Sunday, August 22, 2010

Some hard-won wisdom

If you ever decide to take a long-distance train ride through Thailand, book in advance to make sure air-conditioned sleeper cars - or any sleeper cars at all - exist on your train. Then, just before you click 'confirm', go to and book yourself a plane ticket instead. Seriously.

Some thoughts from Malaysia

-Rambutan trees are pretty funny looking. But then so are rambutans. 
-European backpackers need to shower more, have a shave, and seriously rethink those ridiculous pants. Just cause you're in the jungles of Malaysia is no reason to smell like that.  
-I must be getting old - I'm willing to pay extra for a room of my own and an indoor bathroom. Five years ago it would have been bunk beds all the way, and shower in the ocean. How bourgoise of me. 
-Don't expect breakfast on Ramadhan. Or hot water ever. Internet costs extra.
-Giant monitor lizards really are giant, and really are terrifying. They climb trees too.  
-Sunburns suck. So does "water-resistant sunscreen" that resists water about as well as Imelda Marcos might resist a shoe sale.
-Scuba diving: totally worth it.  
-Snorkeling here kicks the shit out of snorkeling in Mexico. Incidentally, add to my Christmas list for this year a really good waterproof camera and tickets back here. 
-Things I saw while snorkeling/diving: sharks, a sea turtle, rays, more sea slugs than I'd like to think about, triggerfish, sea anemones (complete with clownfish),  zebrafish, angelfish, butterflyfish, giant parrotfish, giant pufferfish, giant clams with iridescent blue frills around the edge, coral that looked like a brain, coral that looked like fungus, coral that looked like seaweed, coral that glowed in the dark, coral that looked like nothing else I've seen on this earth, plenty of other fluorescent-colored creatures, a wheelbarrow, monkeys.    
-Monkeys are adorable.   

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Highlights of Kuala Lumpur: Tried durian chocolates. Had a monkey steal my earring + try to eat it. Got to the Petronas Towers ten minutes after they ran out of tickets to the top.  

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Singapore to Jakarta and back

I'm writing this on my iPod touchscreen in the Singapore airport, so we'll see how long I can type before I get sick of it. That's how it'll be between now and when I get my netbook back on the 25th. Sorry. I was planning to catch an overnight train into Kuala Lumpur tonight, but I didn't feel like taking out more Singapore dollars, schlepping to the train station, and spending the night on a train, so I dropped by the AirAsia desk and booked a flight out instead. We leave in about an hour.

So I guess I last posted from E-Ching's house Tuesday morning. Monday night I flew as far as Singapore with the CLS group (or what was left of it), But instead of gettng on the next flight up to Tokyo I grabbed my bags, and left. E-Ching's house is beautiful by any standards, and particularly so since it had all the things I'd been missing: real showers with hot water, fast Internet, even AC. Singapore's not a large country, but it was a whirlwind two days trying to pack it all in. The family has a driver, which certainly helped. My first impression of Singapore was that it reminded me of Florida - it's so much cleaner than Malang, more modern, more smoothly functioning. The first thing that hit me was the complete lack of both motorbikes and potholes on the roads. In the daylight I'd cmpare it more to Manhattan, if Manhattan only had the financial district and Curry Hill, less trash, and more palm trees. It's new, it's clean, it's tropical, and it's hugely diverse - roughly 5 million people and four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. I got there the night of National Day, the Singaporean Fourth of July, so there were flags everywhere and government posters: "Fly our flag, live our dream." What elsewhere might be propaganda here just sounded like advertising.

On Tuesday we saw a government housing development - roughly 80% of Singaporeans live in one - then lnch at a hawker center and the afternoon at the zoo. The Singapore zoo is pretty famous, and rightly so. They're big on fenceless enclosures, so the only thong between you and, say, the tigers is a big ditch. Rather disconcerting at times, especially right before the feeding when they're looking hungry. Lots of free-range monkeys too. I stepped in orangutan poop. Ew. The only drawback was the weather, which we found out later was about 37* celsius, roughly 100* F, and humid as anything. I really was spoiled by Malang's cool mountain air. That night was a dinner party thrown by E-Chng's parents for the new neighbors, with some fantastic roast chicken and the first wine I'd had since May. Mmm.

