Monthly Archives: July 2010

Indonesian Food

DSC07935(Nasi Campur – roasted peanuts, fried coconut, marinated egg, beef sate, tempeh, fried tofu, aromatic vegetables with coriander, roasted jack fruit, spiced chicken, rice and prawn crackers)

This is by no means an exhaustive dispatch on Indonesian cuisine, just food we have encountered on our trip that didn’t make it into other posts.  By-the-way, please check out the food blogs of two of my friends; best friend Amy Halloran’s Home Economics and uber good friend Dan Hobbs’ The Hobbs Digest  Both really great.

Indonesia is intensively agricultural.  Hand-planted and harvested rice fields abound, but we have also encountered cassava and papaya groves, strawberry, tea and sugar cane plantations.  Coconut trees are everywhere and families will often have a jack fruit or other fruit tree planted near the house.  The global economy may be having its effect, however.  Pak Nur told us of a sugar processing center in Surabaya that can’t beat the low price of imported sugar and will likely shut down.

 DSC00667DSC07820 DSC02414 DSC06744(Eggs; rice fields; a bovine angkot; truck loaded with sugar cane)

The Market


DSC07777DSC06488   Pasars (Indonesian for market) are everywhere.  A row of batik-clad old women squat in a row, their products in baskets in front of them – stall after stall after stall carrying fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, spices, even batik and cell phones.  “How can they all make a living,” Kian wondered. “They are so poor but have so much dignity it makes it even more heartbreaking.” 

DSC07771(Woman cutting jack fruit at the market in Ubud, Bali.)

DSC07750DSC05596  DSC07772(Spices; shallots in Muntilan, Java; suckling pig in Bali.)


DSC05592  (Bananas, pineapple, watermelon, salak (snakefruit), papaya)

“Why can’t you just appreciate the new flavor of a fruit instead of trying to compare it to a fruit you already  know?”  Kian uttered this sage pronouncement after I classified the novel jambu air as a cross of apple and asian pear.

DSC02965DSC02966(Jambu air)

DSC00666DSC00665DSC07770DSC07904(Passion fruit, jackfruit, jackfruit cut open, Kian with green coconuts)

One of the most beautiful fruits I have seen is the mangosteen. It’s woody exterior and dried leaves must be smashed open to get the fruit inside.  I have yet to taste one – this had been sitting in the hotel room too long as was rotten inside.

DSC07570DSC07879DSC00664                     (Mangosteen; coconut open for drinking; salak (snakefruit))

While walking around some rice fields near Ubud, a guy, probably in his late fifties, with a sarong-dressed woman walked past.  The woman pointed to a palm tree and the man kicked off his flip-flops and shimmied up the slender, branchless trunk.  He got up about thirty feet and started throwing coconuts down into a rice paddy.  The woman collected them and asked if we would like to buy one.  For about $1 she chopped the top off and gave it to us to drink.  When the coconut water was gone she chopped the top open and carved a little spoon from the husk for us to scoop out the tender flesh.  The woman said that she used to be a model for painters Affandi and Bonnet, but she had gotten too fat for modeling.  Now she worked the rice fields and the owners let her collect and sell coconuts.



(Banana flower; banana babies; banana varieties for sale; longan)

Thailand breeds what is considered a perfect, consistent durian (pic below).  Kian’s friend Ianpin is crazy for Medan durian precisely because it is imperfect.  “You might get three that are horrible, but when you get an amazing one – wow.”  Durian is known for its peculiar smell, something like rotted brussel sprouts.  “Smells like hell, tastes like heaven,” Kian likes to say.  Traditional wisdom holds that eating durian and drinking alcohol is a surefire mix for a stroke.  I scoffed at this until Kian’s friend Nelly said her father-in-law drank a glass of wine after eating the spiny fruit and ended up in coronary care.   DSC00663 

Eating Out


From street vendors with push carts to small roadside stands to the fanciest of restaurants, the diversity of prepared foods in Indonesia is dizzying.  We tried to steer clear of street vendors and every so often we hit a restaurant with too many flies.  But on the whole, the eating experience has been magnificent.


DSC07399DSC07402(Lontong balap; Pak Nur drinking tea; the lontong)

One special dish is lontong balap, available in only one restaurant in Surabaya.  Pak Nur introduced us to the hole-in-the-wall where the dish was invented in 1913.  To make lontong, you wrap rice in a banana leaf and boil it for three hours.  The result is an unsweetened, glutinous rice cake with a consistency of polenta.  The cook cuts the lontong and mixes it with broth, fried tofu, falafel and bean sprouts, all to order in front of you. He place a couple strips of clam sate on the side and plops in on the counter.   If you order an iced drink,  he shaves the ice block by hand. 


The restaurant is near the “red bridge” where allied general Mallaby (of England) was killed during Indonesia’s fight for independence.  The assassination sparked retribution by the allies who were trying to reoccupy Indonesia for the Dutch.  The site saw some of Surabaya’s heaviest fighting.

