Bali, Borneo and beyond. part 3
August 28, 2007
Even with a dewy 7 a.m. tee time the next morning at the nearby Lombok Kosaido golf course, it gets hot early and I’m not entirely recovered. My rental clubs in Bedagul were fairly primitive, but these are funkier still, though they really make no difference in my results. Our caddy, Juden, shepherds us thoughtfully around, and it’s a beautiful and nearly abandoned track, with quick and quirky greens.Small children in the extended village on the perimeter of the course come out to watch, look for balls and form polite galleries. They also have balls to sell and are, in fact, much better stocked than the friendly but meager pro shop. More than once kids drop down completely unexpectedly from trees and offer us balls and then follow us for the rest of the way, sometimes applauding but more often chasing my errant shots.Holes three, four and five are right on the ocean, with the signature fourth using beach as a bunker. Local spear fishermen are wading dangerously close to where I might pull a 5-iron. Goats, chickens and cows wander the fairways, along with troops of women balancing boards on their heads and collecting coconuts. The back nine stays mostly inland, surrounded by trees and featuring way more hilly terrain than would seem possible. Unless you judge by the number of strokes I take. But it’s a beautiful and fun course, far better than we expected to find here.The quality of snorkeling right out in front of our hotel that afternoon is foretold when I ask an Englishman returning from the water as I head out how it is. “Brilliant!” he beams. “You’ll love it.” And I do. The clarity is good to about 75 feet, the fish are large, and the variety and size of the corals are incredible. Though Medana Bay is clearly no stranger to tourism, it doesn’t seem to be suffering terribly yet, and much of it is still undeveloped.Back at our pool and beachside bale, one of the staff who calls himself Banana stops by. After chatting for a little while, he tells us about how his wife ran off with his best friend three years ago. “I miss him very much,” he says. We’re not sure if it’s just an old vaudeville line or if he has, as many Indonesians do, confused genders while he is speaking. But I laugh anyway and he grins.He goes on to tell us how local Lombok men, of predominantly Sasak origin and nominally Muslim, are permitted two wives. “But it’s dangerous,” he allows, because one wife may get jealous of the other. “Then when husband sleep, she cut off his banana,” he says, making a snipping motion. “In Java they can have four wives. One wife, one problem, two wives, 100 problems,” he moans, shaking his head.The staff seems to enjoy practicing their English on us, perhaps because their former general manager, here for nine years, was from America, and he taught many of them their usage and accents. Now, the recently arrived new general manager is Swiss-born and speaks impeccable English, but with a distinct British accent. Banana tells us they can hardly understand anything he says.The next morning we depart for the highly touted Gili islands on a hotel excursion boat along with another foreign couple and a Muslim family. The Oberoi isn’t very full, and we comprise the bulk of its guests. On the way down the weathered pier to the boat, one of the girls with the family gets a splinter in her hand, so I pull out my little Swiss Army knife with its tweezers and hand it to her father, remarking with a smile, “I had to smuggle it on the plane.”He laughs because it’s so tiny, and later thanks me and returns the knife. After that, while I’m on a long, gorgeous drift snorkel, Harriet and the traditionally robed mother strike up a conversation. The snorkeling is some of the best I’ve ever done, with see-forever visibility and beautiful, fish-filled waters with big hawksbill turtles, resplendent corals and a feisty 2-knot current. You never have to move a muscle unless you want to dive or observe something stationary at any length, and those require a stiff workout.
