Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Selamat Idul Fitri!

You'd barely notice it from here in New York City, where people are more focused on Wall Street bailouts, Rosh Hashanah and the Mets' usual late-season collapse. But it's Idul Fitri, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and the beginning of Lebaran, the holidays when everyone streams out of Indonesian cities and heads back to family in the country.

The breaking of the fast is definitely a time for celebration. When I was in Riau Province in Sumatra back in the '90s, I even tried to do the fasting thing, in brotherhood with my host family. I lasted all of a week, dehydrated and disoriented. Hats off to those who can deal with fasting from sunup to sundown for a month, because this fragile Canadian certainly didn't have the mettle for it!

So, happy holidays from America. A special shout-out to my old buddies Sukanto Toding, Afhina Burhanuddin, Sri Nanda Unun Marsindra, Ni Made Sumartini, Ritmanto Saleh, Neeloufar Naz Bazuki, Muhammad Yasir, Emmalia Natar, Bambang Setiawan, and anyone else I've forgotten. Assalamu alaikum!

Today's Top Stories

Jakarta Globe takes on the Post
Indonesian stocks freaked out too
Let's all suck up to China

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Economist comes to town

Print is dead. So goes the conventional wisdom, that print journalism is on a painfully slow Bataan Death March until it finally succumbs.

Maybe so. But then there's The Economist, for which print subscriptions are actually going up. Why the anomaly? It's not all that complicated, actually. They're one of the few outlets which looks seriously at international affairs, in depth and without condescension, and without falling into the usual journalistic obsession with scandals-du-jour.

To wit, their new piece on the (potential) return of Megawati, a rare spotlight by Western media on what should be a great political rematch. By tackling her perceived aloofness, and capitalizing on fuel-price anxieties and the public's general incumbent fatigue with Yudhoyono, she could be primed for a comeback.

Accompanying the article, a somewhat amazed account of how the anti-corruption commission is actually doing its job. It reports that in Transparency International's list of corrupt nations, Indonesia - helped by the commission's frequent rolling of heads - reduced graft and improved its rankings by 17 countries in one year alone. Hey, it's a start ...

Today's Top Stories

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hotels To Visit Before You Die

Don't ask me why, but I've always had a curious obsession with hotels. Like Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who I heard paints his hotel rooms, for me there's just something fascinating about globetrotters stopping in for a bit of transient luxury.

So this recent article from MSNBC, of Hotels To Stay In Before You Die, was like catnip. Topping the list: Hotel Cipriani, Venice, Italy; Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, Calif.; Singita, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa; Plaza Athenee, Paris, France; Explora en Patagonia, Chile; Chateau Marmont, Hollywood, Calif.; Park Hyatt, Tokyo, Japan; Le Sirenuse, Positano, Italy; Four Seasons, New York City; Banyan Tree Maldives Madivaru, the Maldives.

A subjective list, of course. But a bit of a shock nonetheless, that none of the winners were from Indonesia. Not even any of the legendary Aman Resorts, like Amanadiri, Amanusa or Amankila on Bali, or Amanwana on Moyo Island off Sumbawa. To repair the oversight, any reader suggestions for the most stunningly luxurious hotel in Indonesia? Not that any of us could afford it, but hey, it's fun to dream ...

Today's Top Stories

Indonesian seeks total music domination
Islamophobia on the wane
Spare a brisket?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Heartwarming Story of the Day ...

In a world where it's pretty much every man for himself, it's nice to hear about organizations operating for the good of others, even if they never get any credit for it. Here's some well-deserved credit, then: Reader Caitlin Carlson sent in an update of her time in Indonesia with Mercy Corps, helping establish breastfeeding program for local mothers. Here's what she had to say:

"For all its and modernity, Jakarta, the 11th largest city in the world, still has great economic disparity, where high rise office buildings overlook impoverished inner city slums.

Traveling with Mercy Corps, the global relief and development organization, I had the opportunity to visit one of those slums. I was there to see Mercy Corps’ breastfeeding programs that operate in a number of slums across Jakarta. The program educates the poor and trains midwives on the benefits of breastfeeding.

Currently in Indonesia, marketing activities of formula companies is unregulated, which has led to widespread mistrust of the natural process of breastfeeding. Poor families are told to formula feed and are often forced to dilute what little they are able to buy, robbing their children of nutrition vital to their healthy development. Often this water is unsanitary leading to severe cases of diarrhea and dehydration.

