Monday, June 30, 2008

The Story of Cancer Snail

Cancer Snail is made of sulfur. We bought him for 50 cents from one of the miners at Ijen, who assured us he was a snail even though he has no shell or other snail-like features. We immediately named him Cancer Snail because of the tumor-like lumps that cover his body.

Riding in a van in East Java

Cancer Snail cannot walk or even stand on his own. Still, he is an inspiration to millions. He has traveled the length of Java and Bali, and faces each day with the same cheery yellow countenance. Schoolchildren flock from miles around to see him (well, not exactly, but we think they will someday). I believe we can all learn from the example of Cancer Snail.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The sulfur miners of Ijen

The reason people stay at Margo Utomo, besides the enormous bat and the nutmeg, is that it makes a good staging area for a hike to the Ijen Plateau. And Ijen is one of the most amazing places I've ever seen.

Photo: Jason Gold

The path up is quite pleasant, with pretty views of the surrounding mountains. But once you get above treeline, you're suddenly standing on the surface of the moon. It's all exposed, striated rock surrounding a smoking crater and an unnaturally bright-aqua lake.

The crater spews clouds of yellow sulfur gas. Sulfur collects all around the crater mouth, and local people chip out chunks of it and carry it 5 miles down the mountain to sell. The baskets full of sulfur often weigh more than 100 pounds (45 kg). The miners typically finish two trips per day, for which they get paid around $7.

Chad and I went into the crater to do some interviews. Here, as opposed to Mt. Bromo, we got very lucky with the wind direction. When we arrived it was blowing the sulfur right up the trail, but as we began to descend into the crater it shifted to the side.

Still, the mine was like some medieval portrait of hell. It was hot; the men did backbreaking labor, using long, metal-tipped poles to dislodge chunks of sulfur; every time the wind shifted and blew a cloud of gas over them, they were seized with spasms of coughing.

Each man generally works two weeks on and two weeks off; you can't do this job full-time because your knees and lungs can't handle it. As it is, the miners have multiple health problems and tend to die younger than their counterparts with easier jobs.

Ask them why they do it, and you get a simple answer: for their kids. School costs money here, and any responsible parent is focused on getting his or her children educated. $7 clearly isn't much, but it's way more than you can make farming.

This guy has a grown son in the Navy. He was proud, and justifiably so, but he was still laboring away because he has more children to raise.

The New York Times has a pretty cool slideshow of Ijen here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Where spices come from

The Margo Utomo plantation has an excellent tour, during which they teach you about the origins of all sorts of spices. Cinnamon, for example, is a tree bark -- our guide peeled some right off the tree.

Nutmeg is particularly surprising. It's actually a fruit -- a tart, nutmeggy fruit. Inside is a seed covered by a beautiful, lacy red husk. The husk is ground to make mace; the seed itself is what becomes nutmeg powder.

While we were admiring the nutmeg, the palm sap collecter came around and started climbing a nearby palm tree. There are notches cut on either side of the trunk for footholds.

To make palm sugar, you collect the sap from the palm buds. Then you boil it down into a sort of sweet brown hockey puck. Palm sugar has a nice, rich caramel-y flavor that's key to certain Indonesian sweets.

The tree-climber's daughter helped him pour the sap into the waiting jugs.

She liked it when the last of the sap gurgled down through the funnel.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Stupid blog tricks

My apologies for the USA Today travel blob that now appears under the Archive section to the right ... as part of my job, I'm trying out a bunch of different web toys.

And who knows? Maybe you'll spot some cheap tickets to Jakarta and decide to come visit!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Grounded for life

Every morning when we walked out of our room at Margo Utomo, we were greeted by the sight of a large fruit bat.

The bat is a permanent resident of the plantation. He (as you can see for yourself, he is clearly a he) spends most of his day in a bamboo cage, but in the morning his caretaker feeds him at this tree.

On our first morning we spent a long time admiring the bat. He entertained us by eating chunks of papaya and pineapple, walking hand-over-hand along the branch, and unfurling his beautiful leathery wings.

