What the bears wear in Bali

I don’t have too many fond memories of the Bali climate conference, but watching the polar bears get dressed was kind of fun.


The bears were part of a demonstration organized by an NGO. Environmental groups were putting on little stunts like these every day, because they realized the conference itself, with its mind-numbing recitations of jargon, made for bad television.


“Drink a lot of water, it’s hot out there,” the person in charge kept saying. And “keep your heads off,” an interesting inversion of the usual advice regarding heads.

Finally, donning their heads at the last moment, they went out into the heat to do their little chant. I didn’t follow; it really was a lot cooler inside the media center.

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Kebayoran Lama market: shapes and textures

I’m told you’re supposed to put these flower petals in your bath to make it more luxurious. Too bad we don’t have a bathtub!


A stack of lemongrass. I love its herby, lemony, vibrant flavor. Vietnamese food would be lost without it, and it’s also crucial to Manadonese food, our favorite Indonesian cuisine.


Pete (peh-teh) beans, also known with affection or horror as “stinky beans.” They lend a special pungency to chili sauce.

Going upscale

Our neighborhood, Pejompongan, is nice but not especially trendy. The eateries are all warungs, i.e. street-food places, and they don’t put a lot of effort into marketing. In fact, Bu Dena’s place across the street is now so well hidden that one needs a highly sensitive warungometer to find it at all.

Now, however, there are little signs of incipient funkiness cropping up around us. Case in point: the Baca (BAH-cha) Cafe.


Baca, which means “read,” calls itself “the Book Lovers Cafe” (in English – a sure sign of trendiness). They have lots of second-hand books you can read while drinking your coffee, or you can buy a membership and borrow books for a fee. The coffee is all instant, which is a little disappointing, but at least it’s cheap.


It’s a cute place, and given the relatively high price of books here, it deserves to survive. But it’s a little out of the way, so I worry about its future. If anyone wants to check it out, it’s on Jl. Gelinggang, off Jl. Limboto, just down the block from a little stairway down to Gatot Subroto across from the DPR.

Fruit on fire

Chad and I have been writing a street food column lately for the Jakarta Post magazine. This month we did our beloved rujak, or fruit salad with spicy sauce, and decided to branch out into asinan (AH-sin-ahn) as well.


Asinan is basically raw fruit soup. The soupy part is flavored with sugar syrup, sour tamarind, and hot peppers; there’s little bits of pepper and fiery seeds floating around. The fruit is mostly unripe — mangoes, water apples, and something unbelievably sour with the musical name kedongdong — so it’s quite crunchy and tart. Sometimes there’s a bit of sweet pineapple scattered around to provide some relief. Oh, and weirdly, there’s raw sweet potato too.

As you can imagine, all of this adds up to an explosion in the mouth. This bowl was so tart and hot, we couldn’t finish it. Another asinan we tried a block away was a bit milder, fortunately.

The price of tempeh

I went to the big Kebayoran Lama market this morning with a couple of friends on a photographic expedition. We wandered up and down long rows of stalls, taking pictures of fruits, vegetables, flowers, cats and people.

This woman tried really hard to sell me a chicken. When I lied and said I couldn’t cook, she said, “I’ll cook it for you!”


Chad met us for lunch at a nearby noodle place. Just as we were finishing, the phone rang, and sure enough it was VOA saying Soeharto had died. Luckily the traffic wasn’t too bad. We raced home and spent the afternoon filing stuff. We’d been talking to analysts over the last three weeks and saving up tape, so we were actually able to do some decent stories.


Up close and personal – tempeh wrapped in banana leaf

It seems like an ironic time for it to happen. For one thing, the UN anticorruption conference is getting underway in Bali, and institutionalized corruption is certainly part of Soeharto’s legacy. On the other hand, the price of tempeh is also a big story at the moment. When he was in power, the government kept the price low. Now it’s more vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Poor people survive on tempeh, so when it gets expensive, it’s really tough on them. I don’t think they say, “Oh, now we have a market economy, and these spikes are an unfortunate side effect.” They say, “The government doesn’t care if I starve. The president doesn’t love me. Soeharto loved me.” And in a way, they’re right; democracy hasn’t been much of a blessing for the people at the bottom. It’s a real challenge for the country as it moves forward.

But Soeharto’s fingerprints are all over Indonesia, and probably any week that he died would have been full of little coincidences like that. They’re burying him tomorrow in Central Java, but it doesn’t matter whether he’s in the ground — he’s going to be around for a long time to come.