Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It's not a fishing accident

One great part of living in a multicultural society is sharing many holidays and festivals. Last week, as we prepared for Chinese New Year, we were released from school and work for celebration of the prophet Mohammad's Birthday on Tuesday and the Hindu holiday Thaipusam on Friday.

For Mohammad's Birthday, we decided to celebrate in the great outdoors. Brian and Ethan organized a Camp WienerPohl outing to a nearby waterfall. Along the hike in a rain forest thick with bamboo, we found ourselves sharing the path with a mega millipede. Arriving at the falls, we splashed in the cool water and slid down the rocks - until encountering a weird looking creature stuck to the rocks. After a hardy debate: "is it a leech or sucker fish?", the kids and guys confirmed that they were indeed sucker fish. They confirmed this by hiking through some leafy plants and then finding actual leeches snacking on their sweet blood. Confirmed - first creatures were just sucker fish. Glad we settled that dispute before leaving the falls.

Exploring the bottom of the falls
Later that week came Thaipusam, a very important Hindu holiday for the mainly Tamil-speaking Hindu community in Malaysia. Thaipusam celebrates Lord Subramaniam, aka Lord Murugan. It is a time of penance for the over one million devotees attending the multi-day festivities at the Batu Caves. Many devotees walk a long distance barefoot and then ascend the 280 steps to the cave temple carrying offerings of milk. Others build and carry kavadi, shrines built on frames elaborately decorated with bright-colored designs, flowers, sculptures, and a good helping of peacock feathers. Some devotees, after engaging in a 48 day cleansing and fasting, shave their heads and pierce body parts with hooks and spears. From the hooks, many hang offerings of fruit (yeah - like whole coconuts!) and jugs of milk. For the visitor, this is a wild experience. We stopped to watch a group of men and women get their heads shaved with an old school Godfather razor. After a few minutes we realized that Tyler chowing down on McDonald's pancakes while staring at people who have been fasting for 48 days was probably a little culturally insensitive. We arrived before sunrise and lined up to ascend the temple steps. The kids spent a lot of time on our shoulders getting the best view possible. I wish my pictures were better. (For those who read our earlier Batu Cave post, please note that there were no monkeys seen on this visit.)

Otherwise, we've been keeping ourselves busy starting the new term at school and waiting for Brian's parents to arrive for a month long visit. The school is organized into three terms. With each team, the children can select new after school activities (called 'CCAs', co-curricular activities). Violet's doing a service/outreach group, parkour (yeah - that awesome street improv martial arts thing), and choir. Tyler's in boardgames and parkour as well. CCAs are fantastic. The kids not only tremendously enjoy them, but they also add an extra 1 hour and 30 minutes to the school day. Also through the school, the kids are in a soccer clinic. Violet made the soccer (football) team and, having never played soccer at all before, it seemed like a good idea to work on her skills in a clinic. Tyler just thinks kicking a ball really hard and sliding into people is super fun, so he asked to join up. You can always find him on the field by looking for the kid on the ground. It's either him, or someone he just tackled. Since we don't know any soccer rules, it is unclear if he is doing anything that is technically wrong. Add on swimming and the kids have a full week.

In other school news, Violet made it to the semi-finals of the school's singing talent show, the X Factor, singing "I Will Survive". She had never heard the song before a couple weeks ago, but as we reviewed songs from an internet posting of "Great Songs for Talent Shows", she fell for Gloria Gaynor. Unfortunately, Tyler's unrehearsed version of "Livin' La Vida Loca" (complete with "Just Dance 4" moves) didn't make the X Factor semi-finals cut. I'm really proud of him for stepping up to try out. He had said many times that he wouldn't sing in front of the class. And it was a nice opportunity to discuss how practice (e.g., learning the words) improves one's performance. Violet sang very well in the semi-finals; but alas, the judges selected another group for the finals.

To relax before my in-law's arrival, my friend Monique invited me to go to the Hammam, a Moroccan bath located not far from our place in Mont Kiara (in a mall, of course). A hammam seems to be the Moroccan equivalent of a Turkish bath, complete with lots of marble and steam rooms (not to be confused with haram - a word in Bahasa that means immoral or wrong - you can use that if a traffic officer tries to elicit a bribe for a traffic "violation"). Monique signed us up for the hammam and gommage. Plus a 60-minute massage. OMG - I'm in love with this place. Let's just start off by saying, if you are at all modest, this is a rough thing to do. Also, if you go with a friend, know that you'll be seeing a lot of your friend. Yeah - it's a lot like my Ipoh massage experience. But at least this time I was ready for it. So here's how Monique and my couples experience went.

