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A Letter Home

Dear everybody,

Some things you can explain after staying here for a while.

For example, why it is quite a safe bet to have a large (public) swimming pool just for yourself if you make it to go there in the afternoon. I'll come back to this point later. But other things you will always wonder about.

I'm talking about finding a parking spot in the city. Traffic is mostly horrible (why am I always picking world cities without a subway system?), and you always need to plan sufficient time if you have to be somewhere at a certain time. But still, when you arrive at your destination, you will seldom have a problem to find parking, it seems to be readily available everywhere throughout the city.

It is a miracle and actually a pleasant thing I've never encountered before in a big (or even small) city. Well, I've tried to partially explain it with the sometimes very efficient parking methods. Here I'm referring to something called 'parallel parking': once the official parking spots are occupied, cars continue to fill up the lanes parallel, as signaled by the countless parking guards. The trick is to shift the car to neutral gear before you leave it, so in the event that the car behind wants to leave earlier, the car in front can just be pushed aside by one of the guards.

Talking about cars, there's another thing about which I was surprised already when I arrived here: even though the most common way to obtain your driving license here is to buy it from the respective government official, people here in general drive quite well, even though a bit risky at times. And that also serves as an explanation why you can hardly see any cars with dents, to the contrary, cars are well maintained and most of them look fairly new, the only vehicles that are old and rusty are some of the city buses.

Enough about miracles. Two weeks ago, I was invited to a wedding party of a friend's aunt, and this was a true cultural experience. It was a traditional Javanese wedding, so my friend was wearing that fancy (though uncomfortable) dress and hairstyle and I was wearing traditional Indonesian batik. My eyes could barely get enough from watching all these different neat traditional dress, it was a little bit like carnival.

The whole event took place in a rather luxurious atmosphere, in the Sari Pan Pacific hotel, and the number of people was overwhelming with 1500, yet this is quite common for Indonesian wedding parties where lots of 'friends of friends' are invited. One guest gave me the estimate that the groom's and bride's families only know about 20% of the attending people, which means it was quite an anonymous event.

Just perfect, because the food buffet was extraordinarily large, so no worries about filling your plates several times. Apart from the food and the people's dresses, what made the event so special was the room (or should I say hall). When I entered, I immediately felt like in a fairy tale, it was exactly how I imagine '1001 Nights'. Lots of golden gardines, a golden couch, lots of flowers and a traditional Javanese band playing in the background (the music was horrible, but it sure was one great cultural experience).

Last weekend, a bunch of us took a weekend trip to Thousand Islands, which is the group of small islands located north of Jakarta. Usually it takes about 1-2 hours to get there by boat, depending on which island you want to visit. However, we decided on the unconventional (and most economical) way of chartering an old fishing boat, so it took us 5 hours. Now this trip was something you need to see with your own eyes to believe it.

Suddenly the water became very blue and clear, and the islands are of incredible beauty best described as paradise. It is without exaggeration to call this island group 'Mini-Maldives': you will see tons of white sand beaches everywhere, and the sea is full of beautiful coral reefs and colorful fish. Also, it is not crowded with tourists. To put it simple: a terrific weekend trip. Which other nine-million-people-city can boast with a paradise like this just a doorstep away?

Anyway, when driving back on the street to Jakarta, we saw a funeral procession. Now what's so special about that? Instead of seeing grieving and grumpy faces, lots of people were smiling! And another striking thing: only men participated in the procession. I was told that Muslims believe that after the dead body is ritually washed, the soul wants to go to heaven peacefully and therefore the body shall not be confronted with any crying or grieving. And since women are assumed to be more sentimental than men, they are not allowed to participate in a funeral procession unless they promise in advance not to cry.

The learning about a foreign culture is indeed an ongoing process. But then it makes you happy to be able to explain some things afterwards. Like the thing with the empty swimming pools if you go there before 5pm. Of course, being a frequent reader of my mass Emails you know the reason: Indonesians are very scared of the sun that might make them even darker! After the trip to the Thousand Islands, my best friend here had to justify herself for having this beautiful tan now, and my mental support is confined to calling her 'kaki hitam' (blackfoot).

As you can read, my life here is still full of excitement. This is one reason why I decided to extend my stay here until the end of the year, which was approved yesterday by my future employer in Zurich.


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