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?

An Airborne Event

As I walked to class this morning, the sky to the north and east was bright blue and spotted with high-loft clouds. But to the south it was dark, and darkening. Moving left to right as I walked, like a fuzzy and off-color storm front, a cloud of ashes from Merpi came creeping over South Magelang and SMKN1. By 9 .m. the entire sky was transformed--a heavy dust-fog, green and brown and gray. Ash fell on the tiled roofs of the school buildings, collected on the leaves of the petai (bean) and kepayang (spice) trees that grow all over campus. It coated the students' motorbikes and dusted the walkways and stairs, the benches, the walls, the floors of every classroom and teachers' lounge.

Several of the teachers showed genuine alarm. One of the English teachers said several times that she had never seen anything like today's Airborne Event, and she was not handling it well. She sat in on one of my classes and as the rest of us worked on a game, she kept up a loud and running conversation with two students, in Indonesian, about Merapi, the ash cloud, nearby evacuations and her fears. I had a couple absences in all classes today and another teacher told me it was because the kids live near enough to the mountain that they've been affected by the widening exclusion zone, now at 15 kilometers. They're in shelters with their families today, maybe returning to school later this week. They may have to attend different schools for a time; my colleague didn't know.

School officials sent the kids home about an hour and a half early this afternoon, and the place cleared out faster than normal. Students went right to the bikes, hopped on and took off. My roommate Song and I walked down to the main road, Jalan Subroto, to take a look at traffic. Word on campus was that all public transportation had shut down. The skies by then were something like they are right before a hard summer rain in Chicago, faded olive green, only here the green was mixed with blue-gray and white-gray. It was foreboding, no doubt about it. A light rain fell and with it dirty, splatting raindrops in my hair, across my glasses. We walked wearing face masks and so did most others. The school and the town felt very constricted, like you couldn't catch your breath and weren't sure how long or how far you would have to drive before you could. Or maybe the roads would be jammed and you couldn't get out, and so you'd just sit and breathe shallowly until, well, until when?

Jalan Subroto

The transport rumor turned out to be bogus--as soon as we got to the street we found it filled with mini-van shuttle buses--and while relatively light there was still a decent amount of traffic up and down the road. Behind each vehicle, car or bike or van, a swirling cloud of gritty ash. One guy came around the corner on a motorcycle, his helmet and visor caked in ash like dirty snow. I couldn't see his eyes or face at all.

Jalan Cawang

We bought lunch from a place that was only doing carryout today and several bags of fruit from a nearby stand. As we carried the food back home, down a heavily coated Jalan Cawang, the light changed again. From heavy cover to less-heavy, hints of bluing to the east, the ash cloud lightening up. Tonight as the sun fades into late afternoon, the color outside is reddened gray, the ashed leaves picking up the colors of sunset through a veil of particulate. My surgical mask is off, and I feel a little freer.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ashed Rain

Merapi may not have officially erupted today but the volcano sent up several large ash clouds and we finally got a taste of the mountain this afternoon here in my corner of South Magelang. A short, insistent afternoon shower brought with it a wet coating of ash on everything outside my window. The classroom roof kitty-corner across the parking lot, the fat-leaved trees straightaway down the drive, the sandy parking lot itself, turned from red-brown to white-gray in minutes. I stepped out to take some pictures and the rain splat on my arms and head. Dirty rain, dark on the skin, light when it dries. My forearms and blue t-shirt speckled like a painter's.

Eleventh-graders wash down an ashed bike.

Volcanologists quoted in today's paper said Merapi could conceivably keep this up for two more months: ( That's bad news for the people waiting in those temporary shelters inside high school auditoriums and at tent camps like the one in Sawangan for permission to return to their homes. Two months of sleeping on the floor or the ground--they had no cots at either shelter I visited last week, just blankets and thin sleeping pads--without access to their homes or farms or livestock. Two months of dirty rain, sometimes several times a day.

UPDATE: The roads tonight were a mess. Turns out wet volcanic ash is about as slick as black ice, and it has a roadway consistency something like slush. When I first turned the corner near my house tonight and saw the road stretch out with fresh, wet tire tracks leading out into the dark, it felt a little like home: Hitting the roads after a good snow, before the plows are out. But then I'm not usually hitting those roads on two wheels, exposed to all elements.

The bike was tippy and fishtaily and not at all fun to ride. At red lights, I'd put my foot down and it would just keep going--slipping out and away, unable to plant. The rain came lazily but left streaks on my visor, grit in my teeth. I was soon sorry I'd gone out. As the rain let up and traffic picked up, some roads dried up quickly. Good for traction but in some ways worse--at least the water holds the ash down. Dry, it is in your eyes and into your lungs, burning both. Not like snow. Not for fun.