Thursday, November 30, 2006

Puncak - the waterfalls

Before hitting the trail up to the hot springs on Mt. Pangrango, you have to make a ritual sacrifice to the Indonesian bureaucracy. Unfortunately I hadn't brought the traditional offering, my passport, so we had to do a lot of waiting around in a small office before they issued our hiking permits.

Once we got going, though, everything was great. The foliage here is denser than on Merapi; it's really jungley. This wooden walkway takes you over a long boggy stretch. The air smelled intensely green and planty.

Our first destination was this high rocky valley with three big waterfalls. It's a pretty cool place, but since it's an easy one-hour hike, it was really crammed with people. I kept looking around expecting to see guys selling fried tofu or Teh Botol, because it was just like a Saturday afternoon at the marketplace.

I couldn't figure out whether these people in orange were a hiking group or a company out for a team-building exercise. Or maybe some Ukrainian protesters. They were really whooping it up for the photographer.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Talking to Widi on the Phone: A Poem

Talking to Widi on the phone: oh lord.
Talking to Widi on the phone: it hurts.
He says something really long in Indonesian and in the pause while I struggle to decipher it and formulate an answer he suddenly says
And all the words I’ve gathered in my head
fall away.
I don’t even like phones.
I don’t think Widi likes phones.
Who said phones were such a great idea anyway?

Talking to Widi on the phone.
It hurts. Oh lord.

Prepaid cellphone cards: What are these people so happy about?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Puncak is Jakarta's weekend getaway, so the capital has exported a certain amount of urban sprawl here. The main road running through the Puncak Pass is clogged with buses and motorbikes, and all the little villages along the way are growing into one long strip of hotels, restaurants, noodle carts, mini-marts, etc.

You may be stuck in traffic for a while, but at least you can get your shopping done. We were offered sliced mangoes, cubes of deep-fried tofu, cigarettes, peanuts, candy, cold Strawberry Fanta, aluminum bowls, vinyl belts, and an elementary English-Arabic textbook.

We arrived in the afternoon and went straight to the lovely botanical garden, which is much bigger (and cleaner!) than the one in Bogor. It's probably worth a weekend of its own. The air was clean and almost cool enough for a sweater, which was pretty exciting after the prolonged dry/hot season we've been having in Jakarta.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Sunrise from the back balcony

.... something I don't see very often, since I work late. That's too bad, because early morning is really the nicest time of day here; it's cool and less humid, and the air feels fresh.

The tall building in the middle is our favorite skyscraper; it's designed to look like an old-fashioned ship.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Petals and steam

We just got a new camera. It's pretty cool. Here's a flower.

And here's the hot (hot!!) springs we hiked to in Puncak, a couple of hours outside Jakarta, this weekend. More soon ...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving subs

People keep asking us what we're doing for Thanksgiving. In between, I keep forgetting it's Thanksgiving. The calendar says November, but the weather here is still pure August: mid-90s during the day, sunny, and humid.

I had to work this afternoon anyway, so I went to spinning class at the gym, and then Chad and I got subs in the mall food court. Mine was a meatball sub. I was foolishly thinking Italian meatballs drenched in tomato sauce, but what I got was something like Swedish meatballs with a sprinkling of pickled carrots and fresh cilantro. It was actually quite tasty, so I had no complaints.

And it came with that traditional Thanksgiving side, chopped fresh chilis.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Grassman on Gatot Subroto

Passing, at last

You never know who you'll see on the freeway here. The other night we wanted to go to a movie, but since the new 007 flick is hogging 3 out of every 4 screens near us, we had to take the nearby megahighway to a place south of Blok M to catch "The Prestige". The highway, Gatot Subroto, was even more jammed than usual, and eventually we found out why: this man pulling a cart loaded with bundles of long grass was blocking a whole lane.

Some people honked, but most just drove around. I think there's a lot of tolerance for things like this because everybody knows he's poor and he's just trying to make a living. But you have to wince, because he's obviously putting himself in danger.

Indonesia is a drive-on-the-left country, so he was in the slow lane, at least.

