Category Archives: Indonesia – General

9 Lives

15 Oct 11
one comments

Whether it’s in a marriage or while traveling, good communication is always important. And language barriers often make for poor communication.

Examples of what can happen are found seemingly daily on the internet. Remember the story about how the Chevy Nova didn’t sell well in Latin America because “no va” means ‘it doesn’t go’ in Spanish? As it happens, that’s an urban legend – the car actually sold quite well. Also mostly untrue is the story about how Coca-Cola in Chinese means ‘bite the wax tadpole.’

But sometimes such stories are real. For instance, the first time we heard about ‘cat ovens.’

Our reaction to this, needless to say, was one of absolute horror. As I mentioned in a previous post, bunny and horse sate is quite common here. And cats, along with dogs and other four-legged pets are commonly eaten in various parts of Southeast Asia. So while repulsed, we really weren’t that surprised to see the cat oven signs.

It always pays to check though. It turns out that ‘cat’ doesn’t mean meow in Indonesia. As it happens, the word Kuching means cat in Bahasa. ‘Cat’ actually means ‘paint.’ So a cat oven is a place where freshly-painted cars can be dried to a nice glossy finish.

I think our cats back home can breathe a bit easier.

I’ve Just Got To Get a Letter to You

30 Sep 11
No Comments

Some time ago Beth sent us three letters – a father’s day card, a birthday card for Adam and a fun card for Elana. While two cards arrived about three weeks later, Adam’s birthday card never made it. That seems about right – at least one third of the mail here seems to get lost or stolen.

And don’t expect a timely delivery. Letters from the states, if they arrived, took more than three weeks to get here. Same for our infrequent mailings back home.

At first, it was our fault. We just didn’t understand that mail delivery meant shoving letters under the garage door, where they would end up beneath the car’s tires or stuck in a corner somewhere. Our first cable bill was not paid on time because we didn’t know we had gotten a bill. Slipped under the garage door, it was picked up by Aris and placed on a shelf where I discovered it three weeks later.

Mail service is so poor even for domestic letters that we were told never to pay bills by mail. Instead, we hop in the car and drive to the cable company, and the phone company, and whatever other company we owe money, because mail may not get there. I don’t mean get there on time – actually not get there.

This it turns out is why we needed to hire a driver. After the first month or two in Bandung I knew my way around the city, and drove us wherever we needed to be on the weekends. But Aris was vital to my getting any work done. He would pay the bills, and run other errands, because you could never tell when a traffic jam would occur and you’d be stuck somewhere.

Maybe it’s the traffic that keeps the mail from being delivered. But I suspect it’s more about inefficiencies in a country still not entirely used to free enterprise. After all, Indonesia has been a democracy for less than 15 years. The Post Office is not the only branch of government that seems to lack basic efficiency measures. Perhaps I’ll write at some point about our experiences getting our residency papers from the country’s immigration office.

One other reason the mail may not get through is the lack of a cool motto.

For Americans, the mail must go through. It’s a tradition that started at least as far back as the Alaska Gold Rush. In fact, most Americans believe the Post Office has enshrined this belief in an official motto – “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Like so many elements of the American mythology this particular belief isn’t true – the Post Office has no official motto. But it certainly has a place in American culture. Roy Rogers sang about its prowess at making sure the mail gets to where it belongs:

When you mail a letter, you can send it anywhere.
On foot, by truck, or aeroplane, the postman gets it there.
So write a letter to your friend, maybe she’ll write you.
No matter what you always know, the mail must go through.
Well, the mail must go through.
The mail must go through.
No matter if it rains or snows, the mail must go through.
I said the mail must go through.
The mail must go through.
No matter if it rains or snows, the mail must go through.
Some folks live in a city, some live in a little town.
And even if you live out on a farm, there’s a postman making his rounds.
So mail someone a letter, even just a card will do.
You know it’s nice when the postman has a letter in his sack for you.

I point this out not because I have a particular love for old cowboy music (although I do), but rather to say that it is my belief that the U.S. has the best postal system in the world. And spending time in Indonesia reminded me of that.

Mail a letter anywhere in the U.S., and it is likely it will arrive the next day – at worst, in two. I think it’s funny the postal service makes money with priority mail, which guarantees two day delivery, because the normal mail makes it in that time. And it does that day in and day out, with more than 160 billion pieces of mail sent every year. That’s more than 500 pieces of mail a year for each American.

Granted, many of those pieces of mail are unwanted credit card applications and Victoria’s Secret catalogues (hint to Post Office – send more catalogues). But that’s not the post office’s fault.

