Also author of graphic novels set in Shenzhen, Pyongyang, and Jerusalem

August 17, 2014 I landed in Yangon, Myanmar to start a new life. Well, not really. It was actually so I could continue with a major component of my former life. After a year with Matt in Myanmar (or “Mattamar” as a former colleague of mine called him) and me in DC, we’re under the same roof again. Considering it’s been over two years since I last posted to this blog, it was only through the sweet and effective guilt trips of My Favorite Aunt Nancy that I’m taking it up again. I’ll try my best with it, even though I won’t be able to give the level of craft and humor Guy Delisle delivers in his graphic novel Burma Chronicles.

But, I’m not going to beat myself up about not presenting the same type of “infotainment” as a professional cartoonist and animator that has his own Wikipedia page. The book contains fantastic snapshots of life and times in Burma/Myanmar, such as the snapshot below on Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, in getting approval to open a clinic (hint: it’s not very straight forward).


“A proposal to open a village clinic has to pass through a long chain of bureaucrats.”

His knowledge on MSF trials and tribulations in the country comes from his wife’s position as an MSF program manager. This puts Guy in the position that has become known as the “trailing spouse.” The term was coined back in the 80’s to describe the spouse who either gives up their career or finds one that allows the other person with the international career to relocate the family as needed. This is inherently denigrating to the “trailer,” because it implies a high degree of passivity. It’s often also been attributed to the woman in the relationship


NGO-yadi-yada… “The only news I have to share is that City Mart just received a new shipment of Japanese diapers.”

Anyway, the internet is just brimming with people who have already put in their two cents, so I’ll just say that it’s good to see a man that is putting himself front and center in the fray. Clearly his career fits perfectly in the opportunities he is afforded as a “trailing spouse.” As well, no offense to people in this situation, I am very glad not to be a typical “trailer,” since my work has just shifted my HR category from a home office staff to a global telecommuter. We’ve got what’s considered really good internet in these parts and a view of Inya Lake, so not a shabby spot for a home office. There are a small handful of coffee shops with internet for me to rotate through when cabin fever sets in after full days at home that are only then followed up by nights in (usually with more work). So, it’s strange to live someplace and not work in it (our one project in Myanmar that was starting up fell through, but that’s another story); and I’m stuck inside working all day instead of out exploring this new city in-depth; and half the time so far I’ve actually been working in Indonesia… but by god, I’m not a trailing spouse… in the full sense of the word anyway, maybe. In any case, I’m back on the blog, but not (as you can tell from the number of times I used the word “work” just now) due to any increase in luxury time.


Well, the farmers finally got fed up with me asking about the Protected Forest.

No, not really!

But I did take the opportunity to get a photo with the funny police vehicles they have here when I went to a pop rock concert in Banda Aceh. The audience was divided by metal barricades by gender, but that’s another story. At first I thought that this design was kind of brilliant with the public shaming potential at a maximum; however, I later saw that this was just their method of bringing police en mass to an event. The police sit in the double benches in the back. Not yet sure how they would bring any ne’er-do-wells back to the station. These particular vehicles were left unattended in the parking lot before the show started.

To provide a brief background for the first sentence, Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry has designated forest zones that have increasing degrees of protection. The Protected Forest (Hutan Lindung) is supposed to be hands-off, but it has been known to happen where small-scale farmers and/or giant companies will encroach upon it. The World Bank’s policy is that no support can be given to any farmer working within the Protect Forest, this is where we fall into place as recipients of World Bank managed funds. The other forest designations include the Production Forest where limited use is allowed, the Nature Conservation Forest for national parks and recreation, and the Nature Reserve Forest for wildlife reserves.

The field sampling portion of my grand nutrient balance experiment is over! It’s about an 8-10 hour drive from the project site (Kota Fajar) where I get my samples to Banda Aceh where I am based. As the few, small airlines that fly between Banda Aceh and Kota Fajar are basically metal boxes of death with wing-like attachments, all staff are directed to drive in project cars for work trips.

We started off on our long journey needing to stop after 45 minutes at the first big town with a petrol station. What we encountered was this (again, not my photo, but exactly the same scenario):

Photo Sumut Pos: Out of fuel… again and again.

