Friday, October 20, 2006

More of the same

The next day was a repeat of the first, albeit different factories. We once again headed up to the hills of Tampaksiring to visit a handicraft supplier, this time owned by a young guy who spoke perfect English. Turns out he went to school in San Jose, CA and had recently moved back to Bali to start his export business. My agent looked over at me and silently rubbed his two forefingers against his thumb, the old universal sign for "has money", which was probably true. Too few Americans are aware of the astronomical cost of tuition for foreign students. For example, at UC Berkeley a foreign student can expect to spend approximately $26,000 for 1 year's tuition and fees, while a resident Californian can expect to pay about $8,000. Not to mention the expense of applying for an receiving a student visa plus housing, food, etc. In addition most foreign students can not work legally in the U.S., their visa is only good for studying which means the only jobs they can get are on campus, although many work illegally on the side, but certainly not enough to pay for themselves while studying, which means that most foreign students pursuing a full 4-year degree tend to come from wealthy backgrounds.

But I digress. The factory owner was very pleasant and kind and was very enthusiastic in showing us his factory and proud of what he had accomplished. He was getting married soon and was looking forward to a good year of business so he could afford a nice honeymoon.

We soon moved on to the next factory which wasn't really a factory but a trading house run by an American woman. We had actually met briefly when she visited my company in the U.S. and she seemed very nice. She took us out to lunch at a wonderful restaurant on the beach close to my hotel. Turns out she lived in Seminyak, just a stone throw away from the hotel I stayed in. She was very tall and slender with tanned skin and long dark hair, and my Indonesian counterparts where quite taken with her. When she got up to use the restroom my colleague asked me if she had been a model before - how the heck should I know? I knew just barely more about her than they did.

She ran a very small trading company with just a tiny handful of employees working out of a single room office less than 1,000 square feet in size. She traded in fashion accessories and designed the items herself, then farmed out the production to one of many contractors located in Bali and on Java. Her staff checked the completed items for quality and then they were shipped on their way. Like so many others, she had come to Bali and decided to stay there.

After this very pleasant visit we moved on to the largest factory in our list which was owned by a wealthy family who operated several trade shops and crafts production facilities in Bali. This area was close to Tampaksiring but was an actual factory in the western sense of the word. A huge, elaborate 2-story showroom divided a lot full of sculptured trees and Balinese fountains. One side of the lot was the office building, the other the showroom. The factory manager met us and drove us to the factory. I was puzzled, as there was evidence of a large building on the far side of the lot, which from my records was supposed to be the factory. He kindly explained that only weeks before they had experienced a massive fire which had literally gutted the entire interior of the factory building, forcing them to work at a temporary location.

We drove a few minutes down the road to a large building in the middle of nowhere, jungle forest on one side and acres of rice paddies on the other. It was a huge gated facility, but the building inside was literally just a giant roof on multiple pillars, obviously a hastily built construction just to get roofs over everyone's heads so they could continue working. The place was utter chaos, with several hundred workers desperately trying to replenish all the orders lost in the factory fire while keeping up with new orders. It was obvious that it was going to be impossible to do a proper visit with their operations, so we simply held a brief discussion outside the building. One group of workers hurriedly tried to keep up with an ever growing pile of finished merchandise, packing it to be shipped overseas. Another group was busily painting and staining pieces while another was involved with the actual carving and crafting. We eventually left for the office and were assured that things would settle down in the future and then they could confirm the information we were looking for.

We had some time to kill so we were invited to one of their sister companies. a small operation that dealt entirely in hand carved wooden crafts that sold locally and to visiting tourists and businessmen. The showroom was incredible. Beautiful hand carved furniture, tables, statues, and home decor items all in traditional Balinese style. I asked my agent why people didn't buy more of these items. He said these days people wanted modern styles and modern looking homes - no one wanted their homes to look like a 100 year old Balinese home except for old-fashioned Balinese and eccentric tourists. Well then, count me as an eccentric tourist as I would have no problem with my home decorated with the likes of what I saw.

That night my agent took me to Ulawatu, which was a sacred Hindu temple all the way to the very south of the island, high above the southern cliffs. While there we witnessed a traditional Balinese dance which was very interesting.

