Thursday, February 26, 2009

The skin of the cow: when food doesn't meat [sic] my expectations

I hadn't been eating a lot of meat here, but a couple of weeks ago I gave it up completely. It's not that I don't like meat (I probably ate the equivalent of several pigs in my two months in Italy), it's that the meat here is often of unspecified origin. Maybe it was the intestines in the fried rice, or the gizzards in the jackfruit curry, or perhaps the liver satay my friend ordered because we didn't recognize the word for liver at that point in time, but I finally said no more.

I was doing good at being a vegetarian, but then the other day I ordered some nasi sayur lodeh (nasi is rice, sayur means vegetable, and lodeh is a type of squash but often means a coconut curry; click here for a clearly vegetarian recipe).

I didn't notice anything amiss at the time, but when my roommate ordered it the next day, one of the Indonesian teachers informed us there were little bits of cow skin floating around in the mix of vegetables. Not meat, just skin. Somehow I had not noticed this the day before, but I was reminded of my reasons for becoming a vegetarian in the first place.


This Saturday I am heading south with a couple other teachers to do some volunteer work in Mojokerto. Teaching the spoiled rich kids every day has been bringing me down a little, so I jumped at the opportunity to help out. Supposedly, a school with very limited resources is holding a charity event to help upgrade its English program. We'll be playing games with several different groups of little kids.

While the volunteering will require me to get up at about six in the morning, I am quite excited.

And then I will reward myself for my good-heartedness by going to an all-you-can-drink martini lunch on Sunday.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Close encounters of the monkey kind

I went to some friends' house last night, where I proceeded to drink 350ml of third-world "vodka." (The clear spirit is probably better than the "whiskey," though, which is a rice liquor with caramel color and something called "whiskey flavor.")(This photo is actually from Christmas, but I may have made this same face at some point last night.)

While the drinking and associated late arrival to my bed did not stop me from leaving Surabaya for the day, it did result in me leaving my backpack with my camera at my friends' house. So I didn't take any pictures on today's trip. My apologies.

I awoke this morning fairly early. I thought it was later than it actually was because I had somehow managed to change my bedroom clock to an hour ahead. So instead of heading to the bus station at 10am, like I had planned, I left the house at 9am.

I got to the bus station and climbed aboard the bus. It left two minutes after I got on, was half-empty, and may have been the only bus in Indonesia with a bathroom. Aside from an awful hangover, or the possibility that I was still drunk, things were running quite smoothly.

I had expected a four or five-hour bus ride, but I arrived in Tuban in two hours.

The sky was drizzling rain, but it soon cleared up. I asked a becak driver about a good restaurant, and he took me to a place. I then had him take me to Goa Akbar, a cave located in the city. The driver asked if I could buy him a ticket, so I did, and he accompanied me into the cave.

The cave is developed for tourism, with paved walkways and railings marking the path. But it is impressive. At one point, the driver said that he thought it was "luar biasa," or extraordinary. I agreed.

He took me back to the center of town to see klenteng Kwan Sing Bio, a chinese temple that wasn't that interesting to me. The driver charged me way too much for his services, but I was feeling generous so I didn't argue. He had been a good companion. I told him I wouldn't need a becak again, but he kept trying to convince me to use his services later in the day. I had told him I wanted to go to the nearby town of Bektiharjo, which is eight kilometers away, and he offered to take me there for an insane price. I told him I would be okay, thanked him again, and then we parted ways.

I walked down the street and hired a bemo to take me to Bektiharjo for way less than half of what the becak driver had quoted. The bemo driver was a sociable and kind old man, and we tried chatting during the drive.

He brought me to the local pool, which has been filled by natural springs. Because of the eye infection that plagued me after my last swimming experience, I wasn't there to swim. I was there to see monkeys.(This is a Balinese monkey, but the Javanese monkeys I saw looked about the same.)

