Thursday, September 22, 2011

YMCA Site Relaunch

Although the new University YMCA web site has been live for a few weeks now, today was the official site relaunch. To celebrate, the YMCA held a party and invited their board members to a reception in the Murphy Lounge. Development Director Becca Guyette made the introductions and everyone who worked on the web site was acknowledged and thanked.

This project was the culminating work of many months and many people. For me, it was a professional development project as outlined in my original sabbatical proposal. For the client, it was a much-needed re-branding of their visual identity and a fresh direction for their marketing efforts. For Mike Stephens, another YMCA volunteer, it was an opportunity to test a new CMS (content management system) that he has been developing for some time now. For Jenni Kotting, the YMCA's communications director, it was a labor of love as she spent countless hours organizing and formatting the content for the web site.

Large web sites like this require a collaborative effort among many people. I learned a lot designing with the latest CSS and Javascript frameworks, building a cutting-edge web site that will serve the client well for years to come. I gained some experience working with CMS and database-driven web technology. While working on this project, I was forced to peek under the hood (so to speak) and explore the intricate connections behind the scenes that make it all work. I also found a wonderful collaborator in Jenni who acted as information architect, webmaster, graphic artist, web promotion manager (and more) as she learned the ins-and-outs of managing a fairly complicated web site. The end result was an experience that taught me much-needed lessons in real-world web design and made me feel good at the same time. I've always believed in the University YMCA's mission of social justice and if this web site helps them further their mission, then I've done my job well.

The entire process has been recorded on this Project Page. You can also view the final web site at

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Home Sweet Home

The revised itinerary (click to view larger image)
102 days after we left, we arrived home again. This is the longest time we’ve ever been away and it feels great to be back where everything is familiar and you can have things exactly the way you like it. It’s been a privilege to be able to travel spontaneously, to adjust our itinerary whenever we felt like it, to stay longer or shorter at any location depending on our mood. We had great luck wherever we ended up and managed to serendipitously come across hidden gems and make special discoveries at almost every turn. And we didn’t do so bad budget-wise either as we were able to stick close to our plan of spending only $100 per day. But had we gone to Japan as planned, we probably would have really gone over.

It will take weeks, if not months for me to digest this amazing experience. But as of right now, if there is one word that can summarize the entire trip, it is “guilt.” Every day, we read about the widening gap between those who have wealth and those who do not. On this trip, I was confronted with the reality of this discrepancy almost every day. Of course this is completely my fault for choosing destinations where our dollars could be stretched. I suppose if I wanted to avoid guilt, a trip to Europe could easily make me feel like a pauper in just a couple of days. But instead of feeling lucky to have what I have, I felt sad for those who have so little. It would have been okay if the poor and uneducated had opportunities to improve themselves. But they do not and are doomed to live out their lives in poverty. The world today is simply not a fair place.

On this trip, it also became obvious to me that government and policies can make a huge difference in the well-being of its people. In countries with weak or corrupt governments, market forces have taken over and these are the countries where the common people are suffering the most. It’s obvious to me that market forces don’t always make things better, and in fact they often facilitate the exploitation of the little people by letting the bullies have their way. Capitalism is simply not fair and only a strong government can level the playing field.

So now that I have reliable internet access again, it’s time to finish up the sabbatical project. But first, I'm going to cook myself a good home-made meal. No more eating out for a while!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

8 Days in Java

Java is the next island over to the west of Bali. Java wasn’t on our list of stops to make, but our friend Danny lives there and he invited us to come over to take a look. Danny was an international exchange student from Indonesia who came to Parkland College on a scholarship a few years ago (we were his “homestay family” in the USA). So we flew over to Yogyakarta (a.k.a. “Jogja”) for a visit since it was only a short hop over by plane. Jogja is Java’s second largest city (after Jakarta) and it is also Java’s artistic and cultural center. The city lies in the shadows of Mount Merapi, an active volcano that last erupted in October of 2010. Jogja is a popular tourist destination for Indonesians, but there are very few foreigners here. Bali is the polar opposite with almost all foreign tourists, so we’re getting a more authentic Indonesian experience here in Java.

Upon landing in Jogja, we headed immediately north to Borobudur, the most popular attraction on the island. Borobudur is a restored Buddhist temple built around the 8th century. It is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and it is extremely well preserved because it was covered with volcanic ash and “lost” for many centuries. It wasn’t until the 1970s that restoration work began and the entire temple was taken apart stone by stone, cleaned, and meticulously put back together again with structural reinforcement and a new drainage system. To make our visit to Borobudur special, we booked the Manohara Hotel which is right on the grounds of the temple complex so that we could partake in a 5 a.m. sunrise guided tour the next morning. The temple was so impressive we went back again twice for another look before returning to Jogja.

