Sunday, October 31, 2010

Comfort to the evacuated?

One of my co-teachers text-messaged me yesterday afternoon and asked if I'd like to join her and her family as they drove out to some of the temporary camps for residents displaced by the Merapi eruptions. My friend knew I'd gone looking at the mountain earlier in the week and thought I might be interested in a return to just outside the six-mile exclusion zone established by authorities around the volcano. Sure. What time? Maybe six o'clock.

During my earlier visit to toward the mountain, I'd stopped at an outdoor camp in a village called Sawangan. My counterpart teacher was along for the ride and he told me he'd camped in the same field during his scouting days as a boy. The place definitely had a scout-camp feel—long, walled tents set up in a huge rectangle inside a vast grass field that could use a cut. One difference from my own Boy Scout experience was the group of about 30 men and women gathered on blankets in the middle of that slightly overgrown field for evening prayers. All facing east, men in a forward line, the women lined up about five feet behind. They prayed the entire time I was at the camp.

At Sawangan camp.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Sawangan camp was pretty low-key when I visited and was filled mostly with women, both young and old; kids; and a few elderly men. The rest of the male population, I was told, was off working their fields or tending their animals. The Army and Red Cross were well-represented and the place was orderly and clean. I didn't know if we'd be returning to Sawangan yesterday. In fact, I had no idea where we were going or really what we were going to do once we arrived wherever we were headed. Help? Watch? Shake hands?

At six o'clock, my friend texted me to say maybe six-thirty. Then later, maybe seven. Or not. She called me after seven and asked if I needed a ride or could I drive myself. Do you need me to drive myself? We can talk about that later. Did I have face mask for filtering any volcanic ash? I don't. Do I need one? We can talk about that later. Then another text: Are you prepared? We will pick you up in ten minutes. We had not discussed the bike or the mask again, and when the group arrived after eight my friend was not among them. It was her aunt and uncle, her nephew, and a guy whose relation to her, if any, I could not tell you. The aunt knocked on the door and when I answered asked me, “Where is your motorcycle?” Then she asked, “Where is your mask?” Thus we began our outing. I fired up the bike; they dug up a mask for me and off we went. Where are we going? To Sumber village.

We rode first to a shelter in a high school building. A couple dozen people were sleeping on carpets and blankets inside an auditorium, while others milld around or just sat smoking. My friend's uncle disappeared for about 30 minutes. He came back and said nobody really needed any supplies here—boxes of bottled water and dried food were stacked to the ceiling in a kind of commissary/food relief staging area—but the camp at Sawangan needed some blankets and pillows. We would drive there next. Sounds good, I said.

Inside the high school shelter in Sumber village.

Back on the bikes, we drove down a narrow and broken-down road, through terraced rice and corn fields. I followed the taillights of the bike in front of me, large bats swooping out of the trees, flood water coursing through roadside ditches. The rain had stopped but the ground and road were still very wet, and the night was cool, maybe 70 degrees. My friend's aunt shivered on the back of the motorcycle driven by her husband.

We eventually pulled into a house compound where two men greeted us in a parking lot filled with maybe 20 motorcycles. This wasn't the Sawangan camp. Maybe this was a stop before we got there? Everyone off the bikes and handshakes all around. Selamat malam. Good evening. We walked into house and found several men, including a wild-haired older guy, gathered around a computer. They were following real-time seismic updates at Merapi on an Indonesian geologic website. The older guy eventually broke away from the computer and smilingly shook my hand. American? he asked. Welcome. We were standing in what amounted to his study and the walls were covered with photos, awards, and press clippings. Father Vincentius Kirjito, or Romo Kir, is a Catholic priest and environmental activist who started organizing his neighbors against area sand mines several decades ago. He has an easy and slightly spacey bearing and he smokes a lot, holding the cigarette in a peculiarly perpendicular way, straight upright between thumb and forefinger. As though he were holding a small flag. Framed pictures of Jesus and Pope Benedict looked in from the other room. Nearby, bags of uncooked rice, boxes of bottled water, and, curiously, powdered chocolate. All for distribution to evacuees, none of whom were apparently staying at the priest's compound.

We sat with Kirjito and several others, including a younger man who animatedly described witnessing the Saturday morning eruptions, and then … that's it. I listened as the men exchanged stories in Indonesian, occasionally gleaning a new word that I looked up on my electronic dictionary, and I thumbed through a copy of Kompas. After more than an hour, my friend's aunt turned and asked in Indonesian if I was ready to go home. Oh, OK. We were not going back to Sawangan.

We shook hands again, hopped on the bikes, and drove back to Magelang. I have no idea what we were actually doing, except paying a visit to the priest. We delivered nothing to anyone. Still, it was a nice night to be out and in the cool Central Java air, on the bike, out in the dark fields. Through a cloud haze, you could see the moon, dull and high overhead.

When I got home, my friend texted me: Did u enjoy your trip or not? I said I did. OK. Have a nice dream.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

More from Merapi

The volcano continues to erupt, although you wouldn't know it on the SMKN1 campus. Everything business-as-usual here. I drove out a couple days ago to see what I could see from a scenic overlook facing the north side of Merapi and all was rain clouds and fog. Stopped at a camp for displaced residents and the scene was very relaxed. Soldiers and Red Cross volunteers at the site far outnumbered the volcano refugees--although the menfolk were apparently out tending fields and animals--and when I asked one of the young coordinators if the camp was lacking supplies or aide workers, he said, Not yet.

Driving out tonight to a different camp and will report back from that experience. My friends in Yogyakarta, also called Jogja, report lots of ash in the streets. One is wearing a dust mask in his house. None of that here, though. I would have no idea a major, ongoing volcanic event was underway maybe 20 miles from my door if it weren't for Internet and TV news. My co-workers are completely unfazed.

Something from the Globe:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

It's funny until 13 people die

All day yesterday and into this morning, the TV news here has been airing admiring stories about Mt. Merapi's former spiritual gatekeeper, a much admired but apparently deeply stubborn 83-year-old shaman-volcanologist who went by the name Mbah Marijan. He died Tuesday when he refused to leave his volcano-side home, despite repeated efforts by authorities and friends to get him off Merapi. I wrote a little yesterday about the televised scene of rescue workers prying his body from the ashes of his home. Watching on TV as workers manhandled his corpse--images of a sort we never or very rarely see on TV news in the U.S.--I felt like maybe some moments, including this one, ought to remain private. What did I or anyone else gain by way of understanding the story of Merapi's eruption with unfettered, unvarnished, televised access to the guy's death chamber? Yeah, it was gross. Yeah, the guy's very dead. And?

