Saturday, March 31, 2007


Eggs are sold unrefrigerated here, which freaked me out a little at first. We put them in the fridge once we get home, and they seem fine. In fact, they're quite good -- firm shells, a very orange yolk, and really eggy, like free-range eggs in the States. Maybe they're fresher, or maybe it's just that more chickens here get to scratch around and lead chickeny lives, as opposed to the bizarre world of factory farms.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The floods aren't over

Remember the Jakarta floods? They were three or four disasters ago. The other day our friend Ardi took me to see a school in notoriously flood-prone Kampung Melayu, one of the areas that got hit the hardest.

Packed in

School is back in session, but they have to crowd large numbers of students into the few usable rooms.

Blackboard and brownboard

The unusable ones are pretty messed up. The floodwaters were full of slime and garbage that got into every nook: every crack in the walls, every joint in the bookshelves, every chair and table that wasn't swept away.

That's Ardi in the back, and one of the teachers in front

A whole section of the school needs a new roof. That's how high the water got. In fact, at one point people were escaping the neighborhood by walking on the roof.

In front of Ardi's mother's house

This is a horrible picture of me, but I wanted to show you Ardi's mom (right) and, I believe, his aunt (left). They both live near the school. During the worst of the flooding, his aunt spent two days perched on the roof of her house. She looks a tad grim here, but in fact she's a very smiley person.

"They dropped me food and water from a helicopter," she said cheerfully, with the stoicism that gets tested all too often here.

It rained the night before my visit, and the neighborhood flooded again. The water had already receded by the time I got there, but his mom showed me the new waterline in her house, more than a foot high and still damp. "How many days has it flooded this year?" I asked. "Not days!" they laughed. "Two months!" Two months and counting, that is.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Junk food of the week: Kueku

Kueku (KWAY-koo) means "my pastry." The remarkable sticky-chewiness of the outer layer can only come from glutinous rice flour, and I assume the violent pink is from food coloring. But what's inside is a mystery to me. Anybody know? It's like some kind of bean paste, but more crumbly. It's pleasantly bland and mushy, and just a little sweet.

Kueku comes on a little piece of banana leaf to keep it from glomming onto everything in its path.

It's sometimes for sale in the lunchroom at work, on the honor system. The jar lid says "Don't forget to pay," which seems awfully polite for a newsroom. I think the American version would be more like "Fork it over, lunkheads!"

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tiny ants

We believe the house lizards (see below) eat these tiny ants. If so, they're going to become very fat lizards, because there seems to be an endless supply of ants.

Drop a little drip of condensed milk on the kitchen counter during the coffee-making routine, and ants will appear out of nowhere. Drop some tuna salad and they'll really have a party. Sometimes we come out of our little home office to find an episode of Wild Kingdom in the living room -- a tribe of ants carrying a dead moth or something across the floor.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Cold-blooded housemates

Our house lizards (cicak) like to hang out behind the dish rack or, more hazardously, underneath the burners of our little counter-top stove. They hold up their end of the housework by eating bugs, which is a highly valued function in our kitchen. They generally keep to themselves, but sometimes when you're cooking dinner they'll make little clicking noises as if to say, "Don't overcook the pasta! You know you hate it when it gets all gummy!"

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Our latest food fixation is mie tarik, Chinese pulled noodles, at the food court in the Senayan City mall.

They make the noodles by stretching the dough way out in midair, doubling it back on itself, and stretching it out again. After doubling it, they thwack it on the counter to separate the noodles, and sometimes they add a little oil to keep them from sticking together. Then they toss the dough into a waiting pot of water, and moments later dinner is ready.

It seems impossible that this process could yield actual noodles, but it does -- such tasty ones.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Tall wall

Our friend John hooked us up with rock-climbing at this wall in the middle of town. It's really high; a lot higher than the ones at the gym back in Bloomington. 20 meters, is what the guide told us: almost 66 feet

The wall is next to a shopping mall (of course), so one doesn't lack for an audience, especially from the under-12 demographic.

