On Reading Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture

Not Starbucks (Bandung, Indonesia)

Not Starbucks (Bandung, Indonesia)

“How excited can people get about coffee and milk? Starbucks’s worldwide explosion was about more than coffee; it was about the way the company was selling it. Coffeehouses provided something society needed: a place to just be. But no one had any idea of how badly we needed it.” (p.51)

“The coffee wasn’t the point, the place was.” (p.92)

Despite my less than warm feelings towards Starbucks (I prefer local, personal cafes), I read a fascinating book about it recently called “Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture”. Published in 2007, the book is about the journey of Starbucks from a simple coffee company selling coffee for people to drink at home to the coffee empire it is today just a few decades later. The author is not a Starbucks lover or hater, and his perspective makes for a good, credible read.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is called “The Rise of the Mermaid” and describes the rise of Starbucks and the craze for coffee in North America. It describes how coffee was originally discovered, how coffeehouses were originally a creation of the Muslim world that later became popular in the West, and how coffee decreased in popularity in America as the quality of coffee declined. It details the stories of the roasters who were keen on bring the beauty of coffee back to popular consciousness, how the company that gave birth to Starbucks began, and how Starbucks we know today was born from CEO Schultz’s belief that adapting the culture of Italian cafes to an American context would create a profitable business. From there the book details the rise of Starbucks, and describes some of its successes to date.

The second part of the book is titled “Getting Steamed” and describes the debates around Starbucks from the negligible earnings of coffee growers (the milk costs more than the company pays its growers), the company’s relationship to its workers, the machinization of coffee making, the lack of resemblance the company’s products have to actual coffee, its colonization of cities worldwide, its predatorial tactics towards other coffee companies, and other topics that come to mind when you see the familiar green and white symbol.

What fascinated me about the book was how much discussions about place were a part of its explanation of how the company became so popular so quickly. As driving dependent suburbs became a more prominent part of our landscapes and public spaces became harder to find, Starbucks tried to position itself as the provider of the ‘third space” that was missing from cities and communities. (Interestingly enough, the inventor of the term “third space”, and the author of a book about the concept, never approved Starbucks’ use of the term. And according to Starbucked, as time went on Schultz claimed to have invented the concept himself). Beyond the third space idea, the book talks about how many communities vie to have a Starbucks relocate in their town, as the company opening a cafe is seen as a signal of economic vitality, though there is little causational evidence to back up such claims.

On a personal note, reading about the company’s connection to place led to a deeper conviction that truly public, non commercial spaces are needed in cities. Public libraries are an excellent example of such spaces (the Surrey City Centre Library for instance was designed to be the living room of the city), but we need to have a diversity of public spaces that offer choices to residents about where they want to congregate.

The second thing I took away from the book is that it is a not a neutral enterprise to build a city, and where values are not clearly articulated, that gap will be filled by companies/culture makers that may not hold the same values and concern for community that a municipality should. The book talks about how Starbucks tapped into people’s need for connection and closeness by claiming to meet that need, but municipalities should be able to meet these needs in less harmful ways.

Great Cities Are Like Great Books

Bandung 2012

Bandung 2012

You’re no use to Toronto if you only know Toronto. You’ve got to leave and see other places. Great cities are like great books. As a planner, you have to see as many as you can.  – Joe Berridge, Urban Strategies

A doctor spends years learning the intricacies of the body. An artist spends years learning their craft. But how does one become a person with a deep knowledge of cities?

One answer is to travel. Last year as graduate students we had the opportunity to sit with Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies and Ricky Burdett, the Director of the LSE Cities program in a small student seminar after a large public lecture, and both of them gave the same advice. That as young planners seeking to develop our skills, we have to leave Canada for a few years and immerse ourselves in studying the great metropolitan cities.  Both of them also strongly advised me to learn Arabic.

When I went to Bandung this summer, I thought a lot about this advice.  While I think there are caveats to travel – that you must do so responsibly, ethically and intentionally and not with a selfish desire to collect ‘cool experiences’, seeing the tremendous social capital of Bandung (theories around social capital began in Indonesia) was a lesson that travel has the potential for good. Visiting Singapore was another tremendous education.

I read a WashingtonPost piece this week about a growing trend of Americans leaving the States and going to Asia and the ME to work. Though the article is about people moving out of America because they can’t find employment locally – I’ve been thinking about the article ever since. Though Canada has always been home, perhaps at some point to be a well rounded planner it is necessary to take one’s anxieties about major moves and reframe that into intentional learning in a new location. In the meantime, I’m lucky to be close to an academic library, and right now there is a stack of books in my room about Indonesia and Cairo, and how faith is negotiated in cities (questions that I find particularly compelling) more generally. As I read and continue my studies, I hope to share thoughts here with you. I was in Toronto recently for my convocation ceremony, and being in the city again and having long chats with friends and mentors over chai and good food was an energising and inspiring reminder that though the unknown is scary, it’s a gift to be young and at the beginning of your learning and contributions.

