November 21, 2012
TEDx comes to the southside: Jakarta Post piece

Handspun batik, Twitter and fighting illegal logging were among the disparate topics that shared a stage over six hours at South Jakarta’s first TEDx conference.

November 15, 2012
Puja Incorporated

Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, is mythologically the time of year when the mother Goddess Durga visits her ancestral home and triumphs over the forces of evil. 

Tearing up the streets and tapping into the electricity grid, communities in Kolkata build pandals—structures that house Durga and her god-children during their ten day visit. 

As communities vie for the best pandal (and an ever-expanding list of awards), corporate India has put its weight behind the festival. Imperial Blue whiskey, Tata Docomo internet, and Lux undergarments all sponsored pujas this year and took credit by plastering the streets with linoleum advertising banners. 

With the corporate sponsorship, budgets have grown and the pandals have become bigger and more elaborate. Many cost over 50 lakh rupees (about 100,000 US dollars), and construction can take two to three months with teams of 20 to 40 workers. 

This year, one puja even became a tool of West Bengal’s foreign diplomacy. Flanked by dragons, a giant bronze Buddha-face towered over the display of Durga and her family. The consul generals from Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Thailand attended the inauguration of this Buddhist-themed puja. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee rolled up to deliver a speech. Tibetan Buddhist monks and a dance troupe, invited by pandal organizers from Darjeeling, looked on.

Still, there are hold-outs. For example, Babuda, the General Secretary of a south Kolkata neighborhood, opts out of the corporate puja and instead relies on money from his neighbors to fund a modest pandal. In front, families lick kulfi as Babuda explains, “This is a time for the community to unite. Why do we need such a big display?”

And even at the increasingly lavish shrines, the actions of visiting devotees remain the same. A father holds his daughter up for a better view. Teenagers capture the moment on camera. And many close their eyes to the crowd and structure to pay respect to the goddess within.

Photos

A sculptor in the north Kolkata neighborhood of Kumartuli paints the murthi depicting evil.

Murthis are transported through the streets of Kolkata.
A giant bronze Buddha in southern Kolkata.
Durga and her family sit on a lotus below a beehive.
With its theme of scales, this pandal in Shyam Bazaar compels visitors to question the weight of what they hold dear.
Papier-mâché birds make a light overhead detail in one pandal.
Durga portrayal takes on the abstract as thousands of the goddess’ face form the scales of a fish.
A Brahmin offers evening prayers to Maa Durga at the pandal in Babuda’s neighborhood.
Amidst a boisterous crowd, one lady worshipper finds a peaceful moment to gaze up at Maa Durga.
*Note: Apologies for this post going out of chronological order. It comes from Melati’s visit to Brian in Kolkata during Durga Puja in October. It is a rare collective effort during these months apart. 

November 15, 2012
Married in Green

Last week, one of the video-editors from my office got married.

It was a very green affair. Yes, they did use ceramic plates but what I’m referring to is the color, the shade you might associate with the Javanese Queen of the South Sea, Nyi Roro Kidul.

Swimmers and surfers that brave the rough surf of Indian Ocean along Java’s south coast are advised not to wear green. Legend has it that the haughty princess-goddess that lives in the marine depths below sucks those sporting her favorite hue into her murky underworld to serve as guards, servants, anything that will allow her to view their colored clothing. 

Aris’s wedding was in Bogor though, many miles inland from Nyi Roro Kidul’s realm. I think the bridal palette had more to do with the Islamic take on the Garden of Eden or the Prophet Mohammed himself. Green was supposedly his favorite color because it sat in the middle of the VIBGYOR range and therefore advocated moderation, according to this informative read from Slate.

The reception took place in a kindergarten at the end of a series of twisted gangs (alleyways off the main road where much of Indonesia’s city folk live).

The newly-weds sat in heavily padded chairs before a wall of leafy creepers. 

Her hair was bundled tight under coils of sash. Aris sported a batik sarong over his pants. The loudspeakers outside blared tunes strangely reminiscent of western holiday music.

As guests, we came in, shook the hands of the bride, the groom and their extended families.

Aris asked me when I was going to get married. “Menurut orang indonesia, sudan nikah  setahun,” I fumbled. According to Indonesian standards, I’ve been married a year already…

Perhaps that’s a cop out but I’m not sure how else to explain the bearded man I’ve been tromping around Asia with. Living together before marriage is still taboo in Indonesia. 

