Monday, December 29, 2008

Junk food of the week: Meat Filled Chicken

It's easy to see how this tragically bad translation happened. Someone must have looked up the Indonesian name, pastel ayam, and discovered that pastel is "meat-filled pastry" and ayam is "chicken." One little noun-confusion later, we arrive at "Meat Filled Chicken."

So, what is Meat Filled Chicken actually like? It's been several weeks since I tasted these, and all I recall is a kind of crumbly paste inside, and a strong flavor of salt.

I don't even want to know what you have to do to a chicken to make it shelf-stable for a year.

Note that the box says "A Gift From Indonesia," so now you all know what you're getting if you ask me to bring you a present!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ho ho ho and a bottle of rum

It seems like the malls here get a little more Christmas-crazy every year. Some of them have pretty inspired interpretations of holiday traditions, such as this "pirate Christmas" display.

Pirates with Christmas-wreath hats? Yeah, we've got that.

Treasure chests overflowing with ornaments? Stuffed Christmas parrots? Why not!

You can even get your whole family's picture taken with Santa -- though not on his lap, luckily for Santa.

Plus there's a tower of "gifts" stretching all the way to the top of the second floor, lest anyone forget the True Meaning of Christmas.

The pirate display also gave me an excellent opportunity to take sneaky photos of the pembantus, or nannies. It's very common to bring your pembantu to the mall; the more expensive the mall, the more pembantus. They're easy to spot: they're the ones in a white or pastel uniform, pushing a stroller while carrying someone else's baby and 37 bags of someone else's shopping.

Pembantus are often country girls who move to Jakarta in search of opportunity. They usually live with the family and work long hours for less than $100 a month. I'm sure most of them get treated okay. But it's poignant to see them rushing around wiping kids' noses or feeding them spoonfuls of rice from a plastic container - in some cases spoon-feeding ten-year-olds - while the moms study Prada window displays or drink Starbucks coffee with the other mall ladies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Don't make me come down there and kick your ass

Susu perching high atop the upended mattress in the spare room, aka The Climbing Wall.

Seriously. Back away from the mattress slowly. Put your hands where I can see them and stop making that scritching noise. You don't want to know what these claws can do. I am a hunter. A fighter. A cat.

Seriously. Don't make me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Goats Seen and Unseen

Every year when Idul Adha rolls around, the sidewalks of Jakarta fill up with goats and cows.

Excuse me, I have an urgent phone cow

Every Muslim of means is supposed to buy an animal, or at least part of one, to be slaughtered on the Day of Sacrifice. You get to keep a third of the meat; the rest is given to the poor. For some people, it's the one time they eat meat all year.

I always tell Chad we should buy a leftover goat the day after Idul Fitri -- when there are sure to be big discounts -- and keep it in a little tent on our rooftop terrace. It could eat our garbage and we could sell the manure as compost. I used to think we could make goat cheese, too, but it turns out all the Idul Adha goats are male.

A handsome pet

Chad proved to be unreasonably resistant to the pet goat idea again, but we decided we would participate in the charitable part of the scheme and buy a goat to sacrifice. Our downstairs neighbors, Drew and Melanie, offered to chip in too.

We asked a few people how much we should pay, including Bu Dena, the woman who runs the warung across the street. She offered to take us to a friend who was selling them.

That afternoon, Dena led us to a perfectly ordinary house a couple of streets over. We were confused because there was nary a goat to be seen -- just some construction debris and sand.

Dena at the goat house with two of her kids, Dina (left) and Putri

Only when you walked up the driveway and looked into a sort of carport on the left did you see a couple dozen of them, held in by a wooden gate.

Hidden goats

Dena's friend led out a few different goats for us to look at. The first cost 1.9 million, or about 170 dollars -- within our expected price range of 1 to 2 million, but a little more than we wanted to pay. The second was 1.7 and the third, a much smaller one, was 1.2. Being pragmatic types, we settled on Goat Number 2.