After battling the constant traffic which plagues Jakarta, a city with virtually no public transportation despite a metro population of over 13 million, we slowly made our way into Tugu Utara village, a slum in North Jakarta. It had just rained the night before and like many low lying slums in Jakarta, the streets regularly flood, often filling the village with unsanitary water.

While in Tugu Utara, I had the pleasure of meeting Efa, a happy, healthy five-month-old girl. Efa’s mother, Nur Komaria, 21, and her husband, Mahfudin, 25, had previously lived with relatives after the birth to Efa. With the encouragement from her midwife Yogiana, who has gone through one of Mercy Corps’ trainings, they decided to breastfeed Efa. But cramped quarters and Efa’s crying took a toll. Fueled by misinformation, Nur’s grandmother tried to force Nur to formula feed as she believed it quieted infants. As a result, Nur and Muhfudin ran away to live on their own so they could continue to breastfeed.

Neighbors around their tiny rented one room apartment cannot believe that Efa is so fat and healthy because of breastfeeding and they’ve always been told it’s better to formula feed their children.

Nur and Mahfudin have many challenges ahead of them as young Indonesians living in a Jakarta slum. But because of the information and support they’ve received from Mercy Corps’ breastfeeding program, worrying about the healthy development of their daughter Efa won’t be one of them."

Best of luck to Caitlin and the work of Mercy Corps, which you can check out here.

Today's Top Stories

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Here we go again ...

In a nation of hundreds of cultures, cobbled together under one flag, cultural uprisings aren't that uncommon. Like earthquakes in the volcanic archipelago, it seems like they happen every few days. That's what happens when you live on a fault line.

And so to the news from Papua, where a number of recent arrests were made for the unfurling of a separatist flag. It's the latest chapter in a very long story, dating back to Indonesia claiming the western half of Papua New Guinea, along with an election that may or not have been a sham. It's a lot of land and a lot of resources at stake, since huge mining operations produce barrelfuls of money for both themselves and for government coffers.

The saddest part of the report, though: The seizure of a number of "bows and arrows". This constitutes a threat to the state? Truly? Perhaps anyone with a slingshot will be next. Let's hope that the current Indonesian administration talks with the Papuans, instead of letting affairs reach a crisis point. Perhaps by offering more political sovereignty, perhaps by keeping more resource money on the island instead of directing it to Jakarta.

One thing we can all agree on: The kind of East Timor-like rupture that scarred a nation's psyche, and damaged it in the eyes of the world, is in no one's interests.

Today's Top Stories

Bahasa Indonesia for global language!

Does no one other than me think Bahasa Indonesia would make a great universal language?

People have dreamed of a global tongue for years, starting with Esperanto, a made-up language from the late 1800s that still has a devoted following of perhaps a million speakers around the world. Only about 1,000 native speakers, though, since it's not indigenous to any part of the globe. (Fun fact: Billionaire financier George Soros is a native Esperanto speaker.)

Bahasa Indonesia, though - along with extremely similar Bahasa Malayu, since BI developed from Sumatra's Riau province, right across the Malaysian straits - already has a base of hundreds of millions of speakers. And its structure ... lack of verb conjugation, tenses, plurals, or male/female nouns, while employing the Latin alphabet ... is designed so that even numbskulls like me can pick it up fairly easily.

To be sure, Bahasa Indonesia gets far more complicated once you progress beyond a basic level. But if you're looking for a language with a built-in audience that could be learned and adopted by nations around the world, it seems to me like a natural fit. Someone please give the United Nations a call and get back to me ...

Tomorrow: What's up with Papua?

Today's Top Stories

So much for tolerance
Move over Tom Cruise; Indonesian celebrities take charge
Porn lovers unite!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dangdut Invasion

File under "Things That Make You Go Hmmm ..."

Spotted in the Jakarta Post, "A recent dangdut singing competition in the U.S. was won by an African-American, Arreal Tilghman of Delaware. Tilghman is currently in Indonesia, teaming up with local musicians in crafting what would become the first dangdut album with an American singer."

That's something I've gotta hear. For non-dangdut-lovers, it's a musical style that's a melange of Indian, Arabic and Western influences, usually associated with lower-class folk and/or sketchy dancehalls, but in recent years garnering more prestige and international fans. The reigning dangdut king and queen are Rhoma Irama and Elvy Sukaesih, and the genre has even been spicing itself with beats from hip-hop, R&B, reggae and Latin music.

Now, how exactly dangdut made the jump to urban African-American culture, I have no idea. But more power to our multicultural world. Somebody tell L'il Wayne!

Tomorrow: Bahasa Indonesia as global language?

