Sunday, December 26, 2010

Vietnam and Laos pics

With some relatively high-speed Internet access at the Excelso Coffee cafe inside Jogja's Mal Marlioboro, it's time to get some pics posted. Forthwith ...

On our first day in Luang Prabang, Jenn and I met the 12-year-old girl on the right selling trinkets on the street. We didn't buy anything but did take her up on an offer to play tour guide to a nearby Buddhist temple for the afternoon. I shot this image on the boat ride to the temple landing. The girl's father piloted the boat.

Here's the temple, or rather the backside of it. The kid is a friend of our tour guide's and he came along for the ride.

This is the main temple inside the national museum campus in Luang Prabang. Significantly more gilded than the one we visited with the grade-school guides.

While in Hanoi, Jenn and I stayed in the Old Quarter, a place of narrow lanes and great human density. I snapped this shot outside our hotel two days before my passport was stolen.

This one really belongs in the nautical album but here Jenn gets a lesson on net-casting from the Hoi An fisherman. Our tour boat driver pulled right up to the guy's little wooden fishing boat and, on cue, the fisherman hopped aboard and began teaching us how to toss the monofilament net. The net is closed on one end and closes in the water around a series of lead weights attached to the open end. I never saw the guy pull up any fish and am unsure how successfully the net works, although he showed us a small bucket of fish about the size of chubs that was stashed on his little skiff.

In Hanoi, you can buy doughnut balls from female street vendors. Here, Jenn captures the scene when one such vendor sells me a couple doughnuts but then screws up the change. She is convinced I have shorted her some money and is crying and grabbing at me. She's the one with the ponytail with her back to the camera. The crowd is alternately shouting at me and then her: At me, to give her the money; at her, for being a fool. One woman on the scene slapped my vendor on the forehead and then turned to bark at me, motioning for me to remove my wallet. This loud and lengthy exchange drew a crowd of onlookers down the block and even stopped a couple cars passing by. The vendor grew increasingly panicked and yanked at my sleeve and tried to grab my wallet from my pants pocket. I finally walked away and, in the quiet of a nearby store, figured out that she'd given me too much change for the order--which I'd handed back before walking away. I found her in the street, talking calmly on a cell phone, and returned her money. She didn't look up from under her cone hat but took the cash and tucked it into her shirt.

A more successful doughnut purchase. After all that, they weren't very good. Jenn spit hers out.

Two very popular Luang Prabang sights: Monks and dogs.

Visitors to Luang Prabang will inevitably find themselves shopping for textiles. Silk, cotton, even wool, Laotian weavers churn out table covering, wall hangings, shawls, scarves, throws and yards upon yards of unfinished cloth. Here a woman works her loom in a textile village near Luang Prabang.

The woman with her arm around me told me to sit for this picture and then to buy some bananas. I did both. This in Hoi An.

A nighttime view of the pedestrian bridge in Hoi An.

Wise turtles at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

Wise teacher at the Temple of Literature.

Water puppets in Hanoi. More fun than leather puppets in Jogja.

A Prambanan fender-bender

On the eastern outskirts of Jogja sits the very impressive Prambanan temple complex, a 9th-century collection of lava rock towers dominated by a towering temple to Shiva. Damaged in a 2006 earthquake, the big temple's closed to the public but you can get in and around a couple of the smaller buildings--walk up some stairs into an enclosed worship space where, unlike at Dieng Plateau or at Candi Mendut near Borobudur, the altars and statuary are missing. Big, dark, damp rooms.

Very gray.

The exteriors, though, are impressive: Ornately carved, almost over-ornamented, multi-hued lava stone spires reaching jaggedly toward the sky. They're a wonder, to be sure, and sit in a visitor's park like slightly shambolic totems of a more severe and mystical time. This describes a lot of Central Java, I suppose, but Prambanan, with its fore-fields of stone, feels more precarious than a place like Borobudur. It seems ready to topple if given a stout enough shove.

We grabbed a cab out to the ruins and, on the way, were involved in our first Indo fender-bender. The old-timer driving our cab--who may or may not have been moonlighting in someone else's car (the driver ID on the dash was of a man several decades younger)--got to daydreaming and didn't notice the minivan that stopped short in front of us during a decent little rainstorm. Cabbie hit the brakes, Talya let out an alarmed cry from the front passenger seat, and we skidded about 30 feet before slamming into the left rear end of the minivan with a thwack. Two guys were quickly out of the minivan and the cabbie was all smiles and laughs. Sorry! He shook everyone's hand who would take it--although didn't offer us a shake--and left the meter running while he got out to deal with the man he'd hit and with the cop who showed up briefly after about 10 minutes. Talya paused the meter and we waited while the Indonesians sorted things out.

Talya stops the meter.

As far as I could tell, no police report was taken. Insurance information may or may not have been exchanged. Everyone crowded around the minivan's bumper but no obvious damage was visible. The whole delay lasted maybe 20 minutes. The cabbie hopped back in the car, fired up the meter, smiled and sort of shrugged his shoulders, and then we were on our way again. Back to the past in Jogja.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Muslim, a Jew and an atheist walk into a mall

Celebrating Christmas and Boxing Day in Yogyakarta with my friends Talya, a card-carrying member of Chicago's Hyde Park Jewish community, and Christian, a recent Muslim convert. We marked the birth of Jesus by shopping for batik--Christian now owns a handmade sarong--and by eating lunch at Pizza Hut, visiting Starbucks, watching a matinee showing of Tron, and searching out the best beef burgers in town.

We then wrapped up the evening watching a very solid Indonesian Stones cover band work through a dozen standards, including Little Red Rooster from the early days. The singer completely inhabited the Jagger persona, slinking around stage in a little brimmed flop hat and lisping in a British accent between songs. The guitarists slung their Telecasters low and aped Richards in tandem. During an intermission I asked if they'd play Ventilator Blues and they said they didn't know the song. Instead, they played It's Only Rock 'n Roll.

Christmas breakfast 2010.

Christian and I are staying in a nice little guest house where we sleep without air-conditioning under giant mosquito nets. Lodging's about $7.50 per night, which includes a fruit plate breakfast and cup of Indo coffee. The guy who runs the place looks exactly like Mark Wahlberg and is missing most of the big toe on his left foot, the result of a childhood bicycling accident, he said. He wears flip-flops and on his left foot sticks the sandal thong between his second and third toes.

The malls of Jogja were packed yesterday and Santa-themed clothing and hats were popular with retail staff and holiday celebrants alike. There's a significant Christian population in Indonesia but there's no way they alone are driving the kind of foot traffic and commercial-Christmas saturation I've seen here and in both Jakarta and Surabaya. The holiday is very much an American-style shopping bonanza and I'll be looking for some clearance specials later this afternoon.

Tonight, keeping with the Western Christmas in Jogja theme, I think we're bowling a few frames. Right after some sightseeing at a nearby Hindu temple complex. Not sure yet if I'm headed to Bali for New Year's but looking like it. Very happy holidays to everyone reading. Will have some more written stuff up here soon. In the meantime, I'll try to get some pics up from various travels.

From the nautical album:

On the water in Hoi An.

Hoi An fisherman and wife.

Mekong tour boat in Luang Prabang.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lao time

I'd be updating more but Laos runs on a kind of slightly slower Indo-time, and even the Internet is affected. So I've kept offline and mostly been out in the bush or on the Mekong or futzing around the many boutique shops of Luang Prabang--where far too many merchants are happy to quote prices in USD--and am now way behind in my travel updates. I head back to Hanoi for an overnight tomorrow and am hoping to rectify some of the slow posting.

Me, Jenn and the driver atop Mrs. Nam.

Until then, a couple images from Laos. Jenn and I got out for an elephant ride yesterday--a definite trip highlight, although the lumbering and strangely bleating pachyderms will win no races; a horse in similar country, if a horse could manage some of the jungle trails, would run fast and easy circles around our elephant friends--and we also hit an old Laotian Buddhist cave. Our elephant, a 35-year-old female named Mrs. Nam, was a retired logging animal who now leads tourists along a heavily wooded jungle trail at about a half-mile-per-hour, stopping often to yank bamboo shoots from the ground and jam them into her maw. She is also a prodigious farter and at one point relieved herself of about 55 gallons of urine. For all that, Mrs. Nam was a gentle and friendly animal. Once we got off and had a chance to pet her and really talk with her, she repeatedly grabbed at me with her trunk and flapped her ears happily. She made eye contact through long lashes and very clearly nodded so long when I said goodbye.

Nam and her mahout.

Luang Prabang is nothing if not picturesque and we've been busy with our little point-and-shoots. Mekong vistas, monks, cute kids, lazing dogs, elephant handlers (today's vocab word: elephant handles are called mahouts), crumbling stupas, temples, and a million statues of Buddha.

The Nam Khan River, north of Luang Prabang.

On a hill opposite Luang Prabang.

Inside Pak Ou cave.

Monday, December 13, 2010

In short and impossible order

Writing from the international terminal in Hanoi, where Jenn and I will be getting on a plane to Laos in a few minutes. Thus ends an incredible day-and-a-half of scrambling to replace my passport and, equally important, to obtain an exit visa that would allow me to continue on to Laos and the remainder of this trip rather than languishing in Hanoi for three business days while immigration officials processed a replacement visa at standard speed.

Very, very long story short--a full account will follow soon--Jenn and I managed in the last 24 hours to get an emergency, replacement passport; a handwritten English-and-Vietnamese-language police report; and, this morning, an expedited visa in super short and impossible order. This work included several pitched battles with our hotel; the recruitment on the sidewalk of a university student/translator who was a godsend; both help and not-so-much-help from the folks at the U.S. embassy; and an airport driver who functioned as a fixer.

Anyway, lots of characters to discuss and plenty of insight into Vietnam's seedy officialdom. Glad to be wheels-up in a few.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Passport? What passport?

A breaking news item from Hanoi: My passport and Indonesian work permit were stolen from my hotel room this afternoon. I figured this out after dinner tonight and Jenn and I then spent almost three hours trying and mostly failing to get the hotel staff and later the manager to help me make a police report. As of this writing, no report has been taken. I'm heading back to the police station tomorrow morning and then off to the U.S. Embassy to get a replacement passport. The Indonesian papers are going to be another can of worms altogether.

Having your passport heisted is bad but turning for help to the hotel staff and having them suddenly forget how to speak English or how to call the police for help is worse. The desk staffer refused to call the cops and then got his manager on the phone. When I pressed the manager to call his cleaning staff at home and ask if they knew where the documents were, he said he would do it tomorrow. I said that was too late and that I wanted to file a police report. The manager insisted that I wait and when I said I didn't want to wait, he hung up on me.

After I called the U.S. embassy and the police on my own, the hotel manager eventually showed up and since that underwhelming arrival has consistently refused to believe the passport was lost inside his building. Surely I lost it from my bag in the street. He more recently started claiming that I directly accused him and several other members of his staff of stealing the passport. I didn't, and I'm not exactly sure where this line of obfuscation is headed. But the manager did try a couple times to explain that, in Vietnam, U.S. passports are so cheap to reproduce or fake that they're not worth stealing. He guessed one might sell for about $2. I asked if he was serious. Of course. Very serious.

Promises to be a long day tomorrow, and a couple long days down the road back in Indo. Will write with a fuller accounting shortly.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Easy living for downed airmen

An example of the kind of history on display inside the Hoa Lo Prison building in downtown Hanoi (skip ahead to the third graf). Hoa Lo, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, is the one-time French colonial dungeon that the North Vietnamese used to house downed U.S. airmen like John McCain who, whatever you think of his politics, cannot raise his arms because of tortures he endured while in Vietnamese custody from 1967 to 1973.

Me, May, My and McMeil

Please welcome Jenn Mackovjak to TYOLV.--BMc

On a lighter note from the last post ... One of the funniest quotes I've heard from Brett this trip was uttered Sunday evening in Saigon. "It was so good I can't even talk about it." It wasn't just what he said but how he said it: dreamily. Brett was describing his experience at Beauty Spa Ngoc Anh, otherwise known to us as the Saigon Spa of Amazing Acrobatic Feats and Tightrope-Walking Massage Therapists! So started our four-day addiction to the Acrobatic Spa, my addiction to tightrope walker Phuong and Brett's to Mi.

If you are wondering how to say Mi, so are we. After four days at the Acrobatic Spa and calling her phonetically "May," we learned it instead rhymed with Me. There was much confusion over this pronunciation, though, so all we really know for sure is her name is spelled "Mi." The following exchange happened the first day and every day after:

Brett: "So how do you say her name?" (when trying to make a reservation with his masseuse for the following day)

Front Desk Lady: "What?"

Brett: "Her name?"

Lady: "May" (phonetic)

Brett: "May?" (saying it exactly the same way)

Lady: "No, May."
Brett: "Yes, May."

Lady: "No, May."

This banter went on and we continued to call and ask for her by the name May, until we learned days later it was pronounced Me. It turned out Brett never did get to see Mi again. She was off the following day and called in sick the next. Maybe Brett exhausted her over the pronunciation of her name.

As Brett mentioned in an earlier post, these masseuses are trained in the art of full-contact, body-wobbling Thai massage. But the experience isn't just about the one-hour, $8 massage, it also is about the before and after, or tea time and nap time. When entering the spa, you are greeted with hot tea and ginger--refreshing after wandering around in Saigon's 90-degree heat. Then they call you in for your massage or, if you're Brett, theyjust forget about you and leave you in the waiting room for a half hour. At some point, the men go to the second floor and the women to the sixth--then follows the acrobatic, tightrope walking and pulverizing massage.

The first night, my spa lasted a bit longer than Brett's. As I entered the lobby, I found Brett sound asleep on the couch in the lobby. The next night Brett thought I was lost as he waited for me 30 minutes after he was done. No, I wasn't lost but fast asleep on the 6th floor, snoring away on top of a bed a of hot rocks. I was delirious after my spa/nap, and almost fell asleep at dinner, jet-lag fully sinking in. But as it was our last night in Saigon, we needed to fit in one fore massage so off we were to introduce Brett to his first foot massage.

The foot massage, for the super low price of $7 with tip, started off with a near electrocution when the cord to my foot bath of water was plugged into the wall. Sparks flew killing my foot bath! All this while sitting on large recliners watching Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage with Vietnamese subtitles. I think we both fell asleep in the recliners--at least I know I did as my thigh still hurts. I guess foot massages in Vietnam include the entire leg, arms, head and neck. It is amazing how strong the masseuse's hands are--the amount of pressure these tiny, slender women can apply with their fingertips is amazing and often can be excruciating.

Sad to be leaving our Acrobatic Spa but used to our daily $12 routine of being massaged, poked, prodded, stretched, and cracked one of our first adventures in Hoi An was to find a worthy spa. We thought we would be in luck - upon arrival at the airport in Hoi An, we were met by our taxi driver. He introduced himself as “Me.” We asked how he spelled it. “M-i.”

It was miraculous that Mi the cab driver met us at all. Even the simplest things are a test of fortitude here. Something as simple as placing a telephone call takes a lot of time and patience—hoping against hope that an English speaker will answer on the other end; figuring out how to even dial the number is it's own kind of confusing puzzle, what with dropped or undropped zeroes and area codes; relying on cheap pay-per-use phone service that drops more calls than it connects.

But Brett forged ahead and attempted to call our hotel in Hoi An to inform them our flight would be arriving ahead of schedule. After dialing at least 10 times before the call connected, he lucked out and was able to hold a decent conversation. It was the spelling of his last name--M-c-N-e-i-l--that really threw the hotel clerk. He spelled it 10 times but just as he was confirming the spelling for a final time the call was dropped. Another five or so attempted calls later, Brett got through and spent six more minutes spelling his name into the phone. The clerk claimed she'd lost his name and its spelling during the few minutes since the earlier call was dropped. I often have to go through this pain in the U.S. with my tricky last name so I enjoyed listening to this call with a beer and French baguette and cheese in hand (the only safe foods at the airport). We arrived at the Danang airport to find Mi holding a sign for Brett M-c-M-e-i-l. So I have been calling him this ever since: Mr. McMeil. Thank goodness I wasn't spelling my entire last name or we would still be on the phone with the hotel clerk.

We never did find a good spa in Hoi An - too much time at the tailors. That is an entirely separate post - to follow later ... .

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The warren-fortress

About an hour and a half northwest of Saigon lie the Cu Chi tunnels, the famed and almost mythological underground warren-fortress of Communist guerillas built between 1948 and 1968, and eventually including about 150 square miles of underground tunnels, kitchens, bunkers, hospital rooms, armories and sleeping quarters for thousands of insurgents. The tunnels offer physical testament to the determination of Vietnamese Communists to overcome any obstacle or hardship in their long fight to create a unified, and one-party, Vietnam. Viewing them up close it's impossible to think the U.S. could have unequivocally smoked out those complex, multi-layered tunnels (despite sending hundreds of so-called tunnel rat soldiers and their trained attack dog pals down in there to do just that; the tunnels are a kind of forerunner to the AFPAK caves where Bin Laden hides out, and having come here I have a better sense of why, more than nine years after the terrorist attacks, we still can't find him). They were just so sprawling and dense, built in three separate levels at about six feet, 15 feet, and 30 feet under the ground, the two deepest levels beyond the blast-reach of B-52 bombs, that it must have been clear to anyone who viewed them or knew of them during the war that the Vietcong were in it to stay and in it to win it and taking them fully out of Cu Chi would require manpower and casualty counts the Americans didn't have and couldn't afford.

Enter, hell.

I did not join this fucking maniac for this part of the tour.

The tunnels also represent a unique challenge to claustrophobic history tourists: Climb down in, or no? Short answer: Climb down in only after others go down and make sure it's not too coffin-like, and do this only one or two times. The first time will be fine—you'll scurry along bent over at the waist in a tunnel that's been opened about a third from the old days to accommodate Western tourists, and you'll snap a couple pictures—but the second time you will get halfway through the tunnel but where it bends to the left you will come face to face with a flying, trapped bat and you will turn around and had straight back whence you came.

The view from down in there.

This will complete the subterranean portion of the tour for you today, and you can concentrate in the woods and how frighteningly difficult it would have been to fight here, and it allows time to think about the various low-tech ways the Vietcong used to maim soldiers and kill Army dogs—tiger traps, punji sticks, terrible barbed spikes that caught your foot and leg and never let go. I asked our tour guide, a former South Vietnamese Army helicopter pilot ho said he spent two years in a political re-education camp after the war, how many soldiers the stake pits and such killed. Not many, he admitted, but they were very good at killing dogs. He said the U.S. lost about 3,800 dogs during the war but didn't know how many of that number had died at Cu Chi.

Tour guide, Lut.

After visiting the tunnel complex, we walked down to the Saigon River, where it was Vietnam picture perfect.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

War remnants

Writing from Hoi An after a whirlwind couple days in Saigon without writing so it's time for an update. For the first time, The Year of Living Volcanically welcomes a guest blogger—my former officemate and current traveling companion Jenn Mack—for a counterpoint to the ceaseless ambivalence that normally characterizes the site.

Power lines in Saigon.

But before Jenn gets a chance at the keyboard, some thoughts on the one-time South Vietnamese capital, a place of significant cosmopolitan bustle and, for this Indonesian resident visitor, a surprising number of English speakers; the Communist party's commemoration of the American War of Aggression; the impossible determination and self-sacrifice on display at the Cu Chi tunnels outside the city; and why every single person reading this should make plans to visit Vietnam, regardless of their interest in tragically misguided, criminally vicious Postwar containment strategies, etc. To wit: Jenn and I averaged just over one 60-minute, full-body Thai massage per day (each including masseuses who walk on backs; who apply hot rocks to backs they've walked on; who bend and crack every joint in the back, hands, arms, legs, neck and feet; and who finish the thing by hoisting you onto their knees—them somehow under you and you propelled forcefully into the air, your lower back pushing onto their knees with all your weight, the pain sharp then dull then gone, or mostly gone, as your body finally gives up and collapses into itself, the muscles unable to tighten anymore) for about $12 per with tip. This after dining on multi-course meals of oysters, pork, chicken, lamb, Indian samosas, pho, coconuts, coconut milk, beer, wine, coffee, and excellent chocolate croissants and fried doughnuts and never spending more than about $10 each.

So, then. To the War Remnants Museum! A highly effective Hall of Monstrosities from the American war, this place is a case study in the use of historical narrative as a contemporary (or near contemporary) ideological brickbat, as a national creation story, or as political justification for the rightness of control lying in the hands of Ho Chi Minh's heirs and not in anyone else's, especially the former “puppets”—the puppet governments, puppet armies, puppet police and puppet peasants—who at one time fought against Ho and the North. You enter the museum complex through a parking lot filled with American war machines—tanks, bulldozers, howitzers, jets, a Huey and Chinook helicopter—and the closer you get to the museum entrance itself you begin to see American ordinance. Rockets, cluster bombs, napalm canisters, Agent Orange barrels, mammoth, ground-pounding bombs from the bellies of B-52s. It's a tableau of mechanized and often impersonal death, financed and imported by a superpower enemy that could spare almost no expense in its efforts to obliterate the Vietnamese patriots. Look here, the museum invites visitors. They had all this shit, metric fucking tons of it, and it didn't matter. We would never have let these machines, or their pilots, beat us. It's not explained in the display but I'm guessing the war machines were captured as the Americans gave up on Vietnam; none showed any battle damage. They are just big trophies for the winners, and they sit in a parking lot with their rubber wheels rotting and their Plexiglass windows turning the color of skim milk.

A remnant of the French colonial period.

Inside, the museum focuses on the past and present violence of the war. The past is shown in photos of schools and nurseries leveled by American bomb attacks, dead kids stacked like cordwood atop piles of rubble. There are pictures and stories of My Lai and of Thanh Phong, where Bob Kerrey and a band of Navy Seals killed about two dozen Vietnamese people. The American government awarded Kerrey the Bronze Star for the action but inside the War Remnants Museum Vietnamese authorities claim Kerrey and his men targeted women and children, killing many with knives. A cement sewer where several child victims allegedly hid before being found out and gunned down by American servicemen is on display inside the museum. Color photos of dead boys and girls frame the display, while a spotlight shines down on the sewer.

The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence.

Multiple walls of the first floor are dedicated to commemorating the use and aftereffects of Americans' use of Agent Orange, or Dioxin, for defoliating the Vietnamese jungle during wartime. This display, which includes dozens upon dozens of photos of crippled and malformed Vietnamese children and young adults, victims of genetic deformations caused by the toxic chemical. In another section of the museum, visitors will find black and white photos of, to borrow directly from Glenn Danzig, hideous, deformed monster babies: encephalitic heads, Cyclops eyes, multiple eyes, multiple faces, limbless bodies, just impossible and unnatural, unlivable and evil fucking debilities and malformations that, propaganda or no, are an ongoing national shame for us. The Vietnamese ask us to consider just how viciously we poisoned their country and people—and for what. Many pictures are of children born more than a decade after American troops left the country, the lingering malignancy of our might and malice. A story board from the display informs us that in May of last year the International People's Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange suggested the U.S. Annually pay $1.52 billion in remediation and reparation to Vietnam for the damage done to its people, land, flora and fauna by Dioxin. This money wouldn't buy a new torso for the 29-year-old who lives without the use of his tiny, atrophied legs nor would it absolve us of responsibility for the sufferings of month-old infants who are physically incapable of survival given their painful and sensory-depriving handicaps and who expire before they ever begin but not before they're able to suffer, but it's money we owe this country and we ought to be paying something. We owe it.

Although not officially part of the Agent Orange exhibit, the museum features a first-floor charity booth for people living with chemical-related diseases and deformities. On the day we visited, the booth was manned by three very small, quasi-dwarfed people in wheelchairs. They lay very deep in their chairs, mostly unmoving, and I'm not sure how much muscle control they had. Also manning the booth was a young man, a musician, who played an electronic keyboard and sang along in what sounded like a high-pitched, wordless tone. His face was completely devoid of emotion, in large part because he has no eyes or eye sockets. His upper face is a flat canvas of stretched skin, forehead to upper lip, on either side of his nose. No opening of any kind for eyes. I left a donation in the box and signed my name in the register after being told I had to. Among maybe three dozen other names and hometowns visible on the ledger, mine was the only one from the U.S.

OK, Jenn wants a turn so I'll come back to the Cu Chi tunnels and the many charms of Saigon. And soon, a discussion of bespoke clothing and shoe shopping in Hoi An.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Toward Vietnam

Very British.

Writing from the Harrod's cafe inside the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, during a layover en route to Ho Chi Minh City, which I'll call Saigon from now on.

I got back to Magelang late Wednesday night--later than I otherwise would have after a Merapi-related mud flood swamped a bridge on the main road between Jogja and Magelang, halting all airport shuttle bus traffic for the day. I shared a Kijang cab ride with four other people and a trip that normally takes about an hour, an hour and a half at the most, lasted more than three hours. We took side streets about a car-and-a-half wide, many of them choked with logging trucks moving at glacial speeds. Our driver was an old and, unique in my experience for a hired Indonesian wheelman, cautious driver. We lumbered slowly through the night, afraid to pass anything without a 1,000-yard straightaway. It was a slog.

Got back to the guest house to find hard rains had washed out all Internet access at the school. I moved back in, packed for Vietnam, and lit out for a Friday morning flight to Jakarta. Spent the night with a friend and his girlfriend last night at their small but homey apartment in south-central Jakarta. The girlfriend, who arrived in Indonesia about the same time I did in August, was laid up with terrible food poisoning. She rallied for a while while I was there--we all watched a Russell Crowe movie on TV--but then spent most of the night vomiting torrentially into a plastic bucket in the bathroom. She heaved hard and wet, over and over, the splat of her guts hitting the bucket every 10 minutes for three-quarters of an hour. And this after a day of puking Friday. She would wretch and moan, wretch and call out. She needed tranquilizers, and an IV. When I left this morning, she was still in the bathroom, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, spitting up and calling out to me through the door to have a good trip.

Kuala Lumpur International.

I've been fighting a bad bug of some kind for a while now but nothing like what my buddy's girlfriend is going through. They think she's got food poisoning and I think the lesson for me is that my gastronomical holiday in Indochina might be more cautious than if I were feeling 100-percent. There will be plenty to eat but maybe not so much from the food carts. Of course I'm saying that from the cleaned-and-polished, aroma-free confines of the airport, where everything tastes the same, and maybe I'll feel differently when hit with the street food of Vietnam.

Jenn and I are winging our itinerary but my guess is we tour Saigon tomorrow, head out to the Cu Chi tunnels--where I will not be making the trip underground; to the nearby hamlet of Phu Loi, where my dad was based during the war; and to the Delta, where we might see some floating markets. Inside Saigon proper, we'll be visiting the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, and I'll get someone to show me the old embassy roof, which is not identified in my copy of Lonely Planet. Excuse me, Aussie travel writers, but what percentage of your English-language readers are Americans? A seemingly noteworthy landmark, no?

All right, off to catch a plane ... .

