Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Red Square

Last weekend we checked out a swanky Russian-themed bar near our neighborhood, called Red Square. It didn't look much like the Russia where I studied in the 80's, but it was a lot nicer, so I didn't mind. When I was in Russia it smelled like fish heads, and everything you could buy, from soap to bread, was brown and box-shaped. In this bar the tables and the walls were made of light panels that keep changing colors, and the air was full of cigarettes (ugh) and perfume.

Red Square sells lots of vodka drinks with things like fresh passionfruit or a whole lychee in them. Unfortunately they suffered from the problem of nearly all mixed drinks in Indonesia: they were not strong enough. It's nearly impossible to get a decent mixed drink here. Perhaps because this just isn't a drinking country, or because alcohol is so expensive. Red Square offers an interesting solution: they'll sell you whole bottles of liquor, and you can mix your own.

There was a good crowd of trendy young Indonesians. I was interested to see that there were more male fashion victims than female. Some of the guys had the kind of haircuts you see on popular TV shows here, with the hair all sticking out in one direction or another as if they slept on it funny. The women just wore long hair and strappy tank tops. They knew they were cool.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fighting chaos with chaos

Home smoggy home: why Jakarta needs mass transit in the first place

Jakarta's various mass transit projects are supposed to tame the craziness on the streets, but sometimes the projects themselves appear just as chaotic.

This weekend the city opened four new busway lines. But instead of the full fleet of 216 buses, there will only be 32 for at least the first month, because the buses haven't been finished yet. And there's no electronic ticketing system, because the bidding process for that hasn't been finished yet.

If you want to complain, you'll have to wait, because there's no management company for the four lines; the tender for that isn't done yet either.

You'd almost think the governor is trying to kill this thing. But the busway is his pet project, one he's gone out on a limb for, so that hardly seems possible.

I don't get why they're bidding out the ticketing and management at this stage anyway. There are three lines open already; ultimately there are supposed to be 15. Wouldn't you want the same management and ticketing system for the whole thing?

Arguably, you could keep the system on its toes and keep getting the best deal by bidding out each phase. On the other hand, the bidding process is one of the biggest opportunities for corruption. Any thoughts from more seasoned Jakarta observers?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Further adventures in beaniness

Since my post about green bean shake was such a hit, especially with Michele, here's a far stranger thing I consumed the other day in a mall. It was called Rice Ball Bean Curd, and it consisted of sweet soy milk, chunks of tofu, and some unbelievably sticky-chewy rice balls. One ball was filled with sweet red bean paste, another with sweet black paste (I'm not sure what that was made of, but probably beans), and a third with peanut butter.

I have to say, even for a bean-loving person such as myself, this was a little beany. And the portion was quite huge. I think in the case of Rice Ball Bean Curd, less is more. I wouldn't rule out having it again, though.

This doesn't seem at all Indonesian, by the way. An internet search suggests Taiwan as the inventor, or perpetrator (depending on your feelings about soy).

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Palmerah Market: Fancy fruit

These are the fruit stands inside the market gate, which are a little more elaborate than the ones outside. They're semi-permanent structures with lighting, and since they have roofs they can hang up a lot of their fruit, which gives them kind of a festive look.

In the first stall you can see various kinds of oranges. There's starfruit on the far left, and really enormous grapes in the center. In the front of that first stall are snakefruit, which I'll talk more about later. Further down the row, the funny-shaped white things hanging up in the second stall are apples in protective slipcovers. Chad says the watermelons are good; I'm not a big watermelon fan.

One thing I've never figured out is, do the fancy stalls charge more than the less elaborate stalls outside the gate? I suspect not, because all prices are subject to bargaining, and with so much fruit for sale the competition must be pretty fierce.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Barack and the terror factory

Students at a Jakarta madrassa
photo: Chad Bouchard

The other day we watched the CNN story debunking the rumor about American presidential candidate Barack Obama attending a madrassa in Jakarta as a child. It's great that CNN, unlike Fox, actually took the trouble to investigate the claim. But parts of the story left us shaking our heads in wonder.