Wednesday we went to Chinatown and the heritage museum there, then lunch at an even bigger hawker center downtown. Calvin Trillin, as usual, was right: the food in Singapore is pretty spectacular. Plus with the hawker centers you can eat what you lie and not worry about getting typhoid or dysentary or whatever like in Indonesia. There was a sudden downpour while we poked around Raffles Hotel - a British colonial relic if I ever saw one. Then we drove to Little India, where I bought a camping backpack for the rest of my trip and we snacked on banana parathas, a local specialty, and chai. I had barely enough time back at E-Ching's house afterwards to change into non-sweaty clothes and start printing my travel itineraries before I headed out again, this time to meet E-Ching's brother, who works as a playwright/blogger/etc in Singapore. He gave me a walking tour of the arts district, then we saw December Rains, Singapore's first Mandarin musical. Thank god for subtitles. It was just a melodramatic and over the top as you'd expect a Chinese musical to be, but fun regardless. I got home and crashed around 1.

Thursday morning I flew into Jakarta and met up with Jenny, a friend from CLS, but my typing fnger's getting tired so you'll have to wait to hear about it. Maybe on the train to Gemas tomorrow. We'll see.

Saturday morning

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sampai Jumpa, Indonesia!

I'm currently sitting in Singapore at a friend's house, enjoying the air conditioned room, fast internet, and hot showers. It's the little things... I flew out from Surabaya yesterday, with roughly two more weeks of travel before I head home. First, a wrap-up of my last week in Malang.

You've already heard about my cobra-eating adventures on Tuesday night, so I'll skip that. Classes ended on Wednesday, which for my class meant a few hours of review and then a field trip to Cafe Ria Djenaka for melon juice and chatting with the teachers. Tari gave us all wooden shadow-boxes with models of masks & spears from her home town in Kalimantan (Borneo) as kenang-kenangan (parting gifts). Thursday was somewhat hellish; four hours of final presentations followed by a final exam. I love all my fellow-CLSers, really, but after four hours of powerpoints I was about ready to shoot myself. Mine went smoothly, and I now know the words for 'endangered language' and 'extinct', which should come in handy. And the final exam... well, lets just say that my 150-word essay was closer to 50 or 60 words; by that point I just wanted to be done and outta there. The university gave us all custom-tailored alma mater jackets – basically suit jackets with an Universitas Negeri Malang patch on the lapel – so everybody was looking sharp. That night was the closing ceremonies, with performances from the traditional dance and gamelan classes. We'd been told to dress up (my peer tutor: “Emily, you need to wear makeup tonight.” Me: “I'm wearing makeup now.” Her: “Oh... well wear more!”), so I put on a batik skirt from Bali and put on some lip gloss, my typical informal dressy look. The Indonesians, on the other hand, were stunning. Salon appointments for hair and makeup, traditional costumes from around the archipelago for everyone in gamelan class, which was almost everyone, seriously fancier outfits than I'd seen at the wedding a few weeks ago. I didn't recognize a few people on first glance. A sharp contrast to the few unlucky Americans who'd been assigned “traditional” Papuan dress for gamelan, which ended up being a shiny yellow poncho and skirt with rainbow-colored feather trim and feathered headbands, sort of Big Bird meets Pocahontas. And Mas Wyatt, who git drafted as an MC, in a bright-red sequined outfit and cap that made him look like a Chinese re-interpretation of a Christmas elf, but six feet tall. Ingrid was suckered into MCing as well, she dealt with it by filling a water bottle with Pocari Sweat and vodka and taking swigs before the show. It was a fun night.