After reboarding the boat I learn that the family is from Jakarta where he owns a Range Rover dealership. Their names are Ita and Andy, and they met while both were working in Washington, D.C., where she was studying to become a doctor. Now they have three girls, 19, 17 and 15, who are here with them, along with the oldest daughter’s boyfriend. “They seem to be getting serious,” Ita tells Harriet, “so we want to get to know him better before we approve.”The other couple are Seamus and Cait from Ireland. “We were going to drive across America and visit relatives, but decided to come here instead. The other seemed more like work,” he laughs. Especially in October and November, we assure him, when it’s known to get much colder than the Gili islands and even snow. Lunch is taken at one of the really good little beachside restaurants on the main Gili island, a carfree outpost with robin’s-egg blue water, horse-drawn carriages, colorful huts, and an infamous beach-hawker trade.Having covered our mutual golfing interests with Andy while on the boat our discussion inevitably turns to politics, where we can’t resist offering our assessment of Bush. “But he is your president,” says Andy in mock shock. “We didn’t vote for him and don’t think he even won,” we reply. That quickly turns into elaborations on our feelings about our government’s shoddy conduct in Iraq and elsewhere. Andy is pleased that not all Americans view all Muslims as terrorists and shares many thoughts of his own on the root of the problems in the Middle East. The thoughtful list is by no means just a roll call of American blame, and we all arrive at the feeling that partition may be inevitable, if only because it seems to have worked in Bosnia and other places recently. “You are good ambassadors for the real American people, whom I like and respect,” he tells us. But he hasn’t been back to the U.S. for almost three years because, as an Indonesian Muslim, it’s simply too difficult. The Gilis are gaining an unsavory reputation in the guidebooks for beach peddlers who pester visitors to the point of harassment, and several are verging on that with our groups, though they leave us pretty much alone once we’ve acquired a T-shirt and sarong. But a gaggle of them have moved in on the palapa next door to ours, where the women are looking at jewelry and clothing. An Aussie at Dreamland had remarked to us about the ubiquitous Indonesian vendors, “They’re a bit like seagulls, aren’t they, fluttering around food.” Then suddenly the warung owner here comes striding over and slaps a display piece of cardboard covered with cheap jewelry out of the hands of one of the women peddlers while yelling loudly at her. It’s jarring at best, clearly surprising the tourists whose husbands are off in the water, and the owner tries to explain. “They only can sell here if I let them. So I do, because I know they need to make business. But then we ask them to go away for a while, so people can relax, and they don’t listen. This one, many times my boys ask her leave, but always she comes back. So they call me. Because if happen too much, then hotel get mad at me and not bring people back. They go somewhere else. Then no one can do business.”He’s very worked up about it, so we start talking to him to try to defuse the situation. He seems maybe 30, small, fit and lots of tattoos, with expensive shades. Turns out he’s a surfer with a wife and kid in San Francisco and the rest of his family is here. He travels frequently to the States, and they’re moving soon from San Francisco to Houston. “I like America, but here is nice too. We have good surfing,” he smiles and tells us that a big break we see from the boat is called Bonkers. His staff is very good, young and hip, with multicolored hair and surfer attitudes. The bartender wears a T-shirt that says: “God Made Grass, Man Made Booze. Who Do You Trust?” with a big marijuana leaf emblazoned on it. He smiles when I take a picture of it and says, “Get up in morning, have a joint, go surfing, come here and have a little drink and go to work.” He makes the “it’s all smooth” gesture with his hand and says, “Very nice.”The beach bale to our right is occupied by Seamus and Cait. He’s eating what he tells me is one of the best red snappers he’s ever had. On the other side, where the warung owner has caused the scene, are two other couples from the Oberoi who have chartered their own private boat out here for the day. The men are from Ireland but work as lawyers in London. They’re married to sisters from Switzerland and have several kids running around playing. Once I get over my surprise at being literally surrounded by Irishmen here on a beach in Lombok, Indonesia, we have a very funny and interesting talk covering literature, mostly Irish, and scuba diving, snorkeling and skiing. On the way back to the Oberoi, Andy tells me about playing golf in Bhutan, and I mention having been in Nepal back when the then-young king of Bhutan, Sygme Wangchuck, was crowned. Andy mentions that Wangchuck went on to marry sisters, so I tell him Banana’s story from the hotel. When I recite the bit about “two wives, 100 problems,” he, being from Java where they’re allowed four wives, offers me his version. “I always heard, ‘one wife, one mother-in-law, four wives, four mothers-in-law.’ But Wangchuck solved that by marrying sisters,” he chuckles.
