For most of us, when we think of Indonesia—well, let’s face it, most of us don’t think of Indonesia at all. The last time memorable news made it from Indonesia to the Western Hemisphere was in 2004, when a gigantic tsunami with waves up to 30 meters (100 feet) high inundated the island country and several of its neighbors. Before that, you’d have to go back to 2002, when a series of terrorist bombings in Bali killed more than 200 people, mostly young folks on holiday in the erstwhile tropical paradise. That said, Indonesia deserves broader recognition in the world, and certainly acknowledgement for things other than disasters, whether acts of God or of man.
For starters, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country on Planet Terra, behind only China, India, and the US. Some 250,000,000 people are packed into a land area approximately the size of the US west of the Rocky Mountains (and not counting Alaska or Hawaii). And at any given time, ninety percent of the population appears to be on the road.
The country measures 5271 km (3275 miles) east to west, about the distance from Seattle to Miami (or for my European readers, roughly the distance from Scotland to Afghanistan!). It spans three time zones, and straddles the equator, making it one of comparatively few countries with three hemispheres to its credit (Eastern, Northern and Southern). The climate runs the gamut from very hot to even hotter, punctuated by epic deluges that the infrastructure is in no way geared to handle.
All of this conspires to make Indonesia quite a green place, with gradations of verdancy that make, say, Ireland appear downright beige by comparison.
Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, although it must be said that they practice a rather more laid-back version of the religion than their Middle Eastern cousins. Think of the Middle Eastern folks as Pentecostals and the Indonesians as Presbyterians, and that will give you an idea of the gradation.
And then there is Bali, a primarily Hindu enclave smack in the middle of the archipelago. About 93% of the Balinese are Hindu, perhaps the most celebration-oriented religion on the face of the earth. There is a good chance of seeing (and taking part in) a Hindu ceremony of one sort or another even on a short holiday to Bali. In fact, if you were unable to find a ceremony within a day or two, you might consider applying to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Remarkably, the Hindu and Muslim populations seem to get along very well with one another, unlike their counterparts in India and South Asia, and the general attitude seems to be one of bonhomie and good cheer.
There are about 4 million people in Bali, which gives the island a population density akin to a Tokyo subway car at 7:30am. Interestingly (to me, at least), my home province of Prince Edward Island, Canada, is almost identical in size to Bali (5632 sq km for Bali, 5683 sq km for PEI), but there are only 140,000 hardy souls (thus a population density similar to Yellowstone Park, minus the bears). Two islands of similar proportions could scarcely be less alike!
With Syunbun No Hi (the national holiday on which Japanese visit the graves of departed loved ones) just around the corner, the battered country finally got a bit of welcome and uplifting news: nine days after a devastating earthquake and tsunami slammed the northeast coast of Honshu, 16-year-old Jin Abe, and his 80-year-old grandmother, Sumi Abe, were found alive amidst the ruins of the coastal city of Ishinomaki. Jin stood atop the roof of his collapsed house, draped in towels to keep the cold at bay. He told a police rescue party that his grandmother was trapped inside the house. It took some forty minutes for the rescue team to extricate Sumi Abe from the rubble. The pair had been trapped in what remained of their kitchen after the earthquake, and had survived on yoghurt, water and Coca-Cola from their refrigerator. Eventually Jin was able to dig out of the wreckage and climb to the roof. Here the story takes a twofold path, depending on which news service is doing the telling: either he was able flag down a search helicopter or his cries for help were heard by a ground rescue team. In any event, although both had suffered from exposure and dehydration, they were coherent and able to talk with paramedics; they were taken to a local hospital for treatment, and at last report, both were doing well. An English language report from grassrootsnews.tv can be viewed on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut_8grfciOo
In Tokyo, a few hundred kilometers to the southeast of the disaster area, things are pretty subdued. Gas stations are, for the most part, closed. The ones that are open, like the Shell station near my apartment, have short hours and strict limits (20 liters per customer, a bit over five gallons). Gas has gone up from about 120 yen per liter (pre-quake price) to 150 yen; converted to US prices and measurements, it is now about $7 per gallon.
