Thursday, March 30, 2006

The fixer

So here we were in Jakarta, fresh off the plane without a clue or a place to live, and then we met this guy Chris who set us up with a house and a job.

Well, not quite. The house is still a work in progress. But I do have a job! A real job with benefits and a work permit and, like, a salary! I'll be editing at the Jakarta Post, basically smoothing out articles written in English by Indonesians. Their reporters are quite good, I think (having read the Post online for months now), and it should be fun to work with them.

Also, this takes the pressure off the freelancing: I'll still have some time to do my own stuff, but I only have to do the stories I really want to do ... without worrying about paying the rent.

Chris is a fellow reporter we met at the Foreign Correspondents' Club. We went over to look at his rental house, which he and his wife and two kids are moving out of. Once we'd seen his place, Chris said "Let's look at some other ones too!" so we jumped in his car and went all over his neighborhood, Pejompangan (which is fun to say - a major side benefit, in my opinion). He speaks Indonesian, so he just asked everybody where there were rental houses available. We saw quite a few, from the depressing to the fabulous, most of them within our desired range of 200-300 dollars a month.

On the way back, I asked whether he knew about any jobs, and that's when he passed on the tip about the Post.

There are people around Jakarta known as Fixers. They're the ones who set you up with a visa or get you permission to run a business or otherwise smooth the way for whatever you're trying to do. Chris doesn't list Fixer on his card, or Real Estate Agent for that matter, but I think he should consider adding them. Whatever his day job, he has certainly been our Fixer, and I am grateful.

(p.s. Pardon the 9/11-related pic - not trying to be melodramatic here, it's just far and away the best picture I can find of the Post.)

Our dog

We don’t have a dog, of course. But we’ve developed a proprietary affection for this old guy on Jalan Jaksa, a battle-scarred cur of indeterminate age and breeding. We don’t pet him. He’s not that kind of dog. We admire him from afar.

The other night we could hear a dog yapping endlessly from somewhere near the hotel. Even in our fourth-floor room the sound had a piercing quality. “That can’t be our dog,” Chad said. “It sounds like a small one.”

“And our dog is too practical to waste all that energy,” I said. “He wouldn’t raise his head unless someone kicked him.” Which is true. That’s the beauty of our dog: he plunks down right in the middle of the sidewalk and snoozes, oblivious to the foot traffic, the noisy kids, the cars zooming by, and all the other sonic bombardments of Jakarta. Our dog has focus.

Dogs and cats both have it tough here, for sure, but somehow I feel a little worse for the dogs. The street cats look kind of wild, and they’re suspicious of humans. You can’t really imagine them curled up on your couch. The dogs on the street look like normal dogs to me, and it just seems like they should have a home. I guess it’s the only life they know, though. Until they start watching TV, they’ll probably feel okay about themselves.

very in a nightlife grasp

We went to see a reggae band last weekend, but unfortunately they didn't materialize. In their place was a "classic rock" band, which plied a wide range of waters from Procol Harum to Radiohead, all sung in the original English. They weren't a great band, but they had a decent guitarist, and the singer was really getting into it - rocking the mic stand backwards and forwards, waving his arms around.

It's so much more poignant listening to your umpteen millionth cover of "Whole Lotta Love" when the singer has a foreign accent and you're far away from home. It was cheezy, and it was cultural hegemony, and it was a band I probably wouldn't have stuck around for in the States, but it worked.

It's kinda tough to find out about music here because there's no magazine or paper with listings, even in Indonesian. Everybody just SMSes each other when they happen to hear about a gig. Fortunately we've fallen in with a very nice Austrialian guy who's plugged in to the system. I really would like to hear Indonesian reggae one of these days.

Chad blogs about another night of clubbing on his site, Indo Stories, which you can link to on the right.

A room with a view

So this is a view from our hotel window. Not bad, eh? The tile roofs are very typical, although they seem to be giving way to corrugated metal roofs that are not nearly so romantic.

