Red Square

Last weekend we checked out a swanky Russian-themed bar near our neighborhood, called Red Square. It didn’t look much like the Russia where I studied in the 80’s, but it was a lot nicer, so I didn’t mind. When I was in Russia it smelled like fish heads, and everything you could buy, from soap to bread, was brown and box-shaped. In this bar the tables and the walls were made of light panels that keep changing colors, and the air was full of cigarettes (ugh) and perfume.

Red Square sells lots of vodka drinks with things like fresh passionfruit or a whole lychee in them. Unfortunately they suffered from the problem of nearly all mixed drinks in Indonesia: they were not strong enough. It’s nearly impossible to get a decent mixed drink here. Perhaps because this just isn’t a drinking country, or because alcohol is so expensive. Red Square offers an interesting solution: they’ll sell you whole bottles of liquor, and you can mix your own.

There was a good crowd of trendy young Indonesians. I was interested to see that there were more male fashion victims than female. Some of the guys had the kind of haircuts you see on popular TV shows here, with the hair all sticking out in one direction or another as if they slept on it funny. The women just wore long hair and strappy tank tops. They knew they were cool.

Fighting chaos with chaos

Home smoggy home: why Jakarta needs mass transit in the first place

Jakarta’s various mass transit projects are supposed to tame the craziness on the streets, but sometimes the projects themselves appear just as chaotic.

This weekend the city opened four new busway lines. But instead of the full fleet of 216 buses, there will only be 32 for at least the first month, because the buses haven’t been finished yet. And there’s no electronic ticketing system, because the bidding process for that hasn’t been finished yet.

If you want to complain, you’ll have to wait, because there’s no management company for the four lines; the tender for that isn’t done yet either.

You’d almost think the governor is trying to kill this thing. But the busway is his pet project, one he’s gone out on a limb for, so that hardly seems possible.

I don’t get why they’re bidding out the ticketing and management at this stage anyway. There are three lines open already; ultimately there are supposed to be 15. Wouldn’t you want the same management and ticketing system for the whole thing?

Arguably, you could keep the system on its toes and keep getting the best deal by bidding out each phase. On the other hand, the bidding process is one of the biggest opportunities for corruption. Any thoughts from more seasoned Jakarta observers?

Further adventures in beaniness

Since my post about green bean shake was such a hit, especially with Michele, here’s a far stranger thing I consumed the other day in a mall. It was called Rice Ball Bean Curd, and it consisted of sweet soy milk, chunks of tofu, and some unbelievably sticky-chewy rice balls. One ball was filled with sweet red bean paste, another with sweet black paste (I’m not sure what that was made of, but probably beans), and a third with peanut butter.

I have to say, even for a bean-loving person such as myself, this was a little beany. And the portion was quite huge. I think in the case of Rice Ball Bean Curd, less is more. I wouldn’t rule out having it again, though.

This doesn’t seem at all Indonesian, by the way. An internet search suggests Taiwan as the inventor, or perpetrator (depending on your feelings about soy).

Palmerah Market: Fancy fruit

These are the fruit stands inside the market gate, which are a little more elaborate than the ones outside. They’re semi-permanent structures with lighting, and since they have roofs they can hang up a lot of their fruit, which gives them kind of a festive look.

In the first stall you can see various kinds of oranges. There’s starfruit on the far left, and really enormous grapes in the center. In the front of that first stall are snakefruit, which I’ll talk more about later. Further down the row, the funny-shaped white things hanging up in the second stall are apples in protective slipcovers. Chad says the watermelons are good; I’m not a big watermelon fan.

One thing I’ve never figured out is, do the fancy stalls charge more than the less elaborate stalls outside the gate? I suspect not, because all prices are subject to bargaining, and with so much fruit for sale the competition must be pretty fierce.

Barack and the terror factory

Students at a Jakarta madrassa
photo: Chad Bouchard

The other day we watched the CNN story debunking the rumor about American presidential candidate Barack Obama attending a madrassa in Jakarta as a child. It’s great that CNN, unlike Fox, actually took the trouble to investigate the claim. But parts of the story left us shaking our heads in wonder.