Eventually the caretaker offered to let us hold him. Chad was the only one bold enough to accept.

The bat has a sad story. He was taken from his mother as an infant, so he never learned to fly. He has probably never know the society of other bats. He's dependent on his keeper for even the small luxury of enjoying a tree branch.

On the other hand, he's well-fed and well-kept and, unlike some of his fellow bats, he has not wound up on anyone's dinner plate. Fruit bats are eaten in some parts of Indonesia, most famously in Manado. I suppose luck, good or bad, is always a relative thing.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The greatest chili sauce

Our first day at Margo Utomo, I had to finish writing a story, so I stayed behind when everyone else went out on a plantation tour. I was done by noon so I rewarded myself with a walk to town to look for lunch. And that's where I had one of the world's great chili sauces.

As far as I could tell, it was just perfectly ripe chilis and perfectly ripe tomatoes, crushed in a mortar and pestle. Maybe a little salt. What else do you need? The woman who ran the restaurant would make a small batch every time someone came in. She brought it out right in the shallow wooden bowl where she'd just pounded it.

It was a little roadside restaurant, and in the usual fashion there were about half a dozen bowls sitting on the counter, shielded by plastic covers to keep the flies out. You could ladle yourself some rice from the rice cooker and then take as much or little of anything as you wanted. They had a very tasty curried vegetable dish with unripe jackfruit, and I never even got around to sampling the mountain of fried shrimp. I left wondering how many other amazing chili sauces were lurking in humble eateries in Kalibaru.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Junk food of the week: Green goo

Green goo is actually srikaya jam, a custardy sort of spread made from coconut milk and egg. The color comes from pandan (also known as screwpine) leaf , a favorite dessert flavoring in Southeast Asia.

Pandan jam is thick, rich and sweet and pretty much tastes like coconut cream pie.

If you put it on a piece of bread, as the drawing on the label suggests, you have an open-faced coconut cream pie sandwich. That's probably somebody's idea of the perfect lunch, but not mine, since I'm not a big coconut fan. I think I'll keep the rest of the jar around, though; it might come in handy if we decide to shoot a low-budget sci-fi flick or turn our apartment into a haunted house for Halloween.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dangdut bus II: Bromo to Kalibaru

After a long sweaty day of bus rides, a sleepless night, and a sulfurous hike, I really needed a shower. But I was still too cold to take one, so I didn't.

Me (and my new glasses) in the hotel mirror

Instead, we piled back on the minivan to retrace our path down the mountain to Probolinggo and then on westward to Kalibaru. The van dropped us at the rather notorious Probolinggo bus station. True to form, five different people there told us five completely different things about where the buses were going, how much they cost, what time they left and how to buy tickets. Finally we jumped on a non-air-conditioned economy bus just to extricate ourselves from the trail of bickering touts we had accumulated.

Like the bus itself, the dangdut vidoes on it were cheap and local. They seemed to have been shot at a singing contest, except that the fiercest competition was really about which singer could wear the shortest and tightest shorts with her go-go boots. The lyrics were all in Javanese. Unfortunately I couldn't get a good picture because the bus was shaking too hard.

Finally we arrived at the cool green leafiness of Margo Utomo plantation. Margo Utomo is a funny colonial time-warp of a resort: it has lovely little cottages and a working farm, and lots of Dutch guests who've clearly been going there for decades. The staff speaks more Dutch than English, which is rare in Indonesia these days.

We'd been moving pretty fast since we left Jakarta, so it was great to have a couple of days here just to stroll under the trees, drink the coffee they grow right on the farm, and spend some time getting to know the four-legged staff members.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Man or monkey?

I saw this sign a while ago in a little neighborhood right in the middle of town. I went back and took a picture of it today because I like it.

It reads, "Anyone who throws trash here is not a person [but a] MONKEY."

