World Cup in Indo

Amidst the scent of clove flavored ‘kretec’ cigarettes (the national smell of Indonesia), the place had a faint smell of fish. I couldn’t distinguish if the garage smelled—stunk—because it was the stock hold for the local fisherman or if the odor emanated from the large parrot that was perched right above my head. The room was dimly lit by a projection of the Argentina-Nigeria World Cup game across the garage. When I sat down, I didn’t even notice the bird, whose head and neck was dressed with an incredibly pointy mohawk, mirroring many of the football players on the screen behind. The parrot could have bit my ear off as I sat down if it wanted to. I was startled to see it when I settled.

That was my ‘discreet’ entrance into the local gathering point for the world cup games which are played at 11pm, 3 am and 5 am in Indonesia. Indonesians don’t sleep.

But in rural Indonesia it’s impossible to walk into a room unnoticed. 

I was with Robert, a German speaking Italian who has been coaching me a bit in the lineup beyond the surf break here in Pacitan (pronounced PaCHitan). 

The peanut gallery, disguised momentarily as an audience, parted space in the middle of the room for us on a woven matt in the accommodating and generous nature of almost all communities I’ve visited in the ‘3rd world.’ We had no other option but to be swallowed in the middle of the sea of Indonesian men, the center of attention.

Around the room, grown men—most incredibly welcoming, many shirtless exposing their thin and boney bodies, some with rotting teeth, a few ominously staring us down—huddled together like kindergarteners on a foam mat. They were joined arm over shoulder, bound together in clusters of friends. A few leaned across tile steps, some were asleep, many added personal sound effects to headers, blocked shots, and pantomimed dives in the game, most were puffing away at thick unfiltered kretec cigarettes. 

Using the glow of the screen, I looked around the dark room and saw crates, thick puddles from the tropical storm hammering outside. Rats and geckos lined the ceiling rafters. A bat occasionally flew in and frantically around the space then back out into the thunder and lightning outside. 

Clashes of lightning lit up the midnight sky, casting the palm trees into perfect silhouettes. The thunder rumbled the ground like an earthquake or a tsunami wave coming ashore. Each tremor froze the play of game.

The weather had no effect on the jolly atmosphere inside. The men cheered impressive skill, laughed at goofy looking fans, and grimaced at rough fouls. They reacted to the game in the same way Americans did at a bar in Philadelphia, Bengalese did on the dirt mounts of the Sundarbans, or Argentinians did in Ushuaia or Buenos Aires. That’s whats amazing about the world cup. It levels billions from all corners of the globe. 

The garage I just described is the one of the many odd places I’ve watched a world cup game so far in Indonesia. 

In Jakarta, I was up from a restless sleep at 5 in the morning. I went out to go to 7-11, yes there are 7-11s in Jakarta, and found noise of a game coming from one of the cities alleyways.  It’s a football crazed country. I wandered down the alley, stupidly explorative at the night’s darkest hour in a rough city. I found a television hooked up in the middle of the street, the power cable dangling out of a window 7 stories up above. Around the TV sat a gang of cigarette smokers who nonchalantly gave me a head nod when I stumbled upon the group. They were young, in their late 20s, and quite thuggish. Around them, some homeless men were sound asleep on doorsteps. The Netherlands were playing Spain, and giving them a good spanking. The football fans clearly knew there was a hostel with many westerners around the corner so were inviting to have me stick around to watch. The Indonesians made some remarks about the game that I couldn’t understand. We were both cheering for the Dutch so all was well. Although we couldn’t communicate, I went out for Nasi Goreng (fried rice) at a street stall across the street with them after the game for early breakfast. 

11 months gone.

Jakarta: first impressions

I saw a guy juggling a soccer ball on the 8th floor of a scaffolding today. The floor was partially installed. If the ball dropped down a floor or two, he would slide down on the I-beams. It reminded me of ‘Man on Wire’ where the french tightrope walker went across the world trade center towers. But he wasn’t doing it to show off or get attention. I’m pretty sure I was the only person watching him, standing on the fringe of a busy road. Death was on the line; it didn’t stop him.


A nice young boy opened the door for me after I picked up a snack of mixed nuts from a convenience store. I thanked him cheerfully for his overly friendly gesture. He stuck out his hand in need of food or money. Oh…right.


Like in Bangladesh, I’ve gotten huge smiles here in Jakarta. For the most part, people are genuinely happy to have foreign visitors. It’s a very welcoming place. I was greeted by “Hello mister!” all over the city.


