Monthly Archives:June 2011

Snakes on the Plains

26 Jun 11

It started off innocently enough.

We were visiting a theme park in Jakarta this past week called Tamin Mini Indonesia Indah, or TMII. It’s the Indonesian version of Disneyland, right down to the plushies waiting to greet kids with handshakes and hugs. It even has a Disney-like castle.

Opened in April of 1975, TMII was proposed by Siti Hartinah Soeharto, wife of then-President Soeharto. Her idea was to have a park that “raised the pride and sense of love for the nation and the country.” And she wanted to do this by representing the nation’s disparate parts in one place – southern Jakarta.

In addition to the castle, there is a lake with swan boats that allow visitors to paddle around pieces of land shaped like the major islands if Indonesia. For just 20,000rp a cable car ride takes you over the lake, where you get an aerial view of a mini-Indonesia.

The major attraction for us though was not the castle, the plushies, or even the water park. TMII is designed to represent all of Indonesia. So the large rectangular park is lined on one side by little “villages” containing traditional buildings and items from different regions of the country. There is north and south Sumatra, east and west Kalimantan, and areas representing Sulawesi as well. We spent part of an afternoon traveling Indonesia without ever leaving the capital city.

It was an enjoyable time. We rented a four seat bicycle and peddled our way around the country exhibits. After perhaps an hour, we stopped by one last pavilion, with a concrete mound representing a burial site. The kids climbed its side for pictures, while Aris wandered in and out of the bushes at the mound’s base. A few minutes later, Aris appeared with a small, dark gray snake about eight inches in length wriggling in his hand.

Adam, who has been interested in snakes since he was little, asked to hold it. But unlike other snakes we’ve found here this one struggled so much I finally told Adam to stop. He did, but both he and Aris played with it for a bit before Aris placed it in an empty plastic water bottle with air holes. We carried the snake with us on the bicycle for a few minutes, and finally I told them they needed to release it.

They tried getting the snake to leave the bottle, but it somehow managed to wedge itself in such a way that it wouldn’t come out. Clearly the snake did not want much to do with us, which was a good thing. Because after I took the bottle from them and shook it firmly, it slid out and fell on the grass, where it arched up and glared at us.

Despite its size, its pose was clear. What we had been playing with was a baby Cobra.

My heart skipped a few beats, realizing that Adam had been playing with this snake (likely naja sputatrix) just a few moments before. Cobras are one of the most deadly venomous snakes in the world.

It’s not the first time Adam has been near a venomous snake. While scuba diving earlier this year he came near a Banded Sea Krait. But that snake was about three meters from him, and swimming in the opposite direction. They are not known to be aggressive, and it’s not unusual for one to be spotted around Indonesia’s best dive sites. They are very shy snakes, so a bite from a Krait, either on land or in the ocean, is quite rare.

Cobras however can be more aggressive. They have a particularly strong neurotoxic venom. This means it attacks the nervous system, among other things paralyzing the nerves that control breathing. Victims often die from respiratory failure.

There is a misconception that baby cobras are more deadly than the adults. This comes from the belief that young cobras cannot control the amount of toxin they release, while an adult snake can. Whether true or not, the fact is a cobra is deadly within three hours of birth. So this tiny snake could have killed any one of us.

At this point, I was concerned about leaving the snake in the open in an agitated state. Rather than slithering away, as most snakes do once released, this one kept staring us down. So I found a small twig and repeatedly brushed the snake away until it finally left.

This is not the first time we’ve played with snakes here. Our backyard is home to a family of garter snakes, and some months ago Aris caught one so Adam could hold it. Garters are not poisonous, and those in our backyard likely survive by eating the frogs and toads that also live there.

The guards one day found a python along the stream that runs through our housing development. This snake was much more interesting. The ten foot long python was quite healthy, no doubt thriving on a diet of rats and the periodic neighborhood cat that might have wandered down along the streambed.

The guards put the python in a small cage at the back of the complex’s office and fed it chickens. We went to see it and, despite the strong metal bars, when Aris leaned in for a closer look the python struck at him, hitting the bars repeatedly with its head. It was the most aggressive snake I’d ever seen.

Unlike Cobras, pythons are not venomous. They crush their prey to death by wrapping it in coils of its body and squeezing tightly, literally knocking the air out of them. But their bite does not contain a venom. And since the python was in a cage, it was quite safe, as long as you didn’t stick your hand in between the bars.

Days later, the python was gone. The guards said it escaped, but I suspect it actually made it into someone’s soup pot.

