Sunday, January 25, 2015

All-Day Church Field Trip In Java

A few weeks before Christmas we heard that our Indonesian church was going to go picnicking together to the beach several hours away from us one Sunday. We decided to join, though with some fear and trembling! Going away all-day with two small children and no way to retreat if they fall apart can be risky business. The trip was full of fun, misadventures, and cultural learning at its best.

We gathered at 5:30 AM at our church. It seems like everything starts early here – it's one of the hardest things to get used to as Westerners who like to sleep in. We all parked our motorcycles inside the sanctuary of the church, right where the pews normally are. We boarded two big tour buses and started on our journey.

Four hours aboard a big bus is a long time for little ones, but our kiddos did great and fell fast asleep just like pretty much everyone else on the bus. First, though, the pastor stood up front and gave a sermon and we all sang some Christmas songs together. It's incredibly meaningful to worship Jesus with the minority church here while driving through beautiful Java. We were also all given little cups of water and packets of snacks – lumpia and banana bread and sticky rice with savory meat filling.

When we got to the beach it was midday and warm and the beach was absolutely packed with people. The Western individualist mentality tends to avoid places that are packed, but most Indonesians seem to enjoy the togetherness. Since we stick out like sore thumb we ducked down and headed straight for a patch of empty sand so that we could figure out what to do next. However we were immediately swarmed by people asking to take pictures with our kids, and as the minutes went by we got sweatier, less genuinely smiley, and Elly continued to eat sand. We were rescued by a church member who found us and guided us to the far corner of the beach where the rest of the church had taken refuge in the shade under some cliffs.

Here we realized our first major mistake – we hadn't brought swim clothes! I know, I know, why would we come to a beach without swim clothes? In my defense, I had heard reports of these beaches being very dangerous and since most Indonesians don't swim, I was told few people get in the water. There are also legends of a spirit queen that everyone fears who lives in the water – another reason that people don't swim. I just assumed that we'd wade in the water but there wouldn't be swimming. Most of the ladies did indeed camp out on mats on the sand while a few men and kids played in the water. I figured we'd join them and stay mostly dry. We quickly realized the reason why our nice shady spot was free. The first big wave completely swamped all of the ladies and baggage. As the tide continued to rise we all continued to compact more and more tightly in the higher ground.

In the end most of us gave in and played in the water, which then sent us all to the souvenir shacks in search of a dry change of clothes. With dry clothes in hand we paid for use of the shacks with dipper baths where you could – very gingerly – wash off and change. We also all packed lunches, which my children would drop in the sand and munch on anyways, to the great amusement and horror of all the Indonesian tourists around us.

We settled next to the bus at a little restaurant to get fruit juice and wait until the attempted meeting time back at the bus, as everyone had scattered to shop and change. Unfortunately while Asians have the reputation for never being on time, “rubber time” seems to go both ways here, and I never know if things will be late or – as in this case – early. A half hour before meet time a church friend found us and told us the bus was loaded and waiting for us!

We headed for a second beach, where Isaac and Judah joined everyone in the long walk from the parking lots to the crowded beach. I stayed behind with Elly thinking I could let her sleep on the bus, but when they shut down the AC I ventured out. This brings me to one of those moments in life where you can only shake your head in disbelief. I was walking as the only Westerner amidst thousands of Indonesians pouring to and from the beach. It was brutally hot and I was carrying a sweating sleeping baby and walking barefoot because my flip flops had been washed away or stolen at the first beach. And – just to make it perfect – I realized my newly purchased cheap tourist pants had ripped pretty extensively.

Amazing. I could just shake my head and laugh, and stop immediately to spend the last of my cash to buy a second pair of cheap tourist pants and change at another bathing shack. I'm sure I was a spectacle to behold.

After the second beach we watched as our friends all bought souvenirs (I see souvenirs as kitschy things you avoid buying, but it seems nearly mandatory here to buy souvenirs if you take a trip anywhere out of town, although they usually bring their own food rather than eat out like Westerners do) and waited sweating in the sun as the bus AC was repaired. Our ride home was long because the bus drivers tried to take side roads and got lost. No one bothered much since nearly everyone just slept away. We finally made it home at 9:30 pm.

