A dark and stormy night

I believe to understand another culture, you must familiarize yourself with its literature. I’m not quite up to reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer in the original yet, so I’ve been immersing myself in the works of Ganes TH, one of Indonesia’s most renowned comic-book authors.

Ganes doesn’t shy away from hyperbole (“a tale fully flowing with tears and blood!”). He likes a good plot twist. When you have to look up every second word in the dictionary, you need frequent rewards, and Ganes is rich in rewards.

Interestingly, A Visit in the Middle of the Night (above) is Christian: a handsome guy decides to kill his sickly wife so he can marry her pretty friend but (gasp!) She’s Not Really Dead!!! and she develops the inconvenient habit of turning up at midnight wearing flowing white robes. But the evil husband gets saved by the local church and turns into a nice guy, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Ganes’s most famous character is Si Buta dari Gua Hantu, the hero of Mystery at Borobudur. Si Buta appears to be Muslim, and he’s blind; his name means the Blind One from Bat Cave. I’m only partway through Mystery at Borobudur, so I can’t tell you much, but it involves a sweet girl, two evil brothers, a secret treasure, and the last wish of a dying man. Furthermore, it’s set on and around Mt. Merapi (“terrifying Mt. Merapi!!”), which erupts halfway through the book, so it promises to be a humdinger.

According to one website, Ganes had a drama of his own. After art school, he developed some vague association with the Communist Party. Then, during the anti-Communist massacre of the mid-60s – a mass bloodletting that has largely been forgotten, and has never been properly investigated – he decided to give up “art” and focus solely on comic books, since artists with lefty associations often wound up in prison or worse. I won’t speculate on what it means to be a stifled artist who draws a blind hero, but clearly Ganes’ experience of evil and fear was not entirely imaginary.

A house, a dog, snow

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I was living in this little house in the New Hampshire mountains, with this borrowed dog and this snow, less than two years ago. Sometimes it’s hard to believe snow exists at all. Jakarta starts to seem like some post-global-
warming dystopia, where the air is unfriendly to the human lung and the ruling class goes around in machines with artificial atmospheres (in this case, taxis and Toyota Kijang SUVs).

I think we need to get out of the city for a couple of days! To someplace that’s not an earthquake or a volcano. We’re working on an escape plan, actually. There are supposed to be green, quiet places not too far from Jakarta. In the meantime, I guess I’ll walk around the local sports park. If you kind of squint at the clumps of trees, they almost look like a forest.

(And lest I over-romanticize, I should point out that my little town in the mountains had a giant paper mill, so the air there was, uh, less than pristine too.)

A marketing challenge

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The Board

The unbreakable Code

As you probably know, The DaVinci Code relies on a series of assertions about the Catholic church, Jesus, and various historical matters. Some of these are controversial ideas that some people find objectionable. Indonesia hasn’t banned the movie like Pakistan, Egypt and some other countries, but the censors clearly struggled over what to do with the troublesome parts. If they left them in, they could offend people in a country where religiuos sensitivities are already running high. If they cut them out, they’d be left with the cinematic equivalent of Swiss cheese. So they hit on an ingenious solution.

They left out the subtitles.

Whole sections, notably the crucial scene where Ian McKellen explains the entire point of the movie to Audrey Tautou, are left without the Indonesian translation. I just sat there amazed as reams of dialog passed by unexplained. The audience knows something is going on that has to do with knights and pagans and the Last Supper, but unless they speak English they won’t really have a clue.

Most of the audience was Indonesian, and the theatre charged about $5 a ticket, which is not chump change. I didn’t sense any reaction – murmuring or foot-shuffling or whatever – to the lengthy absence of subtitles. Maybe everybody had already heard about it. Maybe it’s happened in other movies. Maybe they just sighed and made a mental note to go buy the black-market DVD with the full translation. That’s probably how most people will see the movie anyway, which makes the censorship all the more puzzling. Oh well. While this is kind of a historical adventure movie for most of the world, I guess for Indonesians it’s more like a mystery.

Nonton bareng

World Cup madness has struck. Every night when I leave work there are little kids playing soccer barefoot in front of our building. Along all the streets of our neighborhood there are “nonton bareng” (watching together) outposts like this — 5, 10, maybe 20 people gathered around talking and cheering, some sitting on benches or plastic chairs, others standing in the back.

Because of the time difference, the games are at 8 pm, 11 pm and 2 am. The government has issued a stern statement saying watching the Cup is no excuse to miss work. But everybody’s too sleepy to pay attention.

I watched the end of the Iran-Portugal game at this little spot last night, around the corner from our apartment. It was a little awkward because the crowd was almost all young men. But there was a middle-aged guy who sort of took charge of my comfort, got me a seat, and made me feel welcome. Everybody was rooting for Iran, so they went home disappointed. I was rooting for Iran, too, just because I tend to favor the underdog. But Portugal had pretty dazzling footwork and I couldn’t feel too bad when they won.

There’s supposed to be a really huge nonton bareng near here, where hundreds of people watch, so we’re going to check that out soon. I even bought a World Cup shirt for the occasion, but it smells like petroleum and gave me a nasty rash. Something tells me it’s not an official FIFA product!

The sweet smell of excess

The Javanese are known for their sweet tooth. To confirm its existence, just walk out anytime after dark in Jakarta and visit your local Martabak Manis man.

Martabak manis, or sweet martabak, is a seriously over-the-top dessert. It starts with a thick pancake cooked in plenty of Blue Band margarine. Then the Martabak man adds a generous layer of chocolate, another of cheddar-ish cheese, folds it in half, and pours on a whole lot of sweetened condensed milk. By the time it hits the plate, it’s a big gooey pile oozing with fat and sugar. I have a pretty serious sweet tooth myself, but martabak manis is too much for me.