I told myself not to fall in love with our goat, but of course I did. Instantly. This was a bad move.

Once we paid, the next step was to take the goat down to the mosque, where he would stay for the next couple of days until his moment of sacrifice. As it turned out, Goaty didn't want to go to the mosque. He bucked and balked and shouted in a terrible, almost-human voice. It took all the goat-man's persuasion to get him around the corner and down the street.

When we finally completed our melancholy Dead Goat Walking journey, Chad registered Goaty for the sacrifice and got our receipt. The mosque would handle the slaughter and the distribution, including delivering our portion to our door. I was relieved to get our part of the process done with.

On the walk home, as I was still struggling with goat-related sadness, Bu Dena turned to us and asked an odd question: "Have you seen my husband?"

Chad and I looked at each other and scratched our heads. Come to think of it, we hadn't seen him around in a while.

"He's left me," said Dena with a funny smile. "He's already married some other woman across town."

I was floored. I didn't know what to say -- partly because of language limitations and partly because it was so shocking. Those two have seven kids together, plus some more from previous marriages. And I had just taken all those photos of him a few months before, playing the proud daddy at their baby-naming. The betrayal was staggering.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Dena went on, still with that odd smile on her face. "For Jakarta men, marriage is a hobby!"

I wanted to call her ex terrible names, but the kids were crowding all around so I felt I shouldn't. I shook my head and told her I was very sad, and that it was, indeed, amazing.

We walked the rest of the way home thinking about goats of all kinds.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Going Solo

Chad and I are both working at the newspaper now, so it's pretty rare for both of us to have the weekend off. One of those weekends happened unexpectedly about three weeks ago, so we decided to make a last-minute dash to Solo, Central Java.

We stayed at the Novotel which is pretty cushy for us -- not only flush toilets, hot showers and a nice pool, but in-room broadband and culturally appropriate statuary!

Solo is a famous cultural destination. There was a fancy map at the hotel showing all kinds of interesting places to visit.

Unfortunately we didn't go to any of them. Mostly we just stayed in our room and typed on our laptops, because we were doing National Novel Writing Month and we were both struggling to keep our word counts up.

NaNoWriMo involves writing a 50,000-word novel in a month (the month of November, specifically). That's 1667 words a day. If you fall behind, your word deficit starts piling up faster than unsold SUVs at General Motors.

We did manage to get out to one place -- the kampung batik or batik neighborhood. It's a cute area of narrow streets full of small shops making and selling batik, such as the shirt above.

Chad wanted his picture taken at the Ryan batik shop, because there is a famous serial killer named Ryan who's on trial for murder right now in Jakarta. I had bought a cheap, crummy paperback book about him at the airport to read on the plane - one of those books full of fuzzy pictures downloaded from the internet.

The worst thing about the book is that, since Ryan is gay, the author felt it necessary to put lots of things about his domestic habits in quotation marks. The result reads something like Ryan and his "partner" decided to "spend some time together" at the apartment, and then Ryan cooked dinner like a good "wife." Every time I see those marks I imagine the author making a little "quote" gesture, and after a while I feel exhausted from all the gesturing ... nevermind the unpleasant sneering tone.

After the Ryan shop, we saw an awesome sign about The Power of Underwear.

We also saw a garage door that had been extensively decorated by Slank fans. Slank is a Jakarta group that inhabits that gray area between rock band and cult. Slank graffiti is everywhere, and if you go to any kind of big celebration, like the annual Idul Fitri street celebrations, you'll see kids waving Slank banners.

Interestingly, Slank gave out free pairs of underwear with one of their recent CDs, as a reward for purchasing a legal copy instead of the black-market version. The power of underwear, indeed!

So that is all we saw of Solo. We even ate all our meals at the hotel, pathetically; every time we tried to go out to eat, it started raining. Luckily the hotel food was good. Plus they had the local specialty, nasi liwet: chicken and shredded squash with some coconut milk sauces, sambal and of course, rice. It was tasty.