I went to the harbor, through the poverty stricken neighborhoods of North Jakarta (the most vulnerable to disaster). Many lived in tin shacks, some of the homes were even built on stilts on the water. At the harbor, men were loading cement onto gigantic wooden clipper-ships. The ships had gigantic bows then would bend like bananas into the water were the middle would sit only a couple feet above the water then the stern had large cabins and cockpits like cargo freighters. I paid a man five dollars to canoe me around the harbor. I didn’t enjoy the elderly man laboring on my behalf so I asked for the extra paddle. There were only a few strokes where I didn’t stroke through some sort of garbage or debris.



I got a tour of the Masjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia from a man named Bibi. The central prayer room was a fantastic indoor space with four floors of balconies for overflow.


The traffic in Jakarta is notable. There are times that its so slow that I want to get out and walk. But I cant get out of the taxi because I can’t even open the door. It’s not just bumber to bumber. Its window to window. Tire to tire. The city’s train line is practically empty most of the time so a great way to get North or South. It seems that the city’s transportation system is all about self ownership. There are millions of motorcycles and cars for those who can afford them. The traffic is a case in point that Adam Smith’s theory does not apply universally. The pursuit of self-interest does not lead to any societal benefits. It leads to a gridlocked traffic.

Jakarta is not walkable. Many streets don’t even have sidewalks. With no side walks, there are therefore no crosswalks. So you just have to go. And don’t make any sudden movements or you are mushed meat. The streets in India are more  crowded, but here everything moves at much higher speeds making them much more intimidating to cross.

I saw a man put on his prayer cap underneath his helmet. (At least the majority of people here helmets). It’s swelteringly hot. So I can’t see why he put it on unless to say ‘The roads are dangerous. My safety will be decided by Allah.’


As the end nears (I even have a domestic US flight booked from NYC to Memphis for the final presentation and conference) I’m finding it strange to think about heading ‘home’. I’m getting closer and closer to committing to London next year.




Back in it…

Back to standing on the side of a one-way, two lane road for minutes figuring out how to cross–as if its more intimidating than multivariable calculus.

Back to toddlers standing helmet-less on the gas tanks of speeding motorcycles hanging over handlebars like they’re monkeybars and wives side-saddling the on the back cradling a baby.

Back to Muslim prayer calls amplifying out of indiscernable corners of the sky.

Back to cars making seven and a quarter lanes out of a four lane highway.

Back to a mega-city in the developing world. It’s hot, wet, and crowded.

I’ve landed in Jakarta, Indonesia. One of the worlds most sprawling, populated, and polluted cities. It is ranked up there next to Dhaka and Manilla as one of the most vulnerable to climate change on the planet. Each year the northern fringes of the city suffer massive floods. Not to mention the city is in the heart of the Pacific “ring of fire.”

Jakarta is on Java, the most populated island in the world. Java is one of 18,000 (give or take depending on the tides) islands in the Indonesian archipelago. It’s a country of 245 million, the fourth most populated in the world. Over 700 languages are spoken. The archipelago stretches for 5,000 miles across the equator and descends diagonally from west of the Malaysian peninsula all the way east to Northwest Australia.

Descending down into Jakarta, I got a fuller understanding of what it means to be built at sea level. Besides color and texture, the landform is not differentiated from the sea. They are on the same plane and blend together without a definitive coastline.

jakarta coast

Jakarta is 35km from here. The topography does not change.

I was forewarned about the touts, thieves, and thugs at the Jakarta airport arrivals. My advisor hadn’t been to Mumbai, Kolkata, or Dhaka. We didn’t have a common denominator of shared experience so I took his warnings into consideration, but mostly shrugged them off.

Outside the airport, the freelancing cabbies were easily deflected with slight smiles and sideways “no thanks” head shakes. The touts could be confidently walked past. In comparison, outside of the central train station in New Delhi, I was followed for a quarter kilometer, poked, and prodded until I had to turn and go nose to nose (his nose was at my chest) to get him to back off.

I found the certified, trusted cab company recommended by the directions my hostel provided.

The cars here are modern and mostly Japansese: Suzukis or Toyotas. They are air conditioned, worlds ahead of the 30 year old fleet of HM Ambassadors held together with loose screws and duct tape that run the streets in India. But besides the material make-up of the roadways, the city’s chaos is on par, or perhaps even greater, than the South Asian giants.

As the largest city in Southeast Asia, the city sprawls on ceaselessly across the flat landscape. The traffic is severe. My ride from the airport craftily got into a chain of fifteen cars drifting, uncomfortably fast, in the wake of an ambulance. At least emergency response was be close by.

In many ways, its like I’ve come full circle back to the lowlands of the Netherlands, there are canals, levees, and sheer flatness. But Jakarta looks like the Netherlands through a filter of the future incorporating a lens of the 2080 projections of global warming and population growth. It feels like I’ve returned to Rotterdam, but almost apocalyptic. It’s as if the Dutch city has abandoned its commitment to green urban development completely.  The urban expanse goes on and on.