Of course, technology is doing away with the need for a good old fashioned letter, and the PO’s delivery numbers are dropping drastically. But as far as I’m concerned, I hope the mailman never stops visiting our door.  After all…

No matter what you always know, the mail must go through.
Well, the mail must go through.
The mail must go through.
No matter if it rains or snows, the mail must go through.
I said the mail must go through.
The mail must go through.

Potty Humor

31 Aug 11
No Comments


One of the reasons many people are uncomfortable with overseas travel is a fear of the unknown. Unusual customs, unfamiliar foods – there are so many potential challenges.

Perhaps one of the biggest of those challenges for some is what is called the squat toilet. The squat toilet has many names. Arabic toilet, Japanese, Muslim, Korean and more. Whatever you call it though, it’s not much more than a hole in the ground.

For those of us accustomed to a western toilet, it takes a little practice to use a squat toilet, but they are not as tricky as they might seem.

Just as in America, public toilets can become filthy when not used properly. Often signs are placed asking patrons to be careful. But none were as much fun as a series of signs we found while visiting a wildlife refuge in Malaysia.

I tried to think of clever ways to introduce these signs, but let’s face it – no explanation is needed.

Under Construction

19 Aug 11
No Comments

It went up in less than a week. Bandung is a city where new road construction is almost non-existent and road repairs, if they happen at all, are shoddily done. So it was quite surprising to watch a substantial barrier, about one foot wide, one foot high and a kilometer long being quickly built down the road in front of the kid’s school. Rumor has it that the regional governor drives this road to work every day and was tired of traffic, so he demanded that the barrier be built to improve traffic flow and ease his commute. If true, the final joke was on him – the “improvement” actually had the opposite effect, regularly turning the road into a parking lot.

About a month after the black and white striped barrier had gone up, the most curious thing began happening. In a city full of constantly blowing dirt, small pockets of soil had accumulated in cracks in the barrier, and weeds began growing.

We’re living in the tropics. For better or worse, things grow here, sometimes taking hold in the most unusual places.

We have a small pool in the backyard of our home. We run the fountain every day to make sure the water is aerated for the fish. The pool is cleaned every month. And yet it’s impossible to keep it from quickly becoming clogged with green algae and other sorts of biological material.

This region is a botanist’s wet dream. The average temperature while we’ve been here has been around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It rained every day for the first eight months. The soil is predominantly volcanic ash, rich in nutrients. In other words, conditions are perfect for plant and mold growth. So things grow everywhere – on rooftops, the sides of buildings, our dresser drawers. It’s just something you get used to. Sometimes I expected to wake the kids up in the morning and find something sprouting on top of their heads.

It’s clear that humans are only temporary occupiers of Indonesia. It’s really the plants that rule here.

Well Hung

02 Aug 11
No Comments

It’s been fun exploring new foods while in Indonesia. The kids have loved experimenting with dishes and sauces. Adam’s taste for spices has only increased during our time here, while Elana, who never cared for spices all that much, is going to head home with a new-found love of hotness.

Dishes here are of course dominated by rice (nasi) and noodles (mie). Many things are fried (goreng), and so there are many combinations of mie goreng and nasi goreng.

There are other foods though, even those that are processed, that are also new to our taste buds. Milk was a big surprise. Indonesia is not a huge producer of milk, so much of the milk we drink is imported from New Zealand and Australia. It comes in aseptic packaging. Aseptic basically means the material is free from contamination. This is a way of processing milk and other perishable goods that makes it sterile, and allows it to have a much greater shelf life without any need for refrigeration.

The food (in this case milk) is sterilized by a process called flash-heating. It’s then placed in a special aseptic container, most often made from a laminate composed of paper, polyethylene and aluminum. Pretty much any parent would recognize this packaging, since it’s the same used on juice boxes for kids. When closed, the package is free from contaminants as well as degradation. This means it can sit on the shelf for months, rather than the days our refrigerated milk at home remains good enough to drink. So when we buy milk here, we purchase it by the box, and leave it in the cupboard until we’re ready to use it. Once it’s opened though it must be refrigerated.

Frankly, the taste isn’t all that bad. The first brand we purchased had a rather metallic taste to it, and during a party of expats I had a discussion with an engineer whose expertise included aseptic packaging. He mentioned that the particular brand we were using may be contaminated during its processing. We switched brands, and have never had a taste issue again. While the taste doesn’t compare to fresh milk back home, it’s been a decent substitute for our morning cereal.

Aseptic production is an interesting process. It’s not only used for small containers of milk. Some ocean-traveling ships have aseptic holds, and that’s how milk can be transferred in large quantities from country to country.

