Tag Archives: Travel

So what’s the deal with…

Having lived in Indonesian for nine months here few things I have yet to full understand about everyday life here:

Why do my nails and hair grow so much quicker here? There definitely and answer for this somewhere on the internet but I kind of like the mystery,

Why are there so many employees just standing around at the grocery stores? Seriously, there are always about three-times as many staff as there needs to be and none of them seem to be doing anything 90% of the time.

Why are drivers so terrible here? If you only knew Indonesians from the way they drove, you’d think they’re the rudest, most inconsiderate, and clueless people in the world. Fortunately none of these things are even remotely true but driving here is a nightmare. For example drivers of both cars and motorbikes rarely look when entering traffic and it’s not infrequent for cars to just turn around in the middle of the street. Which begs the question…

How are there not more traffic accidents here? Ok, so I did see a dead body in the middle of the bypass (main road), a while back, and when there are accidents they’re usually pretty bloody (motorbike vs. car never ends well for the former) but drive here for more than five minutes and it becomes clear that there should be more crashes, accidents, bumps, etc. than there are.

Why is always so hot here? Because we’re so close to the equator, I know, so this is more a rhetorical complaint than anything else…

Why do people here hose off their driveway/street? Come mid-afternoon (sore) people just walk around with a hose to wet any paved area they can find. My first guess is that they’re trying to clean but I’m not sure it really accomplishes that. My second guess is to cool it down (see above).

Why is it cool to have contraptions attached to your muffler that make an absurd amount of noise? Funny story about this one, apparently there was a recent traffic stop in Denpasar where the police were making whoever had one of these get down on their knees and put their ear next to the muffler. Maybe this is a bit cruel but I think the amount of nose these things make is equally atrocious so the bastards deserve anything they get (or lose, as in hearing).

Why do people living here wear sweatshirts in the middle of the day? I guess they might be used to the heat but still let me reiterate how hot it is here… Really hot. And on the same train of thought…

Why do people prefer hot drinks to cold ones? This confuses the hell out of me. I try and drink everything with ice except for a morning coffee but it’s extremely common here to have hot tea with a meal. Bananaland…

There are certainly more, but since I can’t think of any right now I’ll leave them for another time. The mysteries of life here are never-ending…

Highlights and Lowlights from an Indonesian Awayday

This was going to be my post last week but Sidd’s death while I was away obviously took precedent.

If you’ve been following my work over the past several months, there is one subject that I’ve written about more than any other: Indonesian football. Last weekend I was away with a group of fellow Bali United supporters (aka Semeton Dewata) on the first leg of their quarterfinal tie with Arema Cronus, the team from Malang in East Java. I’m not going to go too in depth because I’ll hopefully be putting together a larger piece for publication elsewhere in the not-too-distant future. But I still thought I’d share some highlights and lowlights. We’ll start with the latter.

Lowlights:

  • 25+ hours on a bus. We left Friday evening and drove through the night. Malang is somewhere between an 11- and 13-hour drive away and on a bus where the seats are frankly not made for 6-foot-4 (and a half) gentlemen, that’s a long ride. I ended up sleeping on the floor for a couple hours. My travelling companion (who was also too large for the seats) and I were hoping to get some sleep but rather than a quiet and restful environment and in addition the cramped quarters, Indonesian karaoke music was blaring until around 3am. The ride back was somewhat more subdued but longer (around 14 hours).

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    Travel-buddy Brant and a group from the bus. The one giving me the middle finger is Gus. He’s calling me a “stupid fruit” which is his favorite compliment He’s also the leader of the entire supporters group.

  • Bali United lost 2-1. And played poorly. Arema’s stadium is a pretty intimidating environment and United fielded a young squad but their defense was disorganized and their midfield got pushed around. When they had possession they did use their width well but they’re going to have to play much better in their home leg this evening if they’re going to advance.