Another major highlight of our Jogja visit was an excursion to Prambanan, the restored Hindu temple complex that’s just as impressive as Borobudur but much less well known. Built at around the same time as Borobudur and located within an hour’s drive of each other, both temples stand as historical testament that multiple religions can co-exist peacefully in the same region at the same time. The rest of the week in Jogja was spent shopping in the central Malioboro district and trying out the local cuisine. Throughout the week, I tried various cooked jackfruit dishes, two types of ox skin stews and a bowl of soup with a roasted chicken head. The best deal was a delicious bowl of noodle soup with mysterious unrecognizable ingredients bought for 10 cents from a street vendor right in front of Rumah Mertua, our second hotel.

We also met up with our friend Danny and his friends who picked us up for a tour of the Java countryside and Salatiga, his current home town. Danny will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree this year and he has plans to go abroad to study for a master’s degree. So who knows, maybe he’ll end up coming back to the USA.

Japan would have been our next stop, but with the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis still unresolved, we changed our plans. We’ll be coming home a week earlier than expected, but the timing feels right. We’ve been gone for over 3 months and we are definitely starting to miss the comfort of home.

(See more pictures of Java)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

20 Days in Bali

We enjoyed our pre-arranged airport pick-up in Chennai so much that we decided to arrange the same in Bali. There are no worries, no stress and it costs about the same as a cab ride. And there’s that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you see the driver holding a sign with your name on as you exit the airport.

Ubud is a small town about an hour north of the airport that’s known as the cultural capital of Bali. We’ve been to Ubud before and we liked it, so we decided to book the Honeymoon Cottages in central Ubud as our first stop. At first, we thought we’d rent a house here and settle down for a month or so. Ubud has lots of great restaurants and tons of culture, so we could easily spend some time here. But the owner of our Auroville guest house had highly recommended the Taman Sari resort up north, so we decided to check it out.

Taman Sari is located on a remote stretch of black volcanic sand beach in the little village of Pemuteran. There’s not much to do here, so we weren’t planning to stay too long. But a series of mishaps with broken air conditioners got us an upgrade from a cottage to a villa and that changed everything. Taman Sari’s villas are private units that come in clusters of three surrounding a private pool. Our unit was in the resort owner’s complex and had a salt water pool. A day after we moved in, the owner left on an extended trip and we had the entire complex to ourselves so we took advantage of the situation and always swam in the nude. Yes, there was a beach just a few hundred feet away, but why would one bother? No, the irony of flying halfway around the world to stay at a beach resort only to lounge by the pool was not lost on us.

Pemuteran’s beach has several resorts, each with its own restaurant. The main road also has several good local warungs with slightly cheaper menus (tip: it is assumed that foreigners don't like spicy dishes, so be sure to ask for "fresh sambal" or your food will taste very bland). Just a short boat ride away is Menjangan Island where the snorkeling is amazing. The coral reefs are stunningly beautiful and the fish are abundant. In fact, the snorkeling here is so good we went back for more two more times. All this combined with the comfort of our private villa forced us to extend our stay.

The entire island of Bali is a huge tourist destination with major developments still under way. The fact that Eat Pray Love (the best-selling book and movie) was set here is making Bali ever more popular. What’s different about Bali than any other tourist destination we’ve been to is the character of the people here. Balinese people are very gentle and seem happy and content by nature. Their culture is rich with art, music, dance and ritual. By Western standards, they may not have a lot of materials goods, but they seem to have a rich spiritual life. And they like to treat visitors like us as if we’re friends and family. For example, when a local boy approaches you to chat, he doesn't really want anything from you except a chance to practice his English. That’s what makes Bali special.

(See more pictures of Bali)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

3 Nights in Singapore

Since Singapore is right in between India and Bali, we had to make a stop there if only to eat. We’ve heard stories about Singapore’s obsession with food so we had see for ourselves what the fuss was all about. We’ve been eating very clean and healthy in Auroville for almost 3 weeks, so now we’re craving some greasy and junky street food.

We’ve read about Singapore’s hawker food centers, so as soon as we checked into our hotel, we headed straight for Lavender Food Square, which just happens to be one block away. This open-air food court was surrounded by about 40 food vendors selling everything from frog porridge to turtle soup. There was Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and even Nepalese stands. No fusion crap here, this is pure authentic pan-Asian cuisine in its unadulterated form. This is food heaven.

