The mangoes of regret

We screwed up. We stepped on a neighbor’s toes. Amends had to be made. I figured this was a job for a fruit basket.

What happened is, we ended up accidentally negotiating with two different people to do some part-time housecleaning for us. And I never got back to the one we didn’t choose, Ibu Sofia, who lives down the street. I said I would, but I didn’t because – well, because I’m weak, I’m shy, my Indonesian isn’t very good, I don’t like bearing bad news, and Ibu Sofia seems a tad high-strung. I figured I’d run into her on the street, but I didn’t. So yesterday, which was like a month later, she saw Chad and gave him grief about how she’d been waiting to hear from us.

I imagined maybe there’d be this nice little scene when I went down the street with my fruit basket – a scene of forgiveness, and she would invite me in, and I’d say “I happy go house Ibu Sofia” or whatever, and we’d chat, and we’d be friends.

It didn’t work out quite that way, of course. As usual, there seemed to be a million people hanging around, taking in the whole scene. So I just said I’m sorry and probably a few things that made only marginal sense, and she took the basket without really looking at it, and that was that. But she did take my hand and smile.

And who knows … maybe mangoes and cheese straws and a papaya will win her over. I mean, they looked like really good mangoes. They’d win me.

Pile of coconuts

The guy up the street from us does a great business in coconut water. At most places, including this one, they give you a pretty generous plastic bag full of juice and coconut slivers. Some places will stick a straw right in the coconut, and you scoop the flesh out yourself. Allegedly coconut water is very good for you, although for all I know that’s propaganda spread by the Indonesian Coconut Sellers Association!

Ibu Trish: Vegetarians

Dear Ibu Trish: Can a vegetarian possibly survive in Jakarta? Signed, Hold the Burger

Actually, you can get a surprisingly wide choice of vegetarian food in Jakarta — but whether it’s completely meat-free is somewhat in doubt. When I’m working I’ll usually go down to the street and get something like this for dinner:


On the right is a little potato pancake, or perkedel; at the bottom are green beans cooked in coconut milk, and scattered throughout is the incredibly delicious tempeh they make here. I recall tempeh in the States as having all the appeal of wet cardboard, but here (where it was invented) it’s phenomenal – especially cooked up crunchy-chewy in a sweet sauce. And of course, you get a nice incendiary blob of chili sauce, if you so desire.

Other warung staples include hard-boiled eggs in chili sauce, eggplant with spicy tomatoes, and various kinds of wild spinach and water spinach. It’s all tasty and cheap – usually 30 to 50 cents for dinner, with enough left over to make fried rice for breakfast.

The dubiosity has to do with the fact that the warungs never seem to have enough serving spoons to go around, so the guy will grab one out of the nearest dish of braised beef or whatever, bang it vigorously on the side of a pot, and ladle away. Therefore, the possibility of cross-contamination with meat molecules is high. If you’re okay with that, you’re in good shape.

There are also carts and warungs all over devoted to gado-gado, or steamed vegetables in spicy peanut sauce — yum — which would be the Official Vegetarian Dish of Indonesia, if there were one. And if you like your health food less healthy, the gorengan (fried stuff) carts sell addictive pieces of deep-fried tempeh, tofu and sweet potato.

NOTE: I was mostly thinking of one- or two-week visitors when I wrote this; it may not be a wise longterm strategy, as my friend John points out in the Comments.

Love and markets

I’m a fool for farmers’ markets of any sort, but I have to admit the ones in Jakarta tend to be a bit smelly and dirty. So when I wandered into the central market in Padang, on the way back from the Mentawais, it was love at first sight.

After all, who can resist a woman with green beans on her head? Or such shiny happy carrots and bok choy? Or most of all, the mountains of hot peppers??

Now I am an axolotl


This has nothing to do with Jakarta, tsunamis, tropical islands, or anything Indonesian, but the other day Chad reminded me of my favorite short story, by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar, and now I am compelled to share it.

What I love most is the third sentence. It’s so bold and careless, as if Cortazar were saying: yes, this story is based on a startling transformation, but I’m just going to toss it out casually here at the top because it gets even better from there. Like a magician showing you how he does his trick, and then doing it so well you’re seduced all over again.

I went around for months last year saying “Now I am an axolotl,” mostly to Chad, who was very patient about it.

Cortazar has another story I love, about fear and longing and regret, called House Taken Over. It’s well worth finding if you haven’t read it but the only version I came across on the net has tiny, tiny print and a weird phrasing in the last line, so perhaps it’s better to go to a bookstore. You can read the whole thing and slip it back onto the shelf before you finish your $5 mocha frappucino.