For expats abroad, it’s usually comforting to find a slice of home where we can. My longing for the US takes shape over the months with disquieting moments of loneliness to frazzled language failure. Sometimes it’s not so much missing home as being frustrated when I haven’t mastered the language enough. Especially when I am sitting in the back of an ojek (motorcycle driver, aka the Indonesian Taxi) and I only understand 1 of the words my driver has just spit out to me in a flurry of Bahasa Indonesian. Did he just ask me for directions?

When I received an email for a town hall meeting in Jakarta for US citizens, I JUMPED at the chance to attend! I needed the excuse to go be among my own. A feeling I could never quite comprehend when the home-away blues hit my husband while he was in the U.S. I’m going to share the information that was shared for other expats, or curious onlookers.

What happens during a Town Hall meeting on an embassy level? I was Puzzled. Well, some of it may be surprising and some of it may not. I went as I’ve said mostly out of some need for cultural community, but also curiosity. If not asking to fix pot holes and school zoning issues, what is there to ask? I’ll tell you.

Typical American Town Hall meeting, yes? (Parks and Rec, NBC Universal)

* How can I keep my medicine shipped from the USA from being seized?
* How can I affix US postage to my ballot when I live in Indonesia?
* What are the current security threats like and where can I find information?
* Does the Embassy have some community events we can come to?
* Visas, visas, and more visa questions (from myself included).
* What happens during an emergency, like a tsunami or earthquake where I need to be airlifted?

 

How can I keep my medicine shipped from the USA from being seized?
Turns out many prescription drugs from the USA are illegal in SE Asia, namely drugs revolved around ADHD. The Embassy cannot serve as shipping location or receive any personal mail. There has been a recent increase in these shipping seizures, especially where medication is concerned. There was no real solution or answer except to “know someone who knows someone” (a typical Indonesian way of dealing with things). But to be on the safe side the consulate suggested keeping all medical prescriptions in their original casing, and have the doctor’s note with you. Always carry medication as carry on if you can while traveling. DO NOT take it out of the container even though those are really chunky and large. Technically though, illegal substances are, well, illegal and you need to be careful. Know before you go.

How can I affix US postage to my ballot when I live in Indonesia?
I had not even thought of this step. I have turned in my Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to our voting coordinator who was there ON THE SPOT with envelopes. Very lucky, it would be a pain to send it out myself, or to come back and drop it off at the consulate (which is free btw). I’ll be doing a follow up on several avenues for voting from abroad in another post! Back to our question, which was a really good question. Their first response was to ask other expats around you for some, or to ask family/friends to send some which I found a ridiculous answer especially this late in the process. A citizen spoke up and noted you can print and cut out some form from FVAP.gov which I haven’t quite found myself. It may possibly be one of the envelopes listed here on the FVAP.gov website.

What are the current security threats like and where can I find information?
There are general information sites and country specific ones. Our embassy updates theirs every 6 months unless there’s a major event or trend they need to push out. You can find them here. The embassy asked that in an emergency where you are not a victim, report to family directly when possible. During the January Jakarta bombing, the consulate received a multitude of calls about citizens abroad from loved ones while many abroad were simply watching and soaking in news, not reaching out to family first. There were a series of other questions that circled around this topic. The rep from security said that their liaisons within the Indonesian government, “Terrorism is a top agenda” and that the country was “Extremely forward leaning” in terms of punishment for captives. I can say this has been echoed in the eyes of the public and friends I’ve gotten to know here. Despite the country generating and producing fantastical extremists, the government is doing very much to stop any threats that are obviously being generated towards their own people as well as foreign nationals and have pretty severe penalties for aggressors. #PrayForJakarta is an event very close to our hearts here and the shadow of the Bali Bombings still looms from the past.

Does the Embassy have some community events we can come to?
No. They implied that their embassy was a bit too big and too many Americans are in the area to do that. In a city like Jakarta there are plenty of venues though who do such things like our current venue, The America Club, as well as the American Woman’s Association and a number of others. Around Thanksgiving last year I had emailed the Surabaya US Consulate to ask if they did any events. They told me they did but it was just for American staff, and wasn’t open to public. Bummer. In contrast the Indonesian Consulate on Park Avenue in New York City had an open buffet to celebrate Eid Al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan last year. We’d been spoiled apparently.

If the Indonesian Embassy can host social events, why can’t you? 🙁

Visas, Visas, Visas.
So many questions. This spiraled into a fit of things but here are some interesting facts our consulate shared:
– Over 2,000 passports were issued last year in Indonesia
– 90% of their visa applications were approved
– Approx. 60,000 non-immigrant and immigrant visas were processed in the last year
Anyone looking into US visas should get a look at VisaJourney as a great source of info (worldwide, not just Indonesia) . They offer forums, guides, discussions, FAQ about the process from anywhere in the world. Indonesia consults have a reputation for a great turnaround time and friendly reputation. The consulate official actually said she used the website to monitor the success of the outpost since it was such a great resource.

