Indonesia is, without a doubt, a country that will change your perception of many things. Be it religion, food, people, and even Asia itself. Although a part of Asia, Indonesia stands on its own, separate from any stereotype. I’ve only been here for three weeks and already I feel changed; perhaps more patient and accepting with the world around me. But aside from existentialism and self-reflection, there are many things a westerner, like myself, must get used to. Some things I may have mentioned already, but keep reading and you’ll find something new. Call me spoiled or conceited, call me what you wish. No matter where you come from, living in a place completely different from what you are used to can be frightening and uncomfortable sometimes.
There are only two seasons in Indonesia; a rainy season and a hot season. Currently, it is the rainy season. The hot season will begin in July or August. Usually everyday, sometimes multiple times a day, it rains very hard. It rains so hard that the power goes out and palm trees bend to the wind’s will. The rain drips through cracks in the ceiling if you are in the house, and if you are outside, you’d better have a raincoat or a very strong umbrella. The lightening and thunder that sometimes accompany the rain are blinding, deafening. It takes a multitude of things away. No internet (if you don’t have a modem), no light (if you don’t have a flashlight), no trips to the kitchen or to the bathroom if the power goes out during the night and you are scared of doing your thing in the dark. Candles are not recommended if you are the clumsy type, which, unfortunately, I am.
The weather exchanges the use of modern luxuries with something more valuable, and that is the reminder that no matter how much we depend on technology, it is no match for nature. In a blink of an eye, everything is as it was before the dawn of technology.
The Insects and Animals
I have a terrible fear of arachnids. In retrospect choosing to come toIndonesiawhile harboring this fear was probably not the most fantastic idea. However, it provides me with incentive to conquer my fears and try to be as comfortable I can in a village brimming with not only spiders, but also ants (they are everywhere, no exaggeration), bedbugs (crawling on my laptop!), dragonflies, mosquitoes, hornets, spiders, leaf insects, millipedes, iguanas, bats, birds, chickens, roosters, mice, rats, cats, dogs, goats, and even some ox. A moment of surprise came over me when a rat crossed my path and I did not so much as bat an eye.
Everyone at home is probably skeptical of my new found comfort with what the average person might call “vermin”. While I admit I am still anxious of spiders and centipedes coming into view while I bathe or brush my hair, or crawling on the gossamer surface of my mosquito net while I sleep, I am better than I was, and that is, at least, a little progress.
An interesting experience: A few nights ago I went to a fantastic dinner with the organization I am volunteering for. It was a farewell dinner for a volunteer who ended up having to leave early due to a job offer. The dinner was held in a beautiful outdoor gazebo-type restaurant overlooking Ungaran Mountain and the villages. Across the lot, there was an organic market which for some reason had 2 very large Bengal (or so the sign said, they might have been Sumatran) tigers in a very large cages. They were the most beautiful animals I’ve seen in a long time. Pacing back and forth in their confined enclosures, they eyed us with curiosity and dangerous instinct—these were not zoo animals. It was strange, to stare in awe at animals kept in cages, and then return to a delicious meal of fish, shrimp, and rice.
The Bathrooms (just a little graphic…)
I was a bit scared of coming to Indonesia because I knew what the toilets would be like. Many people told me not to trade excitement for an experience of lifetime for a fear of something so minuscule in comparison. At the time I thought, “…minuscule?” All my life I’d been using a pedestal toilet, a nice porcelain seat with a built-in-flush. It was almost always a worry-free experience. Being a bit of a hypochondriac and an obsessive-compulsive person, it was a problem when I found out I would have to use a squat-toilet.
Those of you who have traveled around Asia have most likely come across or had to use a squat toilet. It is, essentially, a toilet bowl affixed in the ground, with foot holds on either side. The point is to place your feet flat on the holds and squat over the bowl. The next step is to…avoid making a mess. Next to the toilet (usually) is a large ceramic-tiled/stone basin full of water. In the basin or placed on the rim is a large bucket with a handle; a sort of ladle. There is no toilet paper and you must fill the ladle with water to clean yourself by hand. I am used to using water instead of toilet paper, but it is still difficult due to the position of the body when using a squat toilet.
