Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Padang, Indonesia: City of Waterfalls and Dragonflies

Most people will never visit Padang, Indonesia, and that's fine by me. The city includes a diverse mix of accommodations, from the relatively upscale Grand Inna Padang Hotel and The Axana hotel to the mid-range French-owned ibis, plus several RedDoorz and homestays. Beaches with red sunsets and pink skies are common within the city and outside of it. 
There aren't many museums or awe-inspiring mosques, but the two-level Museum Adityawaran will delight any anthropology student or ethnographer, and Masjid Taqwa Muhammadiyah Sumatera Barat boasts a unique modern design. 
As for food, the region has some of the world's best cinnamon as well as two restaurant chains (Lamun Ombak and Malabar) serving traditional fare, including jumbo size shrimp/udang if it's your lucky day. 
Lamun Ombak Pasar Usang
Unfortunately, it's impossible to see the best of Padang without a car, and most unique attractions are 45 minutes to 3 hours away from the city center. GoJEK and Grab apps are great for shorter trips, but in smaller cities and for longer trips, SE Asia tourism currently lacks solutions other than pre-planned tour buses, which I consider the exclusive province of senior citizens and their flag-football-waving leaders. 

I visited four different waterfalls--called "Air Terjun" in Bahasa--all of which were the highlights of my trip, and all of which require a local guide to find. 

Let's start with Baburai Waterfall, the farthest one from Padang's city center. It took 2 hours of driving to reach the jungle reserve housing the waterfall, then an easy 40 minutes walking to the waterfall--as long as you know the way. Sturdy but uneven concrete steps lead down to the waterfall, which will make any tourist wonder why more people aren't visiting. (My guesses are ignorance and a lack of reputable local tour guides and drivers; after all, no one really wants to drive in any foreign country, especially if they've heard stories of corrupt police officers shaking down tourists for bribes.) In any case, this waterfall had a very strong current, so much so that I couldn't get closer than 15 feet. 
After months of complaining about other visitors leaving behind plastic bags, plastic bottles, and solitary sandals, I ended up losing one of my favorite sandals trying to swim closer to the waterfall, thus gaining insight into the reasons single sandals pollute nature reserves. 

Nearby Baburai Waterfall is Dua Bidadari Waterfall, which requires only a 30 minutes walk on a completely paved path to reach. I call this waterfall a "Mini-Madakaripura" because both waterfalls are similar, though of course the one nearby Padang is much smaller. 
Air Terjun Sarasah (aka Air Terjun Sarosah, Air Terjun Sarasah Gadut--but *not* Air Terjun Sarasah Kuau Rajo) was my favorite. Located one hour away from the city center, a 45 minutes walk on a mostly unpaved path delivered a beautiful waterfall allowing visitors to go directly underneath the source. 
It was here I lost my 20 USD Decathlon plastic glasses when I mistakenly went the wrong way down and ended up hugging a tree branch while trying to free my foot from the damp dirt resembling jungle quicksand. (If you see a monkey wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, tell him I want my sunglasses back.) 

The easiest waterfall to see is Lembah Anai Waterfall (aka Lembah Anai Air Mancur), located by the side of the road. When I visited, the water was freezing cold, so I could only go halfway to the waterfall, but if you dislike hiking and want to see a nice waterfall, this one might be your best bet. 
So there you have it. You won't find much exciting in Padang's city center, but one to two hours' away await some of the world's prettiest waterfalls. I'm no geologist, but I assume the reason Japan, Indonesia, and California suffer horrendous earthquakes and tsunamis is because continents were created when tectonic plates collided around Costa Rica and Indonesia, which is why they and their neighbors have incredibly unique scenery. For me, if there's heaven on earth, it has to be in an Indonesian waterfall surrounded by dragonflies and fast-moving butterflies. 
Come visit before everyone else discovers these "hidden" gems. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (February 2020) 

Bonus: Some tourists don't visit Indonesia because they'd rather go to Australia or the flight (using Garuda Indonesia) is expensive. My suggestion is to fly into Singapore, stay one or two nights, eat the chicken rice, then take Air Asia from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL is a great airport), and then anywhere in Indonesia. You can also try Scoot Airlines, though I suggest using Air Asia if you are flying into Kuala Lumpur, even for a connecting flight. 

Note that I travel lightly and avoid checking luggage. For my Padang trip, I've worn one pair of pants, one cap, two pairs of underwear, one pair of socks, and two shirts for an entire week. I handwash everything each night in the sink with shower gel and soap. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Politics and Intelligence

Empires usually fail because of two reasons: 1) distrust between entities acting as checks and balances on the executive branch, which inspires secrecy and eventually an inability to identify problems; and 2) overextension at any cost, both numerical and qualitative, in order to prevent competitors from achieving progress. The second reason is why mainstream media degenerates or remains staid during a superpower's decline. 