At the end of the wall of handshakes, we turned right and walked down another wall lined with a buffet. Potatoes in red sauce, chicken curry and meatballs with vegetables. Dessert was cupcakes.

Everyone sat under a big outdoor canopy, leaving the couple in the kindergarten. The earth, still drenched from rain the night before, soaked through our sandals as we ate and chatted.

After the food, and another parade through the leafy kindergarten for handshakes, we posed for a picture and went home before the 4 pm rain.

Short and sweet.

Here’s a couple more photos from the day:

Another co-worker and his family

 

And a guest enjoying a smoke


November 7, 2012
Our neighborhood Corpse Lily

Cewek atau cowok,” someone in the crowd yells out to the kneeling biologist. “Is it male or female?”

Arms on the ground, the biologist faces her rear-end to us and focuses on guiding a dentist mirror along the innards of the newly bloomed Rafflesia. She wrinkles her nose and squints.

This Saturday the Bogor Botanical garden announced the blooming of one of its Rafflesias—a once-in-fifty-year happening.

Flowers of the genus Rafflesia are commonly known as corpse lilies—a reference to their scent and the pollinating flies that flock around these fantastical inflorescences.

Native to the southeast Asian countries of Thailand, the Malay peninsula, the Philippines and Indonesian archipelago, these parasitic plants are best known for three things: the size of their flowers (between a television and a small satellite disk); how rare it is to see them (the parasitic plants tap into the root system of the Tetrastigma wild grape genus, blooming once every 50-80 years) and their smell.

In 2007, the Bogor Botanical garden started to cultivate a Western Javanese strain of the plant, Rafflesia patma. And their pruning and preening has since yielded two rounds of blooms.

According to a stub on the Rafflesia genus on Wikipedia, botanical information on this particular species was first collected on the “Alcatraz” of Java.

Past inmates to Kembangan Island include Indonesian literary icon Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Tommy Suharto and those linked to the 2002 Bali bombing.

Strangely enough, these plants, on their half-century flowering cycle, are sexually dimorphic. This means gendered, having male and female flowers.

And this is what the kneeling biologist in the garden is researching. The male flowers have bristles under their anther disk while the females don’t. Which one was this new specimen?

Sexual dimorphism would seem evolutionarily unfortunate for a species that rarely blooms.

The signboard at the garden said that the trait was actually an evolutionary defense. Parasites that live off the root system of another species, the plants only bloom once their host is fully mature, an indication that their habitat was a healthy enough to sustain a new generation of Rafflesia.

This might shed light on the plants’ rankness. Only able to find a sexual partner twice in a century might force a plant to bring out its strongest perfume.

Also on view at the Botanical garden, a strange array of Asian politicians with orchids:

Here’s Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, admiring a plant through his shades.

Here’s Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, admiring a plant through his shades.

Another of Sukarno’s daughter and Indonesia’s fourth president, Megawati, touring the garden grounds with Kim Jong-Il!

Even larger flowers.

And my landlady Anny fixing to capture what I’d like to say is a golden doll for no other reason than the strange name.

October 29, 2012
Eid Mubarak.
Here’s a Kolkata moment to mark the occasion. Yup, two boys and a sacrificial goat on a hand pulled rickshaw.
On a short work visit to India, Brian and I visited the old Chinatown section of Kolkata. For those in the know, this is in the neighborhood near the Armenian church.
In the space of 30 minutes, the narrow lanes brought us to many scenes. A synagogue on the national register without enough patrons to fill a service. A mosque so full, the congregants stopped traffic during Friday prayer. And a dilapidated Chinese temple with a plaque dedicated to sheng jin—raw gold, with fresh incense set in front of it.
Posts on all coming shortly.

Eid Mubarak.

Here’s a Kolkata moment to mark the occasion. Yup, two boys and a sacrificial goat on a hand pulled rickshaw.

On a short work visit to India, Brian and I visited the old Chinatown section of Kolkata. For those in the know, this is in the neighborhood near the Armenian church.

In the space of 30 minutes, the narrow lanes brought us to many scenes. A synagogue on the national register without enough patrons to fill a service. A mosque so full, the congregants stopped traffic during Friday prayer. And a dilapidated Chinese temple with a plaque dedicated to sheng jin—raw gold, with fresh incense set in front of it.