Store shelves are empty of staples. When I went shopping yesterday there was no water available other than Evian, which was on sale (!) at 80 yen for a half-liter bottle. No rice, no milk, no butter, very little tea, no batteries, no candles, no flashlights, no eggs, no noodles, no just-add-water quickie lunches. Meat and vegetables were available in seemingly normal quantities, and at the usual prices, as were baked goods; canned and frozen foods were readily available as well. I managed to score a couple of cartons of fruit juice, and some hot dogs. I really like my morning coffee, preferably with milk or cream, but as neither of those could be found, I took advantage of a Marie-Antoinette-let-them-eat-cake moment, and dissolved a medium sized scoop of Haagen-Dazs French Vanilla ice cream into my steaming brew. Perhaps not the Heart Healthy option, but sometimes you just gotta say “what the hell”.
A last-minute update: at 11:13 this morning, a scant thirteen minutes after my local supermarket opened, there were but sixteen one-liter cartons of milk left on the shelf. I bought one of them.
Although I am once again on the ground in Japan, I think it is likely that most folks in the Western Hemisphere, and probably quite a few in the Eastern Hemisphere as well, have a better grip on what happened in Japan over the past ten days than I do. When the Sendai earthquake and the resultant tsunami hit, I was in Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the southeast coast of Bali. Of course local TV programming was interrupted, and the screens filled with images of the disaster, but little of it was in English, and most of the Indonesian-speaking folks on hand didn’t have the English skills to translate that sort of thing. It is one thing to be prepared to respond to questions about local festivals, menu items, and the like, but another thing entirely to be able to translate technical details to an information-hungry international clientele. How strong was the quake? How long did it last? How soon after the quake did the tsunami hit? How fast does a tsunami move? And how does the Fukushima nuclear plant situation compare with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? No idea. I was able to receive a few short emails from Japan, but those were mostly concerned with status updates on family and friends, and very little on the overall situation.
I plan to comment only briefly on these few things, as all of the information is out there on the internet, analyzed and commented upon by those more learned than I; an appendix of source websites is included below for those who want to follow up in depth. How strong was the quake? As most everybody knows by now, the quake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, the most powerful earthquake ever to rock Japan, and one of the five most powerful on record. For comparison’s sake, it was about 8000 times stronger than the one that levelled Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 2011. How long did it last? It varied from place to place, as is the nature of earthquakes. Basically, in the heavily damaged areas, it ranged from three to five minutes. How soon after the quake did the tsunami hit? The tsunami hit Sendai within eight to ten minutes of the earthquake, so quickly that even those with the presence of mind to plan an escape immediately would have had precious little time to effect it. Other towns along the Honshu coast had as much as a half hour. How fast does a tsunami move? In the open ocean, it can travel at speeds of 800km/h, about the same speed as a modern jetliner. And how does the Fukushima nuclear plant situation compare with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? This is a complicated question, too much so to be addressed in any depth in this forum. A couple of brief observations, though: the Three Mile Island partial meltdown was a plant-related issue only; the surrounding infrastructure was intact. By this I mean that the roads were all perfectly usable, or at least as usable as Pennsylvania roads normally are; the supply channels were uninterrupted; there was no major issue with the residents, other than securing their orderly exit from the affected area. In Japan, there are tens of thousands of displaced residents, impassable roads, shortages of necessary supplies, and a heavy dose of wintry weather in case the other problems weren’t sufficient. Also, at Three Mile Island, only one reactor was at issue; in Fukushima, four of the six reactors are in trouble. By contrast, the reactor at Chernobyl was not surrounded by a containment structure, in retrospect a deadly oversight; a dramatic power surge caused two explosions, releasing some 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere.
At this writing, there is news here of a recent pressure spike in one of the reactors; only time will tell how that part of the scenario will play out.
Tomorrow is a national holiday in Japan, Syunbun No Hi, the day when people gather to visit the gravesites of their departed loved ones. It speaks volumes about the heart of a nation that a day would be set aside for this, and it is unspeakably sad that so many loved ones departed so recently.