What do to? We waited until almost 4:00pm before giving up on more fuel coming. We picked up 10 gallons at a little roadside stall that sells at a higher price than the petrol stations to tide us over till arriving at the next big town with a petrol station. Again! No fuel! Oh dear. Finally, we arrived at the third big town that had fuel in stock.

But as we were sitting there watching the fuel gauge (OK, only I was, because these co-workers of mine can’t be phased. Everything is either a) “no problem,” or b) “up to you.”), we passed stall after roadside stall selling the ubiquitous gorengan, which roughly translates to “fried thing.” As you can see below these are little morsels that are all deep fried: thin slices of tempe, carrot-stuffed squares of tofu, sweet potato balls, long banana slices, carrot-stuffed egg roll type things, etc, etc, etc. “Fried thing” is commonplace in Indonesian cuisine. I even have a few plates of gorengan in front of me right now, as a few plates are always put out at coffee shops when you sit down and order; it’s a pay-what-you-eat system. The two most internationally known Indonesian foods: nasi goreng and mie goreng are fried rice and stir-fried noodles. They are most often topped with a telur mata sapi goreng, which is literally “egg cow eye fried.” Notice the common word here is goreng, which means, as is now quite evident, “fried.”

Photo Not Mine

Photo Not Mine (again): Action shot.

I was thinking that we sure wouldn’t be in this predicament if we had a diesel engine that could make good use of all that leftover cooking oil that must be currently disposed of in god knows what method (let’s just say that the city I live in, Aceh Besar, has absolutely no organized, municipal waste management service, even though it is literally practically connected to Banda Aceh, the regional capital city that does have one). A 2005 study (Soekirman, et al. Possibility of Vitamin A Fortification of Cooking Oil in Indonesia: A Feasibility Analysis) found that in various parts of Indonesia, people fire up the grease approximately twice a day resulting in a per capita consumption between 15.9 g/cap/day to 32.2 g/cap/day. I personally would not like to think that my daily food intake requires an average of 16-32 gallons of cooking oil!

A few snags to this plan I learned. First, according to this 2005 study, most gorengan vendors don’t waste their oil; they just top up the oil as the volume in their wok decreases. This means that collection would have to be coordinated from homes and identified restaurants that do not use that practice.

A second issue being that cooking oil filters used to make the oil usable in cars filter out food bits and not necessarily melted plastic residue; this of course is only an issue if the scandals of vendors dumping and melting plastic bags into their cooking oil to give a nice, crispy texture is as true and widespread as seems to be reported. Who knows what bits of melted plastic could do to the engine?

However, the biggest snag is that the majority of cooking oil used in Indonesia is palm oil. Not to be sensationalist (although this issue is), but more just trying to quickly and simply boil down an extremely large and contentious issue in a blog post, the problems with palm oil production in Indonesia include:

1) Deforestation including in high carbon trapping peat lands
2) Displaced wildlife
3) Displaced local communities
4) Monoculture with high inputs and no ecological and social diversity
Photos from various sources

Just to also add that even within established palm oil plantations, poisoned fruits are distributed to kill wildlife to keep them from trampling the crop such as the two critically endangered Sumatran elephants early in May (1st elephant and 2nd elephant). And of course palm oil isn’t just used for cooking oil, but also as a major food ingredient, soaps (even eco-friendly Dr. Bronners uses it, although they apparently use Fair Trade palm oil), detergents, cosmetics, plastics, textiles, etc.

It is not that palm and palm oil are inherently evil, but again it just speaks to the scale of industrial agriculture we are continuing to promote. This also quickly leads one down the path to the perceived demand for palm oil. However, is it really a demand? Manufacturers have designed a product that consumers enjoy consuming (that smooth chocolate-y melt of a candy bar vs. those chalky once-a-year Conversation Hearts), but the sheer number and types of products that contain palm oil makes it a non-choice when there are so few alternatives. Another tangent that could be touched on is the industrial junk system of disposable products and over-eating, which is only compounded by the fact that we are 9 billion and counting. We should all reduce our consumption of palm oil plus also going for the organic and sustainably certified palm oil, while also avoiding the creation of the same or bigger problem(s) with any alternative substance(s).