DSC06944   Kian found a Bakwan restaurant across the street from our hotel in Surabaya.  Bakwan, invented in Surabaya by ethnic Chinese, consists of several varieties of meatball, sausage  and shrimp soup.  The meat comes in various shapes and sizes – using tendon, chicken intestine, meat stuffed tofu, your choice of fried or boiled.  It’s all surprisingly tender.  There is also a lot of pork, which is not generally eaten by the Muslim population.  Along the wall of the restaurant is a big scale so you can see how the food has changed you.



Duto Birdvit brought us to one branch of the Mrs. Suharti’s ayam goreng (fried chicken) chain in Solo.  Mrs. Suharti, the story goes, was soaking in a river as part of an ancient Javanese spiritual ritual.  After hours in the brisk waters, it came to her.  Open a chain of fried chicken restaurants.


DSC02625DSC02624(Suharti chicken with cabbage and green beans; krecek, cow skin soup, a typical dish of Jawa Tengah (central Java))

I had several amazing hot ginger drinks, called wedang ronde.  Surabayan wedang ronde consists of hot ginger broth with mung beans, peanuts, rice, bread and nata de coco, a Filipino invention that uses bacteria to convert coconut water to a jelly.



The version of the drink from Sundanese Bandung in West Java uses peanuts encased in colorful glutinous rice balls.  Other drinks that will knock your socks off are avocado with chocolate, sirsak juice, papaya juice and cassava boiled with palm sugar (made for us by Sri at her bamboo house.)



Lesehan dining sits you on the floor of a raised platform, like Japanese tatami style.  This kind of dining is very popular and it is fun to sit barefoot around the low table.  This restaurant in the mountains near the Mount Merapi volcano sported leopard print bamboo with an easy jazz version of Michael Jackson… “the doggone gir-rl is mine…”

 DSC05462DSC05484  Fried ikan (fish) lunch

DSC07203DSC02114  Kolnenek (snails), beef ball soup

The snails have to be sucked out hard from the shell.  If you don’t have a good air lock forget it.  We ate them with Pak Nur’s family at a swanky restaurant in the suburbs of Surabaya. 

More assorted foods below.  Check out the sambal ribs.

   DSC02883  Gurami fish grilled with vegetables and spices

   DSC07933         DSC06597

  DSC07723         DSC06596(Gado gado; salted fish; fish ball soup; grilled prawns)

 DSC00691DSC04971(Javanese herbal tonics; cow skin cracker delivery truck)

  DSC07556DSC07548 DSC07539         

Pak Nur and Pak Tarjo enjoy beef ribs in sambal (hot chili paste).  The plate is first rubbed with the sambal and the ribs are placed on top.  Served with lime and roasted onions.

   DSC06604                           Lunch buffet

DSC05653    Bicycle food vendor

OK – now that you are hungry, go eat something good!  I will write soon about our adventure in the rugged outpost of Madura last Sunday – racing bulls, revolvers and a rowdy gamelan band.  Stay tuned.



Filed under 3-6 Indonesian Food

Pak Nur – From Poor Orphan to Haji Bird Farmer



I am so happy you are here!”

We were headed to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city and then on to the rough and rugged outpost island of Madura for our second perkutut competition.  We didn’t know we were in for unrivaled hospitality, ‘executive’ karaoke and a drawing for racing cows.

We booked “executive class” on the train from Jogjakarta, (a whopping $15 each).  Move over Amtrak, this was service.  Red caps carried our luggage into the car and stowed it for us. As the train pulled out, porters offered hot soup, nasi rames (rice with side dishes) and cassava chips.  A little girl poked her head between the seats, winking and grinning at me.  We played winking and grinning on and off over the course of the ride.  The train passed bright green rice nurseries, teak plantations, cassava and papaya orchards, and lots of little villages.  With evening we saw clouds obscuring distant mountain tops and little wisps of smoke coming from the darkening fields. 


We had met Pak Nur at the Solo competition and he offered to pick us up in Surabaya and bring us to the perkutut competition in Madura.  He and his friend Pak Tarjo met us at the very modern Surabaya train station and we packed our big suitcases into his daughter’s Ford Focus.  On a little video screen next to the driver, the latest music videos played.  We drove to a fancy fish restaurant and he ordered several gurami, some fried, some grilled – easily the best fish I’ve eaten. 


Pak Nur exudes joyful energy.  He always smiles (except for pictures, which seems a national trait, I find myself  saying  “cheese” repeatedly.)  Over dinner Pak Nur told us about his trip to Mecca two years earlier.  He and his wife were able to book the “executive Haj” as the regular quota allowed by Saudi Arabia had been filled for the next five years.  Over the next few days we would never see Haji Nur without kopiah on his head and he rarely missed prayer times.  At dinner Pak Nur looked at both and said, “I am so happy you are here!  It makes my heart warm!” He put his hands together and gave a little bow.  What a welcome!

He insisted on paying for everything and offered to have us stay at his house.  We thanked him but were feeling the need to have a home base to charge batteries, do logging and administration and blogging.  The Hotel Satelit sported a hodge-podge of Chinese furniture carved from massive teak roots, a dopey-eyed American chef sculpture advertising the 24-hour coffee shop and meeting rooms named alternately after Roman gods and astrological symbols.  On a large boat hanging from the center of the lobby are printed the words “Let’s Archipelago".  I have no idea what it means…

Pak Nur said he would pick us up at 6:15 the next morning (this is an early country) and at 5:45 the phone rang letting us know he was in the lobby. 


