The garbage collector

… with his pushcart, as seen from our fourth-floor balcony. He’ll dump your stuff into the wagon and sort through it on the spot, so if you have anything embarrassing to get rid of, better sneak it into the neighbors’ trash!

The semi-opaque blue thing is the awning over our front steps, and the high front walls and gate are standard for Jakarta.


We were excited when our landlord, Arie, said he was bringing one of the family dogs to live downstairs. But Snoopy has been a little hard to get close to. He’s a funny dog – sometimes he’s totally mellow, and at other times he’s a crazy barker. He goes into “auto-bark” mode and can’t stop even after he’s realized you’re a friend. He’ll bark right in your face while you’re scritching him on the head.

I think some of this has to do with Arie’s sister, who’s a bit high-strung herself and tends to yell at the dog and chase him with a newspaper when he barks, poor thing.

It’s not all that common to own a dog in Jakarta, since Muslims generally view them as unclean. There’s a strain of Islamic teaching that says you have to wash your hands seven times after touching a dog’s saliva. Snoopy, I think, reflects the fact that our landlord’s family is Christian, and that they are somewhat Westernized.

One thing we completely agree with Snoopy about is dislike of the Sari Roti bread guys, who come around every morning with their bread carts blasting their obnoxious theme song. It’s supposed to have cute little voices singing “Sari Roti, Roti, Sari Roti,” but they’re so distorted by the lousy audio equipment, they sound demented. The first month we were here, the Sari Roti guys always woke me up. Snoopy often howls when they come around. It’s funny and sad at the same time, his deep wail contrasting with the evil tinny perkiness of the carts.

The World and bird flu

Chad with Jones Ginting and his wife and child. Jones survived bird flu but lost seven relatives to the disease.

Chad’s story on bird flu just ran on The World, the BBC/PRI show that airs on lots of public radio stations in the States. It’s a great story with great sound … that’s what you get when you follow the Indonesian Military around on bird-culling expeditions deep in the mountain villages of Sumatra. Click here for a link to the show, where you can click on the audio.

More proverbs, and some answers

“A monkey from the forest is nursed instead”: scary monkey ride from the forest of the Blok M shopping mall

So I asked my Indonesian teacher, Ninit, about the mystery of “teacher pees standing” (see below). She furrowed her brow and said she’d never really thought about it before.

“Well, think!” I snapped. After all, what greater gift can a teacher receive than a student’s encouragement?

Ninit thought, and finally said maybe it was more a matter of location than style: that if the teacher went around relieving himself any old where, the students would adopt even worse behaviors.

That seemed plausible, but not altogether convincing, so I went to my source: my friend Bruce at the Post, who speaks excellent Indonesian and is plugged in to the community.

Bruce conjectured that when answering nature’s call outdoors, men were supposed to crouch in order to protect their modesty. That sounded more like it. But then he called a friend and came back with what I consider to be the definitive answer:

In much of Indonesia, squat toilets are the norm. This presents, shall we say, a challenge to the aiming abilities of a standing man. Throw in the fact that much of the population is Muslim, and thus pretty meticulous about staying clean for daily prayers, and standing while relieving oneself becomes uncouth.

So there we have it! although I’m open to other explanations if anyone has a better one.

Meanwhile, here are a few more handy sayings:

Bagai telur diujung tanduk.
Like an egg on the tip of a horn.” An evocative description of someone or something in a tenuous position.

Gajah bertarung lawan gajah, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah.
“When elephants wage war, deer die in their midst.” When those in power fight, it’s the little guy who gets hurt – a phenomenon all too many Indonesians (and Americans, for that matter) have experienced.

Anak dipangku dilepaskan, beruk di rimba disusukan.

“A child on the lap is let go, a monkey from the forest is nursed instead.”
OK, so this one’s pretty weird too. Apparently it just describes a change in priorities.

Ada gula, ada semut.
“Where there’s sugar, there’s ants.” My first proverb, and an easy one to memorize and say: AH-da GOO-la, AH-da se-MOOT. Appropriate when your officemates swarm a plate of free sandwiches, or when everybody sucks up to the boss around performance-review time .

The student pees while running

Students in Bogor: Can it be true?

One of the fun things about learning a new language is learning its proverbs: they’re colorful, they offer insights into the culture, and people are usually amused or impressed when you drop them into a conversation. Wikipedia has a great collection of Indonesian sayings. Here are a few of my favorites:

Ada udang di balik batu.
“There is a shrimp behind the stone” – meaning there’s a hidden motive at work.

Kalah jadi abu, menang jadi arang.
” The loser becomes ashes, the winner becomes cinder.” – describes a conflict that doesn’t benefit either side.

Bagai kuku dengan isi.
“Like the fingernail and the flesh beneath.” – describes two things that depend on each other for survival.