First of all, Wolf Blitzer seemed a little overly impressed that the reporter got “inside Indonesia,” as if this involved hiding in the cargo hold of a papaya boat or hacking his way through the jungle. Major airlines fly here. Really, they do.

Then when the reporter got to the school, he noted approvingly that the teachers wore Western clothes. Almost like … normal people!

Third, and most important, the reporter never bothered to mention that Indonesian madrassas are not terrorist factories. They’re just Muslim schools. A small percentage of Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) teach hardline beliefs and are allegedly used for recruitment by militant organizations. There are concerns about the quality of education at some pesantrens and madrassas. Others are highly regarded. But overall, Islamic schools in Indonesia are just schools — and not the kind that preach hatred or teach students to cook up explosives in their basements.

This raises the question: So what if Obama had gone to a madrassa for a while? Would it kill us to have a president who knows a little about Islam? On the contrary, the evidence suggests we’re more likely to get killed by a president who doesn’t know much about Islam.

Cartoon crimes

Given a choice of newspapers, I always buy the Warta Kota tabloid, because I’m fascinated by its creepy diagrams of crimes.

The paper showcases one crime in color on its front page, and another in black and white on page 2. If there aren’t enough good ones, they’ll settle for traffic accidents (there’s never a shortage of traffic accidents).

This one is about a woman who went missing and was later found dead, tied up and with her clothes removed. Pardon the graphic nature of the images, but it’s the raw ones that are the saddest and strangest. This one is actually relatively tame; cartoon stabbings and beatings are commonplace.

There’s something haunting about the faceless people.

Palmerah Market: an introduction

I’ve been taking a lot of pictures at the Palmerah marketplace lately. I’ll be posting them gradually, and I figured I’d have some geeky fun first and draw a map to give you a sense of how the whole place is laid out. You can click on the map for a bigger version.


This seems to be a pretty typical Indonesian market design: a sort of hulking concrete building with a maze of little stores inside, and a plaza full of stalls outside.

Inside the building are durable goods like housewares, jewelry and clothes. Produce stays outside. On the second floor of this particular market is a Ramayana department store, your one-stop source for blaring music, junk food and cheap t-shirts.

Here’s the front, taken from where the red X is above. You can see some humble fruit stands in the far-right corner.

And here’s a picture of the road, taken from the humble fruit stands. This road seriously has more public minivans (mikrolet) than any other place I know in Jakarta. Every minivan route for miles around must come through here. They always create a huge smoggy traffic jam. You can see some fuzzy red rambutans in the corner. More on those later.


The busway is Jakarta’s first stab at a public mass transit system. We only use it for long trips, but when you have to get across town it’s a pretty good option — cheaper and faster than a taxi.

I had never heard of a busway before I came here. Apparently they borrowed the idea from Bogota, Colombia. Basically, it’s a bus system with its own lanes.

In the photo above, we’re looking straight ahead from a bus down a blissfully empty lane, and the traffic is backed up in the two lanes to the left.

The crucial element is the little concrete barrier running down the left side of the bus lane. Some sections of the busway don’t have that, so other drivers ignore the rules and weave in and out of the bus lane, and then the whole advantage is lost.

The busway has dedicated stations with turnstiles; you can’t just flag down a bus. In that sense it’s more like a subway or light rail system.

They’re building busways all over Jakarta now, which makes the traffic and pollution even worse, plus they’re tearing down trees along the roads. Hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end.

Junk food of the week: Fanta Susu

How do you make a Fanta strawberry soda perfect? Yes! Just add sugar! or condensed milk, to be precise.

When mixed up, Fanta Susu becomes bright pink, almost like Pepto Bismol. The condensed milk doesn’t actually make the soda a lot sweeter, but it definitely gives it a heavier, richer body. I find it a little over the top, but I’m not a big fan of strawberry soda anyway. I do like Fanta Susu’s cousin, Soda Susu (plain sparkling water with condensed milk).

Fanta Susu is sometimes known as Soda Gembira, or Happy Soda. Perhaps more accurately “happy for about an hour, until you crash” soda.