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Saturday, November 13, 2010

I speak with President Obama

The night before the event we met with Robb, our contact person from the American Embassy. He was explaining to us that there would be a lot of waiting around, that we would travel in an Embassy bus and that we should address Michelle Obama as Mrs. Obama. He got a text message and said, please excuse me. He walked outside the room. The next day, when we were waiting for the bus after we had met with the President and listened to his speech, he told us that this message caught him off guard It said that the FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) would not meet with the Peace Corps volunteers. He said his heart sank. But the message continued – The POTUS (Pres. Of the United States) wants to meet the volunteers. That night he made the decision not to tell us in advance.

On Nov 10th I woke up at 3:50am, recalled a dream about a person who died and then went back to the barbeque he had attended before his death and got to speak to everyone there and then came back again and again until finally his wife said, you don’t need to come back again. I’m writing all these random things into this account because I just want to give my grandchildren a little taste of what my life was like for one very important day. I took a shower and listened to the mosque prayers that began at 4:10.
Gio, my friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer was my roommate and my fashion consultant and had figured out exactly what I should wear. I got dressed in my best batik (made in Indonesia) shirt, black dress pants, my Michelle Obama golden brown shoes (which I had bought in Salt Lake City because I suspected we were going to meet Mrs. Obama – they had told us to bring closed toe dress shoes.) This was the first time in Indonesia that I had worn panty hose. I put makeup on and fixed my hair in a long braid. I wore my gold necklace, a bead necklace, and earrings. The whole time I was getting dressed I was thinking – I want my granddaughter to have these beads and my grandson to get my ID badge and I need something for the one new grandbaby on the way and maybe I’ll get lucky and get another one, so I need to wear enough stuff so that I can share it later with all my grandchildren.

Gio was brushing the mold off her shoes. Downstairs at breakfast several of the other volunteers read the notes I was keeping and they told me that Travis, Scott and Truong all wiped the mold off their shoes too.

AT 4:50 we checked out of our rooms and left our bags in Betsy’s room – she’s the assistant country director and had extended her check out time so we’d have a place to keep our luggage and a place to change when we returned.

The hotel had breakfast ready for us at 5:00. The thing I remember most about this breakfast was there were tater tots, real American tasting tater tots and cereal and a yogurt drink that was so delicious. For so long breakfast has been rice, fried rice, some vegetables and protein like a piece of fried chicken or some beef - it’s just fun to eat something different like cereal.

Then we boarded the Embassy bus. There were 18 volunteers, Ken, the Peace Corps country director for Indonesia and Robb, the Embassy person who has been co-coordinating this adventure since it started in March. President and Mrs. Obama had requested meeting us in March when they were originally scheduled to come to Indonesia, but it got rescheduled for June and then again for November.

On the trip to University of Indonesia, Jakarta, we passed many trains with people sitting on top of the train. I was later told this is a common way to travel because you don’t have to have a ticket to sit on top of a train, but it’s pretty dangerous.

We also passed lots of cows, buffalos and goats for sale. Next week is Idul Adha to commemorate the time when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son and when he raised the knife, God sent him an animal in the bushes instead. Abraham is one of the prophets that Muslims recognize and so is Jesus. They believe that Mohammad was the last prophet of God. Many Muslims kill a sacrificial animal and then cook the meat and distribute it to the poor for this holiday. Some of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers have seen pictures of the slaughter at their school last year. I asked at my school and I was told that we will kill one cow and 4 goats on Thursday by slicing their throats. Wow!

On the bus we are each given a ticket to the event. Mine is marked as number 4511. We were told that 6000 people had been given tickets. The ticket said “November 10, 2010 Speech by the President of the United States, Barack Obama University of Indonesia, Depok Campus Depok 16424 – Indonesia gates open at 6:00 a.m. Please limit personal items. For security reasons, do not bring bags. Signs, banners and umbrellas are not permitted. This ticket is free and not for sale. We request that you arrive by bus with your group, or that you come on foot. Individual vehicles cannot be accommodated."

The badge around my neck has the Peace Corps symbol – an American flag with the stars turning into doves and my name – Colleen Young, Tijeras, NM.

As we near the University I see lots more police men with rifles. There is a sign that says Salamat Datang (Welcome) and a picture of President Obama.

In the bus next to us there are young people who look like University students. One of them holds his ticket up to the window of his bus and we show him ours. We all smile. The placard on his bus says “Invited Bus.” It has a picture of American and Indonesian flags.

When we get to the University all the traffic stops so that the police can slide a dolly with a large mirror under every vehicle to check for bombs. This is also what happens when you arrive at any shopping mall in a private vehicle. Your car gets the undercarriage checked for explosives.

We are driven down a winding avenue with palm trees planted every 300 feet. We go past a lake with a park around the edge and what looks to be a natural jungle area. All the traffic is going one way to a drop off place in front of a big building.