We're thinking of moving out in a couple of days to a place closer to our language class. That'll reduce traveling time during these next two weeks, while we're taking daily classes. Our hotel is beginning to wear on us, anyway. There's the breakfast, which never varies: fried rice, white bread (which must be a legacy of the Dutch - I was surprised to see so much bread everywhere), margarine, cheap jam, weak tea and even weaker coffee. The cleaning, on the other hand, is never the same from one day to the next: they might give you new towels or mop the floor or change the sheets, but they won't do all three on the same day. Today they took our towels and didn't leave any new ones. Yesterday at 10 am they said "We'll clean tomorrow. It's too late to clean today."

Anyway, maybe we'll move over the weekend, and maybe we won't. We might just hang out and enjoy the peace and quiet: it's a Hindu holiday today and tomorrow so lots of people have gone away for the weekend. There's hardly any traffic jams and the internet connection speed is much better.

The teenagers who frequent the wartel love to change the pictures on the desktops. Last week they all had pictures of fighter planes. Today it's pictures of John Lennon, which seems a little less belligerent (no offense, Jim). A little snapshot, perhaps, of the Youth of Today in Jakarta.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Curious rewards of travel

All the language books tell you "zero" in Indonesian is "nol," which makes sense. But since we've been here, whenever anyone gives their phone number, they say "kosong" instead, which means "empty." For some reason I find this unbearably cute. Every time I hear it I feel happy I'm here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The ride of your life

When we saw these mechanical beasts in the basement of Blok M, I assumed they were just jiggly rides for small children. But no! You jump on their backs and they actually walk all around! The little guy riding this panda seemed totally enthralled. I kinda wanted to jump on one myself.

Blok M

The salespeople here have an interesting technique: they stand right next to you and stare at you while you rifle through the garment racks. Sometimes I realize I'm directing more mental energy toward ignoring the shopworkers than I am toward looking at the actual goods.

Yesterday I encountered an even more dubious strategy. I stopped at a kiosk selling Indian shirts at Blok M. The woman running it immediately came over and said "We have XL!" Then she pulled a few really enormous shirts off the rack and held them up. They don't teach you that one in your Gap training session!

The picture is of some t-shirt salesmen at Blok M. The sign over their heads says "Broken Price!"

Blok M is the biggest market in the city. It's so central, it has its own bus station that all the bus lines go to. It's sort of like a cross between a suburban mall and a tag sale. Basically, they took a whole bunch of street vendors and packed them into a big warehouse-like building. It's a crazy stew of loud pop music, loud Arabic-sounding music, loud people, fried food, cheap clothes, and brightly colored toys from (where else?) China. I didn't even feel much need to shop - just walking around was fascinating.

Of course I did shop, though. I bought a t-shirt with a view of the Manhattan skyline from across the river. The slogan says: "On other side very a nightlife grasp." I couldn't have said it better myself. I think Chad is going to put some other Chinglish (or the Indonesian equivalent) from Blok M on his blog, Indo Stories, which you can link to from the right side of this page.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jalan Jaksa

We're staying at a hotel on Jalan Jaksa, the stereotypical backpacker street. Jaksa has a good cheap Indian restaurant called Pappa's. They play the same dippy pop song over and over ("and I say lalalalalala in the mooorning, lalalalalala in the moooorning ....), so you have to have a certain mental resilience to eat there. There's also a somewhat upscale place called Ya-Udah that serves burgers, ham-and-egg sandwiches, and other treats for homesick expats.

And everywhere there is Bintang, the national beer, modeled on Dutch beer and very pleasant on a hot day (they are all hot days, of course).

You can get a bed in a dorm room around here for probably $5, but we're paying a little more for a private room with our own bathroom and hot water.

Today I was sitting in Ya-Udah eating fried noodles when they started playing a Johnny Cash tune over the sound system. (One of his later, stripped-down, gospel-y songs.) Then the afternoon call to prayer started wailing from the speakers of the nearby mosque. It was a strange duet for a minute until one of the waitresses cut off the music.

Here's Chad at the bottom of Jaksa in one of those rare quiet moments - no people, cars or motorbikes hurtling at him.