While the aseptic process is fairly old, having been invented in the early 1900s, its use with milk is fairly new. The first aseptic plant for milk was constructed in Switzerland in 1961.

According to Wikipedia, aseptic packaging is a truly innovative technique. In 1991 the Institute of Food Technologists rated the Top Ten innovations in food technology. Aseptic packaging ranked Number 1 – ahead of freeze-drying and food fortification.

Our favorite processed food though has been something called a “Rotiboy.” Rotiboys are a chain of retail outlets serving a roll. That’s pretty much it. The chain was founded in Malaysia in 1991 as a neighborhood bakery that prepared breads. Today it has grown into a chain of more than 150 outlets, all based on a simple concept – a roll.

This is no ordinary kind of roll though. It’s a roll with butter on the inside, and a thin glaze of coffee flavoring on the outside. Now I’m not a coffee drinker, so that’s not the attraction. But these buns are crispy on the outside, and soft and buttery on the inside. And the taste is simply too wonderful to describe.

Sometimes they’ll bake chocolate chips on the outside. They also have one with a vanilla topping and buttermilk inside. We never tried those. The classic roll was good enough for us.

The best thing about Rotiboys, though, might be the advertising. Their slogans are, to say the least, a bit unusual.One of our favorites is: “To all the hungry people in the world.” Quite a lofty statement. Except a mural on an outside wall at the Bali airport had a poorly-placed post that drastically altered the altruistic slogan’s meaning:


Laws are for Wimps

23 Jul 11
one comments

It was the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who wrote “Out of chaos comes order.” Clearly he never spent any time traveling through Bandung traffic.

The first thing to know about driving here is that there really aren’t too many rules. It’s rather simple, really. You drive, wedging yourself between other cars and trucks, while attempting to avoid the motorcycles. Chaos ensues. And that’s pretty much it.

Oh, like any country there are traffic laws. At least they tell me there are. It’s just that no one seems to be concerned with following them. On one of my first days driving here I stopped at a red light near our house, only to be on the receiving end of a massive chorus of horns as other cars rolled around me and straight through the red light. It’s against the law I’ve been told to drive on the shoulder of major highways, but that doesn’t stop cars and trucks from passing each other on the shoulder while traveling more than 140km (87 miles) an hour. No one pays attention to speed limits, regularly traveling on major roadways marked 80km an hour at twice that speed. And driving just one meter (three feet) off another vehicle’s bumper in highway traffic would seem a sure recipe for disaster, yet everyone does it with few crushed fenders to show for it.

In fact, that bumper thing seems to be part of the unofficial road rules here. When a driver comes up behind another car traveling more slowly in the passing lane of a divided highway, they don’t flip their high beams on them, or honk their horns as you might in America. Instead, no matter how fast they are driving they stop one meter (3 feet) off the other car’s bumper and put on their turn signal. This means the other car should move over so the first car can pass. Sometimes this actually works.

When you want to keep another car from cutting in front of you, meanwhile, you drive a meter off the car’s bumper. Tired? Well then, drive just one meter away from the next car’s bumper.

In other words, all traffic laws and normal safety concerns common to America are merely suggestions here.

In many countries highway police make sure traffic laws are obeyed. Here in Bandung I rarely see police on the roads, and I have never seen a car pulled over by a policeman in order to enforce a traffic violation. They do pull cars over – we were stopped this past week by a policeman on a motorcycle. Rather than telling us we had done something wrong, he demanded our identity papers. I gave him a copy of our KITAS, which is our permission to stay in the country long-term. The original KITAS is stapled in your passport, and I rarely travel around town with my passport so I had copies of the KITAS made and laminated. But this was not good enough for the officer, who insisted that we produce our passports as well. Oddly, we were heading to immigration and I had the passports with me, which satisfied the policeman and he drove away. The real reason for the stop was never clear, but our driver thought the policeman was looking for a bribe. This was the first time since we have been here that we were pulled out of traffic, and I’ve almost never seen anyone else pulled over.

But while traffic stops are rare, police barricades are very common. I see at least one almost every other day. Police set up on the side of a road, often at a point where people cannot turn around to avoid them. They look for motorcyclists without helmets (a law they do try to enforce) and car occupants not wearing seat belts (front seat only – many cars here don’t even have seat belts in the back seat). But anything else seems to go unnoticed. Broken down cars and vans are allowed to pass, children so small it seems impossible that they could get on the motorcycle and drive it without help are not stopped unless they forgot their helmet – violations of any kind that would get a car stopped in America are simply ignored.