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving, and a return to Magelang

Too long radio silent but big news from East Java: I'm cleared to head back to Magelang and will be making my return mid-week. This means saying goodbye to Gresik and Surabaya, my temporary hometowns for the last couple weeks. I haven't written about either town really but Gresik's a gritty and very industrial city famous for its giant cement plant, Semen Gresik (no laughs, please), which provides most of the cement for construction on Java, and for its many chemical and petrochemical plants. So deep are Gresik's chemical-manufacturing roots that the best neighborhood in town is full of streets named after commercial chemicals: Jalan Ammonia, Jalan Nitrogen, Jalan Hydrochloride. The air is pretty fucking toxic, and the place generally feels like a hotter and slightly dirtier Northwest Indiana.

Kampung kids in Surabaya.

Surabaya, about 45 minutes south of Gresik, is a different place entirely. The second-largest city in Java, and so in all of Indonesia, Surabaya is a large and fairly cosmopolitan city defined by its mall culture. To live in or visit Surabaya is to spend your time in cabs traveling between malls--Galaxy Mall, Supermal, Sutos, and the queen mother of East Java shopping, Tunjungan Plaza. While it can be difficult to find Western food of any kind just an hour away, it's possible to eat nothing but fairly decent American, Italian and Mexican food in Surabaya. Last night I had pancakes, hashbrowns and turkey ham for dinner at a passable little diner inside the Sutos mall. The night before that, a group of Fulbrighters feasted on thin-crust pizzas, gnocci and penne pasta at an Italian joint down the street from the American consulate that might as well be on Madison Street in Chicago or Forest Park. I am going to miss this kind of eating.

At the consulate residence.

Since Surabaya is home to a major airport that serves as a hub for travelers headed to Bali and points east, and west to Jakarta or north to Sulawesi, several Fulbrighters en route to holiday weekends made layovers here this week. Some stayed for a Thanksgiving dinner at the American consulate's home. In all there were about a dozen of us there for the meal, catching up with one another and mixing with the consulate staff. I got to talk Winnipeg Jets hockey with the Canadian wife of the consulate's political officer; Vietnam and my very impending trip to that country with the Consul General herself; Indonesian politics with several staffers; and with almost everyone the great happiness of feasting on turkey and stuffing and pecan pie so far away from home and friends and family.

Lunch. We ate about 2:30 a.m. CST.

Prior to the fancy consulate dinner, I was invited to attend a lunch at the home of a friend who works in the consulate. Gathered around her table were a couple of Indonesian friends, including an architect and a medical student, three young foreign service officers from the State Department, and a young guy studying law in China. We ate until we were sick--the State Dept. folks telling stories of posts in Senegal, China, Jakarta, Surabaya--and then retired to the living room for a date with our host's cable television subscription. The Thanksgiving football games wouldn't kickoff for another 12 hours so we watched an Animal Planet marathon of bear-attack stories. Why not? Grizzlies! USA!

This was my first Thanksgiving outside Chicago in more than a decade--the last one was spent in Hyde Park, New York in 2000--and I was surprised by how much I missed the familiar, lazy routines of the holiday and how much I also missed all of you reading this from home or new homes elsewhere in the States or, for Kathryn and Andy, from Eastern Europe. It dawned on me sometime during the day that I'm very far from my best and oldest friends and that I look forward to seeing all of them next summer. Even if I have to drive around the country making visits. Leave a light on, eh? It's late but Happy Thanksgiving from Indonesia.

I leave later this week for Vietnam and I'll try blogging the trip. I'm traveling with my friend and former Kroll office mate Jenn Mack and we are hitting the country hard and fast, like B-52s. We meet Saturday in Ho Chi Minh City and then work our way north, through Hue and Danang, eventually to Hanoi. From Hanoi we fly to Laos for a few days, and then I'm back to Indo and Jenn goes to Thailand. While we're in South Vietnam, I'll be visiting the area where my dad was stationed during the war. I'll write more about this during the next couple weeks but having grown up with so much Vietnam in my life--the music, the politics, the movies and books that keep coming (I just finished Matterhorn, which was surprisingly earnest and stubbornly old-fashioned but very well done), a dad who went, the whole fucking 80s backlash, being a gung ho little militaristic Boy Scout during that ridiculous time, Vietnam fatigue, somehow not reading a single assigned book on Vietnam in my graduate history program--I wish I had more than two weeks to charge through the country. But I'm finally going to see Vietnam, or Viet Nam, the Father of All Things, in Tom Bissell's words. I can't wait. Six days and counting.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Super-extreme extremities

In case you missed the Times piece about Mt. Merapi's former resident crackpot (I had), here it is:

The story mentions Marijan's role as a spokesman of an Indonesian energy drink. When I wrote about him a couple weeks ago, I didn't know his celebrity was such that he was also a commercial pitchman. But as soon as I got out of Magelang and into Jakarta, Marijan's wrinkly visage greeted me from the side of about every third public bus, grinning idiotically.

According to the Times, the bottler of Red Bullish Kuku Bima Ener-G has stepped up its Marijan-themed ads since he was killed last month after stubbornly refusing to leave Merapi, a decision that led to as many as a dozen other deaths.

Banking on Mr. Maridjan’s continued popularity, the maker of the energy drink quickly cut a new version of its ad in the days after his death, praising him as a “daredevil.”

Over images of an erupting Merapi and Mr. Maridjan in prayer, it intones: “Life and death are the secrets of God.”

Oh, I get it. Like super-extreme extremities in edgy marketing. What's radder than death, Marijan's and the others? Kuku Bima Ener-G!

Fuck yeah!

A very goat holiday

I've been in East Java for a couple days now and temporarily find myself with a reliable Internet connection. Time for an update.

We're off for the rest of the week as my temporary school and wider Gresik celebrate Eid al-Adha, a sacrificial holiday in which families who can afford it buy and kill goats or cows and then give the meat away to friends, family and the local poor.

For weeks, farmers have been setting up stalls in cities throughout Java--I meant to write about this before I was pulled out of Magelang--advertising kambing (goats) and sapi (cows) for sale. In Magelang, one spot was selling animals that were clearly sheep and advertising them as goats. The wool was thick on their backs and their bleating unmistakable and yet the guys manning the tent and passing out the feed insisted they were goats. Hey, OK. I wasn't buying, anyway.

But from Magelang to Semarang, then out in Jakarta, and back here in Surabaya up into Gresik, my path of retreat and resettlement has taken me past probably 100 goat/cow stands in the last couple weeks. Some in empty fields, others crammed into city gangways. Cows tied to spindly little city trees, goats tethered to rope fences strung up between lamp posts. Country cousins come fully into the city. Around the corner from where Obama gave his speech last week, it looked like a makeshift rodeo, just hundreds of farm animals crowded onto a roadside patch in South Jakarta.

The going rate for a goat is something like the equivalent of $100 and a cow can go for upward of $500 a head. My colleagues in Magelang make less than $500 per month, so you'd have to be a serious potentate, an exceedingly generous holiday celebrant or maybe a small kampung collective to kill a cow. As I understand it, cows are more of an institutional offering. Schools buy them, corporations buy them. Maybe a mall or two buys them.