We drove through a trendy neighborhood of Surabaya, called Citraland, the Singapore of Surabaya and after some twists and turns arrived at the Cendana Bird Farm run by Pak Nur.  Cendana (sandalwood) gave birth to Beauty, the number one ranked perkutut in Indonesia owned by Pak Gunawan but trained by Pak Sukur in Sidoajo (home of the mud volcano.)

The plan was to get to the bird farm before his neighbor started house construction to record clean audio of the perkutut.  Audio has been a problem for us in Indonesia – between motorbikes, street vendors playing Casio renditions of the Godfather theme song and the call to prayer  – audio had been tough.  We got to his place, a large house with an sprawling indoor fountain and the farm built out onto patios and balconies.  After half-an-hour of recording his neighbor starting hammering.  “He’s starting early today,” Pak Nur said.

Pak Nur told us how his parents had died when he was 12 and as a child he earned money as a caller for angkot, a van fitted with a side door (that always stays open) and benches along the sides.  For every full van (14 passengers), he earned one fare as a commission. We took a quick visit to his old workplace.  He heartily shook everyone’s hand at the station.  “A lot of thugs here,” he commented. “You have to be very nice to them.”  He paid for his own schooling, riding free on pick-up truck to school.


He eventually earned a college degree at a night school and worked for his friend, a contractor for Lapindo Brantas, the oil drilling company.   Eventually, with capital supplied by friends, he won a bid at Lapindo to supply and manage their oil-trucking fleet.   Penniless when he won the contract, he had friends come with their computers to a rented office to convince  a Lapindo inspector they were a bona fide operation.  Money was better until the Sidoarjo mud volcano started.  Nur was asked to build dykes, but  Lapindo delayed payments and business became stressful.   Pak Nur went back to school for a Magister Management degree.   Eventually his wife mentioned that since he went abroad for management training he had stopped raising perkutut and she missed their songs.  Pak Nur took her to Thailand to shop for birds and came back with a bunch.  That was three years ago.

His Cendana bird farm produced the top Indonesian champion Beauty which he sold for a low $200.  He smiled when he told it.  The bird has brought his operation so much acclaim that the low price doesn’t bother him. 


(Pak Nur with Bagio, a worker on the farm)

On the second day with Pak Nur he invited us to his mosque at prayer time.  Kian grew up in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, but had never been in a mosque.  I hadn’t either.  We went to a modern Muhammadiyah mosque, the organization that had just celebrated its 100-year anniversary.   The next day Pak Nur would bring us to the sprawling Grand Mosque (the largest mosque in East Java)  for the very important Friday prayer.


DSC06871 DSC06873

We finished at the mosque and then Pak Nur took us to see the mud volcano and to visit the Prisma Bird Farm.  

Prisma Bird Farm


Pak Nur had been helping a new startup bird farm called Prisma, located in Sidoarjo.  The young owners started the farm after one of them, Heri,  had a dream that he had been given two singing doves.  His relative Wahyu was interested and, boom, they started a bird farm.  Wahyu works in marketing for Toyota and they decided on a Toyota theme for the farm.  Birds are named Camry, Corolla and Rav-4. 


Living near the mud volcano they plan to follow what Pak Nur calls the four P’s of business – product, price, place and promotion.  They plan to move from the shadow of the mud volcano into Surabaya, to improve the third P.

The guys were really sweet and offered us coconuts when we arrived.  I had gotten an email through the blog a few weeks before from Prisma.  Heri was trying to research perkutut in America and came across the blog.  I told him there was no perkutut competition in America that I knew of and he said he hopes we can introduce it there. 

Heri and Wahyu were planning to compete in Madura in a few days.  More on that soon. 

Assorted Pics

DSC06563 DSC06547

DSC06846  DSC06866

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Filed under 3-5 Pak Nur

The Earth Bleeds Mud


If you want a glimpse of the apocalypse visit the Lapindo mud volcano in Sidoarjo south of Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya.  BP could have learned about unplugged holes from the Lapindo Oil Company which is solely responsible for one of the archipelago’s biggest environmental disasters.

In 2006 engineers from Lapindo drilled for oil in a plateau bordering the volcanic Mount Penanggungan.  They drilled and drilled and found no oil.  But they did not plug the holes back up.  Soon after, the ground collapsed around one of the drilling sites and out of the massive crater bubbled volcanic mud.  The mud graduated from bubble to eruption as tons upon tons of boiling liquid earth exploded from inside the ground.  The muddy porridge soon filled the crater and began advancing on nearby villages.  Villagers were given two days to evacuate, though many, reading the Earth’s signs, had left already.  New craters started forming, swallowing houses and releasing sulfuric gas.


