Thursday, September 27, 2007

Relief at hand

Drink vendors along busy Jl. Gatot Subroto await the call to prayer, hoping for a spike in business when the daily Ramadhan fast ends. Lots of people get stuck in Jakarta's legendary traffic on the way home from the office at sunset.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hostel cat

I had to stay an extra day in Singapore because my visa wasn't ready, so I moved to a dorm room in a hostel. The front desk staff was very laid back.

Can hostel cats read? The evidence on an upstairs door is provocative but inconclusive.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Junk food of the week: Curry puff

It pains me to characterize the curry puff as junk food, when in fact it is the greatest snack ever invented, representing the culmination of thousands of years of snack research. But curry puffs are deep-fried, and fair is fair.

The curry puff is sold all over Singapore, in places ranging from roadside stalls to upscale bakeries. The dough can be a simple flour-and-butter crust or a fancier puff pastry. The one pictured below is a humble but especially tasty version from a food stall (the Tip Top stall at Ang Mo Kio, if you're wondering).

Inside are chunks of chicken, potato and hard-boiled egg, bound with a thick, non-leaky curry sauce. The sauce is usually not very incendiary; the emphasis is on earthier spices like cumin and cloves.

Curry puffs are substantial; one puff makes for a quick, cheap lunch. A good one is not too buttery and not too oily, and has a complex curry flavor. Luckily a chain of Singapore pufferies has opened some stalls here in Jakarta, so I don't have to take an international flight to get my fix.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Island getaway

We had some stuff to do in Singapore, so we decided to take a little extra time and make a trip of it. Chad convinced me to go out to a lovely little island just off the mainland, called Ubin.

Bikes, too, come in "regular" and "good" versions

It takes about ten minutes to get to Ubin on a motorboat, and then you rent a bike. There's a whole network of paved and dirt roads to ride on, and plenty of places to buy cold drinks. You'll need those, because the island is as hot and humid as a greenhouse.

Then you can park the bike, stroll around a nature preserve, and climb a tower to look out over the rain forest.

A boardwalk brings you along mangrove forests and then out to the beach.

It's really a lovely place, and a perfect antidote to the intense urban-ness of Jakarta. I've been a little lukewarm on Singapore in the past, because it's mainly marketed as a shopping destination, but Ubin is great - I'd go back anytime, and I hope we will soon.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Not like Mom's carrot cake ...

unless your mom was from Singapore.

I'm not sure why this is called carrot cake, since there isn't anything carroty about it; just a plain omelet on top of some cubes of what seemed to be rice starch, with crunchy fried shallots on top and a blob of hot sauce. It was tasty, though, and filling, and cheap.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In Singapore

Hey folks, sorry for the lack of posts: I went to Singapore and somehow thought I'd keep up, but haven't. And now I have to stay an extra day. Back soon!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ferris wheel on wheels

We saw this while sitting in a taxi in traffic: a four-seat Ferris wheel mounted on a platform attached to a bicycle. It's a more highly-evolved version of the kiddie cart I blogged about last month. Could anything be cooler? Unfortunately we only had time to shoot this one blurry photo as we went by.

Later that we realized we should have jumped out and asked the guy for his business card. I'd love to rent this thing and put it out on our street for half a day.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Junk food of the week: Bubur Sumsum

The word bubur tells you this is a rice porridge, but while most bubur dishes are savory, this one is sweet. The porridge, which has a pudding-like consistency, is topped with palm sugar syrup.

According to The Food of Indonesia, "Bubur Sumsum is the Indonesian equivalent of a Jewish mother's chicken soup: if you have a problem, eat a bowl of Bubur Sumsum and all will be well."

This version, which I got from at the Benhill traditional market, certainly meets the definition of a comfort food: blandly sweet, not too complicated, and easy to eat even if you have a toothache or a sore throat. The porridge was a bit salty and the syrup quite sweet, with a slightly caramelized flavor. If I were designing my own, I'd use more bubur and less syrup, because I found this version very sugary.

I've never made Bubur Sumsum, but the recipe looks pretty easy. The surprise ingredient is chalk. According to the recipe, Indonesian cooks say it adds a "gentle, soft flavor."

Look for rice flour and palm sugar at Asian grocery stores, and chalk at an office supply store (or have a child pilfer some from school). You could substitute brown sugar for the palm sugar, but it won't be as flavorful.

