My Favorite Indonesian Things #102: Poo

From the bus

From the bus

So I know I’m back home now, and it’s weird to continue posting. I realize many may think it’s time to move on. But after a month in ‘Merica, I still haven’t quite made sense of what happened. Numerous times I’ve thought about sitting down and writing a be-all end-all post about my experience of 27 months in Indonesia. But then I sit down, and nothing comes together. I’m still searching for that thread that ties all those disparate, sometimes jarring, and sometimes absolutely amazing experiences together. I don’t know if I’ll find it. So in the meantime, I’ll try and address the backlog of stuff I never quite got to. My hope is it’ll help me understand things now that I have a little different perspective, and that you’ll forgive me for a little nostalgia.


Can I interest you in some delicious Poo?

And in the tradition of quality posts, I give you one about Poo. For those who just gagged a little, I implore you to get your mind out of the gutter. Peace Corps service isn’t all about poop and other strange bodily functions. (Or is it…?) It’s about entertaining yourself on mind-numbingly long bus rides. I had a 6 hour death-defying trip to get from my site to the PC office in the big city of Surabaya. This is midrange for volunteer travel time in East Java, but long enough to test your mental capacity for sitting in cramped, sweaty, noisy dangdut-y, vomit-y places.


Poo up close

I soon found it helped to break up the trip in sections. One of my favorite trip markers came at 4 hours in: Poo®. It brought all my long-suppressed juvenile tendencies out. “Ha! Look at those people eating Poo®!” Snicker snicker. It was just the immature jolt I needed to get me through the last 2 hours on those forsaken buses.

But adolescent mockery slowly gave way to curiosity. What was this mysterious Poo®? Was it soft or hard? How did it smell? Was it contagious? Finally, I got my hands on a fresh bag of Poo®. It turned out it was tofu stick chips. So how does Poo® taste? Exactly how you’d expect: like crap.

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My Favorite Indonesian Things #79: Smoking


Nothing better than lighting up at the summit… Indonesian college students at the top of Mt. Panderman in Malang, East Java

I’ve always hated smoking. I never really knew my grandparents on my father’s side because they both died from smoking when I was really young. But a strange thing happened when I came to Indonesia: I found myself wanting to smoke. What could cause such a sudden reversal?

All I can say is Indonesia is a smoker’s paradise. Cigarettes are cheap, widely available, and can pretty much be smoked anywhere. A pack will only set you back about $1.30 and there’s little or no restriction on their purchase. One morning, at my host family’s toko (a small shop), an elementary school kid came to buy two packs for his teacher. Startled, I went to ask my host mother if that was ok. She was confused why I asked her permission to sell cigarettes to a boy who couldn’t even see over the counter.


One of many giant cigarette advertisements that are everywhere in the city and village

A whopping 70% of all males in Indonesia smoke and it makes its way into every part of life here. Cigarette companies sponsor everything from badminton tournaments, breakdance battles, to dangdut concerts. At a concert in my village, admission was buying an 80 cent pack of cigarettes. They have absurd advertisements on TV with manly bro’s driving jeeps on beaches and hang-gliding. They even sponsor university basketball courts and 4×4 off-road contests.

It’s all just ridiculous, but slowly I began to find myself getting sucked in. First, the majority of cigarettes sold here are kretek clove cigarettes. They smell like Christmas and crackle and pop as you smoke them. It smells good when you smoke and doesn’t really leave that nasty smell on your clothes. Kretek are less dirty red-necky. You can smoke without pissing off everyone around you.

Second, Peace Corps is about integration into your community and culture. But what if a huge part of that culture and community is smoking? As a male, it’s hard to fit in if you don’t smoke. Go to any wedding, prayer meeting, or celebration, and you’ll find cigarettes. Lot’s of them. Refusing them is just like refusing their food. It can come off like haughtiness. Go to any local hang-out spot (usually a small wooden warung kopi or coffee shack) and everyone’s smoking. It’s easy to say, “You should go, but just don’t smoke.” But it’s the same as going to a bar and ordering a Sprite. That coolness and inclusion just isn’t there. I remember I was desperate to make a connection with my host brother during training. At nights, he and his friends would just site outside smoking and sipping local coffee. I tried to tag along, but it just felt awkward constantly refusing offers to smoke. To really connect with men my age in Indonesia, I felt like I had to smoke.