And indeed, there was no trash on that street ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


In case you've been losing sleep over the cat, let me assure you she came through her spay operation just fine. But she had to wear a cone for a week to keep her from messing with the surgical site, and you can imagine how much she liked that.

The cone made her walk like a cow, with her head down and swinging slightly from side to side. She also bumped into things a lot, so she had to put a lot of time and effort into pretending she bumped into them on purpose. It was all pretty tiring for her. Fortunately she could still do fun things like hide around corners and launch sneak attacks on us, knock the sofa cushions over, and chase flies.

We took the cone off Sunday night and I don't think she slept for about 36 hours; she was biting everything in sight to make up for lost time. We've had to triple our arsenal of squirt bottles just to keep some semblance of order in the house.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The big stink

After watching the sun rise over Bromo from the viewing point, you go over to the mountain itself and climb up a giant staircase to the crater rim. Unfortunately, we arrived during a Big Stink: sulfurous volcanic fumes were blowing right down the stairs, giving everyone coughing spasms, runny noses and red eyes.

Jason climbed with the aid of a handkerchief

The walk up was pretty caustic. Things were actually a little better at the top, where there was less sulfur in the air and more plain old mist. The crater rim was amazing: a knife-edge walk with a sheer rocky drop on each side. But nobody wanted to hang around too long, so we abandoned our plan to hike around the rim and headed back down.

Jaclyn on the edge

The walk from the bottom of the staircase to the parking lot takes maybe 20 minutes. But if you're feeling silly, you can ride a horse instead. Chad and I were feeling silly.

My horse was named Pako, and he was adept at getting down the steep, sandy path.

I think Chad cut a fine figure on his steed.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


More on Bromo soon, but first ...

Last year when I did some stories on Barack Obama, people didn't seem that familiar with his connection to Indonesia. I would tell cab drivers, "He lived here, you know! For four years! When he was a kid!" And all I would get was that bored glance in the rear-view mirror that says what is this bule yammering on about?

Nowadays, it's the taxi drivers themselves who tell me proudly, "Barack Obama grew up in Jakarta!" And if you go into any bookstore, you'll see a bunch of semi-pulpy paperbacks about him, with titles like Obama's Miracle: Inspiration from Jakarta. They remind me, weirdly, of the paperbacks about Soeharto that I became briefly obsessed with last year, which detailed the former dictator's mystical powers and lovingly described his collection of shamanistic objects.

Anyway, I couldn't resist buying a couple of the Obama books yesterday. Here are some first impressions.

Obama's middle name may cause him problems in the US, but as this title indicates, it doesn't hurt him a bit in Indonesia. The bottom right corner identifies him as the "American presidential candidate with a Muslim connection." The list next to that hypes "up-to-date information, Obama's Jakarta days, exclusive photos, political attacks about Obama's connection with Islam, and the complete text of the monumental Audacity of Hope speech." And the red sunburst reads: "Best-seller! Update: Uproar over the anti-Muslim/Obama e-mail from Hillary Clinton's camp."

That being said, on a quick perusal, the book doesn't seem to overplay the Muslim card: it doesn't claim that Obama was or is a Muslim, but it does hold out the hope that he would understand and respect Islam with more of an insider's perspective. It has a somewhat star-struck tone, but the author carves out a little distance for himself by mostly quoting other people saying worshipful things, rather than stating them himself.

The second book is scarier, starting with the title: Don't Kill Obama!

The idea that Obama will be assassinated does seem pretty widespread here. I don't know how much this book spawned that fear, or how much it's simply reacting to it.

The book's first chapter is unintentionally funny. It starts pretty solidly by quoting Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing, but within a few pages it's reduced to citing internet posts from people like "666divine" and "Getdownbilly" to flesh out its arguments about American violence.