Interestingly enough, there was very little direct competition between the vendors as each hawker had a specialty and no 2 food stalls sold the same dish. For the diner, the selection was overwhelming – it’s like putting together a meal by choosing the best dishes from 40 different restaurants. And since each restaurant has only one specialty, they must be really good at making it, right?

Years ago, these food vendors would have been pushing carts out on the street with no access to electricity and clean water. Today, they are licensed and don’t even have to do their own dishes as the food court employs a staff to bus the tables and keep things clean. Everything we ordered was delicious and affordable – a truly civilized way to enjoy tasty “street food” without any worries. We decided that this was the way to eat out and during our time in Singapore and we ended up not eating at a single “traditional” restaurant.

Hawker centers come in all shapes and sizes. Besides our neighborhood “Food Square,” we also ate at the famous Maxwell Food Centre (recommended by Anthony Bourdain) and several air-conditioned food courts inside shopping malls with names like Food Republic, Food Village and Food Opera (what ever happened to “Food Orgy”?). Each location had its own atmosphere and some unique dishes to offer. But we decided that most delicious and the most authentic place to eat was our first stop – the Lavender Food Square.

Singapore reminds me a lot of Chicago. It’s not too crowded, there’s an efficient mass transit system and a river runs right through the heart of the city. There’s even a giant Ferris wheel right on the waterfront. But the most distinguishing feature about Singapore is that it’s clean -- very clean. Even the tap water is drinkable (and it tastes pretty good, too).

Singapore is not a cheap city and we totally blew our budget here. Our hotel was over $100 a night and even though we ate at relatively cheap hawker centers, we paid Champaign-Urbana restaurant prices. As it turned out, 3 nights was just about the right amount of time to spend in Singapore. The experience was definitely worth it and with our bellies full, we’re off to Bali.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

India Epilogue

India is a huge country and in the month that we were here, we barely scratched the surface. We discovered that we didn’t like the noisy and crowded big cities, so we spent most of our time in more manageable smaller towns. We spent some time in the north as well as the south. We heard many tongues being spoken – Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Nepalese – but fortunately almost everyone we came in contact with understood some English. We saw the wealthy, educated and Westernized India as well as the poorest shanty towns. And despite all the stories we’ve heard, we never got the dreaded "Delhi Belly" even once. But before we take off for Singapore, here are a few random thoughts about India.

The first thing we had to get used to in India was the “head bobble.” Often, when we asked a question we would get a response in the form of a head shake that kind of looked like a “no.” Soon we realized that what we thought was a typical USA head shake was really a “head bobble.” And the meaning behind the head bobble was not “no,” but rather “yes” (or “ok” or “no problem”). Be warned, the head bobble is rather contagious. By the time we left India, we were doing it as well.

A little harder to get used to is Indian street etiquette. On the first day in India, we saw some expert spitting and pissing on Kolkata’s streets. It seems Indian men have had a lot of practice spitting. The spit always seems to come out of the spitter’s mouth with great force and in almost a straight line. This also allows the spitter to aim the spit with great accuracy. Almost as admirable was an act of tissue-less nose blowing that was done with almost the same level of expertise. I’m pretty sure not a drop landed on the nose-blower’s clothes. Not surprisingly, men in India like to piss outside just like in the USA, and they’re not shy about it either. But how to do the same in the crowded streets of a big city without exposing oneself? Well, there’s the squat technique. Apparently, if you squat facing a wall, you can pull it out at just the right angle so that passersby can’t see anything and you can happily piss away even as people are walking by. Fortunately, India also has a tradition of removing shoes before entering a house. And I’m just guessing, but women must not drink as much water or they just know how to hold it in because we didn’t see a single woman peeing in the streets.

India is a very crowded country, so standing in queue is a fact of life. But I didn’t realize that one must also protect one’s place in queue with great resolve. Indians are very skilled in the art of queue cutting. It’s done almost like a magic trick. In a blink of an eye, someone could slip right in front of you leaving you to wonder how it happened. The several times I left myself open to this sleight of hand, I noticed that the act is performed like a well-rehearsed dance routine. No eye contact is made, and there’s an air of innocence around the performance as if the choreographed body language was saying, “Gosh, I didn’t know you were standing in line. Why I would never cut in front of you if I knew. No way. But thanks for letting me in anyway.”

