Saturday, September 30, 2006

Junk food of the week: Pangsit goreng

A pangsit goreng is a huge deep-fried wonton. Almost lost in its expanse of crunchy-crumbly dough is a tiny ball of chopped chicken.

I don't think there can be any nutritional value in a pangsit goreng, other than whatever protein there is in the chicken. Luckily for my arteries, I don't really find them all that alluring, but if you get them at Es Teler 77, my current favorite fast-food place, it's kind of fun to make big puddles of sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) and chili sauce and use the pangsit as a vehicle to eat immoderate amounts of both.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ten kitties: friend or foe?

Judging by the terrible howls we hear at night, cats here fight constantly over their territory. These two decided to be friends, at least temporarily.

Both of these kitties have short tails with a kink at the end, which is very common here. There are various theories for this, including some involving human cruelty, but I suspect it's genetic.

Here's a closer look at the kinky tail.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


There are little offerings to gods, ancestors and spirits all over Bali, just sitting out on the sidewalks in front of the shops and houses. You often see people putting them out, like this woman who came onto the beach at sunset.

According to our chatty cab driver, you're supposed to do three offerings a day, but some people cheat a bit. I wouldn't be surprised; I bet the cost adds up!

The Balinese are mostly Hindus, practicing a form of the religion that developed distinct from Indian Hinduism. The Balinese version apparently places less emphasis on reincarnation and more on the interaction with deities and spirits.

The small offerings vary from village to village, but almost always include betel nut, which a mild stimulant, and is associated with the major gods. The ones we saw were made on palm-leaf plates and contained leaves, flowers, rice, and a little cracker or rice cake on top. There are more elaborate ones for temples, holidays and ceremonies. They must be a boon for the local animals; one late night we saw a cat perched atop a temple, maybe eight or nine feet in the air, having a snack.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ten kitties: Andri's cat

More on Bali in the next post but first --

I woke up early yesterday morning and the weather was really nice: sunny but cool, and the air felt clean. It was Sunday and the first morning of Ramadan, so the streets were really quiet. I decided to go for a walk and take pictures of cats. I wouldn't look for cats; I would simply allow cats to happen. In Jakarta they happen with great frequency.

I ended up walking for 20 minutes, never getting more than three blocks from the apartment, and photographing thirteen kitties. I'll be posting the ten best pics.

This is Andri, a boy who lives down the street from me. He's sitting in front of a tiny shop that sells water; hence, the cooler in the background. Andri nominated himself to be my helper, and spent a few minutes running around finding cats for me. This was against the rules, but of course I didn't mind.

The cat is called something like Gunam or Ganum. A lot of kitties here are feral, and run away from strangers, but Gunam/Ganum is at least partially domesticated. He was very relaxed and even let me scritch his head.

We came. We shredded. We crashed.

I have this tendency to open my mouth when I'm doing something difficult. I don't talk, necessarily; I just open it. Maybe to relieve the pressure in my brain. I opened my mouth a lot during our surfing lesson, and perhaps that's why I swallowed a fair amount of ocean water, but it didn't matter because we were having so much fun.

The ocean off Kuta is a perfect playground for beginning surfers: the waves are big enough to give you a ride, but there aren't a lot of sharp rocks or other nasty things to cut yourself on, and it's so shallow you can just walk out instead of paddling. ("I hate paddling," said our teacher Nyoman in his charming Balinese-Australian accent. "It's so tiring.")

For beginner lessons they use these big foam boards that are very forgiving, so it was pretty easy to scramble up there and start catching waves. The real boards are a little more difficult, as we discovered when we rented one the next day. But that didn't dampen our enthusiasm. We are surfers now.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Reasons to look up

We arrived just in time for the Kuta Karnival, a kind of "take back Bali" celebration founded after the 2002 bombing. There were kite-flying competitions every day so the sky was loaded with kites. People were carrying them all around, on foot, on motorcycles, on trucks, like flags of the nations of the sky.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Even the dogs are more relaxed

... in Bali. We saw this guy sleeping with his feet up on one of Kuta's main drags.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


A fisherman casting his net at sunset, Jimbaran beach

All the cab drivers kept asking us: Have you been to Bali?
All our friends told us: Bali.
Blue skies, they said. Ocean. Trees. Good food. One-dollar beers.
So we went to Bali. And it was good.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Interview: Ramadan

This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with Indonesians about different aspects of life here.

The fasting month of Ramadan is coming. For a lot of Jakartans, that means no eating, drinking or smoking from sunrise to sundown. Some of the reasons for fasting include: focusing your thoughts on your relationship with god, increasing your self-control, and heightening your empathy for the poor.

