Monday, December 31, 2007


There aren't that many bicycles in Jakarta so I was glad to see some in Chinatown.

Our friend Drew told us a sad story about bicycles. He decided to vacation in this one town in Lombok (an island kind of like Bali but with less people) because he had read that they had a lot of mountain bikes you could rent. When he arrived he looked everywhere and couldn't find a single mountain bike. Finally he asked why. The answer came back: "Everyone had them until last year. Then you started being able to buy motorbikes with just a $50 down payment. So everybody sold their mountain bikes and bought motorbikes."

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Chinatown kitties

Glodok is full of cats; especially the more food-intensive areas, which were the focus of our recent trip. I'm not sure whether this mother cat intended to share her find with her kitten or not. You can never tell, with cats.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Junk food of the week: Kue Keranjang

Kue Keranjang (KWEH krrAHNjahng) is a Chinese New Year's cake, known as nian gao in Mandarin (you're on your own with Chinese pronunciations). It looked delicious sitting in tidy rows in a little market in Glodok, Jakarta's Chinatown.

What I didn't foresee was the problem of getting it out of its plastic wrap. Nian gao is made mostly of glutinous rice flour and sugar, steamed into an unbelievably dense and sticky glob. If I pulled with all my strength I could budge the plastic, but I couldn't pull it off. I tried slicing through it, but the cake itself proved impenetrable.

Finally Chad and our friend Mike managed to wrestle some of the nian gao free from the wrapper, and we tossed it in a pan and fried it as recommended. It was good, in a sort of toffee-ish way, but I couldn't help feeling we'd gotten something wrong. Most people don't need biceps of steel just to eat their New Year's cake, do they?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Lego imitates life

Jakarta's glossy shopping malls go out all out with their Christmas displays. Senayan City's takes the form of a gigantic Lego metropolis, with skyscrapers, a helipad, parks, and a working monorail (the latter two signaling that this is not meant to be a literal Jakarta).

The fascinating but somewhat appalling part is the Lego plane crash, complete with rescue boats pulling survivors from the water. This, almost exactly a year after an Adam Air plane went down in the sea off Sulawesi, killing everyone on board.

Is it a joke? A political commentary? A memorial? Can it be all three? Whatever the context, the plane crash draws the biggest crowds.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Junk food of the week: Lacy pancakes

We bought one of these on the street in Jakarta's Chinatown, Glodok. They're lacy pancakes that are rolled up, presumably to make them easier to carry. I asked the guy what they were called but I forgot the name about three seconds later.

I would assume they harken back to the Dutch. They're cooked on this pretty cast-iron form.

Unfortunately, the pan is kind of the most exciting thing about them. They're crispy, thin, and somewhat sweet -- perfectly edible, but nothing I'll dream about when we're back in the States someday and I'm longing for Indonesian food.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Four on a motorbike

Motorbikes are family vehicles in Jakarta. Three on a motorbike (two adults and a child) is common. Four is a bit more unusual. I've only seen five a handful of times.

There are more motorbikes than cars on the road in Jakarta, and the number is growing by leaps and bounds. That's partly because traffic rules, to the extent that they exist, are generally viewed as optional for bikes, so the drivers weave in and out of lanes and up onto the sidewalks to get around the city's notorious traffic jams.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The goatification of Jakarta

Yep, it's that time of year again -- Idul Adha, the day of sacrifice. Everybody who can afford it is supposed to buy a goat or cow, slaughter it, give some of the meat to the poor and enjoy the rest with friends and family.

The week before Idul Adha, Jakarta is filled with barnyard-y sights and smells. Goats are tied to trees by the side of the road or corralled in temporary pens on the sidewalks. Yesterday I saw someone walking a cow down the street, and later on, two water buffaloes (I'm pretty sure they were water buffaloes) being led across the train tracks.

It's nice having all these animals around; it softens the intense urban-ness of Jakarta. The fun ends today, though ... especially for them.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


I'm back at the Jakarta Post for a few days, filling in on the check desk. It's weird, because I haven't worked there since April or so, and I've forgotten the little idiosyncracies of JP punctuation, as well as how the software works and everything.

