The other Dili

It’s good to go to new places with nothing but a vague sense of foreboding. Then you can be surprised by every good thing you find.

Such was the case when I went to Dili. To me, Dili has always been about oppression and struggle, from when my high school debate team spent an entire your researching and arguing the East Timor occupation in 1984 straight on through the unrest of 2006. What I never realized in all that time was that Dili is also a lovely little town …

where the mountains come right down to the ocean …

where the air is breathable (well, unless you’re stuck in a traffic jam) and there are no buildings taller than four stories.

And the beaches! Men in uniforms come out in the morning and clean them! You can stroll along them to a cafe and then sit and watch the sunset while sipping a drink. I’ve heard there’s some lovely snorkeling too, but we didn’t really have time. For a long weekend, just strolling around, looking at the ocean, and hanging out with friends was plenty.

From Kupang to Dili by bus

Our friends John and Shelley have been in Dili, East Timor for two years now. It took us forever to get our act together, but we finally dashed out for a visit as they are wrapping up and getting ready to go back to Australia.

Flights into Dili through Bali are absurdly expensive, so instead we flew to Kupang, on the opposite end of the island. You will recall that East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999 after decades of occupation and resistance. Now, the east half of the island is independent while the west half is a province of Indonesia.

We got to the hostel in Kupang at midnight and discovered the only bus we could get seats on was leaving at 4 a.m. The room was, shall we say, pretty basic. My favorite part was the bathroom sink that emptied directly onto the floor rather than bothering with any kind of pipes. But the beds were beds and we managed a couple of hours of sleep before getting blearily onto the bus (actually just a van) in the still-dark city.

The ride from Kupang to Dili is an 11-hour marvel through all kinds of terrain: jungles, little villages, mountain forests, rivers, beaches. I napped a bit while it was still dark, and then I just stared out the window drinking it all in. I especially liked the thatch-roofed huts, which looked like big hairy beasts.

After the first several hours of drowsy window-gazing, punctuated by bursts of loud syrupy Christian ballads on the driver’s tape player, we got to the border. There we grabbed our backpacks, paid our $30 (US, cash, exact change only please) and entered East Timor to meet the vehicle that would take us on to Dili.

The border was surprisingly low-key, especially considering the destruction Indonesia-backed militias wreaked in East Timor just a decade ago. We made our way through a series of buildings which, as Chad said, “resembled chicken barns,” chatting in Indonesian with friendly guys in camouflage fatigues. We sat in the hut above, which turned out to be a medical office, for about five minutes until someone came by and told us we didn’t need to be there.

Once the paperwork was sorted, it was on to a new vehicle (an SUV), a new driver, and new music (Beatles hits and slightly-wrong Asian covers of random old country songs). We hurtled through the last three hours to Dili taking hairpin turns at terrifying speed and sometimes hitting 75mi/120km per hour on straightaways. We were mighty glad to get our tired, sweaty selves off the bus and put our feet on solid ground and John and Shelley’s.

Street sitar

I was walking to work a few weeks ago when I came across this Javanese woman, dressed all in batik, playing and singing for money. I stopped to record and she told me the instrument was a sitar. It’s smaller than the Indian kind and played in the lap instead of guitar-style. Despite these differences, I suspect it’s a throwback to the old Javanese Hindu kingdoms of the 14th century.

While she was singing, a snack vendor (dumplings, I think) came by and added his own rhythm to the mix.

All I had on me was a 50,000 rupiah note (about $5 US) so I gave it to her. Then she chased me down the street trying to sell me the sitar.

At long last, pinakbet

Pinakbet has long been one of my favorite words, along with ramekin and clafouti. Someday I’m going to throw a dinner party involving all three, and maybe some of my newer favorites like the Indonesian pulang (to go home) and meninabobokan (to sing a lullaby).

In all the years I’ve loved pinakbet, I’ve never actually tasted it. But I knew it was from the Philippines — more precisely, as Wikipedia tells us, it is a northern Filipino stew generally featuring bitter melon, eggplant, tomato, ginger, okra, beans and chilis — so I was looking forward to getting my hands on some during my trip to Manila.