Best of all, we both completed NaNoWriMo successfully this past Sunday! Woohoo!

Monday, December 01, 2008

My Busway Day: Kota

There's a famous old train station in northern Jakarta that I've always admired from the bus window. Since I was being a transportation geek anyway, I figured I'd go have a look inside.

Like so many buildings in Jakarta, Kota Station is blockaded by fences and barricades. It's a bit of a chore to get in. But it's worth the effort.

It was built around 1870, with this really lovely vaulted ceiling. It's still a working train station.

The route map filled me with travel desires. After all, who wouldn't want to go to Cikadongdong, Gadobangkong or Tagogapu?

Unfortunately, almost as soon as I got to the station my camera batteries died. I decided to walk down to the Glodok marketplace to buy more. On the way out I bought some lumpia from the Bicycling Lumpia Man.

Lumpia are the Indonesian version of egg rolls. These ones were small, greasy and tasty. They came with a little baggie of sweet peanut sauce that seemed to proclaim: sure, this is a Chinese-derived snack in a Chinese part of town, but still, it is JAVANESE food.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

My Busway Day: It Begins

This summer, while transitioning between jobs, I had two glorious weeks off. I decided spend one of these magical free days traversing Jakarta on the Busway. It seemed like a fun way to see parts of town I don't normally get to. Plus, I actually thought I might be able to ride all the lines in one day, which turned out to be a pipe dream.

(Members of my family will now be wincing, because riding all the busway lines in a day is exactly what our late Uncle Jack would have done, and Uncle Jack was definitely a bit of an Odd Duck. I guess biology is destiny, after all.)

I got to our local station, Benhill, at around 7 a.m. Things were hopping -- lots of foot traffic, lots of road traffic.
,The breakfast vendors were in full swing. This guy is selling sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, probably with a little chicken inside, as well as an assortment of pastries. These people start early -- probably by 5, although I've never been around to see -- and they're usually gone before 9.

Here's another pastry basket. Don't be alarmed by the green bread -- it's flavored with pandan, Indonesia's answer to vanilla.

The station wasn't too crowded. I waited inside for about five minutes, thinking about the warning a taxi driver had given me a month or two before: Watch out for men in suits and jackets on the busway. They'll hypnotize you and steal your wallet and cellphone! I saw some guys in business attire, but they seemed to be innocently reading the paper. Of course, that was probably their cover.

Finally the bus came. I had decided to ride all the way up to the Chinese end of North Jakarta and then double back to get on one of the East-West lines. This was cheating, in a sense, since I've done the north-south trip many times ... but I also know it's the best line on the busway, and I wasn't in a hurry to start dealing with long lines and packed buses. So I set off to Kota.

to be continued ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kopi Susu: The Official Music Video

Long time no post! All I'm doing these days is work, and I can't write about work for a variety of reasons including 1. corporate confidentiality and 2. I don't want to.

Here is a classic dangdut song about my blog featuring two stars of the 70s and 80s, Mansyur S. and Elvy Sukaesih. I've been sneakily subtitling it on my Mac at work over the last week or so. Since I'm in a list-making mood, here are a few of the reasons why I love this video, besides the obvious one:

1. The soaring eagles, drifting swans and nibbling chipmunks. (Er ... nibbling chipmunks?)

2. The bad acting.

3. The great singing. These guys have feather-light voices that dance all around the notes without ever straying off key.

4. Elvy Sukaesih busting out what look like little Balinese-dancer style head moves.

5. Mansyur S. waving a banana around naughtily. And is he really pretending to wipe drool off his chin?

"Basket eyes," by the way, are eyes like baskets -- always hungry to be filled.

Props to Novia and Ade for help with the translation!

Thursday, November 06, 2008


Due to the 12-hour time difference between here and the US, we got the election results on Wednesday morning. It was weird to have it all happening while I was at my desk at work. Some people stopped to watch the speeches.

