Monster bash

As I mentioned, I went down to Bali at the end of March for the Nyepi holiday, which I’ve always wanted to do.

The idea behind Nyepi is to scare evil spirits away from the island by having a huge street party and making a hell of a racket. Then, the next day, on Nyepi itself, everyone stays absolutely silent so the monsters will think the island is empty and won’t come back.

Seriously, has a better holiday ever been invented?

The party is focused around a parade of demons. For weeks in advance, teams of people in the villages make effigies of monsters.

On the afternoon before Nyepi, these are carried out into the streets so everyone can admire them.

Some are quite frightening and gory.

But my favorites were the smaller ones made by children. Ghost on a Vespa, for example, was awesome.

The Vespa ghost also carried a message of harmony, which was a nice touch.

After the public admiration session comes a parade and a contest to choose the best monsters — followed by the actual day of silence. More on those later!

Pizza Hut’s war on pizza

Even before I moved here, I suspected Pizza Hut had been bought by some shadowy person or persons intent on destroying Italian-American cuisine from within. Now I know this is true. After all, how else can one explain Corn and Mayonnaise Pizza (with slices of chicken hotdog)?

Not convinced? Check out the FishChips Pizza, with chunks of fried fish and a little pile of potato chips in the middle. For those who are concerned about getting their Recommended Daily Allowance of mayonnaise, it comes with artful drizzles of mayo crosshatched with drizzles of sweet, artificially-flavored and -colored chili sauce from a 50-gallon drum they keep out back.

Having gotten a good start against pizza, they’re now tackling pasta. What exactly is Corn Salsa Sauce, and how did it turn out green?! Never mind, don’t answer that — I’d rather be able to sleep tonight.

The 44 turns

Maninjau is two hours from the aiport in Padang. About one hour of this is spent doing hairpin turns.

Well, that’s how it feels, anyway. The lake is in a volcanic crater so the journey up or down is, shall we say, rather steep. The road is famous for its 44 turns. You do switchback after switchback until everyone in the car is turning green and queasy.

Just when you’ve almost convinced yourself there can only be three or four turns left, you realize some cigarette company has put up a numbered sign at every switchback. And you realize you actually have fifteen to go. Thanks, cigarette company! No wonder everybody loves you guys!

The views of the lake do offer some consolation, though.

Victorious water buffalo

West Sumatra is the home of the Minangkabau people. Their traditional houses have distinctive, peaked roofs that draw up the heat and pull in fresh air.

The pointy roofs also mimic water-buffalo horns, and that is no accident. The word Minangkabau comes from an old legend having to do with water buffalo.

Centuries ago, the story goes, a Javanese army attacked Sumatra. Somehow the local people convinced them to gamble the outcome of the battle on a buffalo fight. The Javanese brought in the biggest, meanest water buffalo they could find.

But the Sumatrans chose a baby water buffalo. They kept it from its mother for a few days until it was quite hungry, and then sharpened its horns so they were like razors. When the two animals met on the field of battle, the hungry juvenile ran under the adult and tried to suckle, stabbing the larger animal to death.

(Oh cute, clever little Sumatra! Oh big, stupid, bullying Java! is undoubtedly the subtext of the story, reflecting the age-old resentment many smaller tribes feel toward Indonesia’s most populous and powerful ethnicity.)

The area became known as Alam Minangkabau, or World of the Victorious Water Buffalo. And so it remains today.

Biking the Lake

We rented bikes and went out for a ride late in the day, following the afternoon rain. The air felt very clean and the light was amazing — even my little cellphone camera could tell.

There was a big hill at the beginning of the ride and I had to stand on the pedals and pump with all my might to get up it. Some women sitting on a porch yelled and cheered and laughed at me in a friendly way. Sadly, I couldn’t take their picture, or I would have fallen off the bike.

I did capture some other people, though … like this farmer returning from the fields for the day.

And this man in a sarong and boy wearing pajamas, standing in front of a nice little house. I wonder if it’s a vacation home.

This house is not so upscale. There were a bunch of children playing, but they all yelled and laughed and ran inside when I tried to take their picture. Then they kept peeking out at us from behind the safety of Mom.

It was a great ride. Even the trip back to the bike shop, down the narrow main road crowded with tourist buses, worked out fine. I was amazed that the drivers of big cargo trucks would stop and wait patiently while I slowly pedaled my way around a parked car and back to the side of the road.

We got back just before dark, and sat down to a meal of “tako,” which turned out to be a big savory stuffed pastry, plus some deliriously tasty fried eggplant.

The star of the meal was a large wedge of fried mashed potatoes studded with chopped vegetables and local herbs. Here, inside the restaurant and with darkness falling fast, the cameraphone failed to do justice to the subject. So you’ll just have to believe me when I say it was extremely tasty.

Escape to Lake Maninjau

It’s tougher to get out of town now that Chad and I both have full-time jobs, especially since we work a lot of Friday nights and Sundays. But we’re starting to get the hang of dashing out of town whenever we have 2 or 3 days off in a row.

Last time this happened we hadn’t really planned ahead. So we just stuffed some clothes in our backpacks, went to the airport, and bought tickets. We ended up going to Maninjau, a crater lake in the hills of West Sumatra.

We got there in the evening after a long drive with an annoying driver who kept saying, “If you need a ride to the airport, just call me! We have an office in Padang! Just call the office! If you need a ride to the airport! So, when are you going to the airport?” (We pretended we weren’t sure.)

The next morning we woke up to this view, which made it all worthwhile:

Rice paddies are like health food for the eyes. They’re so intensely green. I couldn’t get enough.

Just around the corner from our little cottage was the lake, which wasn’t exactly an eyesore either:

There were little wooden canoes all over the lake, but no-one was sitting in them. Instead, the boaters were in the water, standing about waist-deep and jiggling sticks that pointed straight down at the bottom of the lake. As it turned out, they were collecting tiny clams.

I went to get my camera, and when I came back, the clammers were taking a break. I waved at them and started snapping pictures.

The clammers took out some containers of rice and began making eating gestures at me. At first I was taken aback, because this is sometimes how beggars ask for money in Jakarta. A moment later I blushed to the roots of my hair, because I realized THEY were offering ME food. I said no thanks, although I was a little curious to see what they were eating.

After taking some pictures of little flowers, I wandered back to our cabin for a mid-morning nap, wondering what other vestiges of the Big City I was carrying with me.

Junk food of the week: Green Peas Stick

What could be tastier than a bunch of green peas, all mushed up, and then rolled into logs, deep-fried, and coated with salt and sugar?

Well, okay, probably lots of things. But Green Peas Stick are what we have, so you might as well eat them.

(I spent the Balinese day of silence in Bali, blogging … so more posts are on the way over the next couple of weeks.)