Monday, August 29, 2011

I flew all the way back from Indonesia for this?!?

A few days after the fact: The Chiang Mai Saturday Market was indeed better than the normal night market, and I happily stuffed my face with all sorts of wonderful street food for roughly 15 cents a pop. The Ping River cruise was drizzly but nice, though a little pricey for what it was. My last morning there I went and got a mani-pedi, which was desperately needed, then flew out to Singapore.

One more travel tip: if you’re choosing between places to stay in a foreign city, always pick the one in Chinatown. My Singapore hostel – an actual hostel this time around, because private rooms there are ridiculously expensive – was right in the middle of things, which made for delicious meals and fun walking. Singapore’s got a great zoo and some interesting cultural sites, but the real reason to go there is the food, especially since I already saw the zoo and the cultural sites last summer with E-Ching. But the food in Singapore is awesome, and particularly so in Chinatown. In the morning I wandered around the neighborhood, bought some fancy tea, and saw a temple claiming to hold a bit of the buddha’s tooth; in the afternoon I trekked up to Little India for an incredible chicken biryani and then over to Arab Street to poke around in shops. Little India just smells amazing, what with all the big baskets of spices and things out for sale. In the evening I went back to E-Ching’s house to pick up the flippers I’d left there at the start of my trip, then off to the airport for my 1:40am flight home.

The flight from Singapore to Dubai takes a little over 6 hours, and I slept for the first five or so. Disembarking in Dubai I went to grab my carry-on from by my feet and felt it was a little wet. When I took a sniff, I realized I’d been sleeping so soundly I’d totally missed the guy next to me throwing up, and he’s apparently not noticed missing the bag a little. Eew.

Four hours in the Dubai airport, then a 13-hour flight to JFK. All was well until the very end, when we started doing circles above New York. The captain came on the intercom and pointed this out, saying there’s been a minor earthquake on the east coast, and we’d be in a holding pattern for another 15 minutes or so while they checked out the runways. I fly from Indonesia, right smack in the middle of the Ring Of Fire, with all the attendant volcanoes, quakes, tsunamis, etc, and miss a tremor in New York? Excuse me? Next we hear that they’ve evacuated the tower at JFK and we’re being rerouted to Boston. Ok. Halfway to Logan they say JFK has been reopened, but by this point it’s too late to turn around, so we’ll just land, refuel quickly, and head on back south. After an hour and a half on the tarmac in Boston, we do just that. Apparently they’re not used to planes as large as ours there, so refueling tool two gas trucks. (Apparently ours was two levels tall and has showers in first class.) After landing in New York, it took a good 40 minutes to get deplaned, since they were bussing us into the terminal instead of using a jetway. All told I was sitting on the plane for around 17 ½ hours. All I can say is thank god it was Emirates and not United or something, so at least the seat was comfy.

Baggage claim took another 40 minutes (500 people on the flight = a whole lot of suitcases to unload). Customs didn’t notice my tea, thankfully. SuperShuttle took an hour to come rather than the 25 minutes they promised, but thankfully I was the second drop off, and caught the 10:20 train to New Haven, getting me in at ten past midnight. 34 ½ hours from takeoff in Singapore to arrival at Nicole’s, where I crashed my first night. Oy vey.

And today was a hurricane. And by hurricane I mean slightly windier than normal rainstorm. After all the hype I was expecting at least a little power outage, and I know in some places it did that and far more, but even East Rock, notorious for turning streets into rivers at every moderate downpour, looks like a nice place to take a stroll right now, no galoshes needed. All the downed leaves in the backyard will take some serious raking up, though. Thanks, Irene.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thailand Redux

Well, it turns out my last night on Gili Air was more eventful than I’d anticipated. I’d gone to a nearby hotel to put op my last post, and found I really didn’t have an appetite for dinner, but I got a watermelon juice because it came with free wifi access. Two hours later I was puking that same watermelon juice back up in my bungalow and feeling pretty miserable about it. I’d been so exhausted the night before that I’d fallen into bed without taking my malaria pill (as I realized the next day), but my money’s on food poisoning. In any case, I took a Malarone and an antibiotic and a Dramamine, and by morning I was tired but feeling okay.

Which was good, because that day was also fuller than I’d expected. There’s two boats to Bali from the Gilis, one fast and one slow. The fast one takes and hour or two and costs a bit over $60, so I paid Rp175,000 (about $22) for a ticket on the 4-hour slow boat with a van to my hotel in Kuta. What the guy who sold me the ticket didn’t mention was that it also included a ride on the public boat back to the harbor in Bangsal, an 2-hour van ride across Lombok to the port, then the 4-hour ferry, and finally another 2-hour van ride across Bali to Kuta. And all this with my 20kg bag, backpack, and laptop bag. Whoops. It was evening by the time I got to Kuta (and no direct hotel drop-off either, just one stop in the touristy part of town), and the first place I found with rooms available was Fat Yogi. Rp300,000/night (around $35), but I was tired so I took it. Wow. Lap of friggin luxury, there. Hot water and air conditioning, good wifi by the pool in the courtyard, no mildew or spiders! The bed was a little hard, but I slept like a rock. In the morning I wandered around town a bit, unsuccessfully looking for fruit kripik to bring home (should have stocked up in the Surabaya airport!), then caught a cab to the airport and flew to Chiang Mai, Thailand, by way of Singapore.