During the first couple of days I asked around for it but didn’t find any. Finally, on my last night, I ran across it in a mall food court. I was skeptical, having eaten a lot of mediocre Indonesian food in Indonesian food courts, but there weren’t going to be any other chances.

And indeed, this pinakbet turned out to be suspiciously mediocre. It was kind of bland and mushy and I didn’t detect any bitter melon in it. Some hot sauce and vinegar perked it up a bit, but I remain convinced that the pinakbet of my dreams is still out there somewhere.

A homestyle New Year’s Eve

I always find New Year’s Eve a bit challenging, whether in the US or Jakarta. Some part of my brain can’t let go of the idea that I should be wearing a long backless midnight-blue velvety dress with spangly things on it and dancing to a live band in a ballroom somewhere, with big chandeliers and finger foods and tuxedoed waiters, and champagne at the stroke of midnight.

That actually wouldn’t be too hard to arrange in Jakarta, but it would be frightfully expensive, especially compared to our usual entertainment budget (i.e. $5 movies and $2 beers). Lots of the hotels and upscale clubs have special parties, but the tickets range from $40 to above $100. Our frugality and tendency toward laziness combine to make this sort of thing impractical.

But the trouble is, clubs need a special permit to be open on New Year’s, so cheaper places like the karaoke joints we tried to go to 2 years ago stay closed.

Add all this up with insane Jakarta New Year’s traffic, and you’ve got a compelling argument for spending the evening at home. Which is what we did.

Me, Wendy, Chad, Ashlee, Pinta

First we went out for brunch with work friends at Koi, a cafe in an upscale neighborhood of South Jakarta. After a mushroom-blue cheese omelet, a Bloody Mary, a Passionfruit Collins, some borscht, a tablewide plum pudding and chocolate souffle, and four hours of good conversation, I was feeling pretty sleepy.

Dwayne, our beloved former intern, and my co-editor Pinta
The chocolate souffle

We went home and watched some Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 2 — which was OK but I have to say, I still don’t really get what all the fuss is about. We also caught some of the New Year’s celebration on TV, live from Ancol theme park in North Jakarta. Rhoma Irama, the King of Dangdut, was in fine voice and playing a cool guitar. His backup singers were extra-trippy.

Video swiped from TPI TV. As always, my translations are approximate. Corrections/ improvements welcome!

Remarkably, we got hungry, so we went down to the marketplace and got some of our favorite Aceh-style spicy noodles. The market was busy and festive, with people honking horns and setting off firecrackers.

After midnight we sat outside for a while watching the beginning of the lunar eclipse.

It turns out lunar eclipses take a long time. By 2 a.m. we could just barely see a shadow creeping in on the upper left. We could also barely keep our eyes open, so we went to bed.

Happy New Year everyone!

Eating Manila

“That stuff with the blood in it.” That’s what other Westerners warn you about if tell them you’re going to the Philippines. My boss went on at some length about a variety of blood-based dishes, until I began to wonder if any Filipino food didn’t have blood in it.

As it turns out, the dish is called Dinuguan, and it’s made out of pork. It was a thick stew, almost gel-like, with dark and meaty flavors and hints of chili and vinegar. It was tasty, though I confess the blood part did put me off a bit.

I expected Kare Kare to involve curry, but in fact it was a rich peanut stew with vegetables, kind of like an African groundnut stew. Yum!

Filipino food relies less on chilis than Indonesian food. Instead of sambal, you’ll often get vinegar and soy sauce on the side.

Vinegar and soy sauce went nicely with this cold half-eggplant with tomato and onion, which I got at a fast-food place. If only McD’s and Burger King served eggplant! That’s a chili sauce on the side, by the way, although as I recall the emphasis was on musky, fermented-fishy flavors as much as on spicy heat.

One problem with blogging too far after the fact is that the details get a bit foggy. I don’t remember what this dish was called, but I’m guessing it was a kind of tapa, which Wikipedia tells us is “a traditional dish of salt-cured beef that is similar to American-style beef jerky.” It certainly wasn’t that salty, but perhaps it was soaked before being cooked up in a sauce. It was a meaty, stick-to-your ribs kind of meal with scrambled egg and rice, served up at another little fast-food joint.