Tough to read. Apologies. Islands near bottom of map are Indonesia with Papua poking up from below. Big mass in center is Malaysia. Peninsula at top also Malaysia with Thailand above that.

This is, we think, the fifth state department posting to which we’ve followed my USAID-employed niece Erin, her husband Sean and daughter Caitlin. Bolivia, Peru, Kazakhstan and  (yes, we’re counting the in-country  posting as well.) Washington D.C. came before.

Though we were pretty much ignorant about the whole area before we decided to visit, it turns out that ignorance (as usual) is a mistake. Here we are in the fourth largest nation in the world (laid out across the U.S., it would cover from Alaska to tip of Florida), with the 16th largest GDP. Not incidentally, it is home to the largest number of Muslims in the known world and, to violate a stereotype, is not a habitual exporter of terrorism.

We’re here for fun and adventure, but it’s always good, we think, to travel with a little bit of history at our side. Apologies for any inaccuracies, but I think we’ve got the general shape of things right. Importantly from a western perspective, these are the spice islands. They were the only source of such tasty items as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, et al. Europe came to depend on and love this stuff. Then the Ottoman empire cut it all off when they took Constantinople in 1453, renamed it Istanbul, and made it difficult to impossible to maintain that east-to-west trade route over the silk road.

Thus, Europe (including Columbus, of course) came searching for ways to exploit them by water. The firstest with the mostest were the Dutch, who arrived at  pre-nation Indonesia complete with a corporate stock organization you’ve undoubtedly heard of–The Dutch East India Company. They essentially colonized the whole area and held control for centuries.

Sukarno–Indonesian dictator 1950-1967
Suharto–Indonesian dictator 1967-1998

As in all these tales, their control eventually crumbled, but their colonial legacy lives on in the architecture and institutions. By fits and starts and regressions, this string of independent islands and tribes that stretches from the tip of Thailand almost to Australia inched toward nationhood. They endured a couple of 20th century dictators–Sukarno, in office 1950-1967 and Suharto, in office 1967-1998–then became an official democracy in 1998. Not long to have the vote, but they seem to be holding on to it proudly and solidly.

Jakarta, our home away from home on the island of Java, is the seat of government, but with all the islands spread hither and yon, the task of centralization is enormous and a work in progress. However, progressing it is, and we in the USA and rest of the world will do well to pay heed to what goes on here and in the rest of the 11-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


As for us, we are quickly recovering from the flood (see post Indonesia welcome #1) and jet lag and will go forth to explore yet one more exciting and different place on this planet we share.






It was the middle of the night. The festivities began with thunder and lightning, as all good tropical storms do down here on the equator. The world shook and reeled, earth and buildings reeling under fists of pounding roars. The ghost of our lost dog, Blue, galloped through my dreams, headed for our bed, which he always did, shivering and whining,  at the slightest thunderclap. Of course, the sound that terrified him in Oakland was a hint of a whisper compared to this. We noted it and snuggled down safely. Or so we thought. Then came the voices.

The embassy personnel who guard Erin and Sean’s residence were splashing and yelling around the grounds. Erin’s the mission director for Indonesia USAID (more about that later) holds the rank of Minister-Counsellor in the diplomatic service, roughly the civilian equivalent of a 2-star general, so the residence is under guard. Not the secret service or armed military, but still 24/7 watchful eyes.

The downpour that accompanied the noise and flashes had inundated the compound. Our guest quarters are on the second floor overlooking  the yard and pool to the main house, and we could see that water had poured through the sliding glass doors into the ground floor room, which houses the main kitchen and family room, as well as the housekeeper’s small apartment.

She  lives in several days per week, and her rooms on that level. The water lapping around her bed had awakened her.  She called for action, and act we did.

We waded around in shin deep water,  lifting furniture out of harm’s way, unplugging electronics, and generally doing what we could to minimize the damage.