I still think the footage was in poor taste but what's really grotesque is the fawning encomiums for Marijan (whose real name, according to the New York Times, was Penewu Suraksohargo) that fail to mention his central and very direct role in the deaths of 13 other people at Merapi the other day. According to the Indonesian government and press reports, at least 29 people were killed in this week's eruption. Fourteen of them died in Marijan's house. Marijan reportedly believed he had a supernatural connection with the volcano and that he could stop lava from flowing down the mountain. He opted to stay because he thought it was his “duty” to do so. This is quaint and kind of anthropologically fun, old-timey, Old Java stuff—until it starts killing people. Especially people who didn't necessarily believe in those hokum powers. Among those killed in Marijan's house was the editor of a news Web site. Another of the dead was a Red Cross volunteer. According to a report published in the Jakarta Globe, these men and others had visited Marijan in an effort to get him to evacuate. “In the final minutes before Merapi erupted on Tuesday afternoon, 13 people were still in his home trying to convince him to evacuate,” the Globe reported. “They were all found dead with him.”

Marijan is presented in these vacuous and platitudinous TV puff-pieces--cue somber soundtrack!--as a wizened and gruffly charming Javanese throwback, a reminder of a different and older age that maybe we don't completely want to forget about in our mad rush to Western-style modernization. That's fine. Every nation likes their crotchety cranks. But in their haste to label Marijan a national figure and one who died, I guess, for his beliefs, even if that death was completely unnecessary, the television media here is trafficking in the very worst kind of heroic-mythmaking bullshit. Marijan was free to think whatever he wanted. (Although I can't help but wonder how much of his thinking about his singular spiritual role at Merapi was shaped by the attention he's gotten from local and international media since replacing his father in 1982 as the main conduit between the humdrum human world outside and the capricious spirit world inside the volcano.) Curious celebrityhood aside, I'm not sure Grandpa Marijan was free to risk the lives of 13 others in a heat-ball death Tuesday afternoon.

Yes, the men who died in Marijan's house made a choice to be there. They could have stayed away. But they were trying to help take him to safety—a noble effort, to be sure--and they would have never been there if Marijan hadn't decided to hole himself up on the mountain as it rumbled and prepared to explode. According to the Globe, Marijan told a friend last week that he wasn't going anywhere. “He said he couldn’t [leave] because he had a responsibility,” that fried told the Globe. “And that because ‘my time to die in this place has almost come, I can’t leave.'”

Maybe Marijan's time was up but I'm guessing the younger men who died trying to rescue him weren't thinking their clocks were ready to run out. Marijan got to be 83. The Red Cross volunteer was a year younger than me. Maybe he saw it differently but I'm not ready to die. And especially not for such a ridiculous and inexcusably selfish old narcissist.

You can read the Globe story yourself here:

A very slightly different version of this post can also be found at the Beachwood Reporter:

UPDATE: A Globe story about the merits of Marijan-style Old Java spiritualism:

Racing bulls in Madura

I'm writing a formal piece about this but last weekend four buddies and I traveled to the insanely hot, staunchly conservative and yet curiously permissive East Java island of Madura (more on that permisiveness later) and its annual bull-racing championships.

This is pretty far off the tourist path here and our group made up about a quarter of the White Honkey contingent at an event attended by maybe 10,000 people. As my very Boston Irish friend Jack said while watching the bull teams thunder into our midst just past the finish line, "This is the most Lonely Planet thing I'll do this year."

Maybe. I mean, there are orangutans to visit up in Borneo and maybe those dragons out in Komodo. But the bulls were cool. Beautifully fawn-colored and much-fussed over. They were the stars of a blast-furnace morning of color, pomp, and rural-folk good times.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Merapi on TV

So here's a shot from the news. Image taken about three hours ago and right now being recycled by our friends on the assignment desk at TVOne. So no rivers of lava burning us away or anything, and no Pompei redux. Not yet.

UPDATE: Well, let me take back that Pompei crack. TVOne this afternoon broadcast footage of rescue workers digging out from an ash heap the very stiff body of Mt. Merapi's now-former spiritual gatekeeper, an elderly man named Mbah Marijan ( In his mid-80s when he was killed yesterday, Grandpa Marijan served as a kind of shaman volcanologist at Merapi for several decades. He's a well-known figure in Central Java, and I'm pretty sure All Things Considered just ran an interview with him earlier this month. My Internet's a slow mess, as usual, and I can't find the piece in the ATC archives but I'm sure it's there. Marijan didn't evacuate his home near the slopes of Merapi--thousands of people live and farm on or near the mountain--and he was found buried in ash inside the burned-out shell of his house.

TV watchers this morning could watch tape-delayed images of workers digging Marijan's gray, rigor-mortised body out of his house. The old man lay face down and slightly bent, his arms raised with hands beside his head. The rescue workers pawed at his corpse, brushing ash dust from his neck and from his shirtback. The cameraman jostled for a better vantage, giving us a high-angle shot, looking straight down on Marijan's mortal remains. The workers pried him out of the muck and then rolled him into a bright yellow body bag. His body remained completely stiff, stuck in death, as it tumbled sideways into the bag. They didn't show his face, but I think only because they didn't have it on tape. The workers hefted the body bag into the air and walked it out of the house, one bearer at each of four corners. The bag sagged with Marijan's weight.

Merapi meletus!

That's the tag-lined banner on the TV tonight as big, bad Mt. Merapi has begun to burst. Indonesian television full of crowd shots in one Yogya neighborhood, where ash is apparently flurrying to earth. I called my friend down there and she's at dinner, unconcerned. Here in Magelang, nothing. And from our friends at the Jakarta Globe and Post, nothing. Will post some images as soon as I've got them and a link when one's available. But living volcanically officially volcanic.

That means a major earthquake and deadly tsunami in Sumatra today, followed by Merapi's ashing and gassing. Busy week in the works. Here's a New York Times story about the quake, tsunami, and Merapi: And the Jakarta Globe finally posts an update at

I'll post some images from the weekend trip to Madura for bull-racing and will have a story to follow soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trailing the New Yorker

Late last week a sizable box arrived from America. Packed and shipped by my mom (thanks, mom!) the box contained several excellent DVDs (thanks, Tim!), two brand-new 16-inch softballs for the English Club, and a treasure trove of magazines. Three New York Reviews of Books, half a dozen New Yorkers, and a pair each of Atlantics and Harper'ses. Oh, did that feel good. Like my living room from home got plopped in the middle of my living room here, without the dust and dog hair. I immediately read through the most recent Atlantic and started on the front section of the September Harper's and then I just thumbed through the NYRBs, enjoying their printed smell and their odd and unreasonable shape and the resolute indifference of the magazine's editors to yield one whit to contemporary design conventions. Just acres of ink. Always the ugliest covers on the newsstand. And so papery! Like anti-gloss. Anti-flash. For readers who like their words by the gross.

