Saturday, July 25, 2009

Indonesian "Cuisine"

It seems that Indonesian ‘cuisine’ really boils down to a few simple concepts, and you will soon see why that statement is a lame attempt at a pun…

Foods stuffed with other Foods: All of the other VSO volunteers will know what I’m talking about here. It’s highly unusual to locate a bun, roll, pastry, or any kind of baked product that doesn’t have some kind of ‘surprise’ inside it. This surprise could be ridiculously sweet, painfully spicy, or completely tasteless. It could be meat, fruit, vegetable, or some kind of gelatin. Either way, one finds oneself trying to locate a place to get rid of the offending ‘cuisine.’ I encountered the strangest example of this just today, when I was served a small pastry product that had the consistency of a honey glazed donut, minus the sweetness. This pastry was drizzled with chocolate sauce and grated cheese. (Chocolate and cheese go surprisingly well together as I discovered in Jogja as I ordered fried bananas with chocolate and cheese as a dessert one night – delicious!) When I attempted to lift this pastry I realized that it was split, and appeared to have some kind of custard inside. I managed to lift it up without too much of the custard coming out, and took a bite. I immediately regretted this as it turns out that concealed within the custard was a piece of sausage not unlike those little wiener units you can get in a can. Yes, this one little piece of food contained:
- Pastry
- Cheese
- Chocolate
- Custard
- And of all things, SAUSAGE

I cannot over-emphasize how strange this was; I don’t know if it was a dessert, appetizer, some kind of composite designed for efficient consumption of both, or something designed for Russian cosmonauts. I managed to ‘squeeze out’ the piece of sausage and finish the rest of the pastry, but only because I was REALLY hungry.

Boiling: Contrary to popular belief I am a huge fan of vegetables. I will eat almost any veggie provided that it’s a) raw and b) not an onion. I lose quite a bit of interest once most of them are cooked. Unfortunately this doesn’t really fly in Indonesia. Vegetables are never – repeat, NEVER – eaten raw here. Instead they are boiled until they are almost non-existent. Once a veggie is deemed edible in Indonesia, it would be something I would throw out at home. Carrots are soft; slimy and sweet, cauliflower is basically destroyed; spinach becomes essentially green water. But wait, it gets worse. In Solo, veggies are boiled with – and I am not making this up, despite my predilection to exaggerate – SUGAR. Yes, again with the sugar. I can’t believe this isn’t an entire nation of diabetics. As a result I have found myself eating far fewer veggies than at home, and choosing to eat by myself in my room more often than I would otherwise. I imagine an Indonesian would try to boil my peanut butter & jam sandwich before letting me eat it; I have to eat alone or I will starve to death.

Frying, Frying and more Frying: Not exactly healthy, and I never dreamed in a million years that I would complain about this, but anything that isn’t boiled in Indonesia is fried. In palm oil. For a very long time. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the fried foods at home, despite the shame spiral I enter after eating them. But for some reason, in Indonesia fried foods just feel much less healthy. Perhaps it’s the strange ‘batter’ that most foods are surrounded by. I managed to eat a fried egg the other night that appeared to be battered. I can’t imagine it was particularly good for me but the other items available to me were so foreign (or completely over-boiled or had so much chilli they were literally on fire) that I was left with few options.

Rice: I think I have adequately covered this particular topic, but fear I will be arrested if the Indonesian blog authorities (you think I’m kidding but I have no doubt they exist) somehow discover I created an entry on cuisine without mentioning it. Ah yes, rice glorious rice and all that…

Drinks with Gelatin: In North America we have ‘bubble tea’ which I’m kind of hoping is a trend that has died and gone away while I’ve been in Asia. This is basically a small chunk of spherical gelatin inside a sweet beverage. At least if I remember correctly from the single time I tried it that is what it is. Well in Indonesia there are random gelatinous chunks of material in many drinks (and foods for that matter). I assume this is some uber-scientific means of getting a hyper-concentrated dose of sugar as quickly as possible – kind of like an Advil LiquiGel, but not for a headache. They tend to be bright pink, and hang out menacingly in the bottom of any random beverage container. Oh by the way – these containers are often clear plastic bags, not unlike Ziplocs. I once ordered a Coke which came in, not surprisingly, a Coke bottle – but the clerk poured it into one of these Ziplocs, inserted a straw and handed it to me. Destroying the carbonation of the beverage was bad enough, but how was I supposed to put this drink down anywhere? I was stunned.

