Sunday, March 30, 2014

Getting Away, But Not Very Far

I decided late one week that I needed some time away, all by myself.  My husband was on a business trip in Asia, and I was by myself in Washington.  Even though I had the apartment to myself, it was cluttered and filled with reminders of the many things I needed to do over the weekend—clean, hang art, write thank you notes, take in my dry cleaning—and the idea of being there was stressful.  On top of that, I had a pretty tough week emotionally.  I lost my father to prostate cancer late last year, and the pain of his loss ebbs and flows. There are good days, and there are bad days, good weeks, and bad weeks.  This was a bad week.

And among all of this, I have been working on a book project for over a year.  I used to write a page or two a night, and then it became four pages on a good weekend, and over time, it became even more occasional.  Every weekend, I felt smothered by duties, not being able to write because I had too many other things to do, and writing felt like a luxury—and then I encountered severe writer’s block from the loss of my father.  I felt emotionally and creatively drained, an empty vessel. 

So it was late in the week that I determined that I needed to get away—to meditate, deal with my grief, and write.  In my head, I imagined a desk by a big picture window that looked out onto a bay.  I checked AirBNB. Nothing fit what I was looking for.  I checked beds and breakfasts.  There was nothing in the price range I wanted or within an easy drive.  But because Google knows everything, I typed in “writer’s retreat,” and among the options was The Hermitage, a one-person retreat at the Franciscan Monastery in northeast Washington, DC.

I will be honest—I had never realized that there was a Franciscan Monastery within DC’s borders—and I have been in this area for about 25 years. But there it was—a Washington Post article that described a one-person studio, designed by Catholic University architecture students, on the wooded grounds of a monastery.  It is intended to allow people to get away from the bustle of daily life, get in touch with God, meditate, reflect, and be by yourself. In short, it was exactly what I needed.  But the article cautioned that it has been fully booked since it opened over a year ago.

I gave it a shot anyway.  And within 45 minutes, I had a reply from a Friar at the monastery, saying that it was free, and sending me the paperwork.  $75 and two signed documents later, I was booked for Saturday evening. It was my own little miracle.

The monastery sends you a helpful guide of what to expect. There is no internet or television, they caution, which is to enrich your experience.  No meals, but you can cook your own food—so bring supplies with you.  It’s a hermitage, they wrote—so when you are packing, think about what a hermit would bring.
It sounded like a challenge.

I admit that I did a mediocre job of packing.  In my head, I pictured Buddha sitting under a tree, with nothing but the clothes on his body. But when I started packing, it ended up being a couple pairs of yoga pants, loose tops, a computer, two books, my diary, a watercolor set (I’ve been finding this really therapeutic recently) and acid-free paper… and a bag of groceries.  I made the decision to eat vegetarian—something about eating meat at a spiritual retreat just seems wrong—and packed kale, roasted tomato soup, pineapple, blackberries, a mango, grapefruit juice, some Australian cheese, an onion, a fresh baguette, and just for kicks, some vegan cinnamon rolls from Sticky Fingers bakery. I also heavily debated whether to bring alcohol.  There’s a clause that says basically not to do anything in the house that is un-Christian, and I wasn’t sure if that counted.  In the end, I decided that since monks have made alcohol (champagne, Trappist ale, etc.), I would bring a little something…a small bottle of daiginjyo sake.

On the day of my stay, it was cool and rainy.  After picking up my keys from the front gate, I drove up the service driveway, which curved around the back of the monastery grounds, past a little red brick chapel, and parked my car.  The Hermitage is just off the road, and all of its windows face away from the monastery, effectively giving you the impression that you are in the middle of the woods.  It is a rectangular building, small and modern. The screen door was a beautiful design, with rectangular cutouts that felt Scandinavian.  Inside, everything was modern and natural at the same time—raw and compressed woods, concrete, brushed metal, bleached wood, ceramic, tile.  It was like the best part of the outdoors was inside, and there were many options for being even further with nature.  A window over the desk, the picture window I had sought, opened. A back door opens onto the deck. If you don’t want to open the door, you can open one of four square screened windows. And the whole place was filled with natural light—even the bed was framed by two windows. I promptly opened several, inhaling the fresh air and letting in the inimitable sound of light rain on leaves.

Walking in, the bathroom, done in bright white tile, was on the right.  It had a large shower with an ADA accessible wooden seat, and windows letting in lots of light.  A woven-felt basket was stuffed with plush white towels. There was even a hairdryer and a container of ear plugs, in case you want to shut out every last sound.

 The main room had a poured concrete floor with a flat green rug that evoked grass.  There was a compressed wood desk with a bound journal for reflection (your keepsake from your stay), and a couple of key books—the Bible, a guide to the Hermitage, and a soft binder with delivery menus for pizza and sandwiches, which I thought was hilarious.  So much for that image of Buddha under a tree. (For the record, I know I should be making Christian references, being that it’s a Catholic space, but it is a place for all faiths.)

Did I mention the window above the desk? There was a window above the desk, and it was awesome.