On the way home our driver asked us if we wanted to try a Sumatran restaurant. We said sure. The restaurant was sort of like a buffet. You sit at a long table and they bring out dozens of small dishes of different kinds of food, mostly curry items. No pork, for this was a Muslim restaurant. As usual, the Indonesians ate with their hands. This time I opted for a fork and spoon as some of the dishes were difficult to handle with just hands. Basically you chose a dish and dumped it on your plate. At the end of the meal the restaurant counted how many dishes you consumed and charged accordingly. You were only charged for the dishes you ate. I had a wonderful curry beef dish and some salted fish along with some fried vegetables.

We made our way back to the hotel were I sat up for a couple of hours in the night listening to the sea and someone playing Balinese music in the background.

To be continued.....

"Don't worry, no more terrorists"

My agent picked me up from my hotel promptly along with the representative from our transportation provider, who had been with us all day visiting factories. He asked me if I liked seafood and of course the answer was an enthusiastic yes. He said we would be heading to Jimbaran, a touristy area famous for its fresh seafood restaurants popular with both Indonesian and overseas tourists. It was also popular for another reason, but I would not find that out until later.

Luckily Jimbaran was too far from my hotel, maybe 20 minutes or so. Jimbaran is located several miles to the southeast of Kuta, with its beaches facing the airport in the near distance. The place we were going was a long and crowded narrow street lined with restaurants. The front side of all the restaurants faced the street, but the second you walked through the main door you were outside on the beach. Each restaurant was laid out similarly, with large fish tanks and counter tops displaying the many different seafood items available. Attentive staff pounced on their guests the second they entered eagerly directing them to the choices available and tallying up whatever you chose to eat on a notepad. They in turn handed this over to the cooks behind them, who would then cook your chosen meal on a giant outdoor bar-b-q grill. The restaurants themselves were very small because they only needed to house the grill and the fish tanks and counters full of food - nobody ate inside, you simply ordered your food and then literally sat at a table on the beach. The waves were maybe 10-15 feet away and I wondered if the occasional fast tide washed right into the guest tables on the beach.

Up and down the beach, as far as I could see in the night, was nothing but tables and tables and tables. Each restaurant had their own little on the beach and they distinguished themselves by different colored chairs and tables. I have to say it is quite enjoyable sitting on the beach watching the waves and looking up at the stars, watching the occasional plane land at the distant airport.

Our food arrived and we had 2 grilled crabs, 2 grilled fish (forget the name, but they were delicious), grilled clams, gigantic grilled prawns, and a vegetable dish. My host explained that traditional Balinese ate with their hands and suggested I do the same. While eating with one's hands may seem adventurous and exciting, it is quite messy and all I could envision was my mom's childhood lectures about filthy doorknobs and dirty hands and the risk of getting sick yet again on my trip. But before eating, my hosts and I proceeded to wash our hands at the community sink inside the restaurant, complete with a strong-smelling anti-bacterial soap. So I guess they too were concerned about germs, as everyone in the restaurant made a point to wash their hands before eating. Then we sat down and proceeded to devour our deliciously grilled meal by hand, which, as you can guess, was quite messy, but somewhat fun in a demented child-like way.

As we sat chatting on the beach, my host pointed out a restaurant just 2 doors down that had scant visitors and appeared to be mostly out of business. I asked him why. "That is the restaurant that was hit in the October 2005 suicide bomb attack". Here we were, sitting and eating on the beach that was the subject of a terrorist attack only 7 months prior and the main attack point was only 2 doors down. My host pointed out that while the restaurant we were in and several others seemed to be doing ok, the Jimbaran area used to be heavily crowded with tourists and locals. He said before the terrorist bombings the street outside would have been extraordinarily heavy with traffic and all the restaurants full, sometimes having to wait to get in. Now they were mostly quiet, although the restaurant he had chosen seemed somewhat busy.
I remembered the complete lack of security or police when we drove down the street and asked my host how safe it was to be sitting in such an obvious terrorist target. He laughed and said "Don't worry, no more terrorists". I was puzzled and more than a little worried and annoyed that my host thought he knew for a fact that there were "no more terrorists". This was a distrubing phrase I was to hear more than once talking to people in Bali during my trip. It was as if the fact that some people had been arrested after the bombings who had connections to the acts solved the problem - much like a criminal who robs a bank or your house. You arrest the criminal, no more problem. The overall theory was that since the police and government had managed to arrest a number of suspected terrorists and organizers that there simply were "no more terrorists". No one seemed to identify the problem that terrorism still existed and that while catching some of the people responsible for an act was a good step forward the umbrella organizations and ideology that kept terrorism going were still very much alive. In fact that very day the local news had a story about the Balinese police stopping a suspicious truck from Java that turned out to be carrying explosives and bomb making materials. But "don't worry, no more terrorists". I am sure that some of this was just to reassure me that "hey! Bali is still safe, please come back, tell your friends that Bali is ok, no more terrorists" but it was obvious some people I spoke to really believed it.

