The floods aren’t over

Remember the Jakarta floods? They were three or four disasters ago. The other day our friend Ardi took me to see a school in notoriously flood-prone Kampung Melayu, one of the areas that got hit the hardest.

Packed in

School is back in session, but they have to crowd large numbers of students into the few usable rooms.

Blackboard and brownboard

The unusable ones are pretty messed up. The floodwaters were full of slime and garbage that got into every nook: every crack in the walls, every joint in the bookshelves, every chair and table that wasn’t swept away.

That’s Ardi in the back, and one of the teachers in front

A whole section of the school needs a new roof. That’s how high the water got. In fact, at one point people were escaping the neighborhood by walking on the roof.

In front of Ardi’s mother’s house

This is a horrible picture of me, but I wanted to show you Ardi’s mom (right) and, I believe, his aunt (left). They both live near the school. During the worst of the flooding, his aunt spent two days perched on the roof of her house. She looks a tad grim here, but in fact she’s a very smiley person.

“They dropped me food and water from a helicopter,” she said cheerfully, with the stoicism that gets tested all too often here.

It rained the night before my visit, and the neighborhood flooded again. The water had already receded by the time I got there, but his mom showed me the new waterline in her house, more than a foot high and still damp. “How many days has it flooded this year?” I asked. “Not days!” they laughed. “Two months!” Two months and counting, that is.

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Junk food of the week: Kueku

Kueku (KWAY-koo) means “my pastry.” The remarkable sticky-chewiness of the outer layer can only come from glutinous rice flour, and I assume the violent pink is from food coloring. But what’s inside is a mystery to me. Anybody know? It’s like some kind of bean paste, but more crumbly. It’s pleasantly bland and mushy, and just a little sweet.


Kueku comes on a little piece of banana leaf to keep it from glomming onto everything in its path.


It’s sometimes for sale in the lunchroom at work, on the honor system. The jar lid says “Don’t forget to pay,” which seems awfully polite for a newsroom. I think the American version would be more like “Fork it over, lunkheads!”

Palmerah Market: Happy hairy fruit

Yesterday felt like the official end to the flood story. We went to check on the tent city refugees, but there were no tents and no refugees. Everybody had gone home. Even the newswires, who’ve done nothing but flood stories for a week, have moved on to other things.

For a lot of people, the story of starting over from scratch is just beginning. I hope to catch up with some of them later, but for now I’ll pick up some threads I’ve dropped, such as the one about Palmerah Market.


Rambutans are the friendliest-looking fruit I know. They’ve got punk-rock hair, but their spikes are way too soft to inflict any damage. (Their name comes from the word rambut, or hair.)

Rambutans at the market


When they’re in season, big festive bunches appear all along the roadsides and in the market.

Rambutan on our balcony

Disregarding the spikes, a rambutan is somewhere between a large olive and a small egg in size. Inside, it’s similar in texture and sweetness to a grape, but with somewhat denser flesh. It can have a bit of citrusy tartness, too. There’s a little pit inside, about the size and shape of an almond.

Rambutans are the sort of thing you can eat by the bowlful, especially if you’re caught up in conversation or reading a good book (which could get messy).

Taking back the streets

This weekend we went up to Petamburan, a neighborhood just north of us, to check out the cleanup effort (Chad was doing a story for VOA).


The army must have told everybody to put the garbage in the street, because there was a line of trash piles right down the middle. The smell of garbage mixed with the smell of the mud made for a pretty aromatic setting. They brought in a front-loader, and soldiers, residents and volunteers threw all the garbage into it, to be dumped into a larger truck and hauled away.


The soldiers had stylish hip waders, but the residents got pretty dirty. Of course, if they’ve been living here for the past few days they’ve had to walk through the mud anyway. Now at least there are cleaning stations where people can rinse off.


After picking up the garbage and several bags of mud, they used a fire truck to spray the streets with water. When they were done, it was pretty clean.


Meanwhile, the gears of the daily relief effort were grinding away. Women distributed box lunches, which are generally paid for with a mix of government funding and donations. People are moving back into their houses, but they’re not in a position to cook yet, so the food deliveries continue.

Tents in the park


The administration is trying to move flood refugees into tent cities throughout Jakarta. There’s one near us in the sports complex at Senayan, right in the shadow of gleaming skyscrapers.


Each site is equipped with 50 army tents, and each tent can hold 100 people (so they said, although I can’t really imagine cramming that many people into them). The tents are pretty army-ish, and they’re not long on privacy. But the people we talked to seemed happy to have clean clothes, regular meals, and protection from the weather. One woman had been sheltering beneath highway underpasses for the last few nights. She moved to one underpass, but the flood followed her, so she had to move to another. She was relieved just to stay put for a while.


Kids were running around everywhere, shouting, laughing, playing soccer, and generally causing a ruckus. This boy made a cat’s cradle with rubber bands. “Know what it is? Know what it is?” he asked me breathlessly. “It’s a house!”

The enemy


Mud. Thick stinky garbagey mud made up of dirt from upstream, plus slime from the city’s terminally polluted rivers and canals, plus who knows what else. People are scraping it out of their houses and trying to wash it out of their furniture. The city’s coming around to the worst-hit areas to clean the streets this weekend. They’re planning to use firehoses to blast everything with disinfectant.


There’s not too much mud left on BenHill Street, but these workers were building a wooden walkway over one persistent slough so people could get to the restaurant behind them.

Somebody on a little side street lost their pants in the mud.

You can even see the Levi’s-style label.

The itinerant cleaning-supplies peddler stands to make a good living for the next few days.