First of all, Wolf Blitzer seemed a little overly impressed that the reporter got "inside Indonesia," as if this involved hiding in the cargo hold of a papaya boat or hacking his way through the jungle. Major airlines fly here. Really, they do.

Then when the reporter got to the school, he noted approvingly that the teachers wore Western clothes. Almost like ... normal people!

Third, and most important, the reporter never bothered to mention that Indonesian madrassas are not terrorist factories. They're just Muslim schools. A small percentage of Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) teach hardline beliefs and are allegedly used for recruitment by militant organizations. There are concerns about the quality of education at some pesantrens and madrassas. Others are highly regarded. But overall, Islamic schools in Indonesia are just schools -- and not the kind that preach hatred or teach students to cook up explosives in their basements.

This raises the question: So what if Obama had gone to a madrassa for a while? Would it kill us to have a president who knows a little about Islam? On the contrary, the evidence suggests we're more likely to get killed by a president who doesn't know much about Islam.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cartoon crimes

Given a choice of newspapers, I always buy the Warta Kota tabloid, because I'm fascinated by its creepy diagrams of crimes.

The paper showcases one crime in color on its front page, and another in black and white on page 2. If there aren't enough good ones, they'll settle for traffic accidents (there's never a shortage of traffic accidents).

This one is about a woman who went missing and was later found dead, tied up and with her clothes removed. Pardon the graphic nature of the images, but it's the raw ones that are the saddest and strangest. This one is actually relatively tame; cartoon stabbings and beatings are commonplace.

There's something haunting about the faceless people.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Palmerah Market: an introduction

I've been taking a lot of pictures at the Palmerah marketplace lately. I'll be posting them gradually, and I figured I'd have some geeky fun first and draw a map to give you a sense of how the whole place is laid out. You can click on the map for a bigger version.


This seems to be a pretty typical Indonesian market design: a sort of hulking concrete building with a maze of little stores inside, and a plaza full of stalls outside.

Inside the building are durable goods like housewares, jewelry and clothes. Produce stays outside. On the second floor of this particular market is a Ramayana department store, your one-stop source for blaring music, junk food and cheap t-shirts.

Here's the front, taken from where the red X is above. You can see some humble fruit stands in the far-right corner.

And here's a picture of the road, taken from the humble fruit stands. This road seriously has more public minivans (mikrolet) than any other place I know in Jakarta. Every minivan route for miles around must come through here. They always create a huge smoggy traffic jam. You can see some fuzzy red rambutans in the corner. More on those later.

Monday, January 22, 2007


The busway is Jakarta's first stab at a public mass transit system. We only use it for long trips, but when you have to get across town it's a pretty good option -- cheaper and faster than a taxi.

I had never heard of a busway before I came here. Apparently they borrowed the idea from Bogota, Colombia. Basically, it's a bus system with its own lanes.

In the photo above, we're looking straight ahead from a bus down a blissfully empty lane, and the traffic is backed up in the two lanes to the left.

The crucial element is the little concrete barrier running down the left side of the bus lane. Some sections of the busway don't have that, so other drivers ignore the rules and weave in and out of the bus lane, and then the whole advantage is lost.

The busway has dedicated stations with turnstiles; you can't just flag down a bus. In that sense it's more like a subway or light rail system.

They're building busways all over Jakarta now, which makes the traffic and pollution even worse, plus they're tearing down trees along the roads. Hopefully it'll be worth it in the end.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Junk food of the week: Fanta Susu

How do you make a Fanta strawberry soda perfect? Yes! Just add sugar! or condensed milk, to be precise.

When mixed up, Fanta Susu becomes bright pink, almost like Pepto Bismol. The condensed milk doesn't actually make the soda a lot sweeter, but it definitely gives it a heavier, richer body. I find it a little over the top, but I'm not a big fan of strawberry soda anyway. I do like Fanta Susu's cousin, Soda Susu (plain sparkling water with condensed milk).

Fanta Susu is sometimes known as Soda Gembira, or Happy Soda. Perhaps more accurately "happy for about an hour, until you crash" soda.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

But they're guaranteed to raise a smile

I'm putting this out for a colleague in the Association of Independents in Radio. He's doing a special for the 40th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he's looking for input. In his words:

I'm asking for short essays - 2 minutes or less - from anyone and everyone who thinks they have something thoughtful or heartfelt and (if possible) new or unusual to say about Sgt. Pepper. How they remember it, how they hear it today, songs they really loved, songs they never really liked, what was overrated, what was somehow underappreciated.

