Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dangdut without shaking it is like vegetables without salt

Recently Chad and I went with a bunch of friends to check out a dangdut bar I'd noticed on my way to work. While there's a lot of Western-style pop and rock going on here, dangdut is a more local kind of pop -- songs with a sinuous beat and wailing vocals, drawing on Indian, Arabic and Malay music.

Most foreigners I know here find dangdut interesting and exotic, but most Indonesians I know don't like it; it's considered kind of a low-class, mass entertainment. I sometimes reflect that when I talk about dangdut in excited tones, I must sound something like an Indonesian coming to the US and professing a love for the Oak Ridge Boys or possum stew.

Anyway, we saw three different singers, who were all pretty decent. That was a relief; since it's a nasally vocal style, bad dangdut singing is like an electric drill pointed straight at your eardrum.

I liked the place. The atmosphere was low-key, the beer was not too pricey, and it's close to our neighborhood -- which counts for a lot in Jakarta -- so I think we'll go back.

For those who haven't heard dangdut, here's a video from Inul Daratista, perhaps the most famous/notorious dangdut singer of the decade. Inul's hip-grinding dance style, known as "drilling," caused quite a storm of outrage a few years ago. It even led to serious consideration of a bill banning "pornographic actions," which could have been interpreted to include things like wearing miniskirts or kissing in public. Luckily that idea seems to have run out of steam.

Here's my translation of the lyrics. If I've made any mistakes -- as Inul might say, Ma'afkanlah (Forgive me)!

Goyang Inul (Inul Shakes)

Members of the audience,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Everybody – don’t be surprised
If Inul is shaking it
Kinda hot, a little sexy.
Forgive me!

There are those who say dangdut without shaking it
Is like vegetables without salt –
Not very tasty, not very appetizing.
So Inul shakes it
To make everyone happy
For those who don’t approve
Of seeing Inul dance …
Don’t be angry.
Forgive me!

Members of the audience,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Everybody here,
Let’s shake it!

A thousand and one problems
Can be forgotten in a moment
Just watch Inul dance
And be entertained, darling!

But don’t forget to pray
For all of us to be healthy and prosperous.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Concrete and barbed wire

High-rise security

I have never seen a city as in love with fences, barricades, wires, walls, posts, and general obstacles as Jakarta. It seems like everywhere you want to walk, there's something in the way. "Let's just cut through the parking lot" is not something you say here, unless you want to spend a frustrating half-hour trying (and eventually failing) to break through a maze of obstructions.

Sidewalk posts and fences near the National Monument

Most of these obstacles are intended to prevent crime, no doubt. Some aim to prevent commerce (i.e. the posts on sidewalks to keep people from opening cigarette stands and food stalls). Others prevent ... well, life, such as the fences that keep homeless people from bathing in certain rivers.

Housefront walls and gates (and a cat)

It all feels a bit unfair in the end. Traffic rules go unenforced, and motorcycles drive on the sidewalks at will. But pedestrians are easy to block and corral, so we're the ones who have to follow the rules.

Sometimes I daydream about starting an international NGO called Right to Walk. We would fight for everyone denied the basic, healthy instinct to stroll around: from kids trapped in crime-ridden housing projects in the US, to people kept indoors by unbreathable air in developing countries. Anybody who's worried about the impending global obesity epidemic should be worried about the right to walk. Who's with me?? And especially, who's with me and has an extra 5 million dollars lying around?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The high life

I have a new job! That's my latest excuse for falling behind on my blogging.

I am now an editor at an English-language luxury lifestyle magazine. It's a bit of a stretch for me because the amount I know about expensive watches, for example, is approximately nothing. The amount I care about expensive watches? Ha! - no comment. But it's steady work, they pay well, and I hope to sneak some worthwhile stuff into the mag between the bouts of blatant consumerism.

I had developed a kind of allergy toward freelancing in recent months. Every time I thought about pitching a story, I felt queasy. So it was clearly time to escape to the security of a salaried job.

My friend Haviva is working at the same place, which is great. Recently the magazine threw a party, and they put about an inch-thick layer of makeup on both of us, poofed our hair to the max, and turned us loose in a fancy restaurant. They sprayed my hair so heavily, I had to "break" the sides in order to put my glasses back on. But it was pretty fun, and the lumpia (Indonesian eggrolls) made up for a lot.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Junk food of the week: Coffee soda

I recall that Rhode Islanders have a weird obsession with coffee-flavored milk. But I don't remember whether there is actually coffee soda in the US.