(Below, notes from the seminar I mentioned above.)

Ricky Burdett

  •  LSE started a program that combines city design and social science. It’s the only school of social science that bring these issues together
  • Book: Living in the Endless City. Also has a website that is updated quite regularly
  • Discipline of understanding cities is about two dimensions: macro and micro. People may be thinking at one scale and not think about other scale at all. Cities are aging.  European cities are aged, but African cities are very young cities.
  • Importance of being interdisciplinary in dealing with issues. It has the risk of being an amateur of many things and a specialist of nothing. But that is what is necessary for good cities: need to know a bit of everything.
  • Design is one of many components.
  • In many cities, people show much more interest (than is shown in Canada) in what other cities are doing. City builders look internationally to see what other places are doing. Expecially in when sitting in relative comfort of Toronto, important to look at Bangkok.
  • You don’t want to have no idea what is going on rest of world. Need to bring where you are into your understanding of the rest of the world. Be an actor, know what’s going on.
  • We talk about phenomenon: but not the shape of cities.
  • Mexico city: endless city because it doesn’t end, but also not classical form of European cities.
  • 7-8 years of LSE Cities research is framed by three statistics:

a)2% of earth’s surface is occupied by cities.
b)53% of world’s population lives in cities.
c)33% of city dwellers live in slums

  • People move because they have a better opportunity of quality of life for children.
  • Mumbai like living in bird of gold because if things work you come in at the bottom, move up and then you fly. No doubt that urbanization comes with massive benefits if you channel urbanization properly.

Q: Where do planners fit into the developing world?
A: What is role of someone whose role is formal planning regulation in places of informal planning regulation? There is space but it requires a different way of doing planning. 75% of world’s CO2 emissions are produced by cities. As economy improves, people expect dignity of basic amenities and “modern facilities”. Not difficult to find tower blocks in new age cities. Don’t believe in one normative approach of cities, of someone saying “do it this way, and any other approach is wrong”. If wanted to be normative though, New York is good. It has continuous housing stock, and urban fabric. Very little possibility of resilience in totally zoned cities.

Mexico City, 2005.

This shows how we go from social to environmental. In 2005, there were 4 hour commuting times per day.The more city is spread out, the more infrastructure spreads, therefore can’t support a bus. Infrastructure of 22 million people is spread this way. Think about what kind of police officer and nurse will you be with those kind of commute times? What kind of family will you have? Think of your social life and what you are like as a parent.
Convenience mentioned as something as very important in HK. Everyone wants to be 12 minutes from work. In Rome, restaurant and friends are important. So context is always important.

The Privilege of Travelling

When I was away in Bandung I kept thinking of the essay “The Ugly Tourist” by Jamaica Kincaid. I just found my copy while unpacking books, and though the entire essay is well worth a read (it’s about 2 and a half pages), the last paragraph (below) is an important reminder about travelling and visiting places, and a critical check on intentions. (That essay and Alain de Botton’s book “The Art of Travel) should be mandatory reading).

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives–most natives in the world–cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go–so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

~Jamaica Kincaid, The Ugly Tourist, The Norton Reader, Tenth Edition.

Terima Kasih For the Memories

It’s the last day of my trip, and I leave for the Changi airport (I’ve been in Singapore again for the past six days) in about an hour to start the trek back to Canada. It’s been an amazing month, and I feel so blessed and grateful for the chance to have made this trip. From the University of Toronto David Chu Travel Scholarship in Asia Pacific Studies and the Peter Walker Travel Scholarship that made it possible financially, to our wonderful professor Ibu Rachel that set up an amazing field course for us, the beautiful and friendly people we met in Indonesia, my extraordinary host family in Singapore, the amazing staff at our hotel in Bandung, family and friends who prayed for a successful trip and encouraged me to go, fellow students, and new friends in Singapore who showed me around, there are so many people that came together to make this trip possible. I hope there will be other trips after this one, but even so, this time will always hold a treasured place in my heart.

I hold a debt of gratitude, and before I leave, I want to make the intention that over the next days, weeks, months to come, I take these experiences and translate them into action. I want this trip to be a means of becoming a better, kinder person, who is engaged in service, who is a better social planner, who is improved for having made the journey. The blogging dropped off over the past couple of weeks as we became more involved in our research and it became increasingly difficult to verbalize internal reflections, but one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot during the past few weeks is that fun is a luxury that few can afford to have. Bandung is an amazing, trendy city, but it is also a city with tremendous poverty. $100 Canadian goes a long way, but the equivalent amount, 900,000 rupiah is difficult to earn.

In the past couple of weeks I hiked through the tropical rainforest, visited volcanoes, dined in the mountains/hills of Bandung, visited museums, and shared experiences with new friends. It’s been great, and now that the trip is coming to an end, it is tempting to think of the next stamp on the passport, the next neat sight to see, the next cool picture to take. Except the majority of people in Bandung are simply making a living. The roadside vendors, the men who carry a portable stove on their backs so can they can sell their wares, the men who play the guitar for you when your angkut (minibus) stops at a traffic light, the people carving wood into familiar shapes in the forest to sell to tourists, so many people are simply trying to feed their kids, and seeing this helps you realize that the abundance that we have, from plentiful water, to clear air, to trees, to education, are gifts that demand to be used in the appropriate way.

