How to buy canned drinks, pt. 2

The Please-Sit-Down store consists of two aisles: snacks, personal products and canned drinks in the first; cleaning supplies, school supplies, and powdered drinks in the other.

In the back are instant noodles, the ubiquitous Blue Band margarine, and cans of corned beef (I’m not sure why corned beef is so common here. Is that a Dutch thing?).

The drink selection is pretty thin today – lots of fruit-flavored tea. In the back are Fanta Strawberry, suitable for Fanta Susu, along with Sprite and Coke; the lemon thing in front is a Vitamin C drink. On the bottom row are some of those weird jelly snacks that seem to be very big throughout Asia these days; Happy Jus, which I assume is pure sugar; and non-fizzy Calpico fermented milk drink, which is vastly inferior to the fizzy kind.

There are two plastic stools at the little counter in front, and they always ask you politely to sit down while they ring up your order. I suspect it’s because of their fancy computer system; they have to type in the code for every product, and it takes a while.

So we have some canned coffee, Pocari Sweat, which is like Gatorade, a Coke for Chad, a bottle of tea, and some Calpico. You want to pay with a 50,000 note (about $5) and get change, because cab drivers and warungs often have trouble breaking a 50,000; it’s good to get small bills whenever you can. They’re very nice about making change here.

Then load up your bag and head home.

Bu Dena has just made some of her tasty hard-boiled eggs in curry sauce, so maybe a little takeaway lunch is in order.

How to buy canned drinks, pt. 1

True, this is not the most difficult task in the world, but it does involve certain subtleties.

First, before setting out, grab a backpack so you don’t end up adding to your collection of 17,000 plastic bags. Indonesia has plastic-bag mania; even street vendors distribute them with abandon. Bangladesh has banned them because they plug the gutters and cause flooding. Wouldn’t it be nice if the rest of the world followed suit?

Then set off down our street.

Bu Dena’s warung is right behind the SUV you see in the top photo. She and her husband will holler “Makan dulu!” (Eat first!). If you’re not hungry, say “Sudah makan, Bu!” (I already ate!) Fear not – her husband, who seems to be unwrapping an air-conditioner part, is not naked. He’s wearing shorts.

Walk with a air of purposefulness, because if a certain other ibu spots you, she’ll want to stop you and tell you sad tales with a long face in an effort to borrow money.

Turn left at the end of the street and then make a quick right. Try not to look at the House of Evil on the corner. They’re keeping a poor little ferret-like mammal in a too-small cage out front.

Acquire the target: the yellow sign at the other end of the long hole. The kids on the bike may or may not say “Hello Mister.” (This is a unisex greeting. I get “hello mistered” about three times as much as I get called Miss, Missus or Ma’am.)

Arrive at the WT Mart, also known (to us) as the Please-Sit-Down Store. Why? And what marvels wait inside? To find out, tune in for the exciting conclusion of “How to buy canned drinks”!

They promised me a war zone, and all I got was a lot of traffic jams

Pangandaran Beach, Central Java.
Indonesia may not be perfect, but it has its moments.

The other day I stumbled across’s travel page on Indonesia. I was extremely annoyed to see that it started like this:

Have you ever considered a vacation in a war zone? Not many people think the idea is an attractive one. But if you go to Indonesia any time soon, you should realize that you are taking the risk of doing exactly that. And some portions of the country are more risky than others …

Granted, Indonesia has its troubles, and people should be aware of them. But to call the entire country a war zone is absurd. We’ve been here for nearly a year, traveled throughout Java and to Bali and Sumatra, and never felt threatened.

For comparison, I clicked over to the page on Thailand, which unfortunately has had a lot of problems lately. Here’s a quick review: over the past year Indonesia has had zero bombings, peaceful elections in Aceh, and some violence in central Sulawesi and Papua. During the same period, Thailand has had multiple bombings in Bangkok and its southern provinces, not to mention a military coup followed by the installation of a junta. Surely Thailand’s entry will start with a stern warning, too?

Thailand is a beautiful country with an amazing assortment of things to do and places to see. You can hike in the mountains or sit on the beach. The people are friendly, the food is great…

The thing that’s most irritating is how common this is. Why does Indonesia get such a bad rap? In this case, is it because Thailand is mostly Buddhist, and Indo is mostly Muslim? Does the Thai tourism industry spend a lot more money bringing travel writers over on expense-paid luxury vacations? I don’t know. And I don’t mean to slam Thailand. I just want Indonesia to get a fair shake.

This is not a victimless crime. Indonesia needs tourism dollars. Westerners need to experience a moderate Muslim country. Historic sites like Borobudur deserve to be appreciated and supported.

I wrote to the author of the Asia section and asked him to reconsider his description. I haven’t heard anything back. If you want, you can write him too, at goasia dot guide at about dot com.