I was still stoking out about the mags cache Tuesday when one of the school's vice principals found me at the guest house and handed me a sealed mailer. Inside: the Oct, 4 issue of the New Yorker. (Featuring a lengthy profile of the Dalai Lama by Evan Osnos, who earlier this year wrote a lengthy profile of Richard M. Daley. Yin, yang.) I'd forwarded the magazine to my address in Magelang but had yet to receive a copy and I'd begun to think maybe it would never happen. And then it did. "Dear Recipient," wrote my friends at Pitney Bowes International Service, subscription agent, "It is important to us that your mail is received within a reasonable timeframe." Hear hear. I have no idea when this thing shipped but I know that I'm now back to normal--way behind on my New Yorkers, with another one out there somewhere bearing down.

Indo Journal Tiga

In case you didn't click through to the Beachwood Reporter site, here's the most recent piece.

I thought it might take some getting used to, driving on the left side of the road after a lifetime on the other side of the yellow line. But driving in Indonesia isn't really about sides. It's about space: If there's a space, someone will fill it. Headed to town for a fried rice dinner? Watch out for three motorcycles in your lane, coming your way. Oh, and mind the Toyota Kijang SUV that's swung wide to pass a tottering pedicab. The Kijang's taking up most of your lane, and its driver is closing in at about 40 miles per hour. You'd pull toward the outside but there are six people walking in the street right there and you're boxed in between a Honda Civic with a new lime green paint job and a tour bus with a chrome sun shade that reads "Total Cowboy." The bus driver blasts his horn so people will just naturally drift over and out of the way, only there's nowhere to go to get out of the way. So what? He keeps honking. The Kijang blows by, maybe eight inches from your foot. Normal. And here comes a man with about 100 chickens inside a plastic cage that's balancing on the back of his motorcycle seat. Right at you. And another guy with, I don't know, 50 or 60 pounds of banana leaves bundled on his back. Cutting across your lane, two friends on a little black Honda are somehow transporting a small-but-not-insubstantial refrigerator.

We move together, waves of to and fro, left and right, merge and brake. Exhaust thick in the air. And did I mention the guys in the orange vests? The freelance traffic control guys? They stand in parking lots or on sides of roads and stop traffic for drivers seeking egress; they walk into traffic, sometimes with a little official-looking orange flashlight and sometimes just flailing their arms, and they halt everyone who doesn't swerve around them into oncoming traffic. In return, the egressing driver hands them about 1,000 rupiah, maybe 10 cents. It's very organic, this traffic swarm. And everyone's involved.

I joined the swarm when I recently bought a manageable little Yamaha scooter - in Indonesian parlance, an automatic - so that I could get around my Central Java town without cadging rides or being left stranded by the public mini-bus. The Yamaha is almost brand new, very red, and it gets me back and forth from the municipal pool and the grocery store and several excellent sidewalk food carts. Biking is almost out of the question. The distances are pretty great, the heat at times stroke-inducing, and the roads and drivers simply aren't made for bike lanes. A share-the-road, bike-right-of-way, even if I could describe the idea in Indonesian, would be heartily laughed at. Oh, Brett! That a good one! This is a country, after all, where the state-owned petroleum company dominates distribution and provides a nifty subsidy for all Indonesians (and visitors) who can afford internal-combustion transportation. So, everyday I strap on my shiny new helmet, fire up the scooter, and head out for some harrowing transit. And everyday I see something that makes me think maybe I should get off and push this thing for a little while. Just slow wayyyy down. A visit last week to the local hospital - where I'd be taken in the event of a bike wreck - was all I needed to forever give up any lingering lead-foot fantasies I brought from home. Like jail here, I'd pretty much do anything to stay out of that hospital. The Indonesians call hospitals rumah sakit, which means "sick house," or more literally "house of sick." They're exactly right.

A friend of a friend, a young kid about 17, had been struck by a car and busted his shoulder. My friend was delivering some snacks to lift the kid's spirits and asked if I wanted to see the hospital. Sure. A little local color. Let's go. Well, I wasn't ready for the blood. At least not all over the entryway tile, a splattered trail that we followed into the building. It had dried and turned rust brown and nobody was moving to clean it up. People walked through the blood, or around it, or they stepped over as they smoked and talked and came and went. We followed a group of smoking men back into the hospital, a cluster of white-washed buildings with tall faded-orange tile roofs, all connected by outdoor walkways. Very Javanese. People stood or squatted in the walkways, the yard, and on front porches of various buildings. We arrived about dinner time and several families were actually cooking over charcoal fires in the interior courtyard, dirty smoke billowing across the campus. A couple women were washing pots from an outdoor spigot. Others were sleeping on oily mattresses, or maybe they were eating on the mattresses. The place had a squatter's camp feel and most everyone looked very tired. They were sitting vigil for friends and relatives inside. Who knows for how long. I wasn't ready for the encampment, either.

We waited a few minutes before a guard would let us in to the patient ward - plenty of waiting here - and finally were waved in. All white, and tile. But dirty. Grimy. No disinfectant smell. Nothing like that antibiotic tang you get when you step off the elevator into even the most basic American health clinic. This place smelled heavily of sweat and dirt, a little of piss and shit, and curiously of fried chicken. We found the boy's room and ducked in. We were very definitely not alone. The kid was in a three-bed recovery room, maybe eight feet wide by about 20 feet long. Each bed was occupied - there were no curtains for privacy - and the guy on the far end wore a thick and blood-stained bandage on his head. His wife and one child sat beside him as he turned over and back, over and back. Right near the door, an adult man lay on his back with a small blanket covering his lower half. He smiled at me when we walked in. The man's son climbed in and out of bed with him and at one point changed into pajamas. He was clearly there for the night. The man's wife bickered with the young boy, who didn't want to change into pajamas, and she produced two plastic stools for my friend and I to sit on during our visit. She did not look at us, just shoved the stools toward us and went back to skirmishing with her son.

My friend's friend, the kid we'd come to see, actually didn't look that bad. His shoulder was slumped and his chin was scraped but he was sitting upright and forcing a smile when I met him. He had an IV but no sling. A shy kid, he mostly mumbled and stared at his feet. His mother and father explained the accident to my friend, who translated just a little bit for me. The boy, Yoga, had run into the street after a ball and got clipped by a van. It could have been much worse. They were upset but glad he would recover. Yoga sat in the bed in a dirty black t-shirt and blue shorts. Nothing like a gown. Nobody had a gown. It was street clothes and children's pajamas, and whatever food people cooked outside or bought and brought to you. A ceiling fan hung still. The night wasn't that hot but the room was close, and fetid. We said our goodbyes and headed back toward the entrance.