Comments from any continent are welcome. His address is paul at paulingles dot com. I imagine there are some interesting Indonesian perspectives out there, given Soekarno's 1965 call to "wage a campaign against Beatles music, cheap literature and crazy dances" (three things well worth fighting for, in my book). And given the Beatles' influence on Indo pop/rock.

Soekarno: not a Fab Four fan
Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shampoo for jilbab-ers

The shampoo companies must have worried over the rising popularity of the jilbab, or Islamic headscarf. Then they hit on the solution: shampoo for the headscarf crowd!

The interesting thing is that the woman with the rumply jilbab on the back seems to aspire to be like the woman with the sleek, two-toned one. Can a shampoo really do that for you?

The large lettering says: "Are sweat and the heat of the sun making your headscarfed hair soggy? Don't worry." Then it goes on to imply that if you don't use this shampoo, you could get dandruff or (yikes!) your hair could fall out.

Jilbaber is a word, by the way, or at least a slang one. Check out the "pure" sign below, for a Yogyakarta boutique:

Monday, January 15, 2007

Mother and child

I was taking pictures at Palmerah market, near work, and this woman wanted me to get one of her baby. Behind them is a cart selling pempek, or fishcakes, and on the other side are the inevitable motorbikes.

Lots of women use these cloth slings to carry small children. It doesn't look that secure - the fabric isn't even tied, just tucked in, and the older kids really squirm around in them - but I've never seen a child fall.

It's funny how often people ask you to take their picture. I'm not sure what benefit they see in it. It certainly makes life easier for me! - I don't like photographing people who don't want to be photographed. You have to do some scheming to catch people when they're not posing, though.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Green bean shake: a love story

I have a strange passion for mung bean drinks dating back to the year I lived in a Vietnamese neighborhood in Boston. A restaurant I lived near made something called Green Bean Shake, which as far as I could tell was mung beans, ice, and something rich like condensed milk or coconut milk, whirled in a blender. Green bean shake is cold, rich, sweet but not too sweet, with a pleasantly beany taste. The special thing about it is its slightly dusty texture, as if it had been sitting behind the couch for a month or two.

As some of you know, because I've already bored you to tears with my soliloquies on this, I've been searching for green bean shakes ever since I left Boston. In Jakarta I've found something similar: green bean drink, which is like soy milk made out of mung beans. You can buy it at Carrefour. It almost makes up for Carrefour's hellish qualities. If I were patient enough to carry it home, I could probably put it in a blender with ice and other things and come up with the proper shake. But I'm never that patient.

Friday, January 12, 2007


It's surprising it doesn't happen more often: a bajaj and a box truck both tried to negotiate the same narrow corner behind Palmerah Market, and each was blocking the other. The truck eventually backed down, which was also surprising -- usually size trumps all other considerations on Jakarta roadways.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The List

Before we left Bloomington, I made a list of things I thought I might miss. Now that we've been here a while, and a new year is beginning, I figure it's time to see how strong my powers of prediction were. I will award hankies on a scale of one to ten to represent how fervently I wail for each item.

I was going to make a little hanky icon out of the image above, called Sketch of Queen Victoria's Handkerchief, which I found on the British Library website, but A: you lose the impact if you shrink it down to icon size and B: Blogger was being a big pain about it.

So here's my list from March, and my ratings of how much I actually miss each one. Friends and family are off it, of course, because you are in a totally different category of missing.

1. Drinking out of the faucet: 3 hankies. While I love sticking my head under the faucet, I can live without it. What I do really miss is potable tap water. We have to keep resupplying ourselves with big bottles of drinking water for the dispenser, and it always runs out at a bad time.

2. Eavesdropping: 2 hankies. Comprehension is still a challenge, but I can make out enough Indonesian to keep me interested.