After nearly a month in some fairly remote parts of Indonesia, where my internet access was either extremely limited or nonexistent, I am finally back online. I have more than a dozen posts ready to go, most of them handwritten in a borderline indecipherable journal that looks like it (barely) survived a trip through the “none-too-gentle” cycle in your mom’s Maytag. I filled up two two-gig SD memory cards with photos while I was gone, and most of a third one as well. So tune in over the next couple of weeks, and I will try to load at least one blog post per day, some about Bali and the out islands, some about Japan in the wake of the quake, as well as some other random stuff that crossed my idle mind as I whiled away hours and days in the tropics.
I got back to Tokyo yesterday after a trip comprised of Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, as well as Boats and Buses (I offer this title for free to the producers of the Steve Martin / John Candy flick in case they ever decide to undertake a sequel). The ANA flight arrived at Narita at oh-dark-thirty in the morning, having departed Jakarta around 10pm on Friday night. As you might imagine, not too many people are heading for Japan nowadays, and as a result, I was able to score an entire three-across bank of seats to myself. I managed to stay awake until the first pass by the food-bringers, and then stretched out and dropped off into as sound a sleep as could be expected with seat belt moorings poking me in the lower rib cage and thigh. Please understand, I am not complaining; if you have to be sitting up in an economy airline seat, ANA offers some of the best; it was my choice to lie down, and the onus of the protruding seat belt moorings is mine alone to bear.
I came very close to not making the flight, as it happened. Thursday morning started well enough, with a swift and smooth speedboat trip from the island of Nusa Lembongan back to Sanur, on the south coast of Bali. From Sanur, I took the shuttle to the inland tourist mecca of Ubud, the name of which will be familiar to those who have read Eat, Pray, Love (known to the locals as “that damn book”, about which I shall write more in an upcoming post). So far, so good. Then, virtually without warning, I managed to get massively sick. Oppressively, three-dimensionally, gastro-geyser sick. Apparently, without my foreknowledge or permission, my lunch had purchased a round-trip ticket, and was not about to be dissuaded from using the return portion thereof. I’ll spare you the grisly details except to mention that Indonesian food is richly textured and exceptionally vibrant of hue, and that chilies and South Asian spices intensify remarkably after having cured in one’s digestive juices for a while. I think it is safe to say that I won’t be eating green curry again anytime soon.
My trials and tribulations lasted throughout the night; when Friday morning rolled around, I was thoroughly wrung out, but at least I didn’t feel like I was going to die imminently, a marked improvement over the night before. The lady who ran the guesthouse was kind enough to let me stay in my room well past checkout time, and I was feeling almost human by the time the taxi arrived at 12:30. I figured that if I could survive the two-hour taxi ride, I’d be okay to do the two-hour airplane trip from Bali to Jakarta. If I was too thrashed after that, I could always postpone the Japan leg of the flight, and go a day or two later. In the event, though, several hours’ wait in an air-conditioned terminal helped out, and by the time I got on the ANA flight, the notion of food actually held some small appeal. I decided to play it safe, however, and had only a buttered roll and a couple of bites of fruit before retiring. If the food cart ever went through again, I must have missed it, because the next thing I remember was the flight attendant gently shaking me awake for the landing.
Tokyo must have been happy to see me, as it gave a small shudder of joy shortly after my arrival. Three-point-something on the Richter scale, but enough to let me know it had not forgotten me. Then again today, another little three-pointer, just to keep me alert, I guess.
Please excuse any typos; I’m typing on an Indonesian computer, and it is slow going, to say the least!
It’s been a rough week in Asia, I’m sad to say. From what I have read, the death toll in Japan is expected to exceed 1000, and there are still many people unaccounted for. I opened my email program last night and was truly blown away and humbled by the number of messages I had received, literally from around the globe: Singapore, the US, Canada, Europe, China, and even from Japan. Close to 100 emails, too many to answer individually at one sitting, so I copied and pasted a quick note to each reply, saying that both Saki and I were fine, and so were our friends and relatives, but offering little more detail than that. So here, with more specifics, is our story of the past several days:
As Saki had to be back in Japan for work, she left Bali on the 8th of March, arriving in Tokyo early in the morning on the 9th. For my part, I caught a ferry back to the tiny island of Nusa Lembongan, where we had spent several tranquil days shortly before her departure. There was a sympatico crowd at the hotel: Phil and Iris, from NZ and Taiwan, respectively; Marie and Sasha, from Denmark; Christine from the UK; Jeni from the Netherlands; Meng, also from NZ; as well as a crowd of affable locals.
