Art to the Rescue of Jakarta’s Kota Tua

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“Clouds of Thoughts” by the Creative Public Spaces Program

Jakarta’s Kota Tua, or Old Town district, is a riot of colors, as more than 10,000 kites fill the skies. Bright primary colors can be seen as far as the eye can see. Blue kites aligned toward the Kota train station, while red ones fly over the sidewalk. Last but not least, a sea of yellow kites hovers over Fatahillah Square, the center of the festivities.

Titled “Clouds of Thoughts,” it’s all too easy to assume that the fiber film installation piece is party bunting to celebrate Jakarta’s 487th anniversary. But its creators — Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) architect Diana Ang, SHAU Architecture and Urbanism founder Daliana Suryawinata, and Indonesian contemporary art denizen and Dia.lo.gue Artspace gallery co-founder Windi Salomo — intended the work to have more meaning.

The three of them conceived the Creative Public Spaces Program to establish temporary and permanent urban public places in the Old Town, and they believe public spaces are places where people can coexist and express themselves. A collection of these voices are collected in the “Cloud of Thoughts,” a canopy composed of messages of hope from Jakarta’s citizens.

The initiative, which was supported by the government, the Indonesian Diaspora Network and the Dutch Embassy, as well as corporate sponsors like BNI, AirAsia Indonesia and Walls Ice Cream, is the most far-reaching of its kind yet made.

“I hope the Old Town will become the jewel of Jakarta,” reads a message on one of the kites from Jakarta Acting Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.

“I hope that Jakarta’s Old Town will take its rightful place with its counterparts around the globe,” reads another from Jakarta Heritage Trust member Robert Tambunan.

Other messages strike an equally poignant chord.

Street sweeper Nia Kusniawati and Antique Bike Community member Suparno say they hope the capital will be able to overcome its seemingly insurmountable urban problems.

“I hope that the quality of public transportation will be upgraded,” Nia writes, while the latter says, “I’d like to see Jakarta free of floods, pollution and traffic jams, making it more conducive for bicycling.”

Diana says the kites, which will fly until the end of the month, representing the best of Jakarta and its people. “Kites symbolize hope, youth and dynamism. One can see the last point with a flying kite, since it doesn’t stay still,” she says of the work, the centerpiece for the Kota Tua Creative Festival, a project for Jakarta’s anniversary on June 22.

Reinventing the Old Town

“The quaintness and character of the Old Town can be a draw in itself and the reason behind its revitalization,” says Diana, a graduate of Rice University.

“The squares, plazas and other public spaces that are unique to the Old Town will gain appeal, as they provide an alternative to the malls which dominate Jakarta.”

Diana, Daliana and Windi started off by turning one edifice, the Tjipta Niaga building, into an art gallery featuring the works of 26 contemporary Indonesian artists. However, Diana says there is only so much they can do for the crumbling buildings of the Old Town.

“It’s not always feasible to restore the old building to its original purpose. For one, they sometimes have to be reinvented as art galleries, music halls or cultural centers because their real purpose is long past” she says. “And the materials to make them are also not always available. And even if they are, they’re sometimes prohibitively expensive.”

The Tjipta Niaga building is just one that benefited from another initiative hatched by the trio of artists, along with the Erasmus Huis Dutch cultural institute, Rumah Asuh and the Jakarta Old Town Reborn (JOTR) initiative.

The JOTR engaged seven Indonesian and Dutch architectural companies, including Andra Matin Architects, KCAP, and Niek Roozen Landscape Architects, to collaborate with the government and the building owners to renovate the Tjipta Niaga, Kerta Niaga and Samudera buildings, as well as the Kota train station. But another structure that is set to receive the group’s attention is the Kota Bawah building.

“The Kota Bawah building is unique as it has a tree growing out in the middle of it,” says JOTR curator and architect Yori Antar. “We want to highlight its unique characteristics, as the tree and vines growing in the courtyard remind one of temples like Angkor Wat.

“We hope to reinvent the building into a hotel, cafe and cultural center. We hope to do the same to the rest of the Old Town, and turn it from a decrepit symbol of Jakarta’s urban decay into the capital’s leading center of the arts,” Yori says.

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Colorful onthel bikes in Jakarta’s Kota Tua district

Getting the world to take notice

Yori also notes that Kota Station and the Old Town waterfront are acknowledged by UNESCO as leading examples of 1920s and ’30’s Art Deco architecture.

Now, a group of companies under the Jakarta Old Town Revitalization Corporation along with the Education Ministry and the Jakarta administration is set to take UNESCO’s attention a step further.

“We intend to submit a bid for the Old Town to UNESCO as a World Heritage Site by March 2016, after we start our research in two to five months’ time,” says Lim Che Wei, a spokesman for the corporation, which includes Ciputra, Agung Sedayu Group and Plaza Indonesia, as well as state companies like the Pos Indonesia and Pelindo, the Indonesia Ports Corporation.

“If possible, we might even do so by March 2015 if we get our research and paperwork in order by then,” Lim says. “At 342 hectares it’s the largest of all Dutch colonial cities. But it has yet to be named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while its counterparts like Galle in Sri Lanka and Paramaribo in Suriname were listed as such in 1988 and 2002.”

Lim says the Old Town fulfills UNESCO criteria, namely its significance in human history, interchange of value, traditional human settlements, and architectural value.

“The Old Town’s legacy encompasses major periods in Indonesian history, starting with the Pajajaran Kingdom, the Portuguese and Dutch East India Company eras, as well as the Dutch colonial period and the Japanese occupation before Indonesia’s independence,” he says. “Among the elements we sought to highlight, aside from its better-known Dutch influences, are evidence of Bugis, Chinese and Arab settlements, to highlight the Old Town’s multiethnic character.”

Education Ministry official Wiendu Nuryanti is just as upbeat.

“Indonesia’s bid to name the Old Town as a World Heritage site reflects the government’s seriousness and will to preserve the Old Town,” she says.