The guy holding the rope is Panji, the climbing guide. For a very reasonable fee, he brings a bunch of gear and belays you for as long as you want. He also organizes outdoor trips, which we really want to do.

Panji is wearing an Asian X-Games shirt. A competitor's shift. He'll be competing in the next one too, in May in Kuala Lumpur.

Panji can make it up this wall in 12 seconds. When he speed-climbs it, he has to have two people belaying, just to take the rope in fast enough. I didn't worry about safety at all, climbing with him -- he's ridiculously overqualified to be standing around holding a rope for me.

I didn't make it to the top. The holds are all nice and chunky, but they were pretty reachy for me, with my short arms and short legs. That's good. If I scampered right up the first time, I wouldn't have much to work on next time. Chad will get bored sooner than me, but there's a thoroughly evil overhanging wall just to the right (you can see a bit of it in the top pic) that should keep him in fits for a long time to come.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Public displays of affection between couples are rare in Jakarta, but a bumpy busway ride provides a good excuse. Riding double on motorbikes seems to fulfill the same function.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Junk food of the week: Dippin' Dots

Dippin' Dots originated in the good old American Midwest, so it's strange that the only place I've ever encountered it is in certain malls in Jakarta. Basically it's pebble-sized ice cream in various flavors (above is Candy Bar Crunch).

Their website describes the inventor of Dippin' Dots, perhaps unwisely, as "a microbiologist with an intense interest in cryogenic freezing" and claims Dippin' Dots is creamier than other ice creams because its lower freezing temperature creates less ice particles or air molecules or . . . well, whatever.

Dippin' Dots uses high-quality flavorings so it's pretty tasty, especially when it melts a little. It won't make me forget Cherry Garcia, though.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mud tourists

For those who are just catching up, there are several posts here from our recent trip to the mud volcano disaster that has flooded thousands of people out of their homes in Sidoarjo, East Java ...

The main highway in Porong runs right next to the disaster site. You can climb the embankment and look out over the mud lake and the distant geyser. On weekends, it's full of mud tourists.

Local vendors bombard you with offers of ojek (motorcycle-taxi) rides and DVDs, sometimes actually pulling you toward their motorcycles by the arm. It's a pretty aggressive scene by Indonesian standards. Some of the men who've lost their houses have been officially licensed as ojek drivers for the disaster area. They're clearly pretty anxious to make some money.

Here's a license: "Embankment Ojek Association, Victim of Hot Mud Overflow." It must be odd to wear a badge that says "Victim."

Monday, March 19, 2007

The long ride

For the last few months the mud from the volcano has been channeled into the Porong River and thence to the sea. We wanted to see the impact on marine life, so our "fixer," a local reporter named Suyono, arranged for us to go out on a boat with the head of the fishermen's association.

Here's Suyono, lounging around as if he's on a pleasure cruise, along with a photographer friend of his at the back and the fisherman in front. We were crazy about Suyono and enjoyed hanging out with him. When he SMSed us in the morning to find out the day's agenda, he would often ask what we'd had for breakfast, which was oddly endearing.

I had blithely assumed it would take half an hour to get to our destination. It turned out to be two hours. Luckily we were close to shore the whole time so I wasn't worried about safety. About an hour into the trip, though, I really, really had to pee. I wasn't about to halt the expedition to go ashore, so after confirming that there was no miraculous hidden bathroom on board, I said I'd just crawl under a big orange tarp they had and use a plastic bag. Which I did. I felt I deserved a Girl Scout badge, but there wasn't anyone around to give me one.

Finally we got to the mouth of the river, where we saw a huge mud flat stretching out into the ocean.

A fisherman was coming in with his catch. He told us there'd always been a mud flat here, but it had become much bigger and denser since the mud disaster, and the fishing had dropped off precipitously. With the scarcity of fish and the added impact of fuel price increases, he estimated he was making 80 percent less money now than a year ago. But, he said, with little education and no experience in any other job, "I can only work as a fisherman, what else can I do?"