The government started building an emergency dyke around the mud flow.  Earth movers worked day and night and soon a towering ring wall encased the mud.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

But the mud soon filled the giant bowl formed by the dyke and like a poison chocolate pudding the mud flowed over the steep walls.  The first village fell and then the next.  A new dyke was quickly constructed.  It failed.  Another concentric ring was built enclosing several more villages.  The mud kept advancing, rolling over every new dyke.  Eight rings would be built over the next four years, holding in a 21 meter high sea of hot mud that covers 12,000 hectares.   In all, 16 villages would be consumed.

And the mud keeps coming. 

Our host, Pak Nur, was once a contractor at the site and drove us to have a look.  The original toll highway had been buried under the mud and one now approaches on a congested dirt highway.  We parked along the road and a man offered to be our “car guard”.  We stepped carefully through a muddy path and across wooden planks and the railroad tracks, which had collapsed and had been rebuilt.   Pak Nur warned that under the road stores of natural gas gathered and there was a risk of explosion at any time.



Several men wearing bandanas over their faces (I presume for the dust, but it did make them look intimidating) stopped us to collect a fee to ascend the stairs of the dyke.  Nur said that they were former villagers trying to make some money from visitors to the site.  Fair enough, I thought.  We paid and started up the 21-meter high dyke. 



Sulfur fumes and dust circulate at the edge of the lake.  In the distance a giant plume of smoke masks the bubbling mud.  Though this has been going on for years, there is a feeling of urgency to the site.  Heavy machinery moves up and down the dyke road, and between the wind, noise, dust and village refugees it is a very unsettling place. Pak Nur found us someone to take us around the dyke on motorbikes.  Pak Romly had been hawking DVDs of the disaster and said he had lived in a village, “about there…” he said as he indicated the middle of the mud lake. 


I got on Pak Romley’s bike and Pak Nur and Kian shared another bike as we started our tour around the mud.  The tops of large factory buildings were still visible and as we turned a corner we saw a field of white walls standing like gravestones. 


Pak Romly explained that villagers had demolished their own houses, carting away roof tiles and wall blocks to hopefully rebuild somewhere else.  This site was just on the outside of the dyke, but it seemed only a matter of time before the mud would cover it.  Compensation, Pak Romly explained, was based on having a “certified” house.  After four years “certified” owners (likely the minority) have gotten only 20% compensation.  Others, without the certification, get nothing.

DSC06671 DSC06674

In a temporary (possibly permanent) solution, the mud is now mixed with water and pumped into the nearby river, which flows to the sea.  Refugee camps surround the dyke and people reportedly have been sticking pipes into the ground to retrieve gas for cooking.  They light the gas coming out of the pipe and there have been several explosions from the practice. 

I managed to hold the video camera high above my head as we cruised around on the motorbike to get the panorama.  We approached a gate and Pak Romley crawled under, a security guard drove up and said we couldn’t go to the place where the mud was bubbling because it was too late in the day.  (Apparently it is no problem earlier. This would be totally off-limits in the US.)

DSC06687 DSC06688


(Sign: Beware, Danger! 1. Poisonous gas from center of eruption,  2. Slippery dyke can cause landslides, 3.  Hot mud, 4. Dry mud acts like quicksand)

DSC06702 DSC06713 DSC06723  DSC06689 DSC06705

(Pak Nur surveys the mud filled street of a doomed village.  Five mosques had closed because of loss of congregations or had been completely lost to the mud.)

As we made our way to the pumping station we were told that the pumps had broken.  A small amount of mud water pumped out, but not nearly enough to accommodate the volume coming out we saw at the site. 



After several hours touring the site we were tired, feeling a  little queasy from the smell and just completely ready to leave.  We paid Pak Romley and headed off to visit the owners of the nearby Prisma Bird Farm, which I will cover in a subsequent post.

Wiki post on Lapindo:

Satellite image showing area covered in mud:

Sidoarjo mud flow


Filed under 3-4 The Earth Bleeds Mud

Sri in the Land of the Pyramids


“Oprah, she is my inspiration.”

Many a westerner’s adrenal glands would explode if they saw their baby crawling on the ground in a busy Indonesian bird market.  They would push, tumble and dive to save the little one as it moved with purpose  toward four giant rooster cages, little fingers reaching for the thin bamboo bars.  But Sri, the baby’s mother, watched nonchalantly as she stood by the door of the public toilet waiting for customers.  The baby picked at a cage while the mammoth rooster  nervously danced as far from the little human as the bars would allow.   The baby said ‘ack’ (in bahasa Indonesia, of course) and crawled to Sri who picked her up and bundled her in a batik sling.  A man approached, smiled at Sri as he dropped a 1,000 rupiah note in the change box and went inside to pee.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio, it is theorized, because his spotless boyhood environment did not allow his body to develop antibodies.   Welcome to the floor of the bird market – no babies in white frocks going to doll parades here.  The babies, like most Indonesians live, for good or bad, very close to the earth.  There are no weed-free lawns or ipe’ decks.  Hell, there are almost no sidewalks – even in Jakarta.  For many,  the rice field is your day and a bamboo hut is your night.  Maybe you can raise some birds at home and afford a motorbike (on credit).