I sat down on a ledge near the playground. One of the local food sellers set her basket of things next to me, and started walking over to one of her friends. A monkey walked up, looked at me, and then started eating one of the crackers from the basket. I called out to the owner of the basket, and she turned to look at me.

Then, I tried to shoo the monkey away by waving my hand in its direction, but the monkey didn't like this at all. He bared his teeth and then tried to lunge at me, but he caught his arms under the edge of the basket, which resulted in the basket getting flipped upside down and all of the food falling to the ground.

The monkey was briefly distracted, so I walked away while he helped himself to a hearty feast.

Later, the old man took me back in to town. I had exhausted my meager itinerary of sightseeing excitement, and it was still early. I decided that it seemed ridiculous to stay in the city and pay for a hotel room, so I abandoned my plans to spend the night and climbed aboard another bus. Home and my own bed were back in Surabaya, waiting.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

After the fatigues to run far

Been thinking lately, perhaps too much. Been thinking about what's next. A few days ago, for the first time, I thought about staying. Maybe not Surabaya, but maybe Indonesia. I'll have some language before the year has passed; I'll be better suited to survive here. But I haven't been sleeping well lately, so perhaps these thoughts aren't the thoughts of someone who's thinking straight. And the weather's been strange, days of blazing heat interspersed with days of cool wind. Perhaps this weather helps make for strange dreams and musings.


I might head northwest this weekend, for the first time. I've done some searching on the indispensable East Java tourism website, and the town of Tuban sounds interesting. Caves and near the ocean and described as "an ancient town." Paciran also sounds intriguing, with more caves and a rock shaped like a frog. I may go it alone this weekend, for the first time.


Although I love the East Java tourism website, the language varies wildly from very accurate to very erratic but weirdly poetic, but this is perhaps part of the website's charm. Here is an excerpt describing the road to the Tretes waterfall, located in the Jombang regency:
Complicated length road seems to be its beautiful self, because the fascination panorama of the environment around. The saturation fringe the road towards waterfall dosed by the ruthless of brotherly nature, bird chirp and the member of around that very friendly.

Tretes waterfall seems entertain, after the fatigues to run far, the visitor spill their body to the rapid waterfall, sitting on the scattering stones around the waterfall.


Lastly, two Indonesian proverbs for you:

"Pikir itu pelita hati."
Thought is the light of the heart.

"Patah tumbuh hilang berganti."
Whatever broken will grow back, whatever lost will be replaced.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A brief encounter

After a meal of seafood washed down with a mint gelato milkshake, I climbed into a taxi for the ride home. The pounding rain from earlier in the day had subsided into a light drizzle.

We approached an intersection where two young kids were standing near the median. I heard the driver click the doors locked.

As we waited for the light to change, the younger of the kids leaned against my window. "Mister, Mister, Mister," he repeated over and over. I glanced at him, then faced forward and hung my head. He repeated the words. I closed my eyes, and then he was gone.

I glanced back. About two hundred meters away stood one of the city's few churches. Its red neon cross glowed through the intermittent rain drops.

I looked forward and we drove on. Home was just minutes away through the wet Surabaya night.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Dude abides

We went bowling today, at the Patriot Bowling Club. The place was fairly large, with 32 lanes. It resembled a rundown American Midwest alley circa 1983 (including the name), except with some first generation computer scoring machines. I felt instantly at home. I belong right here, I thought.

I was a little worried at first because our friend who organized the outing said they did not have beer, and it is hard to bowl without beer. Or whiskey. Or a White Russian. But she was wrong abut the beer, and it was the cheapest I've found in Surabaya.

We paid for our shoes and they handed us a pair of socks. This was good, since many of us forgot socks (not me, though; I am always prepared). And it makes sense, because many people here constantly wear sandals. Some people probably don't even own shoes or socks.

I was also a little worried that they wouldn't have bowling shoes for my giant white-man feet. As we approached the shoe hut, there was a diagram with shoe sizes. It went up to 10. I wear size 12. The man behind the counter looked at me weirdly when I told him my size, but they did have a pair that fit.