Through the taxi's back window. Note fake palm trees.

We really liked "The Prestige", by the way.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Cooking with Ibu Trish: Terong Balado (Eggplant in Tomato-Chili Sauce)

We had a bunch of eggplants in the fridge the other morning, but only one tomato. I was looking idly out the window, wishing some tomatoes would materialize, when right on cue the vegetable cart came down the street. Voila! Terong balado!

The finished product

This is easy, doesn't require any special ingredients, and is found all over Jakarta. Sabrina's, the locally renowned warung down the street from the Post, makes a version that leaves me speechless (of course, that's easier in Indonesian ...).

This recipe is stolen and slightly modified from

  • 1 lg Eggplant
  • 3 Garlic cloves, sliced or chopped
  • 4 tb Onion or Shallot, chopped
  • 1 1/2 c fresh Tomatoes, diced or just smushed into the bowl with your hands (the more fun method)
  • 1 t Sugar
  • 1 t Salt
  • 2 ts fresh minced hot chili peppers or hot chili sauce, to taste
  • 1/2 c Water
  • 2 tb Vegetable oil
If you have the kind of big eggplant one usually gets in the US, cut it into quarters or even eighths, and then cut those into segments 2 or 3 inches long. If you have skinny eggplants, just cut them in half, and then into segments. Bake them at 400 200 for 20-25 minutes, or until they are soft but not mushy. (Err on the side of overcooking, because undercooked eggplant is a crime.)

We don't have an oven, so I steamed the eggplant and then fried it for better texture

Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix the onion, garlic, tomatoes, salt, sugar, peppers and water and mash with a wooden spoon until it forms a coarse paste.

Fry the tomato paste in the oil until the liquid is reduced (about 10 minutes). Pour the sauce over the eggplant and serve with rice. Eat voraciously.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Foibles lost and found

Two things have been true about me for the last several years: I sleep with a pillow over my head, and I can't stand long sleeves.

The pillow is a legacy of my late cat, Jasper, who used to poke my face in the middle of the night. If you've ever caught a claw in the sensitive inner lining of the nostril at 3 a.m., you'll understand my need for a defensive barrier.

Jasper: resting up for another night of assault and battery

As for long sleeves, they're just so annoying. Always strangling your wrists or getting caught on things or finding their way into the hummus.

When we moved to Jakarta, both of these traits miraculously disappeared. I slept in planes and hotels and our new apartment without anything on my head. I bought long-sleeved shirts and wore them without pushing the sleeves up, even in this blast furnace of a city. It was a new me. I was impressed with myself, since I've observed that life is mostly a process of solidifying in your old habits, not shedding them.

But somehow, the habits have crept back. I'm not quite sure when or how. Did I become more 'myself' again after a few months? Are foibles like these the flags of our true personalities? I would have thought they'd actually get stronger in times of change. Has anybody else out there lost habits, only to regain them?

I'll be interested to see whether they pull another disappearing act someday when we move back to the States. In many ways coming home is as disorienting as leaving, but somehow you always underestimate the difficulty. Maybe I'll need two pillows on the head when we go back.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pak Haji and the school fees

Chad and I got a very chatty cab driver the other day. Pak (Mr.) Haji told us he has 12 children and is poor. His title, Haji, implies that you have some money, because it signifies that you've done the Hajj pilgrimage. But he told us the only way he'd gotten to Mecca was by working in Saudi Arabia. Usually the people who join the work-abroad programs are pretty desperate, so that all made sense.

White hat worn by men who've done the Hajj

We chatted away in a perfectly friendly fashion until we got to our destination, when Pak Haji suddenly turned and said, "Can you help me? I've had to take one of my children out of school because I don't have money. I can't afford the school fees."

I felt bad. We have money and he doesn't. But I also felt mad. Why did you have twelve kids, I thought, if you can't afford to send them to school? And your financial strategy is to hit up random foreigners for money? We don't tote around enough cash to pay for a year of school fees, so how are we even supposed to help anyway?

We gave him a few thousand extra rupiah, which is a pittance, and got out as quickly as we could.