Such an end would not come as a surprise. Snakes are routinely eaten here. There are even stories of cobras being ground up and put into hamburger.

Our experience this week, meanwhile, has caused me to make a new family rule for our last three weeks in country – no more snakes. No handling, no playing, no watching. And for that matter, no more hamburger. Who knows what’s in that stuff anyway.


22 Jun 11
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I’m an old guy. I remember the first commercially successful video game – a 2-dimensional tennis game called Pong on which I used to destroy my friend Tim. My first computer was an Osborne, named after its creator, Adam Osborne. It was the world’s first commercially available portable computer, so heavy it was called a ‘luggable.’ It was developed before there even was a Microsoft – it ran the CP/M operating system.

Having used computers so early in their life cycle, I’ve never been afraid of technology. I used one of the first commercial spreadsheets called “Supercalc” on my Osborne to make it through my ‘Stats for Social Science Dummies’ course at Ohio State, and that taught me the value technology can provide.

But I have also seen the downside of technology. Kids more interested in video games than in going outside and playing with the real world. Adults who can’t have a family dinner without checking their Crackberries. Weapons systems that can kill hundreds while operators watch on a video screen while sipping coffee from thousands of miles away.

Technology has especially changed the media landscape. My colleagues in equal parts bemoan the demise of traditional forms of media distribution and rejoice over the freedom technology is bringing to our craft.

Today technology is touted as the answer to just about anything, from improving our kid’s grades to finding better crops to feed the world’s hungry.

In all the excitement of promoting all things technological though, most futurists tend to forget one thing – there remains a major divide in the world between the technology haves and the have-nots, and because of this divide any benefits accrued from technology are not evenly spread.

This was brought home to me most recently when stopping by the ATM. We survive here because of an international banking system that allows me to withdraw money from my account in the U.S. at a little machine in a windowed booth on Jalan Surya Sumantri in northwest Bandung. But despite all the major technology advances in the world, my ability to get cash only works when the network connecting my bank to the one in Indonesia is actually functioning. And that network isn’t doing so well.

Over the past few weeks, for every ATM visit where I can withdraw cash there are 5 or 6 that come up dry.

I was concerned that this might be a problem affecting only my bank, or even my ATM card, until I had dinner last weekend with a German friend. It turns out that she has had similar problems for weeks. Which means that the international banking network is failing in Indonesia.

This is not the only technology issue we face here. Cell phones are ubiquitous. I’ve written in the past of how lesser developed nations have been able to leap-frog technology, skipping land line phones almost entirely and moving right into the cellphone world. But most information comes not from cellphones, but from the internet, and that’s where the bottlenecks occur.

Internet access overall is spotty. The most recent figures I’ve seen put broadband penetration at about 12% of the country. To place that in perspective, a news story last year noted the United States is ranked just 20th in the world in broadband, saying it had “a mere 60%” of households with broadband. That’s five times as much as Indonesia.

Our driver sometimes spends the night here when he doesn’t want to brave the hour long motorcycle ride home. Often he will spend the night on the couch downstairs, where he can get a good signal from our wireless router, and surf the web. I’ll often find him asleep on the couch in the morning, phone in hand. At his home, where he lives with his parents, he doesn’t have internet. Our monthly payment just for high speed internet access equals one half of his monthly salary, so for him home internet is a luxury.

The ramifications for this country of course could be great. Indonesia continues its push to be taken seriously as a world economic power. But as the world becomes ever more reliant on technology to conduct business, if Indonesia cannot improve its technology infrastructure it will be left even further behind.

Indonesia is of course not alone with this problem. Last year I worked with radio stations in Malawi where reporters had to walk several kilometers from the station in order to get dial-up internet access. But Indonesia has a much larger economy, and its leaders say the nation will become a major regional economic power soon. How that will happen though without a robust technology infrastructure I just can’t imagine.

Technology of course is not the only issue troubling Indonesia, where roadways are falling apart, access to clean water is severely limited and reliant transportation systems are difficult, if not impossible, to find. But more and more of the world’s business is conducted on-line. Without a robust technology infrastructure, Indonesia and its 240 million people will continue to find itself in the have-not category.


16 Jun 11
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Graffiti is everywhere, from the subway cars of New York and Bangkok to the streets of Bandung. Here, Aris tells us that at least some of the graffiti is gang-related, as it is back in the states. But my favorite drawing here has no gang connotations at all – it’s just fun.