3. Blue cheese pizza from Rockits in Bloomington: 7 hankies. We can get pizza here, but it tends to be all boutique-y, with stuff like sesame seeds, cilantro and worst of all, tuna on it. I long for a good working-class blue cheese pizza.

Local pizza chain, Papa Ron's.

4. Snow: 10 hankies. Ouch.

5. Oatmeal: 0 hankies. I still eat oatmeal every morning. The quick-cooking kind is readily available, and there's no need to cook it. Who wants a hot breakfast when it's 90 degrees out? Just pour on some milk and you're set.

6. Being able to buy something in a drugstore without a lot of pointing, pantomiming, and mispronouncing things out of the phrasebook: 1 hanky. It's pretty rare for us to have major difficulties in a store these days.

7. The Monroe County Public Library: 3 hankies. Indonesian teen novels are still keeping me pretty well entertained.

So there you have it! As I said in my original post, you may know what you love, but you don't know what you're going to miss. Sometime I'll draw up a list of what we DO miss, and I can tell you what's going to be at the top: a fast internet connection!!!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Plane untruths

It looks like they may have found the wreckage of the Adam Air plane that disappeared last week, which would give the poor families of the victims some overdue clarity. First the government mistakenly reported that the crash site, and some survivors, had been found, which was an appalling blunder. And since then, the tabloids have been running wild with the speculations of psychics and analysts.

It's not clear how the opinions of the newspaper psychics jibe with those of the ones actually hired by the government.

Here, last Thursday's Pos Kota (City Post) features a psychic front and center with Mama Lauren: Adam Air in Lake Tempe (a lake in South Sulawesi). Upper left: Adam Air thought to have been sabotaged -- Plane exploded in air. Then a little editorializing in the blue headline: Minister of Transportation knows no shame - must resign to pay for his sins (i.e. the latest series of transportation disasters). None of which quite manages to displace the story on the upper right about a celebrity marrying a member of parliament.

Even the more sober coverage is sometimes odd. Metro TV, the big news station, has been running the song Leavin' on a Jet Plane under lists of victims' names, which is a tad disconcerting.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Instant noodle nation

Indonesia is the second most ramen-eating country in the world, behind South Korea. Which I find hard to believe, because I can't imagine a more ramen-saturated country. Every supermarket in Jakarta devotes an aisle to a dizzying array of instant noodle brands and flavors. Walk down any good-sized street and you'll see packets for sale, as well as warungs eager to cook you up a bowl. Typically they add a hard-poached egg and a few leaves of spinach-like greens to make a more substantial meal.

Mie rebus (boiled noodles) at a warung in Puncak : classic breakfast of taxi drivers, students, and other people in a hurry

Indonesians love noodles for the same reason American students do: they're wicked cheap. The price of rice has gone up 30% in the last year for a variety of reasons I won't bore you with. The price of noodles has remained stable at 5 to 10 cents a package.

Instant noodles are like an invasive plant: they drive out native staples. Here they supplant rice; in Mexico they're replacing tortillas. This gives nutritionists migraines because ramen is about as bad as it gets: it's full of starch, calories, fat and not much else, leaving a double-whammy of malnutrition and obesity in its wake. The noodle companies have responded by fortifying some of their products with vitamins, but I'm a little dubious about that.

Crunchy shallots, sweet soy sauce, chili sauce, flavored oil -- oh, and noodles

I do have to say, though, that Indonesian noodles are much more fun to eat than their American counterparts. Naturally they come with the traditional flavoring powder made of MSG and what my family calls "chicken squeezings". But that's not all! They also include one or more of the following: chili sauce, powdered chili, onion- or chili-flavored oil, the iconically Indonesian sweet soy sauce, and crunchy fried shallots to sprinkle on top. There's even a new kind that has little "dumplings" in it -- which is fine if you think of dumplings as tiny rectangles of cardboard.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Little criminals

What the heck are these blowy things, anyway?

It's tragic to see tender youth led down the path of evil. But that's what happens on many Saturday mornings across from our apartment. Marching band practice. At 7 a.m.

Behind the blowy things come the xylophones

The drummers are the most hardened offenders. Look at those smirks. The guy on the left is holding up his fingers to say: Five hours of sleep. Five. That's all you get!