Bules (the word here for white people) are often stopped at these barricades and their drivers license and insurance papers are checked. I have been told this is an opportunity for a shake-down – police hoping to augment their meager salaries with bribes. However, while we have been stopped many times at these barricades, I have never once been asked for money. And now the police at the barricade near our home recognize us, and simply wave us past with a smile.

Many Southeast Asians have a different concept of personal space, which clearly affects the way they drive. This must come, in part, from how crowded much of the region is. Bandung, where we live, sits on the island of Java. Java is some 1050km (650 miles) long, and at one point gets as wide as 210km (130 miles). It contains around 130,000km2 (50,000 square miles) of land, and a population of at least 130 million people. All this means the island has a population density of around 1,000 people per square kilometer – or 2,600 people per square mile.

A little perspective here – on average, that would mean about 5 people living on every piece of land the size of an American football field (without the end zones). That’s not too crowded.

But people don’t live by averages. Rather than spread out on those football field-sized pieces of land, most people live scrunched together in cities.

It’s hard to get a real estimate of the land size of Bandung, which is Indonesia’s third largest city. In part that’s because official land surveys seem to be rarely taken. Estimates found on-line range from 170 square kilometers in 1987 to 168 in 2007. So let’s assume it’s grown to at least 200 square kilometers now (not a bad assumption considering how quickly land is gobbled up around here for additional homes). With an official population of three million, that means there are at least 15,000 people living on each square kilometer of land. Or, to continue with our football field comparison, about 70 people living between the goal lines.

Take away land for roads and bridges, hospitals and clinics, trash heaps and any other non-human land use and you can begin to see just how crowded it is here. Especially since the 3 million official estimate is certainly way low.

Now translate that closeness into driving methods, and you can perhaps understand why they drive the way they do. In their daily lives they share some of their most personal behaviors with strangers out of necessity – there is no room for privacy. We have seen people casually urinating on a busy street while talking to a friend, and standing in their underwear to take a shower in the rain. So why would they think it a violation of personal space to drive so closely to each other?

The odd thing about all this is that despite the closeness, accidents rarely seem to happen. And because the traffic generally moves so slowly, when accidents do occur there is mostly little damage. I was driving on a busy street near home a week or two ago when an Angkut driver – an Angkut is one of those little mini-vans that carry people around for a dollar or two a ride – pulled out of the lane next to me and hit my side door. I stared at him and he looked back, shrugged, then drove on. The next day I told our driver. He laughed, got some rubbing compound and removed the green paint on the passenger door. The car was fine.

So maybe Nietzsche was right after all – out of chaos does indeed come some form of order. It’s just that the crowds here make it tough to see.

Strength in Undergarments

14 Jul 11
No Comments

We were in Jakarta recently visiting a few museums. While Jakarta is a major city, its public transport systems are in pretty bad shape. The city has a bus system that may eventually get you to where you want to go. Angkots – mini-buses that have fixed routes – provide a cheaper, if slower alternative. But other than taxis there isn’t much else. There are no subways (although they hope to build one), and the only signs of an abortive attempt to create a skyway a few years ago are a number of poles built before the money ended.

There is one fun way to travel though – it’s the auto rickshaw. These three-wheeled vehicles are a staple of Southeast Asian cities. In Thailand they call them Tuk-Tuks. In Jakarta, they are Bajaj.

The vehicle narrows into a wedge – wide at the back, where the passengers sit, and narrow up front for the driver. They usually seat three people, although we have at times squeezed four and some luggage inside.

Besides museum visits, on this particular trip we were also looking for a couple of geocaches. So we jumped in a Bajaj and headed to a cemetery near the center of town, where we quickly found one of the few geocaches in all of Indonesia.

Leaving the cemetery we hailed another Bajaj. This one was a little smaller than most, so we were quite cramped. But the advertising inside the vehicle made the trip back to Jakarta’s Gambier train station worth it.

Peering over the driver’s shoulder I saw an odd sign, just beneath the window. It was for a company called ‘Rider.’ And the ad was selling underwear.

Move over cheese. “Ah, the power of underwear!”

Heard It on the Radio – Part 2

04 Jul 11
No Comments

It’s an interesting promotional statement for a radio station. I’m not quite sure what market they are actually going for with this though:


We play “girl songs that are too bitching to be just friends.”

Snakes on the Plains

26 Jun 11

It started off innocently enough.

We were visiting a theme park in Jakarta this past week called Tamin Mini Indonesia Indah, or TMII. It’s the Indonesian version of Disneyland, right down to the plushies waiting to greet kids with handshakes and hugs. It even has a Disney-like castle.