Coffee soda does seem to have some coffee flavoring in it. But it also tastes a bit like root beer and a bit like chocolate. It's slightly bitter and very sugary at the same time, which is a little weird.

With just 10.5 mg (half as much as a can of Coke), this stuff doesn't have enough caffeine to make it worthwhile. Interestingly, the back of the can seems to suggest a daily caffeine limit of 150 mg. Depending on your brewing style, that could be as little as one cup of coffee! Clearly these people have never lived in a college dorm or worked in a newsroom.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Box of kitty

Susu is losing her kittenish roundness and becoming a lean Jakarta cat.

She is nearly two soda-cans long now and bursting with energy -- if you want to sit on the couch reading or working on the computer, it's wise to have at least a dozen crumpled balls of paper to throw, as well as some golf tees, little plastic balls, and badminton shuttlecocks. She chases them but she doesn't bring them back, so after tossing them all you have to get up, collect them, and toss them again.

Chad and I had the day off, so we went out and got a new teakettle to replace our cheap, crummy one from Carrefour, which smelled like rotting fish every time we boiled water. Susu spent the afternoon playing with the box. It reminded me of one of my favorite radio moments ever, whenTerry Gross was interviewing the genius musician Tom Waits.

"What did you first learn to play music on?" she asked him.

"Ohhhh, I don't know," he growled. "Uhhh .... a box."

Who knows -- maybe Susu will become an amazing songwriter too.

It takes a while, but if you wear her out, she gets pretty snuggly.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cruising the highway

On Sunday mornings Jakarta reserves part of Jalan Sudirman, the main north-south thoroughfare, for bikers and pedestrians.

I just got a bike, so I went with some friends over the weekend. It was pretty cool. I still ended up with a smog headache, but it took a lot longer to get one than usual.

You have to get up early; they close the road at 6 a.m. and open it back up to traffic by 9. Even so, it was pretty crowded. There were walkers and joggers and even skateboarders, and cool kids on low-riders, and annoying adults on racing bikes yelling "Coming through!"

We had a friend coming over afterward, so I stopped at the outdoor market on the way home and got drinks, little cakes and rambutans.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Muara Angke

As part of the research we were doing a couple of weeks ago, we went up to a neighborhood in North Jakarta called Muara Angke. It's the fishing part of town, right next to the water, and the first thing we saw -- and smelled -- when we stepped out of the taxi were long rows of fish drying in the sun.

Notice the trashunder the tables. With its location on Jakarta Bay, Muara Angke is the unlucky recipient of tons of garbage from the rivers that flow through the city. A portion of the town is actually built out over the bay on a crazy system of stilts and improvised walkways, but there's so much garbage everywhere I often couldn't tell where the land stopped and the water began.

Here we're definitely over water. These bamboo walkways are quite strong, but get slippery when they're wet. The houses are improvised out of scrap materials.

Even the fishing boats were mired in garbage.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Junk food of the week: Bakpia

If you go away for a few days, you will likely be bombarded with requests for oleh-oleh (souvenirs) when you get back: from your office-mates, your friends, even, in our case, the woman who runs the shop on the corner where you buy your drinking water. Everyone will pretend they're kidding ... but you'd better bring something back anyway, because you don't want to be known as that person who never gives out any oleh-oleh.

These little flaky stuffed pastries called bakpia are a good choice when you go to Yogyakarta because they are 1. food, so you avoid matters of personal style; 2. affordable; 3. strongly associated with Yogya; 4. pretty universally acceptable (as opposed to, say, durian candy); and 5. tasty.

I found bakpia a little dry at first, but then they grew on me. The classic filling is sweet mung bean paste, which is good, but my favorite is purple yam. The colored dot on top tells you what the filling is.

This box confused me at first because it said purple yam on the front, but then listed the flavors on the side as chocolate, mung bean and cheese. The latter turned out to be flavors added to the purple yam, which is why the fillings above have slightly different colors.

Perhaps it's a measure of how long I've been here that yam-and-cheese doesn't strike me as a weird filling for a cookie. It does seem like gilding the lily, because yam is perfectly tasty on its own. Needless to say, that didn't stop me from eating the whole box.