On the way out, we passed a bulletin board with pictures from a staff party and what looked like a birth announcement for one of the doctors. And right beside that, we saw some truly grisly images. Of surgery, at the hospital. It took me a minute to recognize what was happening in the roughest one: They were performing knee surgery on some poor asshole whom I swear did not walk again, not on that leg. The entire leg was exposed from about the hip to the shin, like cubic yards of red meat and tendon, and a doctor was standing inside the joint, kind of wrapping the bloody leg around his own waist. When I first saw the picture, it looked like someone was wrestling a skinned alligator. And then I thought maybe someone had been cut in half and a doctor was holding the spinal column in a bear hug. But it was just knee surgery. Or maybe they were amputating it. That would actually make more sense. My friend, though, insisted is was a repair job. Like old-timey sawbones shit. Raw. I thought about the Yamaha and about the traffic swarm. My stomach got very heavy. This hospital . . . ? I asked my friend. Is not a good hospital, is it? she interrupted.

The Indonesians have a sing-song word that means "be careful." Hati-hati, they say. It's on warning signs all over the place and almost every time I head off on the Yamaha, someone says to me, Hati-hati, Mr. Brett. Driving home from the hospital, I could feel the phrase in my marrow. Hati-hati. No, seriously. Hati-fucking-hati. This is a country where I can keep a blog routinely updated with little fuss using a wi-fi router, and where Coca-Cola and Heineken line the shelves of the local grocery store, where cell phones are a total fact of life, and where you can take air-conditioned buses up and down this overcrowded island. You can direct-dial the U.S. from Borobudur Temple. You can take a hot shower, and then another. But that's just part of it. Beneath that modern gloss, there's still an old and sometimes broken, sometimes perilous world under there. Indonesia. Hati-hati.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Have you been to Bali?

Before last night, I hadn't seen a movie in anything like a movie theater setting since mid-August. Way too long. So I made plans with a young couple, both in Magelang for their student-teaching sequence, to travel south to Yogyakarta and that city's Cinema 21 theaters for a late-night showing of Eat, Pray, Love.

We drove down on motor bikes and first stopped by a Javanese cultural festival on Jalan Malioboro that was literally impassably crowded. A parade, traditional dancing, puppets, whatever. Our experience was mostly of shoving and being shoved as they crowd squeezed impatiently into the busy batik shopping district. It was like the worst of Bourbon Street and Taste of Chicago, almost like the Hawks parade this summer--just elbows and shoulders, sweat and heat, someone's foot on your heel for an hour--and we decided not to force our way into the sea of people without knowing how we'd ever get back out. We'll catch some trad dance patterns another time, thanks.

Back to the theater after dinner, we stood waiting for the previous show to let out. On the lobby sound system: The impossibly bad and I'd thought long, long forgotten late-80s/early90s throwaway "I Hate Everything About You" by Ugly Kid Joe. I remembered the song from high school but had to look up the generic hairband's name when I got back to a computer. The song sure sounded like the original but I see it's recently been covered by an Indonesian band, so maybe it was a very note-for-note tribute. Either way, another disassociative moment of pop cultural resurrection here, where people love shitty 80s metal. It's everywhere. Like if the Brat Stop were a country.

We had a few minutes to talk about the movie while waiting for the doors to open. I told my friends that part of the story was set in Bali. They were excited. Have you been to Bali? they asked. The Indonesians have a word for not yet that you hear a lot: belum. It's pronounced bell-um. Not yet, I said. Belum. Well, you should go to Bali.

I hear this a lot. You should go to Bali. I had the sense coming here that Bali was a kind of Western tourist preserve, full of divers, surfers, castaways, hangers-on, maybe art exporters, maybe a few ethnomusicologists, and women like Liz Gilbert--sun-soaked self-seekers snorkeling around in the surf. But my Indonesian friends all love the place. Many go every year. It's not unusual for talk to turn to Bali and for someone to whip out a cell phone loaded with snapshots from this beachfront bar or that scenic ocean overlook. Bali is a source of national recreational pride. But my young friends last night also said I should visit Bali because, unlike the socially conservative and very Muslim mainland of Java, Bali enjoys a unique Hindu culture that is significantly more permissive and open than elsewhere in the archipelago. I know that; you know that. But I thought it interesting that my very devoutly Muslim friends--who took leave for evening prayers shortly after we bought the movie tickets--were concerned about my social and cultural acclimation to Java. You would feel comfortable there, they said. Bali is more like your country.

I feel pretty comfortable where I'm at but I knew what they meant. Julia Roberts-as-Gilbert hits a beachfront party hard shortly after arriving in Indonesia. She orders several shots of tequila while bouncing around a dance floor with a shirtless piece of beefcake and ends up solidly hammered. I watched the movie theater crowd for reactions. I live in a city of 150,000 people and I know of only one place that serves tequila, and they don't do shots. It's the pricey restaurant of the one resort-like hotel in town that caters to Western tourists and businessmen. And even then, if you want tequila you have to buy a bad $10 margarita. Watching Roberts down shots, the crowd around me giggled. Very foreign. Vaguely provocative.

That said, I was watching the movie while drinking a cold can of Bintang Beer, the widely available and pretty bad national beer of Indonesia. They offered cans at the concession stand for the equivalent of about $2.30 and I figured a beer and a small box of popcorn was worth the $5. Beer is available everywhere, usually warm. Booze? Not so much.

Anyway, back to Bali. The island is presented in the film, of course, as a tropical paradise with mystic powers. A wizened soothsayer tapped deeply into said powers helps steer Roberts/Gilbert toward her next, best man and she finally makes the leap for good into the love-hungry arms of Javier Bardem. (Although I'm pretty sure the government censors cut some of the love-hungrier scenes; we saw very, very little skin.) Cue music.

Afterward, I asked my friends what they thought. How did the Bali of the movie compare to Bali the actual place? Both agreed it was just like in the movie. It's beautiful. It's romantic. The architecture is very unique. No objections, only praise. That was good. It was very beautiful.

No doubt. But as we made our way back onto the streets of Yogyakarta, an old and storied city that serves as a gateway for most to Central Java, we buzzed along on our bikes past gutters full of trash, past open dumping grounds for household garbage, and I wondered why other parts of Indonesia aren't meant to be beautiful and romantic too. Why only Bali?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Retro-tactile and stuff

Since we're talking about cultural exchange, a couple notes from this week.