The place is beautiful, cozy warm, and smells great. You go into a little locker/changing area and take it all off. Then you put on this paper underwear and bra and cover up with a robe. After meeting my scrubber, Nadia, we were led into a steaming warm room. Nadia poured bucket after bucket of warm water over me. Then I laid on a heated marble slab and she soaped me down with "black soap". She left me to baste for 10 blissful minutes. Then we were led to the next room with more marble beds. Nadia put on a rough silk mitt and began the scrub. The amount of nastiness coming off my skin was impressive. The rub down felt good, in a slightly abrasive way. Nadia scrubbed every piece of my skin. Between my toes, all over my back, yes even my buns. Then she washed me down with bucket after bucket of water. Monique and I were laughing in the end  because last month the girls were doing a homework assignment on water usage in Year 3 (Violet tallied every time we flushed the toilet). After the scrub we got in a big cozy bed and drank warm tea and ate baklava until our massage. On our way out, they talked us into purchasing a package of 5 visits - so I will be back!

I neglected to post this pic following Brian's return from the Philippines. Right before the holidays, Brian played doctor for Tyler's class as part of their integrated primary curriculum on "What People Do". It was super cute and Tyler loved being the mock patient. Yes, I refrained from volunteering my time to explain what a former bureaucrat/part-time consultant does all day.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Violet and Tyler: My holiday

From Violet: Written after our first visit to the villages with PPMK in Indonesia:

I was amazed how well I could communicate with the other families. They only spoke Javanese or Bahasa Indonesian and a few words of English. I cannot speak Javanese, only a few words of Bahasa Indonesian. I communicated by using sign language by moving my hands in certain directions and sometimes speaking English.

From Tyler: A picture of the boat trip to the orangutans:

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tremendous Women in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

We spent the third and final leg of our Indonesian holiday in Yogyakarta. It all goes back to a sunny May day in Baltimore...

Saying goodbye to our wonderful Baltimore neighbors, Jan Houbolt and Rachel Wohl, Jan said "if you find yourself traveling to Indonesia, could you please go visit Yogyakarta? There is a little NGO I'd like you to see." I said, "I'm sure we will travel through Jakarta." Er - yeah - totally different cities. Guess it was my first of many Indonesian geography lessons. Both cities are on the large island of Java. Jakarta, the capital and largest city, is on the northwest shore while Yogyakarta is near the southern coast and more central on the long, narrow island. We've heard it takes about 12 hours to drive between the cities. Yogyakarta, with a regional population of about 3.4 million, is known as a center for Javanese arts and culture and is home to one of the country's major universities. And despite the English spelling, it's pronounced "Jog-ja" ("jog" as in jogging, like the thing I've not done since I arrived in KL, and "ja" like the beginning of Jack). So four months after Jan mentioned Yogyakarta, Robin booked Camp WienerPohl on the orangutan adventure; and, we did indeed find ourselves looking for 9 more days of adventure in Indonesia. Jan sent me this message about the NGO (not-for profit, nongovernmental organization) called PPMK:

"I do not know if I sent you the video/YouTube ( that my lifetime best friend Jack made after he was diagnosed with cancer and about 18 months before he died. It is a remarkable story of a Vietnam vet who declined into the depths of self destruction, drug addiction and then turned his life around and became a powerful story of goodness utilizing all of his Vet’s benefits to start and support PPMK. Promised him on his death bed literally that we would replace his Veterans benefits and keep PPMK alive."

Well, that's a great hook. PPMK is the acronym for an organization whose name means "Empowering Women to Fight Poverty". PPMK provides microcredit to poor women in villages around Yogyakarta. Microcredit, part of a global microfinancing movement, provides very small loans (usually under $250 US dollars) to people living in poverty. PPMK's loans are nearly exclusively to women and must be used to start or build small businesses. Think about it this way. In the long run, to empower women, you start off in the family. In a family struggling to get by, if a woman brings home money to support the family, she has an elevated importance. She also gains a voice in economic decision-making. This tends to lead to more emphasis on education (and added resources) to send children to school.

