Ted and I had never before been to a State Dinner, anywhere. Should we bring a camera? I decided against bringing one, but then someone at an adjacent table quietly broke out his and I wished I had. Of the perhaps more than 30 tables in the expansive art deco hall with gilt accents, ours was very close to the head table and I could have gotten some great shots. Still, given the solemn occasion, it’s just as well I didn’t.
We arrived early, to be sure we could proceed through traffic and several security checkpoints in time. While we waited to be screened, we caught up with friends from the cultural and business spheres of Indonesian society, as well as Embassy colleagues, and made new friends.
The Indonesian protocol official proudly announced the arrival of the Obamas, escorted by the Indonesian president and first lady. They proceeded down a corridor on the side of the hall, just past our table, as they made their way to the head table. President Yudhoyono’s immediate predecessor, Megawati Soekarnoputri, attended – the first time she participated in an official Indonesian Government event with her successor since Yudhoyono became president five years ago.
At our table were three ministers, including the engaging and sophisticated trade minister, who had to depart a bit early to attend APEC meetings in Japan. The agriculture and mining ministers and their spouses were also at our table. The agriculture minister’s wife personified Indonesian hospitality, explaining in somewhat limited English (which was far better than my meager Bahasa Indonesia) how to eat some of the Indonesian dishes and the significance of the ornamental card holders featuring traditional shadow puppets.
The meal consisted of some of President Obama’s favorites from the four years he spent as a boy in Indonesia: Bakso, a noodle dish with tightly compressed beef meatballs, served with a platter of condiments such as fried onions, chili relish, and scallions; Nasi Goreng (literally, fried rice), Indonesia’s most famous dish, which included diced vegetables and fried chicken, served with a fried egg on top; and succulent wagyu beef sate with peanut sauce.
President Yudhoyono delivered a gracious, warm speech, thanking the Obamas for visiting. A highlight of the evening was when he presented Obama an award in honor of his mother’s work to improve the lives of Indonesian women. The president of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation toasted the United States with sparkling cider. In an unscripted response, President Obama expressed solidarity with Indonesia on responding to the earthquake, tsunami and volcanic eruptions, and on its longer-term development goals. He thanked Yudhoyono for the kind award for his mother, and toasted Indonesia.