Utensils: In most places in Indonesia if I’m not mistaken, they don’t use knives… or forks, actually. And on the island of Java, they use none. For the most part, in a traditional Javanese restaurant, food is eaten with your hands. Or rather, your right hand, which presents a challenge for a leftie like me. Your left hand is reserved for more, ahem …sanitary… activities. Yes the fork (if any) is used only to push food onto a spoon (if any). Even noodles. Everything with a spoon. It can make for a very messy meal, especially when one attempts to do this with a hand that happens to not be your dominant hand. I feel like Forrest Gump at every single meal. You try eating a stringy piece of boiled spinach with a spoon!

So, in closing, I have lost about 15 pounds since arriving in Indonesia (that’s about 7 kilos for you metric-type readers) and I proudly thought it was because of my dedication to the gym. I think in hindsight it’s really just because the food ain’t that great! Now I know why there are no Indonesian restaurants in Toronto.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Spiders Scorpions & Dragons Oh My!

I have just returned from a fantastic vacation to the rugged landscape and white sandy beaches of Flores and Komodo National Park. My time in Indonesia has been spent learning and working, and this was my first actual vacation since arriving, and will be my last before returning home.

It began in Bali; I arrived late Friday night. Disembarking from the plane, I immediately felt the endorphin rush from the unique sounds and smells that are Bali. I had forgotten, having been in Solo for 4 months, what Bali can do. I arrived at Yulia Homestay (where I stayed on my first days in Bali way back in February, a lifetime ago) and was immediately told that unfortunately there was no room available, despite the fact I had reconfirmed earlier that day. But Made, the manager of the homestay, tries to be accommodating whenever possible (it’s nearly impossible for an Indonesian to say no) so I ended up in a room that was occupied by a long-term resident who just happened to be away. So her things were throughout the room, her cosmetics, her books, her dvd’s, her photos. I felt weird for all of thirty seconds before relenting as always to the powerful philosophy of ‘this is Indonesia.’ I slept like a baby.

The next day we attended an international kite festival on one of Bali’s beaches. The kites were not the standard run-of-the-mill diamond shaped variety I expected, but giant elaborate pieces of art, some of them 7 metres long, with 50-metre tails. At one point the sky was blanketed by them, I counted more than 30. These kites were controlled by hundreds of people on the ground, and these peoples’ attention was always skyward. As a result, when they tried to control their giant kites, chaos ensued, and there were several near misses and collisions on the ground as they ran back and forth.

Sunday morning Jenny and I left for Labuan Bajo to begin our adventure to Komodo National Park. We landed in Labuan Bajo and were met by our guide Maksim (“as in Maxim-um,” he told us) and were on our way to the harbour. As tourism is down this year, Jenny and I managed to end up on a private tour, it was just the two of us – and there was plenty of room on the boat. We were off for our 2½ hour trip to the island of Rinca in Komodo National Park. We had lunch onboard as we sailed and arrived mid-afternoon. The dry season has been firmly in control in the region for some time and the windswept islands surrounding us were all the pale yellow colour of mustard. It was scenery unlike any I had seen before.