The Singapore airport, by the way, was culture shock all over again, so clean and shiny and modern. Since I had a few hours to kill between flights I walked a loop through the three terminals. I stopped in all five gardens (orchids, ferns, sunflowers, cacti, and butterflies – yes, there’s a butterfly garden in the airport), used one of those foot massage machines they’ve got scattered around, mailed some postcards, and got dinner. I declined to use the movie theater, the Wii, or the LAN gaming rooms, but they’re there for your use (free) if you’re so inclined. That place is ridiculous.

And now here I am in Chiang Mai. I realized after I’d booked the tickets that this chunk of vacation is exactly what I did last year too – a stint on an obscure island for the scuba diving, then a few days in a city in Thailand. Bangkok was one of my less-favorite places to visit, but Chiang Mai is proving to be a sweet little place. Nobody hassles you (unlike Bangkok), and there’s a few hundred wats around town and plenty of walking to do. I chose Chiang Mai in a large part because of its reputation as home to some of Thailand’s best food, and that’s the one area in which it’s let me down. Certainly not bad, not by any means, but I was expecting to have my mind blown (like it was in Bangkok, that city’s main redeeming feature), and that’s yet to happen. Though last night’s dinner at the night market was one of the best so far, a Northern Thai dish made from pork, tomato, and chilies, eaten with sticky rice. I’m having trouble finding places without any English on the menus; maybe that’s my problem. Of course that means they have to have pictures, or else I’m totally at a loss. But so far no luck. The award for best food of the trip is so far firmly in the hands of Luang Prabang.

My first day I just walked around the old city, looking for the main temples. I had breakfast at a little café on a soi (side street, of which there are many) near my hotel, where the guy served me a ‘mixed fruit juice’ that turns out to have included orange, tomato, carrot, dragonfruit, watermelon, pineapple, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. I definitely need to try to make that at home. The first major temple I stumbled across, Wat Chedi Luang, has what looked like Madame Toussaud’s-quality wax figures of two of their former head monks sitting cross-legged in glass cases before the altars in two of the temples on the grounds. I was told yesterday that those were the actual monks, dead and preserved. Eew.

Lunch was papaya salad from a street cart. Papaya salad is one of my favorite Thai dishes, but this version nearly burned my mouth out. Probably my own fault for nodding when she asked if I wanted it spicy. There were a few more temples, then a visit to the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders. This guy has spent his whole life collecting insects and rocks shaped like animals and other weird natural objects ad made them into a museum. Apparently he and the other lady who run it are experts in mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases, and they had an impressive array of mosquito species on display, but they also put up signs saying that mosquito bites inoculate you from other diseases and malaria prophylaxis doesn’t work. So I’m skeptical. But the bugs were cool.

Thailand abounds in cheap massage places, and since I was sore from lugging my bags around the day before I decided to spring for an hour-long back, neck, and shoulder massage at a place that employs former female inmates. Apparently Thai jails include massage school. It ran me about six bucks in total, and apparently the Thai definition of ‘back, neck, and shoulders’ also includes what we Westerners would call ‘legs, arms, and hands’. It was pretty marvelous overall, but my ex-con masseuse must have had awfully strong hands, because there’s a bit of back up between my shoulder blades that’s way sorer now than it was when I went in. I guess I was tense.

For day two I booked a day trip out of the city to Doi Inthanon national park, which includes the highest peak in Thailand, a whopping 2,565 meters above sea level. (Is that high? Mt. Everest is 8,848m; the highest point in New York, Mt. Marcy, is 1,629m. So kind of high.) We drove up. First stop was a pair of pagodas dedicated to the king and queen. The views are supposed to be spectacular, but it’s currently the rainy season, and was currently raining, so all there was to see was cloud. Then up to the top, for more cloud views and a nature walk through some gorgeous cloud forest. From there we went to a market. The Thai king pays local hill tribes to plant veggies instead of opium, and they sell them here. I can’t imagine the profit margin’s the same. I bought some tea. The historical irony would be better if I were British.

That’s about where it stopped raining. We went to a waterfall for lunch, and then to a Karen village to see some traditional weaving. We worked on Karen in field methods last semester and I helped put together a dictionary as part of the class, but all I remember how to say is ‘two bananas’, ‘three coconuts’, and ‘water buffalo’, and since there were neither bananas, coconuts, or water buffalo in evidence that wasn’t much help.

And yesterday I took a cooking class. First stop was the market, to teach up about Thai ingredients. I bought half a kilo of mangosteens (yay!); a bag of fried silkworm larvae, which taste kind of like bar peanuts; and something large and winged and so far unidentified, which I have yet to taste. From there we drove out to the farm where the cooking class was held, and got a tour of the gardens before heading into the kitchens. It’s quite an operation they’ve got out there, with three or four classes going on at the same time. I opened the day by slicing into my finger instead of a stalk of lemongrass, but it went smoothly from there. A pair of British girls living in Kuwait, ages maybe 7 and 10, were both brave enough to try a silkworm. Most other people weren’t. Nobody took me up on my offer of a leg from the winged thing. The British girls asked me how I was going to eat it and my answer was ‘bite off its head, then keep on going’, but I think they have a point. I’ll let you know how it goes.

And finally, last night I walked out to the night market. Mostly a lot of the same mass-produced stuff you see for sale in Bangkok, but I found a few interesting things to buy as gifts. Tonight’s the Saturday Market, which is supposed to be better and more local. Handicrafts here look a lot like what I saw in Laos, which I guess isn’t surprising, since the border’s just a few hours drive away. And in half an hour I’m getting picked up for a ride down the Ping River. Here’s hoping the rain lets up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pulau Surga #2

First question: why does Senggigi have five Mexican restaurants? I didn’t try the tacos. Maybe I should have. What would an Indonesian taco even have been like, anyway?