To date, the Jakarta Administration has allocated over Rp 150 billion ($12.6 million) for the Old Town’s preservation. Lim’s consortium intends to renovate 85 historic buildings in five years, creating more than 11,000 jobs in the process.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 6, 2014

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Reaching Out to Humanity Through Art That Touches

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“Terbang Merdekalah” by Yani Mariani Sastranegara

The boys jostle for a grip on the pole as they try to climb to the top. Under them, a number of their peers stand at the base of the pole, lending their shoulders to help the climbers reach their goal in this depiction by Indonesian artist Afriani of the traditional Indonesian pastime of panjat pinang, or pole climbing.

Aptly named “Team Work,” the 40-year-old’s take on this annual Independence Day spectacle and its characteristics of togetherness and helping out is set next to “ Pulang Kampung ” (“Coming Home”) and the somewhat more ominous “ Mulai Terdesak ” or (“Getting Desperate”). Afriyani’s idyllic depictions of life, as well as the feelings of serenity and well-being that they engender, strike a chord in the exhibition “ Bakti Seni Untuk Kemanusiaan ” (“Art For Humanity”).

Held at the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center in Central Jakarta, the event highlights the works of 18 artists and is sponsored by the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI). Curator Vukar Lodak says it represents a departure in depicting art.

“Previously, art was shown for its own sake before its emphasis was changed into art for the people,” he says. “Now we seek to create art that goes beyond the aforesaid purposes, artwork that aims to maintain life and highlight humanity.”

Vukar adds that the proceeds from the exhibition will go toward funding PMI programs to care for needy, elderly people throughout Indonesia. He points out that Indonesia ranks 71st out of 91 countries when it comes to caring for this population group.

“Out of more than three million needy elderly, the state only manages to care for 26,000, which is a mere 0.2 percent of their number,” he says.

Yani Mariani Sastranegara epitomize Vukar’s message with her sculpture “On the Twilight Wind.” The poly resin and tin structure’s streamlined shape conveys the idea of being free to roam and find one’s destiny, as well as going into the unknown with confidence and an upbeat outlook.

Yani, a graduate of the Jakarta Institute of Arts, also has a metalwork sculpture featured at the exhibition, titled “ Terbang Merdekalah ” (“Fly Free”), and made on similar lines. Perched on a pedestal, the hybrid human and bird seems set to take to the skies on its unfurled wings, as if to let its spirit take flight to transcend humanity and its problems or issues. Set against fellow artist Marsani’s paintings “ Tari Kecak ” (“Kecak Dance”), “ Anak Nelayan ” (“Fishermen’s Child”) and “ Gembala ” (“Shepherd”), the individuality of the former make an interesting contrast to the latter’s emphasis on teamwork. However, the dynamism that they share makes for worthwhile common ground.

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“Beban” by A. Firmansyah

Yani’s futuristic take is balanced by fellow sculptor A. Firmansyah’s more primal work “Beban” or “Burden.” Made from the wood of the jackfruit tree, the totemic sculpture shares the streamlined contours of “On the Twilight Wind” and “Terbang Merdekalah.” But the 36-year-old takes a different touch, as his aerodynamic element evokes that of a leaf or twig blowing in the wind.

“Objects and incidents are my silent notes,” says Firmansyah about his sculptures, which he only started making in 2011 after working in theater for more than a decade. “That’s why I opted to make my sculptures from bamboo and wood.”

Like his theater work, “Beban” can only be said to be poetry in motion, while its woodwork harks to its organic roots.

Aceh-born Wahyu Oesman takes on a similar idea of poetry through his works “Exodus” and “Kuala Lamthoung.” The moon figures prominently in the paintings and captures the viewer’s attention, whether it be as a larger-than-life element lighting the commuter’s way home in “Exodus” or illuminating dark waters in “Kuala Lamthoung.” But Wahyu isn’t blind to the effects of urban pressures as shown in his paintings “ Sudut Kota ” (“City Corners”) and the more whimsical “Underwater City.” “Sudut Kota’s” realistic portrayal of city life belies the pressures that traffic, overpopulation and other urban realities inflict on the psyche, as the vehicles seem to give no room or space for individuals. On one hand, “Underwater City” is perhaps Wahyu’s take on the grim prediction that parts of Jakarta will sink by 2030. On the other hand, the work could aptly describe how the plethora of vehicles will swamp Jakarta and the psyche of its people.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 27, 2014

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Weaving Light and Culture in a Celebration of Rich Cultures

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For Indonesian painter Rasmono Sudarjo, portraying Mount Bromo and its neighboring peaks of Semeru and Tengger in a new light is all in a day’s work. Instead of taking the higher ground to show Bromo’s iconic crater or the green ridgelines ubiquitous to the three peaks, the 67-year-old chose to portray the “Sea of Sands” in the painting “Bromo.”

Sunlight washes over the volcanic sands, giving a golden hue to its fine black texture. Rasmono’s ethereal use of light also extends to “Melasti,” his stark yet sensitive look at the traditional Balinese ceremony of the same name. Beams of sunlight shine on the ceremonial procession, affirming the participants’ belief that a divine presence is heeding them. Rasmono also pays tribute to the age-old ceremony for its timelessness, and how it and other traditional religious ceremonies seem to confirm the Balinese people’s identity.

“Bromo” and “Melasti” are part of “The Charm of Cultures,” an exhibition of 30 paintings made by Rasmono over the past two years. Held at the Kunstkring Paleis in Menteng, Central Jakarta, the works depict an idyllic view of life in Indonesia and China.

“Culture and nature are recurring themes in my work. I’m fascinated by places like Bali because of their staunch hold on their culture,” says Rasmono, a Surabaya-based notary and owner of an art gallery. “I find the beauty of cultural objects and costumes as well as nature’s splendor to be equally fascinating. So whether it’s people going about their daily routines or a slice of life from nature, I always try to highlight them with lighting and vivid colors, a method I learned from combining photo and painting techniques.”

In “Long Ji,” Rasmono vividly captures details like the scarlet shades of the girl’s traditional costume and the intricate weave of her basket. The yellow-green colors of the rice paddies more than give viewers a better idea of her world; their undulating lines also provide an aesthetic balance to the painting.