But one thing that did resonate with everyone I talked to was the extreme hatred every Balinese had for terrorism in general, particularly the ones that had destroyed the tourist industry of Bali. In targeting crowded tourist areas the terrorists succeeded in killing large numbers of people that included westerners but also managed to kill just as many locals while simultaneously killing the tourist economy that Bali depends on.

Our driver, who ate with us, was Muslim, as was the representative from our transportation provider. I asked them both what they thought of the Bali bombings. The driver said he did not understand it - why would the terrorists want to kill their own people (Indonesians)? He was visibly upset at the damage the bombings did to the local economy as well, he said it was much harder to make money these days compared to before. The rep from our transportation provider, who was not from Bali but Surabaya, echoed similar thoughts, stating that most people just want to live, work, get married, and enjoy life - why would anyone want to destroy that?

After quite some time we decided it was time to head back to the hotel for some rest. The next day we were going out to the same areas, again, to visit 3 different factories.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Handicrafts and interesting people.

I didn't think anybody was reading this thing, so I kind of dropped out for awhile, but after some encouraging words from a couple of people who said they enjoyed reading my travelogues, I decided to continue and conclude my trip to Indonesia.

Luckily I did not have any episodes with the porcelain god that night, I slept incredibly well. I woke up earlier than normal, and feeling quite well although I decided it would be a good idea to continue to be careful about what I ate for awhile, but that would prove to be difficult as the guest in a foreign country.

As is my usual habit, I skipped breakfast - I can't stand breakfast except for maybe a glass of juice - but I did stop and enjoy the gorgeous beach and watched the local martial arts group practice in the surf.

Today I was going to visit 3 factories and as luck would have it none of them were close to each other, they were scattered all over the island of Bali, and Bali is not as small as some people think. It is roughly 60 miles wide and 90 miles long at its furthest points. Unfortunately my agent, who hailed from a town near Jakarta, failed to consult anyone in Bali regarding our schedule, so instead of hitting all the factories in one area and then moving on we were hitting factories in 3-4 different areas every single day, which meant repeating visits to the same geographical areas over and over again.

The first visit was to a factory up in Tampaksiring, which is in the rice-paddy covered hills far above the hustle and bustle of Denpasar, the major city in Bali, and all the touristy areas down south. One thing you will notice quickly in Bali is the number of scooters and small motorbikes and the almost complete absence of sedans or any other 4-wheel vehicle that isn't a pick up truck or suv. There are few major roads in Bali with most roads, particularly outside of Denpasar and Kuta, being of the single or 2-lane paved variety. Once you leave southern Bali the island is very hilly and mountainous with winding narrow roads rising up into the hills surrounded by small villages and dotted with picturesque rice paddies. Those that could afford to buy a vehicle drove SUVs, I assume because of the hilly terrain and occasional absence of paved roads.

Tampaksiring is the handicraft center of Bali. There are numerous export showrooms and handicraft factories everywhere. Of course, calling them "factories" is a bit much, as most "factories" consisted of 20-50 artisans working in a single facility that more often than not was someone's modified house. I was told by my agent that this region of Bali was famous for its artisans, hence the prevelance of small export houses and trading companies. He said certain villages or families were famous for specific kinds of handicrafts - perhaps one village was famous for its stone carvings, another for wood, and yet another for decorative fabrics or metal working. You would find a family or village that excelled in whatever handicraft you were interested in selling or exporting and hire several of them to work in your "Factory". They would in turn refer their relatives and close friends to work with them, so it was kind of a unique experience, as many of the "factories" were simply extensions of one's family or village, with so many of the artisan(s)'s relatives and friends working with them. It is not uncommon to find "Factories" located in residential areas where the chief artisan and his family lived in the house at street level and simply constructed a second building behind the house for production. Imagine simply waking up, walking out your backdoor into the backyard, and opening the door to your workshop to work. It is not unlike some craftsmen we have here in the U.S., particularly those out in the country, who have built their workshops on their home property and simply work from there. People like my Uncle could relate. The only difference is that all the product manufactured in these cottage industries in Bali is for export.