It’s been a crazy week. We were hoping to spend most of our time getting things organized for the Sidarjo trip and doing a few pre-interviews, but every time we leave the house we come back to chaos and urgent e-mails from editors. Yesterday it was the ferry fire north of Jakarta and the plane that got bent while landing in Surabaya.

Meanwhile, Blogger isn’t letting me upload pictures, so here’s a shot that’s been sitting on the server for a few days, of motorbikes on the corner of our street being used as drying racks for bedding after the flood.

Tuffaceous marl

My new favorite phrase in English. I believe it was coined to describe Bob Marley’s hairstyle. The French hairstylist who popularized it went by the name Sonde Fm.

That’s what I do at Indonesian geology conferences: make up new definitions for scientific terms, and take photographs of the photographers.

This conference was about the Sidoarjo mud volcano, a geyser of hot mud that’s been gushing from the ground in East Java since late May of last year. It has covered paddy fields, factories, schools, and whole villages. More than 10,000 people have lost their homes.

The cause of the mud volcano is still a matter of debate – hence, the conference – but it seems likely related to a gas exploration company that drilled a well without using proper sheathing to guard against subterranean pressure. Efforts to stop the flow of mud have failed, which isn’t surprising. How do you stop a volcano?

There was a guy at the conference trying to sell souvenir boxes of the mud (lumpur). I asked if he’d sold many and he said no, but he thought people might be waiting until the end of the day so they wouldn’t have to carry them around. Then he tried to sell me one. I turned him down, but I kind of regretted it later, because I bet he’s a displaced guy just trying to make a living in the post-volcano era.

We’re going down to Sidoarjo in a couple of weeks to do some stories on the mud, so more on that later.

The importance of being Wagyu

This ad used to run in the Jakarta Post all the time. I like to imagine waiters in black tie bringing a DNA certificate to the table on a platter, to be examined discerningly like an expensive bottle of wine. “Ah yes, descended from Bessie — her marbling was legendary.”

But do people really want to know about the DNA of the steak they’re about to eat? Personally, I’d rather not think about its mom and dad; I feel guilty enough as it is.

Besides, if they’re going to show me test results, there’s stuff I’d much rather see than DNA. A nice clean report card for E. coli and parasites, for example. Better yet, they could bring an iPod to the table and show me video of the kitchen staff washing their hands before making the food. It’s not just street food that makes people sick, after all; fancy eateries are guilty too.

Any restaurant that offered the iPod plan would have a line out the door — I guarantee it. With all the food scares in the US these days, it’d probably be a hit there too.

Palmerah Market: Electronics guy

This small electronics stand packs in a lot of stuff, from custom cables to antennas, a ceiling fan, batteries, power strips and cassettes. You still see a lot of cassettes in Indonesia, especially of local music. They’re the basic level of audio for people who don’t have a lot of cash. On the other hand, there’s also plenty of iPods, mp3-playing cell phones and other gadgets around.

This guy is selling cassettes of Iwan Fals, the Indonesian Bob Dylan, as well as the ballad-y Ada Band, pop sensations Peterpan and others. The huge speaker sneaking into the picture at bottom left is churning out loud pop music.

I think the electronics guy is making a gesture of peace, but he may be threatening to cut off his hair like Britney.

My blog experiment

I don’t have a picture to go with this, so here’s a totally gratuitous shot of a kitten at the local warung

I’m launching a second blog today, in Indonesian. Mostly I want to practice the language, but I’m also looking for a good place to ask important questions like Are Jakarta cab drivers getting grumpier? and Who makes the best fried chicken in town? If I get interesting answers, I’ll share them here.

So check it out, if you’re so inclined.

Translucency International: a call to action

The skillful use of translucency makes your news event
safer and more enjoyable for everybody!

“Transparency” is a very trendy word in Jakarta these days, partly fueled by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International. The government never makes a move without declaring its commitment to being transparent, i.e. open and accountable, while newspapers like mine are constantly criticizing things for insufficient transparency.

The other day Chad went to a press conference. The reporters were firing all sorts of questions at a government official about the workings of his agency. Finally the exasperated official said, “We are transparent, but not completely transparent!”

When Chad told me about this later, it hit us. What the world really needs is a Translucency International: the organization for people who want to be a little bit open. Open enough to look like you’re trying, perhaps, but not so open as to actually shake things up and cause everybody a lot of messy, embarrassing problems.

Translucency International could hold workshops on How to Hype Meaningless Statistics at Press Conferences, or How to Hold a Public Meeting while Actually Making Decisions Behind Closed Doors.

I’m not saying this is a purely developing-world concept, either. I’m sure the U.S. Congress and several generations of White House operatives could provide valuable expertise.

As a nonprofit organization, this is a guaranteed cash cow. What government, corporation or (gasp!) NGO wouldn’t sign up? So here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning sociopolitical movement. Nominations for the Translucency board, along with discreet (dare I say translucent?) gifts, are now being accepted.