Friday, March 07, 2008


One of the advantages of living in an officially multi-religious state (Indonesia formally recognizes 6 faiths) is that you get a lot of holidays. Today, for example, is Nyepi, the Balinese Hindu day of silence. There aren't too many Hindus in Jakarta, but Nyepi becomes its own sort of day of silence here: offices are closed, people have left town for the long weekend, and the roads are blissfully half-empty. Coming up are the Prophet Muhammad's birthday and Good Friday -- both government holidays too.

Because religion has an official role here, you get asked about your faith at a lot of strange times and places. When I had to report my lost ATM card to the police earlier this week, for example -- which seemed weird in itself, but the bank insisted -- the officer asked my religion and wrote my answer on the form. Then he asked me exactly where and when I lost the card. I refrained from pointing out that if I knew those things, I would know where to find the card. Instead I just made some stuff up, which must be what everybody does.

I didn't take a picture of the policeman, but you can imagine a guy in a tan-and-brown uniform that didn't look very comfortable, playing solitaire on his computer in a tiny box of an office underneath a local overpass. There was no AC and the room was pretty hot and sticky, even though this is the cool time of year. It must get pretty unbearable in August.

Anyway, I guess I'll just have to post a picture of the kitty instead. Susu is improving by leaps and bounds; her digestive problems have cleared up, which is giving the sores and other stuff a chance to heal. She's used the litter box faithfully for the past two days so we're crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. She's pretty hyper sometimes, especially when she's chasing crumpled balls of paper, but she still likes to sleep on the back of my neck while I type on the couch. In other words, she's a pretty cool cat.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The end of Total Assy

Looking back, I now think of our first months here as the golden era of the Total Assy window sticker. It seemed like half the SUVs in Jakarta had them. But someone must have put the word out that Total Assy is not actually a compliment, and now they've become an endangered species. I've trying to photograph one for at least three months, so I was very excited to find this one on a backstreet near a friend's house last weekend.

Looking up

In the end, it was my fault. I mixed up the instructions from the vet and wasn't giving enough of the anti-diarrhea medicine. Now it's all straightened out and Susu is improving rapidly. She's more energetic and has started holding her tail straight up, which seems like a sign of good spirits. She watches all our goings-on keenly and likes to chase my fingers when I read and/or work on the computer.

We're not quite out of the woods yet, however, as she is still thinking outside the box occasionally when it comes to personal waste disposal. My sister is sending one of those amazing pet-smell neutralizers from the States, which will be much appreciated.

Chad was carrying Susu down the street in a cardboard box the other day when he ran into one Dani, one of the local motorcycle taxi drivers. After peeking into the box and seeing our bedraggled kitten, Dani said, "Are you throwing her away?"

He was joking -- I think.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The fabulous twenties machine

One measure of the income gap in Jakarta is the fact that money from the ATM is so hard to use on the street.

Most ATMs spit out 50,000 or 100,000 rupiah notes -- about $5 and $10, respectively. But if you want to buy fried rice on the street for 6,000, the guys selling it often won't have change. They'll typically go around to other street sellers until they find someone who can break it.

Even paying for a 20,000 rp taxi fare with a 50,000 can be difficult. And the 100k bills! They're practically useless outside expensive hotels, restaurants and malls.

There are several solutions to this problem (if having access to large denominations of money can even be called a problem -- which of course it can't). First, you can stock up at one of the rare and sought-after twenties machines. I know of only two: one near Deutsche Bank, and the other in an apartment tower where some friends used to live.

Another is to become a notorious bill-scrounger. These are the people who, after dining out with a group, shamelessly scoop up all the small bills from the kitty and replace them with 50s and 100s. This is not wrong, exactly, but it doesn't seem like good behavior either.

Another is to frequent businesses that break large bills. The busway is excellent for this purpose because they don't bat an eye if you pay for a 3500 rp ticket with a 50,000 note.

I've seen a lot of amazing things in Indonesia -- a volcanic eruption, a lake of boiling mud, a guy who drinks his own pee -- but one of my enduring memories is of watching a woman pay for a 2,000 rp bemo ride with a 100,000 note. She was so nonchalant! It was like watching someone do a perfect triple back flip off the diving board in the Olympics. I wanted to hold up a little sign that said "10.0". I think she must have known the driver, though.