Here Thar Be Monsters!

From the other side of the argument to the other side of the planet, read in over 149 countries and 17 languages. We bring you news and opinion with an IndoTex® flavor. Be sure to check out Radio Far Side. Send thoughts and comments to luap.jkt at gmail, and tell all your friends. Sampai jumpa, y'all.


Dear Mom - Part 4

The vast selections of cuisine take a while to get to know. Every region has a local specialty and when you meet someone, one of the first topics of conversation is have you tried this or that from their home region. Among the most popular is Padang, recently famous for being destroyed by an earthquake a couple of months ago. It is very spicy and is well-known for having quick box lunches and amazing buffets. When you sit at a Padang restaurant and you haven’t ordered at the counter, the waiter will start piling dishes and bowls on your table with a serving or two of everything the restaurant makes. You pay for what you eat and the rest is dumped back into the pot for the next person.

Javanese and Sundanese food is very popular, of course. One of my favorites is gado-gado, which is a hot salad with spicy peanut sauce. Another is gurame, which is a fresh-water fish that is filleted, battered, deep-fried and served with a sauce of your choice. My personal favorite is asam-manis (sour-sweet). Another common favorite is mpek-mpek, which is some kind of root that is served in about one thousand different ways. It is not unlike a potato, but is rubbery and takes some getting used to.

The most common meats are chicken, beef and goat. Wives encourage their husbands to eat goat as it is well-known for a rather salacious effect on certain parts of the male anatomy. Certain groups, such Batak and Manado, also eat dog, bat and tree rat (read squirrel). The Manadonese recipe for dog is very spicy, even for my tastes. I thought it was good, though a big chewy and lots of bones. I have yet to try the bat and the rat, but your intrepid reporter will let you know as soon as I can find it.

One other interesting culinary delight I have enjoyed is cobra blood (darah kobra) and sate cobra. Steve, Karina and I went out one evening in search of the legendary folk remedy, which gives health, fortune and fertility. We found a street stand with a cage full of black cobras. After ordering, the man pulled out a snake, put a large wooden clamp on its head, and handed us each a cleaver. In turn, we slaughtered our snake, which was then quickly drained into a glass. The spleen was removed and squeezed into the glass with the blood. Then a reddish liquid (of unknown content) was added along with some pieces of fruit. The amount of liquid filled a cocktail glass. While we enjoyed our blood, the snakes were skinned and the meat diced and skewered and grilled. It was served with peanut sauce and soy ketchup, which is a thick, black and sweet confection. The sate was very good and reminded me of conch or other shellfish in both taste and texture. The blood was surprisingly inoffensive and did not have the rusty flavor I associate with animal blood. I don’t know if it had any of the intended effects, but three days later I went blind.

So, now that I have thoroughly bored you with my observations of Indonesian life, perhaps a word of two of a personal nature. In my time here, I have gone bind, been through my first earthquakes, been in three motorcycle accidents, and lost almost 80 pounds. I have spent the last year and a half teaching English though various chain-schools, international schools, Indonesian public schools, and private tutoring. Steve and I are still chasing that ever-elusive Big Deal, but I am rather enjoying teaching, as the interaction with the students is always entertaining and educational for me, too. Students here are extremely polite and well-behaved. They greet me with salim, which is taking my right hand and touching it to their foreheads or cheeks. It takes some getting used to as the first few times I reacted with shock. The most nakal (naughty) behavior I have encountered is rowdiness.

I have had several girlfriends who all think they can get me to marry them, but I usually chase them away with my steadfast refusal to inflict marriage on myself again. I found a happy medium by hiring my maid last month. Yanti is 24, from Yogyakarta, and she has been with me since the beginning of the month. She cooks, cleans, washes the clothes, does the shopping, and never complains. In all, she is the perfect wife, and only costs me $90 per month. Such a bargain! She also helps me go around, especially at night when I have the most difficulty seeing. Jakarta is the antithesis of handicap-friendly. It is an obstacle course even for fully-sighted people, so Yanti’s help is invaluable. In the morning, my shoes are shined, my coffee is waiting, my breakfast is cooked, and she checks my clothes to make sure they are clean and match. She is also an excellent cook. I have gained back some of my weight, thanks to her. I would probably still be married if Western women were even remotely as helpful and efficient as Yanti.