We arrived at the pier on Rinca and disembarked for our adventure. Very shortly I was within 10 feet of two massive Komodo Dragons, a male and a female, who were hanging around the kitchen at the ranger station. The male to female ratio is about 3:1, so the males have to fight in order to mate. This particular male had broken his front leg last mating season and when he walked in a lumbering yet menacing way, he actually used the top of his right front foot. Our two-hour trek through the forest revealed about 10 more dragons, along with countless water buffalo, one of the dragons’ main sources of prey. One of these dragons was actually hunting us, his forked tongue darting in and out as he approached us ever more boldly. The dragons appear docile as they are often lying down in an attempt to remain cool, but when they walk it is in such as way that betrays the power in their limbs. They can run at up to 30 km per hour for a short distance. Komodo dragons generally hunt by biting their prey, and patiently waiting nearby as the 50 deadly bacteria they carry in their saliva to do their work to kill the victim through infection. The guide always tried to be between us and the dragons. After a two-hour trek to the interior of the island (which, fittingly, resembles the scenery from the movie Jurassic Park, by the way) we were exhausted from the heat and returned to the pier.

Our tour included one night accommodation onboard the boat, but not in a cabin; we slept on deck. Maksim called it ‘thousand-star accommodation’ and for good reason. At one point during the night I woke up to a full moon. It was so bright that I could see the silhouettes of all of the islands surrounding us. The water was dead calm, the world completely silent. No one else was awake and I felt that the whole beautiful scene was just for me. I sat up and just – watched – for about 15 minutes before sleep overtook me again.

The next day we sailed to Komodo Island, which unfortunately, due to its topography, is not a good place to actually see Komodo dragons. We satisfied ourselves again by the beautiful scenery and views, and the Timor deer hanging around near the beach. Our trek was shorter here and we were soon off for an afternoon of snorkelling. Saying good-bye to the Park, we headed off for a 3-hour sail to an unnamed island near Labuan Bajo that has the most beautiful beach and best snorkelling I have ever experienced. It had the finest, whitest sand I have ever seen. Jenny and I were in awe of the coral reef below us; it was like a giant botanical garden with colours, textures, and features that were so unique they actually didn’t seem natural, like clamshells that glowed bright turquoise & purple in the sunlight, small white fish that rammed us relentlessly if we approached their nests, sea urchins and anemone, and countless other wonders. We didn’t want to leave here but soon it was time to return to port.

The next morning we traveled to the Stone Mirror Cave, so named because there is a narrow passage within it that has stone walls about 50 feet high. At the top of this passage is a small hole that allows a beam of sunlight to enter. At approximately 1:00pm the beam of sun is such that is comes straight down and makes the two stone walls appear to be a mirror image of one another. Unfortunately we were there early in the morning so were unable to experience this particular sight. What we did see, however, were countless stalactites and stalagmites, crystals embedded into stone walls, a fossil of an ancient sea turtle, the biggest cricket I have ever seen, several bats, and in an isolated, cold, black cavern – to his credit the guide did warn me about this – giant hideous black spiders, larger than my nemesis from Ubud. I could not get out of this cavern quickly enough, but the guide suggested we turn off our flashlights to feel the darkness. I admit I could only do it for about 5 seconds, and also admit that I turned my light back on before Jenny. I am not sure I have ever experienced blackness so total, with no ambient light whatsoever. Later, when I had internet access, I discovered that these are actually not spiders at all, but Whip Scorpions that live in that black black cave. They are venomous and deadly to man. And yet I paid to be there among them.

Jenny and I returned to Bali later that day, and I discovered that our office was going to be closed for an extra day after the presidential elections. I almost immediately began the process of changing my flight and extending my stay in Bali, which, by the way, meant actually going to the airport, as you must do it in person at the airline’s airport office. The airline informed me that due to the restrictions on my ticket I was unable to change my flight and if I wanted to stay the extra day I needed to buy a new ticket. This had been a fantastic vacation, and a wise man who knows who he is but shall remain nameless, often says to me that one should ‘take advantage of the opportunities that life presents.’ Truer words were never spoken, and today my wallet is a little thinner. Worth every penny.