On the plus side, it's nice to catch up with friends there, and go back to some of my favorite street food spots. There's a woman who runs a tasty gado-gado place just down the street from the office. Gado-gado means hodgepodge, and that's what it is: a pile of vegetables, usually including water spinach or something similar, mung bean sprouts, green beans, potatoes, cucumbers, tofu, and hard-boiled eggs, all covered in a peanut sauce of variable spiciness. On the side are some crumbly, slightly bitter, addictive chips made from a kind of local nut. Tasty!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Stobrox's Cat Motor

That's the end of my Kalimantan posts, because it's the end of my pictures. The Tane Olen forest is beautiful, and I'm hoping we get back there someday. They're building four simple huts and improving their hiking trails in hopes of attracting hut-to-hut trekkers. We'd like to go back and hike the whole thing when they're done.

Anyway ... back to Jakarta, for the moment.

The word "cat " is troublesome for English speakers because you can't help reading it as ... well, cat. But in Indonesian it's pronounced "chaht" and means "paint." So this is a motorcycle painting establishment.

People find the "Cat Oven" signs even more disturbing. Those are not places that serve Baked Fluffy ... they're giant ovens for baking paint onto cars.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Running rapids in reverse

The last leg of our trip took us even farther upriver, to the protected forest reserve of Tane Olen. The water is very shallow above Setulang so we had to use two light canoes instead of one big one.

The boats have longtail outboard motors that stick straight out in back. Even so, the pilots had to jump out several times to drag us over the rocky bottom.

This did not at all dampen their enthusiasm for fishing. They stopped several times at eddies along the way to cast nets. One guy dived repeatedly with a little spear-gun. At one especially productive spot, he caught a few fish with his bare hands.

We spent the night at a hut in the forest. They cooked up the fish Dayak-style, roasted inside a length of bamboo complete with their stomach contents and then mashed into a green, soupy liquid. The fish eat only vegetation that grows on the river rocks, so they tasted bitter but herby. On the side were some tiny, fierce chili peppers, ground up with salt. Based on that experience, plus a wild-pig stew we ate later featuring big chunks of pig fat, I concluded Dayak food is not for the faint of heart.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The big boat

We arrived in Setulang on a Saturday, and a bunch of the men were working on a boat for next year's district-wide race. The boats are carved out of a single log, and they're long enough to carry up to 50 people

A lot of the guys wore these traditional rattan hats, which are supposed to be strong enough to protect your head from knife wounds on the battlefield. "People used to be bad," one boatmaker told me. "They fought all the time. Now you can come visit our village, and nobody tries to kill you."

The most common tool looked like a tiny hoe. People use it to chop directly toward their knees, which made my inner Girl Scout nervous. But in a culture that historically relies on blowpipes, machetes and palmknives, these guys are pretty good with a sharp instrument.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Happy dog

I still have a few Kalimantan pictures that I uploaded before my computer got stolen. I'm really glad this one from Setulang was among them. I didn't even notice the dog until I sifted through the photos in Jakarta.

I like to think s/he'd been waiting all day for those kids to get home from school.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Laptops, locks, and loss

The media tent

On Day One of the climate conference I was kind of figuring everything out -- where to work, how to upload sound, etc. So on Day Two I came in at full speed, hoping to file two stories. Chad was arriving later that day, so I had our cubicle to myself. I dumped my stuff, ran off to a press conference, came back forty minutes later, and plugged my tape deck into --

My computer was gone.

It must be here, I thought. But in the same instant I was certain: it's been stolen.

And it became clear over the next few hours that it had. I'd closed the door to the cubicle, but I hadn't locked it, and someone had grabbed my computer.

I didn't just lose the laptop, either. I lost a lot of our Kalimantan photos and tape. I'd tried to back up my new Mac before the conference, but my external hard drive was being cantankerous so I figured I'd do it when I got back.

I was in a fog all day. I managed to file a story, but in the process, I lost the key to the cubicle, which of course I was now locking religiously. I got snarled at by the facilities people, who said "We told you not to lose the key, we told you to make a copy, we told you this was the only one!"