Following a painfully early start at 4 the next morning, we fly back to Denpasar and overnight in Nusa Dua before we can leave the next day for the island of Sulawesi. It lies almost due north of us, and we recross the international date line on our way to the northern end, after changing aircraft in Makassar on the southern end. We’ve paid for business class because it’s about $12 more expensive than coach, and we’re the only ones in the three-row section, until just before boarding closes. Then a man and a striking, well-dressed woman hurry on board with a retinue of eight guys, some in uniforms, who all look like security.”I hope whoever this is, no one wants to shoot him down,” I whisper to Harriet as we take off. The flight then proceeds to last longer than it took us to get from southern Bali, clear across Bali and the Bali Sea to Sulawesi. This is because, to our surprise, Sulawesi turns out to be one of the biggest islands in Indonesia, almost crab-shaped and without a lot of landmass, but very long. When we finally land in Manado, business class is ushered out ahead of the rest of the plane, and we find ourselves in a line right behind the man, his wife and their security people as we enter the airport. There we’re greeted by a long phalanx of uniformed military and police, applauding and beaming as if greeting their liberators.”They love us,” I chuckle to Harriet, but we know better and our VIP moment ends abruptly as we’re steered quickly out of the welcoming line to another part of the airport while the man and his security people continue on, smiling and waving. The smallish Manado airport is the most crowded one we’ve seen yet, swarming with people and cars out front. We figure it all has to do with the man, the woman and their guards, and I even try to ask the woman who they are when I see her at the baggage carousel. But she either doesn’t understand my English or just doesn’t care to elaborate, and I can hardly blame her.From 24,000 feet, the southern end of Sulawesi looked almost dust bowl dry, but here in the north things seem a little greener on our 45-minute, potholed drive to the Kima Bajo Resort. I found this place online and it bills itself as primarily a dive resort, but it seems like it should work for us, too. The Singapore-born general manager, Raymond Howe, greets us and mentions that he has just returned from three years in New York. This is a fairly new resort, and he will go tomorrow for meetings in Singapore with the ownership group, but will leave us in the capable hands of a Sulawesi girl named Tika.Kima Bajo’s individual villas are scattered across a small hillside that slopes down into the flat and steaming Wori Bay wherein are anchored a couple of dive boats. To the left is a small village with its own gilded mosque sitting directly on the brown sand beach. Straight out to sea perhaps 10 miles or so and rising like a Hollywood prop is the classic volcano of Manado Tua. A couple of big, old rusted-out hulks of ships are grounded on the far shore where we hear banging as if they’re being worked on, and thick green unpopulated jungle covers the hillsides all around us.Raymond has assured us that if we like quiet, we’ve come to the right place, and we don’t doubt him. All the guidebooks describe northern Sulawesi as still substantially intact, unexplored and free of major assaults on its forests and minerals. And if it wasn’t for the internationally famous diving, we suspect the tourism would be minimal. As it is, we seem to be the main guests at Kima Bajo.The entire location and situation are the most exotic and remote we’ve encountered yet. The comfortable, but not luxurious, villas are only a few feet from the sea; Manado Tua hovers dreamlike in the light haze that blankets the ocean; and we feel about as far from home as it’s still possible to get on this planet. The next day is the last of October and we spend it at our nice oceanside pool and on the gray, shell-filled beach. I do a bunch of laps around the steeply sloped grounds for a workout and try to get caught up on my writing and e-mail. There is no land line for phones, yet I manage to find a cell. And the hotel has satellite broadband Internet access, which to me verges on the bizarre. Seated in the classic, thatch-roofed South Seas bar right on the ocean, looking out at the shapes of Manado Tua and the Bunaken Islands Park jutting up from the sea, the muezzin calling from the village, the tide going out and the water almost eerily glassy, I feel suspended in time and place, almost spectral, lingering on the brink of paradise and eternity at a far edge of the world.