Terima Kasih (Thank you) for reading the few entries about the trip, and hopefully there will be more reflections/stories/pics in the weeks to come. The actual work begins now!

A Canadian Muslim in Bandung (Day 16)

I am a bad tourist. My favourite way to spend my time when travelling is sitting in cafes, visiting cool art spaces, finding quirky bookstores, reading, soaking in the atmosphere, starting random conversations with strangers, journaling, and reflecting on what I’m seeing and observing. I’ve never had a huge urge to visit sites or monuments unless they are places I have heard a lot about before and/or are personally significant to see. (Which I suppose, is why I didn’t go to Yogya). And so yesterday (Day 16) was one of those perfect travel days that I love so much. I took a taxi mid morning up into the Dago mountains and visited the Selasar Sunaryo Art Space and Cafe, (one of Bandung’s most famous galleries) and spent the entire day eating wonderful food and drinking amazing tea at the cafe and doing all the things I described above: journalling, visiting the bookstore and the library, meeting people, and just soaking in the wonderful vibe of the space.

When I was leaving, the hotel staff was a bit nervous about my trip as it was quite far from our hotel and in a bit of a remote location, but thankfully all went well. I’m really enjoying this week as I’ve noticed there are differences to the way I’m read when I’m part of a group and when I’m on my own. When we go out as a group, we are often introduced as the group from Canada/Toronto/the University of Toronto, and then instantly someone will turn to me and ask so are you Moroccan/Malaysian/Iranian/Arab?/etc etc. This week though, it’s been nice being asked where I’m from once people hear my accent, and have Canada be an acceptable answer.

Though I admit, I am really tempted to visit Malaysia after Bandung because over the past year and particularly on this trip, I get asked whether I’m Malaysian on a consistent basis. (Sometimes I get Singaporean as well, but very rarely). Yesterday when I entered the cab for instance, the driver spoke English reasonably well, and so we chatted as we drove up the windy mountainous roads. He asked me where I was from, I said Canada, and he replied “I’m sorry miss, I really thought you were from Malaysia!” That broke the ice, and we chatted about my *very* Malaysian features, he told me about his family and some of his favourites spots in the city, and we talked about Islam in Canada, and the number of Muslims in Toronto. In between our conversation, I had my face pressed to the window of the car, because the drive to the gallery was breathtaking. We passed through parts of the city where it seems many people actually live, passed enormous mosques and small ones as well (sometimes mosques across the street from one another) gorgeous schools, including pesantrens (religious boarding schools for girls) and were treated to stunning views of the mountains dotted with little houses with red roofs. One moment in particular made my breath stick in my chest as we turned a corner and dozens (maybe 150?) young girls in huge white scarfs poured down the white steps of a gorgeous school. I didn’t take photos, but I kept repeating the words, “remember this moment heart!” and it worked, as the images have stayed with me.

Finally we arrived at the art gallery, and I sat down to a stunning meal at the cafe. While I was eating, my parents called, and so we Skyped with the cafe in the background. (I had headphones so we didn’t disturb other people too much). While we were speaking a large group of people entered speaking English, and so after the call as I enjoyed a bowlful of melted toberlone and vanilla ice-cream, from my table (while feeling nervous inside) I asked, “I hear English, are you all visiting from another place?”

And with that question, we all became instantly friends.  The gallery has an exhibit right now called “Still Building: Contemporary Art from Singapore”, and the group I met included the curator of the exhibit who has galleries in Malaysia and Singapore, the artists from Singapore who created the works of the exhibit, and then a Dutch fellow who has lived in Bandung since 2003. As we talked, we realized we had common friends in Bandung and that he knew my professor, and so we ended up having lunch together, and chatting at different points during the day. In Singapore I walked into a bookshop and ended up meeting people who knew friends and teachers in Toronto, and so it was strange to have something similar happen again. The world sometimes seems like a very small place.

We also laughed over my ethnic background/country of origin , because the group agreed that  their first guess would have been Malaysian, though one of the men from Singapore ( I think the gallery owner) said that he heard my accent when I was on Skype, and knew I wasn’t English, but couldn’t quite place the accent until I said Canadian.  I am invited tonight to the opening of the exhibition and to lunch/dinner on Friday, two events that I’m very excited about.

Eventually I made my way to the actual gallery, which is made up four different gallery spaces, a beautiful library, a cute bookshop, a stone garden, an amphitheatre, a workshop, and an artists residency. As you visit the different spaces, you’re treated to incredible views of the valley below and the mountains nearby. At the library I found a great book about Islamic Art, and poked around the different collections, and in the gift shop I found beautiful handmade notebooks, and some local Indonesian films among some very interesting looking books. I bought a couple of films and watched the first one yesterday. It was excellent, and it was delightful to see a film that had women in hijab as simply characters in the story, and not women who need saving. It is possible to create different media representations!