"If they think several dozen reporters are going to be here for two weeks and never lose a key, they're sadly mistaken," I said to Chad, and I confess I felt a certain evil satisfaction when I heard somebody else had lost theirs.

I felt no satisfaction, though, when more stories of laptop thefts emerged. Apparently at least half a dozen were taken. Security was very tight at the conference; there were endless checkpoints, searches, x-ray machines, and uniformed guards with guns that looked real. But anti-terrorism is not the same as anti-theft, and I think someone failed to do their anti-theft homework on this one.

Security warnings went up a week later

Luckily for me, Chad was his usual generous self and never blamed me for the loss. Now we're back in Jakarta, regrouping. It's good to be home. Luckily we have some work to dive into. When you're freelancing, work is the solution to every problem.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lovely little Setulang

I uploaded a bunch of pictures from Kalimantan before I left, so I'll keep blogging in Bali when I have the time and energy ...

We hung out in Malinau for a day or so, gathering some basic tape. Then we headed upriver again, to much smaller town called Setulang, population 900-something.

We fell for Setulang right away. The whole town is organized around a big field, which is the place for older kids to play soccer, younger kids to run around like crazy, and dogs to romp ... sometimes all at the same time.

The big building at the edge of the field is a longhouse, the traditional living space of Dayak tribespeople before they got moved out of the deep jungle and "civilized" under the Soeharto administration. Everyone used to live in a series of rooms all along the edge of the building, which, personally, sounds like fun. Nowadays people generally build longhouses just as meeting spaces. They've gotten used to having their own homes.

This longhouse was built just a few years ago and carved by people in the village.

Everyone still uses boats to get around. There are several motorbikes in town, but essentially no cars. The air is clean and you can stroll around at length, which was a luxury we indulged in every day while we were there.

Another advantage of small-town Kalimantan is that most people speak Indonesian as a second language. They're fluent, but they enunciate more clearly and speak more slowly than Jakartans, and they don't throw in a lot of slang. I felt so fluent! Especially after speaking Indonesian all day for a few days.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Thing That Ate Bali

Big lizard statue, Ubud, Bali

So we're heading down to the UN global warming conference ... or perhaps the global unwarming conference, if it's successful ... if everyone even agrees on what "success" means.

I'm going with some trepidation, because I can't imagination cramming all those people into the southern tip of Bali without creating a massive logistical headache. Plus we can't afford the fancy hotels near the actual conference center, so we're going to have to come in from outside the area every morning. That is not a happy prospect.

Oh well ... since I'm expecting the worst, maybe it won't be too bad. After that we're coming back to Jakarta to chill out for the rest of December. Woohoo! Hanging around at home is sounding pretty good right now.


Malinau has to be one of the chicken-soup capitals of the world. We seemed to end up having it everywhere we went.

It became our regular breakfast at a place down the street, which served it up with plenty of hard-boiled eggs and rice vermicelli, plus limes, chili sauce, and a big bowl of rice on the side. Soup for breakfast takes some getting used to, but all that salty liquid seems like a pretty good idea if you're going to be out sweating in the hot sun all day.

And, most important, they had good kopi susu.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Main Street flies flat and straight through the heart of Malinau, lined with food stalls, snack shops, drugstores, and more places selling handbags than it seems like the town could possibly support. The main form of mass transit is public minivans, which run up and down all day long.

I disproved my own theory about the handbag stores by stopping to get a bag for my recording kit. This little kid kept staring hypnotically at me. Then he tried to take my camera. That's his mom laughing hysterically in the background.

Most of the side streets are narrow alleys that lead down to the river. For some reason the market is stuffed into one of these alleys. It's a constant people-jam in there. I was interviewing a dried-fish seller when she startled me by grabbing my arm and yelling "cart! cart!" That was my cue to jump up on a little curb that runs the length of the alley, so a boy pushing a cart of coconuts could squeeze through.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Window shopping

To get to Malinau, which was our base of operations in East Kalimantan, you fly to Tarakan and then catch a ferry up the Malinau River for three hours.

Window stickers to the contrary, the Malinau Express is not air-conditioned. Once it's zipping along, though, a breeze comes through and makes the cabin relatively comfortable.