Highlights: 

  • Malang is a cool city in more ways than one. The city sits in the East Javanese highlands and apart from the middle of the day, the temperature is perfect. Because of this cooler highland climate, the city was popular among the colonial Dutch as an escape from the unending heat of Surabaya – a major port a couple hours to the north – and so it is well-planned with wide tree-lined boulevards and art-deco buildings that are older than the Indonesian nation.

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    The main roundabout in Malang. Cars look funny in panorama.

  • Bali United only lost 2-1 and they scored an away goal.
    The three goals reported in a local paper. The third goal was basically this guy Samsul waltz his way through half the United defense.

    The three goals reported in a local paper. The third goal was basically this guy Samsul waltz his way through half the United defense.

    In truth it could’ve been much worse. Despite United taking the lead through a 66th minute penalty, Arema looked the more dangerous team throughout and hit the post more than once. Because of the away goal, Bali United only need to win 1-0 to advance to the semifinals.

  • Joining in the Semeton Dewata cheering section. Ok so maybe ‘joining’ isn’t exactly the correct word since I didn’t actually do much singing. The words were in Indonesian and I’m not one for going too gila. It also seemed like the Semeton Dewata were
    The Semeton Dewata arrive at Stadion Kanjuruhan.

    The Semeton Dewata arrive at Stadion Kanjuruhan.

    more interested in their chants than the actual gameplay, which is what I really wanted to see. Still, between the constant beat of drums from our corner and watching the 20,000+ members of Aremania perform their own chants across the pitch, it was definitely an experience.

After that bus trip, you better believe I’ll be making the hour ride up to Stadion Kapten Dipta for the decider this evening. I’ll make sure to keep you updated.

Ubud is Brooklyn

It’s always dangerous to compare places, especially when they’re 10,000 miles away and have entirely different histories, societies and politics, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Ubud is the Brooklyn of Bali.

I feel confident making this analogy because, while I came up with it on the fly while having a coffee in a really cool warung kopi called Tutmak, I actually had to articulate it on the spot to two people who know Ubud relatively well (certainly better than I do) and who ended up at least agreeing with the premise.

Tutmak sits on the northeast corner of an impressively long football pitch-cum-park in the middle of Ubud and while its rear looks out over the pitch, the front faces Jalan Diwisita, one of the town’s narrow roads that is lined with restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s got three different levels and platforms where you sit on pillows (which isn’t as rare as it might sound). In other words, it’s a cool spot. There are lots of cool spots in Ubud just like there are lots of cool spots in Brooklyn but really that’s just the most facile parallel.

Both the origin stories of Ubud and Brooklyn’s current generation of coolness began around the same time. Vice moved to Brooklyn in 1999 and has since made billions as both the mouthpiece and id of the hipster (my) generation. A few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert ended her memoir-inducing year of travel in Ubud where she found the conclusion to what would be Eat, Pray, Love and made the village destination for self-seekers.

Now neither Vice nor Gilbert invented their locales, but I don’t think I’m giving them too much credit when label them as progenitors to a movement; the flag to which others have rallied. I would not be surprised if there was a strong correlation between housing prices in BK and the number of foreign tourists that arrived in Ubud.

And here, as a good friend of mine would say, is the rub. Brooklyn and Ubud are (were?) cool because they don’t (didn’t) have the Wall Street types or expensive rents and don’t (didn’t) have resorts or bused-in-tourists. Both have fallen victim to the paradox of attracting the very things whose absence made them attractive in the first place.

But Brooklyn and Ubud are still there. Despite all the hipster-nostalgia that says they aren’t what they used to be, they are still unique and cool and hip and fun. There’s a quote from HST that I posted a couple days ago and I think it’s relevant here:

“San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.”

Neither Brooklyn nor Ubud will have the political or social power that came from the San Francisco of Thompson and Kesey and Garcia, but maybe in five years, or six, maybe a lifetime or a main era, we’ll be able to look back at Brooklyn and Ubud with a sense of nostalgia, as places where some special things happened.

Also, Sanur is Queens.