Guru kencing berdiri, murid kencing berlari.
“The teacher pees standing, the student pees running.” – This one fascinates me, because I’ve never heard a proverb about peeing before. Plus, I don’t get it. Apparently the idea is that if a teacher does something bad, the student will do something even worse. But why shouldn’t the teacher pee standing? Is the teacher assumed to be a woman? And why would anybody pee while running? It’s quite a mystery, this proverb.

Further investigation is required. Stay tuned.


My friend Michele tells me she hasn’t been able to leave comments on the last few posts. Looks like I goofed up the settings while on a campaign to remove the spam. So, comment away!

Speaking of which, “cheap but exclusive” is something people have been saying about me all my life. I’m still not really sure what it means. (As for the restaurant advertised here, you probably can’t go wrong with a Sherly Temple, but I’d stay away from the Gordon Bleu …)

Foofy foofiness

… is a phrase I stole from a fellow blogger’s review of Martha Stewart Living, but it also describes the prevailing aesthestic in Indonesian women’s clothing at the moment. Which seems to be: a few ruffles couldn’t hurt! And while we’re at it, let’s throw on a bow! And how about some of that lace we got from Hong Kong? Girls like lace! And so on.

There’s a funny disconnect between the clothes that get hyped at the mall and the ones you see on the streets. For instance, I’ve never seen spaghetti straps on an actual woman in Jakarta. I can’t recall the last time I saw bare shoulders of any sort. I’d say about a quarter of the women cover up completely: headscarf, long sleeves, long pants. I don’t know who’s buying the skimpy tops you see in the stores. Then again, we haven’t checked out the nightclub scene yet; it’s entirely possible that trendy young women cover up till they’re safely inside the club, and then cut loose …

Bika Ambon

Chad brought this remarkable thing back from North Sumatra called Bika Ambon; Ambon being an island that’s nowhere near Sumatra, and bika apparently being a cake made out of rice flour. What’s remarkable about it is its complex structure, which reminds me of the diagrams of hydrophobic and hydrophilic membranes we studied in high school biology class.

Bika Ambonicus side view

Cross-section of Bika Ambonicus showing irregular columnar structure

Bika Ambon is pleasantly chewy and has the sort of eggy-custardy-coconut flavor that’s very popular in Indonesian desserts. The other interesting thing about it is the warning on the box, which informs us (in Indonesian) that after 3 or 4 days Bika Ambon will “experience a process of hardening.” We can attest to this, since our small remaining piece now resembles some kind of construction material. The suggested remedy is steam, but I suspect our remedy will be to let it hang around in the fridge for another week and then toss it.

Dirgahayu Republik Indonesia!

August 17 is Independence Day, so there are red-and-white Long Live Republic of Indonesia! banners everywhere. I went down to the soccer field on our street to watch the little kids’ games, such as the time-honored “trying to eat a big cracker on a string without using your hands” race.

I started chatting with a guy in his 20s who turned out to be waiting for his visa so he can go work in Kuwait. The government is putting on a big push to help people get jobs abroad, because of the unemployment here. People can make a lot more money as domestic workers in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia or the Middle East, although sometimes they get treated pretty badly. I hope this guy is lucky and lands a good job – he seemed very sweet.

Other than this little gathering, it’s been a strangely quiet day. I was expecting round-the-clock sonic bombardment in honor of the holiday. I still cherish the hope that the passing of Independence Day will mean an end to the Saturday 7 a.m. children’s marching band practices across the street from our apartment. For little kids, they actually play very well. But man, it’s a rough way to start the weekend.

The sound of marriage

One of my Indonesian teachers invited us to a traditional Javanese wedding at a swanky apartment complex south of us. The bride and groom wore these great red outfits with sequins all over and the bride, as you can see, had an especially amazing hat.

We arrived partway through the ceremony, which was done on a little stage at the front of the room. There were some prayers, and a song. Then the bride knelt on a big lazy-susan type of thing and got turned around to face different people for different elements of the ceremony … which struck me as a rather ominous bit of symbolism.

Then the reception began, and people started pouring into the room at an amazing rate. There were food stations with everything from spaghetti to an entire roast lamb. We got this very tasty braised beef with rice, tempeh fritters and chili sauce, served on a banana leaf.

Tragically, Javanese weddings appear to have one thing in common with a lot of American weddings – the bride and groom miss out on all the fun. They stood on the stage the entire time we were there, greeting a line of people that stretched out the door.

They looked like they could’ve used a plate of spaghetti. If I were the bride, I could’ve used a gin and tonic. But it was a Muslim wedding, so there wasn’t any alcohol.

It’s hard to convey how packed the place was. It was a big conference room, and at the height of dinner, it was quite full. I looked around wondering how many of these people, like us, knew neither the bride nor the groom. But almost as soon as the crowd peaked, it began receding. According to my teacher’s husband, people will spend the evening just hitting one wedding reception after another.

After dinner there was a pretty good band with a singer doing Indonesian pop music. For a sample, click here.