Thursday, January 31, 2008

What the bears wear in Bali

I don't have too many fond memories of the Bali climate conference, but watching the polar bears get dressed was kind of fun.

The bears were part of a demonstration organized by an NGO. Environmental groups were putting on little stunts like these every day, because they realized the conference itself, with its mind-numbing recitations of jargon, made for bad television.

"Drink a lot of water, it's hot out there," the person in charge kept saying. And "keep your heads off," an interesting inversion of the usual advice regarding heads.

Finally, donning their heads at the last moment, they went out into the heat to do their little chant. I didn't follow; it really was a lot cooler inside the media center.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Kebayoran Lama market: shapes and textures

I'm told you're supposed to put these flower petals in your bath to make it more luxurious. Too bad we don't have a bathtub!

A stack of lemongrass. I love its herby, lemony, vibrant flavor. Vietnamese food would be lost without it, and it's also crucial to Manadonese food, our favorite Indonesian cuisine.

Pete (peh-teh) beans, also known with affection or horror as "stinky beans." They lend a special pungency to chili sauce.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Going upscale

Our neighborhood, Pejompongan, is nice but not especially trendy. The eateries are all warungs, i.e. street-food places, and they don't put a lot of effort into marketing. In fact, Bu Dena's place across the street is now so well hidden that one needs a highly sensitive warungometer to find it at all.

Now, however, there are little signs of incipient funkiness cropping up around us. Case in point: the Baca (BAH-cha) Cafe.

Baca, which means "read," calls itself "the Book Lovers Cafe" (in English - a sure sign of trendiness). They have lots of second-hand books you can read while drinking your coffee, or you can buy a membership and borrow books for a fee. The coffee is all instant, which is a little disappointing, but at least it's cheap.

It's a cute place, and given the relatively high price of books here, it deserves to survive. But it's a little out of the way, so I worry about its future. If anyone wants to check it out, it's on Jl. Gelinggang, off Jl. Limboto, just down the block from a little stairway down to Gatot Subroto across from the DPR.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Fruit on fire

Chad and I have been writing a street food column lately for the Jakarta Post magazine. This month we did our beloved rujak, or fruit salad with spicy sauce, and decided to branch out into asinan (AH-sin-ahn) as well.

Asinan is basically raw fruit soup. The soupy part is flavored with sugar syrup, sour tamarind, and hot peppers; there's little bits of pepper and fiery seeds floating around. The fruit is mostly unripe -- mangoes, water apples, and something unbelievably sour with the musical name kedongdong -- so it's quite crunchy and tart. Sometimes there's a bit of sweet pineapple scattered around to provide some relief. Oh, and weirdly, there's raw sweet potato too.

As you can imagine, all of this adds up to an explosion in the mouth. This bowl was so tart and hot, we couldn't finish it. Another asinan we tried a block away was a bit milder, fortunately.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The price of tempeh

I went to the big Kebayoran Lama market this morning with a couple of friends on a photographic expedition. We wandered up and down long rows of stalls, taking pictures of fruits, vegetables, flowers, cats and people.

This woman tried really hard to sell me a chicken. When I lied and said I couldn't cook, she said, "I'll cook it for you!"

Chad met us for lunch at a nearby noodle place. Just as we were finishing, the phone rang, and sure enough it was VOA saying Soeharto had died. Luckily the traffic wasn't too bad. We raced home and spent the afternoon filing stuff. We'd been talking to analysts over the last three weeks and saving up tape, so we were actually able to do some decent stories.

Up close and personal - tempeh wrapped in banana leaf

It seems like an ironic time for it to happen. For one thing, the UN anticorruption conference is getting underway in Bali, and institutionalized corruption is certainly part of Soeharto's legacy. On the other hand, the price of tempeh is also a big story at the moment. When he was in power, the government kept the price low. Now it's more vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Poor people survive on tempeh, so when it gets expensive, it's really tough on them. I don't think they say, "Oh, now we have a market economy, and these spikes are an unfortunate side effect." They say, "The government doesn't care if I starve. The president doesn't love me. Soeharto loved me." And in a way, they're right; democracy hasn't been much of a blessing for the people at the bottom. It's a real challenge for the country as it moves forward.