An hour into our jungle trek in Sumatra, our guide takes a smoke break. Scott Lea’s look says it all…

Luckily, I never gave into the temptation. But I also gave up on making friends with  kids my age. (And I’ve probably inhaled enough second-hand smoke that it doesn’t even make a difference if I smoked or not, though.) Still, my memories of Indonesia will always be intertwined with smoking. There’s a certain romance about it. My host father sitting on the front porch and listening to the crack and pop of his Gudang-Garam kretek and the smoke swirling around his head. The classic look of each pack. Visiting the Sampoerna cigarette factory and museum in Surabaya, where 3,500 workers hand roll about 325 of the unfiltered Dji Sam Soe cigarettes per hour.

But there’s also the tragedy of it all. Many times I’ve caught my students smoking outside of school. I mean mug them and tell them to stop, but it’s an uphill battle. One student told me he smoked since middle school, and picked it up because his whole family smoked. So at home he’d just smoke with his father and brothers. It’s hard also to get preachy about health when it’s such a big part of the lifestyle. Everyone seems to know the dangers, but that’s not their main concern. Plus, the government is reluctant to step in, as the tobacco industry makes $7 billion in revenue annually for the government. All I can hope is that at least my example of not smoking did something for those who knew me, and maybe a change in culture like what happened in the USA could happen in Indonesia also. Mungkin. 

With all the good and bad, I’m still bringing home 3 packs of kretek. It’s a little piece of Indonesia that I won’t forget.

For a good article on smoking in Indonesia and where most of my numbers came from, click here. For more fun smoking ads, click here for super cool surprise yacht parties, here for using a harmonica to avoid getting beaten by biker gangs, and here for how smoking can inspire making your own cruise line.

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My Favorite Indonesian Things #14: Bicycle Repair


I fancied myself a competent bicycle owner and mechanic before I came to Indonesia. Mainly in the sense that I could change a flat tire, put on new bar tape, and keep things running cleanly and smoothly. But my sepeda onthel (translated as “camel bicycle” because of its high and upright riding position) is a whole other kind of beast.


Prayers to the God of Flat Tire Repairs

It’s a conglomeration of parts and pieces I’ve never seen before. Even the tire valve stem is a mystery. It’s neither presta nor schrader, but some old English valve stem that hasn’t been in style for many years. So I’ve left bicycle repair to the experts in my village. This is good because there’s no way I could’ve fixed it on my own. When my front wheel stopped rolling, I thought the axel needed to be replaced. But it was fixed in no time with a few well-placed bangs of a hammer and screwdriver, no replacement axel needed. Or when my left crank arm just fell off while I was riding to school, it was also miraculously fixed with a hammer and screwdriver. (I never thought a hammer would be the most important tool of a bicycle mechanic, but I’ve been proven wrong.)


Punk chickens and another no-brakes village road warrior

Even fixing a flat tire is magical. There’s no need to take the wheel off. The location of the puncture is found with a bucket of water. The area of the puncture is sanded and then glue and a patch is applied. Up to this point, it is standard operating procedure for fixing a flat. But then things take a strange turn. A homemade clamp made from a used engine cylinder head is brought out. The patch and bike tube is clamped and a little diesel is poured into the back of the cylinder head clamp. Then it’s set on fire. Presumably the burning cylinder clamp is supposed to cure the glue and patch, but I also feel like it’s a little sacrifice to the God of Flat Tires. (As you wait for 10 or so minutes until the diesel burns itself out, you begin to think these kinds of things.) Little punk neighborhood chickens also come by to check on things as you wait, and overall it’s a pleasurable experience.


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Gingers in the Jungle (a.k.a orangutans di hutan)- Up the River Into the Heart of errr… Bertiga


Whoa! Orangutans!