The bed was to the right.  It was a twin bed with plush covers, and the head and base board clearly looked like it had a story. Some of the wooden slats were printed with stenciled words; they had clearly been reclaimed from somewhere.  It was another way that the outdoors was brought inside.  There was a fairly large closet and a rocking chair with its own lamp near the back windows. The back windows essentially formed a wall of glass—there many ways in which you could open windows to control air flow, and a door onto the back porch.  On the wooden porch was a traditional red rocking chair.

The kitchen, directly behind the desk, has a large refrigerator, a stove, a microwave, and a washer/dryer combo (I didn’t know these existed—I feel like I’m in the future or really out of touch). There are Crate and Barrel mugs, plates, cups, etc., several kinds of tea, a teapot, and coffee in a container in the refrigerator, to keep it fresh. There’s also a toaster and a coffee grinder. Basically—everything you need, and nothing you don’t.

What’s amazing is that—I made a cup of Earl Grey (on the stove rather than in the microwave, because why not), sat down at my computer, and for the first time in a really long time, felt compelled to write. Looking out of the picture window (above which hangs a cross) at the browns and greens and the white-gray sky, the window screen dotted with rainwater, I could feel the normal pressures melt away.  It was my time. No one else’s time. Mine.

I spent the day writing.  I broke through my writer’s block and wrote eight pages of my book, most of this blog post, and part of a speech I’m giving next week.  I reflected. I built up the courage to look at some photos of my father.  I nibbled on baguette, slices of onion, and sharp cheddar. I read a few chapters of a book on loss that my friend lent me to help me cope—and a little Thich Nhat Hanh. I briefly entertained the idea of going for a run on the grounds, but it was so biting cold and rainy that I flaked out. I was perfectly productive, but without feeling rushed or stressed.

I went to bed at 11 and woke refreshed at 9.  I wrote a bit more, enjoyed a warm shower, and cleaned up a bit before leaving at 11:30. (They say cleanliness is close to godliness, so I figured I should probably tidy up.)

What struck me most about the space is that it was so thoughtful.  Yes, there are buildings around, but when you’re sitting at the desk, you can’t see any of them, not even the charming chapel a few yards away. Laying on the bed, you can’t see the back of the monastery buildings. Everything is perfectly positioned so that you feel like you are entirely in nature. I never heard another soul.  It was just me, the woods, and the rain, in a beautiful space. 

And when I left, it felt like I had been given a real gift.

Bring This: Toiletries (including shampoo, soap, etc.), food, spices, olive oil, hot chocolate (major fail on my part).

Leave That: Hair dryer, anything you want to bake (there’s no oven), bubble bath (there’s a shower, not a tub), wine bottle opener, anything you normally cook with (unless it’s unusual), salt and pepper, coffee/tea, linens (including towels).

Other things I wanted to know but was afraid to ask: Yes, there are plugs. No fireplace.  And you can control the temperature, so you can be as hot, cold, or just right as you want.

Stay here: The Hermitage at the Franciscan Monastery. 1400 Quincy St. NE, Washington, DC. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

ASIMO in Tokyo!

I just returned today from a great two-week study trip to Taiwan and Japan, which I will blog more about in the coming days.  In the meantime, I leave you with this video that I took at Honda's headquarters in Tokyo.  It's ASIMO, Honda's robot. ASIMO is short for "Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility," and is surprisingly human.  To the technology buffs who were in my delegation, ASIMO wasn't particularly impressive--I guess they've seen better--but I was totally overwhelmed by how cool it was (per my running commentary).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Curacao Has Heart, Part Two: Blindingly Beautiful Beaches

Santa Barbara Resort, Curacao
Erik and I are not the kinds of people who go to a resort and stay on the resort if we can help it.  It pains me to think that there are actually people who go to a resort in a foreign country, eat nothing but chicken fingers and pizza while there are there, and then leave. The best part about travel is actually seeing the place you have spent so much trouble getting to.  In this case, Erik and I made our home base the Santa Barbara Resort, in the southeast part of Curacao, and planned to venture out.  The Santa Barbara is an enormous former plantation that requires 15 minutes to drive (yes, drive) from the entrance to the actual hotel. It winds around an 18-hole super-special golf course designed by someone important to golfers, and homes for sale, and other mysterious paths that lead God-knows-where.  If you’re driving at night, large (10 inch) red crabs might attempt to sidle across the road—seafood roadkill.  At the end is an expansive hotel with two pools, a lovely (small) private beach without waves, tennis courts, and the works.

When Erik and I arrived very late at night, we were welcomed with a Blue Curacao cocktail.  It was not entirely unexpected, given that it’s probably Curacao’s best known export. What was surprising was that the taxi driver, a large woman with a beautiful accent, told us that the Curacao liqueur factory produced only one flavor—orange—but simply added different colors to the spirit so that bars could make differently colored cocktails with it. Blue still appears to be the best seller.