We get out of the bus and put our cell phones, cameras, passports, and tickets on the luggage examination machine and walk through the airport type security detectors and women are directed to women police people and men are directed to men police people and every single person is wanded and patted down by a guard. Some people are given a stamp on their hand. We are escorted to a different place to stand.

A man comes up to our Embassy escort person, Robb, and asks him if he personally know every one of us. Robb says yes. I remember back to last night and how he knew all kinds of things about us. He knew that I was from New Mexico originally and had lived in Utah. He told me that he recognized us from our pictures. I think he knew that he was going to be asked that question and made a point of knowing each of us personally. We were escorted past people who are waiting and follow our guide into the secure area. About 50 feet from the main auditorium where President Obama will speak there was a tent set up with a sign – Peace Corps Event Tent.

We went inside and there was a flag of the United States on one side and a flag of Indonesia on the other in front of some potted plants. The banner over head read
Peace Corps - A new partnership between the American and Indonesia people. And a picture of the American flag flowing into the Indonesia flag. The tent was 17 feet by 35 feet, Noel paced it off and it had an air conditioner!

Some of us girls go use the restroom and we get to talking about the American secret service people that we’ve seen. This is a direct quote from Gio concerning what she thought she should say to the security guards. “I haven’t seen a man as fine as you in 8 months.”

Nisha shows me her 4 inch heels which she bought in a record tracking 10 minute shopping spree. Even with her heels on she’s still the shortest. She says, “No Angela is the shortest.”

Diana, Gio and Bart are all wearing their school uniform batik shirts. Oh no, Gio has a wardrobe malfunction and has to fix the safety pin that is holding the front of her shirt together.

We waited in the tent for several hours as the auditorium filled up with guests.

In the tent with us was the woman from the White house, Deliah Jackson, who was our contact person, Robb from the Embassy and Ken Puvak, our Peace Corps country director and the 18 volunteers.

We sit on the indoor/outdoor carpeting and play 20 questions to pass the time. Travis starts with a sports figure. We don’t guess him. It turns out to be Lance Armstrong. The others are Santa Claus, Robb and Pa Habib, our contact person from the University of Mohammadia in Malang. Then we guess state animals. Michigan is the white tailed deer. No one knows the New Mexico state question even though I give them a hint and tell them that it’s about colors. The state question is “Red or Green?” and it referrers to what kind of chili you want on your meal. Sarah tells us that the population of Hawaii used to me much greater than it is now, that the Mori people wiped out the pacifist Mori-ori people. (I don’t know if I got all that right.) Then we talk about our best Christmas gifts ever. Andrea says hers was a Barbie Power Wheels jeep and it still runs, they recently painted it green and turned it into a John Deere for her little cousin.

Robb and Deliah have us try several configurations before she settles on the boys and tall volunteers standing on the risers in the back and the short volunteers in the front – we practiced how we would each shake the “Principals” hand. We were still anticipating meeting Mrs. Obama. At this point Deliah and Robb start referring to the “Principal” like when the “Principal” walks in, how to file out so that we all shake the “Principal” hand etc.

Robb had said that the White House requested meeting the Peace Corps volunteers and they could be accompanied by one person from the Peace Corps staff and that he wasn’t sure he would be allowed to remain in the tent when the Principal came. Betsy, our assistant country director and Wawan, our security director were not allowed to come with us on the bus. They told us that many events were cut out of the program but that the White House had insisted that it wanted to keep this meeting with our first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Indonesia in 45 years.

Occasionally a man with a curly wire going into his ear and a microphone opens the tent door and peeks inside. We are all standing exactly as we should be - ready for the picture with Michelle Obama. Someone says “I want his job.”

Then they said to be ready, it was “imminent,” the tent door flapped a little and I could see Pres. Obama outside. When he walked in, I was still anticipating meeting with Mrs. Obama. He had on a blue suit and a blue tie.

He said. “What a good looking group.” I like your batik (the native Indonesian cloth that all our shirts were made from.) He said. We’re really happy that you’re here. It’s really important what you are doing in Indonesia. I’m very proud of the work that you are doing. He then stepped into the space that we had left and his official photographer took several pictures. When the photo session was finished he turned and reached out his hand to the first person on the right and asked “What is your name and where are you from?” We each said our name and the state where we were from. Lukas said he was from Chicago and Obama asked him where in Chicago. President Obama is tall and I had to look up to look him in the eye, even though I was on a 6 inch riser. I said I was from the National Forest in New Mexico and he asked me if I was a forestry volunteer. I said, “No, I’m an English teacher.” He reached out and took each one of our hands as we told him our names. He skipped over Noel who was standing next to me and came back to her last – very sharp – not just going up and down the rows in order but shipping around a bit and not missing any one of us. He spoke a little more – He asked “How’s your Bahasa Indonesia?” We all answered with the Bahasa word for “good” and he understood. Then he walked up to Ken and Ken introduced himself as the country director and the President said, “Why weren’t you in the photo?” And then he came back to the group and invited Ken to stand with us and we took another photo with our Peace Corps country director and President Obama in the picture.