I ended the day at the gallery with what was possibly the best tea I’ve ever had..a homemade Longan Spiced Tea, that had actual longan fruit bobbing in the tea. It was so so spicy and wonderful, and was exactly what my throat needed. As I was drinking my tea, one of the things i was thinking about was Canadian Islam. For the past ten days I’ve been trying to better understand the relationship between Bandung and religion. On the one hand many people talk about it being “a cosmopolitan city that is not bogged down by religion” and bars and alcohol are easy to find, but on the other hand you hear the call to prayer everywhere, prayer spaces and Islamic banks are everywhere, the hijab is very very visible, there are signs with religious messages throughout the city, and though religion is less visible in the part of the city where I am staying, it was very visible in my drive to the gallery. And just in the last few days, Bandung was the site of a major summit on Islamic banking and investment.

Though all of this interesting to reflect over and process, and as much as I have grown to love this city, it isn’t my city. Canada, and Toronto/Vancouver are the sites of my interventions. People in Bandung are the experts on their city. In reality, any work I do here or observations I make here simply help me understand home better; I’m not going to make brilliant insights on life here.

When we went to the underground art space I mentioned briefly in my last post, we met a Japanese architect who has produced two extraordinary books of water-colour paintings and pencil explanations of Jakarta and Bandung, and is working on a third book (he showed us the original paintings) about Kyoto. His talk to us was super inspiring. He grew up in Bandung, he studied in Bandung, his family is based in Bandung, everything important about him is connected to this city, and this is the city he is seeking to improve. We met a journalist last week who is focused on water issues in the city and has written extensively about them at great cost to his own personal safety because the wellbeing of Bandung residents matters that much to him. Many of the people we’ve met are like that, and though many of the members of our travel group are committed to living lives as travellers and  I myself do love seeing and learning from different places, being in Bandung has made me appreciate the benefit of roots.

All of this relates to Bandung and my reflections on religion here, because with each passing day I realize how important it is to build and support indigenous institutions of Islamic learning and community development in Canada and the US. Projects like the Taleef Collective in the US, the MyCanada/Common Ground Project in Canada, the SeekersHub in Toronto, the Muslim Chaplaincy Project at U of T, all of these projects are attempting to create spaces for healthy self and community development that reflect local culture. In Bandung Islam definitely reflects local Javanese culture and it makes sense that similarly in Canada Islam is expressed within a cultural context that reflects the diversity of people that call Canada home. I’ve met more than a few people (not everyone) who have expressed surprise that I’m Muslim in Canada, and for me, it’s highlighted the importance of being a planner who is committed to building healthy social spaces, and being a more active participant in community development work, rather than simply a beneficiary of others struggles.

It’s strange how easily communities and connections form between people. When I came back to the hotel in the evening it was raining, and one of the hotel staff members came out with a giant umbrella and stood there as I got out of the taxi so I wouldn’t get wet in the 2 second walk to the hotel’s interior. They looked visibly relieved I had come back safe and sound, and we shared stories from our day. (Even this morning, I was up at 4:30, and then fell back asleep at 8 am. I got a call at 9 am from the hotel worried that I was going to miss breakfast and wondering where I had been). All in all, day 16 of the trip was wonderful, and ended with an Indonesian film, dinner with my professor at a beautiful Japanese restaurant, and excitement for what the next day will bring.

Paying Attention to the Details of Space (Day 14)

There is something about being unwell that makes you think of home. I was in Saudi after I graduated from undergrad for a month long study trip, and after the first week I was nearly in tears because I hadn’t managed to speak to my family. Four years later I’ve grown in the sense I don’t experience homesicknesses in the same way, but if it were possible, it would be amazing to jet home for an hour, breathe the air and come back. (My big toe is also very red and swollen from an awful bite, so in general though still enthusiastic, my desire to explore is low today).

After having breakfast at seven in the morning, I’ve been asleep for the past several hours trying to recover from a cold that sprung after a visit to a very cool, but very polluted gallery space 2 days ago. I spent yesterday (Sunday) resting at the hotel, and after another calm day today God willing I should be back in action soon(I can’t bear the fever, running nose and cough combo for too much longer!) So many members of our group have been unwell recently, but I’ve been ok, but I think this latest visit was too much for my lungs to handle. The rest of the group left this morning for a trip to Borobudur and Yogyakarta for about five days, but I decided to stay here in Bandung to explore a bit more. So thankfully I’m not missing any scheduled site visits, though it is a bit strange being on my own, and I’d like to venture out soon.