We checked into our room, exhausted after a late wedding night of revelry, an early morning departure, and little sleep throughout the day.  At the same time, we were invigorated by the thick, humid air and the sight of palm trees.  There had just been a major downpour, which the staff had assured us was necessary given the oppressive heat of the prior days, and the suddenness of it had caused a massacre of large flying ants, which, while innocuous, seemed to be omnipresent.  Everywhere around us were dead insects.  We took a late night dip in the pool just because we could, but had to paddle away the floating black clouds of dead bugs.

The quieter side of Jan Thiel Beach

The bizarre manmade platform beach at Jan Thiel
Over the next few days, we visited a few beaches.  We started at Jan Thiel (pronounced “Yawn Teel”) beach, where we went diving in the bay.  We didn’t see overly much, as we dove in relatively shallow water—no “big animals” so to speak, except an eel, which was pretty cool—but it was Erik’s first time diving and a good introduction.  Jan Thiel as a beach was a cross between South Beach, Miami and Kuta, (the overpopulated, tacky beach) in Bali, Indonesia.  Not the most resounding endorsement, but it was a good way to spend a few hours.  Many of the service staff were young Dutch people who had relocated to Curacao to spend a couple years living in paradise. The water was shallow and teal, the sand below a bright white, and there were stairs leading down to the water, which was a bit unusual (as was the concrete platform that was covered with sand).  Crowds of people laid out at lounge-y bars with white triangle sails; hundreds of beach chairs were arranged in rows, available for rental for $10 USD. There was a lovely infinity pool at the Papagayo Beach Resort which was filled with warm sea water.  At dusk, I swam to the edge and was joined by tens of little crabs all perched on the edge, feeding, taking in the sights, and glowing from the last orange rays of the sun.

Suited up for diving!

We also stopped at Blieuwbaai (pronounced “Blue Bay”), a private beach that belonged to the Blue Bay Resort, but we didn’t know that until we arrived and were asked to pay $15 USD to be able to hang out there.  It was worth it to be away from the crowds; it was relatively quiet, with tens of families and small groups, but without the crazy party scene of Jan Thiel.  At Blue Bay, the sand was a bit more uneven—white as ever, but slightly lumpy and rough from the dead coral.  The water was also bright teal, and you could swim out to a platform just off shore.  The snorkeling is apparently fantastic, though we didn’t set aside enough time to take advantage; the density is apparently 100% in the bay, which means that there’s 100% coral cover! And you can just swim out to it from the shore.

Cabanas at Blue Bay

Our hotel, the Santa Barbara, also had a private beach.  It was small and even quieter.  It was semi-enclosed to minimize waves from speedboats passing through the channel, making it a calm, warm saltwater pool with tropical fish.  Erik and I spent several hours roasting there, I with my rum punch, and he with his Venezuelan Polar beer.  But the most enchanting beach experience was in the evening.  Over the hills was the unmistakable light pollution from Willemstad, but it was no match for the glowing phosphorescence of the sand below our feet, just where the water met the sand.  With every step, little glowing balls brightened around our toes, temporary vivid yellow-green gleams in the darkness, like fireflies.  The gentle lights faded until we put more pressure on the sand, at which point they gratifyingly brightened again.  It felt like magic.

*     *     *

As a postscript to this miniseries on Curacao, I wanted to tip my hat to my college friend Carolina Gomes-Casseres and her blog/Facebook page 1000 Awesome Things About Curacao. It is a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to explore Curacao like a local, not like a tourist. And imagine my surprise to wake up every morning and find that--every single day--the local paper devotes its second page to Carolina and this excellent site! 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Curacao Has Heart, Part One: Willemstad and Okra

From Asia, I jumped to the Caribbean. Or, rather, I should say “we,” as it was for my honeymoon with my new husband, Erik.  It feels very strange to say that, and the thought of having a lifetime partner with whom to go on adventures is even stranger. In a good way.

I should also say that this was our “mini-moon,” the bourgeois new term for the brief vacation couples take after getting married, either because they can’t afford something more extravagant (because weddings are so effing expensive) or because they can’t afford the time.  In our case, it was a bit of both… but also because we are aiming to go to Bhutan for our “real” honeymoon in the next year.

So we looked around for nearby options, preferably something with a beach.  It’s low season in the Caribbean, so hotels were moderately more affordable. We wanted to go somewhere fewer Americans go…and ended up in gorgeous little Curacao.

Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela and part of the “ABC Islands” (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), is an independent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  The island’s inhabitants are a remarkable mix of indigenous Indians, Dutch, descendants of slaves, and now Chinese (our taxi driver said, “too many Chinese, probably.”). Oh, and there many people from mainland Latin America, and descendants of the Portuguese era (“Curacao” means “heart” in Portuguese)… and increasingly Haitians and Jamaicans who have come looking for work.  Other than the tourism industry, the largest employer appears to be the oil refinery, which dominates the bay in the capital, Willemstad. It’s almost startling to see the bright colored buildings with traditional Dutch facades of downtown Willemstad, and then see something akin to Tolkien’s Mordor rising behind it. Every building is a different bright color—and every building looks freshly painted, in hues of yellow, blue, pink, green, with white piping and beautiful red terracotta roofs. 