Joya, Howie, Haviva, Me, Chad

The big celebration was later, at - naturally! - a shopping mall. It was organized by Democrats Abroad. They had a huge screen to show a video of the acceptance speech, and bands, and beer, and a balloon drop.

It was a lot like a post-election party in the States, so it scratched that itch to feel American. It reminded me of many an election night I've spent in a hotel ballroom with my microphone and notebook, waiting for the candidate to come out and make a speech.

There were plenty of Indonesians celebrating, too. As you may have heard 50,000 times on CNN, Obama is quite popular here.

I got an extra shirt, figuring someone would want it. Today one of my workmates who'd seen pictures of the party asked me in desperate tones, "Do you know any way I can get an Obama shirt?" When I gave it to her, she was pretty happy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Junk food of the week: Melted Choco in your Fruity Mouth

This is a little booth at Plaza Semanggi, the mall my office is attached to. It has one of the greatest advertising slogans ever.

Unfortunately the product itself is a little less exciting: just three little strawberries dipped in average-quality chocolate and sprinkled with colored sugar.

The good thing is, they give it to you straight up, without any tin foil or waxed paper or anything. That's a nice change from the wrapping frenzy that accompanies most mall food purchases. (At the trendy bakery downstairs, for example, even if you just buy a cheese roll, they put it in two -- two! -- plastic bags.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dayak lullaby

We spent our last night in the jungle sleeping on the floor of our guide's friend's house. The house had a large front room, and we slept in a little room off to the side. The only furniture in the front room was a piece of cloth hanging from the ceiling. It was for rocking the baby.

I was dead tired after a full day of hiking, and when I saw the baby being swayed gently in this soft tunnel of cloth, I wished I could climb in there too. Then the women of the house began singing lullabies. I took out my little video camera and persuaded them to sing for it.

I couldn't see a thing, and I was trying to figure out how the camera worked, so the video is kind of jumpy and random. But I like the cute kid who keeps trying to get into the picture. And most of all I love the woman's voice; it's got a toughness and grit that remind me of 1930s folk recordings by grannies in coal-mining towns in Appalachia.

The woman singing is not the one in the video, by the way; it's the older woman, who was sitting to her left.

I kept encouraging them both to sing more, but at the end you can hear her say "Cukup! (choo-koop): "Enough!"

Here's how they looked in daylight, as we were saying goodbye the next day:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The river raft pilot

Back to our Idul Fitri trek in South Kalimantan: After two days of hiking through the jungle from village to village, we arrived at the Amandit River. There were two bamboo rafts waiting for the trip downstream.

The native Dayaks have used rafts for centuries to ferry people and cargo down the river. The raft is cargo, too; it takes just a few hours to build, and once it has reached its destination, it gets broken down and sold as bamboo poles.

The raft pilot steers with a long pole; when the raft gets stuck, which it often does, he jumps out and sets things right by hand.

The top half of the river was a bit tricky, but the bottom was calmer. The pilot let Chad take over the helm for the last hour, with some help during the tough spots. Check out the video below! The color commentary is provided by our hiking guide, Taila, who gets in the picture at the end.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

All grown up

We think Susu has pretty much reached her full size. She's only 2.2 kilos, or a little less than five pounds; perhaps because of her kittenhood malnutrition, she's not going to be a really big cat. Her old crooked whiskers have fallen out and been replaced by straight ones, but she still has a scar on her forehead from the gash she had when we found her. Her most distinctive features are her long, straight tail (unusual for a Jakarta cat), and her long legs.

Susu has a number of hobbies and talents. For example, she believes in using the exercise machines every day.

She is a skilled climber. (Our landlord, who designed and installed all the custom woodwork, may be less impressed with this ability than we are.)

She knows how to get out of a tight spot.

And she knows how to keep her cool on a hot, muggy Jakarta afternoon.