Tyler's favorite part of the village visits was by far the motor scooter ride!
PPMK's amazing director, Lastri, arranged transport and our hotel. She picked us up in the airport (despite the 6:00 am arrival!) and invited us to eat breakfast and have coffee at her home as we started the day. We then spent the morning in PPMK's rustic office, beautifully set in a rice field on the edge of town. Lastri reviewed with us the loan-making process, including the loan application forms, assessment tools, and loan agreements. PPMK currently supports 200 loans in multiple villages and sub-villages in the Yogyakarta region. The next day we headed out on motor bikes to see the loans in action by visiting women in the villages. This was an incredibly powerful experience.

Coming into this experience, I expected that I'd want to drop $50 bills on the way out the door of every house. Surprisingly, I didn't feel that way. From my assessment, microcredit works particularly well here because while people are very poor, there is an economy operating. Many individuals (not necessarily the ones receiving their first loans, but others in the villages), have disposable income to buy snacks or goats. Tourism in the area also makes a market for handicrafts. The women were not seeking charity, but are building a craft and a business - and they have an apparent pride in their efforts. That's not to say that money doesn't help. The administration of PPMK needs support, but the distribution of resources through the micro loans delivered by PPMK develops sustainable efforts.

What I did feel was overwhelmed - seriously blown away - by the generosity of all. People who had seemingly so little, gave us so much. We visited a loan repayment meeting. The women gave Violet and Tyler beaded bracelets - and would not allow us to pay for them. And they made me take a bag of boiled peanuts after I mentioned that they reminded me of home (thinking of you, Uncle Simon!). The women all gave up their time to visit with us. When you are earning only 2 cents to sew a complete bag, pausing for 15 minutes to talk with us, show us your workshop, and teach our kids a skill is forgoing a tangible portion of income.

The kids definitely realized what an incredible experience this was for us.  When given the option of choosing what to do on our last day in Yogya, they both asked to spend the morning with Lastri and the folks at PPMK.

It was such a powerful experience that I can't do it justice in words. Maybe these pictures will help convey my feelings:

Hand batiking. A batik gallery provides the silk. The woman here creates the wax motif and the silk is sent to others to dye.
Batik bag making. PPMK has supported two rounds of loans for this woman. With the first loan, she purchased a foot-powered sewing machine and started the business. With the second loan, she purchased an electric sewing machine and doubled her productivity. She earns 2 cents per completed bag (the bags sell for $3 or $4 at the market). She partners with a person who supplies the fabric, surveys the market, and determines the style and batik colors for the bags.
I'm all smiles because this is the best thing I've ever eaten. This family makes Tempe "burgers" with sticky rice "buns". The burger is sticky and sweet and oh so good.  The process is involved, with many ingredients - the PPMK loan served to provide money to purchase the start-up materials. They sell these at a road side stand. (Anyone looking to start your own business? You could make these in Baltimore and sell at the Jones Falls farmers market for $10 a burger...).  Brian said is was among to top 3 things he's eaten in Asia.
We visited a loan repayment meeting. The kids, with some help from a mom, taught Violet and Tyler to make beaded bracelets.
Learning that Tyler's favorite fruit is rambutan, this woman took Violet and Tyler to her tree for a fresh picked snack! 
See the PPMK December Newsletter (FaceBook friend "PPMK Jogja") to learn about this very poor family's goat raising business. A very sad, yet inspiring story.
I asked Lastri where the women learn the handicraft skills. This woman worked in a souvenir-making factory. She had to leave when she had her first child. The PPMK loan allowed her to buy the supplies and equipment to start her own business. She now earns more than she did at the factory, plus she is home near her children.
This couple laboriously shells and pounds beans into chips. They dry the chips and sell them to folks that ship the chips across Indonesia. The finished product is delicious! The family used their loan to purchase chip making equipment. Lastri explained that families hold little to no reserve money. A family may have a business, but if they need money (medical emergency or disaster) they may sell their equipment, leaving them with no means to earn money. The loans allow the families to re-start businesses. This happened to many families that lost their homes in during an earthquake a few years back.
This experience absolutely moved me to engage more with PPMK. If you are looking to support an organization, this is the real-deal ground roots effort. Okay, want to find out more? Here's the PPMK website:  If you are in the US and want to donate, PPMK's US-based financial funding is here: (100% of funds go to PPMK. A $250 donation will support the development of at least one new business). You can also FaceBook friend "PPMK Jogja" to receive their monthly newsletter. Some the the US team supporting PPMK also started profiles. They are in draft, but showcase the many women PPMK supports.