Today's Top Stories

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ultimate Hideaway: Contender # 2

From Bali, reader Tandy Ringoringo sends in another contender for Indonesia's ultimate hideaway: The Bhanuswari Resort & Spa. It's far from frantic tourist spots, amid terraced rice fields about 10 minutes from Ubud.

When I was in Bali visiting a friend from my Canada World Youth days (greetings Ni Made Sumartini!), I definitely enjoyed the vibe of Ubud, a culturally rich town that's a gear down from the rest of the island. Looks like the Bhanuswari Resort takes full advantage: On its activities menu are lessons in local cooking, dance, music, wood carving, batik fabric-making, and even Hindu prayer. For more energetic types, river rafting or volcano bike trips.

From the furnishings crafted from local coconut trees, to its on-site organic garden that supplies the restaurant, to the staff that come from nearby Tengkulak village, it's all about being local and sustainable instead of cookie-cutter and manufactured. Better than a Marriott, wouldn't you say?

Today's Top Stories

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Beware of oilmen bearing gifts ...

George W. Bush, famously, once said that he looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and saw his soul. Apparently he missed something in those KGB peepers, though, because Russia has been cleverly toying with the West ever since. Whether it's threatening oil and gas supplies to Europe, or doing basically whatever it wants in Georgia, Russia's winning almost every battle it enters into.

Indonesia, take note. Because there's a new report out that Indonesia's ambassador to Russia, Hamid Awaluddin, is positively giddy over the idea of Russian investors developing Indonesian oilfields.

In normal times, nothing surprising. But perhaps the good fellow hasn't been following the progress of Russian 'capitalism' over the last while. Almost every major Western oil company has been muscled out of their Russian joint ventures, most recently BP, whose top executives actually had to flee the country because of ongoing threats.

When the almighty oil companies are scared, you know these are people not to be messed with. So before you jump into promising joint ventures with Russian execs, keep your hand on your wallet and install a terrific home-security system. You're going to need it.

Today's Top Stories:

BFFs: Indonesia and Finland??
New York Times calls Lombok "frumpy"
Hands off our Avian flu

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Murdochs are coming! The Murdochs are coming!

According to a recent survey, a large percentage of Australians still fear invasion by Indonesia. (Maybe not so silly, considering its standing army is probably bigger than Australia’s entire population.)

But if new reports are any indication, Indonesia should fear an invasion by the Aussies. In media terms, anyways. Lachlan Murdoch, scion of Rupert and longtime protégé at the tabloid sine qua non New York Post, has been sniffing around media opportunities in the archipelago.

Say what you want about the Murdochs and News Corp. – as Keith Olbermann, irascible MSNBC anchor, often does – but they’re no dummies. Rupert has built himself a tidy global empire, finishing by wresting the Wall Street Journal from the squabbling Bancroft family. And Lachlan, by looking to gain a foothold in a country with a population more than 10 times his own, is demonstrating similar entrepreneurial spirit. Said to be among the potential targets: Lippo's Group's Globe magazine, and the Media Group, which owns 24-hour news channel Metro TV.

Whether young Lachlan will look to his dad’s Fox News as the template for his Indonesian media empire, time will tell. But since he left the U.S. after a clash with his pops, he can’t be all bad. Click here to read about the secret plans of Murdoch 2.0.

Today’s Top Stories:

Lawmakers with too much time on their hands
Indonesian arms race now a slow crawl
Local credit crunch: Never mind

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Barack Obama's mom: The untold story

If you listen to the U.S. presidential campaigns, all we know about Barack Obama's mother is a thumbnail sketch. A single mom, white, from Kansas, who once had to apply for food stamps. That's about it.

But I ran across this recent article in Hawaii, about Stanley Ann Dunham and her work. An extraordinary woman who did extraordinary things, which makes you wonder why her achievements have barely been discussed at all. For example: She was a PhD recipient who helped pioneer microfinance in Indonesia, securing loans for poor women to build their own handicrafts business and work their way out of poverty. Oh, and a program officer for the Ford Foundation, and a staffer for Women's World Banking, which assisted microfinance projects worldwide.

Say what? Maybe this is information non grata because it's too international, too foreign, for the voters who will pull the lever for president in November. Whatever the reason, hats off to Barack Obama's mother, her lifelong passion for Indonesia, and to those who aren't afraid to share her wonderful story.

Today's Top Stories:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love: Indonesia in the spotlight

It's not often that Indonesia finds itself in the vortex of American pop culture. Which is why author Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love is such a curious phenomenon.