Apparently the cheap Bintang beer made for some good aiming juice, because I managed to roll a 185 in the second game.
We were reminded that we were in Indonesia about halfway through our four games when the power went out for five minutes. And when I went into the bathroom and saw where a previous rainstorm had leaked a giant hole through the ceiling.

Despite the brief power failure, we had a great time and will definitely go back. Cheap beer and cheap bowling is like a siren's call for us displaced Midwestern sons. Sometimes we just need that little taste of home, to keep us from running back to where we came from.

Bathrooms and bowling

After class today, I went into the bathroom to attend to my eye. I had tried wearing my contacts again after about six days of wearing my glasses and regularly applying anti-viral cream, but over the course of a day-and-a-half, it looked as if the virus was trying to make a comeback. My younger students asked me if I had been punched in the eye.

A student who was also in the bathroom asked why I was applying the cream to my eye. He then informed my that the Javanese believe that a swollen eye is a punishment handed down to those who peep, and that it is a physical manifestation of sin. I swear that, for me, this is not the case.


On another bathroom note, I'm pretty sure that the little kids at our school who are too short to use the urinal just stand in front of the urinal and pee on the floor beneath it.


I'm going bowling tomorrow! I have no idea what an Indonesian bowling alley is like. Details and pictures will follow soon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A new disease and a new delight

We went to a public swimming pool over the weekend. It was fun at the time, but the result was the acquisition of a viral skin infection around my eye. This is what I looked like when I woke up this morning, after taking a quick shower to wash away the discharge that had glued my eye shut.I had purchased some antibacterial eyedrops the previous day, but they obviously didn't fix the problem, so I got in a taxi and headed to Rumah Sakit Surabaya Internasional. (Rumah Sakit translates as "sick house" and is Indonesian for hospital.)

I brought my camera but didn't take any pictures. There was nothing remarkable about the hospital; it looked like a hospital, which is a good thing.

A doctor briefly looked at my eye, asked some questions, and sent me on my way with some anti-viral opthalmic ointment. I was in and out in about half-an-hour, with a bill of approximately $20.


We went to the amazingly nice new mall a street over from our house for an after-dinner beverage the other night.

We were situated across from our most frequent dinner haunt, Izzi Pizza, and I noticed that they had a sign advertising the new "Obama Pizza." I went over to investigate.

The server explained the pizza quite poetically, saying that it combines the flavors of America and Indonesia (Obama lived in Jakarta for four years as a youth). It has an Indonesian rendang sauce of spiced coconut milk, and is topped with chicken, peppers, onions, and cheese. It is not, however, topped with a big portion of "Change!"

After finding out about the pizza, I settled my seat at Black Canyon Coffee (despite the cowboy logo, they are a Thai restaurant) to try an avocado drink. In Indonesia, the avocado is considered equivalent to any other fruit, and is therefore usually in sweet concoctions as opposed to savory dishes.

I ordered this shake partly because it came in a cool glass, and partly because I felt I had to try an avocado shake at some point in time. The drink I ordered was a blend of avocado, coffee, chocolate, and a hint of rum.

Part of my inital reaction was because the drink was surprisingly bitter; despite being green, the main taste was of coffee. After a few sips to equilibriate myself, the drink was pleasant, and my favorite part was the bigger chunks of not-fully-blended avocado.

I will have to give avocado shakes another try at some point in time, but sans coffee.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Strange happenings in the haunted land

The people here love horror movies. And many Indonesians believe in ghosts. When I ask my students if they believe in ghosts, they say yes. But except for one or two, none of them claim to have seen a ghost, though they say their grandparents tell stories.

But Rowan and I had a strange experience about two months ago.

We were sitting in the office researching some vacation ideas on the computer, which is about six feet from the door to the bedroom. It was about 11 at night. We heard the door slowly opening. "Yes?" I asked as we turned around to look. We both saw--or thought we saw--a hand on the door handle and a woman's face.