The first factory we went to see was indeed an actual factory although located in a residential area. And it wasn't an industrial factory in the western sense, it was simply a small office with a large building in the back for production. Production consisted of re-working bamboo handicrafts by hand by roughly 20 workers, boxing them up and then sending them by truck down to Denpasar to be shipped out to Surabaya for transport via sea freight to the rest of the world. I was excited to see this factory as I had experienced numerous pleasant conversations and correspondence with the staff from this factory. Sure enough, they were as I expected, friendly as all get out and very genuine and serious about their business and their customers. It is always a pleasure to work with suppliers like this. Everything was fine and in order so we moved on.

We then had to travel all the way down out of Tampaksiring to another village that I think was located somewhere on the southwest portion of the island. The whole area was farmland dotted with the occasional home with a very busy road running through the middle of it. We did not see anything that looked as if some kind of production was going on. We must have driven up and down the same area 5 times before finally stopping in front of a locked gate - was this it?? My agent said it was. Nobody was there. We both speculated whether this was an actual factory or just a showroom, which was not acceptable for our purposes, we needed to see the actual factory. After waiting about 15 minutes a gentleman pulled up to the gate on a scooter and unlocked it. We drove into the driveway of what was obviously a private residence. My agent and I gave each other dubious glances.

Some other workers soon arrived and we were told we were waiting for the owner. We could not see anything that appeared to be production or storage of any kind. While no one appeared to live in the house, the rooms were set up like showrooms, with various products laid out for display. We began to question the workers - is this a factory? a showroom? or a packing/shipping facility? We got answers for all three, which only confused us more.

Finally an SUV pulled up and a young American guy roughly my age hopped out. He introduced himself and I suddenly realized that we knew each other. While we had never met in person, we had communicated with each other months ago regarding a number of factories in Bali. He was the previous agent in Bali, yet he was also one of our suppliers. I did not know this at the time, figuring he was only our agent.

He had been living in Bali for about 18 years. Like so many other stories I was soon to hear from other local expats, he came to Bali on vacation, a surfing trip with a bunch of his buddies. He liked the island, the people, and the culture so much that he decided not to go back. In order to make a living so he could stay, he started buying product from local craftsmen and would fly back to Hawaii and California to sell the products in flea markets. Eventually he got some regular buyers and then started hooking up with larger outfits in the U.S. He spoke fluent Indonesian although my agent said it was with a strong accent.

We finally got to the bottom of things. His company was strictly a trading company, they did not produce any of their own product. They sourced from several different local suppliers, did some minor re-work, and then packed and shipped things out. His previous packing/shipping facility was inadequate so he was moving everything to his showroom, which we were at. He was a nice guy and I had to admire him for sticking to his dream of living in Bali and finding a way to make it work.

Our third appointment was all the way back in Kuta, the crowded touristy area close to Denpasar and the airport. My agent was on the phone conversing hurriedly in Indonesian. He explained to me in English that the driver did not know where this factory was and the directions were too confusing so we were going to meet the owner of the factory at a recognizable location.

It was a freakin' McDonalds. Even in Bali you can't escape the golden arches and this location was very prominently located on a major road. Apparently we weren't the only ones meeting people there, as a number of people were standing on the sidewalk looking around for people they were supposed to meet. Because of the recent terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005, there was considerable security at the McDonalds, since obviously many westerners dined there. Security was checking vehicles going in and out of the parking lot and I could tell the groups of people meeting others there made them nervous.

Finally a Jeep pulled up and a white woman with red hair rolled down the window and said something in Indonesian. I thought my agent was going to crap his pants. His jaw dropped to the floor as he stammered and stumbled his way over to the jeep. Apparently he had no idea that the woman we were supposed to meet was caucasian. He had been talking and dealing with her for months and never suspected she wasn't Indonesian thanks to her fluent skills in the local language. He told me her Indonesian was completely "native".