Punda from the Pontoon Bridge

Willemstad was, and continues to be, a port town.  The front area of the port is relatively narrow; on one side, Punda, was the old city, with the Dutch Governor’s mansion; the town expanded to the other side in the early 1700s to “Otrobanda,” (aptly named “other side”). Now, it is host to the Renaissance Hotel and seems to be more frequented by locals than tourists, giving the area a more authentic flavor than Punda. There were forts on either side of the entrance to the harbor. The Rif Fort, on the Otrobanda side, still stands, but the Renaissance Hotel took it over and converted it to an outdoor mall. The interior of the fort was a lot of fun to explore (you can still climb the old stairs and get a fabulous view of the town), and the exterior looked like Rodeo Drive, complete with luxury stores found nowhere else on the island.

The Old Lady, when she's not Swingin

To cross from Punda to Otrobanda requires using a bridge.  There are a number of footbridges, but none are as well known as the Old Swingin’ Lady (also known as the “Pontoon Bridge”).  This bridge, which is relatively close to the water, has a lovely wooden boardwalk, and affords some of the best views of the harbor.  It does not, however, permit the many ferries, sailboats, and, most importantly, the tankers, from entering the harbor.  To allow them passage, the boats approach the shallow bridge and wait for the bridge operators to… swing the bridge open. As in, the bridge is a floating structure, and instead of opening in the middle, like a drawbridge, it swings open, like a door. It doesn’t matter that there are people still walking on it—granted, there are some precautions at the ends of the bridge so you don’t accidentally fall into the water—and in fact, it affords those pedestrians a fun ride. The bridge opens with surprising frequency.

I had heard that one of the best things to do in Curacao was to visit the Plasa Bieuw, or “Old Plaza.” (It had also been called the “Old Market.”) It was a pretty nondescript, eggshell blue building not far from the Round Market (probably so named because… it’s a cylinder).  It’s an open air building with rows of picnic tables and several charcoal stalls—basically, six different restaurants offering different cuisines.  I had heard that some of the specialties of the Plasa Bieuw were stewed iguana and cadushi, or cactus soup.  But by the time we arrived at 3 p.m., most of the stalls were closed and people were cleaning up their enormous stew pots.  “Iguana only on Mondays,” one woman said to me, and when I asked if there was absolutely anywhere else in the city where we could find it, she only shook her head no.  “Any cadushi?” I asked, but she said no, only Fridays. Okay, so two strikeouts. We made our way to the other stall where staff were cleaning up, and asked if they still had food. They did—and we asked for recommendations. The only menu they had was hand-scrawled on a piece of cardboard, and was all in local language. My Papiamentu was nonexistent, and I barely recognized anything from the miniscule Dutch I knew (which only came from my knowing Bahasa Indonesia). Papiamentu, as far as I can tell, is a creole of Dutch, Portuguese, and African languages.

Stoba, stoba,” one man repeated. Stoba, it turns out, is stew. And in our case, it was goat meat stew, which was delicious and very tender. It had hints of vinegar, probably to soften the meat, and an assortment of spices—tomatoes, onions, and lots of oil. It was served with a suspect-looking salad with sad lettuce leaves, a large pile of rice, and a sweet plantain.  I saw a flyer on another table introducing guests to Curacao traditional cuisine, and one of the items was Yambo—okra soup.  Yambo, frankly, is the local term for gumbo, and it makes me laugh to think that so many cultures have their own version of this exact dish—whether it’s in West Africa, Belize, Darfur, Louisiana…or here, off the coast of Venezuela. We ordered some, much to Erik’s chagrin. Okra soup, of course, is slimy. And not just a little slimy, but a whole bowl of slime.  However, I decided to give it the old college try, because the last time I had had it, it totally blew me away.  It was at a Darfuri household in Doha, Qatar--where the slime was deliciously seasoned and served with something akin to Ethiopian injera.

Slimy Yambo

True to form, the yambo appeared and was extremely gooey. It’s sort of unnatural to eat something of that texture, but I took a big spoonful.  The man who had given us food recommendations stood over me, expectantly—probably not expecting a tourist to like it (it would not surprise me if many a tourist took one look and pushed it away). It was a struggle to manage the strands of slime that stretched off the spoon like cobwebs.  But it was truly delicious—a little salty, and not at all slimy in my mouth. It was like a barley soup, very hearty with big pieces of okra, some stewed goat bones, and, surprisingly, little bits of seafood, like mussels and baby octopus. It was served with funchi, which is the local term for polenta. It was not unlike the kind of starches that are served with this dish in West Africa (think “fufu,” which is served with the okra dish called “to.”) It always makes me happy to see how small the world really can be if you trace the cuisine. Of course, in this case, as with many West African dishes that have made their way across the Atlantic, the recipes came with the slave trade, which was, sadly, a major commercial enterprise in Curacao.

When we finished up, Erik and I took a stroll to the Floating Venezuelan Market, which was a few steps away.  Along the edge of the water were a number of colorful boats. Their owners set up fruit and vegetable shops in front of them, and remain in Curacao until they have sold all of their goods.  At that point, they sail back to Venezuela to load up on new produce to sell in Willemstad.  They sold enormous avocadoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, papayas, watermelon, honey in reused bottles, cooking oil, and tamarind candy.