There are only about 2700 Komodo Dragons alive in the wild and Komodo National Park, a United Nations World Heritage Site, is under constant danger from poachers, human encroachment, unsustainable tourism and climate change. You can help preserve this amazing corner of the world by donating to the Nature Conservancy, which funds the parks’ rangers and guides in partnership with the Indonesian government. Please visit to make a donation. You may also vote for Komodo National Park to be included in the new 7 Wonders of the Natural World at

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Javanese Wedding

I had the sincere pleasure this past weekend of being part of a Javanese wedding. One of the expats here in Solo, Michael Micklem, was kind enough to invite me to his son’s wedding and even invited me to dress in traditional Javanese attire and be part of the procession; he knew it would be a very unique experience for a Canadian volunteer all alone in Solo. I felt like a bit of an intruder but Michael was insistent that weddings are very much open affairs in Java, and that I was completely welcome.

Early in the morning I went to the hotel where his family was staying and was assisted by a local woman in dressing in the traditional attire. This involved donning a sarong, and then having it held in place by several layers of wrapping, extending from just below my armpits to my hips. I think I have an idea of how Victorian women felt, as this wrapping became tighter and tighter with each layer. It was like a corset, and I placated myself by thinking of the benefits to my abs. On top of this corset was placed a belt – which seemed superfluous to me until I realized it was to hold the Keris (pronounced ‘criss’), a traditional Javanese sword, in the back. Over that a jacket that buttons across the front and has a raised back (to show the Keris), a hat, the name of which escapes me, and leather slipper-like sandals. Finally dressed, I managed to catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror before heading out – very strange indeed!

We then had the distinct pleasure of being transported to the ceremony in a horse and buggy procession. Michael had paid the drivers extra to take main streets rather than shortcuts – seeing white people in horse and buggy, dressed in traditional Javanese attire no less, was quite a treat for the locals. Everyone we passed was smiling and waving, calling out the standard ‘Hello Mister!’ We would wave back and say ‘hello!’ as they seem to get more of a kick out of it when we respond in English rather than Bahasa. Many of them would giggle, blush or hide their faces if we managed to make eye contact with them, as if we were celebrities of some sort.

In standard operating procedure, the drivers (is that what you call someone in control of a horse & buggy?) did not know where we were going and we were quickly lost. Most taxi drivers, bus drivers, indeed anyone whose job it is to provide transport, gets lost at least once on the way to any destination. Stopping to ask for directions is commonplace, and because in Javanese culture you must not lose face (saying ‘I don’t know’ is apparently the equivalent of saying ‘I’m a stupid moron and not worth the air I breathe’), people would helpfully give us directions whether they actually knew or not. I am completely acclimatized to this now, and it doesn’t phase me a bit. I know we’ll get there eventually, and nothing starts on time anyway.

The ceremony itself was typically Javanese, with long, drawn-out speeches, procedures and process. The room (in a banquet hall, not a temple or mosque) was set up in such a way that the families were on opposing sides, facing each other, with the bride & groom in the middle with a number of officials. While sitting, each guest is given a snack in a little box and of course the standard ridiculously sweet tea. There were two microphones set up facing one another in the centre and both families were invited to their own microphones to make speeches, emotionless as always, as if they were reciting the world’s longest grocery list. The bride and groom signed documents in a flourish and presented their marriage certificates (which I actually thought were passports) for photos. Then the families lined up to present the couple with gifts. The gifts were arranged on the table in front of the couple for more photos – I imagine it’s impossible to ‘re-gift’ here as all the gifts at each wedding are thoroughly photo-documented.

Afterwards, the bride and groom were led out – incidentally the bride’s sarong, though elaborate and beautiful, was so tight she could only move her feet a few inches at a time, and coupled with her elaborate high-heeled shoes, she needed assistance with each step, provided by her mother rather than her new husband – apparently the ceremony was not yet complete and they were not officially married.

The guests mingled, and the crowd got larger and larger. The invitation specifically said ceremony at nine, reception to follow at ten. Around 10:30 is when most of the people began showing up. By 11:30, I was restless and bored, but the locals were again demonstrating to me their unique ability to just ‘sit.’ Finally the couple re-appeared, having changed into even more elaborate costume, and the bride with beautiful hair and makeup – tiny ornaments, bells, and flowers placed through her hair, and her forehead painted in such a way as to imply her hair was styled over it. They went through another ceremony, involving removing their shoes, stepping on offerings of flowers and bathing their feet in flower-petal infused water. This was no easy feat for the bride who practically needed to be lifted as she could not raise her foot high enough to plunge it into the water because of the constriction of her sarong. Finally it seemed to be over and the bride and groom took their place at the front of the room for photos.