A #1 New York Times bestseller for over a year, the book - subtitled "One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia" - was vaulted into the publishing stratosphere with the help of talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey. Excerpted in O Magazine, and with the author appearing on Oprah herself, it quickly moved to the vanguard of spiritually-flavored chick-lit.

As for Indonesia's star appearance, it's only one stop on the author's journey ... Italy fills her stomach with glorious food, India is where she attains her soul's awakening, and Bali is ultimately where she goes for "balancing". There she rents a house in Ubud, Bali's beating cultural heart, and happens to meet a fetching Brazilian fellow, via her Balinese medicine man. This is a family blog, but let's just say they hit it off.

Hamlet, it's not. But for introducing Indonesia into the psyches of chronically self-absorbed Westerners, Gilbert gets a gold star. Check out Eat, Pray, Love (and find out more about the author) here.

Today's Top Stories:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

R.I.P.: Retirement Savings

The blog Gawker.com said it best: "Good Morning, Your Money's On Fire." At least that's what it felt like, to investors who had money in Lehman Brothers, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and so on, and so on. Even buying for pennies on the dollar is a sucker's bet, when a stock can go to zero.

Now, for the Indonesian part of the equation. It's been fashionable the last few years to say that emerging economies have 'decoupled' from the American stock market, and rise or fall on their own merits, not depending on what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up to. Whoops. Jakarta fell nearly 5% on Monday, a steep drop similar to most other exchanges, as other nations caught the American financial flu and ended up on their deathbeds. Global finance is so interwoven these days, that the idea of decoupling suddenly seems quaint.

So is there anywhere to hide from this global financial storm, which has crossed the Pacific to the Indonesain archipelago? Try thinking of it as Hurricane Ike. Instead of walking right into the storm, get the hell out of the way, and wait until it passes. Anything else is just stupid.

Tomorrow: Indonesia in Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love ... the Oprah phenomenon

Today's Top Stories:

The danger of good intentions, Ramadan edition
Aussies fly first, ask questions later
Why do Americans love Telkom Indonesia?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Exclusive Interview: C. Holland Taylor

When it comes to Indonesian affairs, there are few Westerners more expert than C. Holland Taylor. The author (The Prosperity Handbook) and former telecom exec (USA Global Link) has gone on to found the LibForAll Foundation (libforall.org), which promotes liberty and tolerance worldwide ... a welcome antidote to the toxic extremism found in so many corners of the world.

Everything Indonesia sat down for an exclusive interview with Taylor, to get his state-of-the-union thoughts on Indonesia, Islam, and the Javanese culture of tolerance.

EI: Most Americans tend to lump all Muslim nations together. How would you characterize the Indonesian brand of Islam, in the spectrum?

CHT: For most of its history, Islam has been characterized by an internal tension between legalistic formalism (represented by shari’a/Islamic jurisprudence) and spirituality (represented by Sufism/Islamic mysticism). Indonesian Islam is unique, for only in Java did Sufi Islam achieve decisive political and military dominance, through the rise of the Mataram dynasty in 16th century, which reaffirmed the old Javanese principle of “Binneka Tunggal Ika” (Unity in Diversity) and established the principle of religious freedom for all Javanese. This Javanese legacy of religious freedom and tolerance served as the foundation of the new Indonesian state in 1945, and despite vigorous attempts to undermine it by Wahhabi/Salafi extremists, remains a dominant form of “cultural capital” at the heart of Indonesian Islam.

EI: What was local reaction to the Bali bombings, and the subsequent court cases, that drew such worldwide attention?

CHT: When Indonesian undercover police arrested Imam Samudra (mastermind behind the first Bali bombings) in a bus at a port in West Java, about to travel by ferry to Sumatra, word quickly spread among the local crowd that the man in handcuffs was Samudra (his face and name had been on wanted posters throughout Indonesia). The crowd grew dangerous and started chanting, “Burn him! Burn him!” and police had to rush their prisoner out of the terminal to protect him from the mob, so they could interrogate him for further leads. If the police had not protected Imam Samudra, he would have been killed on the spot by the mob, who were infuriated by the bombings. Most Indonesians appear to support the death sentence for the key Bali bombers.

EI: What is the status of secessionist movements in Indonesia, as in Aceh?