Tarsiers, black macaques, giant tarantulas and pygmy seahorsesSulawesi is full of unique flora and fauna, some of it only just being discovered. The now-famous pygmy seahorse was first discovered just a few years ago by divers not far from where we are. Now it has become one of those must-sees that travelers to remote places like to add to their lists and tell their friends about, a kind of zoological peak-bagging. Sign us up.We’ve already gotten to see several varieties of monkeys, which aren’t that rare, except to us. And we were amazed to actually see all three types of deer in Bali Barat. Now, Lonely Planet has us hyped on several fascinating Sulawesian critters. The worlds smallest primate, the tarsier, is said to live exclusively in a tiny area near here, a spot in Borneo, and a similarly small area of the Philippines. Rare black macaque monkeys can be found near the tarsiers, and pygmy buffalo are another unusual endemic animal, though they are apparently all in the south of the island. Our wildlife search begins the next morning with a dive trip to the nearby Bunaken Islands reserve where we are the only ones booked. In fact, we’re beginning to wonder if we aren’t the only guests in the resort. The boat trip to Fukio Point takes about half an hour, and we probably document every minute with pictures. Several mosques located along the way look like architectural fever dreams, and Manado Tua is ultra-photogenic from every angle.We are accompanied by the pilot of the boat, two dive guides and both of their girlfriends, who are also divers. We’ve never been anywhere else, on any other extended trip, where we felt so exclusively catered to, and so often the only people there. It’s like having a huge staff and all the toys we could want, for a fraction of the cost.A local wild man named Andy is my dive guide. He wears big silver jewelry (including a carabiner), has great tats everywhere and long, surfer-bro hair. Probably not 30 yet, he has taken a lot of different photographers and divers all over the regional waters and speaks excellent English, which has been the case almost everywhere.It has been awhile (about 18 years, I realize with a shock) since I’ve dived, but I used to do it quite a bit. I’ve learned that it just causes problems to tell dive guides how long its been since your last one, so I don’t. The result is that I spend the first few minutes in the water feeling really stupid when I can’t put my hands on the proper regulator or my buoyancy compensation device (BCD), both of which are critical to the actual process of going underwater. Hopefully they just think I’m used to different gear. As if. But Andy’s kind enough to prompt me a little and soon we’re submerged and in another world. Visibility is good to 100 feet and we descend to about 80, through layers of vivid fish and impressive pelagics. The coral is once again exceptional and then we arrive at five giant clams Andy has mentioned. Huge (maybe 3-by-3 feet) and seemingly welded back to back to back, they sit on edge facing straight up, and Andy drops pieces of banana into them, then hands some pieces to me. It feels like a BC comic strip: Who knew clams liked bananas?It’s a beautiful, brightly lit, current-free dive where everything from the fish to the corals and shells to the reefs are all still healthy, colorful and vibrant, and we’re the only divers on this point. Andy tells us that the pygmy seahorses are found farther north and west of here, where muck-diving has become the rage, in shallow waters with several feet worth of light sediment, in which are found all sorts of unusual anemones, worms, snakes and seahorses. I believe I prefer this to muck. It’s so delightful, in fact, that when I get back to the boat I discover someone else is snorkeling in our area. And it’s my shark-phobic wife, swimming in open water for the first time in years. “It’s just so clear and beautiful I couldn’t resist,” she smiles. “And they told me there aren’t any sharks here.” I shuck my scuba gear and go snorkeling for another half-hour or so, once again locating a number of sea snakes and some spectacular shells. It’s hard to leave because I have the feeling we may never see water and coral and fish this pristine again, anywhere in the world. Even here probably won’t stay this good, although there are several promising local projects under way for revivifying reefs and even creating new ones. The real problem, of course, is global warming, and increasingly toasty currents that