If they catch me at the border, I’ve got visas in my name

If you have spent an extended amount of time in a foreign country, there is a word that is will likely send shivers down your spine: visa. Living, let alone working, in a country whose passport you don’t own is can be a huge pain in the ass because of arcane bits of immigration law and byzantine bureaucracies (which is kind of a repetitive phrase, historically speaking). Now, I’ve already stated my opinion on immigration in conclusion to a blog post a couple months back. I said then that I was leaning much more towards the libertarian, laissez-faire, freedom-of-movement camp and now I can confirm I have arrived in said camp and pitched a tent. There was no single event that precipitated this conclusion. Rather it’s been a months-long albatross of worry and contemplation over what to do with ­Imigrasi Indonesia.

As with many areas of Indonesian public policy, laws regarding immigration are often changing and inconsistently enforced. I’ve heard tell of a man who lived in-country for twenty years on successive tourist visas without ever being deported. I’m not going to take that chance. After several months on successive “Visa(s)-on-Arrival” (aka VOA’s or a tourist visas), which means flying out of the country for a night or two every 60 days, for my next renewal (in September) I will need to come up with something different. But here’s where it gets complicated.

First of all, I will need to decide which visa to apply for. The “KITAS”, which is a full working visa, is unlikely. It’s expensive and involved and you need your employer to sponsor you. Then there’s the Sosial/Budaya (Social/Cultural) Visa, which allows you to stay for up to a year but does not allow you to work. This is the most likely choice because I won’t ever be getting paid in Indonesia directly, at least for the foreseeable future, and it is relatively simple to acquire. Finally, there is the business visa. Similar to the budaya in length, it allows you to “do business” in Indonesia, but has some opaque restrictions that I have yet to comprehend. It also requires you to leave the country every 60 days to renew it.

As I’m sure you’ve gather by now, the minutiae of immigration isn’t particularly interesting, yet in the ex-pat community it is a constant topic of conversation. Message boards and Facebook groups are rife with agencies offering their services and newcomers asking for advice. To a degree, I understand the political psychology behind Indonesia’s hesitancy to allow in a flood of bulés. Indonesia is for Indonesians first and foremost and behind that philosophy there is a strong strain of nationalism/patriotism with roots in the Indonesian Revolution. As an American, I can only commiserate. But as much as anti-immigration rhetoric and policy is hurting the US economy, it is maiming Indonesia’s. There was even talk earlier this year of requiring Indonesian language skills for KITAS applicants. Fortunately that law was never passed, but in a (for better or worse) global economy it’s unfortunate that a country so far below its economic and development potential would handicap itself with unnecessary regulations.

While rumors of more stringent regulations abound (it’s hard to tell which are true and which are just the complaints of expats), there is some hope. As has frequently been the case of late, it comes from President Jokowi who has opened up visa-free travel to a number of new nations, including the US and UK. For all you who are thinking to come visit, that means you can stay for 30 days without paying a $35 visa fee. So at least there’s that.

Use a Condiment

I’m going to try and get through this without too many puns and references to a certain And1 player but I can’t promise anything. I want to talk to you today about a particular and highly developed section of Indonesian cuisine: sambal. Really the direct translation of sambal, condiment, doesn’t do its Indonesian equivalent much justice, nor does the often-synonymous term, ‘sauce’.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word condiment? Probably ketchup, which is actually germane since the word originates with the Indonesian-Malay word kecap[i] – originally a pickled fish sauce from China – that was brought to the American colonies by English sailors in the 18th century. Then there’s mustard and pickle relish and even HP sauce for those partial to Anglo cuisine[ii]. You might go so far as to include hot sauces or their erstwhile opponent, mayonnaise. You would have to include all of these, their varieties, and more to approach the breadth and value of sambal to the Indonesian kitchen.

I’m going to admit right here that I am not an expert on sambal and to write in any sort of real depth on the subject requires a good deal more education and/or experience than I have. I will say this; sambal is some delicious shit. Most frequently sambal is tomato-based but only in the loosest of terms because really it’s more pepper, hot peppers, spicy peppers, extremely spicy and hot peppers, than anything else. Then there’s probably some garlic, maybe onions and definitely oil and salt that give sambal’s spiciness a great depth of flavor. Everything is ground, traditionally with mortar and pestle, then simmered and left to cool.