The news feed from Japan hit the poolside TV, interrupting the regularly scheduled programming, and of course putting me on high alert immediately. When I heard that the epicenter was in Sendai, quite a ways from my Tokyo home, I was slightly relieved, but as you might imagine, I was unable to peel myself away from the unfolding story. By now you’ve all seen the footage, but we had to watch it repeatedly to catch the small snippets of English on offer in between the Indonesian-language coverage. There were messages of support and sympathy from UK and US leaders, but little hard news from ground zero.
And then, as I was en route on foot to the nearby village with my Danish acquaintance Marie, a French tourist on a motorbike, quite agitated, asked if we had heard of the tsunami warning. Until then, we had not known of the devastating 10-meter wave that had already hit the northeast coast of Honshu, and was reportedly en route to the Phillipines, Taiwan and Indonesia. According to her, the ETA was about an hour and a half hence. Marie was quite concerned, and pulled out her mobile phone to get in touch with Sasha back at the hotel. She was greeted with several text messages from family and friends in Denmark, warning her to get out if possible, or at least to seek higher ground. We hastened back to the hotel to retrieve our passports and money, and then made a beeline for the main road once again, in hopes of finding a ride up the mountain.
I should point out here that there was an element of “the sky is falling” in all this, as several of our hotel mates chose to stay at the ocean’s edge, largely unfazed by the tsunami warning. By then, it had passed Taiwan with no damage reported whatsoever; however, the warning for Bali had not been lifted. All in all, though, I thought I’d prefer to climb to higher ground and take some good-natured ribbing later on, as opposed to staying at the hotel and possibly realizing that I had made the wrong decision. Also, there were power outages at beachside, and I thought I might have a better chance of trading text messages with Saki from the hillside resort, which offered high-speed internet (sort of), powered by generator. There was also a verandah bar, from which we could watch the beach from 100 feet above. As it turned out, I was able to text Saki, and to receive a quick message as well, in which she assured me that although Tokyo had taken a pretty good jolt, all of her family and our friends had made it through with a minimum of fuss.
She was actually aboard a city bus when the initial shock struck, the only passenger on the forty-minute ride from her mom’s house to my apartment. Traffic stopped briefly in anticipation of aftershocks, then tentatively started once again. When she got to the apartment, she found that several dishes, pottery pieces, and so on had fallen and smashed, creating a fair bit of mess, but no irreplaceable losses.
I logged off the resort internet, and went back to join my friends at the bar. We stayed until well after dark, watching the whitecaps until we could no longer see them. As we left, we heard on CNN that the warning had been lifted, so we made our way down to the beach, and back to our hotel, where we indeed received the aforementioned good-natured ribbing from those who had elected to stay behind.
There was a bit of the smugness and relief of having dodged a bullet, I suppose, but it was tempered by the relentless footage of the immense havoc wreaked in Sendai, and by the heartache visited upon the denizens therein. And it seems, what with the distressing news about the Fukushima reactor, that Japan’s troubles are not over yet. I don’t have the words to say how strongly my wishes and hopes go out to all of the folks who have been affected and who remain at risk.
Also, to everyone who sent emails of concern, please know that I was literally overwhelmed both by the sentiments expressed within, and by the sheer volume of messages. I’ll be home on the 18th, home to Japan that is, after which I will do my level best to answer each one personally. You are the best family and friends a person could hope to have.
Hey everybody, I apologize for being offline for so long. I am in Nusa Lembongan, a tiny island off the southeast coast of Bali, and have been faced with two access problems: sporadic internet availability, and an inability to log onto WordPress. At last I have internet again, and, thanks to the ministrations of the BookPage online guru, Trisha, I am able to log on to the admin page of the blog as well. I have several posts ready to go; I just have to key them in and figure out a way to add pics. So, over the next few days, there should be some new stuff to read, and some pretty spectacular pictures as well. Please note: I am not tooting my own horn about the pictures. Bali is so photogenic that one could simply aim a camera in any direction (including straight up and straight down) and shoot endless National-Geographic-worthy shots at every turn. More soon!