By early morning, the rain had lessened, though not stopped, and the waters receded. A dove with an olive branch lighted on the wrought iron fence, so we think life can go on.





IMG_1350_2We woke up this morning in the 3rd largest city on earth, after Tokyo and Sao Paulo. 35 Million people. Can’t beat the sunrise view from our hotel room, looking out over the Arabian Sea toward all those troublesome places, the places who got India rich and enriched themselves trading in everything from pepper to cardamom.

IMG_1355The part we’re in is decidedly European. We saw some of the famous slums coming in, but got no pictures. From world-class hotels (Pictured, the Taj Mahal, one of the two the terrorists famously took over a few years back.) to a monster IMG_1361_219th Century train station (Victoria, what else?) to chic shops there’s no 3rd world feel even though huge square miles of utter squalor lie minutes away. The food is much more like that you’ll find in our stateside Indian restaurants than the southern variety, which is so much more subtle and vegetarian and, frankly, unfamiliar. IMG_1365_2You see us here under the big clock at that train station, where the Bollywood finale of Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. We didn’t dance. Once again, we were accosted by photo hounds, this one a group promoting some travel company. Spontaneous fun. Been like that.

Tomorrow, we leave. I’ve begun to think of this trip as a bit of a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages are a way of life here, after all, as they are in many other parts of the world.IMG_0752 If you see a group of women in red sari’s you know they’re off to pay homage to some goddess or another. (Obvious reason for the color.)IMG_1475 A group of men in black tells you you’re looking at devotees of Ayapa (Have a picture of myself with these nice guys, but can’t find it.)

As for us, we’ve gone from Chennai to Mumbai, which is east coast to west coast, from sea to shining sea–Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. And by starting in Dehli, we went from north to far south. While We traced our way along the southern map, all the way to tip of the country, we got a chance to wave at the Indian Ocean. A pilgrimage should have a homage at its end.  We learned a lot, owing to our loquacious and learned guides, Carol and Martin Noval, whom we totally and completely recommend. And we thank India itself for insights into ourselves and our lives that will enlighten us in ways we will understand only when the journey is done.

I’ve been quite positive about India all the way along, and I meant every word, but it would be wrong to think this is an untroubled land. The country has about one third the land mass of the lower-forty-eight, and four times the population of the entire USA. How are 1.3 billion people going to fit here and prosper here in the worlds biggest democracy? Beats me, but there’s plenty of evidence they’re way short of keeping pace with the need and population growth. Infrastructure, housing, water (lots of places have running water only a couple of times a week if at all.) and energy are enormous problems.

Still, they’ve got the oldest and one of the richest cultures on earth, and they are spiritually devoted to their country and its soul. Plus, they’ve got the bomb.

We’re old, so we may not be back, but we feel enormously fortunate we came. Despite all the long-winded spiels and number of pictures, I didn’t tell or show the half of what we experienced and learned. Now, it’s time to pack. Signing off.





IMG_1617It’s like California, is the Indian state of Kerala in that it contains both huge mountains and a bountiful seacoast. But that’s about the end of the similarity. Instead of high-altitude conifers and snow-capped peaks, the Kerala mountains are jungle–full of exotic creatures feathered and non. Tigers, elephants, kingfishers, boar. There’s lots of rice in both places, but it was to Kerala that the world came for all those spices that sparked voyages and wars and changed global food and economies and history. IMG_1207A quick tour of Abraham’s 23 acre mountain garden, one of the 80 best gardens world-wide–gives a notion of what they came for. IMG_1208

It’s not one of those neat-row western plots, but a true jungle that looks to our eyes like chaos. Then Abraham points to a pod the size of a walnut. Inside, a soft material that is that Mace you use in baking. Inside, a hard nut we call nutmeg. See that thing that looks like a butternut squash randomly hanging off the side of a tree? Cocoa. Yum. You begin to realize this is not chaos, but a treasure chest.