But for a neighborhood project, it's goats. I stayed the night at a friend's house in Surabaya yesterday and woke to the pock-pock sounds of hollow hacking just outside the front door. We peeked out and my buddy's neighbors were in the last stages of butchering a lop-eared goat they'd had tied up out front the night before. It wasn't that late in the morning; they'd clearly started early and worked fast.

We walked outside and were waved over: A family affair. Several generations were sitting in the front courtyard working meat and gristle off the few bones that remained. A small, square hole in the walkway held a pool of bright red blood. To the right, a pile of pelt and horn, what would not be eaten from the animal's head and shoulders. We were waiting for a cab and it pulled up as the family invited to stay for satay.

Ma kasih, bu. Tapi lain kali. Thanks, ma'am. But another time.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

East Java bound

Until Merapi calms down, I'm being sent to teach at a fellow ETA's Islamic high school in the small East Java city of Gresik. I fly out of Jakarta Friday afternoon bound for Surabaya, all the way across Java. Gresik's about 40 minutes outside Surabaya, and a welcoming committee from the new school is meeting me at the airport. It looks like Internet service may be a little less regular than in Magelang so I may be longer between posts. Let's see.

English Dept. All-Stars at the airport, and me without a beard.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Et tu, Indo?

The three of us who were removed from Magelang and Jogja last week headed out about 5 a.m. Wednesday for a breakneck, Jakarta sunrise cab ride to the handsome University of Indonesia campus on the city's south side. There we joined a line of ticket-holders that eventually grew to 6,000, according to local press reports. We waited and waited, up toward the front of that line, and then we moved a little and then waited some more.

Gates were supposed to open at 6:30 a.m. but nobody seriously thought that was going to happen. By 8 a.m., after the morning sun was up nice and hot and we were all feeling it, squeezed against one another and sweating through our shirts in a kind of human cattle chute, the Secret Service had erected their magnetometers and the Indonesian security guys finally began thinking how they'd manage to get us all to the metal detectors in an orderly fashion. Their solution? A line of young guys in navy BDUs stood at the very front of the mob with their backs to us ... holding hands. Nobody was allowed to break their arm chain, and they let about 15 people through at a time. Behind the arm chain, several thousand high school and college students pressed against the people in front of them, trying to get the line surged forward. The guy behind me at one point put both elbows into my upper back and just threw all his weight into it. I lurched forward and got my feet, then turned to say, Back off. As I spun around, he retreated. Oh, sorry, he said. Sure, Mas, that makes it totally OK.

We finally got waved through the arm-chain and then it was smooth sailing. The Secret Service guy who took my camera and wallet and gave them a serious looking-over grunted when I said, Good morning. Further inside an American guy in security-detail-garb asked where we were from. Chicago. (You're a long way from home!) Michigan. Maine. How about you? Los Angeles. Been here six years and wouldn't leave. A local rent-a-guard, I guess.

We squeezed up some polished tile stairs--honestly, almost any surface that could be tiled here has been--and made our way into an auditorium that may share an architect with the UIC Pavilion. Cement pillars, tile everything, a mix of wood- and fiberglass-backed seats. On the floor, more comfortable chairs for a higher class of spectator. As the crowd filed slowly into the upper level of the building--almost all of them students and teacher chaperones--a cheer went up from down on the floor. Former Indonesian President BJ Habibie had found his seat and as the crowd rose to cheer him, he popped up with a camcorder and began filming his admirers. This was the most exciting moment of the pre-speech scene. Several dozen air-conditioning units worked hard to keep the place only slightly uncomfortable, and David Axelrod could be observed walking the main floor and jawing with a couple reporters near their generously-sized pen. Indonesian pop music sounded quietly from the sound system, and we all waited for something to happen.

When Obama finally arrived on the stage it was with little warning. No openers, just an announcer saying, Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States ... . Obama was on the stage and approaching the podium before any serious cheer went up; it finally came in a shriek--high and piercing, but awfully short. No real standing-o, no sustained rock star welcome from the siswa and mahasiswa--students and college students--in the front rows or in the rafters. I was expecting more and prolonged noise--we'd all waited several hours in line for this, and Indonesia has waited through three earlier cancelations of Obama's visit--but this was a muted hero's welcome. Everyone was pretty quickly back in their seats and ready to listen as Obama recalled the story of his four years in Indonesia as a boy during the late 1960s.

Interestingly, the examples in his speech about the physical differences in Jakarta between that time and now, including the names of specific buildings he remembers from his childhood, were exactly the same as those mentioned in a New York Times story yesterday anticipating the speech. (The story also correctly forecast Obama's calls on Indonesia to help bridge the U.S./Muslim world divide.) Maybe all of the childhood memory stuff was lifted from Dreams of My Father--I don't honestly remember those details from the book--or maybe the Times's reporters are just clairvoyant. But having read the newspaper piece before hopping in the cab and then listening to Obama basically tell the Times's story from the stage, I felt decidedly like a bystander. Oh, this story's already been cycled out of the news today. We're hearing the speech in a kind of past-tense; the important stuff is already out there, and everyone in the room but us is already thinking about Korea. What's left is Obama pleasing a crowd that clearly isn't following his English by sprinkling in a few pinches of Indonesian. The kids especially liked it when he said how much he liked Indo satay and meatball soup. They cheered loudly when he said good morning, or selamat pagi. They laughed it up when he said that in visiting Jakarta he was coming home, pulang kampung nih! The only off note came when Obama invoked Indonesia's founding philosophy of democracy, unity and religious freedom: Pancasila. The "c" in that word, like all "c"s here, is pronounced as "ch": Pan-cha-si-la. Obama booted it, though, pronouncing it, "Pan-kah-si-la." This is how any normal American would do say it but Obama Spent Four Years in Jakarta, and many of the students in the stands with me spent the better part of a minute whispering about what they'd just heard.

From my seat, Obama gave a friendly, workmanlike speech that seemed a little flat and surprisingly detail-free in places, inside a room that was so quiet at times that I couldn't help but feel his star wattage dimmed. Maybe it was a language issue, or maybe it was a cultural thing. Clearly the response to his use of Indonesian words and phrases, and to giant and awkward gaps of near-silence following applause lines like the one about America removing 100,000 combat troops from Iraq, suggests that most people in the room weren't exactly following along. (Again, this was a very field-trip audience and I'm not knocking the kids for failing to speak Obama's kind of English.)

Several people told me after the speech that audience members were being polite and were keeping especially quiet to hear every last word of Obama's speech. Maybe that's true but I have to think that Obama '08 would have stirred the crowd a little more. Even Obama '09 would have sent more ripples through the audience. But as a high school physics teacher sitting near us told me, Indonesians got a little worn out with the earlier canceled visits and, you know, some of them even have their doubts about Obama's accomplishments thus far in forging stronger ties between the U.S. and his boyhood home. We had high expectations for him, and maybe he has not met them. Even here, the bloom feels tangibly off the rose.

