Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Can this possibly work?

It's like an electric tennis racket. You're supposed to hit mosquitoes with it. Seriously.

We're heading off to Sidoarjo tomorrow, and I'm not sure how much internet access we'll have, so posting may get a bit irregular ...

Monday, February 26, 2007

How to buy canned drinks, pt. 2

The Please-Sit-Down store consists of two aisles: snacks, personal products and canned drinks in the first; cleaning supplies, school supplies, and powdered drinks in the other.

In the back are instant noodles, the ubiquitous Blue Band margarine, and cans of corned beef (I'm not sure why corned beef is so common here. Is that a Dutch thing?).

The drink selection is pretty thin today - lots of fruit-flavored tea. In the back are Fanta Strawberry, suitable for Fanta Susu, along with Sprite and Coke; the lemon thing in front is a Vitamin C drink. On the bottom row are some of those weird jelly snacks that seem to be very big throughout Asia these days; Happy Jus, which I assume is pure sugar; and non-fizzy Calpico fermented milk drink, which is vastly inferior to the fizzy kind.

There are two plastic stools at the little counter in front, and they always ask you politely to sit down while they ring up your order. I suspect it's because of their fancy computer system; they have to type in the code for every product, and it takes a while.

So we have some canned coffee, Pocari Sweat, which is like Gatorade, a Coke for Chad, a bottle of tea, and some Calpico. You want to pay with a 50,000 note (about $5) and get change, because cab drivers and warungs often have trouble breaking a 50,000; it's good to get small bills whenever you can. They're very nice about making change here.

Then load up your bag and head home.

Bu Dena has just made some of her tasty hard-boiled eggs in curry sauce, so maybe a little takeaway lunch is in order.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

How to buy canned drinks, pt. 1

True, this is not the most difficult task in the world, but it does involve certain subtleties.

First, before setting out, grab a backpack so you don't end up adding to your collection of 17,000 plastic bags. Indonesia has plastic-bag mania; even street vendors distribute them with abandon. Bangladesh has banned them because they plug the gutters and cause flooding. Wouldn't it be nice if the rest of the world followed suit?

Then set off down our street.

Bu Dena's warung is right behind the SUV you see in the top photo. She and her husband will holler "Makan dulu!" (Eat first!). If you're not hungry, say "Sudah makan, Bu!" (I already ate!) Fear not - her husband, who seems to be unwrapping an air-conditioner part, is not naked. He's wearing shorts.

Walk with a air of purposefulness, because if a certain other ibu spots you, she'll want to stop you and tell you sad tales with a long face in an effort to borrow money.

Turn left at the end of the street and then make a quick right. Try not to look at the House of Evil on the corner. They're keeping a poor little ferret-like mammal in a too-small cage out front.

Acquire the target: the yellow sign at the other end of the long hole. The kids on the bike may or may not say "Hello Mister." (This is a unisex greeting. I get "hello mistered" about three times as much as I get called Miss, Missus or Ma'am.)

Arrive at the WT Mart, also known (to us) as the Please-Sit-Down Store. Why? And what marvels wait inside? To find out, tune in for the exciting conclusion of "How to buy canned drinks"!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

They promised me a war zone, and all I got was a lot of traffic jams

Pangandaran Beach, Central Java.
Indonesia may not be perfect, but it has its moments.

The other day I stumbled across About.com's travel page on Indonesia. I was extremely annoyed to see that it started like this:

Have you ever considered a vacation in a war zone? Not many people think the idea is an attractive one. But if you go to Indonesia any time soon, you should realize that you are taking the risk of doing exactly that. And some portions of the country are more risky than others ...

Granted, Indonesia has its troubles, and people should be aware of them. But to call the entire country a war zone is absurd. We've been here for nearly a year, traveled throughout Java and to Bali and Sumatra, and never felt threatened.

For comparison, I clicked over to the page on Thailand, which unfortunately has had a lot of problems lately. Here's a quick review: over the past year Indonesia has had zero bombings, peaceful elections in Aceh, and some violence in central Sulawesi and Papua. During the same period, Thailand has had multiple bombings in Bangkok and its southern provinces, not to mention a military coup followed by the installation of a junta. Surely Thailand's entry will start with a stern warning, too?

Thailand is a beautiful country with an amazing assortment of things to do and places to see. You can hike in the mountains or sit on the beach. The people are friendly, the food is great...