1. One of the English teachers asked after school the other day if I'd accompany him to the bank. He actually said, Will you accompany me? I needed to do some shopping in town and was at least curious to see his bank--a special institution owned and operated by the Magelang government as a kind of credit union for civil servants--and so off we went. I didn't ask why he needed to visit the bank, and figured it was probably to drop off a check or something. When we got there, my buddy disappeared into a back office and I was left to contemplate the three-story polished marble lobby. Handsome but very gray. The place, like many places here, felt transported from the 1960s or 1970s, maybe because you can still smoke in public everywhere and because Indonesians still use an unbelievable number of hand-written receipts, usually in triplicate and always stapled to something. It's very retro-tactile, the receipt thing, and I like it. I grabbed a newspaper from the old-fashioned newspaper reading rack in the corner--more to like!--and took seat in the lobby. Twenty minutes later, I began to wonder what happened to my friend. Thirty minutes later, I sent him a text message saying I was heading to the store without him. "Ok," he texted back. About 45 minutes later he called to ask where I was. I'm waiting for you at the bank, he said, sounding a little peeved. I'll be right there. So I walked back and he met me in the doorway and said I should take a seat. He was almost done. Almost done? Almost done, he said with a smile. Maybe 15 minutes later he emerged from the back office with a black plastic grocery bag that was, of course, stapled shut. I think he'd torn the receipt off. On the ride back, my friend asked if I'd store something in my backpack for him. Sure. He reached below his seat and grabbed the grocery bag. Take this. I got a loan. I took the bag and stuffed it in my backpack. You got a loan and the bank paid you in cash? Yeah. I needed the money right away. How much is in here? Fifty million rupiah. That's about $5,000, or a year's pay for a teacher with my friend's experience. So we drove around town with a pile of cash and even stopped for lunch. I set the backpack down next to my chair as we ate and my friend gave me a very concerned look. Don't forget the bag. Of course not. I didn't ask but he eventually told me he was using the money for an investment with a friend. I need to make some money. I need to buy a house. I've been living with my mother-in-law for 16 years. An investment? I don't want to say.

2. My Internet went out yesterday for the second time in about a week, and my counterpart teacher got involved in trying to fix it. There's a little Internet room for the students near my house and the 20-something guy who runs it was trying to get me back online by monkeying with my computer settings, which never seems like a good idea. He was having no luck and trying to explain this to me but I wasn't getting it. I called my counterpart to translate and he popped in about one minute later. We all convened around the desk in my small little bedroom and the two of them got to talking about the machine. I could follow the conversation for a couple minutes--router not working, need to change router, maybe the principal should get involved?--but lost them at about the five minute mark. They kept talking, literally non-stop, for about 35 minutes. My counterpart did no actual translating, and I finally excused myself and ate an apple. Eventually the tech guy left and my counterpart joined me in the kitchen. He sat down, silently. So what's up? Uh, he's trying to fix it. And? We can say he is trying to fix it. You guys just talked for a half-hour. What did you say? Oh, that he might not fix it until Monday.

3. We had some fun at English Club today. About 40 students crammed into an over-warm classroom, a good mix of boys and girls from the 11th and 12th grades. Couple fun games and then we did some singing: Country Roads, which is popular among the teachers, and Lennon's Imagine. Kids really got into the chorus of Country Roads, just belting it out, and on our third time through we were pulling some Keillor-like communal singalong oomph. Songs every week, I think.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Paying respects

In an effort to improve my Indonesian, and in part because I miss fussing with an actual newspaper everyday, I'm now "reading" the national daily Kompas. I skim the stories for words or phrases or even simple sentences I can understand, and I try to make sense of the cutlines and kickers. I look for items I've seen reported in the English-language press, where I'm sure to understand at least something, and I check out the sports pages, which are filled with stories about volleyball (?!), Formula One racing, and European soccer. I also linger over the photo essays, many of which celebrate new toll roads and high-speed interchanges in this country of two-lane roads.

So paging through the business section today, I was struck by several half- and quarter-page ads all memorializing the recently deceased Brigjen Pol (P) Dr. H. KRH Chanrda Suharto, MBA, SpJp. A former national police official, General Dr. Suharto went on to head the very large and very dominant Blue Bird Group taxi company. He died recently in a hospital bed in Holland. Gen'l Dr. Suharto appears in no less than five ads--paid for by Mercedes-Benz, a couple large Toyota dealerships, and one big bank--in his police uniform, sometimes with a baubled-and-banded-and-eagle-crested hat and sometimes not. All of these big and powerful players wish to honor the late police official/Ph.D./MBA/cab company boss and to thank him for his contributions to Indonesian life. They compete for the most honorific offering, the biggest ad, the wordiest ad, the ad with two-tone color!

No doubt this is good form and very good business. I'm sure Pak Suharto (any relation to the late strongman is unknown to me) was a decent fellow and a regular customer, and I'm sure his family and former business associates and underlings will appreciate the encomiums.

But two things:

1. I have seen nothing like these ads in the English-language papers, and I can't help but thinking they represent some kind of window into How Things Work here. Fealty is paid, relations maintained, and it's kept among the Indonesians.

2. How 'bout the absurd laundry list of supposed academic accomplishments? MBA and Ph.D. on top of full-time work as a police bureau "general," and as the boss of bosses in the largest and most profitable cab company in Indonesia? Of course. Why not? I mean, everyone in higher office here has a Ph.D. as far as I can tell. I'd like to read, or maybe just skim, their dissertations. Wonder where I could find them.

There's a lot of noise in the English-language press here about the almost tragicomic abuse of courts and the law by well-connected movers and shakers. Justice can and is clearly bought, so why not some sheepskins? Just pile 'em on! The wordier the paid memorial ad--the wider and stemwindinger the tombstone inscription--the better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Class dismissed

A group photo after one recent class. And, yes, that's a photo of Indonesian President Dr. H. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the corner. He and his deputy president watch over all our classrooms.

Special thanks to Tom Popelka for asking.

Boro by morning

We were up at 4 a.m. today to get over to Borobudur for sunrise. Access to the temple for this time of day, considered primo picture-taking time, is controlled by a hotel near the temple site and they of course charge a king's ransom for the privilege of joining about 75 other Monday morning tourists for daybreak over Mt. Merapi. Like yesterday, the weather was exactly right and we got there in time to find Merapi smoking listlessly into the dawn, the light shifting in slow motion from red to orange to amber. Fog in the valley, birds and songs of birds in the air.

By morning light, Borobudur appeared more reddish yellow than gray, and its color and mood changed as the sun rose higher. The building became more stolid. It darkened and grew weightier. In the early morning it was less massive, more sleepy.

I'd hired Aris the Guide for two days and he joined us again, bright and early. Mostly the same drill with a mix of historical imprecision and outright fabrication, all delivered in good cheer. Aris, can you tel us about the terrorist bombings in 1985 that targeted Borobudur? Who carried out the bombings? They say that the same man who did that bombed Bali in 2002. Aris, that can't possibly be true. I've heard it said.

He was showing us around the intricate narrative carvings that ring much of the temple. In one series of panels that wrap around the building, we learn the story of Buddha's life, Aris told us. These images sit above another story-in-pictures that also wraps all the way around the building, so there are two concurrent stories happening on the inside wall of the temple--Buddha on top, the other story on the bottom.