“Overall my art falls under the realist genre, as I go into details such as lighting and color. I also opted for realism as it makes my work more accessible to the wider public,” says Rasmono, a graduate of the Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology (ITS) in Surabaya.

“But unlike photographs that seek to portray what the eye sees, I seek to capture the essence of my subjects. Painting also gives a different perspective through its use of shades, an element highlighted and counterpointed by light.”

This is seen though his paintings “Tugas Pagi — Xia Pu, China” (“Morning Duty — Xia Pu, China”) and “Perjalanan” (“Journey”). The motes of sunlight shining through the trees in both paintings seem to guide the farmers to their future, while also affirming their identity. The sun can also be a metaphor for increasing awareness about them by outsiders. 

Rasmono also uses lighting to highlight the drama behind Indonesian traditions in paintings like “Makepung Lampit — Bali” (“Lampit Race — Bali”) and “Makepung Kerbau” (“Buffalo Race”). The racers put their gaudily decorated oxen through their paces to an unseen finish line. The strain as they try to control their oxen is obvious, given the breakneck pace. The animals can be an apt metaphor for Indonesia, due to the similarly mind-boggling changes in the country.

But Rasmono’s dynamic use of light and vivid colors can apply equally well to the spiritual world, as seen in “Tari Kecak” (“Kecak Dance”) and “Sinar Harapan” (“Ray of Hope”). The former alludes to the trance-like hypnotic state the dance is known to induce, while the ray in “Sinar Harapan” is a metaphor for the enlightenment and spiritual quest that we seek in our lives. But regardless how one interprets Rasmono’s work, what’s for certain is that the thoughts behind it, like his methods, are wholly his own.

“I’m disinclined to do paintings on order, because doing so kills creativity,” he says. “If one does commissioned paintings for one’s livelihood, one will be known as a hack instead of a true artist.”

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 25, 2014

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Pushing the Limits in Style With the New X5

The All-New BMW X5 XDrive Bromo Adventure

BMW X5s at Bromo (Photo courtesy of The Peak/Suhadi)


The car hurtles across the black volcanic sand, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. Moving with the rugged, nimble deftness of an off-roader or all-terrain vehicle, it tackles the sharp inclines and steep embankments carved into the landscape without losing its stride. The car also weaves its way through some foliage, coming out the other side as neat as a showroom-fresh model.

The car in question is none other than the highly anticipated 2014 BMW X5, which was launched for the Indonesian market in April.

The X5 comes with a choice of two gasoline engines with TwinPower Turbo — a 3.0-liter straight-six powerplant churning out 227 kilowatts, or a 4.4-liter V8 behemoth producing 335 kW.

With this much power under the hood, BMW is out to prove that there’s more to the new X5 than the clean lines and plush, comfy interior that make it a luxury sports activity vehicle. So to make its point, the luxury carmaker invited local motoring journalists out to the “Sea of Sands” — the volcanic flats at the foot of East Java’s Mount Bromo, an active volcano.

The All-New BMW X5 XDrive Bromo Adventure

Photo courtesy of the Peak/Suhadi

Trying times

Set against the verdant backdrop of the Bromo-Semeru-Tengger mountain range, the area has long been one of the favorite playgrounds for off-road enthusiasts in Indonesia.

The engine of choice on the day was the 3.0-liter, dressed up as the rather clunkily named X5 xDrive35i M Sport. The name aside, the engine delivered from the get-go, as we started out on a drive to Seruni Point in the wee hours to catch the sunrise.

The car shot through the mountain roads without missing a beat, effortlessly weaving through hairpin bends and sharp turns on its way up.

The drive down toward the sandy plains was also an impressive experience. The car’s Hill Descent Control driver assist system did wonders on the descent, stabilizing the car by limiting it to speeds of between 10 and 20 kilometers an hour and enabling the driver to concentrate on steering.

The new X5 also featured improved situational awareness by providing real-time information about the car’s roll and pitch in the dashboard display.

The full-time, intelligent all-wheel-drive system that makes up the X5’s xDrive transmission actively manages the power split between the front and rear wheels at all times, providing top-class traction and stability for all road and weather conditions.

The car can also offers improved cornering dynamics, allowing it to suppress oversteer and understeer, and the Dynamic Performance Control takes the handling and stability to new levels.

“The xDrive transmission, which was perfected in the new X5, is designed for the driver to get a feel the car and get on top of things, whether on urban streets or off-road,” said Jodie O’Tania, the head of corporate communications at BMW Group Indonesia.

“The chassis and engineering enable a comfortable ride for drivers and passengers alike. This is also due in no small part to the X5’s all-wheel drive and independent suspension. The increasingly efficient system also enables the new X5 to use 17 percent less fuel than the previous edition.”

Both the 3.0 and 4.4 engines are coupled to the BMW Efficient Dynamics eight-speed automatic transmission with Eco Pro mode and new functions. The former’s high internal efficiency, precision and short shifts go a long way in improving efficiency and driving enjoyment.

The Eco Pro mode manages the engine, accelerator and transmission to keep the car fuel-efficient at low RPMs.

But open the throttle, and the 3.0 races out to a top speed of 235 kilometers an hour with an average fuel consumption of 11.8 kilometers per liter. The bigger engine tops out at 250 km/h, with an average fuel consumption of 9.6 kilometers per liter.

Intelligent, to boot

The X5 made itself at home in the shifting sand, romping through dunes in a test of the iDrive intelligent drive system. It didn’t take long to see how the iDrive gave the X5 an edge over other cars of its type.

“The X5’s all-wheel drive might make the wheels roll independently of one another, but the iDrive intelligent system takes this a step further,” said BMW test driver Gary Nasution.

“If two or three of the wheels are stuck, the iDrive can seek a wheel that still has traction and distribute power to it to pull the car out. The iDrive’s traction control also enables the X5 to handle steep drops efficiently, while the toggle controls can control its speed at such inclines. In short, the X5 makes off-roading more accessible for everyone, even for those with no off-road experience, with less effort and more thrills.”

