Selamat pagi/siang/sore/malam everyone,
Hope this finds you in fine spirits and with a stomach more settled than mine. I just tried ceker ayam for the first time. Chicken feet. Just a regular work lunch cook up in the kitchenette. I’m extremely adventurous with food but I doubt ceker ayam will become a fav. I’m about to duck out onto the street though for an es kelapa muda (iced young coconut juice). I love having a workplace surrounded by street vendors, kaki lima, literally ‘five feet’: two wheels and stand of the cart, and two feet of the seller.
Attached is a piece about my first fortnight in Indonesia. No photos, just words. I’m going to rely on the good ol’ group email till I get my blog up and running. Some of you asked to receive this email and some of you I just whacked down cos I thought you’d enjoy it. If you’d rather not receive it please don’t hesitate to let me know; I won’t be offended in the slightest. I’ll be very Javanese about it 😉
Banyak cinta kepada semuanya. Much love to everyone,
In my Alice summer I roasted chilli peanuts. It was hot, so I’d often sit in Dad’s pool on the island step with a towel on the edge to cushion my back, sip beer and read The Year of Living Dangerously and History of Modern Indonesia. The sweet, salty, fiery peanuts were perfect. I’d mix all sorts of spiciness; sambal and sriracha, chilli flakes and powder, dollops of hoi sin, splashes of fish sauce, good grinds of salt and small mounds of dark palm sugar. But what makes my chilli peanuts divine is kaffir lime. I’ve long said the smell of freshly picked home-grown coriander makes me believe in a higher power, and so does kaffir life. It’s sublime.
On the Perth to Jakarta flight moments after the plane levelled the attendants served drinks and nuts. In my packet of kacang were dark green slivers of kaffir lime. Overwhelmed, I beamed. I’m not backpacking. I’m moving to Indonesia. After months of reading it online I relished my first print copy of the Jakarta Post (a curious tall tabloid size) with a cheek-straining smile.
Jakarta is hard to comprehend. Like all megalopolises: one extreme to the other. Sewer-side slums almost adjacent to Javanese McMansions. Towering mega malls (147 in total) and trash-choked canals. But everywhere in Menteng, the area we were based, luscious dedaunan; walls carpeted with creepers, weeping figs with tangled roots stately on street corners, lofty palms, cascading bougainvillea, blossoming potted plants, impenetrable bambu groves, meticulously cultivated footpath gardens.I’d never seen a city so green. Before I arrived everything I’d read about Jakarta’s horrific traffic (macet) mingled with dusty memories of Delhi forming an impossible city in my mind. But despite maddening macet (45 minutes stationary in a taxi), epic rain (hujan) and annual floods (banjir), somehow Indonesia’s centre of power seems to flow. I’ve joked with many taxi drivers that people only ever use three words to describe Jakarta: macet, hujan, banjir. When said in unison with the sopir taksi it always rouses a chuckle. But I was taken with Jakarta; steamy, verdant, incomprehensible melting pot megalopolis, dan saya akan kembali. I will return.
I’m one of 15 AYAD/AVID (Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development/Australian Volunteers for International Development) of Intake 105 undertaking an assignment in Indo. Before heading to our locations we completed a nine-day orientasi in Jakarta; butcher’s paper and textas, policies, visa requirements, a tour of the Australian Embassy and a session with in-country volunteers. We also had 20 hours of Bahasa which was an absolute blast as our guru, Ibu Fifi, was the wackiest woman I’ve ever encountered! Half the time teaching, the other half laughing, and often we wouldn’t know at what! The most important part of it though was getting to know the gang and strengthening friendships formed at the pre-departure briefing we attended in Sydney mid-Jan. We’ve a corker of a crew. Each one a character, now in Pontianak and Samarinda in Kalimantan, Aceh, Lombok, Ubud and Kendari in Sulawesi. I’m the only one of us in Bandung, but I’ve three Java sisters in Jakarta, Bekasi (on Jakarta’s eastern border) and Jogjakarta. Friends to visit all over Indonesia!