Aris, what's the other story? It's a Javanese story, Mr. Brett. And what happens in the story? It's very long, Mr. Brett. Here, Buddha is sitting beneath a Bodhi tree.

So we walked around the temple and Aris told us the story of Buddha and we watched the Javanese story scroll by without comment. About three-quarters of the way around the building, hundreds of images into the walk, Aris told of Buddha's search for a spiritual teacher. And Aris, what's happening here in the Java story? Um, not much. Not much! I doubled over laughing. Not much? I guess not.

In fact, all of the narrative carvings at Borobudur are about Buddha. Who was not Javanese.

The minutiae of place

A couple Fulbright friends made their way to Magelang this weekend and we set out Sunday morning for the Dieng Plateau, a high and dry land of terraced fields, smoldering volcanic craters, metal-hued lakes, and squat, 9th century Hindu temples. It's arguably the coldest place in Java--maybe in all of Indonesia--and when we stepped out of the car following a sometimes harrowing three-hour ride, the air hit us like a very welcome bit of Northern Wisconsin. Oh, that was nice. Honestly, it felt like a very good late morning in Baileys Harbor or Eagle River, cool and bright, the sky a crisp blue and clouds cleanly white. The sunlight even looked different, and not just because it had rained every day for more than two weeks and I'd grown used to the gloaming. The light hit a little yellow, just right, ripening an already very green scene. Verdant. Earthy.

We headed for a loop around Telaga Warna, or Colored Lake, named for the prismatic rainbows that sometimes bounce off the sulphuric water when the sun hits it just so. We didn't see rainbows but we did see very green hues. Ambling along an improved trail that cut through some brushy woods, with the breeze coming up light and chill, the lake almost looked and felt like the Upper Midwest. We could have left and headed for a supper club.

From the lake, we made our way to Kawah Sikidang, a fairly typical Indonesian volcanic crater/tourist site: yellowed moonscape, steam venting off into the blue, crowds milling around bored with their own pictures.

What's different and pretty freaking wild about Kawah Sikidang is the broiling mud pit. Furious liquid death. Bubbling, churning, splashing gas-mud, sloshing around inside a little pond about 100 feet by 40. Steam roiling off the stuff, a makeshift little bamboo railing separating us and three dozen other visitors from a scalding end. Very impressive.

Afterward, we haggled a little with vendors at a nearby tourist market but nobody was in much of a buying mood. And the prices were pretty rigidly fixed.

We traveled to Dieng with a guide I'd met through a friend and he next took us to see several Hindu sites at the Arjuna temple complex. The guide is a friendly and of course smiling guy but he had two mildly maddening professional habits. First, he liked to disappear a little. Maybe to make a phone call. Maybe to chat with other guides. Maybe to daydream about the fine teas of nearby Wonosobo, or about the drooping flower trees whose leaves he said could be dried and smoked for a high the same as marijuana. Sometimes this disappearing act was no biggie--none of us needed to be lead around every site and relic--but other times it would have been nice to have him explain, say, the general history of the area.

Having said that, I have to acknowledge that it was sometimes better when he wasn't explaining things like general history. The real trouble with his style as a guide to history and historical objects is that he's almost completely fact-averse. Yes, he can talk about the mythological voodoo of long lost Java--an unsequenced litany of brave princes done wrong by beautiful princesses, of conquering rulers watched over by lion-creatures, of vague-ishly vague vaguery. And he can talk about the names and details of several temples. Lots of detail about the names, especially. They come from the Hindu Mahabharata epic (the same story told in the local leather puppet shows) and he wanted us to know each and every one. Sometimes even when we'd asked a different question. But he mostly avoided the harder ground of names and dates and anything like a historical narrative.

I've had the same experience, admittedly in more manageable doses, during battlefield tours at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Sometimes a site-specific guide is just too wrapped up in the minutiae of a place to provide a meaningful, cogent, historically minded overview ("The Third Artillery was using 10-pound guns made of polished Virginia steel; they had rifled barrels on two of five guns and the others were smoothbore ...") but Mas Aris took this to excruciating lengths. He just snowed us under. And when he wasn't snowing, he was dodging. Some of this was a language issue. His English is pretty good but has some holes, and obviously our Indonesian is nowhere near as good as his English. But this wasn't just a language issue. Aris, who exactly built these temples? The Hindus. And who were they; where did they come from? There are different informations, Mr. Brett. They say they came from the Indian dynasty and then to Java. They say. Who is they? The Javanese. And where do they say it? That depends, Mr. Brett.

So we learned a little bit about the place--probably not enough--and Mas Aris was friendly if enervating, and he made sure we got to see several temples and other objects, as the locals call the sites, before heading back home for an early morning date with sunrise at Borobudur.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hawks lose! I know!

So some very, very good news from the SMKN1 guest house: WGN Radio streaming live. I've been having nothing but trouble with Skype and video chat and had sort of given up hope that I'd be able to follow the Hawks this season except in re-cap stories (Chris Kuc, your punishingly formulaic lede is waiting) and various blog musings. BUT. Logged in this morning and waited through a long bit of data processing pinwheeling, and then ... Wideman and Murray came through in crystal clarity. Heard the powerplay goal to tie it, then the OT loser. So what? One point, and the possibility of following these guys from 10,000 miles away. I'll take it.

Listening to the recap show now and afternoon prayers underway at the school mosque right behind my house. Pretty cool juxtaposition.


In the dark at Merapi

I live about an hour or so from Mt. Merapi, arguably the most active and most dangerous volcano in a country of active and dangerous volcanoes, and set out last night to see it up close for the first time. The news has been full of stories about increased volcanic activity at the mountain, and a couple friends from Magelang thought we might catch some highly photogenic lava flows at night. So we made plans, got a van, and, despite heavy rains all day, set out last night for a volcano monitoring station about four-and-a-half kilometers from the summit. Built by the Dutch in the early 1930s, the monitoring station is still manned full-time and it serves as one of the primary staging grounds for climbers and photographers visiting Merapi.

Anyway, there were five of us in the van--everyone but me a Magelang native--and the rain just kept coming. We drove south of the city and then eventually east, through increasingly water-washed roads. We stopped for directions, and then stopped again. We drove around some more and then stopped to ask for directions a third time. Do you guys know where we're going? Oh, yes. For sure, bro. So why are we asking for directions? It's hard to find. Do we have a map? No map. They never use a map.