There's only one quick stop along the way. There's no time to get out of the boat, but young guys line the dock to sell nasi bungkus (packaged meals complete with rice, vegetables and meat/seafood), or fruit or chips, through the windows.

We bought a big bag of snakefruit. It was mighty tasty.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Along came a spider ... and a lizard

We're back from Kalimantan with a heap of toxic-smelling laundry and a heap of tape to translate!

This lovely creature was hanging out at the hut where we stayed in the Tane Olen forest in Setulang, four to six hours upstream from Tarakan (depending on how well the river is flowing). Tane Olen is a really beautiful piece of rainforest that's been protected by the village that owns it. They've built one hut and plan to build three more, with the hope of becoming an adventure destination. We want to go back and do the complete circuit when it's ready.

This little spotted guy decided to trek across my unused water glass.

Friday, November 23, 2007


In my volcano reverie, I forgot to mention we were going to Kalimanta aka Borneo for 10 days ... hence the lack of posts lately. It's been a great trip; I'll update tomorrow when we get back to Jakarta.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Volcano videos

Here's lava flying out of the crater just before dawn. You have to photograph lava while the sky is still somewhat dark -- you can't see it in full light. The video is kinda shaky because we were on a boat.

During the day, you get nice billows of smoke. You can hear the boom of the explosion here. We could feel the vibrations and hear rocks and debris showering down on the mountain. At one point we got hit with some volcanic ash, which was a little nasty.

It was the coolest natural phenomenon I've ever seen. I'm still kind of giddy.

Friday, November 09, 2007


The aquarium in Singapore has one of those cool walk-through tanks where you can get friendly with sharks.

But the best part was Gracie, the dugong. Dugongs are big underwater mammals like manatees. Supposedly they're the inspiration for the mermaid myth, but they don't look like a cross between a beautiful woman and a fish to me -- they look more like the front end of a pig welded to the back end of a whale. Here's a picture I swiped from the Australian Humane Society.

We kept getting on and off the moving sidewalk so we could ride by the dugong again. There was something captivating about her face, with its squashed nose, and the way her big bulbous body moved so gracefully through the water. Finally one of the keepers put a mat of seagrass in the tank. The dugong raced over and, before devouring it, did this funny cat-like thing of rubbing her face in it ecstatically. You could see the cartoon bubble over her head: Food! I love you, food!

Dugongs are endangered, of course. Sigh. We're going snorkeling this weekend, and it would be really cool to see one.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tank of jelly

Last time we went to Singapore, we checked out the aquarium, which was small but cool. The jellyfish were especially pretty.

Monday, November 05, 2007

More ghosts

John, our neighbor on the third floor, came up with this rather awesome pocong (POH-chong) costume for a Halloween party. He was wearing some kind of traditional wooden mask but I don't think that part lasted long, because he could only see out the mouth.

Pocongs are wrapped in death shrouds, so they have a big bow on top of their heads. Their feet are bound so they have to hop everywhere, which undercuts the scariness for me but apparently not for people who've grown up with pocong stories.

According to wikipedia, pocongs arise from the belief that souls remain on the earth for 40 days after death. Some souls get trapped in their shrouds, so after the forty days they start hopping around looking for somebody to untie them. I'm guessing they have a hard time finding volunteers.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Junk food of the week: Romeo and Juliet

There is definitely a campaign underway in Indonesia to link chocolate and romance. First, there's a whole line of ice creams called things like "Choculuv" and "Tira-Miss-You," accompanied by TV ads showing people Meeting Cute with the help of ice cream.

A 2006 movie called "Brownies" used the baked treats as a metaphor for love. And there are also Romeo and Juliet candy bars.

The Juliet bar is a fairly typical combo of light, crunchy wafer and layers of caramel, similar to the vaunted Beng-Beng. I detected a frightening hint of marshmallow flavor but couldn't see any actual marshmallow. (I feel marshmallow should be clearly labeled on all foods, preferably next to a skull-and-crossbones.)

I was nice and gave Romeo to Chad, but as far as I could tell it was identical. What message does that send about love, I wonder?