I’ve never been overseas as part of a big group. Sometimes it made decision making a struggle as it strips one of kespontanan, but on January 31, Chinese New Year, two AYADs and I had a spectacularly spontaneous eve. Most of our group were having dinner at a little restaurant not far from our hotel. Leandro, whose parents are Filipino, got chatting to a Chinese-Indonesian couple. They thought he was our Indonesian tour guide! Leo enquired whether they were doing anything for Chinese New Year. They were going to visit their temple which was not far from the restaurant. Would we like to come?
The group was keen on a few quiet ones but Leo, as always, was raring to go. I’ll admit I was hankering for a Bintang but how could I deny Leo’s wise words of “Never say no when travelling, Julz.” Rachael, who, like Leo, is always raring to go (at night ;-), returned to the restaurant resplendent in red lippie, and we climbed in the back of Fangfang’s and her husband’s big black SUV. Fangfang’s Bahasa Inggeris was perfect but I rabbited on in my bungled Bahasa Indonesia regardless. I’ve taken every opportunity to berbicara di Bahasa. Two months of study prior to departure has made an enormous difference as Indonesians genuinely appreciate any effort to speak their national language. (Since being in Bandung learning a little Sunda has also gone a long way; it’s disappearing so people light up when you drop a little into conversation!)
Beneath a towering fig tree on an expansive block surrounded by skyscrapers, the Chinese temple was in central Jakarta. Fangfang explained it was very special to have such a splendid temple so central. The prime real estate certainly surprised me considering the tormented history of Chinese in Indonesia. While her husband sat with a group of wizened men all grinning bemusedly at the bules (whities), Fangfang gave us the grand tour. Motorised spinning red and gold lanterns, a tiered wall of fruit, giant joss sticks and smiling gold statues. We talked politics, history, religion (which proved a tricky subject surrounded by so much of it). I was so grateful for Fangfang’s generosity and Leo’s kespontanan. When we were returned to our hotel he raced upstairs to retrieve little gifts for our terrific tour guide. We exchanged email addresses and warm hugs and promised to update Fangfang on our assignments.
I’m about to begin Day Four of mine. I’m sitting in Tokyo Connection, a Japanese restaurant with 1920s décor. Louis and Ella are dueting and black and white photos of gorgeous geishas and solemn tea ceremonies adorn the walls. Crepes with green tea ice cream for my birthday brekkie. A Jakartan told me Bandung is the Melbourne of Indonesia. Coffee has been consistently exceptional and there was a swan on my latte last night, while the café where I had brekkie yesterday was straight out of Frankie Magazine. But naturally the comparison only stretches so far.
The dining hall I discovered last night ($1.45 for a plate of scrumptious Sundanese cuisine) felt like stepping into Indonesia in the late ‘60s. Faded Beatles posters on the wall, uniform wooden benches and ragged rattan mats, the air thick with sweet, clovey kretek smoke. Sundanese restoran operate as a buffet; at Nasi Bancakan you fill an old tin plate with rice from a tarnished silver pot and the masses of dishes on display. Chicken and duck marinated in bumbu-bumbu (spices), steamed banana leaf parcels of whole fish stuffed with lemongrass and ginger, squares of sweet beef, blocks of tofu and tempeh, bright yellow corn cakes, countless salads of steamed vegetables, succulent eggplant and skewers of tiny squid and prawns, concluding with wide shallow baskets of cucumber and fresh herbs and always a selection of sambal: hijau, manis dan sangat pedas. Green, sweet and very spicy. Eaten with the right hand it’s enak sekali. Delicious. I’ll become the regular bule.
Here I often feel alien. I certainly did yesterday when I went for my first run on the red running track in front of Gedung Sate, the huge white regal Governor’s Residence. There are hardly any bules in Bandung; unlike Jakarta or Jogja it doesn’t really attract Western tourists except Dutch drawn to colonial heritage. Everywhere I go I get long, hard stares of confusion, amusement, shock. Occasionally it’s unnerving but I embrace it as a reminder I’m living here for almost a year. Saya bukan turis. I’m not a tourist. It makes me feel a little bit brave, and a big smile and cheery “Selamat pagi/siang/sore/malam” depending on the time of day almost always elicits the same. I got a lot of baffled and bemused looks but did not stop grinning as I jogged around the oval teeming with guys showing off with soccer tricks and little kids slicing the air with swords, practising pencak silat, Indonesian martial arts. I’m living in Indonesia.