Tuesday, November 12, 2013

First week in West Java

WARNING: FOR THE PATIENT READER ONLY. A long page of reflections on my first week in Indonesia. No sex, danger, drugs or wild animal attacks below (OK, there are some irritating toads).

In our little front garden
HELLO FRIENDS & FAMILY. How are you coping without me? I'm delighted to be here, happy and excited if not yet relaxed or rested, and above all overjoyed to be reunited with Kiran, who has taken to this new life with brilliance, courage and & a highly useful sense of humor. I'm also glad to be through with transitions for awhile. It seems like all I've done for the last 4 months is move junk in and out of boxes, backpacks and suitcases. For a time that can stop.

OK, let's start with the basics: K's found us a large, lovely, uncluttered house in Taman Kencana [“Kinchana”], this lush neighborhood in tawdry, traffic-choked Bogor. The city is, in fact, a provincial town whose population has grown beyond any reasonable scale. How big is Bogor? No one seems certain. The 2010 census names a figure of just under one million; current commentators speak of 3 million. Virtually everyone agrees that this is one of the most crowded places on earth. Those 1-3 million fit in a space roughly the size of greater Charlottesville, about 40 square miles. There are no highrises, no vertical stacking of people. They just live with each other, in crowds, and with remarkable grace and positive energy.
... if Bogor mattered to mapmakers ...

Slightly higher in elevation than broiling Jakarta (60 km north), it was for nine centuries the capital of the  of the medieval Sunda Kingdom (669-1579). Later it became a getaway and administrative center for the Dutch. We’re just a degree or two south of the equator, so there’s almost no seasonal variation in temperature or length of day. Rain is inescapable, but drizzle is rare. The norm seems to be powerful storms (I’ve seen some amazing lightning already) followed by breaks of sun.

I've been a homebody this week. Jetlag, insomnia, a head cold and Kiran’s more severe, lingering cold have left us in poor shape for exploring. Not knowing how to say even so much as "Excuse me, I'm lost" is another deterrent. Beyond this neighborhood, I have made exactly three shopping expeditions--by foot, car and angkot, the latter being the tiny green microbuses that are Bogor’s ubiquitous, cheap transport. What I have seen is friendly people: lovely, bright and kindly of demeanor, full of smiles and curiosity--but in numbers that leave me gasping.

As for traffic--well, there’s simply no overstating its effect on life here. There’s a perpetual traffic jam in Bogor during work hours, apparently, and the lunacy extends to the whole western end of the island. Several CIFOR families apparently go nowhere save Jakarta, for shopping, and the airport to get away. This morning I had a look online at a tempting Pacific beach resort on the South coast. It’s about 87 miles from Jakarta, but the drive, it’s asserted, takes up to 12 hours. An alternative is a middle-of-the-night drive, which in our case might let us make the coast in as little as two.

Fortunately there’s a breathing space in the heart of Bogor--the botanical gardens, world famous, one of the largest and oldest such spaces in Asia. I’m dying to get there.

Here's are a few random pictures from the hood. Taman Kencana is a decidedly rich enclave--not “gated” in the American corporate sense, but yes, physically gated in key spots against what would otherwise be a flood of cut-through traffic.

Our street, Jalan Burangrang

Wildlife, like expats, seems to shelter in the neighborhood. There are exquisite bats that mob the streetlights. There are wild civet cats that hunt in the gardens, and frogs, and toads that cry to each other in deafening skreeeeee-skreeee-screeches throughout the night. Other voices in the night include the “Fuck-you!” frog (rather a charming sound actually) the crickets I mistook for LOUDLY buzzing streetlights, the car alarms I thought outlawed by UN treaty 15 years ago (you remember them, dooo--DOOOOOO! WHEEE WHEEE! uuuuRRRRP! etc.)  the wailing tomcats, the fighting cocks in cages waiting for their chance to die, the night doves, the distant thunder of sleepless roads.

And of course, everybody's favorite, the early-morning call to prayer. The latter is inescapable by design: you simply will NOT be unaware that RIGHT NOW (3:45 to 4:30 am, every day) certain men of faith and/or power believe you should get up and pray. Big speakers are mounted on nearly every block; I’ve heard it said that the mosques somehow compete. The voices do have a kind of beauty, at moments, but these often give way to sheer bludgeoning. The emotions felt may in truth be serenity and religious joy. What I hear, clawing at sleep, is a terrifying, echoing fifty-voice wail that could not be improved on as the soundtrack for a film about, say, mass demonic possession and the end of the world. At first I wondered how I could survive this onslaught for a week. But already, to my amazement, I am finding ways. The strategy involves pillows on my head, loud fans and afternoon naps.

The toads are (were?) another matter. They are horrors. Cute little living fire alarms that go off ten feet from our bed, four times an hour, all night long. We have a lovely little fish pond around which the toads congregate and chat. Luckily they are paralyzed by flashlights. On my second and third nights, I went out and grabbed a total of ten of these screamers, dropped them in a cardboard box, and carried them three blocks away. They are now somebody else's toads. I hope they remain so.

I am entranced by the plant life every time I step outside. These next photos are in our front & back yards:
Snowflake and Sugar Bear, Kiran's new kittens, born on our terrace

The whole neighborhood might be about half again the size of the UVa. lawn. Our house, with five bedrooms, is about as small as they come; many houses look like palaces. Stepping into their courtyards, under the vines, palms, mango trees, climbing ferns, bougainvilleas and a thousand flowering, rioting forms of plant life I’ll never learn the names for, I feel like I’m straying into a romantic dream. This dream comes at a cost to others, however. Expats like us live with more room than we could ever use, while little more than a stone’s throw away it’s literally too crowded to stand still.

Trees with aerial roots further up our street

That much admitted, I have to say that the friends Kiran’s made here are wonderful and fascinating people, full of welcome and a will to help. Already I've been to two welcome parties and enjoyed some damned delicious homecooked food. And mangoes. Bright orange, melt-in-your-mouth mangoes. Oh baby.

Right--more information once I get my feet on the ground. Missing you so much, but doing fine. Love to all--Robert


KA said...

Err... the kittens were born on the terrace of the house we rent in Bogor. They are NOT "my" cats, and I have given them no names though we have inhabited the space together for two months. Robert's cats mayhaps?

Vikram said...

Robert you have gone metric! (km)

My best wishes that you perfect "Nindrasana" (sleep) through the morning prayer call.


Anonymous said...

Great beginnings, especially for the frogs! Wishing you the best in your adventures.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. My sympathies on the azan cacophony. One of the reasons I left Mumbai. The kittens are cute. Looking forward to more tales of Kiran and you and your new environment.

New Delhi

Lee said...

Whoever named the kittens "owns" them! What a great report, Robert. It sounds like you've got some fun exploring ahead of you. Document those sounds. We use our iphone voice recorder to capture toads etc when we travel. Otherwise, nobody would believe our descriptions!


Anonymous said...

Lovely update, Robert! Mind how much you talk about your huge house and its many bedrooms, though... the 'have passport, will travel' types in your life might start inviting themselves (ok 'ourselves', let's be honest) over for a visit! ;) xoxo to you and Kiran, LK

Robert V.S. Redick said...

Do come! Please come! This can be home base for all kinds of adventures beyond Bogor. Just bring lots of patience for your immediate surroundings.

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