Chad and I talked about it quite a bit that afternoon. Chad is perhaps more of a revolutionary than I am, and he argued the guy was just confronting the obvious injustice conferred by our backgrounds and trying to solve it in the simplest way.

But I saw no reason for Pak Haji to have so many children, since birth control is easily obtainable here. Furthermore, the evidence suggested he had more than one wife, and I'm totally opposed to polygamy. (There are all sorts of complex socio-economic arguments against it, but my objection is simple: men are allowed to have multiple spouses here, but women aren't. It's pure sexism!)

Of course, on the other hand, the person who's really at stake here is a child. We should probably pay the school fees, if only so that s/he ends up making better decisions than dear old dad!

There is no resolution to the Pak Haji debate. It's one you have every day as someone from a wealthy country who's living in a poor country. You have money and a lot of people don't. On one extreme, you get paralyzed by guilt and just throw money at everybody you see. On the other, you get hardened enough to walk past the lowliest street beggar without surrendering even a 100-rupiah coin (worth about a penny). My attitude is a sliding scale that changes a hundred times a day.

I suppose a partial answer is to give money to charity, so I'm renewing my effort to do so. I've been slow to choose one because even in the case of nonprofits, you have to watch out for corruption. I'd feel better about saying no to someone like Pak Haji if I knew we were giving to a good organization to help kids with nutrition and school fees. And maybe I'll donate to a population-control group, too!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Junk food of the week: Fermented milk soda

The complete home office: Computer? Check. Cellphone? Check.
Fermented milk soda? Check.

Mmmm! Fizzy sweetened fermented milk! It didn't sound good to me either, but now I'm hooked on the stuff. It's mostly sweet, with a hint of yogurty sourness, and like Yakult and yogurt, it has those useful little Lactobacillus digestive bacteria. This is the plain version, but it also comes in flavors like guava, orange and grape.

A quick Google search reveals all sorts of alleged benefits to fermented milk, such as lower blood pressure and reduced allergies. Nonetheless, I suspect this stuff has enough sugar to qualify for the 'junk food' designation.

Calpico is from Japan, where it's called Calpis. They changed the name for the export version so it wouldn't sound like "cow piss" (true story!).

Ten Kitties: Pregnant kitty

The pregnant kitty is one of the most common Jakarta cats. I always feel bad for them - it can't be easy supporting kittens in addition to supporting themselves.

We heard an interesting theory the other night that the short and kinked tails on so many cats here are due to maternal malnutrition. That sounded pretty plausible, but then I decided it was TOO plausible, in an urban-legendish way. And then I couldn't remember whether the places where the cats looked fatter - Bali, the Mentawais - had as many kinked tails or not.

That's as far as I got in my analysis, so until someone gets a federal grant to research this, I'll have to leave it there.

This is the tenth of our Ten Kitties, but somehow I have a feeling there will be more cat pics as we go along ...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Eel-y goodness

We went to see the friendly ladies at the warung on our street last night, to get some rice and some of their excellent chili sauce. They told us they were out of chicken, and we said that was no problem. What I didn't realize was that they were substituting something for the chicken ... something that gave me an unpleasant jolt when I opened the brown paper package at home. We're pretty sure it's eel.

I like eel sushi, but this was too much eel for me. Even Chad, who ate octopus-on-a-stick and chicken-hearts-on-a-stick in Shanghai, couldn't quite look these guys in the eye. I'm going to take them down to the alley behind the Post and put them on the trash pile, where they will no doubt find an appreciative audience of cats. I have to admit is was pretty affordable, though - 10,000 rupiah for two servings along with tofu, rice, and chili sauce.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sepuluh ribu rupiah

I was going to say the 10,000 (sepuluh ribu) rupiah note is my favorite denomination of Indonesian currency. Then in the process of tracking down this picture I discovered that the 10,000 used to have a picture of a woman on it, and they recently replaced her with a man. Humph!