Kaki lima

I'm still trying to get more pictures up, but man, it's painful sitting here in the wartel waiting for big files to upload. For now, here's one of a fruit-and-vegetable stand out on Jalan Wahid Hasyim, around the corner from our hotel. There are far more stands than stores in our neighborhood; if you want something, you can probably find it at a stand, whether it's new upholstery for your chair, shoe repair, a phone card, or what have you.

This kind is called a "kaki lima," or "five legs": that's the three wheels on the cart plus the two legs on the cart's owner.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Have you bathed?

Two days ago we woke to find we had no running water in our room at the Hotel Karya. When we turned on the faucet, we got a little dribble that quickly tapered off to nothing.

Our shower is a humble affair – just a hand-held nozzle on a short hose. You have to contort yourself a bit to wash your hair. Still, a lack of water is a serious problem. People in Jakarta bathe often. I have yet to run into anyone smelly. In fact, “have you bathed?” is supposed to be an ordinary bit of chit-chat, along the lines of “how are you?” or “what’s up?” Thus, when you’re unwashed, you not only feel icky, but you feel like a pariah. You feel you’re doing a poor job of representing your country … your hemisphere, even.

Because it's so early in our stay, it seems emblematic of all the months ahead. “I’m going to be smelly for days,” I thought. “I will never be clean.”

We complained in the morning and again at noon. It’s no good getting annoyed or losing your temper, so we complained smilingly. We gritted our teeth and began making emergency plans in case it wasn’t fixed by nightfall.

Then, wondrously, the water came back on in the afternoon. I have never been so happy for a cold dribbly shower in my whole life. The next time I went out, I thanked the guy at the front desk.

“Ah, have you bathed?” he said with a little smile.

“I bathed,” I said blissfully, and walked out into the hot sun.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bajajs and other weapons of mass destruction

Jakarta is famous for its traffic jams. There’s no subway or monorail, and for years the government kept fuel prices artificially low, which encouraged everyone who could possibly afford a car to buy one. (Now they’ve done away with the subsidies, which seems sensible, but as a result the price of anything you can buy has gone up, making life harder for poor people – who didn’t really need any help in that department).

Jakarta traffic consists of cars and SUVs – lots of SUVs, unfortunately – buses, a few bicycles, zillions of motorbikes, and a small army of bajajs (BAHJ-eyes). Bajajs were invented by India to make Indonesians look silly. They have three tiny wheels and a little two-stroke engine, surrounded by flimsy metal body that’s open to the elements. Next to a bajaj, a Kia Rio looks like a muscle car. To complete the humiliation, bajajs are painted bright orange.

Bajajs aren’t allowed on the highways so they putter around the local roads. The fare is determined by bargaining. Here’s how it went the other day, on our first ride:

Us: How much to Sarinah’s Department Store?

Driver: 10,000 rupiah [about a dollar].

Us: Six.

Driver [with a laugh and a dismissive wave, as if we’ve proposed to pay him with a chewing gum wrapper]: No-o-o! Nine.

Us: Seven.

Driver [suddenly bored and grumpy} Okay okay, get in.

I suspect we still overpaid, but that’s what happens when you’re new to the game.

Bajajs are pretty fun until you get stuck at a red light behind another bajaj. Then the whole compartment fills with blue exhaust and you have to hold your breath and pray for the light to change.

Crossing the street is a complicated affair. Most of the intersections near our hotel don’t have pedestrian lights, so you have to guess at the traffic pattern. Then you have to do some advanced physics to calculate the different speeds of the bajajs, cars, buses and motorcycles. You don’t want to linger in anybody’s way, but you also don’t want to break into a sprint unexpectedly, since the drivers are allegedly trying to predict your speed too and avoid hitting you.

