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.

Scary bidets of West Sumatra: a retrospective

I find bathrooms fascinating. I think if I ever went back to grad school I’d do a Sociology PhD on them. For instance, how does one reconcile the existence of the following two bidets in the same culture? The first is precise (one hopes) and discreet almost to the point of paranoia; the other, completely uncontrolled.

This one was in a fancy hotel in Padang. It was hard to get a good photo because I can’t angle the flash on my camera. But the idea is, some kind of prong comes out when you press the button. I didn’t press the button. I’d only had three hours of sleep and wasn’t feeling up to new experiences.

This was on the express ferry back from the Mentawais, and I suspect it was really intended as a continual-flush device, but maybe it was also somebody’s idea of a clever two-in-one design. As you can see, there’s no opting out here – you get this intense jet of cold seawater rocketing at your bottom, no matter what. It was a weird and slightly disorienting experience, but ultimately not catastrophic.

A good thing


Mosquito nets. The mosquitoes that carry malaria bite at night, so in malaria-endemic places these insecticide-laced nets are what Martha Stewart would call “a good thing.”

Malaria isn’t usually fatal, but kids who suffer repeated infections end up weaker, anemic, malnourished, and more vulnerable to other diseases. In some parts of the Mentawais, a quarter of the kids die of preventable diseases before age 12. Getting everybody to sleep under a net can prevent some of that – and it’s pretty affordable ($8 to protect a family of 4 for 5 years).

I loved this net. It really kept the little buggers off — better than the smelly, pink, plug-in mosquito repeller we have in Jakarta, for example. I don’t think Martha would approve of my net-hanging style, though. In my defense, this was my first one, and my room didn’t have much in it besides some mothballs and a large dead cockroach, neither of which make very good tie-downs.

Women versus malaria

This is Restina and her three kids, who live in Katiet. Restina is one of those people who radiate competence. She walks into a room and you think – aha, SHE knows what’s going down.


Restina grows durians (yum!), coconuts and bananas, and she’s a volunteer for Surf Aid.

One of the organization’s strategies is to go around to women in each village and ask: who do you go to for advice? Who knows the most about how to clean a cut, or keep bugs out of the house, or grow tomatoes? Then they train these key women on the causes of malaria and how to prevent it, and they send them out to spread the word. In general, women have good networks, they’re eager to learn, they’re not hung up on showing they’re the smartest or most powerful person in the room, and they have great authority over household matters. Kind of a cool system, I think.

I recruited Restina’s oldest boy to help me with a highly sensitive poultry-recording project. I was trying to get tape of chickens scratching around and clucking, but every time I got close enough they would run away. So I asked him to drive the chickens toward me, with the predictable result that the boy made far more noise than the birds. We all had a good time, at least – with the possible exception of the chickens, but chickens always look kind of annoyed to me anyway.