As if the stress wasn’t enough already

Outgoing immigration at Batam's Harbour Bay terminal

Outgoing immigration at Batam’s Harbour Bay terminal

Tuesday was my day to do my monthly visa run to Singapore and would be the second time using the now-free visa on arrival to re-enter the country. Since the Harbour Bay ferry terminal has been included in the free VOA list, I was now able to walk to and from the terminal and only needed to pay the roughly $40 ferry fee.

I chose every-fourth Tuesdays thinking that ferry traffic would be light on Tuesdays and, therefore, the lines going through immigration on either side of the Malacca Strait would be shorter. Last month, that was certainly true, but this week the crowds were heavier, but not really a problem in Singapore, where I got through immigration in less than 10 minutes.

As we crossed the strait, the smoke from the Sumatran fires, which have been going on for weeks and seriously polluting Singapore’s air, was thick, with limited visibility. Most Singaporeans are walking around with surgical masks on.

The Singapore skyline is seen covered in smoke haze. The haze is created by deliberate slash-and-burn forest fires started by companies in neighboring Sumatra.

The Singapore skyline is seen covered in smoke haze. The haze is created by deliberate slash-and-burn forest fires started by companies in neighboring Sumatra.

I decided to first get my return ticket before heading off to the mall grocery store for some shopping. I had almost hourly return trips to choose from and ended up back from my shopping in time to take the 1:15 ferry but booked the 2:15 so as not to be in a hurry. That choice would prove important.

After restocking my bacon and Parmesan cheese, as well as buying a smoked duck breast from the deli for lunch, I made it back to the terminal in plenty of time for the 1:15 but had to wait for the 2:15.

All this time, I was also stressing about whether I would even be allowed back into Indonesia. I had even packed my backpack with some extra clothes, my laptop and camera, just in case I would be deported to Singapore with the clothes on my back. At the last minute, I ditched the paranoid route and took an empty backpack to carry groceries back.

The immigration line in Singapore.

The immigration line in Singapore.

My Plan B if I was not allowed into Harbour Bay was to return to Singapore and book another ferry to Batam Centre. Typically, one immigration office doesn’t know what another has done, and the immigration officers often react differently to the same circumstance. So, while one officer might be a dictator another might not care. Batam Island has four different ferry terminals connected to Singapore, so this plan could make for a long day of back and forth.

As I waited for my 2:15 ferry, I snacked on the roasted duck and watched the ferry schedule on the wall. Suddenly, my ferry disappeared, as did several others. This was odd, so I went up one floor to the Horizon ferry counter and was greeted by a woman who couldn’t tell me anything except that my ferry might or might not be available and that I should hurry and try to get on the 1:15. I tried but they would not let me board.

Turns out the 1:15 was the last ferry to run for the next three hours. The Batam harbormaster had cancelled all trips due to the haze.

Horizon/Prima Ferries ticket counter in Singapore.

Horizon/Prima Ferries ticket counter in Singapore.

Back at the ticket counter, I was advised to exchange my ticket for the next ferry, which also might not run. If that one was also cancelled, then I needed to exchange for the next ferry. Etc. I did do this twice, and was holding a 4:30 ticket and worrying if I would even make it to Batam that day. I figured once it got dark, about 6 pm, there certainly wouldn’t be any ferries running, what with the haze and the darkness. I would be able to exchange just once more before finding someplace to curl up in the terminal, which they lock up at night and probably would have put me out on the street looking for a cheap hotel (not many of those in Singapore).

Then, suddenly, they were letting people stream into the departure area. There was no announcement that I could hear; they just opened the gates. There were about 10-12 ferries cancelled all told, so there were a lot of people queuing for a ride, all of us with our necks straining, looking for a ferry to arrive, and breathing with some relief when they started showing up.

I was still unsure what my reception would be on the Batam side, but of immediate concern was whether my 4:30 ticket would get me on what they were calling the 2:15 ferry. I asked someone and her answer was not clear, but apparently they allowed ticket holders for the three scheduled and delayed trips to Harbour Bay to board the 4:30 ferry. A full boat.

I was actually on this ferry going back to Batam.

I was actually on this ferry going back to Batam.

And the waiting is the hardest part. First there was the 45-minute ride and then a short line for immigration. The female officer asked how long I planned to stay and what the purpose of my visit was. “Holiday,” I said, “maybe for the whole 30 days (the limit allowed).”

“You’re not here for business?” she asked. “Oh, no,” was my reply. She stamped my passport and I was allowed into Indonesia for another four weeks.

Next time, I think I will bring a packed backpack, just in case.

This is what I see when I see Muslims

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I have been withholding this post for some time, partly because I dread the vitriol it may create, but mostly because I wanted my anger to subside.

Why angry? It goes back a few months to a news report from Texas about some middle school children who traveled to Austin to visit the state capitol and learn how their government worked. Many of us did this in school; I was privileged to visit Washington, D.C., and also Williamsport, Va, on class trips that helped me understand my country’s history.

Which is what these Texas schoolchildren and their teachers had in mind on their class trip.

Except – the kids were Muslim, all dressed in Western clothes, but with some of the girls wearing hijab (head scarves) according to their religious beliefs. They are just a small portion of the estimated 800,000 Muslims who live in Texas. (Given the general racist nature of that state, their choice of where to live perhaps can be questioned.)

But these kids were U.S. citizens, nonetheless. And they were eager to learn about their country’s government. The scene at the Capitol when they arrived, however, seemed cut from some bizarre movie.

Angry citizens, all white, were protesting their presence. There were hateful signs and plenty of hateful screaming at the kids. I could comment (OK, I will) that these “protesters” looked more like vagrants from the local mobile home park, while the schoolchildren were well dressed and well-behaved – even in the midst of being called terrorists, heathens and far worse.