But I only just described one type of sambal. There are dozens of types and then thousands or millions of recipes because every ibu worth her weight in salt has her own special recipe, or seven, with each tailored to whatever dish she is serving. I say ibu[iii], but men and even bulés are known to cook sambal. Yes, I’ve tried my hand at it, twice, and I wasn’t unsuccessful either time.

Frying almost completely blind (I’m sorry), I bought some tomatoes and peppers, collected the spicy little green buggers that warungs give out with gorengan (fried food), grabbed a couple cloves of garlic and then threw in some elbow grease (mortar and pestles aren’t for weak). The result was an overly-chunky version that went pretty well with on an egg sandwich.

With obscure hot sauces like Sriracha becoming vogue, if not passé, I think the Western foodie market is ripe for a new edition to the condiment pantheon. Why not a product that literally means condiment in another language? So let this be the official call for investors in my latest venture: Semawang Sambal™.

[i] ‘C’ is always pronounced with a ‘ch’ here.

[ii] I’m not going to get into the trans-Atlantic debate about ketchup being called ‘tomato sauce’ or even more absurdly ‘red sauce’ nor the ketchup-catsup debacle.

[iii] Ibu is translated directly mother but is more frequently used to mean ma’am or Mrs.

Fear and Loathing in Indonesian Toilets

The following is a conversation I had at a futsal tournament, last weekend:

Bule teammate of mine: “This is a pretty nasty story, but I just took my first Bali shit.”

Me, fearing the worst: “What do you mean?”

Bule teammate: “Like there wasn’t any toilet paper in the bathroom, so I had to use the spray thing. Never used that before so I had to ask one of the kids how to use it. [Insert attempted demonstration] I’m not sure I did it right but it did the job.”

It went on from there with me recovering from my initial concerns and surprised that this was his first “Bali shit”. He’s been here longer than me, but I guess has been able to time his moments better than me. Still, I could relate. When there are drastic alterations to something as personally mundane as visiting the restroom and when you are unfamiliar with the apparatus in front of, or underneath you, there is a certain amount of fear.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Indonesian bathrooms is in their variety. In my limited experience, there are at least seven or eight different articulations of receptacle, each with its own accouterments and cleansing devices. For someone raised on the simple urinal-toilet dichotomy, with the rare trough thrown in during more public scenarios, this variety and complexity can lead to awkwardly long visits and even more uncomfortable questions to Indonesian friends and/or significant others.

Equally confounding is the frequent insistence, in the not uncommon occurrence of the standard western apparatus, that toilet paper not be flushed down the bowl. This is often communicated through a conveniently placed sign, which – in the case of more solid events – is met with the following line of reasoning; “Doesn’t toilet paper disintegrate in water?” and since one doesn’t want to take that chance, “Ok then what do I do with it? Surely not in the wastepaper basket in the corner…” To which on sees no alternative and comes to the conclusion, “Yes, in the wastepaper basket in the corner.”

There are a few things that I have yet to crack and one of them is the bucket full of water and accompanied by a floating ladle. I have a good idea about its purpose but won’t begin to contemplate the specifics let alone take it for a test drive. There’s also the hose with spray nozzle that is strategically placed in most restrooms. The hose’s fundamental use is undeniable, but its very existence raises the conundrum of spray direction (from the front or back), the debate of which was included in the extended version of the conversation that began this post.

Many of these confusions revolve around a simple but fundamental difference between the way westerners and Indonesians understand sanitation. While for the bule, a wipe is sufficient to feel clean and comfy, for the Indonesian, a wash is needed. When it’s put like that, things start to fall into place and one realizes that they honestly have a point.