The thing that's most irritating is how common this is. Why does Indonesia get such a bad rap? In this case, is it because Thailand is mostly Buddhist, and Indo is mostly Muslim? Does the Thai tourism industry spend a lot more money bringing travel writers over on expense-paid luxury vacations? I don't know. And I don't mean to slam Thailand. I just want Indonesia to get a fair shake.

This is not a victimless crime. Indonesia needs tourism dollars. Westerners need to experience a moderate Muslim country. Historic sites like Borobudur deserve to be appreciated and supported.

I wrote to the author of the Asia section and asked him to reconsider his description. I haven't heard anything back. If you want, you can write him too, at goasia dot guide at about dot com.

Friday, February 23, 2007


It's been a crazy week. We were hoping to spend most of our time getting things organized for the Sidarjo trip and doing a few pre-interviews, but every time we leave the house we come back to chaos and urgent e-mails from editors. Yesterday it was the ferry fire north of Jakarta and the plane that got bent while landing in Surabaya.

Meanwhile, Blogger isn't letting me upload pictures, so here's a shot that's been sitting on the server for a few days, of motorbikes on the corner of our street being used as drying racks for bedding after the flood.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tuffaceous marl

My new favorite phrase in English. I believe it was coined to describe Bob Marley's hairstyle. The French hairstylist who popularized it went by the name Sonde Fm.

That's what I do at Indonesian geology conferences: make up new definitions for scientific terms, and take photographs of the photographers.

This conference was about the Sidoarjo mud volcano, a geyser of hot mud that's been gushing from the ground in East Java since late May of last year. It has covered paddy fields, factories, schools, and whole villages. More than 10,000 people have lost their homes.

The cause of the mud volcano is still a matter of debate - hence, the conference - but it seems likely related to a gas exploration company that drilled a well without using proper sheathing to guard against subterranean pressure. Efforts to stop the flow of mud have failed, which isn't surprising. How do you stop a volcano?

There was a guy at the conference trying to sell souvenir boxes of the mud (lumpur). I asked if he'd sold many and he said no, but he thought people might be waiting until the end of the day so they wouldn't have to carry them around. Then he tried to sell me one. I turned him down, but I kind of regretted it later, because I bet he's a displaced guy just trying to make a living in the post-volcano era.

We're going down to Sidoarjo in a couple of weeks to do some stories on the mud, so more on that later.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The importance of being Wagyu

This ad used to run in the Jakarta Post all the time. I like to imagine waiters in black tie bringing a DNA certificate to the table on a platter, to be examined discerningly like an expensive bottle of wine. "Ah yes, descended from Bessie -- her marbling was legendary."

But do people really want to know about the DNA of the steak they're about to eat? Personally, I'd rather not think about its mom and dad; I feel guilty enough as it is.

Besides, if they're going to show me test results, there's stuff I'd much rather see than DNA. A nice clean report card for E. coli and parasites, for example. Better yet, they could bring an iPod to the table and show me video of the kitchen staff washing their hands before making the food. It's not just street food that makes people sick, after all; fancy eateries are guilty too.

Any restaurant that offered the iPod plan would have a line out the door -- I guarantee it. With all the food scares in the US these days, it'd probably be a hit there too.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Palmerah Market: Electronics guy

This small electronics stand packs in a lot of stuff, from custom cables to antennas, a ceiling fan, batteries, power strips and cassettes. You still see a lot of cassettes in Indonesia, especially of local music. They're the basic level of audio for people who don't have a lot of cash. On the other hand, there's also plenty of iPods, mp3-playing cell phones and other gadgets around.

This guy is selling cassettes of Iwan Fals, the Indonesian Bob Dylan, as well as the ballad-y Ada Band, pop sensations Peterpan and others. The huge speaker sneaking into the picture at bottom left is churning out loud pop music.

I think the electronics guy is making a gesture of peace, but he may be threatening to cut off his hair like Britney.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

My blog experiment

I don't have a picture to go with this, so here's a totally gratuitous shot of a kitten at the local warung

I'm launching a second blog today, in Indonesian. Mostly I want to practice the language, but I'm also looking for a good place to ask important questions like Are Jakarta cab drivers getting grumpier? and Who makes the best fried chicken in town? If I get interesting answers, I'll share them here.

So check it out, if you're so inclined.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Translucency International: a call to action

The skillful use of translucency makes your news event
safer and more enjoyable for everybody!

"Transparency" is a very trendy word in Jakarta these days, partly fueled by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International. The government never makes a move without declaring its commitment to being transparent, i.e. open and accountable, while newspapers like mine are constantly criticizing things for insufficient transparency.