Gary wasn’t kidding. The X5’s off-road capabilities, especially with the traction control off, gave it the bumpy feel of four-wheel drives, ATVs and other off-road vehicles. However, its inherent stability and comfort set the X5 in a class by itself, as did its balance of rugged handling and sports car-like transmission.

Aside from its smooth handling and efficient dynamics, passenger amenities are also high on the list. The leather seats and ergonomic use of elbow, leg and head room enable the driver and passengers to get through the bumpy ride or long trips comfortably, while the memory function on the driver’s seat can remember custom settings for different drivers.

Passengers in the back won’t feel left out, as the back seats feature a comfort seating that comes with upholstery and backrest adjustments. The 4.4 takes this level of comfort further, as the comfort seats also extend to the third row.

All this is wrapped up in a more aerodynamic, streamlined package, featuring slimmer rear lights and a new double-kidney grille.

The X5 has long been one of BMW’s best-selling cars, its previous iterations selling more than 1.3 million units worldwide. So whether you’re going to work, the grocery store, or roughing it out off-road, the new X5 is worth checking out.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 19, 2014

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Illegal Migration Takes the Stage in French Puppet Show

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French puppetry troupe Les Remouleurs show ‘Frontiers’ explores illegal migration. (Photo courtesy of Salihara)

The young man heads out to face the unknown, feeling more daunted with every step that takes him farther from home. Aside from facing the unknown, he also has to deal with the mindboggling change from the rural world of his home village to the alien surroundings of the big city. The venality and brutality of the police, and the racism and humiliation inflicted upon the villager by urban denizens are equally harrowing. His experiences jolted him, searing indelible impressions on his mind.

The scene is part of “Frontieres,” a show by French puppet troupe Les Remouleurs, which was performed at the Salihara cultural center in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta as part of the Institut Francais d’Indonesie’s Printemps Francais cultural festival. Half mime and half puppet show, the group used a somewhat mystical backdrop of Thai shadow puppets to take on the ongoing crisis of human trafficking. 

True to its French meaning of The Grinders, Les Remouleurs truly put its anonymous main character through the grind. Special effects specialist Olivier Vallet got this point across by deft use of camera obscura and innumerable props to highlight the character’s plight and bewildered state of mind. This includes depicting his physical and mental experiences as an unsettling chaotic storm, to the metamorphosis of the city as a relentless monster who will break anything or anyone in its path.

Musician Francesco Pastacaldi did much to set the mood. His resonating, momentous drums gave a clear picture of the main character’s plight and challenges, while his more tender violin solos glimpsed at the character’s internal tensions and the toll his experiences take on him. 

The main character’s plight is relieved by an old woman who appears recurringly. 

“The old woman is none other than a people smuggler who moves illegal migrants along. They tend to have ambiguous relationships with their charges, as they alternately help and exploit them,” says Les Remouleurs director Anne Bitran, who founded Les Remouleurs with Vallet in 1983. “She is a vital cog in the [human trafficking] machine, as she knows how the system works and knows which official to pay off. True to her ambiguous nature, she either eases the main character’s way or stacks the odds against him.”

This is made obvious in a scene depicting the perilous boat crossing, the ensuing capsizing of the boat and the main character’s survival. Depicted in the backdrop of a blue sea, one gets a notion of the magnitude of their struggles and the migrants’ perseverance. 

“We often hear about illegal migrants making perilous crossings on unsafe vessels and the resulting casualties in their wake. But there is a heroic element in the illegal migrant experience that is often overlooked, and which we brought up in the sea crossing,” says Bitran. “The scene is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. But while that epic highlights Odysseus’ heroism and perseverance, ‘Frontieres’ wish to emphasize that the migrants share those qualities, though they remain unsung.” 

“[‘Frontieres’] is inspired by the plight of illegal migrants, refugees and others who were displaced from their homes, whether it be African migrants crossing to France from North Africa, Rohingya stranded in Thailand or boat people attempting to cross to Australia through Indonesia. The crisis is not only ongoing, its also exacerbated by public ignorance,” Bitran adds. “I can relate to the issue because my own grandparents emigrated to France in the 1920’s after they were displaced from Turkey. I also saw the effects of the issue firsthand, as I helped a number of migrant families with their paperwork or their childrens’ schooling.” 

Bitran added that migrants’ hardships don’t prevent them from reaching the pinnacle of success, citing former French president Nicolas Sarkozy as an example.

Vallet agreed with Bitran. “‘Frontieres’ features puppet show elements of East and West, such as Thai shadow puppets and the camera obscura, which has long been the visual effect of choice in western puppet shows. The mixing of both traditions highlights the universality of human trafficking,” he says, while also recalling how the group came up with ‘Frontieres’ at a puppeteer workshop in Bangkok last January. “We opted for the camera obscura, mirrors and other items because they lend themselves well to live performances. Unlike video recorders or cameras that form pictures from pixels, the camera obscura and other items show everything in sharper detail as they aren’t broken down. In short, our methods are traditional yet innovative.” 

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 19, 2014

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Into the Looking Glass and Back to the Past in “Oculus”

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A scene from “Oculus” (Photo courtesy of Relativity Media)

It’s all too tempting to look into a mirror and imagine that what we see staring back at us isn’t what it seems. This might be the main element that director Mike Flanagan, so far mostly known for his work on TV, pondered in his atmospheric horror movie “Oculus.”

Based on his 2006 short movie “Oculus 3: The Man With the Plan,” Flanagan took on the seminal film’s premise of a haunted mirror and expanded it. Shown in the present day with parallel flashback sequences, the film shows the efforts of siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan as the adult and Annalise Basso as the 13-year-old) and Tim Russell (Brandon Braithwaite and Garrett Ryan as the 10-year-old) to destroy an antique mirror that they blame for shattering their family. The project, which entails an array of computers, phones and thermometers to document the event, is also a homecoming of sorts.

We meet 21-year-old Tim just after his release from a mental institution, where he was locked up for the past 11 years for killing his father Alan (Rory Cochrane) after the latter lost his mind and killed their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff).

