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.


  1. It's good to know that you've been cleared to return to Magelang. My evacuation in Jakarta has already been extended three times and I'm hoping that I can get back to Yogya soon. RELO told me Nov 30 so I hope it really happens!

  2. Dude, your Thanksgiving may have been more authentic than ours... although I doubt you made hand turkeys like we did. We miss you, too. Nelson Lake awaits. We'll have Jeff and Ann turn the sauna on for us :)
    In the meantime, godspeed and happy writing. Looking forward to the updates! Hope to talk soon.

  3. Julianne: I think Demi's also been cleared to go back so we can hold a Jogja-area English teacher's reunion soon.

    Kathryn: Just saw yr Thanksgiving photos on FB, including the one with Andy making a hand turkey. Very crafty. And the snow! God, that looks fun. Zero snow here and none in the forecast.

  4. I wish you good luck and good health on your trip to Vietnam. It will be amazing I'm sure!



  5. A Yogya-area English teachers' reunion would be fun but it might not happen for a while! I STILL haven't been cleared to return yet and this is getting increasingly odd since you and Demi have. Hmmm...

  6. Merapi's alert status was lowered today! Am heading back to Yogya on Dec 5th. :-)