Aris, Sri’s husband, has birds and a motorbike.  He also owns a toilet business at the Muntilan Pasar Burung  (Bird Market’.) The family takes in about 45,000 rupiahs a day.  If that sounds like a lot – it isn’t.  Coming in at just under $5 twice a week (minus rent), it is a very meager income.  So meager that Sri (who speaks six languages including English and Japanese) told me that in one month she will leave Aris and their three kids to work as domestic help in Egypt for two years. The pay, $9,000 a year for back breaking 7-day-a-week work. 

“I have been strengthening my heart,” she said.  “I won’t tell the children.  I’ll just go.  My mother and father will look after the kids.”  Well, my heart went weak when I heard the news.  We had been spending several days with Sri and Aris at their bamboo house in the woods.  Aris had once been a political operative for the Indonesian communist party, PRD (Partai Rakyat Demokrat), but had lost his position in a power struggle and found himself and his family out on the street.  Sri moved the family back to her parents’ house in a little village near the Menoreh mountains, close to Borobudur.  We met them at a bekisar rooster competition – a low-income cousin to the perkutut world. 


The first day we headed out to Sri’s and Aris’s  house on our own, we didn’t remember where Aris had taken us.  The ojeks (motorbike taxis) didn’t know the little village and eventually we found an old driver of a house and buggy who took us the 6 kilometers to the village.  The town people stared curiously as the white guy and the “Malaysian tourist” (as some had started dubbing Kian) pulled into the narrow lane.  Piles of dried rice stalks were being burned to keep bugs away.  We hopped down as the black smoke swirled around us and made for the house.

Kian learned from Aris that he had worked for Prabowo Subianto, the alleged mastermind of the massacre of thousands of Chinese Indonesians in 1998.  Kian, who was granted asylum in the US because of the slaughter, looked disturbed.  “It isn’t true,” said Aris. “This was used to slander his name.”  I didn’t know at the time what was being said and I proposed a change of scenario.  Aris said he needed to catch bugs for the roosters and lead us down steep clay steps to the rice fields.  He whipped a net quickly through the stalks aiming at unsuspecting crickets.


Agil followed his father over narrow clay walkways above the waterlogged paddies.  The three-year-old stepped down into the water.  Aris chuckled and hauled Agil out, his feet now covered in gray mud.   “There used to be snakes and frogs here until they started using pesticides and depriving them of food,” Aris had told Kian. “I go to the non-pesticide area.”  He whooshed the net again and the two ambled off to a little watering hole where they bathed.  All I could think of was the pesticides and the grey water runoff of a thousand bamboo huts on the hills around us.  “Fresh, natural,”Aris said as he hauled a naked Agil on his back and we headed home.


It was the next day that we went to the bird market and found out from Sri that she was leaving.  “I asked Aris and he said it was okay.”  

I asked, “What are you doing to prepare yourself emotionally?”

“I think of Oprah. She is my inspiration.”

Wow, go Oprah!  “Sri, why don’t we record a message from you to Oprah and I will send it to her.”    Sri looked at me.  “To Oprah?” 

“Sure, why not?  Why not let her know how she has touched you. Maybe nothing will come of it, but why not?”

Then it dawned on me that this was a bad idea.  What sort of false hope am I delivering here?  Well, it is already out there…

Sri looked at me and said, “Oprah has been an inspiration to me and I’d like to say to her…”

I interrupted her.  “Sri, look right in the camera and speak directly to Oprah.”  (Jim, what the fuck are you doing?  You fucking stupid American.)

Sri turned her head and looked deep into the lens.  The baby was now sleeping in the sling. She swallowed hard and began,  “Oprah, I just want to tell you have been an inspiration for me…”  She stopped, her eyes growing with tears.  “I can’t, no, please.  Not into the camera.”  Sri stepped out of firing range and checked the change box.

I might have been delivering false hope, but in Sri I had met a realist.  The next day we came back to the woods delivered on motorcycle by Ari, a worker we had met at our bamboo hut-style hotel (bucolic except for the mold everywhere).  We talked to Sri’s father who worked for 17 years sweeping the floor of a factory until he was laid off in the economic meltdown.  He became one of those hopeless old guys you see sitting in becaks (pedicabs) waiting for a fare.  He came back to his home in the woods and at 83 still works the rice field everyday.  “If I don’t,” he said. “We won’t have enough to eat.”  DSC05206 DSC05212

The kids loved having the camera around and we watched as they played naked around a street vendor with beef ball soup who had stopped for a rest.  (The vendor carries two large boxes on both sides of a large bamboo pole that he balances on over one shoulder, one box in front and one in back.)   DSC05239

Aris had been sick and he sat on the foam couch.  “What do you think about Sri leaving?” we asked him.   “Sri is like a butterfly,” he answered. “Now it is time for the butterfly to leave.”  Sri sat at the other end of the couch looking at the floor.  I can only imagine Aris was masking his own pain – saving face is very important in Javanese culture.“Mr. Jim,” Aris said.  “Do you have children?”  I answered no.  “Oh, you must have children.  Without children there is only loneliness.”  DSC04281

It was getting dark and we called for the motorbikes to pick us up.  As we waited for them to arrive Sri called to the kids, “C’mon while the camera is still here, say hello to Oprah.”