Speech-wise, Obama offered up a few head-scratchers. He praised Indonesia for a tradition of religious tolerance and for serving as a potential leader on human rights, corruption-fighting, and environmental issues in the region. He left unaddressed recent violent attacks on minority religious groups in the country, including a very open campaign against a Jakarta-area Christian community, and he said not a whit about military abuses in Papua. The idea of Indonesia as an anti-corruption leader is one the papers are having a hard time with today (as the Globe points out, Indonesia ranks 110 of 178 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index; one good-government expert suggested Obama was being sarcastic), and I'm not sure how a country where aggressive deforestation, exotic animal sales, and commercial fishing with cyanide and dynamite are well-established growth businesses can lead us into a greener future. And one other thing: What kind of export market does Indonesia really represent for the U.S. right now? Per capita income here is under $4,000. Obama said U.S. exports to Indonesia have grown 50 percent (he did not say since when) and that a growing Indonesian middle-class is a potential market for U.S.-made goods. Which ones? Surely not those produced in union shops. But, sure, Indonesia has come a long way from 1967, when Obama and his mom first stepped off a plane from Hawaii, and its democratic experiment is both established and promising.

Nitpicking aside, it was a fun time at the university and after Obama worked the front row a bit--shaking hands with students and adults, some of them women in headscarves, who clamored for a handshake or a quick photo--students lingered in the auditorium and posed for group pictures like the kind you take at the ballpark or a concert, the field or stage in the background. It was a happy if awfully shovy, crowding, and line-jumping scene, and when we all finally spilled out of the auditorium and onto the grounds of the university, the kids in their bright, primary-colored uniforms, it felt a little like graduation. Which is fine and fun but it's a long way from Springfield when he announced his candidacy, or Grant Park two years ago, or even Cairo last year.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Keeping it gritty

People are excited about the Obama visit? Yes they are. But our feisty friends at the Globe offer some sobering--if graphic--perspective on the challenges to the budding U.S./Indo partnership that Obama will be touting during his 24 hours in Jakarta:

But while its military has made tentative steps toward reforms, it continues to be accused of abusing citizenry in the sprawling nation’s separatist-torn regions, like Papua.

Activists are regularly given lengthy prison terms for peacefully expressing their views, organizing rallies or for simply raising pro-independence flags.

Foreign journalists, human rights workers and academics are denied access to the region, making allegations of abuse almost impossible to verify.

But increasingly videos, like that of Kiwo are surfacing online.

In August, footage emerged of another prisoner, Yawen Wayeni, lying in a jungle clearing moments after troops allegedly sliced open his abdomen with a bayonet, sending intestines tumbling from his stomach.

Using the little life he has left in him, he lifts his arm into the air, and says weakly, ``Freedom! Papua ... Freedom!’’

In both cases, the government promised to investigate.

Those investigations, by the way, remain hidden from the public.

The full story here:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Jakarta's Indonesia

Kind of a meat-and-potatoes post, just to get caught up ...

1. I'll be in Jakarta through the end of the week, possibly the weekend, and then out to East Java for a week or so. Merapi's still busy terrorizing the countryside and dumping ash into the skies of Central Java so no immediate plans for return. What that means, I don't exactly know just yet. There's a possibility I might be reassigned but that decision can wait for a little while. I'm hoping it can wait until January if needs be. SMKN1 doesn't have classes scheduled for December so my hope would be to get through the next couple weeks, then deal with December, when I plan to be in Vietnam and possibly Bali, and then get back to the classroom. If Merapi's still a problem in early 2011, and some scientists are suggesting as much, then I guess maybe I end up somewhere else for the remainder of my stay.

2. Obama's here today and tomorrow and I'll be making a very early morning trip to get in the security line outside the University of Indonesia for a speech Obama will deliver, I'm guessing, about 10:30 a.m. Word is there's room for about 4,000 people at the speech—the venue was changed recently; he was originally going to speak in front of about 25,000—and I'll be there with nine other Fulbrighters and about 40 high school kids from West Java. I expect to be the only person in the audience wearing a 1983 White Sox hat but you never know. I'll get some pictures and maybe a write-up of the speech posted ASAP.

3. My school in Magelang is right now functioning as a shelter for people displaced by Merapi. So while it's not safe enough for an American, the place is more than adequately safe for Indonesians. One of the student teachers who just finished a stint at the school—a young guy with really good English—is back for the time being as a shelter volunteer. I don't know about the staff, whether they're helping as volunteers, too. I don't know how many people are housed at the campus but will be talking today to some folks out in Magelang and will see about an update.

4. The three of us who were pulled out of Magelang and Jogja are staying at the Aston Marina Hotel in Jakarta. This is where the ETA group stayed when we first came to Indonesia in late August and it's a little weird to be back without that big group of friends. Also weird to be back now that I can actually read some Indonesian and get around town. A little different city this time. Went to the movies the other night to see the Social Network, which was great even if I still don't understand why Facebook is worth $25-plus-billion and even if the movie deals not at all with the company's repeated attempts to “monetize” personal information. (Quick aside: they writers repeatedly make the point that what's cool about Facebook at the outset is that it's not outwardly commercial; sure, but if you're pushing the site's coolness, and you're painting Zuckerberg's best-friend-cum-sorry-and-squeezed-out CFO as cluelessly driven to make money rather than make revolutions in interpersonal communication, then don't you need to at least hint at the dark side of Facebook's cool? How do they make money without ads? Anyone?) The privacy issues come later in the story but not that much later, and they affect all of us using this boss new social networking cosmos. Zuckerberg's really fucking smart and impossibly socially inept and we're supposed to kind of admire him for his visionary clarity but what about his insistence that we've reached the end of privacy as we once knew it? Default setting: No thanks, Mark.

Anyway, we saw the movie inside the highly polished marble halls of the Plaza Indonesia mall, which makes Water Tower Place look both dated and a little low-end. It's an only-in-Jakarta kind of place, posh beyond posh and completely unconnected to the world of dirty poverty that exists basically right around the corner. There's a BMW X5 on display inside the mall, right in front of Max Mara. Rolex, Lacoste, Diane von Furstenberg. Like Madison Avenue just crammed into a six-story mall. Went back yesterday and bought a New Yorker from the English-language book store (Nov. 1 issue) and read the Remnick review of Keith Richard's autobiography while drinking some kopi susu, or coffee with milk, at the mall's Starbucks. Will probably visit again tonight, or tomorrow. I don't think I'll find a Starbucks again for a little while after I leave, and I'm not ashamed to say I like the comfort of the place. Completely the same as any other one of their cafes; and the wireless is good.

Since I got here, I've had margaritas and chicken fajitas at a decent Mexican place, Starbucks a couple times, visited an English-style pub and later a sweet outdoor beer garden, scarfed down a wood-fired, thin-crust pizza with chicken and garlic, and and had Indian samosas and Mai Tais at a sheik Buddha-themed joint called, inexplicably, Facebar. Jakarta's Indonesia is a little different than Indonesia's Indonesia. Those fajitas are the first Mexican I've had since the third week of August.