Friday was a near-unbearable mandatory re-entry workshop (yes, I know what reverse culture shock is...) and oral feedback session. Listening is obviously not the administration's strongest suit; when Jenny complained that the intermediate class was hard because of a wide range of student abilities, but that having so much homework made it hard for them to find time to go out and talk to real Indonesians, Dinny wrote on the form “many different levels in class – maybe give more homework next time”. Um... no? Afterwards a few of us went out to Cafe Und for the evening. Mbak Nissa ordered her first-ever plate of pancakes, with chocolate sauce and sprinkles – very East Javanese.

On Saturday I made up for any ecological sins I may have committed with the cobra blood by going out to Batu with Samantha, Kyle, and Jake and planting trees with schoolkids. There's a conservation area up in the mountains there, around the source of the Brantas river, which is a major water source for East and Central Java. There used to be over 200 springs feeding the river, but since the area has been deforested for agriculture in the last ten years that number has gone down to about thirty. So now there's an arboretum, environmental education for local kids, and a reforestation program going on, where any time a diplomat or major group visits the region they donate a tree to be planted near the river source. Samantha, who studies that sort of thing, found out about the project an raised Rp. 600,000, roughly $60, from people in our program, which was enough to buy about 100 trees. So on Saturday we went out there, met up with a group of ten local middle-schoolers, and planted them. It wasn't nearly as back-breaking as it sounds; the trees were small and the holes had already been dug, so all we had to do was plop them in the ground and cover them over with dirt again. A 5-minute walk up to a spring that feeds the river, where we washed the mud off our hands. There were speeches about the importance of conservation, and afterwards we bought them ice cream as a little positive reinforcement.

Sunday I discovered cream baths, which I wish I had known about two months ago. You go to a salon and they smear your hair with some intense conditioner, followed by a 45-minute head, neck, and shoulder massage, all for about $3. Things I wish we had in the States... After the creambath about 20 of us went out to karaoke. You haven't lived until you've watched a sweet girl in a pink jilbab and braces do an impeccable performance of Timbaland's 'The Way I Are'. Seriously, word-perfect. Mas Wyatt followed it up with 'I Want It That Way' – old school late-'90s Backstreet Boys – and it ended with the whole room singing 'My Heart Will Go On' from Titanic. (No, mom, the microphone never came anywhere near me. That would take far more alcohol than is socially acceptable in Indonesia.)

Yesterday I finished packing and left the house at 9:30 in the morning to catch the bus out to Surabaya. A pile of tutors and teachers came with us, so the bus was packed. Yusinta gave me a pair of wayang earrings that I'd seen in the store and admired (terima kasih, Yus!) and a photo collage; I gave her a framed picture of the two of us in silly hats at Blitar and a shirt my host family had bought. 11am the bus headed out; 2:30 we got to the airport. Lots of teary goodbyes. Our flight was delayed, of course, and took of at 6pm rather than 5, but that's to be expected. My bag was 2 ½ kilos overweight, but the guy at the counter let me get by without paying. Our flight out of Jakarta was half an hour late too, so I got into Singapore a little before midnight local time. Luckily my bag showed up; since I was still booked on continuing flights to the US – United couldn't cancel the rest of my ticket without changing me to a different fare class, which was Verboten – I wasn't sure it would. But it was Garuda to Singapore and United the rest of the way, and luckily for me they don't have a baggage agreement, so all our bags had to be re-checked in Singapore. I just took mine and left. I was picked up at the airport by friends from Yale, so now I'm at E-Ching's parent's house waiting for the day to start (I'm still on Javanese time, which means waking up several hours earlier than any sane person in the rest of the world). I'll write more about Singapore later, but it's quite a change from Indonesia.