The other day Chad went to a press conference. The reporters were firing all sorts of questions at a government official about the workings of his agency. Finally the exasperated official said, "We are transparent, but not completely transparent!"

When Chad told me about this later, it hit us. What the world really needs is a Translucency International: the organization for people who want to be a little bit open. Open enough to look like you're trying, perhaps, but not so open as to actually shake things up and cause everybody a lot of messy, embarrassing problems.

Translucency International could hold workshops on How to Hype Meaningless Statistics at Press Conferences, or How to Hold a Public Meeting while Actually Making Decisions Behind Closed Doors.

I'm not saying this is a purely developing-world concept, either. I'm sure the U.S. Congress and several generations of White House operatives could provide valuable expertise.

As a nonprofit organization, this is a guaranteed cash cow. What government, corporation or (gasp!) NGO wouldn't sign up? So here's your chance to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning sociopolitical movement. Nominations for the Translucency board, along with discreet (dare I say translucent?) gifts, are now being accepted.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Chess guys

We knew everything was getting back to normal, flood-wise, when the chess guys reappeared on the corner. The best players charge Rp 1,000 (about ten cents) per game.

And I do mean guys. I don't think I've ever see a woman play chess on the street here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Palmerah Market: Happy hairy fruit

Yesterday felt like the official end to the flood story. We went to check on the tent city refugees, but there were no tents and no refugees. Everybody had gone home. Even the newswires, who've done nothing but flood stories for a week, have moved on to other things.

For a lot of people, the story of starting over from scratch is just beginning. I hope to catch up with some of them later, but for now I'll pick up some threads I've dropped, such as the one about Palmerah Market.

Rambutans are the friendliest-looking fruit I know. They've got punk-rock hair, but their spikes are way too soft to inflict any damage. (Their name comes from the word rambut, or hair.)

Rambutans at the market

When they're in season, big festive bunches appear all along the roadsides and in the market.

Rambutan on our balcony

Disregarding the spikes, a rambutan is somewhere between a large olive and a small egg in size. Inside, it's similar in texture and sweetness to a grape, but with somewhat denser flesh. It can have a bit of citrusy tartness, too. There's a little pit inside, about the size and shape of an almond.

Rambutans are the sort of thing you can eat by the bowlful, especially if you're caught up in conversation or reading a good book (which could get messy).

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Taking back the streets

This weekend we went up to Petamburan, a neighborhood just north of us, to check out the cleanup effort (Chad was doing a story for VOA).

The army must have told everybody to put the garbage in the street, because there was a line of trash piles right down the middle. The smell of garbage mixed with the smell of the mud made for a pretty aromatic setting. They brought in a front-loader, and soldiers, residents and volunteers threw all the garbage into it, to be dumped into a larger truck and hauled away.

The soldiers had stylish hip waders, but the residents got pretty dirty. Of course, if they've been living here for the past few days they've had to walk through the mud anyway. Now at least there are cleaning stations where people can rinse off.

After picking up the garbage and several bags of mud, they used a fire truck to spray the streets with water. When they were done, it was pretty clean.

Meanwhile, the gears of the daily relief effort were grinding away. Women distributed box lunches, which are generally paid for with a mix of government funding and donations. People are moving back into their houses, but they're not in a position to cook yet, so the food deliveries continue.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Junk food of the week: Squid heads

Chad and I went to a flood cleanup yesterday, but I just can't write about mud today. Maybe tomorrow. For now, I'm reaching into my usual bag of trivialities to present: squid heads!

These are at a little Chinese-Singaporean kiosk in the basement of a fancy shopping mall. I can't tell you how they taste because I didn't eat them.

I suppose if I were going to eat squid heads, I would get them here, because this place sells really tasty Singaporean curry puffs. Presumably their other offerings are of similar quality. However, confronted with a choice between the two, I can't imagine ordering the squid heads. So if you want to know how they taste, I guess you'll have to come try them yourself.

Meanwhile, you can at least enjoy the picture.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tents in the park

The administration is trying to move flood refugees into tent cities throughout Jakarta. There's one near us in the sports complex at Senayan, right in the shadow of gleaming skyscrapers.