Ah, Google Translate. I visit that site more than any other; along side Gmail it is a constantly open tab on my browser day and night. Sometimes I spend hours upon hours on it translating, emails and reports from/to my colleagues, government documents on environmental impact assessments, soil and other environmental data – oh the possibilities are endless! It would be much more efficient for me to just instantaneously become fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, but until then I have Google Translate. I practice my language skills by trying to write all emails and text messages in Bahasa Indo only. And the site apparently translates English to Bahasa with the same success as it translates Bahasa to English thereby getting sentences such as, “Diana names completely spoiled.”

That sentence comes from a song that a staff member at a coffee/noodle shop nearby my place always sings to me. The coffee shop also has free internet, so I frequent it often on the weekends to do work and school, and unlike coffee shops in the U.S. where you get the stink eye for staying all day and just ordering one coffee and nursing it for hours, it is the norm here with no stink eye! Getting back to the point, there is a band called Koes Plus that has a song named “Diana” – the spelling isn’t the same, but the staff doesn’t know that.

Di gunung tinggi kutemui / I met in high mountain
Gadis manis putri paman petani / Sweet girl’s uncle’s daughter farmer
Cantik menarik menawan hati / Pretty interesting captivates
Diana namanya manja sekali / Diana names completely spoiled
Waktu aku mengikat janji / When I tied the knot
Kuberikan cincin bermata jeli / I gave sharp-edged rings
Tapi apa yang kualami / But what happened to me
Paman petani marah ku dibenci / My uncle hated angry farmers

Diana, Diana kekasihku / Diana, Diana’s lover
Bilang pada orang tuamu / Tell your parents
Cincin yang bermata jeli itu / Sharp-edged ring that
Tanda cinta kasih untukmu / A sign of love for you

The song is quite sweet, and of course they love their love songs over here. One of the first phrases I learned from a coworker was from a love song on the radio, “Selalu hatiku,” meaning “Forever my love.” It’s always fun trying to interpret the translation – unless of course you have a report deadline, and you’re left wondering what in the world are they trying to say!

I’m in Malaysia! To make a long story short for discretionary purposes I am here in Penang since Wednesday till Sunday to get a new visa.

Matt is always mildly vexed that I do not have a working camera. It's not an issue when we travel together where he is shutter happy, and I get to use his fancy Canon when the mood strikes. However, when it's just me, and I don't have a) a camera, b) a fancy phone with a camera (old school candy bar phone from 5 years ago) or c) a computer program for taking normal pictures with my webcam, I have to get a little inventive. Matt graciously put on his most charming smile so I could take this picture of the lights of Penang from a 4th story balcony at the Hotel Mingood. It's pretty right?

Perhaps this will be helpful for any hapless travelers needing an Indo visa from Penang. I am staying in Hotel Mingood, which isn’t the prettiest and freshest girl at the ball, but it is quite clean, the beds are comfortable and come with extra pillows, the staff are knowledgeable and friendly, it borders the cultural heritage Chinatown and Little India sections of George Town, the wireless is fantastic, it’s affordable, short-short walk from some dam delicious street food (oh Indian how I’ve missed you!), and it’s a short bus ride (oh public transit how I’ve missed you!) of 1.40 Ringgit to the Indonesian Consulate. There’s a one-day turnaround for the 60-day B211 visa. Got to the consulate at 8:00am, an hour before they opened, to be sure I would get one, which isn’t bad considering my woes in Timor Leste of having to arrive at 5:00am! I was first in line to submit my visa application, gave them the paperwork, answered some simple questions, paid the price of 170 Ringgit for the visa cost – done. Came back this afternoon to pick it up, and the consulate was FILLED with people. None of them apparently were waiting to pick up their new visas. In situations like this it’s always best to try and avoid just waiting in line, because of lack of any clear instruction. I soon caught someone behind the glass and was instructed to wait in front of a window with zero line. Very speedy.

On the way back from the consulate in Penang’s zippy and clean bus, we stopped at a light long enough for me to accidentally notice and read this on the street:

Transfer Road: "The foot way were meant to protect pedestrians from the hot tropical sun and rain. With the influx of immigrants work increasingly became hard to find, many of the old and unemployed thus began using these corridors to set up small business instead. The hokkiens bagan calling these 'gho ka ki' 五脚基 or 'five foot way' trades."