My last few days in Manokwari were fairly routine – elicitation sessions with Ibu Marice, transcribing, MasterChef Australia. I got my NSF grant application submitted, with a little hiccup at the end when I found out it was supposed to be 10 pages instead of 15 and had to cut, but luckily my margins were too big, so that helped. Once the fly-home-early-for-a-week-in-Ithaca idea was quashed, I emailed a dive shop in Pulau Sipadan, a little island off the east coast of Sabah (one of the two Malaysian states on the island) that’s supposed to have some of the best diving in the world. There were no diving permits left until my last possible day there, but I decided to go for it. And then wrestled unsuccessfully with the internet in the hat, sweaty back room of PapuaNet where the wifi is, gave up, and by the next day decided that Sipadan was too much of a hassle to get to, and I wanted to go to Chiang Mai instead. Lebih santai begitu. And no evening flights followed by hour-long shuttle bus rides, then finding a place to stay, then ferry to the island, then four days later dashing from my last Sipidan dive onto the last ferry back, with an early shuttle bus back to Tawau for an early flight to KL and then Singapore, and missing any of the above meaning missing my flight home. Chances are everything would be fine - there were several hours between each flight to allow for delays – but it would be a hassle no doubt, with my big heavy suitcase, and a full day of travel before my 24-hour flight home, and really who needs that? So Chiang Mai it is, a 15-minute (albeit 11pm) taxi ride from the airport to my pre-bookable hostel, and a full day’s relaxing in Singapore before the long schlep to JFK. But the internet remained uncooperative, and I left Manokwari with no tickets booked.

Twice in my last few days I went into town at night. The road out is different at night, wilder-feeling. There’s no streetlights, so all you see is the tree branches and palm fronds stretching overhead, and instead of a pretty green lane it feels like driving through a forest. Things come out at night and cross the road, then get hit by trucks so you find them flat the next morning. I’ve seen huge centipedes, frogs, a crab, and at the very end a big old lizard smushed near my house. You don’t see any of that walking around during the day.

On my last morning I got up at 3:30 for a 4am ride to the airport. The Manokwari airport is, shall we say, not quite up to TSA standards. They didn’t ask me for any ID to check in, and while everyone’s bags were scanned at the entrance there was nobody manning the metal detector, and my shoes, laptop, and liquids stayed on my feet and in my bag the whole time. I could have had a machete in my belt and likely no one would have noticed. Probably someone did.

My plane left from Manokwari just after dawn, heading from there to Ambon, Makassar, and Surabaya. I’ve taken some beautiful plane rides in my time, but these were real stunners. Coming up out of Manokwari you first see the bay, then turn west and fly over the jungles of the Arfak mountains before hitting the ocean. Ambon and Makassar were much the same idea – deep blue coastal waters dotted with little islands and spits of sand, turning turquoise in the shallows by the shore or in the spots where what would be an island hadn’t quite broken the surface yet, or what had been an island was now washed away and submerged. Makes a girl long for a boat and a snorkel. And on land more mountains, coming down in Sulawesi and Java to plains covered in rice paddies that make the land look like stained glass from above, all shining blues and greens and browns and reds. I wish I’d had my camera handy.

I had a good five hours in the Surabaya airport before my final flight to Mataram, on Lombok. My first bit of post-Papua culture shock came when I walked past a Starbucks next to the gate. First order of business, once I’d checked in for my last leg, was the AirAsia counter over in the international terminal. I finally got those flights to Chiang Mai and back to Singapore, paid in cash, which is always fun in a country where the currency ends in three zeros. Sure, I’ll go get 5 million rupiah out of the ATM, why not? Even with all those zeros, that’s still a fat stack of bills to count out. From there lunch, since I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and let me tell you that crappy chicken curry tasted amazing. And lo and behold, a Dunkin’ Donuts next to the curry place. I got a chocolate one with coconut. Amazing. I wandered around a bit, bought a book for the beach – I’m working my way through the Game of Thrones series, which is way more engrossing than it has any right to be – and saw my first toilet paper dispenser in six weeks in the airport bathroom. Things you never thought you’d miss… (Once again, when in SE Asia, always carry a pack of tissues.)

All of this was to get me to Gili Air, one of three islands known as the Gilis off the northwest coast of Lombok, which is the next island east from Bali. This was to be my tropical island retreat for four days before my visa ran out and I’d have to leave the country. Boats to the Gilis stop running at 4pm, so my first night was in Senggigi, a little resort town just up the coast from the airport. That’s where I ran into the Mexican restaurants, and those five were just the ones I noticed. There’s not much to Senggigi, just a pile of hotels and inns along a main road, some restaurants and gift shops, and a reasonable beach. Not sure I’d vacation there, but it’s a reasonable place to spend a night. Lombok is known for its farmed freshwater pearls, so I bought a few of those. You’re welcome.