Indonesian food is delicious but is often dangerously spicy, even to the point of infamy. Here on the Island of the Gods, it’s been given a name: “Bali Belly”. I’ll forgo the details but say only that when afflicted, bathrooms that one can comprehend and feel comfortable in are a valuable resource. And this is where fear can very quickly turn to loathing.

Google Maps is in Benoa Bay: Let’s hope they aren’t telling the future

So after a two-week break for a graduation trip to Southern California, Semawang Stories is back with some potentially breaking news: it looks like Google Maps may have just capitulated to a group of developers that are attempting to run roughshod over an area of Balinese wetlands.

Here’s the backstory: since around 2012 a group of developers led by a man named Tomy Winata has been pushing to develop an area of Bali called Benoa Bay. The plan is to reclaim an area of mangrove swamp and open water between Bali’s urbanized cities of Denpasar and Kuta to the North and West and the resort area of Nusa Dua to the south. According to a report in The Guardian from late last year, once developed, the new land would play host to “villas, apartments, luxury hotels, a Disneyland-style theme park and even a Formula One racing circuit.” The Guardian piece goes on to say that proponents of the deal, including Bali’s governor claim all this will bring jobs and allow for development not on Bali’s already strained arable land.

The development has also succeeded in obtaining a permit from Bali’s governor and a 2014 Presidential Decree revoking the bay’s protected status from out-going President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, aka SBY. SBY also happens to be a “close personal” friend of Tomy Winata, the developer and alleged member of the “Nine Dragons” crime syndicate, who reportedly financed the President’s election campaign in 2009.

But despite all those potential jobs, new and fun-sounding attractions, and edicts from political bigwigs, a group of pesky protestors has let their dissatisfaction known with what they’re calling an opaque decision-making process and pending environmental disaster if the project goes forward. Disputing a environmental impact study that projected minimal consequences for filling in 800-plus hectares of mangrove swamp and shallow tidal water including coral reef that acts as a drainage basin for the most densely populated area of the island, the Tolak Reklamasi (Reject Reclamation) campaign led by a group called ForBali has held numerous rallies and protests whose voice has reached to both Jakarta and Washington D.C. ForBali, short for Forum Rakyat Bali Tolak Reklamasi, is not to be trifled with. The organization counts among its members community leaders, artists and musicians including one of the archipelago’s leading bands, punk group Superman is Dead.

So far, Benoa Bay remains unclaimed, that is except for the toll road interchange that has driven hundreds of pylons into the sandy bottom. And on Google Maps. As you can see in the images below, on the “Map” version the northern most portion of the bay has already been reclaimed which is in direct contrast to the “Earth” version in which the toll road clearly cuts through water (albeit shallow). Semawang Stories’ highly skilled graphics team has highlighted the area in red to make it clear. Your correspondent has reached out to Google (seriously) and at time of publication has yet to have heard back.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 11.35.15 AM Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 12.03.13 PM

Now there may very well be an innocent explanation for this (and your correspondent will make sure to update you if he hears back from Google) but the timing of this change (to this Bali resident’s knowledge it wasn’t there a couple weeks ago) could be telling. The development project has cleared all the bureaucratic obstacles necessary and even some of those from a higher plateau. Rumor has it that several of Bali’s priests were paid the not quite lofty sum of Rp150,000 (about $11.30) for their blessing of the project. Without a halt to the project from the desk of President Joko Widodo himself, construction could begin as soon as later this summer (in the northern hemisphere) on what looks like something straight out of Dubai.

To put this project in even more context, Bali has struggled for years to balance the paradoxes that exist between its image of a paradise on Earth and the rampant development that has left the southern part of the island a densely populated urban mass that sprawls further into its surrounding open space and agricultural land with every villa, hotel, and furniture store that is built. While this new project would center a good deal of construction on an area that is not land, the very real potential for flooding into the neighborhoods of Denpasar and introduction of even more waste into an area that is already swimming in garbage (literally, yr. correspondent has swum past a diaper, plastic bottles, trash bags, etc.) would be beyond tragic. As for Google, let’s hope all that data they’re gathering hasn’t made them prescient.