Monthly Archives:August 2011

Potty Humor

31 Aug 11
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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
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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
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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: