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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Too pretty to drink

I didn't so much want to drink this Thai bottled tea as put it in a sunny spot on my desk and watch it all day, like a lava lamp.

The little black things are basil seeds, which acquire a gelatinous coating when they get wet. They don't make the drink taste as basil-y as you might think; mostly it has a mild, sweet lemon flavor.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Papayas here are enormous and very cheap -- between sixty cents and a little over a dollar, say, for one like this. All the fruit vendors who push wagons down our street know I like papayas, so whenever they see me they try to tempt me with one.

I like papaya whirred up in the blender with a little water, which makes it velvety-smooth. Some people drink blenderized papaya every day as a digestive aid.

Papaya is a folk contraceptive and abortifacient. It produces an enzyme that plays a major role in meat tenderizer and anti-itch creams, and was injected into Harrison Ford's back when he was having disc problems during an Indiana Jones movie. It was allegedly supposed to "eat away at the infected area." Eww.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dear Indonesian Government ...

... I saw your billboard at the airport, and I appreciate the sentiment, but wouldn't it be easier for you to stop the illegal logging and wildlife trading? After all, you're the one who has, y'know, guns and police and stuff.


a friend

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Anti-radiation phone pigs: a story of faith

We were at a mall in Singapore in September, doggedly researching a comparative study of curry puffs, when we saw a kiosk selling these little devices that attach to your cellphone and protect you from radiation. Or maybe they protect your phone from radiation -- I wasn't entirely clear on that.

Anyway, they promised to sparkle with red and blue flashing lights whenever the phone rang, and that was clearly something I needed. I bought one in the square pig style to disprove Michele's notion that all square pig stuff is useless crap.

Imagine my shock when the pigs turned out not to work! They just sat on my phone and did nothing. I kind of liked them anyway so I kept them on. A month later we were walking down the street in Bangkok when I realized, to my horror, that they'd disappeared. Miraculously, they turned up that night in our hotel room, on the dresser next to the TV.

"They're just going to fall off again," said Chad, but I stuck them back on my phone anyway because if you can't make a commitment to your anti-radiation device, what can you commit to?

And now my faith has been rewarded: they've started working! Every time I get a text message or phone call, they flash their little bright lights moments before it arrives, so I can quickly shut the phone off and pretend the battery's dead. Somehow, by getting lost, they found themselves. Who hasn't experienced that in his or her own life?

I believe my square pigs have a message for me. And as soon as I recover from all this radiation, I'm going to figure out what it is.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cat on red background

Chad likes this picture even though I cut the ears off. And some of the paws. She was an old street cat in Singapore, and the hotel had a little pile of cat kibble for her in the lobby so she could come and go as she pleased.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Guarding the fish

"Somebody has to do it. For some reason it always ends up being me."

Mae Sot marketplace

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Everything from tofu to grilled frogs

The market in Mae Sot instantly became my new favorite. It's a sprawling and constantly changing landscape of food, clothes and people. This woman is wearing thanaka, a tree-bark paste traditionally used by the Burmese as both decoration and protection from the sun. She sold me some stuffed fried tofu which, unfortunately, was really greasy.

Just down the street there were curls for your head, and tiaras to go on top of the curls -- perhaps to prevent them from blowing away.

There were mystery meats, and there were some meats that I wished were a little more mysterious, if you know what I mean.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Border town

The bus ride was pretty much like all long-distance bus rides: at first you pile all your stuff on top of you and under you because you're worried somebody will take it, and by the end you're praying someone will take it so you'll have someplace to put your feet.

We stumbled out at this station in Tak at some ungodly hour of the morning. There were a dozen chickens wandering around the parking lot, but everybody had cell phones. The bathrooms were exceedingly clean and we were happy to brush our teeth and make ourselves somewhat human before catching a waiting minibus.

Mae Sot turned out to be a really cool place. It's a border town, so there's a little bit of everybody there: people in rice-farmer conical hats, monks in orange robes, women in headscarves, Burmese hill tribe people in traditional dress, Thais, Chinese, Indians, etc. Some come to escape trouble in their homeland; others come to make trouble (by smuggling gems and timber, for example). The focal point of the town is its big marketplace. More on Mae Sot tomorrow.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The midnight bus to Tak

We spent a day running around in Bangkok, went to a 5:00 press conference, filed a quick story for VOA, and then headed out to catch an overnight bus to the Burmese border. We got to the station at 10 pm. It was half-dark, and everybody in the waiting room was sleeping. I don't know how they managed to catch their buses.

We were tired and hungry so we went to the food stalls, where an angelic woman sold me some amazing green curry: the kind of green curry that lovingly explodes your mouth and ravages your taste buds.

I don't know whether it's sad or wonderful that Bangkok bus station curry is better than most curries I've had in fancy Thai restaurants in the States. I guess it depends on whether you're here or there.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Henna hand

After I finished the previous post, I turned around to discover the woman who runs the cafe painting a customer's hand with henna. She did a nice job, I think.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Never go transcontinental in a cheap bra

So Chad and I have been in Bangkok for a few days, which I'll tell you about soon. But first, a cautionary tale about stinginess and being a flake.

The scene of the crime, as swiped from skyscrapers.com.

I hate bra-shopping. I mean, I'm not much of a shopper for anything, but buying bras is especially annoying. So when my old ones were all disintegrating, I went to Hypermart, Indonesia's version of Walmart, and bought a cheap one without even trying it on. It fits OK, but the company that made it apparently isn't familiar with modern elastic technology, so it has no stretch at all and thus comes unhooked several times a day. Then I have to find a hidden place and go through a series of contortions to hook it back together.

I had to come back from Bangkok early, so I booked a flight through Singapore. At the Singapore airport, I lounged around, had some Indian food, checked my email, etc. Suddenly I remembered I had to check in for the flight. I stood in line for twenty minutes while the guy ahead of me had a nice long chat with the woman at the counter. Finally I presented her with the printout of my reservation.

"Oh, you have to go through Immigration," she said.

"What?!" I said in a panic. "My flight leaves in twenty minutes!"

"Oh, well, then just go to the gate," she replied. So I started running for the gate. Except, of course, my bra came unhooked, so I had to sort of hunch over and cross my arms in front of me. At that instant, I got a weird, incredibly painful cramp in the arch of my left foot, so I was limping along doubled over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame under my heavy backpack.

I got to the gate and, in accordance with Adam Air policy, the woman behind the counter was as mean as TWO snakes. She turned me away without so much as a grunt of sympathy. The flight was leaving, and I was toast.

I have to admit, dear reader, at that point I stomped out of the gate area, sat down in the corridor, and bawled my head off. It was absurd, because missing a cheap flight is hardly the worst thing that can happen; I'd spent all week writing about REALLY bad things that happen to people. But I was tired, all my clothes were dirty, the trip was already financially dicey, and now I was going to have to spend a lot of money for a night in Singapore I didn't remotely desire.

Finally I dried myself out and took the train into town, where I sit writing this at an internet cafe. The Indian woman who runs the place and her small child have just spontaneously broken into song, and I'm starting to feel better.

So, the moral of my story is: check in for your flight early, and for heaven's sake buy a bra with elastic next time.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Banned in Jakarta

Apparently no-one has informed these chickens that they're not allowed to live in the city anymore. A few months ago the government did an anti-bird flu sweep, and actually did seem to eliminate large numbers of urban fowl. But lately we've been hearing more and more roosters crowing in the morning. It's kind of nice to have a little bit of rural atmosphere in this intensely urban environment, actually. And I'm not planning on handling any dead chickens, so I'm not too worried about getting sick.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Having a somewhat freakish passion for fruit salad, I never figured you could improve on the basic concept. But you can: you can make rujak.

Rujak is fruit with a sweet-tangy-spicy sauce and crunchy peanuts. Indonesians especially love rujak with sour fruit like underripe mango; pregnant women are said to crave the sweet-sour combination ... perhaps like pickles-and-ice cream in the US.

Rujak comes in many forms. The Chinese kind one finds in Singapore is called rojak, and has cucumber, bean sprouts and pieces of fried dough in it. In Surabaya they make a famous variant that includes what is usually described as "sliced cow's nose." The recipe below is a simple version that doesn't contain any bovine novelties and shouldn't require too much poking around in specialty food shops - except for the tamarind, which you can generally find in some form at Indian grocery stores.

And here I will say the same old boring thing: you can make this with brown sugar, but it will be tastier if you can get Javanese palm sugar. Adjust the level of sugar and chilis to taste; I haven't tried this recipe but it looks a little sweet.

About 6 cups cubed fruit (mango, Granny Smith apples, pineapple, papaya, firm pear, jicama, grapefruit, cucumber)
3 tablespoons dry roasted peanuts
1 or 2 hot red chilies, sliced and seeded
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind paste, dissolved in 1/2 cup water and strained

Chop the peanuts by hand or in a food processor. Mix with the chilies, brown sugar and tamarind water. Don't over-process; the sauce should be a bit chunky. Combine with fruit. Swoon.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sticky in Singapore

In Singapore you can only buy nicotine gum and other kinds of gums that benefit your health, such as sugarless. The amounts are limited and pharmacies have to record each sale in a logbook like this one.

This actually represents a softening of a previous ban on gum, which the government adopted after people started messing up the city's nice new subway with gooey blobs. The new rules were brought about by the US Singapore free trade agreement of 2004. Wrigley's is said to have lobbied hard during the negotiations.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Learning at the mall

When I was a teenager, we considered going to the mall a learning experience, but our objects of study were generally boys, junk food and clothes, in no particular order. Now malls in Southeast Asia seem to be taking over more and more everday functions of life, including education. Most of one floor of this mall in Singapore is given over to early childhood programs, foreign languge programs, tutoring programs, etc.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Stage 5 Malignant Air Freshener

Air "fresheners" just keep getting larger and more awful. This one was hulking on the desk of our hotel in Singapore like a cancer. An inoperable one, I'm guessing. It had some kind of blue substance whirling around inside it, emitting a distinct odor of bleach.

Cheap hotels love fresheners, but swankiness doesn't offer any guarantees. I was waiting for someone at the fancy-schmancy Mandarin Oriental the other day, and I had to move to the other side of the lobby because of the nauseatingly sweet smell pouring out of the air vent over my head. Elevators are the worst, though, because you can't escape. If I had written No Exit, I'd have put the actors in a stalled elevator ... with a super-turbo-charged air freshener.