At this point the guests were fed, for some reason cake and sweets first, then soup, then a main meal. In Indonesia, the rice on any plate is usually shaped into a dome – it’s never just piled on the plate – its status always recognized. In this case, the rice was bright orange and shaped into a tall cone, the first time I had seen this particular style. This was all followed by durian-flavoured ice cream (most unfortunate as I would have really enjoyed ice cream). While we ate, group after group of people went up front to have their photos taken with the happy couple. I believe I have mentioned that the Javanese typically do not smile in pictures – everyone looks very stoic and serious, perhaps to give weight to the seriousness of the ceremony? Finally it was over – all told it was six hours – and we were back in the horse and buggy, bound for the hotel.

By now the sun had passed its apex; the day was stiflingly hot – I estimate it was probably 33 or 34 degrees Celsius, and I could not wait to unwrap. School had let out for the day (yes six days a week in Indonesia) and the average age of the people on the street had dropped to about 16. I noticed immediately that the younger generation was not nearly as happy to see the white people dressed up in horse and buggy. We were much less enthusiastically welcomed, instead met with stares of at best indifference, and at worst, hostility.

Finally we reached the hotel. I was graciously invited to change in one of the wedding guests’ rooms and was soon on my way back home, unfortunately drenched in sweat from the elaborate wrapping. I had planned to visit the gym, but instead crashed on my bed, asleep in seconds, exhausted as always after an Indonesian ceremony, all of which have a truly unique ability to suck the life out of you. I am so very grateful for this opportunity to experience an important part of Javanese culture, but I will never again complain about a Christian wedding ceremony.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Adventures In Motorcycling

Muscle memory is a very cool thing. I remember, not too long ago, feeling very awkward on my motorcycle. I performed such amazing non-Indonesian tasks as signalling turns, staying in my lane, and even obeying traffic lights. Now that controlling my motorcycle is largely instinctual and I know its abilities and quirks, these things are, shall we say, less important.

I will openly admit that one day last week, the boss lady wasn’t around and I left work a ½ hour early. Don’t tell anyone from Randstad :-). It was this ½ hour that contributed to a wacky adventure that only in hindsight can I look at with humour.

I have been going to a local hotel gym regularly since I arrived in Solo. VSO strongly encourages volunteers to keep up physical activity in order to help maintain overall health, physical and mental. The fact that with my membership at this gym I also get access to the hotel’s vast, and for the most part, unused pool is a huge benefit. I have spent many an hour relaxing by that pool with a book. This gym was where I was headed when I left work early last week.

When I came out of the gym, half an hour earlier than I would have otherwise, it was that weird space between day and night. It wasn’t quite dark, but was darker than it would normally have been because of the rain clouds that had gathered. (The rainy season was supposed to be over sometime in April but it is stubbornly hanging on.) There was a tiny bit of rain falling, but there were also patches of blue, so I determined it was nothing to be concerned about. I decided to detour, take a different route, and go do grocery shopping instead of going straight home. Mistake.

When I came out of the grocery store (“HyperMart” – great name in my opinion) it was now fully dark and pouring rain – you could not see across the street. This is particularly intimidating when your only mode of transport is a motorcycle. I waited for it to let up at least a little but it wasn’t happening. After fifteen minutes I decided it was time to go; my ride home was (normally) only about 8 or 9 minutes to be honest. I ran to where my bike was parked, hung my grocery bags from the hook, fumbled with the key to get the seat up, and grabbed my poncho out of the storage bin.

Everyone in Indonesia has a poncho; it’s standard uniform during the rainy season. My poncho is particularly huge for some reason, probably the result of my inexperience with knowing when I was being shafted by an over-eager sales clerk early in my Solo adventure. I finally got it on, put my helmet on over top and was on my way.