Living in Indonesia has many perks: all the rice you could want, food that’s fried three times, and amazing vacation opportunities. From exploding volcanoes to sweltering jungles, sun-drenched beaches to ancient temples, Indonesia has over 17,000 islands and something for everyone.

Last week was national examinations for the 12th grade and afforded the perfect time to get away and explore an island I haven’t been to yet. Two lovely ladies (Nicole and Elle) and myself hopped on a plane and flew an hour over to Kalimantan.  More commonly and romantically known as Borneo, the island of Kalimantan has much to offer. But our main goal was to unwind and see some orangutans.


Into the heart of… well not really

Orangutans are a species of monkey found only on two islands in the world, Kalimantan and Sumatra, both located in Indonesia. The word “orangutan” actually comes from Indonesian, which means “people of the forest” (orang=people hutan=forest). In December of 2011, during my epic northern Sumatran saga I did a 1-day jungle trek in the hopes of seeing some wild orangutans, but came up empty handed. I was hoping to have better luck this time around.

Nicole, Elle, and I started from the rough and tumble town of Kumai. The city has a frontier feel to it with various shops selling bulk supplies, a mix of different people and languages from all over Indonesia in search of work, and a squishy dirt main street. Kumai also has the constant soundtrack of birds chirping day and night and enormous 3 story houses that no one actually lives in.

Why build houses for no one and blast prerecorded bird chirping? It’s because of a little bird called the “edible-nest swiftlet.” This bird makes a nest with by regurgitating its sticky saliva. These nests are then boxed up and shipped to China where they sell for almost $1,000 a pound. Supposedly, the nests can be made into a broth with various medicinal benefits.


Boat full of motorcylces and life-sized bird houses (the large windowless houses in the back) in Kumai

Needless to say, we were happy to leave chirpy Kumai and get on our little wooden riverboat. We were heading up river into Tanjung Puting National Park. Our boat had a simple kitchen, an open-air bathroom, and a covered deck where we spent most of our time. The put-put-put of the engine was strangely relaxing, and we enjoyed just lounging on deck as we headed deeper into the jungle (cue Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now analogies).


An orangutan up high during our jungle trek

We made various stops at posts and camps as we went up the river. Tanjung Puting National Park is home to various scientific and rehabilitation centers for orangutans. The most famous of these is Camp Leaky, established in 1971 by Dr. Birute Galdikas and Rod Brindamour. It tries to rehabilitate orangutans that were injured, sold as pets, or displaced by habitat loss. These orangutans are gradually eased back into the wild until they can survive on their own. Each camp usually has a daily feeding time for semi-wild rehabilitated orangutans. This is where you have the best chance of seeing an orangutan up close. You follow a park ranger out to a platform in the forest where he dumps a bag of bananas and sugar cane. Suddenly, orangutans start swinging down from trees and emerging from the jungle to feast. It’s quite the experience. They are agile and sizeable creatures with fire-red hair and funny little mannerisms. We also did a short jungle trek to see them in a more “natural” setting and caught one eating fruit way up in the trees. It was really cool.


Our home for four days: We ate, slept, and hung out on our little wooden boat. The guide sits up front.

But orangutans aren’t the only stars in Tanjung Puting National Park. We also saw 3 other species of monkey, giant bats (1m wingspans), wild boars, giant spiders, mouse deers, fireflies, horn-billed pelicans, and more. Taking bucket baths in the jungle with blood-red brackish water also added to the “wild” feel of the trip. Overall, it was a great, relaxing, and adventurous four days on a boat and in the jungle.


Elle gets up close with an orangutan mother and child

But it was bittersweet too. The first reason was because of the orangutans. Although the rehabilitation programs are now extremely successful, this is cancelled out by the continual loss of habitat. The biggest culprit is palm oil, which is found in most of the make-up you wear and almost all of the processed foods you eat. Thousands of acres of pristine jungle are being cleared in Kalimantan to make way for palm oil plantations. A guide even told us a part of the national park was just sold by the government to a palm oil company. Each acre lost brings the orangutans closer to extinction. It’s hard to imagine the jungle, but wildlife we saw may not be there much longer.