CHT: The GAM independence movement in Aceh was a nationalist (i.e., Acehnese) movement, not a Muslim secessionist movement. Most prior movements such as Darul Islam (predecessor of Jemaah Islamiyah) sought to seize control of the local or national government and create an Islamic state, rather than permanently secede. To my knowledge, there are no Muslim secessionist movements in Indonesia at present, although there are groups such as Hizbut Tahrir and Jemaah Islamiyah that seek to destroy the secular Indonesian nation state and to establish a regional or global caliphate.

EI: Is the idea of tolerance gaining traction in the Muslim world, or is it losing ground to more extremist philosophies?

CHT: On the surface, the combination of extremist ideology and the vast sums expended by Saudi Arabia to proselytize Wahabi/Salafi Islam have created a worldwide radical movement that appears to be in the ascendant. When asked, “What is LibForAll Foundation’s goal?”, President Wahid once replied, “To help ensure the global triumph of a pluralistic and tolerant understanding of Islam.” When asked, in shock, “How do you expect to achieve that?”, President Wahid replied, “It’s not as difficult as it sounds. All it requires is encouraging the vast, silent majority of Muslims to speak out about what they know to be the truth of Islam.”

EI: As a Westerner, how did you get so intimately involved in this field?

CHT: I’ve been familiar with Islam for most of my life, from 1965 at the age of nine, when I moved to Iran for three years; and in the early 1970s, when I traveled repeatedly and extensively through the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the 1990s I was involved in the telecommunications field, and sold a strategic stake in our company to the national carrier of Indonesia. Drawn to learn about Javanese Islam and the process of the Islamization of Java in the 16th century, I met President Wahid and other Muslim leaders. Following 9/11 and the first Bali bombing, we decided to establish LibForAll Foundation (www.LibForAll.org), inspired by the strategy employed by 16th century Javanese to defeat the ideology of radical Islam.

EI: What can Americans do to promote this ideal of tolerance among peoples?

CHT: As far as this question concerns Islam:
1) Learn to recognize the spectrum of views that exist within Islam, from Wahhabi/Salafi extremism to true pluralism and tolerance;
2) Communicate to your elected representatives the absolute necessity of America’s legislative and executive leadership educating themselves regarding the threat of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam, and the need to concretely support truly pluralistic and tolerant Muslims in their struggle with Islamic radicalism;
3) Learn more about organizations such as the American Islamic Congress (http://www.aicongress.org/); the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (http://www.aifdemocracy.org/), and LibForAll Foundation (http://www.libforall.org/), and become involved with their activities.

Tomorrow: RIP, Retirement Savings

Today's Top Stories:

Aceh on alert for rogue elephants

More awkward family reunions than ever, for Idul Fitri

Ahmedinijad plans to party on Kuta Beach

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Big, bigger, biggest: Jakarta megachurches

When it comes to religion these days, it seems like it's go big or go home. Just ask Joel Osteen, the Houston pastor who holds services in a converted sports arena. Or Rick Warren, the California pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose-Driven Life whose congregation is so gigantic that Barack Obama and John McCain both came to genuflect at his feet.

Seems like Christians in Indonesia, now, are taking the "size matters" argument to heart. "Four multi-million-dollar churches that can seat thousands of people ... are nearing completion around Jakarta," writes Tom Wright in the Wall Street Journal. The subtext of the holy build-a-thon: After periods of persecution, like the Jakarta church bombings on Christmas Eve of 2000, Christians are confident enough to adopt a higher profile. Also, presumably, a faith demonstrating some money and muscle behind it won't be messed with quite as easily.

The rash of megachurches are also a testament that the Indonesian brand of Islam, for the most part, features a healthy strain of tolerance (perhaps inevitably so, in a nation where hundreds of distinct cultures coexist). Looks like they're secure enough to allow a minority of 8% to practice their faith more publicly, which is a model for moderates everywhere. Read more about the megachurch craze here.

Tomorrow: Exclusive interview with Indonesia expert and LibForAll founder C. Holland Taylor

Today's Top Stories:

All-powerful deity on line one
Anyone need noxious volcanic mud?
Chocolate emergency: Stockpile your Snickers
Defeated Indonesian army, can't defeat frog

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Micro Loans, Huge Impact

On their face, Texas and Java would seem to have as much in common as, say, barbecued beef brisket and gado-gado. Or George W. Bush and Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Which is what makes their cooperation so intriguing. It’s called SEAFAST (the full mouthful is the Southeast Asian Food and Agriculture Technology Project), and it’s a venture linking Texas A&M University with a local agricultural institute in Bogor, Java. Think of it as a mini-Grameen Bank or Kiva, providing agricultural microloans to small Indonesian entrepreneurs (70% women).