It’s important to mention that Indonesian roads are in extremely rough shape. Potholes are gigantic – I would estimate that some of them are 5 or 6 inches deep, treacherous for a motorcycle in particular. People occasionally take matters into their own hands and try to fill the potholes with debris to smooth them out; you can find garbage, tiles, broken glass, rocks – any matter of material – in these potholes. When it rains, watch out – there is no drainage. All the rain that falls, onto trees, onto rooftops, onto everything, just ends up in the street, and can quickly become a deluge. The danger is two-fold: motorcycles do not have good traction when they are in 8 inches of water, and the rushing torrents conceal the potholes which can rapidly become small lakes. You have to proceed with extreme caution or you will lose control.

I am often victim of Murphy’s Law, as anyone will tell you. So I don’t know why I should be surprised that when I was nearly home, moving along at a snail’s pace, my poncho caught in the rear wheel of the motorcycle. It pulled taught, choking me, and almost pulled me off the back of the motorcycle in the middle of traffic. Catch-22: had I been able to go faster, the momentum would likely have kept the poncho aloft and it would not have caught in the wheel, but if it did I would certainly have been pulled off the bike and dragged by it. I had to stop the bike, but rapidly realized that I was trapped – the poncho around my neck was cutting off my air and was too tight for me to remove it. I started to panic, and didn’t even think to put the bike in neutral, let alone shut it off. I was frantically pulling at the poncho in a vain attempt to release it and give myself breathing room but was only entwining it more tightly in the chain. Cars and motorcycles were honking and moving around me, aware that I was in distress, but it was raining and… well… Indonesians don’t like rain (as a matter of fact, and in a non-related side note, rain can be a legitimate excuse for not going to work).

Luckily I happened to stop in front of a salon that was closing for the night – the woman locking the door saw my predicament and ran inside to get some scissors to cut the poncho from the wheel so I could breathe. The water around me was up to my shins; the rain was still pouring down; traffic was still moving around me in either direction. The lady came out and started to free me. By this point, some guys from the store next to the salon had come over to help as well – luckily I am a regular customer of this store so they recognized me. In a few minutes I was free, but the remnant of plastic from the poncho was so tight around the wheel that the bike was immobilized. The guys from the shop rocked the bike back and forth (I had finally turned it off after they helpfully reminded me that not only was it running but it was in gear!) and were finally able to release the plastic from the wheel.

I walked the bike through the river to the front of the store, checked it out, and started it. My wonderful motorcycle started up as though nothing had happened. The guys playfully slapped me on the back. The woman from the salon smiled and handed me back my helmet. We decided together to cut off another foot or so from the rear of the poncho to prevent the same thing from happening again. I thanked them all profusely and was on my way. At the time I was terrified, but now I can look back at the incident positively. I don’t know if I was in any real danger, but regardless, I was saved by those people.
It rained for the rest of that night. It rained again all day yesterday. Today is sunny – so far – and I haven’t seen the boss yet; maybe I’ll take off a ½ hour early tonight…

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Little Things Part 2 PART 2 - Urgent Car Washing Update

I'm sorry I couldn't resist this urgent update to my 'Car Washing' segment from Little Things Part 2. If you have not already seen it please go back and read it before this crucial, breaking news.

I have occasionally been known to exaggerate (really Dan? You?) so I would not be completely offended if anyone thought I was 'over-emphasizing' how often and vigourously cars are washed in Indonesia. I swear I was not. Here is more evidence: This morning as I was leaving for work, the Nissan owner, washing his car much later than his usual 6am, had his hood up and was -- I am not making this up -- dusting off his engine with a feather duster. Not the hood, the ENGINE.

I was so flabbergasted I even asked him to pose for a picture for me. Look at that car shine!

PS: Indonesians don't smile in pictures unless prompted to, and they do as much as possible barefoot.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


As of today I have approximately 8 weeks left in Indonesia; I am a little more than 2/3 of my way through this journey. Time to take stock of where I’ve been and what I feel I can do in the short time I have left.