How fantastic is this street art?! I had to find out more about this wire rod sculpture, and after a quick Google search found an article from July 2010 describing that this sculpture is just one of fifty-two caricature sculptures to be put up in stages all over the World Heritage area of the city. The Kuala Lumpur based company, Sculpture at Work, won the competition, ‘Marking George Town — An Idea Competition for a Unesco World Heritage Site,’ which was to showcase the historical and cultural identity of the place. The project is due to be complete early 2013. The creative director, Tang Mung Kian, said the concept was inspired by the “voices of the people” – local stories and anecdotes that depict the reputation and history of the place.

The cartoon style and the locations makes the message so accessible. I like that the sculptures are not always at ground level, and the colors and natural decay of the walls behind them adds a lot of character. I want to share all the neat sculptures that are already up, but as I am not able to do much sight seeing (what with a big report, plus a brochure, plus a school paper worth 50% of my grade all due end of next week – though apparently I have time to put this post together…), and it’s already been established that I have no ability to take photos anyway, I had to shamelessly cull from the internet. None of the images below belong to me (just the stunning one on top). Unfortunately, there is one sculpture I was able to read about here , but not find a picture of titled “Same Taste, Same Look” of traditional Cantonese dim sum restaurants.

I hope you enjoy the show! In addition to a few news articles, major sources were W-H-Y-S  blog and this flickr account.

Carnarvon Street: "This was the place to go for Chinese books, stationery, coffins and paper effigies. All the pleasure of material world can be reproduced in paper and burnt as gifts for the hereafters."

Malay Street: "Not only were hapless cows bred and slaughtered here, but you could also smell the fish hung out to dry."

Pranging Road Ghaut: "Prangin River was a bustling waterway for all manner of goods that were shipped to Penang from all over the world" ... and apparently for all manner of wooers. A singing:"Ah Ling I love you" B: "Oi! You tackle my wife ehh?!"

Jail Break! Acheen Street: "This old Acehnese Godawn was originally a jail building already extant in 1805 - hence the thick walls and small windows."

Weld Quay: "The famous Weld Quay was the birthplace of Kelinga mee, a spicy Indian noodle dish created to whet the appetites of sailors and port workers."

Muntri Street: "The black and white amahs were Cantonese domestic servants from Guangdong who did all kind of household chores and would refer to themselves with wry humorous "Yat Keok Tet 一脚踢 (One Leg Kicks All)."

"Where's my husband?" Love Lane: "The Local Chinese say the richmen who lived on Muntri Street kept their mistress here, hence the name 'Ai Cheng Hang' 爱情巷 or Love Lane." By the way, Penang has designated bike lanes!

Pitt Street: "In the days when your money could be as 'big as a bullock cart wheel,' this was a popular rest stop for the limousines of the time."

Pitt Street 2: "Tok-tok mee is so called because hawkers would strike a 'tok tok' sound to signal their presence." According to an article the "tok tok" sound was made with two bamboo sticks. "Mee" is the word for "noodles."

Market Lane: "Also called today the palm wine, tuak is an alcoholic beverage made from underdeveloped flower of coconut palm tree. The collecting and market for tuak was entirely an Indian affair with the majority of its drinkers being Indian labourer." Note the sign in the left-hand corner is for Shop Tuak. In Aceh there is also tuak - it is also considered the local liquor, but much more clandestine due to the whole Sharia business. I have yet to have a chance to try it, and apparently it is not sold to women, because how indecent would that be?

Muntri Street: "This is the place where the famous shoe designer, Jimmy Choo started his apprenticeship." Who knew? Apparently back then women buying Jimmy Choo's were supporting child labor.

Armenian Street: "The Tuak Pek King Hneoh Grand Float Procession 大伯公香花车大游行 is held in the year of the tiger to wash away bad luck and bring great wealth and health."

Armenian Street 2: Soo Hong Lane is the narrowest street in George Town. A hand-pulled rickshaw (aka trishaw), the most popular form of transportation then (and I have seen them still now), navigating through the street. I like how the rickshaw poles blend in so well with the tent poles.

Chowrasta Market: "The early convict labourers were reputed to have built most of the government building in Penang. Some ex-convicts became petty traders and were the core group who started Chowrasta Market 吉灵仔万山." Great arm and leg hair.

Seck Chuan Lane: "Seck Chuan Lane was a distribution centre for market produce. Many itinerant hawker took advantage of the crowd by plying their foods here. One of the favorite foods sold isTing Ting Thong or rock dandy, a hardened mixture of sugar, sesame seeds and nuts loved by kids. It has to be 'chiseled' and 'hammered' to break it into smaller biteable pieces."