It was indeed a rich cultural experience and a really good opportunity to get to know our church friends better, and our kids did a great job. Usually we find that if we go into situations like this with the attitude of, “anything could happen, we'll just roll with it and enjoy ourselves” it generally turns out okay (though not necessarily restful!).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ten years since I said "Yes"

We are sitting on our porch in Salatiga on a Saturday afternoon because the power is out and the dining room is dark.. Isaac made popcorn and the kids each have their own pile and are munching away happily and dancing to Josh Garrels playing in the background. By dancing I mean, for Elly, doing stiff knee bends in the way of newly-walking-toddlers. The afternoon winds are blowing – we just ran and pulled the “drying” laundry out of the rain and the call to prayer is ringing through.
This morning we took off on our motorcycles and grabbed soto ayam downtown before heading out to an old rock outside the city that is inscribed with ancient Javanese sanskrit and is supposed to be the oldest thing around. We had to stop halfway to put on our full abominable snowman rain gear and when we got there we of course ended up taking photos with the Indonesian class of high school kids that were there on a field trip. We did our grocery shopping with Elly napping in the Ergo and managed to fit it all on the motorcycles and home. 

You know, 10 years ago this week Isaac asked me to marry him. Well, first he told me he loved me. I was 22 and a senior in college. I sat there and stared at him, mouth hanging open while the Christmas lights twinkled through the window down on the Magnificent Mile. I knew what “I love you” meant for the two of us, even before we met each other. Once we said it to each other, we meant it for life, because that's what real love is, right? “Love never fails.”
I said yes, and someone around the corner who saw it all bought us champagne, which we drank despite the Moody SLG rule, and I spent the rest of the evening literally shaking. It was beautiful, but it was also immense and scary because I realized that this decision was perhaps the second most important decision of our lives.
10 years later I don't have a lot of wise words about everything I've learned about marriage, or about how I had no idea what I was getting into 10 years ago. It actually HAS been what I expected. Life surprises you, and I expected that. We have both changed... and I expected that. Sometimes marriage is really wonderful and sometimes it's really hard.... and I expected that. That is what the vows are for, right? It is an immense and beautifully hopeful promise that is exchanged at the alter, and the rest of life is spent working it out.
I want to mark this year, though. We thought for most of our marriage that we would end up closer to Isaac's childhood home and instead we've ended up in mine. I have been so impressed with my husband this year. We moved a family across the world to a culture so different from his own way of thinking, and he has been so remarkably flexible and respectful. He's laughed and shaken his head instead of getting stressed out. He's fixed broken faucets and light fixtures and pipes and toilets and wow, I never knew how much of a handyman he was when we were living in apartments! He excels in school, understanding this new language more than I have in my entire lifetime of knowing it and surprising everyone with how quickly he has picked up the language. He's a smart one, my husband.
The greater privilege is watching people move from knowing Isaac as the funny smart guy to the comments like, “Your husband is smart, but he's also wise, and his faith and preaching is deep.” I see him committed to getting along with teammates and classmates, even when personalities, interests, and beliefs differ. I see him gently explaining his faith to friends here. I see him building train sets and snuggling Elly and doing laundry. And, to my great delight, he shares in my deep joy in hopping on the motorcycle and exploring this place. Driving through the rice fields of Java in the driving rain together? It really can't get any more romantic.
That girl who said yes 10 years ago didn't have any guarantees how how things would turn out, we can never have that. But what I saw and loved then is what I see and love now. The humor that keeps life fun, the intelligence that feeds our constant discussions, the gentleness that snuggles babies, the fierce loyalty and love that has fought for a good marriage, the faith that steadies him even when emotion is low, the drive that has gotten us past seminary, support raising, and across the world. I married a good man and a good match for me.
9 and ½ years is nothing to sneeze at, but the future holds many more mountains and valleys for us. We've passed the newly wed stage, seminary, and post-college jobs. We're in the “tired 30's” of raising babies and settling into careers. It's exhausting but it's also full of dreams and beginnings and excitement right now.
It is so different and further along and yet essentially the same as it was 10 years ago. A flawed me and a flawed you, covenanted to each other for this life, the covenant sealed by Christ. To God be the glory.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review - The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda

I just finished The Black Banners by Ali Soufan. It was great. It's about al Qaeda, 9/11, and United State's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on suspected terrorists.

