A "deeply moved" Barack Obama dodged volcanic ash and made a whirlwind return to his boyhood home of Indonesia on Tuesday, saying he would never have believed he could come back as US president.
Obama marvelled at the transformation of the sleepy city of Jakarta he once knew into a bustling metropolis and noted the country's parallel evolution from authoritarianism to democracy and a burgeoning alliance with Washington.
"It's wonderful to be here although I have to tell you that when you visit a place that you spent time in as a child, as the president it's a little disorientating," he told reporters.
"The landscape has changed completely, when I first came here it was in 1967 and people were on becaks ... a bicycle rickshaw thing."
But he was forced to cut back his twice-postponed homecoming and will leave nearly two hours ahead of schedule on Wednesday, amid concerns that Air Force One would otherwise be grounded by the plume of ash.
Obama on Wednesday will deliver one of the most personal and potentially consequential speeches of his presidency, reflecting on his own years of upbringing in Indonesia and giving an update on America's "new beginning" with Muslims that he promised last year in Cairo.
At the same time, the path to lasting peace in the Middle East was hardly looking smoother. A reminder of that difficult road was waiting for Obama when he landed here Tuesday on a steamy afternoon in southeast Asia. Israel's decision to build more apartments in east Jerusalem, a disputed territory claimed by Palestinians, had already earned a rebuke from American diplomats before a tired, traveling president weighed in himself.
"This kind of activity is never helpful when it come to peace negotiations," Obama said when questioned at a news conference alongside Indonesia's president, Suslilo Bambang Yudhoyono. "I'm concerned that we're not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough. ... Each of these incremental steps can end up breaking down trust."
Heavily invested and eager for Mideast stability, Obama insisted: "We're going to keep on working on it."
Obama's criticism came during a cherished, fleeting and twice-delayed homecoming in Indonesia. He canceled plans to come earlier this year because of domestic troubles, and now he's dodging a big cloud of volcanic ash.
India's most volatile volcano, Mount Merapi, has erupted with deadly force for days. The White House determined Air Force One could fly in as scheduled to Jakarta but that Obama should shorten his stay given the flow of airborne ash. That meant Obama would be in Indonesia for just 19 hours, still long enough to visit a famous mosque and deliver his speech.
The president, who is Christian, is eager to hold up Indonesia as a model: an overwhelmingly Muslim nation where other religions are respected freely and an evolving democracy is gaining strength despite a legacy of corruption.
He will revisit themes of his famous 2009 Cairo speech, one in which he called for mutual respect: from the United States for Muslims in a post-Sept. 11 world, and also from Muslims for the United States for its diversity and compassion. That speech also essentially set up an Obama scorecard on Iraq, Iran and efforts to combat Islamic extremists.
Obama is also giving substantial attention to the new partnerships his government has reached with Indonesia's. And he is talking freely about his time here, from age 6 to 10, when he was running around as a boy named Barry.
The personal touches began coming out as Obama, looking weary on his fourth day in Asia, reflected Tuesday on how Jakarta has changed since he lived here. His only real look came during a couple of motorcade rides.
"I feel great affection for the people here," Obama said. "And obviously I have a sister who's half Indonesian. My mother lived and worked here for a long time. And so the sights and the sounds and the memories all feel very familiar."
The president drew smiles from the gathered dignitaries by speaking a little Indonesian at times.
"We have been waiting for so long," said Yudhoyono to Obama at a press event shoved inside by rain.
The two presidents touted a deal that will have both countries cooperating on energy, education, the environment and many other subjects. More broadly, Indonesia offers the United States one more strategic, democratic voice in a continent of emerging powers and lucrative markets, while U.S. support can help Indonesia's own economy and regional security.
Both leaders pushed back on the thesis that Obama's efforts aim, at least in part, to counter China's rise. Obama insisted he wanted China to grow and prosper, and he said that "we're not interested in containing that process." Yudhoyono said he didn't think of one power counterbalancing another, but he added that there must be an "equilibrium" in the region.
Obama also pointedly noted that the global economy is out of whack, saying, "We have seen some countries run up very big surpluses and intervening significantly in the currency markets to maintain their advantage." The U.S. contends China's undervalued currency gives Beijing an unfair trade boost in the selling of its goods.
The president's stop in Indonesia came after he spent three days in India — the most attention any foreign country has received from him. Obama leaves Wednesday night for global economic meetings in South Korea, and then more in Japan.
Obama credited his own outreach effort as he described the joint efforts of the United States and Indonesia, saying they were "direct results of my call in Cairo for a new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities."
Overall, he said progress has been mixed.
"Or efforts have been earnest, sustained," he said. "We don't expect that we are going to completely eliminate some of the misunderstandings and mistrust that have developed ... but we do think that we're on the right path."
Indonesians all over this country of more than 17,000 islands gathered around television sets in their houses, coffee shops and office buildings as Obama's plane touched down. He was to deliver his speech at the University of Indonesia to an indoor crowd of about 6,000 people. An outdoor event was ruled out by concern over weather and the expected overwhelming crowd.