Oddly enough, the scarcity of bicycles makes it a little less frightening than Shanghai. In our week there I never quite got the trick of just wading steadily through a flock of bicyclists and letting them flow around me. When I start choking on airborne particulates, though, I kind of feel nostalgic for those bikes.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


All is well here, although our internet access is not as good now that we've moved. We had to come all the way back to our old hotel tonight to visit our beloved 24-hour, internet-equipped Wartel ("warung telepon" or, roughly, "telephone stand"). We're going to try Starbucks tomorrow and see if we can post some pictures ... this blog is looking awfully plain.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Apparently a load of slightly-imperfect dictionaries "fell off a truck" somewhere in Jakarta last night, because everywhere we go people are trying to sell them to us. They're actually really good dictionaries, Indonesian-English and English-Indonesian, the same ones I used to check out from the library in Bloomington. They don't just tell you "nasi" is "rice," they tell you how to say "nasi sudah jadi bubur," "the rice has already turned to porridge," which is how you say "no use crying over spilled milk." It's the kind of dictionary you can just open and read. There's a page missing and a couple of pages out of order in the U's, but I figure by the time I get to the U's I'll speak Indonesian already. Right?

These guys are standing on every street corner selling them, part of the ocean of commerce you wade through every time you walk around our neighborhood. Guys fixing motorbikes, people selling sate off little charcoal grills, other people selling phone cards or bottled iced tea or balls of colored string. The sidewalks are mostly made of uneven brick with pieces missing, and motorbikes are apt to pop unannounced out of little side alleys, so you have to keep your wits about you as you pick your way along.

Tomorrow we're trading in our slightly upscale $30 hotel for a $14 place in the backpacker area, Jalan Jaksa. The new hotel actually seems nice; it's a little homier than the Arcadia. We hope to stay a couple of weeks while we look for permanent housing. Tonight we have our first "date" with a potential friend, a guy I met on the Indonesian Expat message board online. And today we got a cellphone. So, life is taking shape. Someday soon we're going to stop spending money like water, and settle down and get some work done; either that or we're going to have to sell our computers to buy a ticket back to the States.

kopi susu 3

It's been a very good morning thus far, my favorite kind of morning to have in an unfamiliar city. We set out from the hotel to find food, and we got lost, got found, wandered down some narrow streets, poked our noses into an assortment of roadside stalls, and eventually had an excellent breakfast at a little place called "Warung Nasi," or "Rice Warung."

Warungs are sort of a step up from a food stall or cart; they're usually a little room in the front of a building, very spare inside, just a few tables and a counter. This one offered the long-sought kopi susu, served in a glass. The woman who ran it, who looked Indian and was very smiley and friendly, put condensed milk in the bottom of the glass, topped by ground coffee, and then poured in boiling water and give it a little half-stir. The condensed milk forms a layer at the bottom of the glass topped by a layer of coffee grounds and then the coffee itself. If you want it sweeter you stir it up some more to fully incorporate the milk. It was strong and hot and very tasty - we ordered one to share, and then another, and then another.

We also got a local green, I think it's water spinach, similar to kale, cut in strips and stewed in coconut milk with lemongrass - really good. Plus some strips of fried spicy tempeh, and plain rice. (By the way, my vegetarian friends out there, tempeh was invented in Indonesia - that in itself is reason enough to visit.) I think it was the best meal we've had thus far, and one of the cheapest, a little less than $2 for both of us. Chad got eggplant and some kind of spicy boiled egg. While we were there they brought out a huge bowl of tofu in some kind of delicious-looking sauce, but we were too full to order any.

Yesterday was our culinary low point - we were looking for books at Sarinah department store and saw a fancy-looking coffee shop. They served us instant coffee with creamer and charged us $2. Don't be fooled! Never order coffee at Sarinah's!

We are figuring out how to post pictures here - it doesn't seem to work well from this "internet cafe" next to our hotel - so I hope to have some images to share soon. Thanks for checking in! And don't be shy about comments. My blog gets lonely without comments!

Thursday, March 16, 2006


We wake up at 2 a.m. on our first full day here. We try reading ourselves back to sleep, but it doesn't work. Then we watch a little TV. News in English, news in Indonesian, Islamic versions of the 700 club, music videos. We've just found an episode of the Simpsons when we manage to blow the fuse trying to plug in a power strip for the computers. By then it's almost light so we head out for breakfast.

I've prepared myself mentally for the smog and traffic, so they really don't seem that bad. The air appears cleaner than in Moscow, where my throat started burning and tears began running down my face the moment I stepped off the plane. Here my eyes and throat just itch a little.