And in the morning I took a van another 45 minutes up the coast to Bangsal, then dragged my gigantic suitcase down the beach to the little outrigger that took us across to Gili Air. Of the three islands, Gili Trawangan is the most popular, good for getting trashed on various substances and lying out on the beach. Gili Meno is the smallest, with a couple of guesthouses and not a lot going on. I chose Gili Air, which is somewhere in between the two, though if this is less developed I’d hate to see what Gili T is like. It’s a different world altogether from Manokwari. Firstly, it’s crawling with bule. Not many Americans around, mostly Europeans it seems, but I haven’t seen this many white people in one place in a very long time. And with the tourists come the Italian restaurants and wood-burning pizza ovens, the snorkel and dive shops, the spas and yoga studios, and the quaint little guesthouses. I’d been looking forward to coming here and speaking English again, since Manokwari was all Indonesian all the time (except with baby Gio, who couldn’t answer me back), but now that I’m here I find myself resisting the English and answering back in Indonesian whenever I can. Surprises the heck out of the locals, but they seem to appreciate it, and I’m better at bargaining in Indonesian anyway. And after 6 weeks of working indoors in long skirts and t-shirts, all the bits of me that haven’t seen sun in a while are starting to turn pink. Oh the pleasures of beach vacations.

But despite the high-season crowds, this place definitely has the feel of a tropical paradise to it, which of course is the whole reason the crowds are here in the first place. Clean white beaches, palm trees, flowers, a sea so beautifully turquoise blue they should charge you a million dollars just to look at it. No road or cars, just a sandy track around and through the island, with bicycles and horse carts to get around. It reminds me of the Perhentians from last summer, if the Perhentians were a little bigger and far more developed. Perhentian Kecil is still my favorite island paradise, but this isn’t a bad second place.

Most of my time so far has been diving. I decided to go for my advanced open water certification, which means five dives in two and a half days. I walked into the Manta dive shop at one something in the afternoon my first day to ask about signing up, and was told yes there’s an advanced course starting, we’re leaving at 2:30 so go get your swimsuit. I’ve done two dives so far, 18-meter drift dive in the strong currents by a sea wall and one 30-meter (100-foot) dive this morning. So far there’ve been three moray eels three sea turtles, all sorts of gorgeous colorful fish, but no sharks. I took my underwater camera down this morning and came out with 120 shots of blue-gray fuzz. From those pictures you’d think there were only about three fish in the ocean, since that’s as many as you can make out from the blue. I swear I stuck the camera right in one eel’s face, but there’s no trace of him that I can see in the photos. (Vampire eel?) Oh well. Tonight is a night dive, which should be a lot of fun. I’m told the phosphorescence is amazing. (ETA: several more moray eels, a trumpetfish, an octopus, some mantis shrimp, a 6-foot long black-and-white striped sea snake about two feet below me, a cuttlefish, a school of gigantic bumphead parrotfish, and more other fish than I could hope to name. Still no sharks. Later pictures are a bit better, and will be up eventually.)

So that’s where I am now. I expect my next two days will be mainly diving, napping, and relaxing on the beach, with maybe some snorkeling on the last day. I’ll post again if anything interesting happens, otherwise you’ll hear from me next week in Chiang Mai.

ETA: Last night here, finally made it to the internet café during open hours. Better late than never. No snorkeling, but lots of diving, walking, eating coconuts, and reading on the hammock in front of my bungalow. Life could be worse.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Odds & Ends

Perks of living in a developing country: I walked into a pharmacy the other day and asked for a cream, since I’m having a bit of an allergic reaction to – well, lord only knows what to out here, but I’m blaming the Malarone. And the guy goes into the back and comes back with a tube containing a mixture of corticosteroids and antibiotics, and a big fat warning saying ‘By Prescription Only’, and proceeds to sell it to me for three bucks. Closest thing he’s seen to a prescription is a red splotch on my arm, but apparently that’s good enough. Good for society maybe not, but awesome for me. And damned if the stuff doesn’t work, too.

Things I’ve learned living here #1: Goats like to climb. I’ve seen a good lot of goats since coming to Papua, and a surprising number of them have been standing on benches and railings and such. And not just leaning up on them – all four feet on the bench, looking down on the world around them. Eye-level goats are a little disconcerting.

Things we take for granted (a gripe): The internet here is slow. Sometimes it’s just a little slow, so facebook takes a minute to load. Sometimes it’s like molasses, and I have to press the reload button five times before gmail finally stops timing out on me. The internet, however, is not designed for slow connections. For example: Yale sends me an email saying I have a TA appointment! Yay! All I have to do is click through thee five different screens to get to the login page and then hit okay once or twice more to see what class I’ll be working with next semester. And please do so ASAP to accept the appointment. Do you know how long it takes me to do all that? 30 seconds in the States, probably, but much langer than that out here. The library account login page just plain refuses to load, which has been a pain since I’ve had some books come due, and you can’t renew them by ESP. (Thanks again Nicole for returning the one and mom for logging in for me to renew the other!) And the New York Times has so many applets and pictures and videos and whatever that it takes me five minutes to check the news, assuming it load right at all, which it doesn’t always. A text-only version for internet-deprived expats like me would be much appreciated. (And wouldn’t earn them any ad revenue at all, so fat chance.) I should probably just switch over to the Singapore Straits Times, which I’m sure is more relevant to me here anyway, but old habits die hard. Example of a useful website out here: Wikipedia. Low tech, fast, awesome. Blogger would be fine except that google still thinks I’m in China. It took me several tries to figure out which link was to log in. Hopefully I won’t need to do anything more complicated.

Things I’ve learned #2: Small plastic grocery bags make good sponges to wash the dishes with. Very effective at getting a lather out of the dish soap. Not that I’m switching from real sponges any time soon. But you know, just in case.

Why do giant beetles keep dying in front of my building? Wasp stings to the head? Chemicals? And why do they always die lying on their backs? Either way, bad news for the beetles, good news for the Peabody Museum entymology collection. Just don’t tell Customs.