Some squat toilets do have automatic flush, but if you are in a situation where your toilet does not flush automatically, you must do it manually. This is done by filling large amounts of water in the same said ladle and pouring it forcefully down the toilet to push the waste down the pipe. It takes a few tries. It sounds very bad, but after three weeks of doing this, I am accustomed.
Taking a bath (mandi) is a little bit easier, but not very comfortable. Some houses are fortunate enough to have shower heads, but I am not so lucky. The process is to use the same ladle, filling it with water, and then pouring the water over the body. The water is cold. Hot water in bathrooms, especially in villages, is rarely if not ever found. Shampoo and body wash are applied accordingly, and the custom in Indonesia is to shower twice a day.
If you live in or visit a major, wealthy city with lots of tourists, you are unlikely to come across this type of system. Western franchises, such as certain fast food restaurants, do host a Western style pedestal toilet. However, do not expect too much, because usually they are not particularly clean.
Aside from the obvious reasons, food is an extremely important part of life in Indonesia. If you visit a neighbor or friend, the first thing they will do, usually, is offer you something to eat. It’s usually fruit or bread and the staple drink, which is tea minum. Tea minum is an extremely sweet drink made from tea leaves and cane sugar. All of the beverages I’ve had so far have been achingly sweet. The kopi, or coffee, is delicious but has about 3 teaspoons of cane sugar, as does the juice, and of course the tea minum. If you don’t like sweet drinks, make sure you politely ask for a little bit of sugar or none at all.
If not fruit or bread, you may as well get an entire meal. Boiled or stewed cassava leaves, stewed tofu, fried fish, and rice make up the majority of my diet. There is something else, however. Something all dieters and health-conscious people should try once or twice and then try to avoid in order to prevent gaining weight. It is gorengan, which means “fried” or “deep fried”. Everything is deep fried. Battered Tofu, battered tempe (a type of tofu), battered cassava leaves, battered cassava itself, even battered bread is deep fried and served as a side of a meal or as a daily snack. You can find this everywhere for less than a US nickel. Chicken, duck, and fish are also fried and are extremely popular with tourists and nationals alike. It is difficult to eat health-consciously. I’m avoiding a lot of rice and gorengan and sticking with the fruit and green veggies to help me shed some pounds, since I am gemuk (fat).
Do not visit Indonesia without trying bakso. It’s extremely popular with adults and kids alike. It consists of chicken meatballs, chicken broth, green leaves of some kind, diced cucumber, a variety of spicy and sweet sauces, and ramen noodles. It is delicious and probably one of my most favorite things so far.
The fruit here is wonderful although intimidating. While I am an adventurous eater, I am terrified of eating the local favorite: durian. Also known here as the “king of fruits”, it is large, spiky, and secretes an ominous odor. It is banned in many places inAsia, making it very intriguing to many tourists and beloved by many nationals and tourists alike. Upon cutting it open (with a small hatchet, I think) you will see the flesh of the fruit along with pockets filled with the edible part of the fruit. It is very slimy and, I’m assuming, sticky. It looks a bit like small squishy onions inside a pale melon. I have not tried it yet, but you can be sure I will soon, inshAllah.
My favorite fruits here are rambutan, pisang (small, tropical bananas), and salak (snake-fruit). They grow in abundance and are very sweet and good for you. Rambutan is especially tasty. It is a golf-ball-sized, round, bright red fruit that grows in bunches on trees. It has long black hairs that grow out of it that only make it look sharp and spiky. You have to pierce the flesh of the fruit and tear off the red skin. Inside is a wet, sticky, white, grape-like fruit with a large pit in the middle. It’s kind of like eating a prehistoric cherry. Delicious!
The bananas here are small, cute, fresh, yellow and brown, and addicting as all get out. That is all.
Salak is a different story. Its smell is reminiscent of sickly sweet body odor or something biological in a sense. The skin of the fruit is like snake skin, hence the name; snake-fruit. Salak grows on the bottom of the snake-fruit tree, near the soil. It also grows in bunches. After tearing the skin off, you’ll find the fruit can be split into sections like an orange. The meat of the fruit is an interesting combination of juicy and dry and inside each section is a large, brown, marble-sized pit. It’s actually pretty good once you get past the smell.
Anyway, that’s part 1 of things I’ve gotten used to here in Indonesia. More to come soon.
Sampai jumpa, teman saya!