The owner of the factory was in fact a British National. When she was very young her father had gotten a position working near Jakarta on Java and worked there for many years. She ended up going to school in Indonesia. Eventually her parents moved back to the UK but she decided to stay in Indonesia. She graduated from high school in Indonesia and even gained her University Degree there as well. She had more Indonesian friends growing up than western friends. She basically grew up Indonesian and while she visited her family in the UK every couple of years she felt that Indonesia was more her home than the UK. She had been in Indonesia for more than 30 years, with more than 10 years in Bali. She had developed an interest in Balinese fashion and home decor and had developed her own export business.

We first went to lunch and they asked if it was ok if we ate local food, which I said would be fine, as a good guest does. We ate at an old-fashioned restaurant just steps from the water with open air rooms and all wood furniture. I had Nasi Goreng, which is basically a mixed fried rice dish containing shredded chicken, egg, fried pork crips, shrimp, a little fish, and some kind of green vegetable. It was absolutely delicious. The Balinese eat a lot of rice, breakfast, lunch, and dinner all consist of rice dishes.

After lunch we went to her factory which was - surprise - a house in a residential area with a building constructed in the backyard for production. The "factory manager" and his family lived in the house and the "factory" was basically a one room building with rows of sewing machines and a storage room for packing finished product. It employed about 30 people. The owner said in all the years she had been in business she had yet to fire anyone. Almost everyone was a relative or close friend of someone else and all were referred by someone else that worked there.

Everything was in order and it was time to head back to the hotel. My agent invited me to dinner that night and said he would pick me up around 7pm or so. So I had about an hour to check my e-mail and enjoy the waves and the view from the hotel.

To be continued.....

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Crucifix Day" at BA

Her union, the TGWU, insisted Miss Eweida had a right to speak out and was blowing the whistle on an injustice, while her MP condemned any attempt to intimidate her.

Miss Eweida, 55, of Twickenham, south-west London, is a Coptic Christian with an Egyptian background.

She was forced to take unpaid leave after refusing to remove the tiny cross on her necklace nearly four weeks ago. She is waiting to hear whether her appeal has been successful.

If BA uphold their ruling she is planning to sue the airline for religious discrimination because the airline allows Muslims and Sikhs to wear headscarves, turbans and bangles.

More than 300 BA workers have now signed a petition in support of Miss Eweida.

The airline's staff are planning a 'Crucifix Day' protest in solidarity, with air crews and ground staff wearing crosses on lapel badges and neck chains.

Good for them. BA dug their own hole the minute they made exceptions to their fashion policy for certain employees while restricting others. They should cut their losses before things get any uglier.

Voting: Mission Accomplished

I finally managed to complete ny absentee ballot for the 2006 California General Election. It's quite a lengthy ballot, particularly with all the judges you have to vote yes or no on. It was near impossible to get information on any of them, so that was what took up the bulk of my research time. But I finally managed to get it done.

With all the talk about left vs right, Republican vs Democrat, I'm right you're wrong, shouldn't it be time to excercise a time-proven strategy? Vote for the candidate whom you think will do the best job regardless of their party.

And rather than simply sit this one out or vote straight Democrat to punish the Republicans, punish the ones who have really done the damage in Congress - the incumbents, regardless of party. Both parties are despicable, both parties have done their fair share of damage. Rather than pick one side to blame the other, vote against the incumbents, or vote for a third party for once.

My ballot is a major party's nightmare, although more so for the Democrats, coming from a heavily Democratic district. I voted for 8 Republicans, 2 Libertarians, 1 Democrat, and a host of others in local politics from both sides of the 2 major parties. But what they mostly shared in common was that I voted almost entirely for challengers and not incumbents. Out of all the candidates on the ballot I voted for only 4 incumbents, 2 of them local candidates. All the rest were challengers.

So if you too are disgusted with the current state of affairs in Congress, don't blame the Republicans or the Democrats, don't try to choose which party you will punish - vote for the challenger, vote for the third party. Surely they can do no worse, and hopefully at least a little better, than the idiots we have now.