And lastly, a change of plans for the rest of my travels. On Thursday I'm flying back to Jakarta for a meeting with some linguists at the Max Planck Institute field station there, who do pretty much exactly the same research I want to start on next summer. From there I fly into Singapore again and take an overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. Most of a day there, then more trains up through the jungle to the northern part of the country, where I'm stopping (appropriately) at the Perhentian Islands ('perhentian' means 'a stopping place') for some R&R and what's supposed to be excellent scuba diving. Then across the Thai border, 20 hours on another train, and four days in Bangkok. Fly back to Singapore on the 25th, get my luggage back from E-Ching, then back to America just after midnight that night. I'd thought about taking that tour, but decided for $500 I could do it myself and have money to spare, since it wasn't going to be a complicated itinerary. I'll meet my friend Jenny in Jakarta and Fatima in Bangkok. So that's my jungle adventure, and here's hoping the trains run roughly on time and I get where I want to go. Ramadhan in Malaysia should be an interesting experience too. I'll write when I can, but who knows what the internet situation will be. Sampai nanti...

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pengalaman Sangat Indonesia – Not for the faint of heart

Remember a month or so ago, when I was writing about my adventures in the mud at Pulau Sempu, and I mentioned that I'd missed out on drinking cobra blood in Jogja? Well... the other night, I made up for it.

After hearing about the two people who did it in Jogja (and seeing them alive and well the next day), Leslie and Chris decided they wanted to try it too, so Pak Gatut took them to his friend who runs a cobra restaurant – of course Pak Gatut has a friend with a cobra restaurant, don't you? - and they too came back still kicking and with a great story to tell. So it was in the back of my mind for a while. Then on Tuesday, Wyatt and I decided to give it a try. The plan was to make it a class trip, and Judith seemed game, but in the end kickboxing class won out and it ended up being just the two of us and Gatut. Lame.

After Wyatt's gamelan class I headed home to tell my host family I wouldn't be home for dinner, I was going out for snake blood instead. They thought I was a little nuts, but then that's about usual by now. We all met out at Gatut's house, then on to Depot Cobra Rejeki. It's a warung on a back street in a wealthy neighborhood, slightly dingy, and entirely deserted except for the four of us (myself, Wyatt, Gatut, and Pak Imam, the driver for the program). We went to the back and watched as the proprietress one by one fished three cobras out of a wooden box, held them out for us to see, then with a mininimum of fuss cut off their heads with a cleaver, drained the blood into a shot glass, took off the skin and removed the stomach, the contents of which ended up in a smaller shot glass with a touch of wine. A cobra is like a chicken, apparently, in that the head keeps snapping at you for a good ten minutes after it's cut off from the body, and the snake keeps moving roughly until the organs are out, though it's already thoroughly dead. The little garbage can that the heads were dropped into was actually rocking on the floor as she was cleaning the meat in the sink. Imagine, you can still be bitten and killed by a severed cobra head. Hati-hati...

I'd struggled a bit with the idea of going out to have an animal killed so I could have the thrill of eating it. But when you get down to it, what's the difference between that and ordering roast chicken at a restaurant, or grilling a sausage? In both cases an animal dies so that you can consume it. And here, rather than going to the grocery store for an anonymous package of shrink-wrapped meat from lord knows what factory, I saw the snake and watched it get slaughtered – unlike the usual American eating experience, I was, for the first time, face to face with the death involved in producing my food, and for the first time it was impossible not to recognize the sacrifice involved. Not that I'm ready to go watch a cow get slaughtered for my hamburger, but it was an experience I'm glad I had. And because we ate the meat and some organs for dinner, very little was wasted, again unlike the usual American eating experience. I don't know much about cobra populations in East Java or whether the hunting practices are sustainable, so maybe it was entirely ecologically irresponsible of me, but again, given what I know about livestock operations in the States, I think the comparison still holds. Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter.