(More on the philosophical underpinnings of fasting here.)

Ramadan ends with a big celebration called Idul Fitri or Lebaran, when lots of people in the city go home to their villages to visit their families, leading to traffic jams of epic proportions.

I talked with my Indonesian teacher, Ninit, who's studying French literature in college. I don't have a sense of how religious she is; it's clear from the interview that she feels deeply about her faith, but otherwise we've never discussed religion and she's not inclined to bring it up in conversation.

How do you feel about Ramadan?

When Ramadan comes I'm always happy, because I feel a more intense connection with god, and a closer connection with my family, because you have to do a lot of rituals together. It's like one full month that I study my faith, I learn about myself, I look for what I really want to do in life.

People are calmer, too, they're not in such a rush. For one month, the atmosphere is different, and people are different.

Ramadan scares me too! Because, what have I done this year? Have I been a good girl? It's a reflection on your whole year.

Is it hard to fast?

It's hard, very hard! (laughs) The hardest thing is the first week, because we haven't fasted for eleven months. That first day is challenging because you're tired and hot and hungry. After that, you get used to it.

Also, in my opinion, the important thing about fasting is the intention. I have this intention of fasting that first day because of my faith, and then it's okay, then it doesn't seem hard, and you don't feel hungry.

Another difficult part is the three or four days before Lebaran - days 27, 28 and 29. It's hard because people have started to leave for the villages. Everybody is shopping, everybody's making food for Idul Fitri, people are buying stylish clothes, and we all pile into cars and trains and buses to get out of Jakarta. So you're more tired, and on those last days you're not as strong as you were the first day, so it really tests your sense of purpose.

After Ramadan is also difficult, because when Ramadan comes we have this connection but after that we will have ordinary life without fasting and without these special occasions. It's like Christmas for a whole month, or Thanksgiving. That's the hardest part. You become very connected and then it just stops.

During Ramadan, do you usually have the evening meal with your family?

Yes, we break the fast as a family, at home, or elsewhere if there's something going on outside the house, like a Koran reading at a sibling's house or somewhere with my friends. And there are some obligatory foods and drinks. Usually we have coconut juice, pumpkin juice, melon juice, and iced tea, and dates.


We were afraid of the zoo. Even plush zoos can be depressing, and Indonesia is not a very wealthy country at the moment. But we were thrilled with the new primate facility at Jakarta's Ragunan Zoo.

First, it seems humane to the apes. The orangutans and gorillas, in particular, have a lot of room to roam around. The space is cleverly designed to give a good view and close proximity to the animals without locking them up in concrete boxes. The orangs helped out by being very friendly, coming right up to the fiberglass window to peer at us while munching on pineapples and oranges.

Secondly, when you go in, they confiscate your backpack, handbag, food, drink, etc., so unlike the rest of the zoo, there is no garbage being tossed around here. (Jakarta is badly in need of an anti-littering campaign.)

Thirdly, it's humane to humans. There's a forested area you can walk around in, and a system of platforms up in the trees connected by suspended wooden walkways among the branches. We spent a long time up there, just breathing in the smell of vegetation and listening to an unfamiliar sound: the wind blowing through the leaves.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Surfers who are still against malaria

SurfAid founder Dave Jenkins walks with a child in Katiet, Mentawais

My story about SurfAid, the organization that's trying to help people on the Mentawai Islands improve their health, is finally done. It should be on "Only a Game" this weekend. You can check their website for stations, but some possibly relevant ones include:

WILL Urbana, IL 580 AM Saturday noon-1
WFYI Indianapolis Saturday 7 am
WBUR Boston Saturday 7 am
WFSS Fayetteville, NC 91.9FM Sat 7 - 8am
WZNB New Bern, NC 88.5FM Sat 7 - 8am, Sun 3:30 - 4:30am
NHPR Concord, NH Saturday 7 am
WUKY Lexington, KY Saturday 7 am

They'll also post it on their website after it airs.

I feel an almost overwhelming compulsion to say bad things about the story, because:

a. I feel self-conscious for hyping it on the blog and
b. I never like my stories but
c. it's tiresome to criticize your own stuff so I won't.

There. I said it. Sort of.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pop quiz!

A Balinese classroom, courtesy of

How well do you know your Southeast Asian geography??

Find out at

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Junk food of the week: Cokka

I got Cokka (CHO-kka) on a whim, thinking it would be kind of nasty in a funny way. But the joke was on me, because it was nasty in an addictive way: a layer of cheap peanut butter and a layer of cheap chocolatey stuff in a little plastic container. Like a Reese's cup. In a cup.