Are people with disabilities in Solo any better off today than when I arrived in February? Hardly. I have to say, sadly, that the exact same number of disabled people is working at our partner companies as the day I started here. Granted, Solo’s main industries, furniture- and garment-manufacturing are heavily dependent on export and the world is simply not buying right now. There are a few bright spots and some good potential at a few companies we have prospected, but the supreme challenge will remain the PWD’s themselves.

There is a strange entrepreneurial culture in Indonesia. The very fact that employment is divided so specifically into “formal” and “informal” sectors highlights this culture. It seems that everyone wants to be in business for themselves, whether it’s pushing a food cart around the streets, or operating a small store, or making a few garments on a sewing machine at home for sale. For PWD’s this is especially appealing as for the most part, they are used to being isolated, don’t have to worry about travel to and from work, and, frankly, are afraid of the big bad world outside their homes. Unfortunately, operating a business that can actually provide a livelihood is more than sitting behind a counter with a few items for sale, or making a few t-shirts and hoping someone will buy them.

So we are taking a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach. Yes we are still heavily promoting the idea of PWD’s becoming employees of companies, but acknowledge that there are many people who will simply not be interested – on both sides. As a result, we are looking at creating a type of hybrid, informal/formal employment, where those PWD’s that can produce items but have no market, can be put to use through companies. These companies will outsource production to local people at a pace they can manage and pay them piece work for their products. This creates a market for the products and ensures stability of income for the producers. One of our clients, a garment manufacturer, is looking to outsource bead work, which, based on current volume, could result in steady income for 5 or 6 PWD’s. Another client, a furniture manufacturer, has indicated that they would be willing to outsource manufacture of lamp shades, and pillows for pet beds, of all things, to local PWD’s.

Of course everything in Indonesia progresses at a snail’s pace, at least compared to what I’m used to. It’s very difficult to get people to ‘do’ things. It’s so difficult to understand – in our culture we just plough ahead and make things happen, but here that simply doesn’t work. So right now what we have is potential, no more. No actual work, no actual progress. VSO strongly educates its volunteers that expectations generally need to be lowered, then trimmed, then reduced, then, for good measure, decreased. They are not kidding. I wish I could adequately explain the roadblocks that are constantly thrown up. Patience and resilience are a VSO Volunteer’s most valuable tools. Most returned volunteers indicate that the positive changes they were able to facilitate were different from what they planned, were often subtle, and only apparent in hindsight. That is what will keep me going over the next eight weeks – hopefully I will leave something useful behind. I don’t think I ever said I wanted to change the world, but if I did, I was way off. Better to hope that I just change something.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Little Things Part 2

In my ongoing effort to enlighten people from home on the many quirks of life in Indonesia, here is part two in my series, “Little Things.”

Car-washing – for the privileged few who own cars (as I’ve mentioned, they are outnumbered by motorcycles by a 100-to-1 ratio) washing them appears to be the most symbolic activity one can do to show pride and status. In my kost (which is what my ‘apartment’ complex is called) there are 2 car owners; one car is a Nissan, the other is a Mercedes. I am not exaggerating when I say these owners wash their cars – thoroughly – every single day. Did I mention that the cars are usually washed at 6am, and the activity is what wakes me up every morning? Because the courtyard in my kost is covered by a plastic shelter, every single sound is amplified to the nth degree, and splashing water sounds like Niagara Falls. When these men wash their cars, their facial expressions indicate that they believe they are carrying out brain surgery or some other equally crucial endeavour, and you had better take note of how important they are. To their credit, these cars usually look pretty good, despite the fact that the Mercedes driver appears to be the worst in Asia (a difficult feat to be sure) as his front bumper has been missing on more than one occasion. For the record, motorcycle-washing appears to be not quite as obsessive, but still quite common. Eventually, perhaps when I have conducted more research, I will tackle the subject of ‘road-washing’ – similar to the Italian-Canadian tradition of ‘driveway-washing’ yet even less environmentally responsible.