Slice a piece of bark of this tree? Cinnamon. How about the 23 different varieties of bananas? Can’t miss those. But you might miss the little beady strings hanging from this bush over here. If you do, you’ll have walked right by the pepper. And so it goes on and on and on. And that’s just one guy’s garden.

IMG_1267Drop on down the mountain, and on to the coastal plain and those rice fields I talked about. YIMG_1244 (1)ou can still see people washing clothes or bathing fully clothed in a canal. Not all poor, thought, by a long shot. IMG_1677_2And the kids dress up very cute for school. IMG_1673














IMG_1251The river Pamba’s full of houseboats filled with cruising middle-class Indians–and western tourists.IMG_1257 (1).








Down the road in Cohin (now Kochi) you find yourself in a prosperous urban city with computer stores, a full helping of the arts, both visual and dramatic. I haven’t found space for all the dance and drama we’ve seen along the way, from classic Indian dance to a modern raga concert that featured a trio of violin, two-headed drum, and clay pot that really, really, rocked.







Famastic shopping here as well. Even I had a good time with it. Original and very fine merchandise and exciting bargaining. We shipped a bunch of stuff home for less that it would have taken to stuff an extra bag and schlepp it around to the airport and beyond.

Today, we fly to Mumbai. The most densely populated city on earth. Up for it.



IMG_0675Gather round folks it’s time for another deity tale. This one is from one of our very first stops in the tour, Mamallapuram.

As everyone knows, all the waters in the earth flow from the milky way; and, reciprocally, humans can attain heaven by climbing the watery stair from down here to up there.

Once upon a time some demon or another drank up all the waters on earth, which left humans in pretty bad shape both physically and spiritually, as you can imagine.

Also, as everyone knows, Lord Brahma is the god who controls the milky way waters. Someone went to him for help, which he said he’d be glad to provide, except that if he turned the waters loose they’d come down with such force they’d break the earth to pieces. Quite a dilemma. But our old friend, Siva, came to the rescue. He told Brahma to go ahead and release the waters, and he’d answer for the results.

Thus, he stood underneath the great stream from up above and caught the water on the crown of his head. From there, it streamed down his hair, out his dreadlocks, and bathed the entire earth once again in life-giving liquid, and the world was saved. The main stream, of course, was the mighty Ganges, which is why it’s so sacred today.

In the 8th or 9th century, one of the kings in the Mamallapuram area decided to commission a bas-relief of this tale, carved in the face one of the great series of granite boulders that abound in the region.

He (or someone) selected a cleft in the rock as the symbolic route for the Ganges, and they set to work. The result is a magnificent sculpture, exquisite in design and execution, which not only depicted the story, but paid homage to Siva as he savior of the locals (and, of course, everyone else.) It didn’t hurt matters that it was easy to draw political as well as religious inferences by assuming that the king as well as Siva was the savior and protector of those under his reign. Since people believed (believe) that all natural substances, organic or not, are inhabited by gods, the sculptors believed the granite out which they were carving their tale was a virtual living being, that they were working with living rock. We didn’t get a photo showing the whole sweep of this saga that gave enough detail to deliver its impact in this setting. It’s marvelous to see the fluidity of the people and animals rushing toward the live-giving cleft where the Ganges flows.

IMG_0678However, the detail above of a mother elephant protecting her young and that here of a deer lying down with a lion should help show how wonderful was the land Siva (religious) or the king (political) created for the benefit of his subjects.

As a closer, though, we present the battle between the goddess Dorgan (left-center, riding a lion, bow drawn) and a buffalo god whose name I can’t recall.

There are lots of other demons but focus if you can on Dorgan and the Buffalo. The sculpture catches the battle at the moment when the buffalo is about to go down, which he will, Dorgan’s foot on his head, because that’s how Indian gods treat their defeated enemies. The relief is much smaller and I hope this photo of the battle gives some appreciation of the life with which these ancient artists invested this supposedly inert granite and helped render this heavenly battle in living stone.