1.5 cups rice flour
6 cups water
1 teaspoon powdered white writing chalk
grated coconut
1/2 teaspoon salt
Palm sugar syrup (simmer equal parts palm sugar and water together for ten minutes; strain)

Mix first three ingredients and strain through a fine sieve. Bring to a boil in a heavy pan. Simmer for about 30 minutes until thick. Cool to room temperature, top with coconut mixed with salt, and pour palm sugar syrup over.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

An unnatural disaster

The seismic upheavals seem to be quieting in Sumatra, so I'm going to step back and write about a different sort of calamity: Jakarta traffic.

A tight squeeze on Jl. Bendungan Hilir

The concept of "lanes" is viewed as more of a suggestion than a rule here, and vehicles just pack in as close to each other as they can. This bajai (small three-wheeled vehicle) was maybe 4 inches from our bemo (slightly larger three-wheeled vehicle). Motorcycles constantly weave in and out, squeezing through any opening wide enough to fit them -- and sometimes openings that turn out not to be wide enough. I often wonder how long the average side-view mirror survives here.

On a two lane street, with one line of cars in each direction, there is a sort of "shadow" lane right down the middle that may be used for passing in either direction. Of course, if vehicles in both lanes are trying to use it at the same time, things can get a bit tense. Drivers here are pretty aware of what's going on around them, though, and they're generally willing to give way to each other. Plus the traffic is so jammed nobody can go very fast.

Some people say Jakarta traffic will reach total gridlock in 2014. Others maintain that this has already happened.

Election rallies messed up the traffic even more ahead of the August gubernatorial vote

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mentawai quake update

For those who are curious, here's some news about the Mentawai islands from employees of the health and development NGO Surf Aid, off their webpage. Sounds like things are scary but in pretty good shape considering the pounding they've taken over the last two days. I imagine tsunami warnings are uniquely frightening when you're on a small island.

Sunset from a thatched bridge, Sipora Island, Mentawais

"I'm back in Tuapejat from Siberut [writes one Surf Aid staffer]. Bit scary up there but no victims, and houses rattled and damaged but mostly standing. The communities are scared and sleeping outside close to evacuation routes.

"No one left in Tuapejat. All have evacuated to higher ground. Very eerie, no power."

"90% of houses in Siberut island were damaged."

and earlier:

"Earthquake just after 7am local time this morning was a really big one. ... Ground fully shaking, women and children cowering in the street.

"SurfAid's Mentawai program manager Praem Poobalan just sent a message saying about 20 houses fully damaged in Tuapejat. ... SurfAid staff are at her house, plus some of the community in her garden - all on higher ground as there were tsunami warnings after big shake this morning. People really scared."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Shaky ground

The amount of seismic activity happening in Indonesia right now is really stunning. Check out this list at the US Geological Survey. A lot of the activity is near the Mentawai Islands, but as of this morning, according to a friend who knows people there, the damage is not too bad. I hope that's still the case.

I spent a few days in the Mentawais last year. I met these kids on the beach at Katiet.

They tried out my headphones.

They tried out my camera too.

Anyway, it's a beautiful but impoverished place, and they don't really need any more challenges right now. So cross your fingers for them -- or hold your thumbs, if you're from New England.

Another quake ...

and we are still fine. We didn't feel it in our apartment at all. Apparently shallow quakes do intense damage in their immediate area but aren't as broad in their reach.

It's a little eerie that it hit the day before Ramadan. People will really be saying the president is cursed now ...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The good, the bad, and the biasa

Every now and then, when you buy something that's behind a counter, you'll be asked if you want yang biasa or yang bagus: the regular kind or the good kind.

I learned my lesson the first time around, with clothespins: I bought the biasa kind, and most of them fell apart after about two loads of laundry, so I had to go back and buy the good ones.

Yang biasa (left) and yang bagus

I was a bit puzzled, though, to get this question in Surabaya while trying to buy, if you'll pardon the expression, laxatives. Does anyone buy the ordinary kind? Isn't this one case where you really want the best?

(It's a common problem, by the way, for those of us who didn't grow up ingesting large quantities of white rice; the stuff turns to cement in your guts.)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Little green men

These diminutive tubes of toothpaste are from the hovel -- er, hotel -- where we stayed in Taipei on our way back from the States. The fact that they were made by the Taipei Daily Chemical Company was a bit worrisome, but they seemed to be ordinary toothpaste.

And since Flavalicious Luscious Lychee hasn't been on the market for a while now, I've had to get used to ordinary toothpaste again.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Outback vs. Backcow

In Lima, Peru, the Outback Steakhouse lost its franchise after an unfortunate choking incident. The owners walked outside, pondered their storefront for a while, then changed the name to "Backcow" -- undoubtedly one of the finest restaurant names since Say Seng Pig's Organ Soup.