One of the beneficiaries: Sudarti Subagiya, a Yogyakarta woman and head of the Amanah Women’s Cooperative. Thanks to a microloan from SEAFAST, she and 14 employees now have a thriving business making homemade snack foods. For more info on the homegrown microfinance project, and to witness how a little seed money can make a very big difference, visit SEAFAST’s site here.

Tomorrow: The strange story of Jakarta's megachurches

Today's Top Stories:

Presidential candidates same old recycled goofballs

Jakarta smog: Best in the world?

Indonesia bans smoking in public. Good luck

Bali bombers would like to be executed in a particular way

Friday, September 12, 2008

Private Equity Comes To Indonesia

There’s rich, there's very rich, and then there are people like Henry Kravis. The investing king of Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts (KKR), along with compadres like Blackstone Group’s Steve Schwarzman, have made gazillions of dollars and thrown themselves memorable birthday parties thanks to the wonders of private equity.

No wonder others want a piece of the action. Now the former head of JP Morgan’s Indonesia business, Gita Wirjawan, is setting up an Indonesia-focused private-equity fund. He’s already raised $300 million to invest in infrastructure and natural resources, courtesy mainly of Muslim investors in the Middle East, Malaysia and Brunei. Teaming with him is Ivor Orchard, a former JP Morgan energy banker.

In macro terms, it’s a solid strategy to be scouting for opportunities in an overlooked market. But the timing is, shall we say, iffy. First, even Schwarzman (went public at the height of the market) and Kravis (going public now) are getting out of private equity, which should tell you something. And as for infrastructure and natural resources, name two other sectors that are going to be as hard-hit as the world economy skids to a halt.

Of course, that could mean they’re getting in at just the right time for bargains. Or it could mean they’re trying, as the proverb goes, to catch a falling knife …

Today’s Top Stories :

Indonesians will now have opportunity to buy cup of coffee for $5

Shocker: Mining companies not so ethical

George Bush's terror strategy is dumb

Betting the house - for real

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ultimate Hideaway: Contender #1

I always thought Indonesia would be a great place to drop off the face of the Earth, whether you’re a rogue bond trader like Jerome Kerviel, or a run-of-the-mill tourist who just wants to run far away from his Bear Stearns investment.

So why not do it in true style? Here’s a contender for luxury getaway that’s furthest off the grid: Lembongan Island Beach Villas, 12.5 km off Bali’s resort area of Sanur. You’re still close to Bali and its plentiful international flights, but far from the madding crowds or the omnipresent hawkers. Cars? Hardly.

Just you, the Lembongan beach, and one of 11 private villas. Not such a bad fate. It’s run by an old Vancouver buddy of mine, Cam Reynolds … part-brilliant, part-insane, and is one of those globetrotters who leads the life that the rest of us wish we led. Check out some ridiculous Balinese beauty here.

Today's Top Stories:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

News of the Weird

In a country of 230 million-odd people and 17,000 islands, there’s bound to be a host of weird and wonderful news stories. Without further adieu, a roundup of some of the quirkiest.

Malaysians Strike Back: Apparently Indonesians are cornering the market on sappy love songs (no surprise to anyone who’s ever travelled there). Malaysian singer-songwriters are so fed up with Indonesians crowding their radio airwaves, they’ve set up Malaysian-content restrictions.

Er, You’re Betting on the Wrong Horse: Indonesia is developing its media ties with … wait for it … Zimbabwe, to share news stories to counter Western propaganda. Someone please tell Jakarta that Mugabe is a thuggish dictator who’s wrecked the country’s economy, so much so that a cup of coffee now costs billions of Zimbabwean dollars. Or maybe that won’t make the news service?

Sax Appeal: Who knew the Indonesian ambassador to the U.S. was such a smooth operator? The Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosted a recent gala in Atlanta, Georgia, and the star attraction was the ambassador’s “saxophone serenade.” Someone give the ambassador his playa card.

Getting Sauced: Forget American ketchup ... turns out Heinz Corp.'s biggest global driver of growth is none other than good old Kecap ABC. I never acquired a taste for the stuff, but since every Indonesian carries a bottle along with their wallet and keys, it makes sense. Now the big question, who's behind all that sambal money?

Today's Top Stories:

Yet another Sumatra quake

Aceh still on edge

Mud lake draws tourists

Sulawesi floods wreak havoc

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Rupiah: Dead Currency Walking?