A few caveats I should throw out there first. The author was with the FBI. Of course he's biased, but as the book goes on you feel more and more how much he hates the CIA. I did research afterwards to try to see if his claims are backed up and it seems they are, but the anger shown in the telling of the story may sway the reader more than is fair? He is also very clearly rather proud of himself.

Secondly, although the book is great it also starts out very slow and so heavy on details. It might be possible to skip the first couple of chapters and still get in on the best parts. If you want a history of al Qaeda and what influenced and fueled their ideology, you have to read the beginning too.

Ali Soufan is a former FBI field agent who was on the ground overseas, investigating, interrogating jailed terrorists, and following al Qaeda before, during, and after 9/11. For the FBI at the time, at least, he was rare. Lebanese background, fluent in Arabic, and a Muslim himself. There's good reason he was able to gain the trust of people on the ground more than your average agent! From early in his FBI career he was convinced of the danger of Osama bin Laden. He was heavily involved in chasing down leads in the few years before 9/11 and his insights are fascinating.

The section on the history of al Qaeda is dense, but for me it was an important complement to reading Rashed's Taliban a few years back (my review). Next step - understanding how ISIS and the current situation in the Middle East has evolved and fits into all of this. Any of you have book recommendations? This book revealed and underscored a few things for me. While the Taliban and al Qaeda are not at all the same, the Taliban was indeed necessary for the growth and protection of al Qaeda pre-9/11. I can't speak to the US invasion tactics, but in terms of replying to the act of war that was 9/11, the US had little option but to overturn the Taliban as they acted against al Qaeda.

On the other hand, according to Soufan there was little to no link between al Qaeda and Iraq/Saddam, despite the US government repeatedly asking the FBI to find one in order to legitimize the US invasion of Iraq. And actually, years before the US invaded Iraq, al Qaeda in US custody expected the US invasion as a fulfillment of their interpretation of Quranic prophecy.

The book is also infuriating, because we see Soufan and his people in the FBI desperately chasing leads and finding fragments of interesting information pre-9/11. They then go to the CIA and ask them for any information that connects to the people and leads they have. The CIA says they will pass along whatever they have, but... as the book details, they don't do so. In fact, when specific information is requested (twice) they have information that would have given the FBI crucial info that (in hindsight) possibly could have stopped 9/11. The CIA not only stalls, they lie and say they don't have anything. The requested files and names were handed to the FBI the day after 9/11 as the CIA is forced to cooperate with the FBI given the extreme situation.

The failure seems to be some combination of the CIA being tragically stubborn/intentionally supporting only their own team, and also misinterpretation of government guidelines for intelligence sharing. The book is vivid in its description of Soufan, who has pushed for this information, receiving the paperwork, recognizing the information and names he'd been asking for for a year, and running to the bathroom to vomit. His former boss in the investigations had just died at the base of the World Trade Center, and here was the information the two of them had been seeking.

The second half of the book is post 9/11 and focuses on the manhunt for al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, especially the interrogations of captured suspects. This was fascinating, because Soufan step by step details the CIA beginning to experiment with what came to be known as "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs). Of course I knew some of this, but what I did not know is that the FBI adamantly opposed these techniques every step of the way, and when they were actually approved by CIA superiors, eventually all the way up to the White House, the FBI withdrew their people from CIA interrogations, saying that they were immoral and anti-constitutional and they would not be a part of them.