The graffiti was painted on a tower along a bridge in central Bandung. The bridge elevates a highway over another road, and it’s usually a fast way to get past some of the local traffic. Because cars move so quickly on this road (which is unusual in Bandung) it’s surprising that the artist could find a good time to do his or her work. But I’m glad they did.


Testing the Senses, and Durian

14 Jun 11
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The first thing you notice as you enter just about any Indonesian city, other than perhaps the traffic, is the smells. You’re not as much assaulted by them as you are beaten over the head by a cricket bat full of all kinds of odors.

Standing recently at a mobile Singkong Keju stand (similar to the stand in the picture), the smell of fried cassava covered with powdered cheese coming from the stand competed with fumes from a sputtering motorcycle roaring by. Under the sidewalk just behind the vendor runs a storm water drain that doubles as a repository for just about any kind of trash, so depending on where you stand you might also be smelling rotted fruit peelings, decaying leaves, or even human waste.

Behind a block-long street lined by our favorite market stalls in Jakarta runs a small concrete-lined canal that on our last visit smelled like an open sewer, forcing us to run past intersecting streets to quickly get away from the odor.

Pollution control laws, if they even exist, are apparently not enforced. Trash is dumped indiscriminately and clearly without much thought, left to rot along the street. And it’s not a poverty issue – it’s not unusual to see a window on a Mercedes or BMW glide silently open only to have a McDonalds bag or an ash tray dumped along the roadside.

Cars and motorcycles spew smelly clouds of exhaust while trucks add dark clouds of particulate matter to the air. And this is one of the worst pollutants of all, as far as I’m concerned. While we live in an area that is removed from much of the pollution, the soot from exhaust goes everywhere – it can travel as much as 30 miles on air currents, and sometimes even farther. The smaller the particle, the lighter it is, which means it can travel long distances on air currents. And the smaller it is, the more damage it can inflict.

The smallest particles are labeled PM2.5, which means they are two and a half microns in width or smaller. For perspective, that’s perhaps 18 times smaller than the width of a human hair. These small particulates released by diesels and other pollution sources can make their way deep into your lungs. Larger particles (PM10) become trapped by mucous and are moved out of the airways by tiny hairs called cilia. But the smaller particles can move deeper into the lungs where they cannot be removed in this fashion. Instead, they are trapped there, where they can help cause lung disease, emphysema and even lung cancer.

Worse yet, these soot particles can link up with other small items in the air column, including toxic organic compounds and heavy metals, helping to transport these items into your lungs. It’s almost impossible to avoid the soot clouds, so every time you’re breathing it in, you’re not only having your senses assaulted, you’re also getting a dose of other stuff you really don’t want in your body.

Cars are not the only source of air pollution. Open burning is quite common, and comes with its own unique smells. Even in more expensive neighborhoods it’s not unusual to see a pile of trash smoldering at curbside. While taking pictures this week along a major road running through a portion of central Bandung, I watched a large cloud of smoke rise from behind a fence. At one point, the smoke threatened to grow so large that it might actually have impeded traffic at one of the city’s busiest intersections. Such sightings are commonplace here.

Burning trash can release many toxic chemicals, especially if plastic is part of the trash mix. And burning plastic simply smells awful.

Perhaps the worst olfactory assault though is a natural scent. It comes from a fruit called Durian. Durian, known here as the king of fruits, has a large following in Southeast Asia. It’s a large oblong fruit, pale green in color and covered with sharply pointed spikes. It’s heavy enough that people who have been unlucky to be under a durian tree when the fruit falls have been seriously injured or killed.

So why the attraction? Durian is considered by many to be the best tasting fruit in the world. The website calls the fruit “nature’s grandest pudding.” Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist I am researching, loved durian, describing its taste in 1856 as “A rich custard highly flavored with almonds.”

Durians are also full of vitamins, containing an ample supply of vitamins B, C and E, along with tryptophan and iron.

There’s just one problem with durian – it smells like a nasty fart. Or stale vomit. Or French Custard passed through a sewer pipe. Or all of those things at once.

According to Adam Leith Gollner, author of “The Fruit Hunters,” the smell of durian has even been described as “a disinterred corpse clutching a wheel of blue cheese.”

The smell comes from sulfur compounds. Durian contains more than 40 different types of sulfur compounds, including those found in skunks. The smell is intended to attract animals which will consume the fruit and spread its seeds across the forest in scat. That’s a good plan in the rainforest, but not so much when brought into the nearest Yomart or Giant Hypermart. Whenever we hit the grocery store, we need to prepare ourselves for a blast of durian.