The flag corps doesn't make as much noise, but they still bear some responsibility. Those flags lend a quasi-governmental sense of authority to the proceedings.

Friday, January 05, 2007


I've seen the dog many times, sort of a small Irish Setter-ish type chained to a post by the side of a busy road. It didn't seem like a very happy situation, but he looked healthy enough, so I figured someone was taking care of him.

When I saw him the other day, though, he looked thinner. He seemed restless. A nearby construction project is in limbo, and I figured maybe the workers had abandoned him. I kept thinking about him while I was at work. When I got out, I bought some water and an order of fried rice and went to find him.

He was curled up on the sidewalk, asleep, in front of a roadside tire-repair stand. These are a common phenomenon in Jakarta, possibly because they're not above scattering some tacks in the road when business is slow.

I asked the taxi driver to wait. A streetlamp created a puddle of light on the sidewalk and two men standing in it were watching me closely. My heart sank. An abandoned dog is a lot easier to help than one with a bad owner.

"Hello, sir, is this your dog?" I asked the older one.

"Yes," he said.

"I was worried about the dog," I said, struggling to find the right words. "I thought maybe there wasn't a person."

The man looked at the taxi. We had overshot the location and the driver was backing up. "What is that taxi doing?" he said.

"I was in the taxi and I saw the dog and I was worried." I wondered if he thought I was a dognapper. He seemed to relax, though. He shook my hand, introduced himself, and wished me a happy new year. I wished him one too. I turned around and got in the taxi with my fried rice and left.

I still think the dog is too thin. I'll have to try to slip him some biscuits. In the US, where there are laws about where and how you shelter animals, you could probably go after the owner. I don't think there are laws like that here.

All the way home I felt like the rescuers who tried to get to the site of the plane crash this week, only to find they had bad information. They showed up with food and water and gear, brimming with a kind of evangelistic fervor to save someone, but there was nobody to save. Sometimes going away with your hands full is worse than going away empty-handed.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Holiday leftovers

The death of Rudolph?

There are still Christmas decorations up -- or lying around, anyway -- at Plaza Senayan. I found this reindeer a little disturbing.

New Year's horns for sale, cheap, on January 1 near the Post.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Junk food of the week: Beng-Beng

Beng-Bengs are one of the world's great candy bars. They consist of several layers of thin wafer cookie, plus a blob of caramel and a covering of chocolate with little crispies. They also come in variations like peanut butter and mocha.

I'm hard-pressed to say exactly why I love Beng-Bengs, but perhaps it's the ratio of ingredients. Also, Beng-Bengs are not too big. They're somewhat smaller than, say, a regular Snickers bar in the US, and because of the wafers (which are mostly air) they're not very dense. So they're just enough for a sugar fix without making you feel all queasy. This is important, since chocolate is the only real cure I know for writer's block -- better than caffeine, and of course WAY better than actually sitting down in front of the computer and trying to work.

Monday, January 01, 2007

We're in Jakarta

Just a quick note to say neither of us is traveling on any planes or ferries at the moment. It's been a bad week for transportation here ...

Scaring in the new year

We thought about going to a New Year's Eve party at a bar downtown where the Foreign Correspondents Club had a discount, but at more than $50 a ticket, it was still way more than we wanted to spend. So we were happy when our friend Rully called and offered to bring over some Indonesian horror movies instead.

I like Indonesian horror flicks because they're usually not gory, or even particularly scary; they often have dubious plots and a made-for-TV look. Bangsal 13 (Ward 13), about a dilapidated hospital ward with blood-red floors, puke-green walls and a terrible secret, was a cut above. It was nicely filmed and genuinely creepy, but not too creepy.

Afterwards we went up on the roof to watch the fireworks and take fuzzy pictures of the night sky. You can sort of see a rocket going off on the far left here.

Our neighborhood was surprisingly quiet. I figured all the little kids would be running around honking toy horns, like they were earlier in the day, but they must have been put to bed. When we went out after midnight to find Rully a cab, we only saw a little knot of people dancing to dangdut from a radio, and a few lucky goats that hadn't been sold for Idul Adha. I bet we could get a good price on one today. Maybe he could live on the roof.