And my apologies for not having blogged for the past few days! My draft folder is filled with long unfinished entries, but the more I have to process, the harder it is for me to write, and the past few days have been so rich that I’m still struggling to make sense of everything we’ve seen and experienced in the first week. When I’ve been sitting down to write, I’m not sure what to start with first, the visit to the rice paddies we did a few days ago where we found a tiny one room masjid (mosque) near one of the rice paddies, the visit to a slum/creative village, where it seemed all the children of the village came out to see us and we were treated to an impromptu musical performance (featuring instruments like empty water coolers and other household items) the ambivalent attitude that so many people we’re meeting have towards religion, the number of questions I get (as opposed to the other members of our group) about what country I’m from and my religious practice, the speaker we met at the metropolitan board we met who broke down crying when speaking to us about how the urban poor in Bandung cannot meet their transportation costs and women end up entering prostitution, the list goes on and on of things that I’m thinking about and processing.

 One of the things I was thinking about this morning as everyone was leaving though, was the spatial design of living space. Each room of this hotel is different, and in the room that I share with one of the girls on the trip, we have a little foyer that has heavy curtains so that those outside cannot see in, sliding doors you can pull out to separate the foyer from the rest of the room, and then curtains which you then pull out over the sliding door so that those in the foyer and outside cannot see you. It’s a very private, segregated space, and I love it.

This morning the group assembled at 6:30 am to catch their train, and several people were planning on dropping off their luggage to our room so that they didn’t have to cart everything around while they were away. I ended up getting up so I could join everyone for breakfast, but while I was sleeping, because of our sliding door/curtains combination, people entered our foyer and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t wearing my scarf. This clear demarcation between public and private space is  wonderful culturally sensitive, inclusive room design, and something to think about as planners when we design spaces (such as recreational spaces for instance). Who is using a space, and what sort of privacy needs and usage needs they may have, should impact the way we structure space.
More later hopefully. And hopefully this cold and bites will sort themselves out soon!

Becoming a Better Person in Indonesia (Day 9 and 10)

It’s Jumu’ah (or Jumat in Indonesian) today, which is the day of the week that holds special significance for Muslims. Last Friday I was in Singapore, and so today I thought I’d go and pray at the Masjid Alun-Alun, the Grand Mosque of Bandung. Yesterday during lunch with the staff of the Bandung Institute of Governance Studies though, I was told me it’s not common for women in Indonesia to pray Jumuah at the mosque, and so I’d really stick out. So pray at home it is! Still, Friday is a day of extra prayer and attention, and a day of praying intentionally for what you want. It is said that there is a time in the day when all prayers are accepted, and since you don’t know when that is, making supplications throughout the day helps ensure you find that time.

The prayer I keep thinking about is that I really want to cultivate the qualities of hospitality and generosity that have been so consistently noticeable in the people we’ve been meeting within myself. Everyone here has been so incredibly nice to us, and giving of their time and attention.Two days ago (my apologies, I haven’t blogged for a bit) a small group of us went for lunch with the owner of the hotel, his wife and a friend of theirs who lectures at a local university, and we learnt more about their impressions of the city, drank beautiful coffee (I had a melted creme brulee hazelnut cappucino!), ate wonderful food, and generally learnt more about the city that we never would have learnt on our own. He has invited us out again for dinner and a movie, but so far that plan hasn’t come together as yet. I felt the same warmth in Singapore with the families I was staying in welcoming me into their homes and dropping whatever they were doing to facilitate me having a comfortable trip, and I want to become the same sort of easygoing, gentle, generous personality. It’s inspiring because we see it everywhere, from the owner of the hotel, to people we meet randomly and offer to take us out, to people we meet at NGOs and government offices, we’re being treated exceptionally well, and there’s lots to learn from this style of hospitality.

After our lunch with the owner of the hotel on Wednesday, we all went to the Bandung Institute of TEchnology and had an amazing presentation about creativity in cities. The first speaker was the creator of an organization called Bandung Trails which offers heritage walks around different themes to both local Bandung residents and international visitors (for instance Dutch visitors who are interested in seeing where their grandparents lived). The organization offers both free activities and runs as a business, and has been in operation for the past nine years. At present, the founder Amor is also a masters student at ITB. The story of how his organization grew over nine years was inspiring, and it made me think about how there is a definite culture of entrepeneurism among young people in the small slice of Southeast Asia I’ve seen so far. In Singapore I stayed with one family where the  eldest daughter was my age roughly, and had her own fashion line in addition to finishing her studies. The clothing was gorgeous, she had done exhibitions of her different collections, and even while I was there people were calling and ordering clothes. The next evening I also stayed with the creator of the amazing Khana Commune, which is basically one of the coolest ways to dine in Singapore. Here in Indonesia, we’ve met youth studying at ITB starting their own leather bag companies, we met Amor who started Bandung Trails, and it’s hard to ignore the palpable sense of creativity and ingenuity among youth here.

