Indonesia: food and people
Dan and I shared a camera for the three weeks we were Indonesia. You can tell through the 300 assorted photos that while he was fascinated by the ancient stone carvings (we have, oh, about 8 photos of the statue of Hindu god Arjuna shooting his bow) and bamboo scaffolding (bamboo!) leaning against the sides of buildings under construction, for me it was all about the food and people.
Ancient ruins are fascinating and all, but what about these sticky rice treats sweetened with palm sugar and rolled in coconut? I asked the Javanese woman serving these what gave them the bright color. “Oh, all natural, colored with leaves,” she reported.
I decided to believe her, and more importantly not to care. I was so determined to eat like a local that earlier in the very hot day (Indonesia is hot and humid. It feels like every air molecule is exhaling its own continuous drop of hot water) I bought two “popsicles” for Col and Rose. I had seen a bunch of kids sucking colored ice out of a plastic bag and followed the children to the source. After paying 10,000 rupiah (80 cents) for two popsicles, I watched a barefoot man run a block of ice across a blade and catch the shaved ice into his hand before sliding it into a plastic bag and squirting a large bloop of sugary food dye in the bag.
(Before having to fully confront my position on Red Dye # 4 vs. eating as the locals do, I remembered that we couldn’t actually drink the water, and passed the popsicles onto some local kids).
At a traditional outdoor dance performance in Probolinggo, Java, while everyone else was watching the impressive costumes, Rose and I were using rudimentary, invented sign language to communicate with the group of girls who had circled around her, giggling, wanting to practice their English. (Besides the island of Bali, the rest of our stops were to Indonesian islands where pale faces like ours were unusual).
“Your age?” we asked, counting on our fingers in demonstration.
Quiet contemplation followed by fierce discussion in their local dialect, including playful punches and hair-pulling.
“Ten. Number one. Ten number one!” they replied.
“Yes! Elay-vahn! Elay-vahn!” They shrieked.
I pointed to Rose and held up eight fingers.
“Ahh…yes,” they said, turning to each other and giggling.
The three girls conferred in rapid-fire Bahasa and then parsed, slowly and carefully, “How. Do. You. Do?”
“Good!” We answered. “How do you do?”
“Yes!” They replied, punching each other playfully and falling apart in laughter.
Rice fields. Home to frogs, herons, water rats, egrets, snakes, free-ranging dogs, chickens, ducks and cats. One night, walking along the rice field paths, we passed a barefoot man with a machete. No problem.
After a few weeks in Indonesia, you begin seeing Americans as this slightly different species: large, pale and quick to sweat. You realize you’ve spent your life cultivating innumerable preferences and sensitivities (“I like eggs but only fried in coconut oil with runny yolks, heavily salted…”) while every Indonesian you’ve met explains cheerily, “We eat rice three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner!” (Besides fruit, the only desserts we had in Indonesia were also rice-based, including an amazing black rice pudding).
You begin to wonder how much effort goes towards maintaining your own likes and dislikes, and whether the cheerful, friendly disposition of Indonesians is partially a result of being freed from myriad choices to have opinions about. Novelty is in low-supply in Indonesia. There is considerably less of what we like to think of as freedom, as ones birth comes with prescribed roles and expectations (including the understanding that you will make space for your elderly parents to move in with you someday). One man, a rice farmer, told us his 18-year old son wouldn’t be going to college. It was expensive, and for his son’s future, “high school was enough.”
The outdoor food markets were steamy warrens of commerce. As the sultry day wore on, women slept alongside their colorful displays. Cats, too, were sacked out in the heat, teats ripe with lactation. Bloated rats scurried under tables propping up baskets of fragrant jasmine flowers. Slaughtered chickens, laid bare in the heat, attracted battalions of insects.
Col and Rose were alternately filled with wide-eyed fascination and horror. The displays of fruit could send you into fits of desire. But, the live chickens—feet tied together—awaiting death, haunted Rose for days. (Had I forgotten to tell her about 99% of American chicken farming?) The fish, whole and silvery in the sun, were splayed on tarps, never having known refrigeration. For the vendors, shoes were optional, smoking (for men) typical.
Everything you’d need (and nothing you don’t) you could find at a local market: an abundance of fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, rice, tofu, chicken, spices, palm sugar, and nuts.
I bought a sack of veggies I could hardly heft for $6 (and I’m certain I was charged tourist prices) and spent the next five days happily obligated to sweet potato, eggplant, long beans, bok choi, cabbage, cucumber, bean sprouts and rice, seasoned with chiles, pineapple, lemongrass and fresh coconut milk.
Notice the long pants and long sleeves. We foreigners dripped sweat while sitting perfectly still long after the equatorial sun went down
If there is a residence (or business), there is laundry drying. I began to see laundry as its own sort of colorful prayer flags.
Children seemed generally trusted to do things that you don’t see here in America: 3 year olds sitting, wobble-torsoed on a bicycle pedaled by an older sibling; packs of kids walking home alone from school (at noon! Typical school closing hour) alongside the highway. We saw a group of small boys swimming unattended in the ocean (on Komodo Island, where a young boy from the fishing village had been killed by a dragon), and when a little boy began crying, it was an older brother who scooped him up and comforted him. In the fishing village school is compulsory only until 4th grade, because what a fisherman needs to know, he learns from the sea.
In the big cities, driving was less of an organized, regulated process and more like water droplets flowing in and out and around each other. (When I returned to Colorado, I was immediately amazed at how much room cars allowed for each other on the highway). In Makassar, Sulewesi, a city containing over 2 million people and possibly no crosswalks, we watched four school children cross six, chaotic lanes of traffic simply by putting their hands out and muscling their way across the stream. Rather than streetlights, tree trunks lining the road are painted fluorescent colors.
Food was always beautifully presented. Pineapples were cut into architectural wonders, and vegetables were turned into colorful confetti to accent rice. Restaurant meals for six of us were between $12 – $20.
Col’s plate has tofu in peanut sauce. Meat (in the form of fish or chicken) was a flavoring, an accompaniment to vegetables. I saw no dairy in Indonesia at all. Mostly rice and fresh vegetables in amazingly flavorful sauces. I didn’t see any white flour and not much dessert. People seemed generally lean, especially the men.
A dog lounging on the front steps of your restaurant? No problem. Is it your dog? Who knows? Restaurants, shops and houses were permeable. It was not unusual to see dogs wandering through a business. Geckos scaling your inside walls (and all the insects they sought) were neither special nor a nuisance.
Cabbages, harvested on the caldera below Mt Batur.
Fruit at a market in Bali. Oddly, the apples were imported, which I didn’t see at any other market (maybe from Australia?). From left to right, clockwise: mangos, apples, mangosteens, dragonfruit, snake fruit.
Motorbikes were the transportation of the people. I saw people with three flats of eggs strapped the back and a hunk of bananas at their feet. People traveled with six bags of concrete tucked into every surface plus all the family members who could fit. Col and Rose hopped on one whenever possible. One day they were offered a ride home from a restaurant while Dan, my mom and I decided to walk the 2 miles. After they were on their way, helmetless, with a driver I didn’t know, none of us with cell phones, I realized I had relaxed my American mind into the Bali way.
I’m ever grateful for the experience of a different culture, to see a man stopping traffic by waving a palm frond as his buddy 35 feet up in a palm tree drops coconuts to the ground; to wonder what exactly “grass jelly drink” means; to contemplate what we Americans have traded for convenience and comfort; and to experience a people who are beautiful and dignified, warm and generous.
Thank you for listening to the stories.