Kimberley Street: "Kimberley Street is famous for its hawker food. Some stalls have been here for over 3 generations." Three generations simultaneously apparently! I love the flame coming from under the cook's pan and the map sticking out of the tourist's pack.

Rope Walk: "Rope Walk was named after the rope making activities on the street." Somewhat Rapunzel-esque.

It seems business as usual today. As I walked to work, the sun was shining, birds chirping, young kids having a morning smoke with friends before zooming off to school in motorbikes (I’m talking about 13-year olds here basically). The electricity didn’t come on as quickly as I had earlier posted (I misjudged just how many of my office’s neighbors had generators), but it did come on at about 10:30-11:00pm maybe. Of course that was much after all the candles were bought out of the little shop up the street when I went on a food run.

My coworkers in Aceh Barat, a district further southwest about 3-4 hours (depending on which speed demon is driving) where the quake was apparently worse, also reported that there was little structural damage – a few cracks here and there – but the real damage was the trauma and the real potential danger (there ended up being none) was the mass congestion of roads, which I mentioned earlier, of extremely concerned people. The worry seemed to be always contained though. It is likely that some people won’t come into work today, because they are still up in the mountains; not sure when and how quickly people have or will come back down. The only area where Caritas Czech has actually ordered an evacuation is in Gayo Lues, but that is due to election violence.

Photo: Heri Juanda/AP. I wasn't running around taking photos, and I don't even have a camera, so once again the photos are from someone else. But from my last post about a family perched on top of a motorcycle ice cream "truck" just replace the side cart with a yellow ice cream cooler box and that's what it was.

Photo: ABC News Australia. This is in Banda Aceh. By the time people made it up to where I live in Aceh Besar, about 15-20 minutes away from the city center, the traffic had thinned a bit as there are more than one roads up to the mountains.

Photo: Heri Juanda/AP. Mountain in site. My neighborhood looks like a mix of this photo and the second photo in terms of urbanness. Also note the woman on the cell on the motorcycle. This is a common occurrence not just during emergency times, and even motorcycle drivers text and drive. Though yesterday it was touch-and-go on whether texts would get through. Full signal service, but just way too much phone traffic. Matt called yesterday and got a message saying the lines were congested and to call back later.

Bet you thought I would follow up my last post on what it was like to watch the elections unfold and the preliminary results. Well, instead I just wanted to let everyone know it’s so far so good here after the 8.7 magnitude earthquake we had at about 3:00pm this afternoon and the two after shocks. Our supervisor had installed an earthquake alarm in the office, so the alarm went off before we even felt anything. Though even without the alarm we would have quickly realized that the ground was swaying under our feet.

The craziest part wasn’t the earthquake, which didn’t do much structural damage as far as I have heard (there has been no damage here at the office, but a co-worker was in an all-glass bank building downtown where it shattered around them). But as the ground got to moving and it just kept on going, the folks that were here in 2004 were really starting to panic. Our logistics department head didn’t even wait for the ground to stop shaking, but immediately got on his motorbike to find his family. Our guard who had lost family had bright red teary eyes. People were hunkered to the ground. Some were chanting prayers. After it stopped pretty much everyone left the office to check on their families.

We had the gates wide open in case they fell on top of us, and pretty soon we saw a steady stream of people on motorbikes, cars, becaks (which is like a motorcycle with a sidecar taxi), even one family sitting on top of a motorcycle ice cream “truck.” This is the area where people come, because it’s the tsunami green zone above the waterline. But of course the aftershock did not make people feel any safer. One of the office cars had made it back, and we could see it shaking and swaying. The phones have been touch-and-go, because every single person in Aceh has been trying to get in touch with one another. The power is out. However, the office has a generator and with the electricity on the internet is working just fine (apparently), so there’s hope for things to return to normal quickly. And in any case, so far so good. The UN put a tsunami alert until 7:45pm, which was five minutes ago. Plus this was a much smaller and shorter earthquake than that it 2004.


Now just mere seconds after I published the post, the electricity is back on! Also, I just wanted to give credit to fantastic Matt who is back in Ambon clear on the other side of the country. I was able to send him a quick text message saying I was ok before the phone lines became completely jammed. He must have called a million times over the last few hours just to get in a few short conversations.