The dog situation is interesting here. In Java there were a lot of stray cats around but very few dogs. Here it’s just the opposite. The number of dogs in any particular area seems to vary in inverse proportion to the number of Muslims, which actually makes sense, given. But the dogs here aren’t exactly strays, even if they’re not pets either. We’ve got four who live around the house, two males and two females. Nobody spays or neuters, so there were puppies living in the kitchen out back when I first arrived. The dogs don’t come in the house, except when the back door is open and nobody’s looking and they want to nose around in the trash. And they don’t get fed. But they do hang around in the kitchen and eat whatever falls on the ground (again, the shed out back where the cooking’s done, not the room in the house with the water cooler and sink). And somebody took the puppies, so they must be wanted. But they shy away when I hold out my hand, so they definitely don’t get petted. Mostly shooed away, from what I’ve seen. Definitely not trained. Any Papuans who saw how we treat our dogs in the US would probably think we’re crazy. Maybe we are.

And my Indonesian has gone in the last few weeks from somewhat Javanese-inflected Standard Indonesian to a regional mashup of Javanese terms from last summer, Papuan Malay from talking to people here, and a smattering of Manadonese from learning to cook with my landlady. Can’t wait to bring that to LanguageTable in the fall. And yes, I’m coming home with new recipes, and yes, I’ll be cooking them, and yes, you can try them.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Papua Burgers

Following last week’s smashing success with the spaghetti, this Sunday I made burgers. Virgine, who requested them, was out swimming, but there’s leftovers for when she comes back tonight. Hadi Mart was didn’t have ground beef, but it did have ground chicken and chunks of beef, so I got both and in true me style used a blend. I probably could have gotten ground beef at the market, but somehow I haven’t made it there yet and I didn’t want to make a second trip. The knives at home still sucked, but Ibu was home and she knows where the whetstone is kept, so that (mostly) solved that problem. I cut off most of the fat, since frankly it was turning funny colors in places, and between the two of us we got the beef minced pretty fine. That went in a bowl with the chicken, a little olive oil, salt & pepper, minced onion & garlic, and after tasting some saus Inggris (literally ‘English sauce’, but it smelled Chinese to me; I’ll have to google it), and a little soy sauce. (I know hamburger purists are probably cringing right now; you don’t like it you can come out to Papua yourself and make ‘em however you like.) The patties went in a pan in the oven, or rather a metal box that gets set on top of the burner and used for roasting that’s the closest there is to an oven here. Then to finish, set on a little grill rack over a flame to get that smokiness, with Kraft American slices to melt on top - I’m going authentic here, not classy. I put them out with slices of tomato & cucumber, a roll sold at Hadi Mart as ‘hamburger buns’ with sesame seeds on top, and a bottle of ketchup. The burgers turned out tiny, and the buns were a little sweet, and way too big for the burgers, but call it sliders on potato rolls and you’ve got the idea. This time I was craving them less, but the flavor was spot-on, especially since I usually mix Worcestershire sauce and salsa and all sorts of odd things onto my burgers anyway. Tasted like the Fourth of July – better late than never.

Photos here and here.

Adventure of the Day

I was on my way into town this morning to go to the ATM so I could pay my rent - no bank transfers here; it’s all in cold hard cash – when there was a minor incident on the motorbike. I was on an ojek (motorcycle taxi), sitting sidesaddle, since that’s the far less awkward way to go in a skirt, heading down the hill, when suddenly there was a stopped van in ahead of us. I was looking off to the side so I don’t know if it stopped suddenly or just suddenly came into view, but anyway there it was. And the motorbike in front of us, instead of just passing, stopped alongside the van. So to avoid crashing headlong into the other motorbike, which I was pretty convinced we were about to do, my driver swerved to the right, which put my legs in between the two bikes, and there wasn’t much in between to put them in. My front foot swiped against their foot rest while my back foot got knocked back against our rear wheel and knocked around a bit in the spokes, and I lost my balance completely on the seat, so even after we pulled past we wobbled a bit, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d slid right off. Anyway, no real damage done – a scuff on one sandal, a little spot of rug burn (footrest burn?) on the other foot, my adrenaline rush for the day but no blood or tears. Still, I’m hoping the next ride falls more on the boring side.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Spaghetti Project

After nearly two months of living in hotels and hostels and now somebody else’s house, I’ve been aching to get in a kitchen and cook something for a while now. And much as I really do love Indonesian food, I miss, well, other things, like pasta, or samosas. So when somehow the topic of cooking came up while I was in Bintuni, and Juen asked if I knew how to make spaghetti, quickly promised to make some as soon as possible, with saus tomat and daging. Or, even better than meat sauce, meatballs. And garlic bread, naturally. Go big or go home.

Today was the big day. First stop was Hadi Mart, our sad excuse for a grocery store, where somehow I managed to find real Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil (no first cold press, but I am in Papua), imported Dutch butter in a can, frozen ground beef, and actual fettuccine. Shocking, considering most of the time they don’t even have bananas, in a part of the world where they grow in half the backyards in town. I figured I’d riff on my ragu recipe from Siena, and while there was no celery the carrots were pre-peeled and gorgeous. The local tomatoes were pathetic – the few red ones were moldy, and the rest were green and hard – but I bought a few anyway, and made up for it with a little can of tomato paste and (surprise!) some reasonably good jarred spaghetti sauce. I was hoping this would be entirely from scratch, but there’s no tomato sauce without tomatoes, so we make some compromises. All that, plus a loaf of bread, some milk, onions, banana chips, and a bottle of shampoo came to a little under $30, which is maybe a lot for a spaghetti dinner, but given nearly everything was imported I think I did pretty well.

Next challenge: cooking the stuff. Ibu was out for the afternoon, so with the help of Juen’s younger sister Virgine I started chopping vegetables around 4:00. The knives frankly sucked, so I was sawing away at the onions more than really slicing them, but it worked. The kitchen in the house pretty much has a tank of drinking water, dishes, and a sink; the real cooking is done is a shack out back, and after a few hours on a hot afternoon with those gas burners going I understand why. And thank goodness I had someone to help me, since I never would have figured out those burners myself – it’s more a super-sized camping stove setup than what you’d find in a kitchen. We sautéed the onions, carrots, and tomato paste in butter an olive oil, and already the smell was incredible, at least to a homesick quarter-Italian like myself. After that a few minced cloves of garlic cadged from the pantry, then the chopped tomatoes and jar of sauce. There’s no basil that I could find in this town, and certainly no oregano or parsley, so I was relying on the sauce to provide the herbs, at least what little it contained. And as Manokwari is a holy city – this is where the missionaries first arrived on mainland Papua, after their stay on Mansinam Island – there’s no red wine to be found here either. Pity. A pinch of salt, some black pepper, one little chili pepper, and some water, then set aside to boil for a while.

Next up: meatballs. Following the advice of the ever-wise Marcella Hazan, I soaked two slices of white bread in milk, then mashed them with some salt, pepper, garlic, minced onions, and a borrowed egg. All that got kneaded into the meat and rolled into balls. Then, because there was no oven and this is Indonesia, the balls were deep fried. Mmm, oil.

It was about this point when Ibu and her friend came home fro the market and started working outside the kitchen, cleaning singkong leaves, making coconut milk from grated coconut, and boiling big pots of eggs. Everyone was pretty intrigued by the whole sauce-making process, but then I was pretty intrigued by the making of the coconut milk, so.

While the sauce was boiling again, with the addition of a few meatballs for umami, I buttered a few slices of bread and went up to toast them in the little George Foreman-style grill everyone here seems to have for making toasted sandwiches. When they were golden I rubbed them with half a clove of garlic, and set that out. The sauce needed a little salt and a squirt of vinegar (lemon juice would have been ideal, but the closest they get here is lime, and that just would have been weird). Then boil up the fettucini, mix the meatballs into the sauce, add a little pasta water for texture and a pat of butter to the noodles, and presto: an Italian(-ish) dinner.

And it was fucking delicious, if I do say so myself. Objectively not the best ragu I’ve ever made – there’s no bacon around here, after all – but given the constraints and how long it’s been since I’ve had a proper bowl of pasta, amazing. The sauce could have cooked longer to soften up the veggies more, but I had trouble convincing Virgine to keep it on as long as I did, and Ibu needed the burner to do her cooking on anyway. I was particularly impressed by the meatballs; their flavor was great and the deep-frying gave them a nice texture. Hard to tell what everyone else thought, since we don’t really all eat together at the same time ever, but I’ll be having leftovers for breakfast and gladly.

Next up, by request, is hamburgers. At least I know I can find Kraft Singles here.

ETA: They must have liked it, because by breakfast it was all gone. Back to hardboiled eggs in chili sauce, potato croquettes, and some potato lentil soupy thing over rice for me.

Ugh, can't seem to upload the photo. It's here:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Downsides

They're doing construction on the road in front of my building on campus, so the water lines are down. And as of yesterday the cisterns in the bathrooms ran out of water. The drum in the kitchen is empty too. Which means... ugh. I miss first-world plumbing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Weekend in the Country

The road to Bintuni is its own special kind of hell.

It starts out innocently enough, a reasonably well-paved lane passing through villages and bits of forest, narrow enough that two pickup trucks passing each other each have to put a wheel in the grass but two lanes anyway. Some twists and turns, some cows grazing in the verge, some pigs and chickens crossing the road and dogs lying in the middle, nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, the driver slams on the gas to pass anyone in front of him, but everyone in Indonesia drives that way so by now I’m used to it. And the scenery’s kind of pretty.

Soon enough we get some mountains, some ups and downs to go along with the lefts and rights, the curves get tighter and the potholes get deeper and wider. While we’re at it, the view out over the bay gets better. This being the rainy season, there’s a few mudslides, some patches of dirt to clamber over, but not for nothing are we riding in a 4-wheel-drive pickup. The driver puts ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in the cd player. Celine Dion is inexplicably, wildly popular in Indonesia at the moment, and this is at least the third time I’ve heard this song played. Then some Leanne Rimes and it’s like being at an awkward middle school dance all over again. But things could be much worse.