Eventually we found a narrow blacktop road about as wide as a driveway and we followed this thing for maybe 45 minutes, a dark ribbon winding into pitch black, washed out in places, water coursing down the road and into the wheel-wells, carrying branches and mud and clumps of grass down past us. We drove up through a handful of small villages, the rain intermittent now, old men wrapped in sarongs sitting along the road, chickens and dogs running out of the dark and in front of the van. The road continued up. It got even darker. We followed the yellow headlights into the woods. My ears popped. The rain stopped.

And finally we pulled into a parking lot. The road dead-ended here. At the back of the parking lot, the monitoring post, an aging wooden building with wide windows looking out on darkness. A lone man sat inside at a desk with a CB radio, and when we met him he was looking out the windows into nothingness. He couldn't see a thing, we couldn't see a thing. All clouds. I kind of thought that might happen but my friends were confident we'd have a view on arrival. The most confident of them turned to me as we looked into black and said, We're just unlucky, bro.

The seismograph.

The guy manning the lookout talked with us for a while and let us see the underground survival bunker built by the Dutch and more or less maintained by the Indonesian government. A heavy cement cave, the place is carved into the mountainside and features several thick steel doors. The idea is to run like hell for the bunker if Merapi gets too pyroclastic and hope for the best. The lookout guy said the bunker can hold 50 people for three days, as long as there's enough oxygen and food and water stored away. Last night, the bunker was empty; nobody's too worried about a serious episode right now. On a scale of 1 to 4, the volcano alert system at Merapi is right now on 2, our guide said. If it gets higher, they'll pack in some groceries.

We got the guy's phone number and will check back soon to ask about the view. He said we should come in the afternoon, while it's still light, and stay until dark. He also sad we shouldn't come when it's raining. We said thanks and headed back down the mountain, following the world's longest driveway back toward Magelang. Flash-flood-washed and pot-holed, it carried us home. On the way, we didn't see another car for half an hour.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Not that bad

So I had my first taste of the dreaded Durian this weekend--a spiky fruit with a pungent smell that many Westerners consider a tad vomitous--and have to say it wasn't that bad. A little soggy but basically you're eating the pulpy covering of giant seeds that grow inside this hanging fruit.

The taste hints of fermented citrus and threatens putrefaction but if you can eat oysters you can probably eat Durian. Not the taste but the texture; it's the texture that really gets people with Durian. And the fruit definitely stinks: A heavy plant funk that reasonable people might say smells pretty well on the way to rotten. But get over that and you're in the clear. The fruit's decent and apparently I didn't even have great Durian. Too much rain. Drier Durian is tastier and, I'm told, has higher natural alcohol content. Not sure I'll be sitting down with a cold glass of Durian juice anytime soon to watch some badminton on TV, but nice to know a natural booze buzz can be had in a land where even bad beer like Bintang is almost $1.75 a can (warm) at the grocery store.

Hunting mice, buying bikes

After significant comparison shopping and two earlier close-call purchases, I am finally the proud owner of a gently used Yamaha Mio Soul motor scooter. Thing had about 4,500 kilometers on the odometer when we found it Sunday in Temanggung, a large village that my principal and several teachers from the school call home. Pak Heru invited me to spend the night Saturday with his family—Heru and his wife were welcoming their first grandchild home from the hospital—and to look for scooters. The guy is motorcycle and scooter crazy—he literally has three bikes parked in his living room and several others parked inside and outside his two homes—and he was determined to find a suitable scooter after a little too much screwing around the last couple weeks.

But before we could go bike shopping, we had some mouse-hunting to do. I spent part of the previous night in an upstairs guest room at Heru's house but gave up on it about 1:30 a.m. when it became clear there was at least one mouse and possibly several others living in the box spring. I could hear chattering and chirping and the enamel-metallic sound of little claw teeth on wire spring. Gross. And having just gotten over a late-night cockroach visit while sleeping, I wasn't in the mood to find some furry vermin sharing my pillow. I spent a restless night on the wood floor of an adjoining room and after breakfast told Heru I thought there was a mouse in the bed. A mouse?! In the house?! He was transformed into something like the maniacal tire-changing dad from A Christmas Story.

A physical change came over him and Heru became a kind of fevered mouse tracker. He enlisted two sons, two box cutters, several brooms, a ShopVac, a dress shoe, and a can of Indonesian Raid. We locked the bedroom door behind us and closed the windows--sealing the critter's death chamber--and then we went to work attacking the box spring. Cutting off the cloth bottom, poking into the springs, shining a Mag Light this way and that. We vacuumed out several nests, punched at the sides. We turned the box spring forward, then back. No mouse. More prodding, more cutting, and still nothing. Then, a black blur. The animal had been flushed. It made several laps inside the box spring ran until it finally bolted. The animal ran for the door and was trapped, it weaved back into the room, ducking a kick, dodging a broom swing, until it got under a desk. Heru's youngest son poked from the side and the mouse came scurrying out again, back across the room—I threw the dress shoe and missed—then doubled back, it's little feet ablur, racing for safety, when Heru stomped on its head. He just murdered the thing. Black dress shoe grinding into the floor, a gray-black tail twitching for a minute and then going still. Very, very dead mouse. Mouse brains, the whole bit. We tidied up, the youngest boy removing the carcass in a towel, and got the bed put back together. I am, Heru said, pausing as he often does after using the first-person, a mouse hunter. Well, you definitely hunted the hell out of that one, I said. No mouse, good mouse.

Rio cleans the Mio.

With the mouse dead and behind us, it was time to go bike shopping. Four of us went out, led by Heru's youngest boy, Rio, and we finally found the Mio Soul parked in the back of a nearby showroom. Heru immediately began working on the shop manager for a good deal. They went back and forth for about 20 minutes and the manager guy just wouldn't budge the last couple hundred rupiah. I pulled Heru aside and asked if the bike came with a warranty card; shouldn't the warranty card be good for a free checkup? If he didn't have the warranty card, he should give us the difference of a checkup in the price—about what Heru was asking for. Heru's gave me a look. You like bargain? Yes. Yes, I do. This made him happy, and it got him the deal he was after and we all shook on things and some of us went to get money. Like everything else in Indonesia, buying a scooter involved a lot of paperwork and stacks of cash but we eventually got it done and I drove off, following Heru and Co. to the nearest helmet store. We walked from there to a little restaurant for a celebration lunch, then headed home where Rio insisted on immediately washing the new bike.

Later that day, I followed in a rain storm as Heru and Rio led me on a 45-minute ride back to Magelang. The scooter's now here, tucked back behind my little house, and greater Magelang and beyond beckons.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Buddha's heel

The 9th Century Buddhist temple at Borobudur, now a bona fide UNESCO World Heritage site and the most popular tourist destination in Indonesia, is about 20 minutes form my house. I finally got a chance to get over there this weekend and thought I'd share some images. The temple is pretty massive, hewn from volcanic stone taken from the nearby Mt. Merapi, and I visited mid-day. Normally, Westerners go for sunrise, when the sun comes up over Merapi and everyone gets Kodak pay-dirt, or for sunset, when the sun dips down behind the Menoreh Hills and sundry other Minolta moments are had.