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fishing village

More pix from the Sidoarjo trip: We went to a little fishing village to see how the mud is affecting the fishing and shrimping industry. We really liked the town ... it had a nice relaxed atmosphere, compared to crowds and traffic jams of Porong (where the mud volcano is).

Gutted fish

Mending nets

Wooden fishing boats

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Tiny escalator

Outside the Senayan City mall. Perhaps so ladies carrying the big fancy handbags that are popular now don't wear themselves out before they get to the Versace and Gucci stores.

Friday, March 16, 2007

People storage

Back to our Sidoarjo trip -- Refugees from the mud volcano are being housed at a marketplace near the disaster area. The stalls they're living in are meant to be used by vendors during the day and locked up at night; they're not designed to be lived in. Even as market stalls they'd be pretty depressing: windowless, unventilated concrete boxes. They reminded me of the storage units you can rent in the US for your extra stuff that you don't want to look at or have around anymore.

The banner refers to two proposed forms of compensation: being resettled en masse in a new housing development, or being given money to buy their own place. Sentiment throughout the camp was overwhelmingly in favor of cash. I think people are tired of being told where to live, what to eat, etc.

Here's the inside of one. Charming, eh? Guess how many people were living in it.

That would be twelve. Twelve people from three families.

Now, here's the part where I try to be fair: people are getting a roof over their head and three meals a day, all paid for by the gas company accused of causing the mess. Throughout Indonesia there are poor people living in tumbledown shacks they built themselves, so maybe a crowded market stall isn't so bad. But I don't think you should set conditions for refugees compared to the worst possible standard of living. And at least a leaky handbuilt house is your own house. When people said the lack of privacy was making them crazy, I believed them. And when they said the food was lousy, I believed them too.

The women have come up with an amusing answer to the food. Instead of eating the rice that comes in every meal packet, they spread it out to dry.

Then they make a dough out of it and fry it into crispy, salty crackers, which they sell. They use the proceeds to buy their own food, or to pay their kids' school fees.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

We have been here for one year

Is that crazy or what?

In honor of our Jakarta Anniversary, here's an archival photo of Chad tucking into the bland fried rice and watery coffee at the Hotel Karya, where we spent our first 6 weeks or so. Man, their breakfasts were lousy. But they were free.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The secret to burnout recovery - revealed!

Tired of your job? Stop doing it until you totally forget how - and then start over!

It hit me as I was writing a radio story this week. I was writing looong descriptive paragraphs like a print reporter. I'd forgotten to gather the background sound I needed -- thank goodness Chad remembered. My tape was pushing me around (there's nothing worse than having to do all sorts of verbal backflips to make the tape fit into the story). I felt like a beginner all over again. It was scary, but mostly in a good way, and better than being thoroughly bored with myself.

How long does it last, though, I wonder?

And now here's a picture of some kids playing on a fire truck at the refugee camp in Sidoarjo.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mud cakes

We're told Kue Lumpur, or mud cakes, were a specialty of the Sidoarjo area even before the mud volcano. They're basically very tasty, eggy coconut custards. I'm not sure how they got their name.

We bought them at a Giant Hypermart in Surabaya, next to some Large Fried Things.

People at work laughed when I passed around "mud cakes from Sidoarjo." Some actually recoiled. This perhaps validates the fear of one distressed local, who said, "Sidoarjo used to be famous for mud cakes; now it's just famous for mud."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dropping the balls

The mud geyser is surrounded by embankments made out of dirt and sandbags, which hold back the main lake of hot mud. There are little paths up the sides so you can scramble up. At their tallest, the embankments are two or three times my height, so I was surprised when I climbed up to the lip of the dirt wall and found the mud nearly reaching the tops of the sandbags. That's a lot of mud -- more than a million barrels a day, according to many estimates.