Ari and his friend Amin arrived and balancing tripod, camera and sound bags we made our way back to the Podak Tongal hotel on the road to Borobudur.

Assorted Pics

DSC04318DSC04317 DSC05239 DSC05233 DSC05219


Filed under 3-2 Sri in the Land of the Pyramids

The Cage Makers


Pak Joko, kiri, kiri!”  (Pak Joko, left, left!)

Duto Birdvit had found us a driver named Pak Joko, a cheery guy with an SUV called The Panther and a penchant for trying to teach me impossible Javanese phrases.  I’d repeat them badly a couple of times.  He’d correct my diction and I’d smile and nod.  Then we’d smile and chuckle heartily at each other as I hoped his attention would soon return to the road. 

My father use to tell a story about a race car driver with a debilitating joint disease who chose the grip of a steering wheel when informed by his doctors he could pick only once the position of his hands for the rest of his life.  With his wrists cranked to ninety-degrees on the wheel Pak Joko recalled this tale.  I started thinking of him as ‘Pa’ Joko because of some level of paternal grace he evoked (Bapak means ‘father’, Pak is always used before a man’s name.)  When I’d go to buckle my seatbelt, Pak Joko would wag a sage finger at me, “Countryside – no police.”  When in ticketing territory his own seatbelt would be draped over his shoulder and lap,  the chrome insert resting on his thigh, just centimeters from the catch. 

Kian was on the phone with a cage makers whose name he’d gotten at the competition and we were trying to locate his village.  We whizzed down a elevated roadway through miles of rice paddies passing husking machines pulled by horses and batik-clad old women with pointed sun hats carrying large aluminum tea kettles.  A day earlier I had asked if we could stop to film some of the rice harvesting.  Kian and Duto brought me over the clay banks into the now drained fields.  “Tourist from America, sir.  Can he take your picture?”  I looked at  Kian as I recognized the universal word ‘tourist.’  “It’s easier this way,”  he explained. “Tourists are highly revered.”

I did some handheld shooting and for the first time felt really invasive.  The others were several paddies away from me as an old woman started shouting to me.  I put up my hands helplessly but got that she wanted money.  Fair enough.  I scrambled back over a stream to retrieve some 1,000 rupiah bills from Kian and handed them out.  Then I realized how many people there were looking.  I waved uncomfortably and made my way back.  Pak Joko was leaning against The Panther smiling and indicating other good shots, raising his eyebrows in unison with his pointing finger.  “God,” I thought.  “I really am a tourist.”


“Left Pak, left,” Kian said as we came upon a dirt lane.  The lane wandered through a small forest area and in the distance we could see colored flags arching over the street.  We passed a homemade railroad crossing pole, went over the tracks and into the little village.  The cage maker and his family stood by their house waiting for us.


We  sat for tea and Kian explained about the documentary.  “Boleh,” the father said.  ‘Boleh’  was a word I had been hearing constantly since our arrival.  It is the granting of permission and had only been denied to us once – when Halim thought we were going to shoot lasers at his perkutut from my camera.  I hauled out the gear and we all sat barefoot on the front porch.  The family, we learned, could make three cages every two days and they sold for about $11 each.  Most of the cage is bamboo with some wood carving decorations.  Bamboo is sliced thin and then pulled through holes drilled in a cheap metal scraper to make consistent bars for the cage.  A little boy and two women sat weaving the bamboo ribbon around the cage top as a man carved little rosettes with a paring knife.


I was lead to the back where a homemade drill press lived.  Without markings the bottom support is drilled for inserts for the bamboo bars.  Quickly and evenly the bottom piece was moved around as a foot treadle was pushed below.  “”We want to get an electric one some day,” the man told Kian. “They are expensive.”  (A hint that some money from us would be nice. We did oblige when we left.)

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Kian stopped a woman selling snacks and the little boy went wild.  Apparently the family does not often have money for such luxuries.  He jumped up and down at the cart as I held the big camera above his head.  I followed him from behind as he ran back to the house with the treats.  Great shot, I thought.  Then Pak Joko stepped into the frame. He stopped the boy and spun him around to face the camera, took his hand and started waving.  I looked at him, my lower lips pulled down in disbelief and I shook my head. “No, Pak Joko, no!”  He looked at me and smiled and drifted away. 

Have to cut this post short – we are now in Surabaya and going to see the man considered to be the master of all perkutut trainers.  Yesterday we visited a mud volcano started from a drilling operation gone awry. Sixteen villages are now buried under 21 meters of mud.  Post on that coming up…

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Lunch with the Prince


“Prabuku…, Prabukusumo…”

I was determined to get the full name of the prince right.  We were do to meet him at the palace in Jogja for lunch and I was preparing, “Pak Prabukusumo, saya senang jumpa”  (I am pleased to meet you.)

The prince had been a former perkutut competitor and we wanted his outlook on the sport.  He’s also a busy man – head of a regional political party and heavily involved in Muhammadiyah, a moderate Muslim organization that would start its 100 year anniversary in Jogja the next day.


Kian groaned.   “Just call him Pak Prabu.   Otherwise, you are going to get it wrong.”