The Floating Market

As sunset began to approach, we made our way to the “Waterfront” on the Punda side of the bay, which is a strip of about six or seven different restaurants with decks built just over the tidepools, facing the ocean.  There, we had blue cocktails and watched the sun set, turning the sky a brilliant vermillion, as tankers were led into the harbor by tugboats.  It was a perfect day in Willemstad.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Chinese New Year (Or, How I Ate for Three Days Straight)

My best friend, who currently lives in China and is an amazing photographer, is from Singapore. Being based in Jakarta for a while, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit her and her family for Chinese New Year. Until that point, I had only ever experienced Chinese New Year in the United States--and that experience was limited to my mother giving me a red envelope with a $20 bill in it, accompanied by a penny for good luck. If we were willing to brave the traffic, we might drive to downtown Washington, D.C. to see the Dragon and Lion dances, and marvel at the thousands of firecracker strands pop-pop-popping and jumping around like a convulsing snake.

In Singapore, they truly celebrate, with a multi-day affair during which the entire family and extended family converges at one home and, essentially, does nothing but eat. And eat we did--from morning until night, there were snacks and delicious foods everywhere. It was a dieter's nightmare, and my dream.

I'll start with the traditions I know: Wear red for good luck. Also: younger people get red envelopes filled with money from older people. But my mother stopped giving me these a couple of years ago, probably because you can't easily find these envelopes in Washington, D.C.

And now to the the traditions I learned. I confess that I feel like a pretty terrible Chinese-American because I'm a grown adult and these practices are new to me.

The first is the gift of oranges. The word "orange" in Chinese is very similar to the word for "gold." So people  (and companies) give oranges as gifts at Chinese New Year.  This was never a big deal at my house, but at my friend's house, the quality of the oranges was paramount. Each one was perfect--deeply colored and ripe. Each was individually wrapped in paper to protect it, until the family pulled off the paper and placed them gently in a bowl.  They served as decorations as well as a healthy snack. And at the end of each day, the day-old oranges were whisked to the back and replaced with newly-unwrapped ones.

It goes without saying that they were the sweetest oranges I have ever tasted.

Juicy oranges on top of red envelopes
I also learned about the presentation of oranges to the elders. Pairs are generally viewed as lucky in Chinese culture. (The number 4 is the unlucky number, and 8 is the best.) When entering a home for New Year celebrations, the guest should deferentially present two oranges, one in each hand, to the head(s) of the household, and say, "Xin nian kuai le." ("Sheen nee-yen kwai luh" for those who don't know pinyin Chinese.) This means "Happy New Year."

We began the evening with a Singaporean and Malaysian (as far as I know) tradition called Yusheng. A platter is layered with carefully julienned vegetables, quality raw fish, crunchy wontons, and a light sauce.  Everyone in the family gets a long pair of chopsticks, and all at the same time, they call, "YuuuuuSHENG!" and use the chopsticks to toss this salad-like dish until it is all mixed up. (They call "Yusheng" many times.) This tradition is for good luck. Everyone ate a little bit of it, and then it was whisked away so that the family could begin dinner.

Yusheng: Before

The frenzy begins

Lifting up and mixing
Dinner was one of my favorites: Hotpot! Aunties from both sides of the family brought their hotpots from home so that every table could have a couple.  They were filled with savory broth and heated so that the steam curled up from each. On a long table in the dining room was laid a magnificent spread of quality raw meats, seafood, tofu, and vegetables, which the family members were invited to select from and cook in their table's hot pot.


Not the greatest photo, but you get the idea

Much effort goes into getting the best quality meats, which can often be expensive (especially in Singapore).  In other words, you don't just go to your local grocery store and pick up a roast and cut it up for hotpot. You need to go to the best butcher or fishmonger in town, fight with other women (not trying to be an antifeminist, but it's usually women who buy this stuff) for the best cuts, and then bargain your heart out. It's a sport, really. And the result is worth it.

After dinner, there was much fussing about opening more bottles of wine (only the best Italian wine), and baijiu, a Chinese liquor that is essentially paint thinner. Fat, happy, and slightly drunk, the extended family slowly left, but with plans to return the next day for the next round.

The next morning, I put on my pink dress (it was the closest I had to red) in preparation for the passing of the red envelopes. I was pretty excited to observe a tradition that I observed with my mother on a grand scale. The children were excited most of all. Dressed in their red finery, they lined up somewhat impatiently to receive their red envelopes of money.

As the tradition goes, the married elders provide red packets with money to unmarried people. This can get a little awkward if you have an unmarried older auntie, but in general, the system works. The unmarrieds receive packets until they are married, and then they have to give the packets. The amount of money per packet varies depending on what the family is able to afford. Determining the contents of the red envelopes is also an art; optimally, the money adds up to something with 8 in it (again, lucky number). There should not be any totals of 4 (unlucky). And everything should be in pairs. So 2 ten-dollar bills and 4 two-dollar bills (so, $8) for a total of $28 is good.