In contrast, since this is the end of my masters degree, as the months toward end of the term came closer this year, you could sense the anxiety amongst all of us about what awaits us in the post university life. Would it be easy to find a planning job? Are there firms that need our skills? Would we be ok? These are the questions on all of our minds, and we’ve all read articles in newspapers such as the New York Times about how for people in their twenties in North America,  a degree is no longer  a ticket to stability like it was for previous generations. Being here though, that entire notion seems strange. Youth here seem to be working at companies and creating their own jobs, and not waiting for anyone to say here, we need you. I am perhaps generalizing, but you can really sense that youth here don’t get derailed by fear, they have goals and dreams and they are committed to making them come true. There is no reliance on a company or a job, and one’s education is simply a stepping stone to help you realise what you already want out of your life.

I live in Canada, and despite having so much in terms of resources at my disposal, I don’t think I have the same spirit. I wonder about my writing, analyze if goals are doable, and in the thinking process forget to even get started! So once again, there is so so much to absorb and take away from this trip, and hopefully these reflections will be translated into actual implementation as well.

So much more to tell you about the last couple of days, so hopefully I’ll write more again soon.

Falling in Love with Food in Indonesia (Day 8)

I’ve been a residence don (otherwise known as a residence advisor) for the past year at one of the colleges at U of T, and as part of that experience, we had access to a college cafeteria for all our meals. It was known for being one of the better cafeterias on campus, but still, so many of the meals tasted the same, and when it came to ‘Asian cuisine”, all I remember are endless variations of dishes with brown sauces and vegetables. And so after that year of often uninteresting, non spicy food, being in Indonesia and Singapore has been an awakening. Everything is new and unfamiliar, and yet so so delicious! I have a small appetite and I’m not an adventurous eater, so I tend to have small dishes when I eat out (which is rarely) and my own cooking adventures mostly involve trying to recreate the flavour of my Mum’s amazing cooking, which has always been my favourite cuisine. I’ve never been curious to try out new cookbooks.

That has changed because the meals I’ve had on this trip have been incredible. Every morsel explodes with flavour, you can taste the quality and freshness of the ingredients, and the juices are refreshing and delicious drinks that combine new fruits and old in unexpected and wonderful ways. I never recognise the dishes when we’re ordering, but with each day my excitement and willingness to try new things expands, and I am genuinely excited to try cooking new things when we get back. And speaking of fruit, though I haven’t tried local Indonesian fruits yet from the market, in Singapore whether it was a new fruit like rambutans or something I had tried before like papaya, the flavour and deliciousness of the fruit was heightened.  Being here has made me realise how much flavour we lose when fruit travels thousands of miles to get to Canada. I had no idea food could be such a pleasurable happy experience, particularly when you don’t have to worry about whether you’re ordering something Halal off the menu. You can share with friends and try different things, and its all good.

The other thing that is so unusual about Indonesia is the style of the restaurants. We’ve been staying away from roadside stalls and have been eating at reasonable local restaurants, but everywhere we’ve gone has had a beautiful decor, with care given to the details of the restaurant. Today (May 22) a group of us went out for dinner to a local restaurant called the Hummingbird, and it was as if we had been transported to a hip trendy Toronto cafe. Everything from the light fixtures to the wall decorations to the outside decorations was stunning (I actually can’t think of a Toronto equiv) and the beauty of the surroundings and the quality of the food made it a memorable meal. We were so happy eating we barely spoke.

Culinary adventures aside, we had an excellent day in Bandung. We had a beautiful breakfast at our hotel, and then left in the morning to visit the offices of the city planning board. While we were there one of the planners in the office gave us a presentation about the local issues in Bandung, and then we had an open discussion afterwards where we asked questions about Bandung to our heart’s content. It was an amazing discussion, and our host was one of the most charismatic, charming people we’ve met so far, and made really funny jokes that had us laughing throughout the session (Who is this Richard Florida person? All I know is Beyonce and Lady Gaga). One of the things that struck me from the session (out of many) was that one of the goals of the Mayor’s office is to have a city where people believe in God. Though 90% of Indonesia is Muslim, this goal does not necessarily relate to Islam, but simply having a faith based city in general. We asked more about this, and were told that “Indonesia is not a secular country, but it’s not a religious country either. It is in the middle. What is that middle space? That is Indonesia” which is was interesting to think about, and something I want to investigate further.

Indonesia is also teaching me that Islam changes according to cultural context. I generally don’t shake hands with men I’m not related to for example, and in Toronto, often when I meet a man who is Muslim,  he greets me by nodding in my direction and placing his hand over his heart. It’s a gesture I really like, and I often do the hand over heart thing myself without realizing it. In Indonesia, I instinctively started greeting people the same way, and realised quickly that it’s not an Indonesian gesture, and the cultural context I’m in has changed. I’ve also noticed most people here do shake hands so I may be offending the people that we’re meeting and I need to re-evaluate how I handle introductions here.

We also learnt about how transportation is a major issue in Bandung, and that it is anticipated that the city should have a cable car within the next year that is funded by the private sector. In addition, there are plans for buses and a subway, in addition to other forms of transportation. Buses are difficult because the roads here are short and narrow with many junctions, and so the Ankut (parashuttles) are used most frequently here, since walking is not really a feasible transportation option. What is interesting is that Bandung changed with each colonial presence, and so it’s only in the seventies that they were able to start their own planning process.

