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New Year’s Eve in Bandung

1 January 2012

The trumpets and noisemakers, hand-made from foil paper and tinsel, have been for sale for at least two weeks. Independent vendors set up impromptu sales displays alongside the city streets, blocking the sidewalks (this is nothing new here; they are competing with the food carts, called kakilima, which are always blocking the sidewalks … that is, where a sidewalk exists at all …). It’s hard to believe they could sell so many horns, but because of the vast underemployment here, many people make and sell things.

People started blowing their horns on Friday night, and I heard a few fireworks go off then too, but I didn’t see any of those.

Before I tell you about Saturday night, New Year’s Eve, I have to give you an idea of how Bandung looks from the balcony of my apartment.

Very few buildings here are higher than three floors. Probably because of the danger of earthquakes. I would estimate that 90 percent of the buildings in the whole city have only one or two stories. These are private homes, and also small shops and businesses. Hotels and some office buildings are 10 to 15 stories, but those really stand out! Shopping malls (of which there are many) typically have about 4 floors above the underground parking. From near my apartment building, I can clearly see the minarets of a big mosque that is 3 miles away.

This gives a pretty low profile to a jam-packed city — with a population of 2.4 million. (The metro area has 7.4 million.) Population density here is 36,973/sq. mi. (14,275.9/sq. km.) — almost triple the density of Miami, Florida (12,139.5/sq. mi., or 4,687.1/sq. km.) Many people live in very small houses.

Bandung city is also unobstructed by hills — it’s on a plateau surrounded by mountains. From my location, the land stretches out flat to the east and then gently curves up to the foothills, and to the north, it’s already going uphill to the mountains.

So from my apartment, I look out across thousands of little buildings, mostly homes, and see the mountains beyond (see a daytime photo).

Last night, when the fireworks started going off in earnest (about 7 p.m.), I could glance out through the sliding glass doors to the balcony and see several displays at once. The locations kept changing, but they covered every bit of land as far as I could see. It was like a giant flat pan of popcorn set on a fire. This continued nonstop until after midnight.

What I’d like you to understand is this: The fireworks were not “official” like they are in the U.S. They were not launched by professionals on a big open field, or over a river (as in New York City). They were everywhere. And they were big! Think about no regulation of fireworks. People can build their own (like they make the tinsel noisemakers). They can launch them from any location. Big fireworks were shooting up from the street beside my apartment building! I could almost reach out and touch them in the air! (I’m on the 10th floor.)

And then … midnight.

See, I stay home on New Year’s Eve. I don’t like crowds, or parties, or traffic jams. So there I was, getting ready to go to sleep (I can sleep through loud noises), and it got to be about 11:50 p.m. …

The sky erupted! It was better (in many ways) than the most spectacular professional displays (such as July 4th: New York City, East River, or Battery Park, depending on the year; or Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida; or Washington, D.C., where I once had a primo seat on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial) — the explosions covered the whole city. The biggest fireworks had been saved for last, mostly (as in any good show), and they went up for about 15 minutes in every direction — well off into the distance, and right in front of my nose (the ones from the street below me), and everywhere in between.

There were some very fancy ones, shooting off baby blasts and then expanding into cascades; fountains that flew straight up and then made a plume; bursty ones that opened into a big round bloom; white and green and red and yellow (but very, very few blue, I noticed).

They whistled and smoked and banged.

The smell of gunpowder filled the air.

Happy New Year!

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