The tragedy began after the couple slipped into a state of paranoia-turned-insanity, which Kaylie and Tim both attribute to the mirror. Their literal confrontation with the past sets the stage for an encounter that will challenge their perceptions of reality.

The first half of “Oculus” strongly resembles “The Conjuring” in its use of a brooding, dark atmosphere, though it doesn’t have the latter’s constant, relentless pace.

Cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s camerawork deftly weaves through the house’s dark halls to either portray it as a house of horrors or a landscape for Kaylie and Tim’s haunted imagination. Flanagan explores this latter element particularly well. He seamlessly blends the past and the present, as Kaylie and Tim go from recalling flashbacks of their dismal childhood experiences in the house, to facing their childhood selves and demonic tormentors.

In doing so, Flanagan aptly takes a page from psychological thrillers like Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.”

The change is rather unexpected from “Oculus’s” predictable horror movie beginnings, which see Cochrane go from loving patriarch to raging psychopath in much the same manner as Jack Nicholson’s turn as Jack Torrance in “The Shining” or Ryan Reynolds’s take on George Lutz in the 2005 version of “The Amityville Horror.”

But the quartet of Gillan and Braithwaite as well as Basso and Ryan keep the audience very much engaged with their sibling “Babe in the Woods” act, reminiscent of the classic fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” or horror movie “The Glass House.”

Gillan, best known for her role as Amy Pond in the UK science fiction series “Doctor Who,” delivers a fine and intense portrayal of Kaylie, particularly as her obsessive drive to destroy the mirror eventually brings “Oculus” to its unsettling climax.

She is also shown to be fallible, as one of the movie’s rare forays into humor shows her chewing on a lightbulb that she mistakes for an apple.

Braithwaite, on the other hand, balances his on-screen sister quite well with his acquiescing yet skeptical portrayal of Tim. However, his skepticism is derived from vulnerability and repressed memories, instead of the confidence and clarity of logic.

But the ultimate scene stealer in “Oculus” is perhaps the mirror itself. Immobile and inanimate, the mirror inspires loathing and fascination in equal measure for the horrors that spring out from its inscrutable depths. The obsession that the characters feel for the mirror enables it to play with their minds, and shrewdly makes the audience question the Russell siblings’ sanity and sense of perception, as well as their own.

In all, “Oculus” and its mix of shocks, terror and insanity make it an unforgettable horror movie and a worthwhile way to question our ability to face traumas or the demons lurking in the dark corners of our past.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 8, 2014

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Authentic Taste of Japan Away From the Maddening Crowd

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Hiroya serves up hearty Japanese fare at bargain prices in a quiet part of the city. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

As Japanese restaurants in Jakarta go, Hiroya has tried to eschew the limelight since it was established in 2011.

In picking a location for his restaurant, Japanese businessman Hirotaro Akiyama shunned the typical malls, office buildings and other high-profile locales, opting instead for the quiet, unassuming environs of a neighborhood in East Jakarta’s leafy Rawamangun residential area.

One of its specialties, the Chicken Nanban, typifies Hirotaro’s unassuming approach. Served in a bento box alongside tempura, miso soup and other Japanese staples, the dollop of mayonnaise capping these boneless cuts of thighs the only feature that makes them distinctive from their nearest variation, the more renowned Chicken Karaage.

“Salty and sour flavors are what defines Chicken Nanban. The dish is a specialty of the city of Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, Hirotaro’s hometown,” says Sartono, Hiroya’s Indonesian head chef and manager. “The chicken got this element after it was marinated in Nanban sauce, a curry and vinegar mix.”

The curry and vinegar mix seep into the chicken, giving it a full-bodied flavor that strikes at the first bite. The marinating gives it a taste unlike Chinese drunk chicken, and a tender texture that balances its savory, sour and salty tastes well.

Like the chicken, the rest of Hiroya is marked by its distinctive, no-nonsense yet striking appeal. Its clientele, both regulars and those coming in for the first time, find themselves drawn by its unpretentious surroundings, which resemble the small eateries or Japanese inns that inspired Akiyama. As in life, finding peace and tranquility took time and effort.

Sartono, a veteran in the Japanese restaurant business who started out at the Shogun restaurant in Bandung in 1995, says Akiyama’s first chose the Cibubur area, a satellite city on Jakarta’s southeastern fringes, as the site for his restaurant. But few customers showed up.

After six months spent looking for a new location, he settled on Rawamangun. Sartono says it was a risky move because the market for Japanese cuisine in that area was untested. But once the first wave of customers came, the word about Hiroya spread like wildfire.

“Since then, we’ve managed to pull in an average of 30 to 60 diners on a daily basis,” Sartono says. “The quiet locale, as well as reasonable prices for quality food ranging from Rp 5,000 to Rp 70,000 [42 cents to $5.90] — that’s what keeps people coming back.”

Sartono adds that a bit of variety goes a long way. They introduced new dishes on the menu every three to four months. A few promotional campaigns also encouraged their food-savvy clientele to try new things. Staples like beef, chicken and salmon teriyaki, as well as sushi and sashimi are among the favorites, but diners also go for foods that appeal to the Indonesian palate, like curry rice.

Served with a choice of beef or chicken in both its standard or katsu versions, the curry gravy is marked by its sense of balance. While the curry’s taste goes well with the meat, it owes its feel to the potatoes and carrots. The former imparts its thick, rich texture, while the carrot gives the dish a crunchy feel.

Hiroya’s sushi rolls are also belie their appearance. For starters, the volcano roll has a multi-layered taste, just like its ingredients. The salmon keeps the dish well grounded, while the tobiko roe adds the crunch and imparts a subtle taste. The mayonnaise does its part well by keeping all the ingredients together.

A look at the tropical roll, a melange of salmon, eel and avocado topping, shows that it lived up to its eclectic, colorful billing. The different toppings corresponding to each piece give way to various flavors. Whether it be the sweet salmon, smoky eel, or understated avocado, each ingredient offers a surprise with their contrasting, delicate tastes. The crunchy fillings in each piece also provide a pleasant surprise, as they add an extra zing of taste.