are lethal to coral and other marine life.And this water is warm, baby. Already on the trip it’s been almost soporific, but here at barely 2 degrees north of the equator it’s hotter yet and brothlike. I’m nervous some large, unseen gods are contemplating throwing in some veggies and making soup of me. Several times already when I’ve gotten hot and decided to go in the water to cool off, I’ve been seriously disappointed, and that’s just hard for me to believe.By 2 p.m. we’ve returned to the hotel, eaten and are headed off with Tika and a driver named Ay for the Tangkoko Nature Preserve, about two hours from Kima Bajo, just north of Bitung. It’s a fairly raggedy operation at the end of a narrow dirt road, where we leave the car and hike with our guide for 20 minutes deep into the sea-level jungle. All the flora seem afflicted with gigantism, and we see one vivid chestnut-breasted Malkoha bird swoop by quite low and quickly amidst an almost constant, heavy background hum of cicadas and pigeons. Our guide assures me that the infamous local biting midges known as gonomes are mostly only a problem in the rainy season, which hasn’t quite commenced yet. By 4:30 it’s already growing dim under the thick canopy when we come across a large group of noisome tourists clustered around a big strangler fig. There are cameras galore, most of them large videos with big strobe lights and flashes focused on the tree’s resident tarsiers. It’s like tarsier paparazzi and our guide elects to take us on farther to visit the black macaque monkeys first. There are three groups of them living here, we are told, and they are very quiet when we finally encounter them, but not at all afraid. Jet black from tip to tail, they are somewhat larger than the temple monkeys we’ve been seeing, with extremely long, artistic fingers, as though bred for surgery or piano playing. It is somewhat rare to see them in the afternoon like this. “In morning they go to beach, maybe around 10 o’clock,” explains the guide, who says that’s usually the best time to see them. What do they do there, I ask? Surf? “Rest, sometimes swim and play,” he replies with a soft smile.By the time we return to the tarsier tree there is only one young Dutch couple there, and the tarsiers are out for their early evening constitutionals and food gathering. No more than 6 inches tall, very fuzzy and slightly golden in color, tarsiers have extremely long, athletic legs that stay folded under them most of the time, but allow them to spring effortlessly from tree to tree at distances up to 20 feet. Tarsiers are perhaps most famous for their huge, bulging, fixed eyes, in the manner of something thought up by George Lucas and amended by Stephen King. Since the eyes can’t move, they are able to turn their heads almost 360 degrees, Exorcist-style. There are more than a thousand of them in this area, but the family group of seven at this tree are the main tourist focus. They roam up to 100 meters from their chosen trees, eating insects and zinging through the lowest levels of the jungle as though launched. Incredibly cute but odd, with an almost sinister smile, the tarsiers keep us captivated and taking pictures until it grows dark. I finally quit sweating and attracting enormous bees that land on my back with a regularity that unnerves the Dutch girl. She and her boyfriend were also here at 5 a.m. and saw a rare cuscus as well as a large python. They want to know all about the diving in Bunaken and then mention that they saw a pygmy seahorse on a dive near Bitung and even photographed it with a rental dive camera.On the way back we encounter another European couple who are observing a huge tarantula on a tree trunk in almost complete darkness. As I take pictures while training a flashlight on it, I jokingly ask if anyone knows how far they can jump. One of the Euros laughs and says, “About 2 meters,” which is of course fully in range of me and my torch. “But they’re only attracted to light,” he adds.We also come across a large and poisonous centipede on the trail a little farther along, a source of some alarm for the Euros who are shod only in sandals. It has been another remarkable day, and there is one last surprise left for us. On the return trip to Kima Bajo we mention to Tika that we flew in with some big shot on our airplane and when she translates this for our driver, he instantly responds. “Oh, that was the vice president,” Tika tells us. Of what, I ask? “Indonesia,” she replies, as if I’m a little slow.