Two US passports on top of a pile of paperwork
So. Much. Paperwork.

What happens during an emergency, like a tsunami or earthquake where I need to be airlifted?
This came from someone who said she had been in the area for 3 months. I wanted to retort “Well you’re in Jakarta so earthquakes and tsunamis aren’t really your thing. Go for flooding, that’s your only concern there really.” I also laughed because I had the same visual interpretation of events during a disaster and have a hidden $300 that are for, literally, a helicopter airlift bribe or some other. It’s probably from being exposed to Miss Saigon at a really early age. One of the officers immediately popped that bubble of thought. “Unfortunately disaster response is not like Black Hawk Down. You are not going to have a parade of helicopters coming out of the sky to save you.”

Illustrated poster for Black Hawk Down with depicted guns and soldiers
This *isn’t* real life?

I shouldn’t have been shocked, our own natural disaster execution has had limited success. If you need a full recounting of such situations, I urge you to listen to RadioLab’s Playing God episode. The embassy is there to push out information to help us make informed decisions and that you are responsible for yourself. Sitting helpless and waiting for rescue is not advised. I wanted to clap since much of the information being dispensed was, in a word, somewhat coddled. The audience is after all, a bunch of very wealthy (by means of Indonesia that is) citizens who were enjoying a lot of the benefits of being abroad in a third world country. But this knock to reality was welcome. I thought about my money and my two-time survival in Hurricane Charley in Orlando of 2004 and Sandy of 2012. Natural disasters are, well, disasters. They get messy. I’m actually glad to have had experience in these situations so I can now skip the freak out phrase and hit the “how much water do we have” inventory, strategic phase. My paper on the Florence 1966 Flood was also a very particular and rich source of information too. They recommended having a “To Go Bag” checklist, and prepare for several situations. The staff has served in areas where Americans were in dire situations like natural disasters (Haiti) or Civil Wars (Lebanon, and areas of West Africa). The stages went something like this:

  1. Voluntary Evacuation (you should probably leave)
  2. Evacuation (get on a plane, now)
  3. Chartered Planes (signing paperwork to pay back the airline service)
  4. After that, she said “It’s a whole ‘nother ballpark”
Sabra refugee camp. Credit: Bill Foley

Someone asked about Indonesian spouses and family being evacuated with you. There was a grey area answer which basically boiled down to “We’ll consider it” and if you’ve watched Rawanda I would expect that this is a very cautionary tale. To be honest, I just wouldn’t bet on it. Visions of my husband waving to me as I got on a helicopter among throngs of emergency evacuation refugees floodlit my mind like a football stadium light on a clear night and I had a pang of sadness. These are the risks and untold dangers of inter-national marriage I’d never considered. Maybe that $300 is really more for him, than me.

After the questions settled down, we were allowed to mingle. I grabbed another cup of coffee with fresh milk that didn’t taste like cardboard (a rare, rare delight) and mingled. I wish I’d gone to something like this sooner.

What I was really happy to have was a seemingly random connection that truly brought me a taste of home. A young woman Darayu, and her mother Marti who was visiting from the states spoke with me and we exchanged info about where we were from. “Kansas City”the mother said. My heart seized for a pleasurable beat as flashes of that magnificent Mid-West town poured from my heart. I spoke of 39th street, Prospero’s Books, and The Blue Koi. I was somewhat flexing my know-how of the area but really attempting to recall a wonder and love for the city I’ve grown up and visited bi-annually since I was 6.

<3

Through a series of events, Marti mentioned she headed up a cultural organization, and mentioned if I could pass on her info to a like minded individual in Kansas City. He was Ukranian but raised in America. “Oh, we have a Commissioner like that.” Replied Darayu. I prepped myself for a dollop of disappointment and swallowed an overburdened sense of hope. “Do you know MW?” without a beat missed, “I can’t believe it!” shot from Marti’s lips.  The instant recognition flit into her eyes and I knew I’d made a connection. How is it, that thousands of miles away from the heart of BBQ land there stood a woman who knew the same man as I? He wasn’t the Commissioner but he was known to Marti and I actually did a little dance of joy on the spot!

I was absolutely floored, and shocked at how much joy a simple human connection made to my spirit. The small connection in this big world took me for surprise and gave me unprecedented joy. While mainly a civic job, the town hall did more than just answer my questions, it gave me back my sense of community.

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