In the USA, we’re used to having electricity 24/7. Not so in India. Daily power outages are common in India, especially in the afternoon. This fact of life is so routine that almost all hotels have battery-operated UPS backup systems. In fact, the electrical wiring has been designed with this in mind as at least one circuit is hooked up to the UPS system so that some electricity is available for guests at all times. As for stores, all their computers are also on the UPS system so that shoppers can continue to check out even if the power goes out. Very smart, indeed.

Bollywood movies are often over 3-hours long, so having an intermission makes sense. However, when shorter Hollywood movies or other imports are shown in Indian cinemas, there’s also an intermission regardless of the length of the film. Of course we were caught by surprise when we went to the local cineplex and the lights went on in the middle of the movie -- during a critical scene no less. I suppose for practical purposes, this convention makes sense as moviegoers will have an opportunity to get refills on popcorn and allow the theatre concession stand to make some money. Apparently there’s some controversy around this issue as Indian audiences like their intermissions and are fighting to keep them. While we were in India, history was being made as the new film Dhobi Ghat was being released “without interval” and it was big news.

Being in India is a life-altering experience. Without a doubt, our eyes were opened wide and it's going to take while to integrate this experience.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Auroville Today

The Auroville Master Plan
We’ve been in Auroville for over 2 weeks now and we’re starting to feel really comfortable here. This community has the vibe of a 1960s hippie commune doused with a heavy dose of European sophistication. Even though this is still India and there are social constraints, one feels relatively free to do as one pleases inside Auroville. Sustainable ecological living is the norm here (no plastic bags or bottles!) and since the town is a laboratory, the architecture is pretty radical and visionary. Although we’re only “guests,” we’re starting to fantasize about the possibility of becoming residents some day.

Auroville is definitely a work-in-progress. Almost all the roads are still dusty dirt roads because the permanent roads in the master plan have not been built yet. Since all the ”settlements” are spread out over a fairly large area, almost everyone travels by petrol-fueled motorbikes (although we did see a few electric bikes). Auroville’s ultimate goal is to be a living embodiment of human unity, yet there is still a cultural gulf between the Europeans and the Tamil locals. Despite efforts to include the locals within Auroville culture, it’s clear that Europeans are in charge and most (but not all) of the Tamil people end up working as maids, dishwashers, sweepers, taxi drivers, etc. Although the locals have benefitted greatly from Auroville’s economy and education initiatives, sometimes this town still feels like a neo-French colony. Auroville is aware of these and other problems which are all mentioned in their promotional literature. Acknowledgement of these problems also means they're trying to find solutions. It's a refreshingly honest approach to self-promotion that rarely happens in capitalist for-profit corporate propaganda.

Auroville does a really good job welcoming guests. There are plenty of restaurants here serving a great variety of cuisines, although authentic Indian food is still hard to find (everything has been “mildly spiced” for sensitive European palettes). The French influence is definitely felt here as you can easily find quiche, crepes, galettes and croissants without trying. There is a great emphasis on healthy eating, so almost all the produce is organic and there are salads on almost every menu. Even the drinking water here is Dymamized and it tastes great. A nutritious healthy and satisfying lunch can be had for as little as $2. While we were here, a new raw food restaurant just opened. But you won’t find beer or wine on any menu because alcohol is discouraged (but non-alcoholic beer is available).

For a community of just over 2000 residents, there is an overabundance of culture available in Auroville. There’s almost always something to go to every night (on some nights there are schedule conflicts for competing events) and during the day, one can choose from a variety of classes and seminars to attend. While I was here, I attended several dance performances, and saw some great documentaries and foreign films. On our last weekend here, there was a contemporary Indian film festival (projected in 35mm no less). Best of all, all the events are free (but the classes do charge a small fee).

There are plenty of guesthouses for visitors available in all price ranges (we paid $44 per night for our room which is on the higher end of the scale). But to feel comfortable here, you’ll have to temporarily set aside your sarcastic side. Auroville settlements have names like Aspiration, Acceptance, Surrender, Hope, Transformation, etc. – and there’s not an ounce of irony in any of the names. Auroville might be harder to accept for those who have a phobia of cults or a strong allergic reaction to New Age spiritual clich├ęs as you’ll find devotional photos of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother almost everywhere.

Ultimately what moved me most about Auroville is the fact that the residents here are not just talking about a better world, they’re actually building it. And they’re doing it with the purest of intention, without any commercial motivation or personal profit in mind. No matter what anyone says, the world needs Auroville now more than ever.

(See more pictures of Auroville)