But Soeharto's fingerprints are all over Indonesia, and probably any week that he died would have been full of little coincidences like that. They're burying him tomorrow in Central Java, but it doesn't matter whether he's in the ground -- he's going to be around for a long time to come.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Kids and birds

These boys were carrying racing birds down the street near the Jakarta Post offices . The birds seemed remarkably calm considering that the boy on the left had just finished holding his up to his mouth and shouting. Not shouting AT them; just shouting, the way kids do. Maybe they're used to it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

From Art to Happy

Shot through a taxi window this afternoon while I was on my way to Jalan Sabang, Jakarta's most famous food street, to look for a particular spicy fruit salad (rujak) vendor. I didn't find him.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Titanic without deck chairs

There aren't any bridges over this stretch of the canal, so a few enterprising people operate water taxis. If you look at the upper right-hand corner of this one, you can see its name: Titanic.

The boatman pulls the ferry along on a cable strung over the water. I don't think we were in any danger from ice, but the water was full of garbage -- I suppose a big crapberg could have taken us down.

ht t

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Adults at play

Pardon my recent absence from the blogosphere. I recently discovered you can play Scrabble online against a computer ( -- but don't say I didn't warn you), and for the last three days I've been playing Scrabble the way some people play the horses, or the way other people use heroin.

Having emerged from my haze, I'll write some more about our walk along the canal in Roxy. Appropriately enough, today's subject is games.

The kite-flying kids weren't the only ones enjoying a Saturday off. There's a little pavilion next to the canal, and a bunch of the neighborhood guys were playing board games. This one looked like a variation on checkers, using a reduced number of chess pieces and half the board.

Behind the modified chess game was a big handmade board that seemed kind of like a cross between billiards and air hockey. You have to flick the round white disk at the colored pieces and try to knock your opponent's pieces into the pockets at the corners.

Everyone was amused to see foreigners give it a try.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pigs on the loose

You may recall that I bought a little stick-on device for my phone with the Monokuro Boo pigs on it a while back. The pigs were supposed to flash whenever the phone was active, but they didn't work. Then they fell off in Bangkok, were miraculously recovered, and even more miraculously, started working!

Well, now the story has come to a bad end. I whipped my phone out in a cafe the other day to show off the pigs, and they were gone. I guess I should have expected that. Perhaps they had other, more pressing business to attend to. Perhaps they felt discriminated against as pigs in a Muslim country. Anyway, even though our time together was short, I feel enriched by it. And I feel that when I go get some other stupid flashy-phone thing to replace them, I will also get a tube of Superglue.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Thousands of reasons

Indonesia's former ruler, Soeharto, is gravely ill. Naturally the Indonesian media is following his condition closely. They seem especially obsessed with the medical terminology and procedures: the TV news is peppered with terms like Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy and Tissue Doppler Imaging.

Photo shamelessly swiped from Kompas

Soeharto stepped down ten years ago amid widespread unrest due to the economic crisis. He was a dictator who killed, jailed and oppressed his opponents and impoverished his own people through rampant embezzlement. But I think a lot of people feel conflicted about his illness; there's definitely some nostalgia for the Soeharto era these days. Someone has even written a book called Thousands of Reasons Why People Love Soeharto. They're all the kinds of reasons you usually hear when autocracy gives way to democracy: Prices weren't so high then, we had a strong leader, there weren't as many problems. And all those things are true, in their way.

Soeharto's illness has an eerie quality for me, because it mirrors the course of my father's final illness: poor circulation and fluid retention, followed by failing kidneys and lungs. I can't help feeling sorry for his family, even though they were a driving force behind his theft. I remember taking part in those decisions about what medical procedures to do and what not to do, and they're not easy.

The irony is, the average Indonesian has no access to all these fancy treatments the media is yammering on about. Lots of people who live basically good and honest lives don't last long enough to see their hearts give out at age 86. They certainly don't have crack medical teams charting their every heartbeat. As my mom liked to remind us during our childhood squabbles, "life isn't fair." I suppose the same is true of death.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

This is what I'm talking about ...

when I say there's garbage along the canals.

I mean, it's almost like being in Naples. Unfortunately, nobody has sent in the army to clean things up. There's just this pregnant kitty, and she's more interested in finding dinner than tackling environmental problems.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Roxy kids

Saturday we went for a walk along the canal north of us, in Roxy Mas. Canal-front property is not desirable in Jakarta; it means garbagey smells, and garbage, and regular floods.

Still, all the local kids were having a good time flying kites. Drew caused a pint-sized riot when he stopped to photograph them.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Pile of kitties

These guys were sleeping on a couch next to a six-lane highway, but they didn't seem bothered at all by the traffic. I guess Jakarta cats get used to it.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

When will the crisis be over?

I don't remember hearing about the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 before coming to Jakarta. I'm sure I read a newspaper story or two at the time, but they clearly failed to make an impression.