Before the trip Kian had called the palace who connected him to the prince’s house and staff there gave Kian the prince’s cell number.  They had chatted several times and he seemed quite affable.

“The prince is likely to be refined, right?”  Kian gave me a “duh” look.

“He is a prince.  He’ll be very refined.”

I wondered if he would have  a sense of humor if I got his name wrong.  Okay, mnemonics.  “Pra” is like “Prada”, “Bu” think of ghosts in the palace.  “Ku”  the soft coo of the doves and finish it off with Japanese wrestlers.  Right, truth telling ghosts who make doves sing as they watch two big guys pull at each others’ underwear. Got it.

Pradabukusumo”  Wait I don’t think there is a ‘d’.  “Prabu, right, Prabu.  There is a good prabubility I am going to screw it up.

Kian had been commenting that Indonesians always want to meet white people.  It seemed true.  At the Prambanan and Borobudur temples people would ask to take a picture with me.  Passing little kids in the street they often reach out to touch my arm.  Kian kept saying that my being white helps to open doors.  The general, for example,  had referred to us as “James and some Indonesian guy.” 

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We put on some nice batik shirts and got a taksi to the palace.  The complex is huge, taking many acres of the center of Jogjakarta and wrapping itself around old colonial fortress walls, giant magical Beringin trees with their masses of viney air roots and the palace village which in its meandering alleyways houses over 25,000 people.  We found the prince’s door and rang the bell.  A woman with shopping was walking toward us and unlatched the door to let us in.

We stepped inside and stood next to two black Mercedes parked next to a grand veranda enclosed in tall white-washed walls.  The prince stood at the back talking to a gardener and came to greet us.  We started to reach to take off our shoes and he waved at us.  “Really, no need,”  he said. “Welcome, please come in.”

“Terima kasih Prince,” I said.  I hadn’t gotten my phrase out, but I was prepared to use his full name at some point in our meeting.  We stepped up to the veranda with its expanses of white tile interrupted by little clusters of Victorian furniture.   I could see a strong resemblance between the prince and pictures of his father, the sultan who had sided with Sukarno during the fight for independence and earned Jogja “special territory” status.  Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX had died in 1988 on a trip to Boston.  George Bush senior had his body flown back on Air Force Two.

We sat and chatted for several minutes and then the prince said, “Come, let’s go to the palace restaurant.”

The prince’s driver held the door of the Mercedes open for me and I sat in the back with the prince.   “So, Pak Pra-Bu-Ku-Su-Mo,” my intent to make small talk so I could slip in his name.

“That’s right, Prabukusumo.  I am very involved in politics but my favorite is philanthropy.  I really enjoy this.”  We drove a short distance down some narrow alleys and arrived at an outdoor restaurant.

“Here are all the favorite dishes of my father and the sultans before him.”

A table of businessmen stood quickly when they saw the prince.  He put his hands together and bowed gently to them as we were lead to our table. 

“My favorite is the beef tongue.  Would you like to order it?”

“Ah, prince, I don’t know if I am ready for beef tongue.”

“It is incredible.”

We began discussing perkutut and plates began arriving at the table.  (The prince’s food came very quickly.) 

“James please you must try the beef tongue.  Take one piece from my plate.”

Hmmm…I thought.  Guess I shouldn’t turn it down.  I took the plate from him and cut off just a little piece.  The prince gave me a quizzical look as I handed the plate back to him and now I wonder if I had passed it back with my left hand – a big no-no.  That’s the toilet hand.

The beef tongue was delicious.  It just tasted like incredibly tender beef.  Javanese ginger beer to wash it down, two kinds were brought, one chilled and one hot.  The hot one was a deep ruby red.

“Drink half of it and then squeeze in lime and it will turn the color of the other drink.  I ordered this for you.”

“Thank you Pak Prabu.”

He sat trying  to think of an ingredient in the drink.  He got up and a waitress returned with a stick of fresh cinnamon, still moist after picking. 



We lunched on kassava medallions, marinated tempeh, beef ball soup with coconut and chicken with mixed peppers and tomatoes.  The rice was a blend of white and a special red rice from the region served with sauteed papaya leaves and a nut cracker.


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On the ride back to his house I tried to talk politics.  “ I read that the NU and Muhammadiya are rejecting calls for Sharia law in parts of the country.”  The prince gently rebuffed me, changing the subject.

“Yes, yes.  The palace was built in the 1750’s and my brother the sultan still lives here of course.”  Must be the tidbits of information he gave to all his visitors.

We arrived back at the house and set up for an interview.  As I gave him the wireless mike I said, “Prince Pruba…”

“Prabu,” he corrected.

“Oh, did I say Pruba?  I meant Prabu.”

“No problem.”


We interviewed him for about an hour.  I said that a lot of Americans would be questioning the humanity of keeping birds in cages.  Without the sport, he countered, these birds would not exist.  “Should we release them into the wild?  They will be hunted or die in the jungle.  These birds are bred, they cannot survive on their own.  The sport creates many needed jobs too.”