Back out to the front, we sat at a table and a tray was brought to us with three big shot glasses of blood and three little ones with bile and wine. My snake was on the small side – I got a girl cobra – so they had to add a little of the blood from Wyatt's snake into my glass. On the table were cups of water and bowls of mints – apparently it's not uncommon for people to puke after drinking it. One, two, three, cheers! The bile shot went down first. A little bitter, tasted mostly like wine. Next the blood. Cheers again. It tasted like, well, blood. A little salty, a little thicker than you might want, but swallow fast and it's not too terrible. Nobody puked. (I found out later that three guys who'd tried it earlier had gagged, so I was a little proud of myself.) A few minutes, a mint, and some water later the meat came out, stir fried with ginger and garlic. It looked like snake. A little chewy, but tasted mostly of sweet Indonesian soy sauce. Afterwards we chatted and smoked kretek (the ubiquitous Indonesian clove cigarettes), which seemed entirely appropriate after drinking the blood of a deadly reptile. It came to $7 each, including rice. They said we wouldn't be able to sleep well that night and indeed I didn't. I can't say I felt any dramatic effects the next day – no extraordinary glow of health or virility – but then I also didn't feel any worse for my sleepless night, so maybe there's something to it. In any case, I can now say that I've eaten cobra. Worth my $7.

Postscript: When I got home, my family, though still slightly skeptical of my sanity, suddenly thought I was awfully adventurous, and started reeling off lists of slightly strange native Indonesian foods I'd yet to try – horse satay, snails, various soups and stews. We had goat kebabs last night. Honestly, cobra's tastier.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Malls, Markets, Graves

A quick update on this week: The program's nearly over, and classes are winding down (though don't tell Pak Peter that!). When Wyatt heard from his (gay) host brother about weekly games of bola banci – transvestite volleyball – at one of the local malls, and told my class about it, naturally we had to go. Indonesia has a strange relationship with gender issues – in general, don't even think about being gay, unless you're wealthy and Australian-educated and threaten not to come back from studying in Thailand where you're living with you boyfriend (Wyatt's host brother), but bancis are like the drag queens in the New York subway system: you look twice, you maybe say something to your friends, but it's pretty much accepted. In any case, while everyone seems to know that bola banci exists, nobody can quite say when it takes place. Probably 4pm, we heard, maybe Tuesday, or Wednesday, or possibly Thursday. Or Saturday morning, could be. It was already Wednesday afternoon, so we decided to try on Thursday. A short motorbike ride later, we arrived at MOG. No bola banci. If at all possible we'll be trying again next week, hopefully better luck then. Instead we went to the mall, like the twelve-year-old girls we secretly are. Hence the chocolate-banana-cheese crepes from earlier.

Friday, off to another mall to see Salt. Movies in Indonesia cost roughly $2, so I feel I got my money's worth. The best part was the subtitles – either Indonesians don't swear, or the translators are unwilling to render expletives faithfully. Hence 'shit', as in 'Shit! The Russian assassin/spy just escaped after an excruciatingly long and dramatically choreographed chase scene!' came out as 'sial', or 'bad luck', as in 'Oh no, I just dropped my ice cream on the floor. Sial!' 'Bullshit' was 'omong kosong' or 'empty talk'. Etc. Anyway, Liev Schreiber's still amazing, even if the movie had no actual ending. Sequel, anyone?

And Saturday I got in a car to Blitar, site of former president Sukarno's grave, some nice temples, and Mas Toriq's parent's house. We visited them in that order: firth the dead dictator, then the 800-year-old ruins, then lunch at Toriq's. On the way home we stopped at a giant dam for a photo op. All around were kaki lima – food carts, with signs advertizing 'sate 02'. I know what sate (satay) is, but 02? Shorthand for snail, it turns out, a reference to old slot machines. I didn't try any.

And today I spent a quiet day in Malang with my family. Out at 6:30am to see the Pasar Minggu (Sunday Market), eat some bubur ayam (chicken rice porridge, quite good) off the back of a truck, and browse the stalls, back home for a while to work on my final presentation for the program, then out again to a salon where I got a mani-pedi and a haircut for a grand total of Rp. 70,000, or just under $8. Not the best mani-pedi I've ever gotten – no polish, and the poor girl working on my toes didn't even manage to get off all the old polish from last time, though lord knows she tried – but I love the haircut and the hand massage was worth eight bucks on its own. Now I'm sitting on the balcony while my host family naps, plotting out my next week and daydreaming about Thailand. Not a bad weekend at all.