It’s around hour four when things start to get much worse. We turn west away from the coast and start to head inland, over the mountains toward Bintuni Bay. This is where the Indonesia Tourism Map I downloaded shows the road ending. The potholed paved road and reasonably good gravel starts to intersperse with longer and longer stretches of mud tracks that undulate like sea waves on a windy day, which are far more charming in a sailboat than four hours into a car trip. Occasionally, inexplicably, there will be a stretch of fresh, smooth pavement, giving way to mud again or something you can tell was once paved, but probably last maintained by the Dutch, who left this part of the world in 1960. Creeks cross the road. The ruts fill with rainwater. The driver swerves to avoid the worst potholes or find the firmest path through the mud. We’re still in the mountains, so the hills are steep and slippery. The engine strains as it tries to go up; we fishtail on the way down. Mud splatters everywhere, including into the open window that I open each time the driver lights a new cigarette, which is often. Somebody’s put wooden planks in some of the deeper ruts, which are helpful if they’re recent and still lying flat but just one more obstacle to swerve around if we’re not. Most of the time we’re not breaking 15 miles and hour, more like 3 in the roughest spots and booking it as fast as we (not-so-safely) can in the better areas. Around this point it starts to get dark. No streetlights out here. Somebody in the back starts puking. I thank god for Dramamine. Bats dart across the road as we head through the forest. Something white streaks in front of us – a cockatoo, I think. I put Terry Gross on my ipod and pray.

I’d wanted to go to Bintuni for a while. If Manokwari is on the back of the Bird’s Head, Bintuni is high on its throat, right above the Adam’s apple. Both of my speakers in Manokwari had spent time there, and apparently a lot of Wandamen speakers of various dialects live in the city. (City? Small town. Very small town.) My landlady Ibu Marice suggested that I catch a ride over with her family when they headed back, and when I mentioned it to Juen (her daughter and Gio’s mother, as I finally figured out), she got excited and asked if Saturday was good to leave. Sure, why not? This was Wednesday or so at the time. I got my surat jalan from the police station (see previous post), and was ready to go at the appointed hour of 10am on Saturday. Juen had called around and arranged seats for us in a car over. (The driver, she said, was her boyfriend. In Bintuni I met her husband. Not sure if that was just bad English or what. I didn’t ask.) At 10:45, Juen got off the phone and said she was taking her motorbike to town to get our car. At 12:15, after I’d had a little lunch and watched some tv, it arrived. We drove in circles around town, picking people up, dropping one girl off at the airport, waiting, and getting a load of brooms and sunglasses from the market to bring to a store in Bintuni. At the market a crazy man with dreadlocks and a mouth bright red from betel was fascinated by the bule in the front seat and tried to climb in the drivers side. We locked the doors. He hung around the windows for another 20 minutes while they loaded the cargo in the back. It was 2:00 when we finally hit the road for real.

And at 10:00 we made it to Bintuni. The water was off at Juen’s house, which apparently occasionally happens there, so we stopped at boarding house instead. I paid the driver my Rp 500,000 (roughly $60) for the ride and fell fast asleep. At 2am, Juen turned on the lights and announced that the water was back and we were moving to her house, where we wouldn’t have to pay for the room. A neighbor who drives an ojek (motorcycle taxi) brought us over one at a time. They showed me the spare room and I fell fast asleep.

I woke up around 8:30 the next morning. It was grey out and raining hard. There’s no electricity in Bintuni from 6am to 6pm unless you’re in a hotel, which I wasn’t. The room was dim. I opened the curtain, but the window glass was frosted so that didn’t help much. The bathroom was even darker, with one high window paned in green plastic, an Asian-style squat toilet, and a wet floor. I understand now why feet are considered unclean in this part of the world. After a while I decided it would be less miserable to put on some clothes and go out in the front room, where there were more windows and more light. So I sat out there and worked until 10, when Juen and her husband, Haykel, got up and he went to get breakfast – yellow coconut rice with chicken, fried noodles, a boiled egg, and sambal, wrapped in a banana leaf. Delicious.

I hadn’t talked to Juen much in Manokwari; didn’t even know her name until I asked for her cell number before we left. I had pegged her as roughly 16, still with the full compliment of baby fat (my Manokwari album on Picasa has a picture of her and Gio), but it turns out she’s 22 and studying linguistics at Unipa. She and her husband have been married for a year; Gio is 9 months old. You do the math. Whoops. (As the Haykel told me with an embarrassed laugh one later evening in Bintuni.) But she was a wonderful hostess and he seems like a good guy. He works in a beer store in Bintuni. Gio mostly stays with mom & grandparents in Manokwari, but every so often goes back to Bintuni for a few days to see his dad.

After breakfast and a nap Juen showed me the battery-powered emergency lamp so I could shower in less than total darkness, and we went over to Polres (a branch of the police station) to show them my surat jalan and register me. We’d stopped by the night before, but apparently whoever they needed to call about my travel letter wasn’t in at 10pm, so they’d told us to come back. This time they were all set, but when I reached in my bag to get my surat out of the notebook where I was keeping it, I came up empty. Apparently last night in my sleepy fog I’d stuck it into a different notebook, one which was now at the house. I felt like an idiot. They told us to come back at 7 that night.

From there we hopped a pair of ojeks to a kampong on the other side of town, where native Bintuni people live. So we sat around eating bananas steamed with rice flour dough and chatting, and I was taken into a house (hut?) to see a baby who’d been born there just a few days before. But the Wandamen speakers were all out for the day, so we headed home.

So we hung out til the lights came on at 6, took me to register for real this time at 7, and then the three of us (Juen, Haykel, and me) went to a café for dinner and karaoke. I ordered pisang keju coklat (fried bananas with chocolate and cheese) because sorry, I love the stuff, and sang Cole Porter badly. Juen sang ‘My Heart Will Go On’ well (that song again!). I met a friend of theirs, about my age, who speaks some Wamesa (a dialect of Wandamen). around 10:30 we headed home.