What I forgot to brace myself for is the poverty: the shacks built out of scraps of wood, and the thin, tired faces you see on the street. People seem to sleep everywhere. A large, covered wheelbarrow hides one dreamer. When we stop into a French bakery for coffee, four people are sleeping on couches at the back of the room.

I feel overfed and conspicuously healthy. I don't know whether to look people in the eye or not, whether to smile. Besides the language barrier, there's a body language barrier. So much of yourself exists in relation to your surroundings. I feel like part of my hard drive has been wiped out, and the information will have to be replaced slowly and painstakingly over the next several months. Just observe, I think. Don't decide anything yet. Gather data. Try out small interactions. Be. The rest comes later.

the goatway

So you are here. On the airplane video screen you watch your plane dip toward Sukarno-Hatta Airport. Already you can feel the heat through the metal skin. Bump to a stop. Long lines for visas and customs but the immigration officials seem almost jolly, joking and smiling. They like to pound their stamps down on the documents with a bang, so the sounds of administrative approval fill the room like rifle blasts. Bang bang bang ... more people pour into the crowded city.

Heft your leaden baggage. Plow through the crowds of taxi drivers hawking their services, keeping your head down, muttering "tidak mau, tidak mau" ... "don't want, don't want." Find a guidebook-approved Blue Bird Taxi. The highway toward the city is busy but flowing. There are goats next to the road. Whose goats?

Toll road into Jakarta. Tin-roofed slums built out of scraps. High-rises. A sprawl of buildings unrelated by style or function, spreading out under a blanket of smog. Monuments. Palm trees. Flowering bushes.

Hotel Arcadia. Air-conditioning. The bliss of a hot shower washing away 34 hours' worth of travel grime. A hard but comfortable bed. Oblivion.

Monday, March 13, 2006

what we'll miss

I'm cleaning out the fridge, dumping little jars of things down the sink, and the kitchen smells like an Italian deli in IndoChina-
town: a mixture of red wine vinegar, fermented bean paste, and some chunky brown stuff called Gor Keri Pickle that makes me cough.

Lately we've been wondering what we'll miss when we're in Jakarta. Years ago when I spent a semester in the Soviet Union I brought curry powder, figuring I'd long for spicy food. But after a month, I was used to potatoes and cabbage and rice, and curry held no appeal. You may know what you love, but you don't know what you'll miss. For the sake of being able to laugh at it six months later, here's a list of things I think I will crave:

1. Drinking out of the faucet. I'm already looking forward to taking Tapwater Vacations in Singapore, the only place in Southeast Asia where you can stick your head under the tap and guzzle without fear.

2. Eavesdropping - my favorite hobby.

3. Blue cheese pizza from Rockits.

4. Snow.

5. Oatmeal. You may be able to get it there, but what about the milk and the maple syrup? As far as I'm concerned, it's a package deal.

6. Being able to buy something in a drugstore without a lot of pointing, pantomiming, and mispronouncing things out of the phrasebook.

7. The Monroe County Public Library.

Tomorrow we get on the plane and what I'll miss is fresh air, leg room, and the ground, not necessarily in that order. Then, a mere 34 hours later, we'll be in Jakarta. If I can only get all this stuff down the sink. If I can only get this other stuff into a bag. If I can only get there, at last.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Message from the Oval Office

I guess I'm getting a little anxious about the move. This morning in a half-awake dream I distinctly heard George W. Bush say: "Because of the corruption in Iraq, everybody has a VERY LONG LIST OF THINGS TO DO." I woke up in a cold sweat.

There are advantages to moving halfway around the world, of course. You get to throw out all the underwear you never liked very much. You finally go through that box of stuff you've been dragging from apartment to apartment for ten years - the box of old letters and documents that you've never unpacked. People have parties for you and say nice things and give you cake. The to-do lists really are a killer, though.

The Pile keeps morphing. I think it's getting smaller. In a way that's a relief, but really I know it's either going into landfills, or going to Goodwill where it'll become part of somebody else's pile of stuff. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. That's never more clear than when you're moving.