5. All around Jakarta, there's red and white bunting for Obama's visit, and down by the Plaza Indonesia there are several American flags flying beside Indonesian flags. One sign hanging from a pedestrian walkway read, “Welcome Barack Hussein Obama, World Peace Maker.” So he's got his fans here for sure and the papers are expecting a warm welcome. Have not seen a heavy police or military presence but that could change today. Will let you know shortly.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Don't call it an evacuation

Word this morning from the Fulbright folks and embassy: The two of us nearest Merapi are being recalled to Jakarta for a indeterminate period of time, beginning as soon as I get my bags packed. Will update the trip out of Magelang and to Semarang--about a two-and-a-half hours drive north--for a flight tonight to Jakarta. Word is the roads are bad and busy, people heading hither and yon as they flee an expanded exclusion zone that's now at 20 kilometers.

UPDATE: Last night things went from manageably bad to near enough getting out of hand for Indonesian authorities managing the official response to Merapi's many eruptions this week. According to published reports, 58 people, including seven children, were killed last night when a pyroclastic flow hit their village about 17 kilometers from the volcano's summit. Until yesterday, that distance put Argomulyo village outside the government-imposed exclusion zone, beyond which residents were supposed to be safe. Last night's eruption was Merapi's largest yet and volcanologists quoted in the papers are predicting two months of steady activity.

Merapi has now killed more than 100 people; officials widened the exclusion zone to 20 meters earlier today. (Magelang's about 25 kilometers from the mountain.) Already more than 100,000 people have been relocated from inside the exclusion zone and an expanded safety perimeter promises to begin seriously taxing Central Java's humanitarian resources. The TV news is running stories about potential food shortages, and a disaster relief worker told the Jakarta Globe today that area shelters have reached capacity (

Against this sufficiently alarming set of developments, the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation, the group that administers the Fulbright program here, decided to pull me and my friend Demi out of Magelang and Yogyakarta. I'm writing this from inside the airport in Semarang, a port city on Java's north coast about two-and-a-half hours from Magelang, and I'm booked on a 7:20 p.m. flight to Jakarta. I'll be there indeterminately. In a kind of cinematic retreat, Demi and a group of Fulbrighters who were visiting Yogya for the weekend are on the proverbial last train out of that city tonight.

Abido, Heru and Song.

All of this happened very fast, of course. Until speaking with the AMINEF folks this morning, I hadn't once discussed Merapi with anyone overseeing the Fulbright program. We went from radio silence to DEFCON One in a phone call. Classes had already been canceled at SMKN1--again, no one mentioned this to me; I just kind of figured it out when all the students got back on their motorcycles and drove off--and apparently all the other schools in Magelang were also ordered shut. The word came down from the regional education office to send everyone home. (Although, why let everyone, students and teachers alike, arrive at school only to turn immediately around?) With marching orders to pack my stuff and get out, I bought a plane ticket, packed up what seemed necessary (yes, the French Press is with me), and hopped in one of the school's Toyota Kijangs for what turned out to be about a three-hour ride to the airport in Semarang. My roommate Song was ordered to evacuate by his Korean volunteer group and he'll be in Jakarta tomorrow. He's staying with friends tonight here in Semarang.

Heru says, So long.

The power went out yesterday about 4 p.m., and with the sky already an off and odd magenta-gray, the late afternoon sat in a suspended gloaming for two hours. Torpor. The campus was empty and splattered. Rain threatened constantly but never really delivered. It was a dirty, drizzly wait. As dark fell, I played guitar in my room until I couldn't see. Then we went and found some candles, and had a beer.

In the dark.

Song and I eventually decided to meet a friend for satay--staying in was a bummer--and so hopped on the bike and braved the streets slick with wetted ash mud. We drove for about 10 minutes--very slooowwwwly--before we saw any lights on and we killed a good two hours at dinner. We returned to a dark part of town and a still-pitch-dark guest house. The power came back up about 9 p.m. By then, the rain had picked up and a pulsing thunderstorm started up behind the ash haze. A muted, far-off lightning flash and low rumbling that rattled the windows in the house.

Maybe some of that rumbling came from Merapi; I don't know. The Globe claims people could hear the explosions last night as far off as 20 kilometers. I'd be in that ballpark. What I heard sounded like rolling thunder, but this was the first time in many, many thunderstorms here that I've heard the windows rattle. This was beefier, more low-end stuff. It made me think seriously, for the first time, about earthquakes. The volcano seemed pretty far off but Magelang's also in a quake zone, and with this much geologic rumbling in the area an earthquake didn't seem far-fetched. I left the front door unlocked just in case I needed to get out in a hurry.

Of course I didn't, and instead woke to the sounds of motorcycles and more motorcycles, the kids coming and revving and revving and going. The parking lot was loud and crowded and full of shouts and shrieks from about 6:15 to well past 8:30. Just cacophonous. I had plans to visit Jogja for the weekend and called Demi to confirm a visit. No dice, she wrote back. Headed to Jakarta. I called AMINEF and they said, Get ready. And that was that.

We got some new ash rain last night--the campus was coated with gray grit--but the bulk of Merapi's latest eruption went elsewhere. It rained in one form or another all morning, which held down the dust and left soft little craters in the sediment where rainwater fell from the roofs and onto the sidewalks and parking lot. My headmaster, Pak Heru, and his assistant, Abido, came to see us off. He'd ordered the school's driver to take Song and I north, avoiding the traffic that choked the main Magelang-Jogja road, and he told us both to get back soon. Sir!, he said. Don't be long. And you be safe, I said.

Heru and his family live about 40 minutes northwest of Magelang, and they're well out of harm's way. Abido lives out toward Heru but about 15 minutes closer. She's fine, too. The school, of course, is coming close to the exclusion zone--or, rather, the exclusion zone is coming close to it--and it's unclear whether classes will be back in session anytime soon. Some of our students had already been displaced by Merapi before the exclusion zone was widened today; many others will now be directly affected. A friend remains at her downtown motorcycle shop. She'll just wait out the eruptions for now and keep her shop doors open, hoping for customers. I called to tell her that Song and I had been ordered out. It's OK, she said. You can come back?

Leaving town in the air-conditioned comfort of a private SUV, I was driven to safety by a guy who lives right on the edge of the exclusion zone, down the street from Borobudur. He'll be back home tonight. We stopped for lunch and before we hit the road again, the driver bought a couple boxes of snack cakes for me to give the AMINEF folks when I see them. Heru had given him some money to do it. This is an Indonesian custom--bringing small gifts, usually food, to present when traveling--and Heru wanted Song and I traveling properly. We both got boxes of oleh-oleh. We'll both deliver them to our bosses when we see them. And when we return, we'll bring something back for Heru and the others. That's the idea, I think. If we leave with presents, we have to return. Right?