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Ghosts of Carbohydrates Past

Halloween is mostly a do-it-yourself affair in Jakarta. Luckily for us, there are plenty of haunted houses to choose from. Last year we went to the famous House in Pondok Indah, where a fried rice seller is supposed to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. This time we decided to find the Potato House, where a small child allegedly tumbled into a pot of boiling potatoes. (I wonder if these stories are just elaborate warnings against eating too many carbohydrates? If so, they are falling on deaf ears in Jakarta.)

When the ghost is present, you're supposed to be able to smell boiled potatoes, and hear a child crying.

We planned to go in late afternoon but were delayed by a thunderstorm, so we arrived on the cusp of the evening. We had a street name, but no house number. As soon as we started asking around, though, nearly everybody knew right away what we were talking about.

This guy, who has a kiosk on a nearby corner, seemed reluctant to tell me the story but confirmed the broad outlines when I told it to him. While I was talking to him, Chad was talking to the kiosk owner next to him, who said he'd heard the story but didn't believe in ghosts.

Finally we hit the jackpot. A local guy said he not only believed the story, but he had seen the ghost. And it wasn't just one ghost, it was several. He pointed to the area where they appear.

"You can see them around 1 a.m.," he said, "especially on Fridays. But you have to have a sixth sense. I'm not afaid; I'm used to seeing them."

The ghosts are from times past, he said, not the contemporary era. They are men, women and children. "They don't shout or speak; they don't approach me; they don't bother me." We were welcome to come back and look for them, he added, but "if you get scared, don't run." We assured him we were not the sort of people to do that.

By then it was almost too dark for pictures, but I eked out this last one with my cellphone. I like the way it came out, with its grainy texture and weirdly red fence. It makes the place look a lot creepier than it actually was. When we go back to see the ghosts, I'm sure it will look creepier still. But don't worry - we won't run.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Long-distance Sox

Luckily, even though we're halfway around the world, we were still able to watch the baseball playoffs on ESPN Asia. The games aired live at 7:30 a.m. It's strange drinking coffee instead of beer while watching Curt Schilling peer in for the sign, but as long as they're winning, it doesn't matter.

Picture swiped from Howie and Haviva's blog

We've acquired some genuine Bostonian friends (who also make a mean apple pancake) to watch with, and every game also prompted a blitz of e-mails, calls, chats and text-messages to fellow fans in distant places.

This picture arrived via cell phone from some lucky friends in the crowd at Fenway during Game 6 of the Cleveland series.

Apparently, according to the US media, the Red Sox are now the Yankees and therefore everybody should hate them. But I don't buy it. What's to hate about Jacoby Ellsbury, who came up through the farm system, got thrown into the playoffs at the last second, and played like a man on fire? What's so bad about diminutive Dustin Pedroia, who said he was so thrilled to hit a home run he couldn't remember running around the bases? What's not to like about Schilling? Well, OK, forget about Schilling. But the Yankees are still obnoxious - if you need proof, check out Hank Steinbrenner saying they're the only team worth playing for - and the Sox are still the Sox, and life is good.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Citizen Kane of gecko movies

We looked forward to Cicak Man for months. I mean, a Malaysian movie about a superhero who is half-man and half-cickak (CHEE-chahk - the little geckoes that scamper around on every wall in Indonesia) - What's not to love?

We were not disappointed. It was cheezy and over-the-top and totally funny. I loved the twin villains named Ginger 1 and Ginger 2 with the long ginger-colored hair and ginger-colored outfits.

Best line:

Ginger 2, ushering a young woman into his house: Are you thirsty?
Woman: No.
G2 (insistently): Are you thirsty?
Woman (nervous): Um, yes.
G2: Then swallow your own spit!

Mystifyingly, Cicak Man seemed to get mostly bad reviews in Malaysia. But don't worry, if we find it here on DVD with English subtitles, I'm going to send all of you copies.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Parental annoyance devices

Perhaps you've been wondering: what kind of temporary tattoos can Jakarta teenagers buy in packs of gum?

Rather tame ones, I think. They're pretty, and a bit Goth, but they don't seem like they would induce rage in most parents, which is what most teenagers are looking for. These are probably aimed at the youngsters, though. I bet you can get more provocative stuff on the street.