Unfortunately the geyser itself was hidden behind big clouds of white smoke and steam. There's a layer of water on top of the mud that forms waves that roll in and break, so it was a bit like an ordinary lake. But then there's a layer of gunk underneath that seems to be at a slow boil. It goes splut, splut, splut, like thick oatmeal over a low flame.

The national team handling the disaster is trying to slow the geyser's output by dropping chains of cement balls into it. You can see them sliding one of the balls toward the volcano on the cable in the photo above. This seems like a dubious notion and hardly anybody other than the national team has much faith in it. As I understand it, the idea is to absorb some of the geyser's energy through friction and vibration. But there are fears the balls will just clog the exit and force the mud up through different cracks in the ground in other locations.

The balls do make handy lawn furniture, though.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Normal operation

On our first morning in Sidoarjo,we headed right down to the mud zone. After enduring a hellish traffic jam, we turned off the highway and walked up an incredibly dusty road crafted from the mud. On the way we passed buildings like this, submerged during the first stages of the eruption, before they built embankments to corral the hot mud. The sign says "Caution, depth +/- 5 meters" (that's about 16 feet for us metric-impaired Americans).

The mud dries into a really fine sand that blows into your eyes, ears and nose. You can see why, according to the fishermen, it gets into fish's gills and suffocates them. I felt a bit suffocated myself, especially given the pounding heat of the sun and the added warmth radiating from the mud volcano.

We checked in at this little control point with the helpful sign explaining the different levels of mud volcano danger, from "normal operation" to "extreme danger.". Strangely enough, I don't recall any flags or signs indicating what the actual level was. And what is "normal operation" of a hot mud geyser, anyway?

Now just another short dusty walk would bring us to the geyser, marked by the big construction machinery on the horizon.

Tomorrow: the volcano's mouth!!!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Palmerah Market: Cart guys

More on the Sidoarjo trip soon, but first, back to the market. Remember the market?

These guys hang out with their old wooden carts on the street just outside the fence. I think they haul loads of goods from the wholesalers who deliver there to smaller vendors at other sites.

Further down the street are other forms of transportation, like bajajs (the little bright orange 3-wheeled taxis) and ojeks (motorcycle taxis).

Friday, March 09, 2007

Junk food of the week: Tuna donut

Between Sidoarjo, the quake, and the crash, Chad and I have put in a series of really long days. I'm feeling pretty wiped out as I sit here this Friday morning. So here's a subject commensurate with my mental powers: the tuna donut!

This was not exactly a donut, to be fair; I guess it was some kind of dumpling. But the breading was sweet and fried. Inside was spiced tuna, possibly smoked tuna. It was OK, certainly edible, but a little unsettling. Like one of those marriages that makes you think, How did these people end up together?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Some people say President Yudhoyono is cursed, and that's why there have been so many disasters lately. I'm beginning to believe it myself after the latest plane crash and earthquake.

I mentioned this to an editor in the US after filing my zillionth disaster brief. "You should do something on that," he said. But I don't know how to do a 45-second radio story on The Indonesian President May Be Hexed.

Anyway, Chad and I are fine. Just sad and weary of calamities.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Mud lake

We just got back from Sidoarjo with deadlines looming, so this will be short. It was a strange, sad, fascinating trip. Here's a photo of the main lake of mud from atop the embankments holding it back. These dirt-and-sandbag walls are, in places, at least twice my height. The actual mud geyser is behind the smoke somewhere.

And here's a guy pointing to the remains of his mud-flooded house from the world's tippiest canoe. Chad is looking at me as if to say, "are you getting a good shot?" whereas I'm just trying not to capsize us.

This homeowner used to work in construction. Now nobody's building in the area, so he parks cars for tourists who come to see the mud. He's one of thousands of people scraping by, trying to make a living while waiting for some resolution to the situation. In his case, it's been a nine-month wait.

More soon.