Opened in April of 1975, TMII was proposed by Siti Hartinah Soeharto, wife of then-President Soeharto. Her idea was to have a park that “raised the pride and sense of love for the nation and the country.” And she wanted to do this by representing the nation’s disparate parts in one place – southern Jakarta.

In addition to the castle, there is a lake with swan boats that allow visitors to paddle around pieces of land shaped like the major islands if Indonesia. For just 20,000rp a cable car ride takes you over the lake, where you get an aerial view of a mini-Indonesia.

The major attraction for us though was not the castle, the plushies, or even the water park. TMII is designed to represent all of Indonesia. So the large rectangular park is lined on one side by little “villages” containing traditional buildings and items from different regions of the country. There is north and south Sumatra, east and west Kalimantan, and areas representing Sulawesi as well. We spent part of an afternoon traveling Indonesia without ever leaving the capital city.

It was an enjoyable time. We rented a four seat bicycle and peddled our way around the country exhibits. After perhaps an hour, we stopped by one last pavilion, with a concrete mound representing a burial site. The kids climbed its side for pictures, while Aris wandered in and out of the bushes at the mound’s base. A few minutes later, Aris appeared with a small, dark gray snake about eight inches in length wriggling in his hand.

Adam, who has been interested in snakes since he was little, asked to hold it. But unlike other snakes we’ve found here this one struggled so much I finally told Adam to stop. He did, but both he and Aris played with it for a bit before Aris placed it in an empty plastic water bottle with air holes. We carried the snake with us on the bicycle for a few minutes, and finally I told them they needed to release it.

They tried getting the snake to leave the bottle, but it somehow managed to wedge itself in such a way that it wouldn’t come out. Clearly the snake did not want much to do with us, which was a good thing. Because after I took the bottle from them and shook it firmly, it slid out and fell on the grass, where it arched up and glared at us.

Despite its size, its pose was clear. What we had been playing with was a baby Cobra.

My heart skipped a few beats, realizing that Adam had been playing with this snake (likely naja sputatrix) just a few moments before. Cobras are one of the most deadly venomous snakes in the world.

It’s not the first time Adam has been near a venomous snake. While scuba diving earlier this year he came near a Banded Sea Krait. But that snake was about three meters from him, and swimming in the opposite direction. They are not known to be aggressive, and it’s not unusual for one to be spotted around Indonesia’s best dive sites. They are very shy snakes, so a bite from a Krait, either on land or in the ocean, is quite rare.

Cobras however can be more aggressive. They have a particularly strong neurotoxic venom. This means it attacks the nervous system, among other things paralyzing the nerves that control breathing. Victims often die from respiratory failure.

There is a misconception that baby cobras are more deadly than the adults. This comes from the belief that young cobras cannot control the amount of toxin they release, while an adult snake can. Whether true or not, the fact is a cobra is deadly within three hours of birth. So this tiny snake could have killed any one of us.

At this point, I was concerned about leaving the snake in the open in an agitated state. Rather than slithering away, as most snakes do once released, this one kept staring us down. So I found a small twig and repeatedly brushed the snake away until it finally left.

This is not the first time we’ve played with snakes here. Our backyard is home to a family of garter snakes, and some months ago Aris caught one so Adam could hold it. Garters are not poisonous, and those in our backyard likely survive by eating the frogs and toads that also live there.

The guards one day found a python along the stream that runs through our housing development. This snake was much more interesting. The ten foot long python was quite healthy, no doubt thriving on a diet of rats and the periodic neighborhood cat that might have wandered down along the streambed.

The guards put the python in a small cage at the back of the complex’s office and fed it chickens. We went to see it and, despite the strong metal bars, when Aris leaned in for a closer look the python struck at him, hitting the bars repeatedly with its head. It was the most aggressive snake I’d ever seen.

Unlike Cobras, pythons are not venomous. They crush their prey to death by wrapping it in coils of its body and squeezing tightly, literally knocking the air out of them. But their bite does not contain a venom. And since the python was in a cage, it was quite safe, as long as you didn’t stick your hand in between the bars.

Days later, the python was gone. The guards said it escaped, but I suspect it actually made it into someone’s soup pot.

Such an end would not come as a surprise. Snakes are routinely eaten here. There are even stories of cobras being ground up and put into hamburger.

Our experience this week, meanwhile, has caused me to make a new family rule for our last three weeks in country – no more snakes. No handling, no playing, no watching. And for that matter, no more hamburger. Who knows what’s in that stuff anyway.