For its part, the crunchy salmon back and cheese provides for some unexpected surprises, in line with its standing as fusion sushi. Made of salmon back and cream cheese, the dish is similar to salmon and cream cheese on a bagel. Though the sushi rice and seaweed is entirely different from the more dense bagel, it still doesn’t miss a beat. The cheese still imparts a full, rich flavor that complements the salmon.

The surprises doesn’t end there. The prikitiew roll of tamago egg omelette and crab sticks also works, The dense texture of the omelette goes well with the delicate, sweet crab sticks, which are all held together by Japanese mayonnaise and contrasting flavors.

While all the dishes go down well with some hot green tea, the Yu Yu Cha also proves a winner. Made of a mix of fresh orange juice and honey, the concoction tastes refreshing. It also reflects Hiroya’s way of making opposites attract.

Sartono says Hiroya has opened a second branch at the University of Indonesia campus in Depok, another southern suburb not exactly known for its plethora of eateries. But regardless of where you choose to sample Hiroya’s treats, they’ll certainly be worth the try.

Jalan Anggrek No. 33, Rawamangun, Jakarta 13220 Open daily Tel. 021 4786 8486 Fax 021 4786 8485 hiroyajapaneserestaurant.com Facebook: Hiroya Japanese Restaurant Twitter: @HIROYAresto

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 8, 2014

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Indonesia Falls For Timeless Sounds of the Classical Guitar

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French guitarist Gabriel Bianco wowed Indonesian audiences with his nimble fingerwork. (Photo courtesy of IFI)

French guitarist Gabriel Bianco seemed to enter a contemplative state as he strummed the first bars of Renaissance-era composer Francesco Da Milano’s composition “Fantaisie.” He managed to enchant his viewers and get their concentration, as he brought back from obscurity the 16th-century composer’s lute tune.

Following up “Fantaisie” with renditions of “De Mon Triste” and “La Campagna,” the 26-year-old guitarist managed to capture the pieces’ stately and poetic character as well as their essence, a latter point that he emphasized by holding his guitar like a lute.

More pedantic hands might have brought out the compositions’ somewhat stilted Renaissance sounds. But Bianco combined deft fingerwork with the sensual sounds of classic guitar to keep the pieces from sounding too archaic. This was no mean feat, in light of the fickle Indonesian audience.

Da Milano’s pieces set the tone for “An Evening With Gabriel Bianco,” the guitarist’s recent recital at Jakarta’s Pullman Hotel. The show was one of the highlights of the Institut Francais d’Indonesie’s (IFI) annual Printemps Francais, a French cultural festival that is held annually throughout Indonesia.

The making of a classic guitar prodigy

“I started playing the guitar when I was 5 years old. It came naturally, because I grew up watching my father play classical guitar,” explains Bianco, who comes from a family of musicians.

He furthered his musical education at the Regional Conservatoire de Paris when he was 9, before entering the Paris Conservatoire de Musique at the age of 16 to study under classical guitarist Olivier Chassain.

“My time at the conservatory did much to shape my musical technique. Meeting a number of like-minded people also helped, as I and a number of friends from the conservatory also formed the guitar quartet Les Quatuor Eclisses,” says Bianco of the band, which is also performing at the Printemps Francais.

Bianco’s musical journey started in earnest after he graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with honors in 2008. Since then, his proficiency with the guitar took him around the world, as he performed in venues like Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Hall, San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, and the Auditorium of the Music Academy at Poznan.

Bianco manages to get under his audience’s skin by reaching out to them and sharing the background behind the pieces that he performs. The chemistry he builds with his audience also enables them to be receptive to his repertoire, much of which features largely unknown classical guitar numbers. But he admits that a bit more can still be done.

“I would have liked to stay around and derive musical influences from the places I visit. However, one needs to stay in an area for over a year to really get the musical influences from there,” he says. “Unfortunately I never stick around any one place for too long. But I’d like to change that one day.”

Drawing energy from the crowd

“My experiences playing around the world exposed me to different audiences.One of the things I noticed right away is how different they are from one country to another,” he says. “Audiences in the US are more likely to be loud, whereas those in Europe, especially among older people in their 50s or 60s, tend to be more reserved. What sets Indonesian audiences apart from the rest, however, is their youth.

“True to their youth, they’re more receptive to various kinds of music. There doesn’t seem to be the notion that classical music is for older people like there is in Europe,” Bianco notes of the audiences he has played for in Bandung, Semarang and Yogyakarta.

For his Jakarta show, Bianco took a page from their ardent spirit by getting into 19th-century French classical guitarist Napoleon Coste’s “Fantaisie Dramatique.” A piece describing a soldier going off to war, its first half, or “Le Depart,” features eager, martial tunes to convey the subject’s heady optimism and certainty.

The second half, or “Le Retour,” still waxed with lyricism. But the composition was marked by a somewhat somber sound to convey the soldier’s worldly wise point of view. Even then, the piece’s upbeat sound still conveyed the soldier’s idealism and eagerness to get back in the fray.

While one can view the composition as a metaphor for Coste’s determination to play his music again after breaking his arm, it can also describe the perseverance of Indonesian youth and their determination to hold on to their dreams.

Bianco then contrasted the tone with Agustin Barrios’s classical guitar piece “Julia Florida.” Evoking the sensual sound of classical guitar, the piece took on a sentimental and tender sound marked by its depth of feeling. Going on to “Choro de Saudade,” the tune changes into a more expressive but no less profound and emotional mood, an element Bianco captured by taking the more intricate notes. He then cast the tune against the “Valse #4,” which provided a contrast due to its stately, structured yet exuberant form.

Bianco’s varied repertoire took the audience through Niccolo Paganini’s “Grande Sonate Pour Guitare.” The little-known guitar piece features complicated techniques and flourishes that are a trademark of his better-known violin compositions. The opening “Romanza” set the tone with its intricate sound, which was frank and held nothing back. The “Andantino Variato,” though, was more upbeat. Featuring intricate fingerwork reminiscent of “Flight of the Bumblebees,” Bianco didn’t so much slip in and out of the notes as he wove through them. The tune also had much in common with Paganini’s violin pieces because of their frenetic sound, yet were marked by their stately and sublime touch.