Most of us understand media is intertwined with public opinion and therefore elections. In turn, media influence is connected with established political and private entities, usually law enforcement and multinational corporations (e.g., Dutch East India Company or ExxonMobil), because such entities, unlike individual government employees, have no theoretical shelf life and can use their longevity to incur debt, roll over debt, and use funding to gain long-term, reliable sources and conduits of information. In this way, entities are better able to sustain themselves because they can buy loyalty, whereas non-billionaire individuals cannot buy equal influence even if armed with facts and logic. 
James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, Volume 1
As media and advertising have become inescapable, an escalating amount of content is necessary to fill in the time occupied by new technologies. (Facebook's and Google's revenues indicate how much direct and indirect advertising targets our eyeballs and consumer preferences.) If established players do not occupy the content channels accessible to their residents and supporters, they leave open spaces for competitors--some benign, some domestic, some foreign, some hostile. (Military strategists are familiar with these tactics in the physical realm, though none seem able to push back credibly when overextension appears on the horizon.) 

By now, we all know the gist of Edward Snowden's allegations, but Snowden--as intelligent as he obviously is--was a low-level NSA worker. His aim to avoid the surveillance state is no longer possible for an ordinary person without extreme measures. Experienced intelligence assets and agents determined decades ago that influence must be assisted and co-opted to prevent a devolution of content--i.e., fake news, or what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1978 presciently called the "abyss of human decadence." 

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people... It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept. -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1978)

While intellectuals have been keen to recognize the symptoms of a society in decline, they have not understood the causes equally well. Put simply, as entities seek to control an increasing number of content channels, they are forced to hide truths unfavorable to their paymasters. Censorship being disfavored due to its ability to backfire, most leaders choose to ruin their opponent's credibility, their opponent's finances (the LKY method), or, as a last resort, assassinations (e.g., MLK's murder on the one-year anniversary of his Vietnam speech and 1973's Lillehammer affair). To mitigate blowback from the use of such underhanded tactics, the same entities boost persons favorable to their country's image, especially athletes and minorities, so as to avoid situations like USA's 1968 Olympics Black Power salute. Boosting, co-opting, and "soft censorship" require vast amounts of money, thus entrenching entities and billionaires while disfavoring individuals, even if the former lack facts, truth, or logic

This financial requirement, if not managed carefully, eventually renders countries and their residents debt facilitators or obligators foremost, bankers and politicians competing for the title of "Most Creative Cash Flow Consultant." (Witness current negative interest rates.) Such propaganda tactics obfuscate decline because the more such entities succeed, the harder it becomes to identify legitimate complaints and issues. Furthermore, most governments able to access debt/funding overshoot in their attempts to maintain social cohesion, whether co-opting too late (e.g., U.K.'s experience against the IRA and Sinn Fein, Russia's relationship with Chechnya) or boosting individuals and outliers in ways inimical to structural solutions (e.g., affirmative action and racial quotas over tearing down institutional factors supporting segregation). 

As financial burdens--as well as concomitant superficiality, budgetary mismanagement, and economic inequality--increase, the first reason mentioned in the opening sentence gathers strength. Regardless of where blame is directed for declining social cohesion, law enforcement tacitly or overtly gains more discretion to maintain law and order, weakening mechanisms designed to stop extremism. As lawyers and academics realize their participation (and therefore influence) has waned, their attempts to counter executive force are noble; however, at this juncture, the executive branch has already created separate modes of operation in a good faith effort to resolve problems in an efficient manner. To the extent such illegal maneuvers can be traced, it is not difficult to destroy evidence and silence witnesses through the same methods discussed earlier. Yet, the moment disrespect for legal norms protecting individual rights becomes fashionable, a country's power structure has already shifted from the long-term to the short-term, from the credible and sustainable to the out-of-touch and unbelievable. In such a realm, criticism is a threat to operations, weakening a country's desired image and investor confidence. After all, the more all parties believe outstanding debts will be repaid, the more existing parties gain power and are welcomed by all--except those who have studied history properly. 

© Matthew Rafat (February 2020) 

Update: I wanted to follow up on the difference between a Snowden acolyte and higher-level intelligence analyst. Let's say you have evidence a particular app or website is involved in human trafficking. You can try to go to court and ask for a take-down order, but the company would justifiably argue its website has legitimate users, and as a mere facilitator, it is not responsible for illegal activity between its end users. If you follow Snowden, you would also argue such tactics amount to government censorship and government picking and choosing winners.

But Snowden would have no answer to what might happen next: the government, a mega-church, or a billionaire's employees could, even without a backdoor, create fake profiles on the website and tilt the ratio between real users and sock-puppets however it liked. The company, at first, would be delighted because it could show advertising companies its growth. Over time, however, as real users left the website, it would become difficult for anyone involved to maintain credibility.

A more complicated situation would involve a leak of classified information. In such a case, though censorship could occur, the government could also direct all public (aka mainstream) website searches to websites it had created itself or through its subsidiaries' uploads. Many subsidiaries, such as nonprofits, would not have the technological expertise to determine whether they were reviewing altered or real material, or even whether they were being funded by the very government under investigation.

I often say the 21st century's hallmark is the "bad guys" have become the "good guys," and vice-versa. One reason is that unaltered, legitimate data--the underlying basis for truth--is sometimes only available in the dark web or through secret channels.