Each site is equipped with 50 army tents, and each tent can hold 100 people (so they said, although I can't really imagine cramming that many people into them). The tents are pretty army-ish, and they're not long on privacy. But the people we talked to seemed happy to have clean clothes, regular meals, and protection from the weather. One woman had been sheltering beneath highway underpasses for the last few nights. She moved to one underpass, but the flood followed her, so she had to move to another. She was relieved just to stay put for a while.

Kids were running around everywhere, shouting, laughing, playing soccer, and generally causing a ruckus. This boy made a cat's cradle with rubber bands. "Know what it is? Know what it is?" he asked me breathlessly. "It's a house!"

The enemy

Mud. Thick stinky garbagey mud made up of dirt from upstream, plus slime from the city's terminally polluted rivers and canals, plus who knows what else. People are scraping it out of their houses and trying to wash it out of their furniture. The city's coming around to the worst-hit areas to clean the streets this weekend. They're planning to use firehoses to blast everything with disinfectant.

There's not too much mud left on BenHill Street, but these workers were building a wooden walkway over one persistent slough so people could get to the restaurant behind them.

Somebody on a little side street lost their pants in the mud.

You can even see the Levi's-style label.

The itinerant cleaning-supplies peddler stands to make a good living for the next few days.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Laundry city

It's hot and sunny this afternoon and stuff is hanging out to dry everywhere: furniture, sheets, and this long line of clothes.

These guys were carrying a mattress down the street - I'm not sure where to.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


If you want to give money to help with the flood recovery efforts, some of the international organizations working in the field right now are Mercy Corps, World Vision, and of course the Red Cross/Red Crescent. Mercy Corps seems to be the only one with a direct link to donate to the Jakarta efforts, but if you gave to another organization and some of your money went to help the refugees in Darfur, that wouldn't be such a bad thing either.


Backed-up water drain in our neighborhood

Days now come with an invisible report card: Non-rainy or rainy. Pass or Fail. Last night got a big F. A really loud crack of lightning sent us practically leaping out of bed just before dawn. After unplugging everything in the apartment, we couldn't get back to sleep, so we lay there listening to the call to prayer and the sound of heavy rain.

It poured for much of the night and now the water that receded from flooded areas yesterday is flowing back in. Some people who cleaned out their houses will have to do it all over again. People staying in mosques and schools will have to stay longer.

It's a sneaky flood. Just when you think it's getting better, it gets worse. Repeat until end of February. That's what the weather agency is saying.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Cleaning up

A shopowner mops up while a TV camerman -- and I -- record it all for posterity

The weather's been pretty dry for the last 24 hours, although ominous clouds are lingering overhead. People are cleaning up to the extent that they can, despite the possibility that everything will flood again.

Local police air out their furniture

Popular opinion says this year's deluge has been even worse than the epic flood of 2002. A lot of blame is flying around, much of it settling on Sutiyoso, the governor of Jakarta. Sutiyoso is given to saying colorful things like "you can cut my legs off if I'm wrong." But these days he just sounds sulky.

"This is a disaster, and any preparations we could make would not have been enough for the floods that happened," he has said -- seeming to question the entire philosophical basis for emergency planning. But the people who've been trapped in their houses, or sleeping outside under tarps, no doubt feel more preparation would have been a good idea.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Flood relief

It rained pretty hard again last night, but now it's clear and fairly bright, so hopefully the water will keep going down. Here's a couple more pictures from yesterday:

The governmental flood post near the market was getting a banner yesterday. As soon as a disaster happens, even if it's far away like the earthquake in Yogya, aid posts spring up all over the place to collect donations and deliver assistance.

Besides getting people and belongings out, rafts are being used to bring supplies to those sheltering on the upper floors of flooded houses.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Flooded market

It was sunny today, thank heavens, so we went down the street to the Benhill market to check on the flooding there. The water level seemed to be going down, and people were starting to bail out their shops and houses.

More rain is forecast, plus, some parts of the city are much worse off than Benhill, with water too deep to walk through. But hopefully today was a bit of a breather for most of the city.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Still fine

The flood stories are getting worse, and they look to keep getting worse for at least another day or two, but things are still OK here in our bit of Pejompongan ...

Bastions of tyranny

Malls are the least democratic places in the world. I've been kicked out of so many of them in the US while trying to gather tape for radio stories, even on subjects as innocuous as "How are you surviving the current heat wave?" They don't want anything like reality to intrude on their customers' shopping haze.

I snapped this cellphone picture of weird pink-haired mannequins at a kids' store in Senayan City, and then the manager rushed out and told us we couldn't take pictures. Maybe they thought we were gathering intel for a competitor.