Bianco contrasted the repertoire yet again by going into Bach’s “Sonata BWV 998” for lutes. The “Prelude” highlighted the guitar’s way of bringing a sensual contrast to the stately lute that the original was composed for; while the “Fugue” that made up the second movement captured the  grandeur of Bach’s baroque music, it was also brought down to earth by the guitar.

Bianco then brought the evening to a close with Spanish classical guitarist Joaquin Turina’s “Sonata for Guitar.” It started off reticently and gradually picked up and grew more lively, from the “Allegro” and “Allegretto Tranquillo,” to the show-stopping “Andante.”

Future plans

“I plan to release two albums later this year. One of them is an album I will make with Quatuor Eclisses, while the other is a solo recording that is accompanied with oboe,” says Bianco, who released his first album, “Guitar Recitals,” in 2009.

“Again, variety will be highlighted in the works. When I play solo, I have more room to create melodies, whereas when I play with a group I strive to reach common ground and have the same musical colors. On the other hand, I seek to find the contrasts in sounds and styles between the oboe and guitar.”

He adds that doing so will maintain the integrity of both instruments instead of compromising them, as happens when compositions of other instruments are adapted to guitar. But whatever musical direction Bianco plans to take, there is little doubt it will be worth checking out.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 5, 2014

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Finding and Questioning Beauty in Everyday Things

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Nearly 200 installation pieces by up-and-coming Indonesian artists are on show at the ‘Manifesto No. 4’ exhibition. (JG Photo/Tunggul Wirajuda)

The sprawling quilt blankets the wall, filling the horizon as far as the eye can see. Taken individually, the bright colors like yellow and orange, as well as shades ranging from checked to floral patterns are beautiful enough in a mundane sort of way. But taken as a whole, the quilt is overwhelming, dwarfing passersby who see it.

Titled “ Selimut ” or “Blanket,” the installation art piece by Valasara epitomizes late pop artist Andy Warhol’s notion that “everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Valasara’s work and Warhol’s adage defines “Manifesto No. 4, Keseharian: Mencandra Tanda Tanda Masa” (“Manifesto No. 4 on Daily Life: Finding the Signs of the Times”).

Featuring nearly 200 works by young Indonesian artists and collectives like Recycle Experience, Sutra Djarot and M. Zico Albaiquni, the art represents the latest in contemporary Indonesian art.

“[‘Manifesto No. 4, Keseharian’] seeks to convey that the inherent complexity of Indonesian culture doesn’t just lie in the nation’s cultural diversity. It’s also shaped by global trends that influence Indonesian culture and society,” Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh says of the biennial event, which started in 2008. “The exhibit isn’t just an effort to develop contemporary art, it’s also a way to recognize cultural differences. However, it also considers the potentially damaging effects of the industrialization or commercialization of arts and crafts.”

Recycle Experience’s piece “Hirup Aing Kieu-Kieu Wae!!” echoes Nuh’s words. Featuring a brass robot in a souped-up garbage cart, the installation piece seems a cross between C3P0, the Star Wars protocol droid, and the brass diving suits commonly found in the Jalan Surabaya antiques market. While the crank at the rear of the figure lends it a somewhat farcical touch, its impersonal features and assertive pose, which make it seem bent on stepping out from the cart, is an apt metaphor for the enroachment of the outside world in the form of technology.

On the other hand, Sutra Djarot’s 2012 work “Not So Poor Little Rich Girl” is a sharp commentary on pop culture and the use of technology to disseminate gossip. Drawn in a style that evokes teen movies or magazines, the painting says much about pop culture and the central place it takes in some people’s lives.

His painting “Hey Joe,” whose title is probably taken from the Jimi Hendrix classic, takes a slightly different tack. Made in a style highlighting the slim, streamlined movie posters of the 1940s and ’50s, Sutra highlights an element of anxiety or apprehension with the woman. Doubt is also apparent in the woman’s split image and her gaze on opposing sides. Sutra’s use of Chinese ink, coffee and thread on canvas in the paintings gives them a vintage look. The shades from the materials give his works a sense of depth and perspective that skilfully conveys the dilemmas of his subjects or many Indonesians, who might have one foot in the past and one foot in the future.

The work is among those that fit the criteria for the curators of “Manifesto No. 4, Keseharian.”

“The young artists in ‘Manifesto No. 4’ stand out because they know the patterns of contemporary sociocultural communications [like social media, the Internet or smartphones] that are different from those of previous generations,” reads a statement from the curators, among them Rizki A. Zaelani, Jim Supangkat and Asikin Hasan. “The artists have to do more than just observe today’s issues; they have to to show the constant changes in idioms or expressions.”

Another eye-catching feature of the exhibition is Theresia Agustina Sitompul’s variable-dimension work “Mangan.” At first glance, the installation piece of stainless steel hoops and netting seem less a work of art and more like an optical illusion. But a look at either end of the structure tells all that one needs to know about Theresia’s message. The interconnected jar of coins and the set of goblets show the close connection between money and possession, and the public’s preoccupation with accumulating both.

But not all the artists go down this path, among them M. Zico Albaiquni. Instead of addressing trends and tastes, Albaiquni’s work “Artist Studio” takes on the creative process itself. Featuring scaffolding, neon lights and a number of paintings in progress, the installation piece figuratively lets viewers into the artist’s mind. The work also turns the notion of the self-portrait on its head, as Albaiquni seems to portray the artist through his work instead of his image.

“Manifesto No. 4,” which runs through Saturday, is a colorful kaleidoscope presenting the artistic vision of Indonesia’s up-and-coming artists — and therefore an exhibition that is certainly worth a visit.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 4, 2014

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Empowering Impact of Sports

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Mustara Musa, training coordinator for the University of Jakarta’s sports program, has dedicated his skills and efforts to training special needs children. (Photo courtesy of Mustara Musa)

The children converged at the National University of Jakarta’s campus in Rawamangun, East Jakarta, for one of their twice weekly athletic meets.