While beloved by many in the region, durian is actually banned in some public places because of its odiferous nature. In Singapore, passengers on the city’s subway lines face a $500 fine for carrying the fruit with them. And many hotels will not allow visitors to bring in durian.

Eating durian can apparently be dangerous too. Drinking alcohol while eating durian can lead to severe bloating. In his book, “Extreme Cuisine,” Jerry Hopkins mentions a news report of a “fat German tourist who devoured a ripe durian, followed by a bottle of Thai Mekong rice whisky, then took a hot bath and exploded.”

One of my favorite stories from Gollner’s “The Fruit Hunters” involves a durian tasting party he co-hosted in New York City. While he and his friends enjoyed their fruit, the rest of the building was being evacuated because of a suspected gas leak. But it was just the durian.

So why go through all the potentially nauseating effort? There is an old adage about durian – it smells like hell, but tastes like heaven. Alfred Russel Wallace said its taste was “worth a voyage to the East to experience” – strong words at a time when traveling to the east meant surviving a dangerous journey by sea of several months. Wallace added that “as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”

I can’t say whether durians are worth such an effort – we haven’t tried them yet. But we plan to before we leave, and time is running out. I’ll be sure to post about the experience.

Smells in Indonesia, despite all this, are not all bad. In fact, there is a richness to the smells here that at times can just overwhelm you. The best place for this is anywhere food is being cooked. Southeast Asian cuisine involves many spices, and their liberal use livens up not only the food, but the surrounding air. The list of spices seems almost endless. Chilies, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, curry leaf, ginger, lemongrass – it goes on.

The point I suppose is that unlike in the sanitized west, Indonesia is alive with smells, both good and bad. Staying here is a sensory experience we will not soon forget.

Heard on TV – Part 2

09 Jun 11
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This part of Southeast Asia loves Korean pop music. Girl and Boy bands dominate, singing sweet love songs and catchy pop anthems, all with a strong backbeat and not one of them something you might remember longer than it takes for Justin Bieber to comb his hair. The music is all mostly harmless and clearly aimed at young girls, although the appeal is much broader than that.

This fascination led to one particularly obnoxious advertisement having been broadcast the past few weeks on television. The voiceover is provided in a rapid-fire style by a breathless male Korean, but text appears across the bottom of the screen in English. The video meanwhile shows various Korean pop stars in action.

I think this ad represents the worst of advertising and our obsession with the dubious stars we place up on pedestals.


Now for the English text:

Korean stars, don’t you just love them?

Porcelain skin, contoured body lines. Irresistible features. Unbelievably perfect.

Catch a 360 degree look at Korean perfection. From all directions, all angles, and all dimensions. Yours on TVN.

Only with TVN can you go behind the scenes, chat with them, delve into their inner beings for a taste of their lives. TVN Korea stars 360 degrees.

In reality, it’s probably no worse than the cult status given to stars in the U.S. But I find it quite telling to see it vocalized in this manner.

Perhaps more troubling though is the sexualization of younger girls. Many of the girl bands have singers that for all appearances seem to be in their teens, even though they’re probably in their 20s. I don’t know for certain though. They often dress in schoolgirl outfits and other clothing that attempts to make them seem quite young, but it’s clear that one of the things they are selling is sex appeal.

Are these really the images we want our daughters growing up with, and idolizing? Certainly not me. It has led to some interesting conversations with Elana.

Learning a Language

03 Jun 11
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I’m terrible with languages.

Research has shown that children exposed early in life to different dialects are able to learn languages more easily later in life. That gives me a small amount of comfort. As a kid I had a few weeks of French in 4th or 5th grade, and that’s it. In high school there were no language requirements, so of course I didn’t take one. Our family had no real ethnic identity, which meant we heard no foreign language at home. So my only real foreign language exposure involved listening to people with a southern Ohio accent, which while interesting isn’t quite the same thing. Hearing people saying “Booshis” instead of bushes isn’t going to tune the ear for the finer elements of, say, the French language.

All this means I struggle with languages now, and that’s a real impediment when living overseas.

The national language of Indonesia is called Bahasa. I’ve had sporadic lessons here, and have picked up some words and phrases. But the kids, with no formal lessons, know more.

Despite my overall ignorance though, I do enjoy languages. Especially when people have fun with words. Such is the case at a chain of convenience stores here. The fun is in the name.

The name of the store is “Tujuh Sebelas.” Those words are actually numbers. So the name of the store, in Bahasa, is translated as “7-11.” Of course, it’s a convenience store.