Luckily they only seem to sell Cokka at the Ramayana department store near my office. I try not to go there, because they have a really distorted sound system manned by young guys who play pop tunes and keep turning the volume up and down so they can talk over the music at eardrum-piercing levels. It's a guaranteed headache, that place. But they also have cheap, strange t-shirts, like the one last week that said How To Fall Out Of A Moving Vehicle and had instructions and diagrams to match. What with the t-shirts, and Cokka, I sometimes can't resist.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Words to shop by

The new Senayan City mall is plastered with inspirational quotes from serial shoppers. Some of them are a little mind-bending. I mean, Tammy Faye Bakker?

And then there's Imelda Marcos, wife of the Phillipines' Ferdinand Marcos, who according to a 2004 study embezzled the second-largest amount of any dictator in the last twenty years: a cool $5-10 billion. Who stole the most? None other than Indonesia's Suharto, at $15-35 billion. I bet his wife got some nice shoes too.

Friday, September 08, 2006

New frontiers in shopping mall surrealism

This is the shiny-new Senayan City mall, across from the also fairly-new Plaza Senayan mall, and around the corner from the fairly-new and mostly empty Ratu Plaza mall.

Senayan City is clearly aiming for the high end of the market; thus the weirdly fetish-y high heel escalators, and the designer tenants (Versace, Gucci, Rolex, etc.).

The other striking thing about Senayan City was the number of women wearing tank tops, halter tops (gasp!) and other revealing clothing. And hardly a traditional headscarf to be seen.

The poor stylish women must have all been turning blue: the air conditioning was cranked up so high, my teeth were chattering. I suppose fashion demands its sacrifices.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

An off-key rainbow

Our friend John found this great club, Warung Apresiasi (Appreciation Cafe) near Blok M. The first time we went they had a bunch of different bands, and the place was packed, but Friday night when we went back it was an open-mic night with a fairly small crowd.

The guy who's second from the right is the MC, Joko, who goes by the stage name Joker. He's very charismatic; you can tell he's one of those people who's been putting on song-and-dance shows since age 4. Somehow he cajoled me into getting up and singing the only Indonesian song I know: "Pelangi, Pelangi" (Rainbow, Rainbow), a children's song we memorized to learn our colors. As you know if you've ever heard me sing, I can't sing, so it was somewhat mortifying, but it was also funny and strangely liberating.

After the music ended at midnight, we hung around and talked to Joker and some of the other guys who run the place. The cafe is actually part of a larger charitable organization. They've built a sports and cultural center in back where you can try painting, martial arts or rock climbing, and they run programs for the local street kids. They've landscaped the place with lots of plants and created a little oasis in this intensely urban part of town.

We're hoping to go back soon -- it seems like a nice place to hang out or do some volunteer work. Just chatting was great. Lately I've been wanting to have more substantive conversations in Indonesian, beyond just "I'd like one of those spicy things" or "turn left at the light." So it was a good night.

My apologies for all the cellphone pictures recently. The light meter in my camera has died, and we need to figure out where to get it fixed.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Scarfy scarfiness

Muslim headscarves (jilbab) on display at Centro department store, not far from the Foofy Foofiness clothes I talked about earlier. They come in all sorts of styles, from snug-fitting to big and drapy, from sparkly/lacey to plain. Some women seem to have a different one for every outfit, while others have a few neutral colors that go with everything.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Graywater, pinkwater

A woman up the street from us has a home tee-shirt business, and dumps the leftover dyed water in the gutter.

I think I need matching toenail polish.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Chicken floss

Two words I had never thought about putting together, since as far as I know chickens don't have teeth. But in Jakarta it describes this fuzzy stuff, which is popular on buns at the upscale bakeries that are popping up everywhere:

I don't how they turn chicken into floss. I'm not sure I want to know. It's actually rather tasty, though. This kind is called "Fire Floss," because it's hot-chili flavored.

This particular bakery is a Singaporean chain called BreadTalk, which is very trendy these days. They cleverly placed it on my route to the gym at Plaza Semanggi.

BreadTalk has done something else smart: they put the kitchen right in front, behind a glass wall, so you can see the whole thing. It's so clean and shiny it looks like you could do surgery in there. The chefs bustle around in their spotless white uniforms and everything runs like clockwork. Clean and organized: two words you don't think of very often in relation to Jakarta. So going to the bakery is like a brief vacation to a world that makes sense ... with pastry!