Once you're in Jakarta, though, you can't get away from the crisis. I've never known a decade-old event to be so alive in people's minds. It's as if everyone in the US were still talking about the Clinton impeachment or Hurricane Mitch. The reason, of course, is that the country is still recovering. You often hear cab drivers and other people say, "I had a good job ... before the crisis."

"When will the crisis be over?"

The weary guy on this button is from Benny and Mice, a great comic strip about Jakarta street life from the Kompas newspaper. The title Lagak Jakarta means "Jakarta-style." I'm not sure why he has what looks like a colander on his head; maybe it's scavenged from somebody's castoffs?

We got the button free with our Benny and Mice books. I photographed it on one of Chad's batik sarongs so you wouldn't have to look at a picture of my hand, for once.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Cultural relativism and pig guts

It's funny how childhood food habits become law. I didn't eat horses as a child, so I don't eat them now, even though I eat cows. Ducks, which are almost as normal as chickens here, still strike me as a luxury item appropriate to cruise ships and weddings. The small roasted birds -- quail? -- sold on certain street corners seem tragic and make me a little queasy.

Thus it is with pig. I am a big fan of certain sausages, even knowing that the casing is made of pig gut. But show me a pile of pig innards - what is known as "sekba" in Glodok - and I turn pale.

We didn't try sekba. We ate turtle, and that seemed like a sufficient challenge. (That's another cultural equation, come to think of it: yes to lobster and fish, no to turtles and frogs.)

So I said no to sekba -- or to quote the great Philip Levine, "No. Not this pig."

Friday, January 04, 2008

Pirate booty

Back to Glodok, aka Chinatown ... which, besides offering fascinating Chinese food, is a major center for black-market DVD sales.

The stuff turns up here almost as soon as it's released in the US. That speed comes at a cost -- sometimes they just send someone to sit in a movie theatre in the States and tape the movie off the screen with a handycam, so the picture is lousy and the sound is lousy and you can hear other audience members talking and crinkling their candy bags. If someone in front of the videotaper decides to go get popcorn, their head will suddenly pop up on your screen.

All the big American TV shows get copied and sent over pretty speedily as well. They release them a couple of episodes at a time, and then at the end of the season they round the whole thing up into one package. Hence the 3A+3B+3C, etc., on this copy of Lost, Season 3.

Usually they design their own covers for the discs, and sometimes they choose the wrong blurbs. They'll put something like "A stellar cast ultimately disappoints!!! -- Gene Siskel" on the front in big letters. Or here: "A significant war -- NY Daily News." And something tells me the movie isn't supposed to be called Cold War in Russian, either.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Junk food of the week: Everyburger!

The fun thing about buying Japanese junk food is you never know what you're going to get, because the packaging is all in Japanese. Sometimes this pans out and sometimes it doesn't. A few weeks ago I got some allegedly chocolate things that turned out to have all the personality of sawdust. They reminded me of the old Peanuts comic where Linus brings Lucy a cup of cocoa. Lucy takes a sip but spits it out with a look of disgust.

"What is THIS?" she demands.

"Oh," Linus answers, "we were out of cocoa mix so I just dipped a brown crayon in hot water."

Everyburger, however -- here we are talking about quality junk food. These are tiny cheeseburger-shaped cookies with chocolate in the middle.

Note the attention to detail, "sesame seeds" and all. And the chocolate filling is actually of good quality. It's clear that no brown crayons were harmed in the making of the Everyburger.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Another crazy Jakarta New Year's

So the thing about New Year's Eve in Jakarta is, it's expensive. We didn't bestir ourselves to organize a party, and we didn't know anyone who was having a party, and we didn't want to go down to the total mob scene to watch the fireworks at Monas, the National Monument. This left us to the tender mercies of Jakarta's nightclubs and hotels, which were charging from $35 to somewhere upwards of $100 per person for the evening.

The perfect emptiness of their bar

Chad and I and Drew and Melanie, who live downstairs, figured we would be clever and get around the whole thing by going to a row of Japanese and Korean places behind Blok M where you can sing karaoke, drink sake, have a bit of sushi and even ride a mechanical bull. But the joke was on us, because practically the whole block was closed. Bars! Closed on New Year's Eve! So we took refuge in an Authentic English Pub (on tap: Indonesian beer and Heineken ... hmmm). The moment we violated the perfect emptiness of their bar, the staff informed us sternly that the place was closing at midnight. Closing at midnight! On New Year's Eve! So we ordered some beers and toasted the New Year and, as our first official act of 2008, got tossed out promptly at 12:01.

Luckily there wasn't much traffic so we zipped right home and saw the tail end of everybody's fireworks from the roof. We snapped a picture, and that was that -- another crazy Jakarta New Year's Eve.