Unfortunately in Jakarta we just have a plain old Outback. It's in the Ratu Plaza electronics mall, so it's a convenient place to collapse with a Diet Coke when, in the words of the great Frank O'Hara, you have been practically going to sleep with quandariness while trying to figure out which gizmo you need for your computer.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Junk food of the week: I Will Follow snacks

These little crispy things often show up at the Please Sit Down store in our neighborhood. I think they're made by a local small business. These ones are labeled "WHERE YOU GO I WILL FOLLOW." Maybe the owner of the company is a U2 fan or even a Little Peggy March fan. Or maybe s/he's just a creepy, stalker-ish type.

Which reminds me of Sting, who once said he was disturbed to learn that people were playing his marvelously creepy stalker anthem "Every Breath You Take" at their weddings. I guess there's a thin line between love and craziness. Maybe thinner for some than others.

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, I Will Follow snacks don't come close to the line. They're basically little bits of fried dough sprinkled with sugar. They were okay, but I wouldn't follow them wherever they went ... unless it was to a good chocolate shop or something.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

"I had been betrayed"

In Surabaya I talked to an organization that does anti-trafficking work. They have offices in the city's many red-light districts, where they supply HIV testing and counseling, hand out condoms, and offer a sympathetic ear. Many of the people they serve are just kids. Out of the four current and former sex workers I talked to, three got into the business at age 13 or 14.

An anti-trafficking poster warns against being tricked by offers of easy work with big rewards

One 16-year old said, "My boyfriend cheated on me. We were about to get married, but then I found out that he was having an affair. He was having sex in the room when I got there. I should have slapped him in the face, but he slapped me instead. I wanted to slap the girl he was with, but she slapped me instead. So the next morning I ran away to Solo (a city in Central Java).

"I wanted to work as a maid in Solo. I asked the man who took me there, is there anyone who needs a domestic worker. The man said he did not want to hire me as a maid because I ‘had been with boys’. He offered me a job (as a sex worker) in a discotheque instead. So, I accepted the job because, what the heck ... I had been betrayed."

Prostitution is not just a matter of poverty, workers at the organization said; it's also closely connected with culture. In towns where girls marry young (age 12, for example), and areas where prostitution is seen as a valid career choice, young women are at high risk. If a girl gets divorced and is left to raise children on her own, or her father dies and there's no one to support the family, sex work is sometimes the only option she can see.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Flights of fancy

In the middle of my mud tour (see yesterday's post), the driver stopped at a town to pass on some kind of message to his nephew. While I was waiting for him, I wandered around the corner into an amazing scene.

It was a pigeon race, right on the edge of the disaster zone. Guys (it seems to be a male sport) were lined up with their birds, and they'd release them on cue. The pigeons had to fly five times back and forth between their handlers and the other end of the field. The fastest bird in this particular race would win a million rupiah, or more than a hundred dollars U.S. They were even videotaping the whole thing in case of close finishes.

The little black thing near the right edge, above, is a pigeon in flight.

"This pigeon won a car," said one guy. I protested that birds can't drive, and the owner told me he was happy to handle that part himself.

I knew pigeon racing was popular here, but I'd never actually seen it. The whoops of the handlers, the speed of the birds and the overall excitement were kind of intoxicating, especially in the middle of touring a bunch of ghost towns. "Java is an amazing place," I said to the driver when he came back, but I don't think he knew why.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Mud revisited

While I was in Surabaya, I went down to Sidoarjo and took an ojek tour of the mud disaster zone. It was interesting to see how the landscape has changed since April. It's like mud has become the full-time industry. There are pipes and machinery everywhere.

This goat was having a nice scratch, which reminded me of the time when a US Senator told me -- with a straight face -- that drilling for oil in Alaska benefited the local wildlife because "bears love walking on the pipelines."

The abandoned houses have been pretty well picked over for roof tiles. Now the bricks are going.

Things have dried up a bit, since it's the hot season. This guy was scavenging firewood from a dried-out village with a becak.

Some places are so deeply buried, there's only a kind of moonscape left.

I kept thinking of the Shakespeare line, "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." I don't know if they had sweet birds here before, but "bare" and "ruined" definitely fit the bill.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Irony's wastebasket

This was in my room at the dubious hotel near the airport where I spent my last night in Surabaya. The combination of its Chinglish slogan, its filthiness, and the fact that it was broken, all seemed somehow poetic .... or maybe I was just really tired.

I spent a few days researching different topics, including human trafficking, HIV prevention, and a return visit to the Sidoarjo mud disaster. More on those later.