The next morning was just as dreary, but by then I knew enough to head straight out to the living room to get some sunlight. Another 10am breakfast of yellow rice in a banana leaf and far-too-sweet tea. (I saw later that she filled the cup a sold half-inch deep with sugar before pouring in the hot water, and on the third morning was able to reduce that to a reasonable quarter spoonful for my morning cuppa.) Around 1:30 I was lying in the living room working when a policeman knocked on the door and asked if I was ready to go. Policemen everywhere make me nervous (too much illicit night swimming at summer camps, I suppose), even more so in Indonesia, and particularly the Indonesian police in Papua, who aren’t exactly known for their gentleness. It took a while for me to realize it was Aco, the Wamesa friend from the karaoke café, who happens to work at Polres. Juen & I got in his car, and he drove us around to the houses of Wamesa speakers until we found one who was at home, Ibu Amelia. A group gathered to watch as I spent 45 minutes recording a wordlist with her. I’d hoped to do a good recording with minimal pairs for phonetic analysis, but with the motorbikes outside and the children gathered at the door and the chickens and the soccer game out front I’m just hoping I’ll be able to make out her voice on the recording. Welcome to fieldwork. Before I left she gave me one of the traditional Wamesa bags she weaves as a kenang-kenangan (parting gift). Or as traditional as you can get with a handle made from plastic cords. It’s pretty sweet. People here seem happy to talk to me about their language, though whether it’s because of the language or because I’m a westerner I’m not entirely sure. But more on that in a later post.

Later that afternoon Juen took me back to the kampong, but the Wandamen speakers were out again so we went to the park instead, which is a stretch of boardwalk through the mangrove forest behind the market and out to the river, where I’m told the crocodiles are. I didn’t see any. Dinner was babi rica-rica, a Manadonese pork dish, with Juen & Haykel & his cousin Christopher, aka Dompel. At home afterwards I wowed them with pictures of this winter’s blizzards and colored fall leaves, and talked about what America is like and why on earth I would travel this far to write a thesis. The Hall’s Vitamin C citrus cough drops were also a big hit. I promised to bring more back next year.

And it was raining again the next morning, though by now I’d got the hang of it. I was also finally getting good at the Asian toilets. (Whoever said girls don’t need to aim obviously never came to Indonesia.) Better than a thighmaster those things are. After breakfast Aco came back again and drove me out to meet a family of Kuri speakers. Kuri, it turns out, is most definitely not a dialect of Wandamen, contrary to what everyone insisted, but there were enough similarities to make it interesting and I recorded a wordlist anyway.

When Juen got back from fixing her motorbike, we went out for papeda. Papeda is a traditional Papuan staple food made from sago flour. It’s often compared to jellyfish – the local word for jellyfish is ‘papeda laut’, or ‘papeda of the sea’ – but though I’ve never actually eaten jellyfish that doesn’t seem quite right to me at all. What it’s like really is a gluey, grey, translucent, gelatinous mess, most commonly eaten with a yellow fish stew on top. The flavor isn’t bad at all, and I made it through a reasonable-sized serving before the texture started to get to me. The fish actually tasted Italian, with strong notes of garlic, at least until I squeezed half a lime over it. Glad I tried the stuff, probably won’t do it again.

The plan was originally to head home on Thursday, but that quickly got pushed back to Wednesday because of some planned political event. Then on Tuesday morning Juen asked if I was okay leaving that afternoon, since the gubernatorial election was on Wednesday and meant there were no cars available. Sure, why not. Then it was Wednesday morning again, and when we got home from Papeda it was ‘right now’. So I shoved my stuff in my bag and 20 minutes later the car came, and by 5:30 or so we were leaving Bintuni.

The ride home was far worse than the ride there. It got dark not too long after we left, and three days of rain had made the roads even slipperier than before. Maybe htree hours in we stopped at a roadside shack for dinner & coffee for the driver. Juen had already puked. The rest of us ate noodles. I asked about a bathroom and was directed to the back, to a room where an old man was washing dishes. No, you don’t go out the back, this is the bathroom. The guy left and closed the door behind him. Not even a squat toilet here, not even a hole, you just pee on the slatted wood floor and toss some water over it when you’re done. The house was a few feet above the ground, sitting on stilts, so everything falls through. Lord only knows what happens if you need to go #2.

And while we were resting there, the rain started up again. When we finally got back in the car, around 9:30, the windshield was fogged up and for the first five minutes the driver decided not to use the wipers. I couldn’t see a damned thing. Instead of three girls in the back like last time, there were two guys alongside Juen, all chainsmoking along with the driver. Nerve-wracking is an understatement.

My biggest piece of advice to travelers anywhere is to bring plastic grocery bags with you wherever you go. They can keep your dirty clothes separate for a few days away from home. They can hold your wet bathing suit and leave everything else dry. And when the two Dramamine you’ve taken prove unequal to seven hours of swerving along a muddy mountain road, you can puke into them. I’ve never in my life been happier to see a house than I was to see this one when we finally pulled up at 3:15 in the morning. As far as I’m concerned, it was glowing. I don’t care how much Susi Air charges for a ticket (roughly $120 each way, 45min in the air), next time I’m flying.

And this morning I slept til 9, then went into town to use the ATM and some internet. Nobody’s expecting me on campus yet, so it’s a lazy day at home of typing and hanging out. I stopped at a café downtown for lunch, was handed three menus of food and drink, and was told when I tried to order that they didn’t actually have any of that. Not quite sure what was up with that, but I left rather than sit around and pay too much for a plain cup of tea. And now it’s dinner time, and I’ve typed four pages, and Ibu made a rockin' cucumber salad, so goodnight.