As I watched with interest, an auntie I didn't know came up and thrust a red packet in my hand with a big smile. I was confused. The kids were to get packets, not 30-year-old me, and I assumed it was actually for my best friend (her niece). I wrote the auntie's name on the envelope and told her I would find my friend  for her. Then more aunties came up to me, and more. Soon, I had several red packets and was feeling pretty guilty for receiving money just for visiting my friend during her family event. I confessed this to her later that night, after she insisted that I keep the red packets I had been given.  She reassured me that I was not fleecing her family, and that this was totally normal. (She also lamented that she would have to start handing out red packets at the next New Year, because she would be married by then.)

That evening, we had a smaller family dinner, which was every bit as gourmet (if not more so) than the dinner the night before.  The first course was abalone, which is a Chinese delicacy.  I had had it before, but not like this. Served tender in a rice casserole with savory sauce, it was easy to understand why it was so treasured. We continued with the very finest Kobe (I think) beef that we thinly sliced and grilled on a hibachi. It melted on the tongue like butter, and my friend's mother was very proud that she was able to get this fine cut of beef.

The meal ended with bird's nest. For the uninitiated, bird's nest is, in fact, a bird's nest. It is one of the most valued delicacies in Chinese culture. Brace yourself: A sparrow regurgitates spit and weaves a nest with it. Then, harvesters collect these nests, pick out the feathers and other random hangers-on, and sell these.  To prepare it, it must be boiled into a soup. The strands become gelatinous, like rice noodles. It is believed to have extraordinary medicinal benefits, and costs a whopping $100/ounce or more.

So even though the thought of eating bird spit was extremely (EXTREMELY) hard for me to accept, I could hardly turn down the hospitality of my hosts when they put a bottle of bird's nest drink in front of me. It was very generous of them. Sweetened with rock sugar and ginger, it had visible strands of bird's nest floating around inside, as if suspended in the matrix of the syrupy drink. I smiled, thanked everyone, gave my best friend a sideways look, and drank it.

This looks perfectly unthreatening

Was it bad? No. Like most things, eating or drinking something unfamiliar is only weird if you think about it too much. Yes, the idea of ingesting boiled bird spit is pretty nasty. I said it. But the drink was rather tasty. It was like drinking aloe juice; the aloe particles have roughly the same consistency.

All in all, I left Singapore probably 15 pounds heavier, stuffed with only the finest foods that the city-state had to offer. And now I feel like a better Chinese-American, one who now knows how to fully celebrate the occasion.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Receive Unconditional Love

That's what "thank you," or "terima kasih," actually means in bahasa Indonesia. It's how I feel about Indonesia, a stunningly beautiful country with a big heart. I cherish my six months there as a time not just of personal growth, but also reconnection with my roots.

I have left Jakarta and returned to DC, where I immediately jumped into my current job. I have much more to write, but have been too busy living life that I haven't had time to write about it. I'm hoping to get a post on Aceh up soon!

The flight home was long, and when I ran out of decent movies to watch (I draw the line at Ashton Kutcher RomComs), I took some time to reflect on my experience in Indonesia. It was a whirlwind, and was hard to the end, I examined it by the numbers. Here's what I came up with:

Months in Indonesia: 6
Jobs in Indonesia: 2 (State and USAID)
Presidents met: 1 (President Obama)
Famous people I met: 2 (Secretary Clinton and CNN Hero of the Year Robin Lim)
Value of international negotiations assisted: $28.5 million (Tropical Forest Conservation Act)
Trips for work: 2 (Bali for the President's visit, Aceh to visit a maternal and child health project)
Number of times I was mistaken for an Indonesian in meetings or events: 30+
Hours of classroom Bahasa Indonesia training: 19
Meetings conducted in Bahasa Indonesia that I participated in without a translator: 6 (I'm pretty proud that I basically understood what was going on)

Number of weekends spent in Jakarta: 5
Number of Indonesian areas visited: 12 (Aceh, Jogjakarta, Bogor, Bandung, Pelabuhan Ratu, Pulau Seribu, Bali, Lombok, Gili Islands, Komodo National Park, Manado, Tanjung Puting Park)
Animals with whom I had a close encounter: 13 (Orangutan, slow loris, elephants, tiger, white tiger, lion, kangaroo, wallaby, sea turtle, macaques, clouded leopard, stingray, jellyfish, plus probably 100+ kinds of fish when diving)
Weird food eaten: 3 (bat, dog, giant squid egg) (the squid egg was the worst)
Countries visited: 6 (Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and U.S. for training)
Things crossed off bucket list: 8 (See Borobudur; get dive-certified; learn to surf; visit my mother's village; see my grandfather's grave; communicate directly with my grandmother; work for USAID, visit Aceh)
Friends and family visited: 8
Friends who visited me: 6
Times eaten at warung (food stalls), roadside restaurants, and other places with questionable cleanliness: ~90 times
Times have gotten food poisoning from eating at those establishments: 0
Times have gotten food poisoning from Malaysia Airlines: 1
Crossfit sessions per week: 3 (average...had to keep the fried rice weight off!)
Road races run: 3 (the 10k on Sudirman was the worst)
Massages: ~18
Dresses made: 4
Forms of transport taken: 10 (Plane, car, taxi, boat, speedboat, bajaj, motorcycle, donkey cart, elephant, surfboard)
Times I have had to explain that I am not actually Indonesian to very confused people: Countless

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Elephants and Temples: Exploring Ancient Monuments in Yogyakarta

The stupa on Borobudur. There is a seated Buddha in each.