It makes me both intolerably angry and ashamed that America has people like these protesters.

But it occurred to me that this was just the manifestation of what America has become – a nation of fear. Sure, I know, our big, bad military can kick anyone’s butt and that our soldiers are ready to die for our liberty, but Americans, in general, seem to be living in fear since 9/11.

We’ve allowed many of our liberties to be taken away because of fear. We fear diversity, at least much of the white population does. We fear other countries that can not possibly do us any harm (e.g., Iraq). We fear healthcare for all. We fear vaccinations, which is just plain stupid and dangerous to others. We fear our neighbors if they are not like us. We fear the police (and they apparently also fear us, given all the police killings in the U.S.).

We fear change. We fear globalization. We fear science. We fear a black president. We fear the government. We fear immigrants. And we fear other religions, mostly because we are ignorant of them.

This change started with 9/11 but it seems to have grown steadily in the years since, and ramped up considerably when Barack Obama was elected president. As an example, after his election, gun sales skyrocketed, as did the number of white supremacist and anti-government groups.

Americans really need to get out more, see the world, experience new cultures, become educated about other countries. Kind of like the woman (blonde) who appeared on the TV game show “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?” and didn’t know there was a country named Hungary, and even thought Europe was a country. The 5th grader knew the answer, by the way, which was what country Budapest is the capital of.

As you will see here, I’ve posted about 60 photos I’ve taken since I’ve been living in Indonesia, a country of more than 220 million Muslims, the largest such population in any one country on the planet. The same photos are in the slide show at top as in the mosaic below. These are the people I see every day, and while there is a Christian sprinkled in here and there (and not ashamed to be photographed with a Muslim), they are a pretty good cross-section of what Muslims look like to me.

They are hard-working, even in the face of extreme poverty. They are friendly to foreigners. They are courteous. They are kind. They are generous. And, yes, they are religious.

But they are not terrorists.

Perhaps when a white person is installed as U.S. president in 2016, some of this fear will subside. Maybe. But it is sickening to see America become so fearful and so hateful (the latter more because of religious beliefs than anything else). And I had to speak out.

An undercover waiter and a rude onlooker

My Aceh friends cooking ikan bakar

My Aceh friends cooking ikan bakar

Last night, I decided to go to the Aceh warung (street restaurant) in front of my apartment building for what has become a weekly dinner. Though we can’t communicate, the couple who own the warung and I have become friends and the wife is an excellent cook. She’s also about 6-7 months pregnant with their first child.

I was planning on ordering something new but decided instead on a dish I’ve had before that she makes very well. The dish is called ayam bawang, a combination of chicken and garlic. The chicken is bite-sized chunks of meat and bone, and entire, unpeeled cloves are added. This is then covered in a light batter and fried in a wok. It’s a bit of work negotiating around the bones, and you have to be okay with biting into a whole garlic clove by mistake, but the dish is delicious, at least the way this woman makes it. I always add a side of nasi (rice) with katsup manis (sweet soy sauce), which is always too much by half, so I usually have leftover rice.

Ayam bawang

Ayam bawang

On this night, I was served by someone new, a man of about 35 who spoke good English and had lots of questions for me. He turned out to be with the Singapore police and was on undercover assignment in Batam. “This is Indonesia,” I remarked. “What are you doing here?”

His answer was unclear but something about monitoring the bad behavior of Singapore tourists in Kampung Bule (white man’s village). I had the sneaky suspicion I was being interrogated, and told him later that he did a good interrogation. We both laughed.

He mentioned marijuana and wanted my opinion on its effects. He said there was a lot of pot being smoked in the kampung because it was an Aceh-protected conclave. I should note here that Aceh is a very religious (Islamic) province in Indonesia that strictly adheres to Islamic law, with women required to wear hijabs (headscarves) and cover their body parts. Public caning is still used for punishment for some crimes.

But Aceh also is where much of the pot being sold in Indonesia comes from. And according to my Singaporean policeman, they smoke it there regularly, primarily because alcohol is banned. The hypocrisy is strong.

Anyway, we had a nice chat and I told him I didn’t see the drug use he said was out in the open in the kampung, including heroin and meth use. Couldn’t help but feel I was being tested, but he was very good at it.

All this time, there are maybe a dozen or so Indonesians, mostly taxi and ojek (motorcycle) drivers sitting around, some eating, others playing dominoes. They are used to seeing me here and sometimes we talk a bit. Always very friendly.

When I finished my meal, I still had a pile of chicken bones and garlic cloves, as well as half the rice I was served. But I was full. However, one of the Indonesians, a big guy of maybe 55 years, approaches my table, looks at my leftovers, and makes a remark in Bahasa that I do not understand, but did understand, if you know what I mean. I suspected he was criticizing me for leaving food on the table.

I asked my waiter for translation and he confirmed what I thought.The man, seeing that I was trying to find out what he said, came back over and criticized again. At this point, I lost it. Told him, in English, that it was my money and I would spend it as I see fit, that the chicken was finished and that I was full and didn’t want the rest of the rice. I did this a couple of times, with some frosty and loud language, before he finally gave up.

A table of younger Indonesians on my left, who had heard the whole thing, smiled at me and seemed to agree with me. As I got up to pay my bill (Rp 40,000, or less than $3), one of the regular taxi drivers there walked past me and muttered something about not worrying about the guy, insinuating that he can be a problem.

So can I if you give me any grief. But dinner was excellent and I headed out with my camera to document all the new bars and restaurants that are opening up in the kampung (to be reported on later at, telling my new Singaporean police friend I would see him soon.