The door closed quickly but smoothly, and soundlessly. I jumped to my feet and sprinted to the door, opened it, and ran into the kitchen. No lights were on, and no one was there.

Our kitchen is reasonably large, and it would have been impossible for someone to have gone from our bedroom door and out of the house in the time it took me to reach the kitchen. Especially impossible to do so without slamming the doors shut on the way out.

I went back to our room, where Rowan and I confirmed that we had seen the same thing.

We haven't had any other strange experiences, except for the lights occasionally shutting off in the kitchen, though this is probably more the result of living in a poorly built house in a developing country than the trickery of ghosts. I would be much more concerned if the lights were turning themselves on instead of off.

But we are still searching for an explanation of what we saw that one night.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Haunted hotel

I had intended to stay in Surabaya and spend a weekend doing absolutely nothing, but when Rowan told me she had heard of a haunted hotel, I had to say goodbye to the big-city lights.
Hotel Niagara was built in 1918 and designed by Brazilian Fritz Joseph Pinedo. The hauntings are supposedly the result of a suicide on the premises.

Rowan's coworker roughly translated one website, and said the hotel is known as the "Three Beautiful Ghosts" hotel, and rumors also include the murder of a Dutch woman by a Japanese soldier during Japan's occupation of Indonesia.

The hotel, while faded somewhat from its original grandeur, is still quite impressive.The woodwork is still in good condition, and numerous windows let in lots of light during the day. There are several large sitting areas and several smaller ones, the larger areas having once been ballrooms. The character is far different from a modern hotel.

However, the place has the strange feel of an old artifact being forced into a modern mindset. At night, the place is lit with the hideous fluorescent lighting that seems inescapable in Indonesia. The lights hum loudly, echoing against the cracked tiles.

The top two floors, the ones that are supposedly haunted, are closed to entry. I stood at the base of the stairs leading to the fourth floor and looked upward, and one of the hotel staff gruffly informed me that I could not enter.

We saw no ghosts, and if we heard any they were lost in the sounds of the city.


The hotel is situated next to a market, so when we weren't sitting around waiting for ghosts to appear, we went exploring.The people in Lawang are very friendly. While we got the usual amount of stares, we heard fewer chants of "bule, bule, bule," and saw less finger pointing.

We ate dinner at one of the nicer small warungs we've seen in Indonesia.The tables and chairs were of nice wood, the floor was of nice stones, and the place was impeccably clean. The menu, though small, offered some nice options.

We chatted briefly with the girl working there; she was 18 or 19 and finishing up school. She told us we were the first foreigners to ever visit the warung, which has been operating since 1976. She asked why we had decided to eat there, and we told her we liked the vibe.

We also said we'd recommend it to our friends. So here goes: If you ever get to Lawang, East Java, Indonesia, there is a market just past Hotel Niagara. At the start of the market, go up the hill until you reach warung Bu Um, on the right-hand side of the road. The have a good soy peanut sauce, which is on most of the dinner entrees, which are all presented very nicely. They also have some buttery, flaky pastry/bread, which is quite hearty and delicious. For a drink, I recommend the STMJ, a mix of milk, egg, honey, and ginger. It sounds strange, but it works.


After checking out of the hotel, we went up into the hills to the village and tea plantation of Wonosari (the link has sound). Wonosari is a sprawling complex with a zoo, orchards, tea fields, a factory to process the tea, and other attractions. It offers enough amusement for several days. However, the weather wasn't cooperating, so we didn't take a full tour of the place.But we did go swimming for awhile. And we also rode a mini-train through part of the plantation. Overall, everything went well on the trip, especially while heading home. We finished eating lunch and had not taken two steps out of the restaurant when a bemo pulled up and asked if we needed to go to the town. He then dropped us off on the main street where a nice bus to Surabaya picked us up two minutes later.

Before we knew it, we were back in the sparkling city. And our own haunted abode.

What? I haven't told that story yet? Next time...