There was a lot mentioned during the visit, but all in all, it was an informative and useful time. Afterwards we walked in the heat (I though I would collapse but we made it!) to lunch at a Sundanese restaurant, and then walked back (again such intense heat) to the hotel, and thought about our research and got to know each better till our nighttime dinner adventure. Looking forward to what the next day brings!

Goodbye Tea, hello Indonesian Coffee

I’ve been sitting in the courtyard of our hotel for the past few hours with the intention of writing this blog post, but I’ve been caught up in conversations about quantitative research methodology, the beauty of Bandung, the ethics of international travel, and how Islam is manifested in Britain, and the richness of the discussions have taken me away from my computer. Rich discussions and learning have been the highlight of today, a day that has been full of beautiful new places, interesting reflections and trying to stretch my courage muscles to try new things.

Which is something I forgot to mention yesterday in my post about intentions. Yesterday I was feeling a bit overwhelmed about all the new unfamiliar things we’ve been observing and experiencing, and realised that in addition to the academic goals I mentioned in the last entry, there are personal intentions I have for the trip. In essence, because I’m not very good at dealing with change, I want to focus on reframing anxiety into adventure, and recognising that for the next month, I have the wonderful privilege of (as my roommate beautifully described it) of waking up each morning and having the sole job of learning about Indonesia, and soaking up as much knowledge and experiences as I can. To extend this learning, I want to focus on stretching my courage muscles, trying new things, and God willing, putting forth my best effort to make this a meaningful experience. (Our tour guides, our professors and so many other people are so keen on facilitating our learning, that it seems poor form to not put in my best effort too). I also want to focus on becoming more directionally savvy, because so far I still don’t have my bearings in  Bandung, and I want to be able to navigate the city with a bit of familiarity.

And so today, in an attempt to be a tiny bit more courageous, I started the day by experimenting with Indonesian coffee. I’m a tea-lover, but today tried my first cup of coffee after many months. And oh, I fell in love! I’ve had four cups so far today, which is more coffee than I’ve probably had in the last year, but Indonesian coffee is simply that good. The rest of the day passed in an equally exceptional fashion. We had an amazing walking tour of the city that started with a visit to the Governor’s house, which is the seat of  the governor of the West Java province and the local mayor’s office, and then walked all the way to the top of the building where we could see all of Bandung. From above, you can really see how green and beautiful the city is, and the mountains are breathtaking.

From there we continued our walking tour and saw different areas of the city, took the local para-transit system of shuttles called Ankut Kotor, which was an adventure in and of itself (it’s not clear which shuttle goes where, and the passengers are really packed in tightly in the van) , went to the Asian-African Museum, which details the Bandung conference of 1955 (where the term third world emerged), went to the Grand Mosque of Bandung, went to an amazing lunch at a local restaurant, and finally ended our day at ITB, the Bandung Institute of Technology, where we learnt more about the school and got feedback on our research projects.  I was impressed by the depth of knowledge of our hosts- all of us have such different research interests, and yet regardless of topic, they were able to suggest wonderful resources to help us get started. Our hosts also are speaking to us in English, which is not their first language, but are doing so well that I feel silly about my own hesitancy in practising languages I’m not comfortable with (such as Urdu) and am committed on being more courageous on that front once we return. By the time we left ITB it was Maghrib (the evening prayer) time, and so I went back with some of the students from our program to the hotel.

But even with the early evening end, it was an incredible day where at each stage, there was so much to take in and explore. On one street called Jalan Brago ( I think) we learnt that though things look unplanned, there is informal housing intended to support the formal work in the area.We learnt that the street is connected to Pasir Baru (the old market) and that there is a logic to the structure of the street. When we went to the Grand Mosque it was time for Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and so as we approached the mosque we could hear the adhaan, or the call to prayer. I was surprised how emotional I felt hearing it, but it’s been so long since I’ve heard the call to prayer from the street, and hearing it made it real in a visceral tangible way where we’re in a place where it’s ok to be Muslim. Where being Muslim isn’t immediately connected to assumptions of patriarchy or exaggerated media representations. I wouldn’t say I’m experienced discrimination really in the past, but it surprises me how good it feels to see so many Muslims, and to really feel like you belong. I felt this most strongly in Singapore, where many locals asked me if I was Singaporean or Malay, and I would look around the MRT car and realise that I really did physically resemble many of the people on the train. I felt more at home there than I have when I visited Karachi, but as of yet, I’m not sure what one does with that realization, since I identify most with Canada and that is home. Oh for a world with the comfort and invisibility of South East Asia, combined with the loveliness of Toronto and Vancouver!  In any case, while it lasts it’s a joy not being a visible minority, and not being asked why i wear a headscarf and I’ll miss that when I return home.