Obama told us that most Americans don’t know about Indonesia and what we tell them is important. That aspect of our service is an important part of our mission here. Then he asked if we all were teachers. Then President Obama said “Thank you for coming to Indonesia.” And all of us responded, “Thank You!” Then he turned and walked out of the tent. He had spent about 10 or 15 minutes with us exclusively.

Then we filed out of the tent and walked to our reserved seats. We were in the first three rows on the left about 50 feet away from the President. I sat on the first row to the left of the stage where Obama spoke.

The first words the President said were in Arabic “Assalamu alaikum.” The Islamic greeting. The audience loved it! He said "When I first came to this country; I felt that I was coming to a different world." He was a grade school student and lived in Jakarta for 3 years. He said that he remembered the men and women who made a foreign child feel like a friend. Back then the buildings were just a few stories tall and the beceks (bicycle vehicles with 2 passengers in a seat in front) and bemos (little mini vans for public transport) outnumbered cars. "I remember my house had a mango tree in front and I would fly kites and catch dragon flies." He talked about the common humanity of all people. His step father was a native Indonesian and had been raised a Muslim. He talked about the respect for all religions that is fostered in Indonesia. He talked about his little sister who was born here. His mother retired and kept retuning for 20 years to Indonesia. He was honored that the President of Indonesia had presented an award in her honor. He said he never anticipated that he would return to Jakarta as the President of the United States. He said that he used to run in fields with water buffalos and goats.

He mentioned that his step father watched his own brother die in the fight for Indonesian independence. He said that his step father was in the Indonesian army and there was a reluctance to speak about issues, but now Indonesia is a democracy and there is no turning back from democracy and its spirit of tolerance. He said in Indonesian “the unity of Indonesia" and the audience cheered. He spoke of the deep enduring partnership between Indonesia and the United States, a partnership of equals. He talked about the battle for Surabaya – 55 years ago today. He talked about the trust ensuring that children were treated equally whether they were from Ache or Java.

He spoke about Development and that we have an interest in each others success.

He spoke about religion and said, "It is a fundamental steeped in spirituality." He said that he wanted to repair Muslim relations around the world. He said no single speech can eradicate mistrust. There were planes overhead. The president said that America is not and never will be at war with Islam. That we have a shared interest in building peace in a war torn world. He spoke about Iraq and Afghanistan and said that the stakes are high in resolving these issues. He said that one whispered rumor can obscure the truth. He referred to Pagasila, the 5 points of Indonesian democracy. He said that in Indonesia, Islam flourishes, but so do other faiths. He said that he was a Christian and that he visited the Mosque in Jakarta that had been designed by a Christian architect. He said that the spark of the divine lives within all of us. Unity was more powerful than division.

I listened to the President talk about Development, Democracy and Religion. I think it was a good speech, not controversial, mainly stressing our mutual interests with Indonesia. Every time he said a word or a phrase in Bahasa Indonesia – and he did that about 8 times, the crowd went wild with clapping. It seemed to me that the audience responded best when he talked about bakso and sate – two Indonesian foods that he recalled fondly.

I later heard that his 3rd grade teacher in Jakarta had said that the first year he didn’t speak Indonesian, the second year he spoke it well and the third year he was living in Indonesia he had mastered it. The person who told me this was trying to encourage me to think that I might get better too.

I don’t think Obama has been back to Indonesia since he was a child. He mentioned that the Sarinah shopping center was the tallest building in Jakarta back then. Now there are huge buildings.

While the President was speaking there were men who only looked at the audience. They all had the curly wires in their ears and walkie talkies with mouthpieces.

At the end of his speech, the President walked off the stage and went into the crowd to shake hands with the people in the rows directly in front of him. We were on the front row off to the side behind the pillars. All the faces I could see in the audience directly in front of him were Indonesian.

After the president left, the audience stayed in their seats for several minutes. I assumed that the President was leaving in his helicopter. Then they let the audience leave. When we were outside waiting for our bus, Robb got all of us a President Obama T shirt. It has his picture on it and says "Welcome back Mas (Brother) Obama to Remarkable Indonesia."

When the bus returned us to our hotel, we all changed out our formal clothes and then most of us headed to the 10 minutes away Sarinah shopping center that Obama had mentioned. One last splurge for Burger King. Ah, big city life! A few hours of freedom, then we’re back on the bus for the trip to the airport, back to our Peace Corps hotel in Surabaya and then leaving the next day, returning to our sites.

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