too hot to need any) and a fan that only works when the electricity is running.

We were able to relax a bit when we arrived, but the kids wanted to swim and I had plenty to read, so we quickly went our separate ways. Just before sunset we took a boat across the narrow channel to a field they called the ‘gathering spot.’ On the edge of the field sat an observation tower, where visitors could watch animals coming to graze.

It was a pleasant evening, although quite hot. Few animals were grazing. The primary focus for us was a herd of Banteng, which is a type of wild cattle found across Southeast Asia. They were difficult to see, because they were gathered in the far right corner of the field. So after scanning the area for a few minutes, we decided to move closer.

Climbing down from the three story tower, we slowly walked toward the Banteng, keeping a clump of bushes between us. While most of the cattle seemed not to notice our approach, one bull on the edge of the group kept an eye on us, so I didn’t want to get too close. We stopped behind a couple of scrawny trees to watch them graze for a bit.

There were other animals. Several large birds were eating something on the ground in another corner of the field. And as dusk fell, bats began flying low across the sky. One incredibly large bat flew right over our heads.

Near our observation spot there was also a large pile of bones, likely from a Banteng that had died there. I was really curious what kind of animals grazed on its carcass, but few other animals were seen during our short visit.

After watching the Banteng graze for a bit, I began to get concerned about the bull, which had continued to watch us. So we made our way back to the boat and the beautiful coastal sunset, and motored over to camp for the night. Dinner included a fabulous fish dish. We spent a restless night because of the insufferable heat.

The next morning we took a hike across the island. The rainforest was quiet but the walk was lovely, including the sudden rain storm that hit halfway into our hike. We reached the opposite shore after perhaps an hour of walking and sat for a bit before returning to camp.

We left for Carita in the afternoon, and along the way stopped to take a narrow wooden canoe up into a small stream that emptied into the ocean. Again we saw few animals, other than a python sleeping on a tree branch just over our heads. But the trip was magical. Paddling through a rainforest is simply a special treat.


As we entered the stream we glided past mangroves. These trees are nature’s second line of defense for coastlines (barrier islands such as the Outer banks in the U.S. and barrier reefs are the first). The roots of mangroves spread out in different ways, depending on the species. Some have Pneumatophores, which are erect roots that grow upward from horizontal roots just below the surface. They look like sticks growing out of the mud. Others have prop roots; roots that grow out of the trunk

Plank Roots

and drop down,helping to prop the tree up in the mud. There are also stilt roots, kneed (or knee) roots and plank roots.

All of these root styles serve a major purpose. The mud where mangroves grow is generally somewhat anaerobic, which means there is limited oxygen available. They also grow in tidal areas, where the ground is under water for some time each day. So these aerial roots help to provide oxygen for the trees.

Prop Roots

The roots also help the mangroves weather typhoons and tsunamis. They support the trees during periods of high waves and water. Because the roots are spread out and the trees are relatively short, they can withstand high winds, and they slow the inland movement of waves. The land upon which the mangroves stand can also absorb a great deal of water. And the roots themselves help to stabilize the soil.

So it came as little surprise to scientists to discover after the tsunami battered Sumatra in 2004 that those areas where mangrove forests remained suffered the least damage from the tsunami’s damaging effects.

Mangroves are a wonder of nature. In addition to protecting coastlines, their roots are a nesting site for many sea animals, from fish to crustaceans. Their branches serve as rookeries for many species of birds, and droppings from the trees provide food for a range of marine creatures. Humans have been removing them from coastal areas, often to provide a better ‘experience’ for tourists or additional space for expensive housing. From Florida and Louisiana to Indonesia and Africa, hundreds of thousands of acres of mangroves have been lost, but we do this at our own peril.

Once past the mangroves, the stream’s banks became steeper and the growth thicker. Vines wrapped around trees. Large palm branches waved to us. Epiphytes clung to branches overhead. The look was primitive – so much so that I could almost imagine dinosaurs lurking around the next bend. And because it was midday, animals and insects were resting from the heat. It was incredibly silent.

The paddle was a short one. We were late getting back to the car, and we were driving all the way back to Bandung that evening. Sadly, we all too soon turned around and went back to the boat for the two hour trip to Carita.