Still, I like the funky purpleness of the 10,000, and with a value of just over a dollar, it's quite handy. A 10,000 will get you:

- Nearly 2 loaves of bread
- A taxi to my office
- 2 papayas
- 2 cans of Diet Coke from the Jakarta Post minimart
- A dinner of chicken, rice and vegetables at a warung
- An avocado juice (i.e. blenderized sweetened avocado - tasty)
- 4 rides on the #66 bus to Plaza Semanggi
- 5 rides to the market on the ancient three-wheeled vehicles on BenHil Street
- Several small bottles of Yakult sweetened fermented milk - good for the digestive system, which can always use a little TLC. I'm not sure what the headstands are about, though.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Give him fried rice

The US midterms have gotten pretty big coverage here; they were front page news in most papers, including the fancypants Kompas.

"Republican reign ends"

The blue-collar Warta Kota was less interested in the election and more interested in complaining about Bush's impending visit to Bogor, just outside Jakarta. The security is going to be pretty crazy: they're shutting down public minivan routes, blocking cellphone networks, and flooding the city with police. Most appallingly, they're digging up part of the Bogor Botanical Garden, one of Greater Jakarta's rare and precious parks, to install a helipad. There are estimates that the ten-hour visit will cost more than $100,000 per hour.

Below: "Give him Nasi Goreng, ask him to go home"

Warta Kota ran the cheeky remarks of former parliamentary head Amien Rais saying Indonesia shouldn't make such a big deal over Bush.

"Meet him respectfully at the airport, make some delicious nasi goreng (fried rice) and coffee, talk about whatever needs to be discussed, and ask him to go home," he says. "He's being snubbed in his own country."

The papers are portraying the vote as a referendum on Iraq, and people here are really happy the tide has turned. The constant refrain we get from taxi drivers is: "We like Americans, we just don't like Bush." I usually tell them I agree. I'd have to say the war has sometimes tested my love for my fellow citizens, though. I'm hoping this is a turning point.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Cue the snake-lady (finally)!

It's been a bit of an adventure getting video from the TV into the computer, but after buying a USB thingy and then a PCMCIA card, and spending a few hours cursing and grumbling, we got it to work at last! And I have a doozy of a scene for you from a sci-fi Islamo-soap opera.

So here's the setup: a demon snake-lady has been chasing and taunting a guy. He's just yelled something back at her along the lines of, "You're evil, and by the way you're mostly a snake!"

So as the scene opens she laughs her wicked laugh and says, "I really AM evil, and now I'm going to kill you!" She tries to strangle him, but is interrupted by the arrival of another demon.

In the end the demons will be vanquished by an Islamic holy man, one of the villagers you see gathering with torches, but I couldn't upload the whole clip because it was too big. I'll have to post one of those scenes later. Let me know if you have any technical issues.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Scavenger field

The scavengers used to live in handmade shelters on this dusty plot of land near the school, but they got kicked out, allegedly to make way for some kind of development. We run a lot of stories in the paper about poor people who get cleared off land. Sometimes they even have government permission to settle in an area, but then a few years later somebody turns up with a bulldozer and some dubious ownership papers and knocks all the houses down. Or burns them down. Or has thugs come and threaten people until they leave. Now there's just a handful of families still living here.

The lot is dotted with piles of garbage that people bring back to sort through. There's also a hut full of plastic bottles awaiting recycling. And a couple of goats.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A school for scavengers

A little while ago, Melinda, my friend from work, took a couple of us to visit a school for scavenger kids in East Jakarta. The students are the children of trash-pickers. They go to school in the morning and collect and sort through garbage in the afternoon.

It was near the end of Ramadhan, so there was a little frenzy of charitable giving going on - trucks and cars kept pulling up with boxes of instant noodles, rice, etc. Good deeds are worth more during the fasting month, so places like this reap the benefit. Orphanages are booked solid; everybody wants to take the kids out to McDonalds or KFC to break the fast in the evening.

Here's me and my coworker Jennifer with some of the teachers. The woman at the very front started the school five years ago. She herself used to sell ice from a bicycle-cart, so she isn't far removed from the kids in socioeconomic background.

The school supports itself by running a plastic processing facility, and the moms make a little money on the side by making and selling stuff like dish soap and greeting cards.