Getting even a small handle on Indonesian politics is a time-consuming process. Much as it is to an outsider in Aspen. Until two years ago the country had only had two rulers since divesting itself of the Dutch in 1949. Sukarno was their liberator but not a good leader, and Suharto, of course, was a thief. Their new, freely elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in addition to having one of the great names of all time (he is popularly, and sensibly, known as SBY), has seemed to take a number of progressive and compassionate actions to put the country on better footing. To this point, that’s about as far as our knowledge has gone. We hadn’t even considered that there was a vice president, for instance. And now we were being told we recently shared a two-hour plane ride with him in the seat across the aisle. Why would the VP of Indonesia be traveling on a commercial Garuda airlines flight? “He is from Makassar, and he is visiting here right now for political reasons, to make more business, I think,” explains Tika with a giggle. “Even the president flies on Garuda.”And I realize she is right. Just recently The Jakarta Post ran photos of SBY on a trade mission to China, deplaning from a big commercial Garuda 767. Of course Gardua executives were part of the mission.What is the vice president’s name, I ask. “Jusuf Kalla,” answers Tika. “He is a very successful businessman, and popular in Sulawesi because this is his home. Did he wear glasses and have a mustache?” she asks, sensing that I’m unconvinced.”Yes,” says Harriet, instantly. “And he wasn’t very tall. But he had a beautiful wife who looked like a movie actress and was wearing a lot of nice jewelry.” “That was him,” giggles Tika, whom we are discovering giggles a lot.Unbelievable. I’d been worried about possibly being shot down because of this guy and now I know why. They kill politicians in Asia like it’s a sport.Kalla had spoken for quite a while with one of the plane’s crew, read the newspaper, and chatted with what looked like his lead security guy, who walked with a pronounced limp. Some show like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” had come on the single screen in the cabin with animals doing various unlikely things, and I had laughed at it for a while. What must he have thought of two Americans sharing his ride, reading The Jakarta Post and guffawing like hillbillies at stupid pet tricks? We will never know. But it boggles my mind that he was right there and I never spoke to him except to say, “Hi.” He probably wouldn’t have wanted to chat with us under any circumstances, and indeed I’m surprised we were even allowed to stay in the same cabin with him.”Well, they did ask to see our boarding passes again even after we’d been sitting there awhile, right after he got on,” says Harriet. We had thought they were just trying to make sure we were in the right seats. And that may have been what it was, in fact. “They would probably have liked to have his security right across from him,” laughs Harriet. Indeed. Back in the room that night, The Jakarta Post has a picture of the vice president visiting Manado, and it’s definitely our traveling companion.
The next day our driver is once again Ay. His name is pronounced just like the letter A, which is confusing. I feel like I’ve either turned Canadian or hard-of-hearing every time I say it. At any rate, he whisks us off to Manado to visit a museum, eat at one of the legendary oceanfront restaurants, go shopping, and play golf where I didn’t even know it existed until I spotted it from our landing pattern (while I was surveying the city for possible assassins with rocket launchers).Hardly anyone else seems to know about it either, but Ay takes us right there. It’s a decrepit, semi-private, nine-hole affair with a very friendly staff and no one on the course. Perhaps because it’s the middle of a 90-degree day and there are no carts. Surprise! So we walk in sweltering heat with an excellent young caddy, who expertly guides me away from a number of pestilential-looking watery areas and ultimately confides to me that he is a 7 handicap. This time my clubs are truly odd – tiny, old and all of Asian origin. But the pro shop lets me mix and match from several bags. The course is really fun even though it’s also uniformly brown and shaggy, except for the ultra-grainy greens. Those are tiny, elevated askew, and lumpy. But they are, at least, green, and what gave the place away from the air.Next we stop at the Museum Negeri Propinsi Sulawesi Utara, which the hotel has already checked to makes sure will be open. There is a groggy guard at the dilapidated gate, but the grounds don’t look like they’ve seen water in years, and we’re the only car. Ay is clearly nervous about leaving it unattended to walk up a small hill to the entrance with us. But he does, only to get there and find the door locked and no one around. Getting inside doesn’t look promising.