Back to the call of prayer though, it wasn’t simply hearing it that was beautiful, it was also the sight of people rushing to prayer, and seeing the exterior design of the mosque, as the minarets were unlike any I’ve seen before. Part of the words of the call to prayer are rush to success, rush to prayer, and as we witnessed that today, it was good to reflect on the fact that those words are not simply the thing that happens before the prayer, its a call that one is meant to respond to. More pertinent to planning, I’m  curious to learn more about the story about this particular mosque. There was a courtyard that was bustling with people even during the prayer, and it is clearly an active public space that functions for more than prayer.

Being in Indonesia has made me hungry for information about Islam in this particular country, and though it’s a planning course, I have so many questions about how Islam has informed the region, and social and cultural identity. During our time at ITB I mentioned my interest in mosque development, and learnt that mosques typically were built with a courtyard, with the south side having a palace, and the west side having the mosque. I also learnt that even in Indonesia, given the colonial presence, mosque development has been contested territory.

At the same time, I’m curious about Muslim fashion in Indonesia, and how Muslim women are clearly targeted through advertising. In the supermarket yesterday I saw a cosmetics brand called Wardah featuring women in headscarves, there are shops that have ads for trendy Muslim clothing, and the women in Bandung are incredibly fashionable, with hijabs unlike ones I’ve seen in Toronto. Those two topics, Muslim women fashion and mosque development fascinate me at present, and I’m not sure what direction my research will take me.

I’m also trying to figure out how to negotiate prayer times within our course. The schedule is quite full, and  prayer rooms are not easily identifiable (at least so far, apparently there is a campus mosque at ITB) and so today we heard the Dhuhr call to prayer while we were at the mosque, but we didn’t really have the time to stop and I prayed later on. Then when the call to prayer for Asr (the afternoon prayer) came in, we were in a seminar, and I wasn’t sure what to do. So God willing in the days to come, I’m going to pack a prayer mat, and just pray in the hallway if needed once a prayer time comes in. There’s no point wanting to study Islam in the city  if I’m not diligent enough to pray at an appropriate time, and the prayer times are so close, that delaying will likely mean missing them.

So much more to share, but my battery is nearly gone, and it’s another full day tomorow. Till next time.

Making Intentions for Indonesia

After a few days in Singapore, and a couple of days in Indonesia, tomorrow (God-willing) I begin a three week field experience in Bandung involving an interdisciplinary group of students from the University of Toronto and the Bandung Institute of Technology. The program involves the opportunity to visit a variety of Bandung sites including government offices, local civil society organizations, and social planning institutes, as well as pursue independent research. I’m super excited, but my time in Singapore and these first couple of acclimatization days in Bandung have made me realize that stating intentions might be useful.

A couple of days ago as I wandered around the colonial district of Singapore (so many reflections to share from Singapore, hopefully another time!), and explored the Raffles hotel and some of the other major landmarks from Singapore’s past, I was struck by the architectural beauty of the buildings, but also the colonial history in Singapore. The Raffles hotel was built in the 1800s and was restored a few years back with an 160 million dollar renovation to restore it to former beauty. What is open to the public is various courtyards and passageways, three different levels of shops featuring high-end brand names (Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, British India etc) and a museum on the third floor that shows artifacts from the hotel’s history, its connection to other historical hotels (in Rangoon for ex), and famous guests who have stayed there, including Rudyard Kipling. In novels that talk about the beauty of Southeast Asia, the Raffles is often referenced. You can still have a famous Singapore ‘sling’ in one of the hotel courtyards, and as you walk through, you can almost see men and women from Britain sipping drinks in white linen shirts, enjoying the Orient.

And since I am here myself as a visitor, I want to make sure that my own travel experiences are different. I don’t want this to be a trip where I go and gawk at the locals, I want to learn collaboratively with the students we’ll be working at ITB and become a better planner through that cross cultural exchange. And so to help with that process, I thought it would be useful to state some of my intentions for the trip.

  1. To learn more about urban development in an international context. Though an excellent program, one of the gaps of our program is its lack of international content (most of our city discussions are based on North America) and so I want to help fill in that gap by understanding how urban and social development occurs in Bandung. I took a course last semester on Global Urbanism where we deconstructed the notion of developing cities being  large, chaotic places, and examined what they contribute to urban theory as a whole and so I want to think about that idea further during my trip.
  2. How does Islam shape community development/urban development in Indonesia? My research work for my masters was about how conflicts around the development of mosques are a metaphor for how religion is negotiated in cities, but was primarily focused on North America. I want to understand how religion is expressed in an entirely different context when the country has a Muslim majority.
  3. To think through my positionally as a Muslim female planner. How does that change in an predominately Muslim context? In my interviews during my research project, my positionality as a woman who wears a headscarf deeply impacted the type of research encounters I had during my graduate research project, and in Indonesia where the hijab is commonplace, I’m interested in how being situated differently shapes the type of knowledge one is able to develop.

So far Bandung is beautiful, a bit overwhelming (there are no sidewalks!) and is definitely a place of learning. After Bandung I’ll be in Singapore and perhaps Malaysia for a little under a week, and my hope is to blog my way through the experience. Speak to you soon.