Half the adventure of visiting Yogyakarta was just getting there.
The weekend after Idul Adha was a long one, and as I don’t have a habit of bumming around Jakarta on long weekends, I decided to try to scratch an important item off my bucket list: Seeing Borobudur in Yogyakarta.
Yogyakarta (pronounced “Jogjakarta,” or just referred to by expats as “Jogja”) is the cultural center of Java. It’s also literally at the center of Java, which means it takes some planning to get there. It wouldn’t be too hard to plan, I thought—I had heard about a train that left at night and arrived at a fairly inconvenient time in the morning (3 am or so). Not perfect, but the best option, and suitably adventurous. Since it was a short week, we were fairly busy, and my travel buddy and I didn’t end up trying to book tickets until Wednesday for travel on Friday.
Finally, on Wednesday, we tried to book the train tickets through the Embassy’s travel agency (one of the best perks about working there), but we learned that they weren’t allowed to book them. It’s not possible to book them online, either. We had to go down to the train station in person.
When we got to the train station in midday, we were stunned to find a line of people about an hour long. Not able to wait that long, we began to ask around about the tickets to Yogyakarta, to find that they had long since sold out. Not just our inconvenient train, but the convenient train and all the other local ones that happened to count Yogya among their 100 stops. Defeated, we decided to bit the expensive bullet and go by plane.
We didn’t have any luck with flights, either. We spent all day Thursday searching, but every single flight, both on reputable and disreputable airlines, was entirely sold out. No economy, no business. I couldn’t believe it. “Is there a festival or something in Yogya this weekend?” I asked my Indonesian friends. “No, it’s probably just Idul Adha,” they posited. Apparently, even with the holiday solidly behind us, people were still returning to the village to see their families. We had unknowingly been caught up in an Indonesian holiday.
The only thing left was the bus, but no one, not the all-knowing Lonely Planet, nor our Travel Agency, had a single phone number for a bus company. Finally, we asked one of our Indonesian friends.
“Oh, noooooo!!!!!” she exclaimed. “You can’t take the bus, you just can’t. You just can’t.”
“Have you taken it?” we asked.
“Yes…. But you shouldn’t! It’s not safe. Please don’t take the bus. Promise me,” she insisted.
Desperate, we continued to press her for a phone number, and she finally relented. It was 5 p.m., and we knew that we had to leave that night if we hoped to have enough time in Yogyakarta to make the trip worth the time spent to get there.
I called the number several times until I got a response. “Bisa bicara bahasa Inggris?” I asked. Do you speak English?
Of course she didn’t. And it didn’t help that her voice was masked in white noise, so I could barely hear.
After a real struggle with my then-nascent Bahasa Indonesia, I managed to make out the name of a bus station and a time at which a bus would leave. We hurriedly returned to our respective homes to pack and catch a cab to the bus station.
The entire time, with failure to get to Yogyakarta not an option, we had a fourth solution, one that both of us were reluctant to pursue: hiring a personal car.
My driver out to Taman Safari was a guy named Enno. Super friendly and always helpful, he had texted me earlier in the week to ask if I needed a driver for the long weekend. I had joked with him (sort of) that I wanted to go to Yogya, and he guffawed in disbelief, because it’s a very long drive. That was the end of that conversation. Driving to Yogyakarta is probably the worst way to get there, save perhaps a donkey cart.
Yet, there we were, my friend and I, stuck in traffic with the meter already very high, on our way to a bus station in East Jakarta that I had minimal confidence that the taxi driver actually knew. I called the bus number again just to confirm that the bus was leaving at 8, and all I could make out was “Sekarang! Sekarang!” which means “Now! Now!” Nothing about the situation was comforting. So when Enno called me out of the blue to ask how much we would be willing to pay to go to Yogya, we were relieved.
We settled on 3 million, or about $300. It was about the cost of 2 plane tickets, but we were so desperate to actually get on the road that night that we were willing to pay it. Enno said he would come to my house immediately. We turned the “cab to nowhere” around.
By the time we got on the road, it was 8:30 p.m. To my luggage I had added a pillow and some snacks. Enno, bright-eyed, was ready to drive through the night. It would take us 12 hours to get there. Yes, you read that correctly. TWELVE HOURS. This is why driving to Yogyakarta is almost universally ill-advised.
We told Enno that he should feel free to pull over and take a nap anytime he felt sleepy, and that getting there safely (not getting there fast) was most important. My friend and I took turns staying awake and keeping him company, though in reality, he stayed up longer than I did. We drove on winding mountain roads, past cows and through villages. We stopped several times at gas stations for caffeine for Enno and twice for him to take a short nap. No one slept well that night.
View on the drive to Yogyakarta
At 6 a.m., the sunlight began streaming in through the windows, and a roused myself to see bright green rice paddies on both sides of the car, and people selling fruit by the roadside. We were still hours away, but stopped at a local gas station and mosque (many gas stations have small mosques) for Enno to pray and to eat some fried noodles for breakfast. By 10 a.m., we rolled into Yogyakarta, a big town that, on its face, didn’t seem as special as people had described. It took some exploring before we found its charm.
*    *    *
Joglo Plawang Villas
We checked into Joglo Plawang, an absolutely stunning hotel with individual traditional joglos, or bungalows, built into two sides of a river valley. The two sides were connected by a quaint bridge. It was quiet, with only the sound of burbling water, a perfect getaway. The common spaces were richly appointed with traditional art and architecture, dark wood carvings and golden accents. The only problem was that it was about 15 minutes from the center of Yogyakarta—by car. Good thing we had a car.