On the ride into the city I caught some glimpses of the city’s canal ways, laced with garbage and stilt shanty-towns.


At traffic intersections, motorcycles charge off the red lights lights weaving in and out to get ahead of four, six, and eight wheeled vehicles as if they are gazelles or mice running out in front of a stampede of elephants.

It poured with rain today. When it stopped in the late afternoon. I went out to explore the neighborhood, dodging the puddles carefully along the fringe of the road. Like in many of the other ‘developing’ cities I’ve been to, the sidewalk is non-existent or occupied by impromptu restaurants, carts, garbage, and temporary (or permanent) shelters.

I made the mistake of wearing flip flops so my feet quickly turned into unrecognizable forms. I hope they don’t shrivel away into oblivion. People greeted my presence with a familiar look of inquisitiveness–a look that simultaneously says “What the fuck are you doing here?” and “Welcome! Glad you’ve come!” I usually give a head nod and a smile. Most the time that’s reciprocated by some of the biggest heartwarming smiles I’ve ever seen (even from some of the most thuggish looking people) that is rare to find in the hustle and bustle of our western cities.

A gang of skinny 12 year old boys passed by me. Each one had hair frozen solid with hair gel. They were toting cigarettes. One of the boldest gave me a “What’s up dude?!” nod as he toked his dart and blew the smoke in my face.

Welcome to Jakarta.

You’ll be happy to know that I’m an millionaire. I’ve got 1,500,000 Indonesian Rupiah in my back pocket, about 110 USD. It becomes monopoly money at this point.


The lady and the turtle

Her outfit of shin high fireman-red rain boots, aged blue jeans, a white v-neck t-shirt and a bob of permed black hair made her look like a clammer scouring the Cape Cod bay at low tide. She was short and elderly but she moved around her market stall swiftly.

From below a table, she picked up a turtle, which retreated into its shell in flight as it was transported from a watery bucket where it rested. She nonchalantly placed the turtle on a sanded down stump of wood and turned around to continue her conversation–or bargaining–with her customer, an extremely skinny man with wrinkled eyes who had a lit cigarette hanging from his bottom lip that wagged around like a loose screw as he talked. I couldn’t follow their Cantonese dialogue.

The turtle, oblivious to the transaction going on outside–on a layer of the  universe beyond his realm of comprehension–set his feet down to feel out the new ground. After safe footing, he stuck his head out to take a look.

On that cue she grabbed a meat cleaver, an object unbefitting of her loving grandmotherly character, and decapitated the turtle without pausing her speech or taking her eyes off of her customer. The headless turtle squirmed its legs, as if to make a run for it, until they descended for fifteen long seconds into a terminal stillness.

The legs and shell were tossed into a pool of boiling water while the turtle head lay on the wooden chop-block, obviously out of context. Softened by the hot water, the turtle’s body was picked apart, opened up, artfully divided by the lady with tremendous skill and dexterity with the meat cleaver, put the pieces into a plastic bag, and then handed to the man.

This was the fish and meat market in Hong Kong. The turtle slaughter was just one tiny stall, a small component of a half kilometer of food processing. Vendors put their offerings–fish and meat that ranged from razor clams to pig snouts, ears, and hearts–on display in damp, smelly stalls that were lit by the glow of red lights. There were turtles, toads, and tuna steaks. Some of the steaks were so fresh they were still twitching. Behind the banter of the customer’s exchange, buzz saws scraped against frozen animal as they cut limbs into portions.

Sights like this are startling to see. It’s vulgar, barbaric even. We are used to collecting food from a grocery store fridge in plastic packaging. It’s too easy to forget the source. I’ve always been a believer that if you are willing to eat an animal you should also be willing to personally kill it. Not in order to be violent, dominant or aggressive, but to have a fuller understanding of cause and the effect.

I stumbled upon this market yesterday after hiking along Hong Kong island’s eastern ridge line to a beach called Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay). It’s amazing that a nature preserve and beautiful hiking trail is accessible within 30 minutes from the center of the 3 photo 2 photo 1

Sleeper bus to Hong Kong

The Yangshou bus station attendant was an middle aged lady with a black bob haircut and a motherly smile. That smile was enough to trust that she would put me on the right bus once it arrived in town from Guilin. Either way, it was all I had. I was drifting in a translation-less current with no paddles to steer with and no fabric to rig up a sail.  

My ticket was a sticky note that she had just scribbled some numbers and Chinese characters on. She handed it to me in exchange for a punk leaflet, as thin as rice paper and as feeble as tissue paper, that I was given at the hostel after I paid 230 yuan for the trip.