Elle and Nicole

The second reason the trip was bittersweet was because it was one of the last times I’ll get to be with Nicole and Elle in Indonesia. They are two fellow volunteers like me who arrived wide-eyed and green in April 2011 as apart of the ID-5 group. We studied language together in our training village, slowly adapted to life as teachers and bule, and have gone through many of the same ups and downs that define the life of a PCV. They’ve seen me in both my best and worst moments. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We laugh now at how strangely close Peace Corps has made us. We talk openly about bodily functions, send extremely random text messages, and bertiga even when there’s enough places to sleep. It’s weird, but warmly endearing. Now, as we near the end of our 27-month service, I’m trying to savor these moments as much as I can. When June rolls around and everyone sets out on their own path again, I know I’ll miss them a lot.

(A big shout out to everyone in ID-5 for being so awesome. You all are amazing. Also, my mom just got another hip replaced. 3 cheers for the toughest bionic woman I know.)

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My Favorite Indonesian Things #34: 5 on 1


One of the first thing you notice when you get off the plane in Indonesia (after the suffocating humidity) is there’s a lot of motorcycles here. They’re everywhere. Buzzing in and out of traffic. Even coming down the sidewalks (if there’s sidewalks).


After your sense adjust to the sheer number of motorcycles, then you begin to see how many people it’s possible to fit on a motorcycle. 2 people is child’s play. 4 or more is where it’s at. So far, the my record is seeing 5 people on one motorcycle. I was fortunate enough to be in a town parade and had my camera to capture the glory. By now, it wouldn’t surprise me to see more.


The record-holders: 5 people on 1 motorcycle.

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My Favorite Indonesian Things # 52: Bule Photos

Foto mister!

Foto mister!

Does the picture above look annoying? Well, it is. Everyone here seems to have a camera phone and they’re not shy to use it. Especially if there’s a bule just minding his own business walking down the street.

It’s a daily fact of life for Peace Corps volunteers in Indonesia that if you go somewhere, someone will ask for a photograph with you. Why do some people feel the compulsive need for a picture with a random bule? What do these people do with the photos of themselves with random bule? These are questions that remain unanswered.

It’s strange and a little exciting at first to have strangers want photos with you, but the allure fades quickly. And some people are just ignorant. Like the lady who just walked up to me while I was waiting for an ATM, whipped out her phone, and started snapping pictures without saying anything. I felt like some kind of zoo animal. I tried to swallow my anger as I told her it’s not polite to take someone’s photo without asking. She giggled and belatedly asked permission, then scurried away as I glared at her.

Snappin' those photos

Snappin’ those photos

I’m not cut out to be a celebrity by any means. It really eats at my conscience when I don’t feel like a normal human being anymore. Most of the time I still oblige people’s requests for photos, even if I really don’t want to. So I just put on my best bule smile and take a deep breath. For those taking the photo, maybe the novelty of it all is still there for them.

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My Favorite Indonesian Things #6: Mie Ceker



Mie= Noodles. Ceker= Chicken foot. Mie + Ceker = Chicken foot noodle soup. What might terrify some, actually is pretty delicious. The noodles are homemade, like upgraded ramen noodles. They are cooked in a salty and slightly sweet broth with bits of chicken and some leafy greens. And the crown for it all is one big hunking chicken foot.

It looks gross. You can still see the scales on the skin. And I’ve seen the chickens walking around my town and don’t even want to think about what they step in. But I trust they clean it and it’s cooked for a really long time until buttery soft. You put a piece of the foot in your mouth and it melts away. Spit out the bones and take another bite. It’s actually pretty good.

Hottest restaurant in town

Hottest restaurant in town

And most of my town would agree. Mie Ceker is the number one place to go. Every afternoon it’s busy putting out hot bowls of mie ceker for a reasonable fifty cents, which also makes it a student favorite. I’d like to find out how many ceker do they go through in a day… that’s a lot of ceker. 

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