Entrance to the ancient water temple, hidden among private homes

As hard as we tried to explore on our own, we somehow gained a guide. He promised to show us Taman Sari, the old royal water temple, but wanted to show us a local treasure first, hidden among homes in the neighborhood. Entry was by small donation to a very old local man holding a box. It was a much more ancient water temple, unmarked and far less crowded. The walkway had once been a shallow, underground canal by which the Sultan would travel by boat, and it ended in a partially underground and partially exposed complex where he would spend time with his consorts. It was now drained of water, and looked eerily reminiscent of an old slave house, like Goree Island in Senegal.

The ancient water temple, now drained

Taman Sari
We then went to Taman Sari, which was still filled with water and had small fountains. It was not as ornate as I had imagined it might be—I think I was expecting a Balinese water temple, which are quite different.

Entrance to Taman Sari

Toward the end of the day, we went to Prambanan, the oldest Hindu temple complex in Java. Dating from the 9th century, there were at one point 240 temples of different sizes, all surrounding a main temple to Shiva. Neglect and the 2006 earthquake have caused many of the temples to collapse, leaving nothing but carved rocks strewn about. With the help of UNESCO (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site), some of the temples were restored. While some remain closed for renovation, including the main temple, it’s possible to climb the stairs of many of them to the shrine at the top.

Prambanan at Dusk


The sun was setting and the rain beginning to sprinkle as we explored the complex. The area was nearly empty, as the park was about to close. The shrines crowning the temples were dark and ominous—there were no candles or offerings to brighten them—but the view over the valley was stunning.

View at Prambanan from the top of a temple

We had an early night in anticipation of an early morning. At 4:30 a.m., we set off in the direction of Borobudur in order to get there just as it opened. Unlike Prambanan, there was a big visitors’ center—one fitting of the top tourist attraction in Indonesia. Entry was much more expensive, and there were a number of bules who had arrived before us. There was a free coffee and water station, and all of the bules were wrapped in a batik sarong in order to respect the Buddhist tradition.


Borobudur was absolutely mind-blowing. We arrived in the fog, which burned off as the sun rose higher, spreading golden light on the ancient structure. If there was ever a moment to make you feel like Lara Croft/Tomb Raider, this was it. Borobudur is a nine-level stone super-temple; there are six square levels topped with three circular levels, and each level is adorned with magnificently intricate carvings teaching Buddhist principles and universal values for daily life. There are over 1,500 such panels, at least 500 of which have not yet been deciphered.

Leading to the top is a ring of stupas, which look like massive, latticed stone bells, and crowning the top is one massive stupa. There are over 500 Buddha statues perched on the walls, peacefully meditating. The temple sits atop a hill, providing clear views for miles in every direction. It is apparently the largest Buddhist temple in the world.
Borobudur didn’t always look like this. It is believed that it was built in the 8th century, but, like Prambanan, neglect over the centuries caused it to be overgrown by vegetation and it began to crumble. When Sir Thomas Raffles “rediscovered” it in the early 1800s, he asked the local village to begin to put it back together. UNESCO, with the Indonesian government and the support of other governments (including the U.S. government), helped to lead a major renovation in the late 1970s, and it was then named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A couple of shots as we walked clockwise around the levels starting at the Eastern Gate, to respect the Buddhist tradition:

As time went on, the tour buses pulled in, and we decided to make our exit.

I had heard that you could take an elephant ride at Borobudur, and after a bit of sleuthing, we figured out that you could sign up at the hotel in the Borobudur complex. All I wanted was to ride an elephant through a river because I have an irrational fascination with elephants in water. And so, for about $50, we hired elephants for an hour, and slowly wandered into a nearby village, feeding them with caked palm sugar that tasted like pralines, and feeding ourselves on the sugar as well. We lumbered down to a river, where the elephants cooled off and ate from the riverbanks, and we were splashed as the elephants used their trunks to spray their flanks. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon and round out the day before our 14-hour drive back!