There’s a reined-in version of the cheese and chocolate theme, which is a toasted cheese sandwich with a layer of chocolate. Sounds weird but is pretty tasty. It kind of works the same side of the street as the Toll House Cookie; the salt and fat of the cheese balance out the sweet chocolate. And since it’s two comfort foods in one – grilled cheese and chocolate – you can’t beat it for efficiency. I get one on the street near work when I’ve read so much slightly-odd English, I can’t remember how to write normal English.

Monorail dreams

The sign says there’s a monorail being built here. It even looks like there’s a monorail being built here. But whether there will ever be a monorail is still an open question.

The monorail project has been through a dizzying series of ups and downs – contracted out to one company, contract broken and bidding re-opened, re-contracted, re-broken, internal disputes declared, lawsuits threatened, etc. etc. Some of this has to do with disagreements over things like financing and technology – they’ve even flirted with a magnetic levitation system, which seems a little fancier and way more expensive than necessary. Some of it may have to do with highly-placed people wanting their “fair” share of the take. It’s hard to tell from what you read in the papers. Furthermore, some analysts have questioned whether a monorail, if it’s ever finished, can compete with the city’s vast fleet of less-expensive buses and minivans.

For now, at least, the project is going forward with more traditional technology, and the government says it’s about to nail down the financial arrangements. That puts the monorail in a better position than the proposed subway, which recently suffered a fate worse than death – it was assigned to a fifteen-member public-private consortium. If fifteen state and private bodies anywhere in the world can agree on what to order for lunch, it’s a miracle.

Every time I walk by the project I say a little prayer that it will really happen. Right now, ironically, its main role in my life is to make my walk to work more difficult. They’ve closed the sidewalk in the construction zone, and they didn’t bother to provide any alternatives because “nobody walks in Jakarta” – so I have to walk out along the orange cones, on the edge of the traffic. But it will all be worth it if I can someday float above the macet (traffic jams) in a nice, fast monorail.

At last, furniture

After five weeks of sitting on the floor, we finally caved in and bought some nice rattan furniture. We always shop at Goodwill in the States, so it was a bit alarming to shell out the money for brand-new stuff. But it’s great to have a sofa to flop on after coming in from the heat and craziness of the streets.

Cleaning is a challenge. Mopping in Jakarta is kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge: as soon as you finish, you have to start all over again. With the windows open all the time, grit from the air constantly sifts onto the floor. If you let it go for a couple of days, you start to notice a silty feeling as you walk around (we never wear shoes inside the apartment). Then the bottoms of your feet turn black. Then if you get your feet wet – say, in the bathroom, which is almost always wet – you leave a trail of black footprints everywhere.

This, combined with the fact that neither of us is exactly a dedicated housekeeper, means we will probably cave even further and hire someone to come in and clean a few times a week. Delicate and confusing negotiations toward this end are already underway. More later.


This is our friend, Clemence. I had to take this picture because she was making fun of my cellphone. It’s true that my phone looks old and battered and dirty, and ever since I dropped it off the fourth-floor balcony I’ve had to use a rubber band to hold it together. But my phone takes pictures – great pictures such as this one – which means it’s cool. End of story.

Like many of our new expat friends, Clemence is extremely smart and educated. She works for a major international agency, speaks 137 languages, and generally drafts at least one multinational declaration before breakfast. We met Clem online on the Jakarta Expat forum, and she gave us lots of tips on housing, etc. Then she showed us where the good bars are, so her friendship has been truly invaluable.

For expats, Jakarta can feel kind of like a big college dorm. The experience of being foreigners abroad tends to erase barriers, so it’s easier to make friends than it is back home. You already have so many things in common. And if you run out of stuff to talk about, you can always trade horror stories about the traffic. I actually loved living in a dorm, so it all works for me. It’s living in the” real” world that’s always been a bit of a puzzle.

It’s what’s for dinner. And breakfast. And lunch.

Things still feel a little weird here. Chad just got back from Yogya this morning with a mountain of tape and a list of deadlines. In preparation for his arrival, absolutely everything stopped working: his computer, our new internet connection, the phone line. I mean, the lights are still on, and the refrigerator’s running, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if those died too.

Now it’s a few hours later and most of it is working again. I feel unsettled, though. I’m still in sort of a half-earthquake mentality, and so is Jakarta: there are donation posts on almost every corner, and all sorts of other charity drives. But there’s also a sense of disillusionment. The papers are full of news about aid not reaching the right people, and everybody’s getting cranky about the teenagers who walk around at traffic lights collecting donations (further messing up the already nightmarish traffic).

But for those of us who aren’t in the earthquake zone, life goes on as usual, and so must blogging I suppose. In times like these we turn to the things we know. In my case, that’s food. So here’s a nice little picture of nasi goreng.

Nasi goreng, or fried rice, is the quintessential Jakarta dish. I believe it’s traditionally a breakfast food, but you can get everywhere, all the time. I often get it for dinner at one of the street stalls near the Post. There’s a guy with on little gas burner and a large, beat-up aluminum wok, and on busy nights like last night, he just keeps cooking up one scoop of rice after another as people perch on the little plastic stools, waiting.

If it’s a good version, like this one from our favorite local restaurant, it has spices and little bits of meat and vegetables in it. It also often has a fried egg on top — fried till till the yolk is hard all the way through, the way my brother-in-law does his. I have given him grief about this in the past, but for health reasons I’m just as happy to have the eggs cooked to death here. Large amounts of local fresh chili sauce go well with nasi goreng.

Luckily for us, most nasi goreng is quite good, even from a cheap cart in the street. Sometimes, especially from a cheap cart in the street!