I’m no economics whiz – just ask my high-school math teacher – but I don’t get why the rupiah is so embattled at the moment. The Indonesian central bank recently had to sell a couple of billion dollars to shore it up … which might not sound like much in a global framework, but when you only have so much in international reserves to play with, it’ll buy more than a few plates of nasi goreng.

When you consider Indonesia’s relatively tight monetary policy, with interest rates approaching 10% to tamp down inflation, the rupiah shouldn’t be such a weak sister. But then, the currency flu seems to be going around: Russia is selling dollars to prop up the ruble after its invasion of Georgia, other Asian central banks are intervening to support their own currencies, and the British pound is looking like a house of cards.

It might be that the rupiah’s shakiness is more to do with global trends, and not so much with anything Indonesia is doing in and of itself. World economies are slowing, ‘demand destruction’ is taking place, and that means most commodity-oriented economies like Indonesia (and their currencies) are getting slapped around mightily.

A rough phase, but hopefully a temporary one. After all, who would’ve thought that the longtime butt of currency-trader jokes - the US dollar - would finally be showing some strength?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Jungle Love

Few travel opportunities in life are truly transcendent, but reader John Trybus just experienced one. He had the good fortune to spend some time among the orangutans of Kalimantan (Borneo). Here's his report:
"I went with a trip sponsored by the Orangutan Foundation International to go orangutan trekking with the world famous Dr. Birute Galdikas. I was on the Kumai River and visited the famous Camp Leakey (and many other sites) directly with Dr. Galdikas, who as you likely know is one of Louis Leakey's "three angels" and the world's leading expert on orangutans. I saw wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, crocodiles and more. I also visited with the over 300 orangutan orphans there and many local villages involved in the work being done ...

The Foundation usually runs these trips every year and they are an amazing opportunity to see firsthand not only the orangutans but the pioneering work of Dr. Galdikas. Indonesia, unfortunately, is not on the mind of Americans. Yet, what's happening in the Tanjung Puting Park is important to the future of the great apes. Palm oil is in everything and finding it results in massive destruction to the forest."
To visit the famed Dr. Galdikas (a Canadian like your humble blogger, incidentally) - and to witness the amazing orangutans, whose numbers have dwindled to a slim 20,000 because of the encroachment of palm-oil developments - click here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tsunami Update: Caring and Controversy

Fate and Mother Nature, it is said, can be fickle bitches. No more so than with the 2004 tsunami that basically carved human life off the western edge of Sumatra, to the tune of 200,000 victims across multiple countries.

A number like that makes even Hurricane Katrina, burned into American psyches as the ultimate in natural devastation, pale in comparison. That's why ripples from that day still resonate today, as the Malaysian government moves to push refugees from hard-hit Aceh province - about 25,000 total - back to their home country. They have until January to get out, or else face deportation. Then take the U.S. government's Aceh highway that's being built as a signature response to the tsunami, which ironically will cut through homes that have already been rebuilt by relief organizations like Christian Aid. "It's so absurd," laments one humanitarian worker.

Both stories are stiff reminders that there's still plenty of work to be done and problems to address, even for a tragedy that seems like it washed ashore so long ago. Relief organizations in Indonesia are plentiful - the Red Cross, Care, Direct Relief and Doctors Without Borders among them - but one to consider is a charity that tends to those kids left parentless, www.indonesianorphans.com.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Celebrity Indonesians Attack!

The weekend is a time for fluff, so apropos of nothing, here's your daily dose of nothingness: A roundup of celebrity Indonesians. Funny that you don't hear much about their heritage ... must be the retiring Javanese personality. Or like those stealth Canadians, they're just trying to infiltrate the US completely in order to take it over.

Herein and forthwith, in no particular order, singer/songwriter Michelle Branch (creator of the ubiquitous pop tune "Everywhere"); Carmit Bachar, former member of the Pussycat Dolls; Mark-Paul Gosselaar, ex-star of sitcom detritus Saved By The Bell and more recently of NYPD Blue; professional poker player, often seen on endless reruns of the World Series of Poker, John Juanda; hip-hop wannbe Sky Lopez; porn queen Jade Marcela; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Tom Mastny; CNN correspondent Atika Shubert; Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack Obama's half-sister and recent speechmaker at the Democratic National Convention in Denver; and, maybe most improbably, the hard-rocking Van Halens.

Who knew?

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Magic of Lombok

Reader (and author) Kathryn Alice just sent along some lovely photos of her stay in Lombok, a gorgeous island in the Nusa Tenggara chain that's somewhat like Bali's overlooked kid sister. Not as developed or overrun with tourists as Bali's Kuta Beach and the like, to the island's direct west ... which is a very good thing.

Alice took full advantage, spending three months on the island and writing a book for good measure. For Americans looking to stretch their travel cash, she says it's the ideal locale to live for cheap - the weak US dollar still goes a long way here - and do nothing but "write and dive and sail." It's also a good jumping-off point for visiting islands further down the chain, like Sumbawa and Flores. And don't forget the Gili islands off the northwest coast, sandy gems that have long been known to the backpacking crowd.

Visit Alice's personal site at http://www.kathrynalice.com/, and be sure to check out her book Love Will Find You, on Amazon.com and everywhere else.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Indonesia Stock Roundup

Best-of-breed investment bank Goldman Sachs has said that it expects Indonesia to be among the 15 biggest economies in the world. With recently-announced year-over-year growth rates of 6.4%, while the rest of the world sputters, it's not so farfetched. But which Indonesian stocks in particular might be worth a look for adventurous investors?

Many analyst picks are in the coal sector, which has been so beaten up that bargains are starting to appear. Tom Wright in Wall Street Journal Asia points out that Bumi Resources and Adaro Energy are now looking attractively valued. Analyst Nick Cashmore of CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets recommends state-owned coal concern Tambang Batubara Bukit Asam, along with Indo Tambangraya Megah.

For the bigger picture, ETF advisor Carl Delfeld singles out the Indonesia Fund, a closed-end Credit Suisse product. With the country still boasting muscular growth rates despite a central bank that's committed to taming inflation, he says Indonesia's emerging story bodes well for the Jakarta Index as a whole.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Crusin', Sulawesi style

Ever wanna be a pirate? For would-be Jack Sparrows of the world, a reader writes in of a fascinating expedition kicking off in South Sulawesi in the next couple of months. The KLM Pearl is a hand-constructed, 38-meter wooden replica of an 18th-century pirate ship, which is setting sail for a one-year voyage east to the Caribbean, to its permanent home in St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

Happily for armchair pirates, you'll be able to follow the whole expedition on the Web. Or if you want to get a firsthand taste of the traditional Indonesian boating fleet, check out the website of the organizer, http://www.songlinecruises.com. Its founder Robin Engel runs regular trips for wildlife, scuba and yachting enthusiasts, equipped with a host of traditional schooners built by the Bugis people of south Sulawesi. For more info on getting aboard ships like the one at right, contact them at info@songlinecruises.com.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Shariah comes to mutual funds

With so many Arab states swimming in petrodollars, it's not surprising that financial institutions are offering more investments with an Islamic spin. Welcome to the world of shariah-compliant mutual funds, which are only allowed to invest in companies that fit with Muslim ethical precepts. That means barring companies that carry high levels of debt, or profit from the charging of interest like most financial institutions. Or those that trade in all manner of 'vice' investments like gambling, alcohol or pornography.

It sounds like significant handcuffs for a fund manager, but it's not as limiting as it sounds. The DJ Asia-Pacific Islamic Index tracks 1,085 stocks with a market cap of $3.5 trillion. And Western-based shariah funds, like the Nicholas Kaiser-helmed Amana Growth, have boasted surperior returns (in the top 2% of large-cap growth peers, over 10 years). One of Kaiser's home runs: Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, bought at 32 and now in the 160s.

Indonesia's Batasa Capital, for one, currently offers the country's only shariah-compliant mutual fund. But look for more and more shariah-oriented financial products to crowd the market, as burgeoning sovereign wealth funds look for Muslim-approved areas to place their bets.

Learn more about the niche from this Investor's Business Daily article, http://www.investors.com/editorial/IBDArticles.asp?artsec=19&issue=20080820.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Ghosts of Leaders Past

Let's reflect for a minute about ghosts. Ghosts of nations, of past administrations, that linger like spirits that haven't been able to find closure. And so, they stay, and haunt. Exhibit A: Tommy Suharto, the youngest son of Indonesia's ex-strongman. Just when you thought that era was pushing finally into the definitive past, it reappears again, as very much something of the present.

This time it involves the seizure of US$134 million, related to one of Tommy's companies and accusations of graft. The merits of the particular case will be left to the courts; he's been able to fend off such actions before, including defeating a corruption case earlier this year (even winning a countersuit).

The more interesting point is how long these cycles prove to be, whether in economies or in national politics. Look at the U.S. housing market, or the credit boom and crunch ... long on the way up, long on the way down. It takes years for nations to work significant events through their systems. So it is for Indonesia and the ghosts of dictators past, whose names and influences never seem to recede.