Organizations function by the power of their people. Lastri -- I know this will embarrass you -- but you are a superstar! Lastri's passion and caring make the organization run. We were, again, overwhelmed by her generosity as our host and now as a friend. Lastri put work and life on hold for a week to take care of the Pohl Garibaldi clan. We deeply thank you!

While we were in Yogyakarta, Lastri and her team also took us out and about town. We saw a spectacular Ramayana ballet at the Prambanan, a collection of Hindu temples circa 850 AD. The show was so, so good. All of us, even Tyler, was entranced by the performance. It helped that the show included excellent sword fighting scenes and lots of humor!

We also hiked up a volcano. Tyler got a lift from Brian who noted carrying 40 lbs uphill as his day's cardiac 

Danger: pirates ahead.
A Yogyakarta highlight is visiting Borobudur. We recently had some visiting JHU faculty in town that weekended to Jogja simply to see Borobudur. Borobudur is a 9-century Buddhist shrine. Set on a hill, the pyramid-like structure has multiple concentric levels, each with stone sculpture reliefs depicting the path to enlightenment. 500 seated Buddha statues surround the walls. At some point, the shrine was abandoned and overtaken by jungle and volcanic ash. In the early 1800's the monument was relocated and unearthing began in 1835. UNESCO deemed Borobudur a World Heritage Site in 1991. Lastri and the PPMK team brought us here for a sunset visit.  (

Violet (aka - "Little Barbie") and I being pulled into a 15 minute photo shoot with an Indonesia school group! Peace!
All parts of the visit with Lastri were a huge success. When we struck out on our own it was - well - an experience. We went outside town for a river caving tube ride thing. It was New Year's Day and crowded, I mean like mud up to your knees, fighting to get into the murky water crowded. Our enthusiastic guide spoke limited English and just keep saying - "No worry. You be okay. Mom, boy - you be okay. No worry. No worry." Yeah, sure, man. I'm in a floating tube, wearing a well-fitting life vest in a well-lit cave with like a 1,000 people in warm and nearly stagnate water. My only worries were giardia and leptospirosis. Just because it's un-fun, doesn't mean I'm worrying.

Leaving the assembly line tube tour, the four of us and a moderately amused Russian couple were stuck in the back of a pickup truck to head to the other river for the rapids "float". Before we left, the guide said, "Mom, give me camera. River is dangerous. River is dangerous." What? From "Mom, no worry" to flat out dangerous. He probably could tell from my face and said "Dangerous for camera. You be wet." Okay, feeling better. Still thinking of giardia and leptospirosis. The truck ride to the river was beautiful. Then the cold rain came. Then we formed a tube chain and cast out in the rapidly flowing and swollen river to view the river bank engorged with plastic bags. Trip meter approaching un-fun again. I'd call it maybe a Class 2, but I just hit a dip the right way (maybe wrong way) and shot out of my tube, as Brian said "like a champagne cork." Something went click in my head. This was no longer a passive float. I shed my tourist, "bring fun to me" mentality. I was now in full adventure mode. My feet went forward, I grabbed my tube, and used it to bounce off the rocks. The change was all in my mind. And it really was a - click. In the calm water, I popped up into my tube and joined our tube chain. When some tour organizers fished us out of the water at the end of the run, I realized I actually had a really fun day. Fun is mental. And sitting sipping hot tea at a road side stand with the Russians, I knew that at the very least, we had a pretty funny story.

An incredible stay in Jogja! An incredible trip to Indonesia! We returned to KL energized. I'm meeting with Jan and Rachel to discuss continuing support for PPMK. The kids gained a glimpse-- hopefully a start to an understanding--of the world outside of their small realm. And from some agriculturally-polluted river in central Java, I remembered again to just let go and have fun.

Love to all around the world! Here's a picture from our final dinner in Jogja.