This time I was traveling with a friend who's a lecturer at the local teacher's college in Magelang and he insisted that no self-respecting Indonesian gets up early or stays out late to see Borobudur. So we went went about noon and the place was like a blast furnace. All that lava stone really radiates some heat. But the temple is impressive anytime. I'll go back for a proper guided tour--maybe at sunrise, with my camera!--but what I learned this time is that Borobudur has three main levels, each representing a different phase of the life of Buddha. Visitors make three clockwise laps around the temple, following ornate stone carvings that tell the story of Buddha's transformation from wealthy and sheltered prince to transcendent thought-wave.

Eventually, the carvings give way on the third and final level to a series of stone stupas that represent lotus flowers. Inside each stupa sits a cross-legged Buddha. And in the center of the temple, at the very top, sits a giant stupa. This one, as I understand it, represents full enlightenment.

Tourists clamor all over the temple--a guard repeatedly warned people not to climb on the carvings or over the walls--and student groups approach Westerners to ask questions in English for class projects. Two middle school kids stopped me, both from Surabaya in far off East Java. The first, a talkative girl, asked all about America and Chicago and what I knew and liked about Indonesia. The other, a boy who didn't like making eye contact, wanted to know all about crime in America. Is it bad? What kind of crimes do people commit? Is there a favorite crime in America? I asked if maybe he wanted to be a cop someday. Yes, I do.

When we got to the top of the temple, my friend took me to a particular stupa and said if I could reach inside and touch the heel of the Buddha inside, I would have good luck and would be granted at least one wish. He said his own arms were too short to do it but mine looked about right and so I gave it a shot and stretched as far as I could and got ahold of Buddha's foot and worked my way to his heel and gave it a little rub and now have banked at least one wish.

But when I got back to school Saturday, my principal said I'd gotten it wrong. Yes, you get good luck if you reach in and give Buddha a rub. But not his heel, he said, You're supposed to grab his crotch. Which I didn't do, and which my reach simply won't ever allow. I think I'm fine with that.

How 'bout some Java in Java?

Last week I visited Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java and the home of several highly regarded Indonesian universities. The city's a kind of living museum of Javanese culture and it's the entrepot for most people traveling to see the Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes. It's also pretty much ground zero for all things batik. The place is a sea of batik: Everyone is wearing it or selling it or both. People on motorcycles, the guy driving the bus, the kids walking home from school, the woman carrying a baby swaddled in batik. The city's also home to a huge sultanate palace, the country's most important gamelan, and traditional dance and leather puppet troupes that are the toast of academic cultural scavengers the world over.

So, sure, I went to Yogyakarta to see some sights. But I really went to do some shopping. And topping the absolutly-fucking-must-have-and-can't-live-here-without list was a French Press. When I visited a friend in Seoul two years ago, he and his wife were making their coffee using a stove-top percolator. I thought this was maybe an affectation, like they were eschewing Western convenience for more earthy living in the Far East or something. Like, Who needs appliances? We're in Korea! But I think I had it all wrong. If Korea's anything like Indonesia, at least when it comes to coffee, I now officially understand the percolator. You literally cannot buy a coffeemaker anywhere in Magelang. Can't be done. They don't even know what you're talking about. Coffeemaker? Hmm. You mean rice cooker? No, I mean coffeemaker.

I couldn't find the word for coffeemaker in my dictionary (a bad sign), so tried making up a compound word: kopi pembuat, literally "coffee" and "maker." No good. I'm pretty sure "maker" as I tried using it is more like a person who makes something. The appliance store staffers I tried asking got very funny looks on their faces and started giggling. No kopi pembuat, mister. Which meant no real coffee for my first week-plus in Magelang, which meant drinking the instant coffee mixes that are widely sold and consumed here as coffee. These are really just bad, single-serving instant coffee packages that serve as sugar-delivery solutions, maybe three parts sugar to one of coffee. After about three sips your teeth ache and you feel bad about yourself and you switch to tea but the tea's full of sugar, too--nobody drinks anything but hot and cold sweet tea here--and pretty soon you're asking for teh tawar, which means tea without sugar, literally "bitter tea," and nothing's worse than mildly disliking the tea, getting zero caffeine benefit from it, and being asked all the time why you don't put some sugar in it.

So I really needed some coffee and figured that since there was no chance I'd ever find an electric coffeemaker and even less chance I'd ever find filters for an unobtainable coffeemaker, I had better buy a French Press. I figured if you could find a French Press anywhere in Central Java it would be in Yogyakarta, and I was right. Inside a big mall anchored by the French so-called hypermarket Carrefour, I found a Starbucks. Right inside the door. And they had three French Presses, everyone of them marked up beyond all decency. I could have bought a small coffee plantation for what they were asking. But I took the least expensive one to the counter and handed over most of my volunteer stipend for the month and they threw in a half-pound of coarse-ground Starbucks coffee. It's source? Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Shelling out for the press.

I've been happily drinking this re-imported export coffee for more than a week now and feel much better. (Ad copy: “The carbon footprint of this organic and fair trade coffee is … .”) I've even found some Coffeemate creamer so all is pretty much right with the morning around here. But now that I've calmed down and can think a little more clearly, I've started giving some thought to how a country known for high-end coffees from Sumatra and Sulawesi and, uh, Java could have almost no meaningful coffee tradition of its own. One obvious explanation is that people here prefer tea, even if the Javanese actually prefer sugar, and I'm going against the cultural grain by insisting on drinking American-style coffee. I understand that. But what doesn't completely square is the availability of so much shitty coffee. You go to the grocery store and they have an entire aisle of instant mixes and fine-ground Folgers equivalents that some people just stir right into hot water. They have candied mixes and about eight kinds of powders and four kinds of creamers. Who is drinking this, and why?

I asked a friend who grew up in Magelang and who recently spent a couple years in Amsterdam. She suggested that Indonesia has always made coffee for export—a cash crop first cultivated by the Dutch—and it's never been a truly native drink. The best stuff goes overseas and Indonesians are left with second- and third-rate coffee that has to be cut with natural and artificial sweeteners. Interesting, but she still couldn't quite explain who drinks this bad coffee or why. Why this sort of half-measure, highly artificial kind of coffee—sterile, homogenized, intensely packaged—when loose-leaf teas, often made with water cooked over charcoal flames, can be had from just about every food cart in the country? Is there an aspirant class of Indonesians who see in bad coffee a link to Western affluence and modern, processed-food convenience? My friend looked at me with consternation. I'm not sure what you mean, Brett. And please stop shouting. It's not polite.

I didn't think I was shouting.