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Finally he goes to find someone while we survey the scene. Manado, a city of some 600,000, has many extremely poor areas and this is one of them. A tall wall topped with razor wire separates the museum grounds from a school next door, and there are black marks in several places as if explosives have struck it. The air smells funny, like something burning. It smells that way often, all over Indonesia, because something is always burning. But this is different, more acrid, like an electrical fire.When two men come to unlock the door (we’re the only ones there, of course), the smell gets worse inside. It’s as if the entire museum had been smoked out very recently from incinerated plastic, then pillaged because there is almost nothing left in it. That nothingness is scattered over multiple floors, many with empty rooms and display stands, past which they escort us, endeavoring to explain the few remaining objects, though they speak little English. But with Ay’s help we get the gist of what they’re saying. I think they may just be the caretakers for the property and are kind to let us in at all. A few plastic-cased mannequins with different bridal costumes, some scale models of the various kinds of homes and shelters endemic to the region, pretty displays of beautiful hand-loomed cloth, and ancient Chinese and European pottery unearthed nearby are about the size of what we find that is semi-intact. At the end, with everyone seeming uncomfortable, we sign the guest book and start to depart, puzzled. It would feel rude to suggest to our driver or hosts that we were disappointed by asking them what the hell has gone wrong here. So we just shove a nice contribution in the box and leave. After an excellent fresh seafood lunch of prawn, grouper and nasi goreng in a huge, nearly deserted boat-shaped restaurant on the water, our driver takes us shopping, as we have requested. We’re thinking maybe a crafts center or gallery area where we can find some local art and gifts. Instead, we’re driven to a brand-new mega mall along Manado’s booming downtown waterfront where Western-style development is happening with a vengeance. The architecture is so aggressively modern and loud that it offers a stark and almost in-your-face contrast to the more traditional and rundown buildings just across the street.The mega mall, however, is actually a very interesting and informative slice of current Sulawesi culture, straining to embrace global modernity. At four full floors, it still wouldn’t earn the “mega” appellation anywhere in America, but here it’s obviously the must-make scene for kids, whether they can afford any of its products or not. Offerings include a Texas chicken franchise, a large video game arcade, a wing devoted to cell phones, a golf shop (even though there are apparently no other golf courses within days of here), a big display of exercise machines located at one entrance, and lots of clothing stores with everything from Billabong to Nike. Only a few local enterprises can apparently afford the rent, and they include vendor carts in the hallways with Sulawesi T-shirts and ball caps, and one shop selling a huge variety of decals for cars and motorbikes. The average age of sales staff and buyers alike probably isn’t much over 20, and they’re mostly girls. As in America, music blasts from everywhere. Except individual headphones, of which we see even less than we see cell phones.Sulawesi baby in the mega mall /chanting in the streets / she can hear them call. She wears tight bluejeans / she got western dreams / she wears steel rings / you should hear her sing.On the way back to Kima Bajo we get bogged down not far from the mall when traffic jams up, and we start to notice police and soldiers everywhere, along with citizens lined up along the sidewalks and gathered together on corners. As Ay tries to maneuver us out of the area, I can hear amplified voices nearby and bullhorns. Having been around one or two in my life, I ask the driver if this is a demonstration. He nods, then adds, “But there is no danger. No one is angry.”It turns out that the vice president is giving a speech, and there is quite a turnout for it, some in support, some not so much. Clearly the government has a lot on its plate to deal with in Indonesia, and their task isn’t made easier by a punishing rain of natural and man-made disasters. While it might seem unfair to blame any government for what are often acts of God, it isn’t so simple. First of all, a government can certainly be judged, as ours should be with Katrina, by its response to these events. And second, in this part of the world, as in our own Bible Belt and parts of Idaho, acts of God can be taken as either divine endorsement, or lack thereof, for the powers that be.A very good recent piece in the Bali Times discussed the fact that, despite his many shortcomings, Suharto is still widely admired in rural parts of Indonesia, where acts of nature are held against President SBY. The thinking is that he should have, like Suharto, claimed an image for himself as a man of the masses and also one whom the gods protect. Of course, the second part of that equation might be a bit hard to prove right now.Jay Cowan is editor of Aspen Sojourner magazine, author of “Best Of The Alps” and a longtime contributing editor at Ski magazine. This is the third piece in a four-part series about Cowan’s Indonesian travels.