I got to the bus. It was facing the wrong way on the wrong side of the street at the bus station. The station was no more than a corrugated metal roof over a gap in between two buildings as the road turned from town into countryside.

After I dropped my backpack off in the storage hold, I waited outside the bus and listened to an argument ensue in the main compartment. Besides hearing the hostility, I had no idea what the conversation what about. I assumed it was about the validity of a ticket or rights to be on board. Whatever it was, it caused confusion and a hold up at the door.

I climbed aboard and the driver signaled at me to remove my flip flops and put them in a plastic bag. I got a glimpse of the ‘sleeper’: two floors of three rows of 8 bunks. The front above the driver was a larger surface area. It was covered with a thin mat that could otherwise be used to cover a wood floor in a gym or to cover lawn furniture. The thin rows of berths were like baby’s cribs that were tucked into each other like puzzle pieces. The legs rested underneath the back rest of the man in front. The bus ended up looking like a transport for uncovered Egyptian mummies.

I was the last one on the bus. Every single berth was taken and people had even started piling blankets into the 2 foot wide aisle to accommodate the overflow. The driver’s assistant signaled broadly towards the back of the bus but it made no sense. I started working my way into the depths of the bus stepping over people making nests in the aisles. My shoulders were too broad to fit between the bunks so I had to kneel down beneath the top bunk. The experience induced claustrophobia. Everyone was staring me down as if I was a zoo animal, and my crab-like gait only added to it.

I thought I was going to have to hunker down onto the wooden aisle before a Minnesotan accent from the very back gym mat called out, “You back ‘ere?” Turned out my berth was in the back, next to the motor wedged with two people on either side of me. On my right were two westerners who were teaching in Shenzhen, one from Minneapolis the other from Manchester. On my right were two miniature Chinese girls. I fit in with no room to spare. Shoulder to Shoulder. Hip to Hip. Foot to Foot. 

They told me the argument was in fact about space on the bus. The bus’s manager was trying to kick some people off who had bought a ticket “too late”. But they claimed that they had a ticket and were let on the bus and now they won’t leave it. So the bus was overcrowded. But by more than just a few people. Even in individual berths, children slept alongside their parents.

That was the closest I’ve ever been to traveling in a chicken coup. As a chicken. 

Last night, I got a sense of how the majority of the people in the world sleep every night. Not in private bedrooms but packed in next to friends, families, strangers. Without air-conditioning but sweating next to hot slimy bodies.  Not on comfortable and well engineered mattresses but on hard floors. 

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well. I dozed off for a couple minutes at a time and the ride from 9pm until the first stop at 2:30 felt like over 8 hours.

But I enjoyed the experience for the sake of experience. I knew I wasn’t committing myself to sleepless nights for the rest of my days so hunkered down, read some NYTs op-eds on my iPhone and thought about the hilarity of bumming through the Chinese countryside in a sardine can.

I eventually started to knock off, but every sweaty touch with the Minnesotan next to me woke me up again. He was sprawling out, taking up an unfair share of the finite space. The Chinese girls on my right were rigid and I feared getting any closer–from the inch boundary that was already between us–due to cultural and social unknowns and my terror of crossing any lines and being, lost in translation, accused of something I never attended.  Perhaps it was the NYTs editors in my head but they way the westerners  on my left and the Chinese on my right slept, were symbols of their cultural attitudes and how their disregard effected their environments.

After 4am the bus stopped every 30 minutes or so and it began to empty out. A bunk on the second level opened up and I climbed up into my own space (just as constricted, but against walls and gates rather than strangers).

I was told that the bus would drop me right off at the border with Hong Kong. It didn’t. 

I had looked up the name of the Shenzhen metro station that crossed into Hong Kong so I knew what to look for. But I was ushered off the bus into an unknown Chinese mega-city (over 8 million). No english. No idea where to go. It’s probably the closest feeling I’ll ever get to exile, or to relate to climate refugees when they are forced out of their homeland, packed into vehicles and dropped off in unknown places. I walked around in the morning heat for a bit until I noticed a bus station of the same name and trudged up to it to find immigration into Hong Kong.

I crossed the border, walked onto the Hong Kong metro, transferred to four different trains and knocked on the door at yet another hostel. The tally of the number of ‘beds’ I’ve slept in this year is getting big.

I can’t say all of these cities are blending together yet but I will say this: Hong Kong has London’s street painting and traffic lights. The taxis are like Shanghai’s. The metro is like Singapore’s. It is a city-state in east Asia that was once colonized by the British so the pieces make sense.

I’ve got more to say about Shanghai and Yangshou. To follow.