Watched closely by their coaches, they began practicing for upcoming athletic competitions, such as the National Sports Week in Makassar, South Sulawesi in June, or ultimately, the 2015 Special Olympics Summer Games in Los Angeles.

The athletes are among more than 800 mentally disabled children from the greater Jakarta area who would try out for various sports in Rawamangun, one of two training centers for mentally disabled athletes in the capital. The trust and obedience they give their coaches are only matched by the joy and enthusiasm that comes from a sense of togetherness, a common purpose, or the pleasure of interacting with one another.

The sense of camaraderie and goodwill owes much to the efforts of National University of Jakarta training coordinator for the faculty of sports, Mustara Musa, a pioneer of the Special Olympics in Indonesia.

Starting out in the Special Olympics

“I got my start in the Special Olympics movement in 1988, when I was referred by my lecturer, the late professor Ali Husein, to train mentally disabled children. I wasn’t sure why he chose me, as I had no prior qualification in working with them,” says Mustara, who started out as a track and field major at the National University of Jakarta.

“The first Special Olympics Games I went to was in 1991, where I started off as the coach of the track and field team. Back then, Indonesia was still an observer, as it only joined the Games three years earlier.”

But it wasn’t until four years later, when he was training the Indonesian track and field team going to the 1995 Special Olympics in New Haven, Connecticut, that he stumbled across an epiphany.

“A mentally disabled athlete from Bali, Ni Luh, started going into hysterics after her coach dropped her off in Jakarta prior to the team’s departure for the Games,” he recalls. “When I approached her, I started crying out of empathy. When she cried harder, I did the same; and it got to the point that she tried to calm me down.”

The experience also revealed to Mustara the children’s dependency on others, like their coaches or loved ones, and gave him insights on interacting with them.

“Once we got to New Haven, Ni Luh nearly had another crying fit because she had trouble adjusting to her new surroundings. But then I diverted her energy into more positive outlets by having her run three laps, which calmed her down.”

Since then, Mustara surged through the Special Olympics Indonesia hierarchy to become head of the Indonesian contingent to the 2011 Special Olympics Summer Games in Athens. Through it all, Mustara stuck to the Special Olympics tenet of “Training From the Heart.”

“We have to be imaginative in dealing with each child. Like ‘normal’ kids, each of them have different personalities. But their mental state forces us to double our efforts, and requires us to be more discerning, as there’s no surefire way in handling with them,” Mustara says.

A team effort

One integral element to Mustara’s training methods is the close involvement of parents in his charges’ training.

“I encouraged the parents to be more involved in their children’s training by establishing a routine, whether it be taking them to practice two or three times a week or giving them chores around the house on a daily basis,” he says. “Before they know it, they’ll be able to run, swim or do other sports. This is a considerable feat, considering they were regarded as helpless or unable to do anything for themselves.”

However, he acknowledged that some obstacles will remain.

“When people have physical disabilities, whether they be deaf mute, blind, paralyzed or have no limbs, they can still lead their own lives because their mental faculties are intact. Mentally disabled people, on the other hand, will always need the support and guidance of their loved ones because of their limitations,” he says. “But most importantly, we need to change the parents’ mindsets of being overly protective and confining them to their comfort zone of school and home.

“Our basis lies in a 1995 Yale University study of the Special Olympics, which noted that sports contributes to the physical, social and psychological development of the mentally disabled. Their successful experiences in sports bolsters their confidence and self image, which in turn will carry over into the home, school and community.”

Nonetheless, these obstacles did not bar Mustara’s charges from making their mark on the world stage. During their first Special Olympics in 1995, the 27-man Indonesian team managed to win 13 gold, 18 silver and seven bronze medals. The team continued its winning streak with a 460-man contingent, securing 19 gold, 27 silver and 31 bronze medals at the 2011 Special Olympics Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

“The Special Olympics are different from the Olympic games in that the events are grouped in divisions from the ages of eight to 30 or over, as well as their motoric capabilities, instead of a ranking system,” he explains. “The system is more egalitarian and in line with the athletes’ vow of ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’”

For Mustara, two time gold medalist Amos Berry Selly personifies this unwavering testament.

“Amos faced added odds compared to his teammates, because he was an orphan. At first, he couldn’t tell the difference between the start and finish lines, or even the men’s and women’s bathrooms. But he was fast, and with proper training managed to win the 100-meter race in the 1999 and 2003 Special Olympics,” Mustara says of the Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, native who currently works as a receptionist at the Indonesian Special Olympics offices. “Like other mentally disabled people, Amos is easily influenced by his environment. Later on, he got in with some bad company who led him astray. I set him down the right path, and placed him in the care of former Jakarta governor Soerjadi Soedirdja.”

Repairing the system

As training coordinator for the Indonesian Special Olympics team, Mustara passed on his expertise to other coaches, including Slamet Sukriyadi.

“I was drawn to the Special Olympics motto of ‘Training From the Heart.’ As their coach, I have to do more than keep them in shape,” says the 30-year-old, who is one of 150 Special Olympics trainers nationwide. “I have to be their friend, brother, parent as well as baby sitter and more, all in one. I also draw up a daily plan for their parents to follow. I don’t look for financial incentives in the job. The sense of achievement, and giving them the chance to prove themselves is what keeps me going.”

For now, Mustara seeks to raise the government’s awareness about the inclusive global competition.

“We wish to highlight how these athletes raised Indonesia’s profile through their accomplishments. Among the things we need is our own training center. So far, we’ve been using public facilities, which limits our training,” he says. “A center of our own could help us accomplish far more; we could train for three, four months, instead of one or two.”

Mustara adds that he is seeking to encourage Indonesian businesses to sponsor the games, as well as follow the lead of their counterparts overseas and volunteer their services.

While the efforts of Mustara or Special Olympics Indonesia has yet to bear fruit, his passion and perseverance are worthy of a gold medal.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 1, 2014

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