The kids were really cute. They were in class so we couldn't spend much time with them. But we showed one of them how to shake hands, and this unleashed a wave of hand-shaking throughout the student body. It was like a convention of tiny businesspeople. Which I guess, in a way, they are.

Junk food of the week: Chocolate cheese

As I've mentioned, chocolate and cheese are often combined here. Apparently this inspired somebody to invent chocolate cheese, or "chocolate flavoured slices" as the package calls them.

Chocolate cheese isn't really bad. It just isn't really good, either. It's kinda sticky and rubbery. It's more chocolatey than cheesy, but it's not what you want when you want chocolate.

Mostly, it seems like a product without a purpose. What are you supposed to do with it? The strawberry pictured as a "serving suggestion" doesn't help mcuh. All it suggests is that the people who make this stuff don't know what to use it for either.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Books: My Cousin is Gay

Some of you are curious about My Cousin is Gay, one of the teen-novels I read recently. So here's the scoop:

Our heroine is a high school girl named Eva. Her hunky cousin, Viggo, has lived with her family since his mom died in a car accident.

Eva is cute and a little dim. She's constantly engaged in a not-so-witty battle of wits with her enemy, Meri, who has hated her ever since they fought over a swing in elementary school.

Eva finds her cousin's diary and can't resist peeking. In it he reveals that he's gay. Obviously this is sensitive information which, if it got out, would have an enormous impact on his life. So what does Eva do? She doodles a picture of her cousin hugging another man and writes his name and the word "gay" on it. Then she leaves it at school where, of course, Meri finds it.

Meri comes up with this great idea to blackmail Eva into setting her up with Viggo. All Viggo needs is a woman to "turn him straight," and Meri's sure she can do it. Many hijinks ensue, including a date to Pizza Hut. It all comes down to a final confrontation before the high school dance, where we discover that (spoiler alert here) ... Viggo is not gay.


Nope, he's not gay. He's gotten a role as a gay kid in a movie, and he's keeping a fake diary to try and understand what his character is going through.

Yeah, I know. It's the worst surprise ending since Who Shot JR turned out to be a dream. It robs the characters of any chance for real development.

True, Eva does some research and gives a little speech to her best friend about how Gay People Deserve Respect and Acceptance. But I winced when she blurted out to Viggo, in the final pages, "I'm so glad you're not gay!"

I wonder why the author made that choice. Was she afraid the book would get too heavy if he really was gay? Was she worried about a backlash? Most of the cultural oppression going on here at the moment is aimed at women, but gays have come in for their share too. Nobody likes to wake up and find a bunch of fundamentalist yahoos staging a demo around their mailbox.

Still, I hope if a gay kid somewhere in Indonesia is looking for support and inspiration, s/he finds a book that offers a little more.

Second photo: the flyleaf from My Cousin is Gay

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Ten Kitties: Startled

Yep, time for another cat -- number nine, if I'm not mistaken. This one was about to jump up onto the notched wall, which signifies a garbage bin. Unfortunately those are the easiest places to find cats in Jakarta.

Marketplaces and outdoor cafes and warungs are also good. Bugils, a famous expat bar near our neighborhood, has an outdoor patio populated by a handful of well-fed cats who keep everybody entertained. They'll sit on an empty chair at your table with an expression that says, "Why don't we just order a few things to share?"

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Up close and far away

Merapi is kind of a lumpy mountain with a gentle run-up and a steep cone, so even if you're standing on its slopes you feel like the volcano is far away. After the story, we hiked up to this lookout point to look at the cone. You can't see the lava during the day, but the low trail of smoke on the right side of the cone marks a trail of the hot stuff snaking its way down.

Everything went black

Isa gave us a pretty amazing description of being at this spot during an eruption: how everything went black for an hour, and he could smell smoke and gases and hear the forest burning, and he could only crouch there and hope the fire wouldn't surround him and cut off his escape route.

We found his proclaimed ability to predict eruptions dubious, though.

We were sleepy and hungry and full of volcano, so we were happy to make our way down through a really lovely evergreen forest to the hostel, where pancakes and coffee were waiting.