Prayer – Living in Canada, which Homer Simpson good-naturedly refers to as ‘America Junior,’ I have a certain amount of apprehension towards Islam, given the rhetoric and propaganda we are fed so regularly by the US media. My ignorance leads me to try to understand this religion a little more. In the Muslim faith, one is required to pray to Mecca 5 times per day, at set times, the first at 5am, and the last just before sunset. At InterAksi, the staff performs this task in a room just off the main office (which is at such an angle that I can watch them conduct their prayers through the door, though I admit it feels like I am spying on something personal). They lay down a little carpet, and perform a series of activities – at times standing, kneeling, sitting, and bowing – that appear to have some set order. They don’t speak, so I am led to believe that prayer is a silent activity, despite the fact that elaborate singing is broadcast (at typical eardrum-splitting Indonesian volume levels) from every mosque in the city at each prayer time. The men simply pray whereas the women are compelled to don a white robe (is it called a burka?) which leaves only their faces uncovered. Friday prayers are the most important, and the world shuts down for them to occur; businesses close, traffic literally disappears, and mosques fill with men – women are not allowed. I have occasionally felt brave enough to ask questions about Islam and about prayers, but because of the language barrier, I am yet to understand the real essence of Islam. So far the gist of what I have gotten is that the prayers are arranged to accommodate an elaborate car-washing schedule.

Rice Indonesia is not the place to be if you don’t like rice. To Indonesians it is such an important staple that they feel a meal, no matter how large, is only a snack if it doesn’t contain rice. This is part of Suharto’s legacy, in that he felt every man, woman, and child needed rice and it was a symbol of the Indonesian state’s ability to provide for its people. A campaign was launched to educate Indonesians about the value of white rice, and that if they were eating it regularly, their needs were being met. So, in a misguided attempt to give sustenance, thousands upon thousands of acres of land were turned into rice fields, despite the fact that much of the agricultural land had originally been dedicated to much more nutritious crops like soybean. Unfortunately, despite the fact that much of the protein in the Indonesian diet comes from tofu & tempe, which are soybean-based, 95% of the soybeans consumed here are imported – from the United States! The opinion is that the whitest rice is the best, and people will actually climb up on displays of bags of rice to look through them, tossing bags aside at random, until they find the ‘whitest’ bag in the pile. Imagine their chagrin when I sheepishly say I try to avoid white rice as there is diabetes in my family an

d I have to watch my starch intake. Peoples’ facial expressions indicate to me that they think I am even more insane than when I try to refuse plastic bags in stores.

Ants -- we Canadians are no stranger to these industrious insects. We should consider ourselves lucky, however, that we have Winter, in that it compels us to ensure our homes are sealed from the elements, and that the cold helps control the variety of ants to which we are exposed. In Indonesia, many 'windows' are simply holes in walls; granted they usually look nice, with wooden frames and decorative work, but they are just open air. Also, as previously mentioned, doors are rarely closed. The variety of ants is also huge, ranging from tiny little things you can barely see, to giant, angry, red monsters whose sharp, vice-like jaws are clearly visible, and are extraordinarily effective. One has to maintain a constant state of vigilance to ensure they are not overrun by ants here. The slightest crumb, particularly if it contains sugar (as everything does in Indonesia), attracts an army of ants, and disturbing them is generally not a good idea as they defend themselves mercilessly. Even the lizards avoid them; I have seen them curiously approach trails of ants marching by the hundreds -- which I assumed would be a smorgasbord to them -- but they get a wary look on their faces (OK I made this up as lizards' faces are really not that expressive) and turn away in a 'get me out of here' fashion. It is not uncommon to find ants crawling on your arm, or on your clothes, or on your computer monitor or keyboard (I imagine that under my keyboard is an ant graveyard, but I try not to think about it too much). The locals seem to just accept the ants and get on with life, pretending they are not there. I'm not sure how they do this, and I doubt I will be in Indonesia long enough to develop this skill, as for now, I am on the warpath, locked in a battle I can't possibly win.