The prince obviously loves the birds.  When he bathes them he sometimes holds the bird’s beak in his lips and kisses it.  He knows all the doves by the sound of the singing voice.

After the interview we got a tour of the house.  It is actually a series of houses separated by gardens full of tropical flowers, fruit trees and a full grown iguana.  In the last garden were the perkutut cages.  We went into a room loaded with trophies and evidently his wife’s overflow closet.

“So many trophies, what do I do with them?” the prince lamented.

“E-bay?” I said.

Kian shot me a glance. 

In the main house we looked on the wall of family portraits including Pak Prabu’s father, the sultan.  The prince explained that when his father died and Bush sent Air Force 2 with his body to Indonesia that Suharto, not wanting to be  upstaged by the Americans, sent a plane to Hawaii to intercept and take the body from there.  “This is something, right?”

The prince also wondered about Paul Wolfowitz.  Wolfowitz was ambassador to Indonesia for many years and is still revered here.  “He knew we were against the invasion of Iraq.  How could he support it?  I just don’t understand.”

After pictures and a warm handshake we said our goodbyes and the prince had our driver take us back to the hotel in the big black Mercedes. 

Assorted Pics

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Filed under 3-1 Lunch with the Prince

A Night at the Javanese Opera


The competition over, we had time to explore Solo.  Solo (Surakarta) had been its own kingdom like neighboring Jogjakarta. But the royal family didn’t back the Indonesian independence movement  in 1949 and their power ceased when Sukarno founded the new nation.  Jogjakarta, on the other hand, had been fiercely supportive and became a “special territory.”  The sultan is still the legal ruler, not a figurehead.  (In subsequent posts I will get to our lunch and visit with Prince Prabukusumo of Jogjakarta (the sultan’s brother) at the palace restaurant – amazing food and company.)

We strolled the wide avenues of Solo and wandered through a gate.  Two men were sipping tea and  Kian struck up a conversation. We learned we were speaking with the director of the Jawa (Java) Opera in Solo.  The other man was dressed in black and had long thick sideburns and a brooding regard.  He was Zambrot, the head actor of the troupe.  We were invited to film the famous Ramayana opera  Java had once been Hindu and the Ramayana story still figures heavily in the cultural heritage and philosophy of the island.  Sections of the epic opera are performed almost every night throughout the year as a service of the government.  Admission, about 39 cents.

The day of the performance we went to the Sukho temple (one of the late Hindu temples in Java and almost completely tourist-free) with Duto Birdvit and our new driver Pak Joko.  Duto edits several online magazines about birds and generously offered to take us around for a couple of days.  At the temple a crew was shooting scenes from the Ramayana and we hung out with them for the afternoon.


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We arrived at the opera stage door at 6:30.  After plugging the small camera into the sound board, we went backstage.  Zambrot was there with a new haircut.  He said that attendance had dropped off when Suharto was thrown from power but was up again.  The roles changed every night and the actors didn’t know who they would be playing until forty-five minutes before the show.  Soon the director came into the dressing room and read out the assignments.  The actors made a beeline for the costume room and then back to get dressed.   It turned out that several of the performers at the temple were also in the play that night.  They were from a local arts high school and training for the Ramayana.  The boys paid slow and special care to wrapping and rewrapping their sarongs and dusting their bodies with powder.  One said, “Hello mister, I am very nervous to talk to you.”  I smiled and wished him “sukses.”

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(Backstage, Zambrot (also him at the top of the post), actors preparing, the gamelan orchestra pit

As is the case on many floors in Indonesia shoes are banned from the stage and wings.  Even the tech guys work barefoot.  The gamelan orchestra had begun to play (Javanese gamelan has singers, Balinese usually does not) and the warriors took position next to the king on stage.  One of the tech guys hoisted the rope for the main curtain and the show had begun.  DSC02837

You don’t need to understand the language to get the basic twist of the story. Sita is abducted by Ravana, the evil king, and there is lots of flashing lights, slapstick and even a section (I found out later) that is a comic comment on current events.  The movements are very deliberate and purposefully recall the two-dimensional movements of Javanese shadow puppets which were used to tell the story before the use of live actors.


The house was about 1/10th full (no white people, sauf moi) and some of the people seem to routinely come to nap or for the air conditioning.  Kids running around = no problem.  Talking (loudly) = no problem.  And don’t expect applause – there isn’t any.  Members of the gamelan orchestra were taking little chit chat breaks in between their parts and others were texting.  All of this would normally make me a pissed-off audience member, but this is just the way it seems to work here.  And the actors didn’t seem to mind. 

Just for us (and a really nominal fee) the troupe had adjusted the performance to include scenes with Jatayu, the bird that dies trying to rescue Sita.  Not really sure how we will fit it into the final film but it seemed great footage to have.  The actor offered to stay after the show and I got on stage (barefoot) to shoot some scenes with him. 


Zambrot came out to ask how he was (he was really, really good) and to tell us he was the head of a Christian church in his village.  Would we like to visit?  We were leaving Solo the next day so couldn’t.  But we think that this company might one day make another great focus for a documentary. 

More soon – stay tuned…

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Filed under 2-5 A Night at the Javanese Opera