I had thought that perhaps these techniques were slipped in by a small group and unopposed by those who knew about them. This book tells a different story. It shows EITs becoming publicly instituted and supported in the CIA, and in the FBI people protesting, putting in complaints and pleas to stop, reporting the ineffectiveness of these new techniques in contrast to the FBI's traditional techniques (which respect the dignity of humanity). It shows the tragic CIA's adamant and ridiculous defense of horrible things, and the failure on the part of high leadership to recognize moral failure when they saw it. I was, again, infuriated. It was hard to read, I was so mad. I am, however, very glad that the CIA was not the only part of the story.

If Soufan's telling of the story is correct (and apparently the public Senate investigations into the allegations of torture in the CIA have backed up Soufan's story), almost NO actionable intelligence was gained from all of that EIT work. What was received had either already been received in FBI interrogations or was later shown to be lies thrown own simply to stop the torture. In contrast, respectful FBI interrogations are astoundingly effective and relatively simple. They rely on information already known to pull apart the lies told by the terrorists and to reason them out of the cloud they have been under. Sometimes information half gained or about to be gained is stopped or lost when the CIA demands to take over an FBI investigation or the government refuses some small benefit to the terrorist while simultaneously approving hundreds of water-boarding sessions instead. Yes. Infuriating.

All in all, I felt like this book pulled back the curtain a bit for me so that I could understand more of why 9/11 happened and the good and bad of US intelligence work afterwards.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Circumcision and Discipline in Java

Circumcision. After having encountered intense debate about circumcision in the US, it has been fascinating to learn the traditions here. In Java the vast majority of boys are circumcised, but they get to choose themselves if they want to and when they want to. Most choose it around age 12 or 13, in keeping with Muslim tradition around the world.  Why in the world, American men wonder, would a teenager CHOOSE circumcision? Mostly because everyone else is doing it and it's sort of a, "Yeah, I want to be man too" sort of thing. As a facebook commenter said, worst peer pressure ever. I even heard about police station offering free mass circumcisions as a way to boost their reputation among the local population. What.the.heck.

I always chuckle because Americans grimace and think it's all quite cruel to wait till the kids are teenager when they can remember and feel the pain, but Indonesians are horrified that we would inflict a painful procedure on babies!

Since discipline of children has been on my mind, I asked local friends for their perspective. I knew before coming here that generally little kids are coddled more here. I knew spanking was less common. But now that we've been here several months I wanted a deeper response. I told my friends that I remember my neighbor kid being beaten my his mom when we lived on another island, and of course that can happen in every culture, but is that normal here? What is the acceptable response to disobedience here? Their response:

Oh no, while some individuals might hit their kids, generally that is very unacceptable here. We feel so sorry for the children of Westerners that are spanked. We think that if hit your children, they will hit other children, and eventually they will hit their own children, and someday when you are old they will hit you too.

Okay, well then what do you do?

We just instruct them, tell them, again and again. And yeah, it's true that at the ages of your kids they generally don't listen yet, and they keep disobeying, but we don't really do anything else. Eventually they will learn. Until they are in kindergarten we just mostly give them whatever they want. 


Now, that's a personal answer and not true of everyone here. People here do spank sometimes. But it is true that in general younger kids are more often coddled. What absolutely blows me (and all the other mothers of toddlers that just moved here from America) is that the vast majority of Indonesian children that we're around seem better behaved than Western children and rarely cry.

So. How does that work out? One observation is that kids are just carried around for so much longer. We in the West encourage independence from day one. We do tummy time, have kids sleep alone, teach them to eat by themselves as soon as they can, help them learn to sit and crawl and walk as early as possible. All of those things are seen as signs of good development and skill. Here kids are carried, not often left to play alone, and are fed by parents for years. The upside is that kids are generally trained to contentedly be carried around or sit by their parents quietly for years. The independence and will is developed and tested later than it is in your average American kid.

So much to learn! There are some big cultural differences and some subtle ones. It's a trick to determine what is personal differences that aren't true of the whole culture, and what is a broad difference that can be pinned on the culture. It's also a massive country with varied cultures within the country that are steadily mixing just as in the US, so that adds to the complication.