We traveled to Jakarta this past week because of the Presidential visit. I left Monday a half an hour before school was over to catch a bus to Surabaya; we flew from there to Jakarta on Tuesday morning, all together again, staying at the same hotel that we stayed in way back in March.
Tuesday was spent buying a birthday cake for Sara and Erika, meeting with a principal from a very successful franchise school in Jakarta, and greeting former PCVs and government officials from the education and religious ministries at a dinner on the rooftop of the hotel. At the end of the evening, the vice consul from the Jakarta embassy met with us to discuss our plans for Wednesday: our meeting with the First Lady.
We had found out about two weeks ago that we’d be having a meet and greet with Mrs. Obama as part of the Presidential tour of Asia and attendance of the G20 summit in South Korea. This was the third time we were told we’d be meeting with an Obama—the first time was in March (and was the reason we were hurried into this country with only five weeks to prepare to leave the States) and the second time was earlier in the summer, but that trip was cancelled because of the disastrous BP oil spill.
During IST, a two-week training we had in early September, our country director confirmed that the Obamas would be visiting Indonesia at long last. He wasn’t sure if we’d be pulled out of site and transported to Jakarta because the visit was to be abbreviated and the Peace Corps meeting might be cut from the agenda. Lucky for us, Mrs. Obama’s only planned activity on this trip outside of the President’s schedule was meeting with us!
Our meeting with the vice consul was very strange—a briefing on protocol and etiquette. We were not to shake hands unless the First Lady initiated, we were not allowed to bring gifts of any kind, we were to call her “Mrs. Obama,” and the whole event might have just been that she walked in the door, said nothing, snapped a picture, and left. Nobody really knew how the visit would go. During the meeting, our departure time for Wednesday morning kept changing as the vice consul received text messages—5:15, 5:30, 5:15 am. The Presidential speech was set to begin at 9:00 am.
We woke on Wednesday at 4:00 am to shower and put on our fanciest batik dress shirts. The bus left the hotel at about 5:30 am. We arrived at the university and, with the help of Mrs. Obama’s personal assistant, cut everyone in line to go through security—lots of dudes and ladies with sunglasses and suits and those spirally earphones…secret service agents, a lot of them. The First Lady’s assistant and the vice consul shuffled us through the complex where the speech would be held and off toward the rear side of the building, to a small tent with a sign that said “Peace Corps Event.” We waited, with our country director and the vice consul, for a little over two hours, taking a few minutes with the assistant to arrange ourselves on risers for the photo and killing time with twenty questions and nervously smoothing our batiks and arranging our nametags.
When we got word that the motorcade had arrived at the university, we were asked to take our positions and wait for the “principal” to arrive for the photo. There was a small gap between the tent’s door flaps, and we saw the president after about twenty minutes of standing waiting for the First Lady. We watched him greet a couple folks and thanked our lucky stars that we had a chance to see the President, even if from afar. Meeting Mrs. Obama, certainly right behind the President and soon to walk into our tent, would be amazing. The President walked by the small opening of the tent and we laughed nervously…we saw Obama!
All of a sudden, the flaps of the tent opened and in he walked. “What a good lookin’ group, in your batiks!” he said, smiling.
We were speechless, grinning like fools and shaky at the knees, all of us. He went down the line, greeting each of us, asking how we were, our names, and where we were from.
Lauren and Gio did a good job describing the feelings: Obama is a mesmerizing person and we’ve never felt such a strong physical reaction to someone walking into the room. I’m sure you can imagine he’s got quite a presence and charisma—he’s real good at making eye contact and as corny as it sounds makes you feel real special by paying the perfect amount of individual attention to you, even if it’s just for thirty seconds.
He talked to us as a group for about five minutes, asking about our work and expressing how proud he is of us and how important our service is in Indonesia. We snapped some pictures and the President was about to leave when he realized Ken hadn’t been in the photo; he grabbed Ken and we took a few more pictures.
The whole meeting was about ten minutes long, which is a huge amount of time when you consider whose it is. We filed out of the room and into the hall where the speech was to be held—we had reserved seats off to the right of the stage and we realized that the entire audience was already seated and waiting and had been while we were meeting with Mr. Obama.
We listened to the speech—about democracy, development, and religion—and snapped more photos from afar. We got some explanation from Ken that the vice consul had received a text message the night before saying that the First Lady wouldn’t be able to make the event (his heart dropped) but that the President would fill in for her instead (whew!) and that it was to be a surprise (Mrs. Obama was exhausted and went ahead to the G20 in South Korea since their third event of the day had been cancelled because of its proximity to Mount Merapi). Ken had found out about an hour before the meeting that it would be the President…we didn’t find out until he was in the tent with us. Amazing!
The speech was a crowd-pleaser, just as it was intended to be. The President dropped some Indonesian and Arabic words and phrases, reminisced about his days as a kid in Jakarta, talked about his favorite Indonesian foods, and spent a lot of time stressing the need for Indonesia’s advancement on the global stage and its success as a new democracy and pluralistic majority-Muslim society.
We had a great time. Of course, our placement here is directly related to Obama’s win in 2008 and is highly political given the relationship between the US and the Middle East. Some people may feel that we’re tools of the State first and PCVs/people-to-people peace workers second, but meeting the President was a nice way to pacify those anxieties—the government does need us here and it’s nice to be gratified and applauded given the importance of our work and the difficulties we’ve faced.
A lovely, extremely memorable few days. Thanks again, taxpayers!
(I don’t feel any more special or anything for having met the President, but the experience and the reaction I had to meeting someone like that was pretty great.)
A few photos: Ayah searching for lahron in our front yard– to be fed to the fish, though they are often deep fried and eaten by humanoids; trip with the teachers to a waterfall up on Lawu, on the way to Solo for a day of shopping; morningtime pictures from this weekend’s 4:30 am walk with the gals. Enjoy!