One thing that is a bit disconcerting is that the master-servant relationship is a formal one, and formal Indonesian is very strange to Western ears. One always uses titles and never pronouns and it is spoken almost exclusively in the passive voice. A sample exchange would sound something like: Mister would like Yanti to prepare the meal which is dinner? Yes, Mbak, and (she) would please use the sauce which is spicy, thanks.

Indonesian has three levels of formality, and only the most informal approaches something like American English in its structure (if you don’t count the lack of pronouns and the fact that the verb to be is almost never spoken). It is something I was ill-prepared for, coming from an egalitarian culture (at least in name). And lest you get your politically correct panties in a bunch, the word which Yanti uses to refer to herself translates directly as servant. So get over your amero-centric self-righteousness. When in Rome, one always follows the Romans lest you cross the line of prudence and offense.

I could go on for hours. The details about this culture are endlessly interesting, amusing and frustrating. I have made a point to avoid contact with Westerners and prefer the company of locals. As a result, they are always surprised at my command of the language and mastery of manners here. I hear regularly about foreigners who have lived here for many years that can barely speak a word of Indonesian, and know even less about the history, culture and politics of the archipelago. Most Westerners take Indonesia’s culture of deference and subservience as a sign that they are a people easily dominated and commanded. They are wrong. Controlling Indonesians is like herding cats. They may not attack you directly, but they will drive you crazy trying to get them in a line. They are fiercly proud of their country and always appreciate a foreigner who appreciates them.

When I stepped off the plane, I stepped through Alice’s Looking Glass. Everything was the same, but…different. Side to side and top to bottom, Indonesia is about the same size as the continental US, but it is mostly water. It has about the same population, the same crazy quilt of cultures, the same philosophical goals and aspirations. But, it is the differences which make it so intriguing and strange. Just like Alice’s experience, everything looks the same on a gross scale, but once you dig underneath, you see a vast world of differences, some glaring and some more subtle.

Indonesians are a study in contrasts. They are at once warm and curious, yet cheaper than a Scotsman on Sunday. They will do anything to help you, even if it’s wrong, because they hate to say no or I don’t know. At first blush, they all look the same, but one day you realize that they are a rainbow with different colors.

Sixty-five years ago, they had a dream that they would throw off Western colonization and blend 20,000 islands, 300 cultures and as many languages into a single nation. So far, it has worked. In the recent elections, SBY became the first freely re-elected president in their history. Their economy is blossoming, they have vast natural wealth, and they all share a common desire to be taken seriously by the world.

There are times I feel like I share their passion.

For New Year, I am going to Bali with my (current) girlfriend. Her 16-year-old daughter, who very bright and talented, has been asked to dance with her troop on a nationally televised special. We are going a couple of days early to rent a car and drive around the island, then we will attend the live broadcast on New Year’s Eve. I am quite excited, as you can imagine, as it is my first trip to the legendary paradise. Mother, grandmother and both brothers are coming, as well. At my request, we will avoid the tourist areas until the last day, and instead go to some of the less popular and still wild places, where monkeys still swing in the trees and the beaches aren’t a sea of sun-burnt Australians. I will, of course, report on my findings.

The seasons are changing now and Rain has already begun. The afternoons are windy and the evenings are wet. The end of Dry was almost unbearably hot, but now the highs have dropped into the mid-80s and the nights are almost pleasant. The day is still 12 hours long, as it is all year. The difference is that the sunrise and sunset are about 15 minutes earlier, but still around 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The mosques have adjusted their calls to prayer to match. For those who like routine, living on the equator can be a great source of comfort.

Blessings and love to all. I end, as always, with an open invitation. You buy the flight, I’ll give you room and board and be your native guide. Don’t get much better. Sorry for the length of this letter, but be thankful I didn’t go on for another 10 pages.

Sampai jumpa!

PS- One of my Indonesian jokes is that locals, for the most part, only use one name their whole lives. I go one better and only use one letter.

Trust me, it’s funny in Indonesian.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to leave your own view of The Far Side.