Posts on all coming shortly.

October 28, 2012

You know you are in India when you see a homeless boy share a stoop to sleep on 
with his father. So narrow is the section in front of the defunct bank, one of them sleeps sideways.

Yet, 400 meters away, a mere four cents will buy sweets that melt in your mouth evoking home, familiarity 
and comfort. 



Temporary joy is so cheap here. But, so many find themselves wanting.

October 7, 2012
A piece we wrote on the Bajaus in Wakatobi for Al Jazeera

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/10/20121027184859926.html

Here is Melati conducting interviews for this piece in the village of Sampela on our trip to Sulawesi in August.

October 7, 2012
Java, where the flowers are only temporarily yours

Earlier this week, a man up the street died.

He was a well-connected banker, judging from the rows of flower-bedecked styro-foam boards given in condolence. Among the well wishers were branches of HSBC and members of the Indonesian government banking system.

A canopy tent was set up, stretching out of the family home and across the street. Java is the most populous island in the world. In the Greater Jakarta Metro area, houses sit snug against one another. Walls are shared. And ceremonies often spill into the streets.

By now, I have steered my motorbike through weddings, circumcisions, engagement parties and funerals; stopping only when hosts walk cups of sweet tea out the door to their guests who sit in fold up chairs on the other side of the street.

This ceremony though was too important for such behavior.

Police stood guard at the head of the road a full 24 hours. Lines of black cars blocked evening traffic one street over.

But by commuter hour the next day, school kids were re-pinning the funerary flower boards to spell their names. “Wiwit” and “Eko” had picked apart “Sri Tatang Purnomo MS.”

And just like that, my memory of Tatang’s funeral went from rows of black Mercedes to a name picked away in jest by children.

Traffic was flowing again. 

September 27, 2012
Live New Yorker cartoon moment

Today, on the way to work, I saw a little girl in a long checkered dress and a black headscarf.

She was wearing a fine-featured, traditional Javanese dance mask usually associated with Arjuna of the epic tale, Mahabarat.

As I passed her on the quiet side-street leading to my office, she lifted her head to the golden SUV in front of her and stomped.

It was like a New Yorker cartoon without a caption.

September 17, 2012
Faced with Fundamentalism

On the heels of a weekend of protests to the Innocence of Muslims video across the globe, Indonesian Fundamentalist group, Islamic Peoples’ Forum (FUI) and Islam Defenders’ Front (FPI) launched their own demo in Jakarta Monday.

The hundreds’ strong procession—started at a busy roundabout in front of Plaza Indonesia, informally considered ground zero for protests in the Indonesian capital, and ended with lobbing petroleum bombs at the US Embassy. Whereupon the police turned water cannons on the gathered protesters.

I was on a Jakarta errand and stuck around till 1:30 to see the start of the march.

Men, in white combat boots and berets, stood poolside at the Plaza Indonesia roundabout’s fountain.  Leaders urged the crowd to run laps, in an attempt “to keep energies up”.

On a truck, baby-faced boys dangled a banner with “Amerika teroris” scrawled across the front. Terrorist America.

“Warriors, gather in the front,” the announcer yelled. “Take a bottle of drinking water if you need it.”

A man, with a green shirt but no arms, milled among the protesters. His face set in a grimace, the better to carry the blue begging bucket held between clenched teeth.

At demonstrations in the past, I have chatted with participants to get a sense of who are the people behind the public message. And these people dressed in white—taking off from work Monday morning and headed to the US embassy—seem particularly interesting.

Today though, as one of only a few women on the scene not in a headscarf, and perhaps the only American (albeit incognito), I chose to remain a silent observer.

By 2:10, the crowd has yelled, washed their feet in the skuzzy fountain and marched on to the US embassy to perform afternoon prayer (sholat) and burn the American flag, as far as I can gather from one of the announcers.

At the last moment, I worked up the courage to talk with a lady in a white jilbab holding a “USA go to hell” sign and a fake Versace purse in the other.

She is a middle-aged housewife who identified herself as Dia S—Indonesian for she. Dia says she joined the march today to be an inspiration to Muslims everywhere.

I asked her if she knew what her sign translated to.

“Amerika, kalian bergila?” She posited. Americans, you are crazy.