Still, it's pretty sobering that people here just expect Obama to be killed. When I first saw this book, I felt hot and cold all over. I felt embarrassed and sad. And I felt a flash of recognition, because of course after JFK, MLK and Malcolm X, the Reagan shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing, etc., I think every American understands the threat. It's something you don't even realize you're thinking until someone else says it: Obama's gonna get shot. Then it stays with you, because it makes a grim kind of sense.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Rockers versus the volcano

Mt. Bromo is one of those deals where you head out at 3 a.m. so you can be there for the sunrise. Luckily our room was so cold -- Bromo gets down to 10 Celsius/50 Fahrenheit -- we were glad to get up and move around so we could warm up a little.

The hotel people put us in a jeep and drove us up to a summit with a great view of Bromo and surroundings.

There were some other people there, too. Like maybe 200 people. You could hear murmurings in Indonesian, Javanese, Dutch, Japanese, French and who knows what other languages.

The sunrise was pretty good. And once the sun came up, the view only got better, because Bromo itself is a surreal landscape of volcanoes that look hand-sculpted. One of them was erupting in the background every 20 minutes or so, just to add to the effect.

All around the viewing point there were people renting out winter jackets and selling batteries, t-shirts and drinks. Several boys were selling flowers you could use as an offering to the volcano gods. This one said "Indonesian rockers!" when I took his picture.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The dangdut bus to Probolinggo

We got into Surabaya bright and early on Saturday and took a taxi to the bus station, where we hopped on a nice air-conditioned bus toward Mt. Bromo. During the ride, we were treated to numerous dangdut videos starring a woman who seemed to be constantly disappointed by a series of men. You could see why -- the men all wore weird, shiny, pimp-y clothes and acted like jerks. One of them had long, luxurious hair, and every time the camera panned to him he was running his hand through it in a way that suggested he was the hottest thing on the planet. No sensible woman would have a cup of coffee with that guy, never mind a love affair.

About an hour outside Surabaya, traffic came to a grinding halt in Sidoarjo, the site of the mud disaster. It's been two years since boiling-hot sludge started spewing from the ground there, and the thousands of people who've lost their homes and jobs are still waiting for most of the compensation they've been promised. The mud lake seemed to have gotten bigger since the last time I visited; bulldozers were out working on what looked like new containment walls along the highway.

After this sad interlude, traffic picked up again. Just outside Probolinggo we caught a public minivan to Cemoro Lawang, a little town perched on the outer crater that surrounds Mt. Bromo.

The minivan guys insisted on putting all of our luggage on top. The van was hot and pretty well packed with people. There were no music videos, but we were entertained by children singing songs in the seat behind us.

As we made our way up the steep, winding road, I tried to drink in the mountain views and ignore the terrible thought of my backpack, with my laptop in it, sliding off the top of the van and smashing onto the pavement. It was a long day of travel, but eventually we and the luggage all arrived in one piece.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Jakarta-Papua-Surabaya in a day

Jason and Jaclyn at Bromo

Our friends Jason and Jaclyn arrived in early May for three weeks. Jason is a professor of visual psychology and one of Chad's oldest friends; Jaclyn runs her own business helping people organize their lives and possessions.

The plan was to fly to East Java and make our way to Bromo and Ijen, two spectacular mountainous landscapes. Then we'd hop on the ferry to Bali, work our way along the northern shore for a while, and drop through the central mountains, where I would head back to Jakarta while the other three went on to Thailand.

First, though, we went to Papua -- or Papua came to us. Our third-floor neighbor Dave organized a house-wide party for that Friday night, complete with a traditional Papuan dance troupe. We hosted the dancing because our apartment has the least furniture.

The pictures are fuzzy, but you get the idea. It was pretty cool having 8 or 10 Papuan dancers in our living room in full body paint and headdresses. They got everybody else dancing, too.

Unfortunately, we had to catch a painfully early flight in the morning, so we snuck out of our own place at 11 or so and crashed at Howie and Haviva's -- they kindly offered us the guest bedroom. Dave cleaned up later and let the cat out of the back room, where she was probably wondering what all the stomping was about.

If you want to get a sense of what Papuan dance is like, check out this YouTube video: