The Boy from Flores


Guest blog by Kian –


After an intense day of shooting with Cak Nur in Surabaya, we decided to take the next half-day off. We negotiated our way across relentless traffic in front of our hotel. Loud, hot, fume-ridden highway. Soon we found a small alley to escape the noise and the heat. Midway in we heard the now familiar perkutut song, Klau koo koo koo koong… The sound brought a certain calmness and tenderness to me. We looked up and not far away were two poles, each with a perkutut in its cage. The hobby is pervasive.


Further down the narrow alley there was a small open space, roofed with tiled floor. The sign said that the pavilion was used for village meetings and a make-shift infant clinic (Posyandu). Next to that was a tiny “Taman Bacaan”, a kid’s library.


We left the alley and we noticed a little boy was following us on his bicycle. He stopped when we stopped, usually when Jim was taking pictures. Jim smiled and waved at him and held up his camera to ask if he could take his picture. The boy, dressed in a brown school uniform, smiled and nodded. I read the name tag sewn above his shirt pocket –Ignatius R.R. “Ignatius, are you Kristen?” I ask. “Katolik,” he answers. In Indonesia, Kristen usually means Protestant.

His extracurricular class was cancelled so he was out early. The R.R. in his name is the initial of his church. This is the first Christian we met in Java. We continued our walk and he followed a few yards behind. We passed a warung, a street-side stall, and I turned to ask him if he would like us to buy him food. He nodded and we all went in to sit on the bench.


Ignatius ordered Mie Ayam, chicken noodle soup, and a sprite. “How is it?” I ask. “Enak dagingnya,” he replied, scooping the last of the tiny bits of chicken in his bowl. The meat is delicious, he said. That brought back my childhood. I remembered not eating much meat at all growing up. We had little resources. Yet now that I could afford a lot more meat, it doesn’t bring more satisfaction.

Ignatius is the oldest of 3 kids, the youngest is a girl. His father works in a plastic factory, mom’s a kindergarten teacher. No school allowance, the money is for tuition and food. Ignatius cooks a lunch of rice with fried eggs every day for his younger siblings. Sometimes he adds fried tofu. His parents came from one of the islands east of Bali, Flores, famous for its ikat weaving. There is only one other Christian family in his neighborhood.


Ignatius is not shy like Javanese boys. He a nswers straight without giggling. I say you must be good at school. “Rangking delapan,” he answers. He is ranked 8th in a class of 40. He is also very good looking, composed and polite. In his face I read a determination to survive. I respected him. I wish I had a son like Ignatius.

Rice Farmers and Pedicab Drivers


Outside of the cities in Java, you can see the ever present rice fields at different stages of their life cycles. First, rice grains are sown tightly in a field nursery. The slender new plants form bright green patches in the field, surrounded by water that reflects the sky. These are replanted in rows in a flooded field. As they mature, they change into different shades of green before rice stalks appear. These too start as green and then turn golden yellow. To mature properly, the flooded field must be drained or the rice grain won’t fill. Rain is not wanted during this time.

Here too the climate is behaving more and more unpredictably. It should be the dry season now, lasting 6 months from April to September. But the sky is cloudy and rain comes every other day. You can see why they don’t want rain. Whole fields collapse, sometimes before they’re ready for harvesting. Even if they’re mature enough, you have to harvest them in three days or the new grains will start to germinate.


We stopped whenever we saw rice harvesting to shoot some footage and to talk. We the workers were farm laborers, people without land. They get a small share of the rice they harvest. When there is no farm work, men go to cities like Solo to drive pedicabs. You can see so many of them in Solo. They offer their service by saying “Becak?” every time we pass. We shake our head and smile. They smile back generously.


We didn’t see enough people using their service. Most are idle or asleep in their pedicabs. We rode in a becak once in Solo. The compartment felt tight. Had we been eating too much Indonesian food? Then he started pedaling from the back; we in front facing traffic. It felt a little unnerving but our driver was so happy he was giddy laughing, almost all the way. Life must be harsh but he knew how to be happy.


When we were in Jogjakarta, Jim was so curious about volcanoes. Jogjakarta is near an active volcano, Mount Merapi, but we couldn’t see it. I remember seeing Mt. Merapi from Jogjakarta when I was there fifteen years ago. Maybe it’s the pollution.


Growing up in Indonesia, I have seen enough mountains and volcanoes. I climbed a few in my twenties. I say to Jim, they are overrated triangular things with smokes coming out of the apex. Let’s move on! But he refuses to be convinced.

So we rent a car to go to Borobudur, the giant Buddhist temple from the 9th century, situated on a hill closer to Mt. Merapi. The temple is magnificent. I’ve been there three times, each time I am overwhelmed. Jim snaps away at the reliefs. A lot of depictions of birds, especially Kinara and Kinari, a pair of half human half bird. May be we can use it in the perkutut film.



But it is so crowded! Everyone wants to  have photo with Jim. As soon as we stop, the requests come. You have to stop. It’s damned crowded. We can see more than one mountain from the temple. There is Mt. Merapi, Mt. Merbabu and the Menoreh Mountian range where people still hunt the green jungle fowl (see next posting).

So you think Jim is happy now? The next day, our driver, Pak Amin, took us to Merapi Pass, the highest point drivable at Mt. Merapi. The site has a restaurant and a theater where you can see the last eruption of Mt. Merapi. The stone tablet was signed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Everywhere you look, the hills are carved by vegetable and strawberry fields. Every eruption brings incredibly fertile volcanic ash.

Green Jungle Fowl


Jungle fowls are ancestors of domesticated chickens. Indonesia has two species, red jungle fowl and green jungle fowl. Green jungle fowls are indigenous to Java. The rooster is beautiful, with a green and blue metallic face.

Do you remember Pak Aris Munandar, the bekisar farmer, husband of Sri, who was leaving Aris and their three small kids, to work in Egypt? Aris told me that green jungle fowls could still be found in the Menorel Mountain Range in Central Java. They are hunted for food and for the caged bird market. I have a weakness for roosters.

Green jungle fowls are monogamous. Their habitat is the edge of forest near an open field. The Menoreh Mountain range provides this ideal habitat – the valley to forage and the mountain to hide.

We didn’t have a chance to see the birds in their habitat. We only saw them in Taman Mini in Jakarta and in Pak Aris’s cages. It’s very difficult to keep a jungle fowl captured from the wild. Humans stress them out. They soon refuse to eat and die. So the Javanese hunt for the eggs and have them hatched by domesticated hens. The chicks are less finicky although you still have to keep them away from too many humans. You have to feed them organic insects, those caught in the grass, not from the rice field. They cannot be overweight. You cannot transport them in cages or they’ll jump uncontrollably and injure themselves to death. So, Aris binds his with sarong before wrapping it inside his rooster carrier when he sold one to a customer in Semarang, 5 hours away with motorbike.


The Javanese also cross green jungle fowl rooster with a certain kind of domesticated hen to produce bekisar – a rooster that crows only in two syllables. They find the crowing beautiful. This I don’t get. I’ve listened to them crowing in a competition for half day. Eventually I recognize the good crowing, “Aw Eh”. The first syllable has to be loud and low, the second high and effortless.


Some bekisar enthusiasts understand the issue of species extinctions and have started breeding the green jungle fowls. But as of now, the price of wild caught green jungle fowl is still lower than the one bred in captivity. I have come to accept that a lot more species will go extinct in my lifetime. But still it hurts to watch. What shall we do?

Stew Roosters with Painkiller

Everywhere in the island of Java, Madura and Bali, native domesticated chickens roam free, crossing the street whenever they want. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “Which road?” says the chicken.


My late father used to raise these chickens in our backyard. Maybe because of that I am always fond of watching chicken roaming free. From our car, we can see them scavenging for insects on the shoulder of highways. Most of the time, you see a mother hen with a few cute chicks tugging along. Single parenting is prevalent in chickens too.

In Bali, the chicken population seems to be significantly higher. Maybe because Bali doesn’t have as much heavy industry like Java?

Anyway, in Gunung Kawi, Bali, we are sort of followed by 2 young juvenile roosters. They are tiny but you can see that their tails start to curve, a sign of rooster. Everywhere we turn, we see them. They get along so well, too. Hmmn, gay boys?

The Balinese love cockfights. It could be part of the religious ritual. Our driver, Awan, is a very good informant. After the main ceremony in the temple ends, the cockfight starts. The owner of the winning cock gets to cook and eat the loser. “Have you even eaten one of those roosters,?” Awan asks me. I shake my head. “Enak sekali,!” Awan says. It’s very delicious.

I tell him rooster meat is chewy. Awan explains. First you rub spiced oil in the rooster spurs, i.e. the weapon located at the feet. One strike will weaken and kill the loser immediately because of the oil. And it makes the meat so tasty. What about the chewiness?  You cook it with sliced young pineapple and one tablet of Bodrex, Indonesian-made painkiller.



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Song of the Fire Ants


It is about 10PM.  I’m already tired and know that at four the next morning we have to be on the road to the rocky island of Madura for the next perkutut competition.  Our black, late model car slowly circles the streets of downtown Surabaya looking for the hidden entrance of our destination.  Cak Nur (pronounced Chock Noor, which I remember by thinking of 80’s martial arts star Chuck Norris) and Tarjo confer in the front seat, finally pulling into a little driveway.  I see before us a two-story building with a tiled lobby lighted by medieval style fixtures with a flickering orange light.   Several young men in white shirts and black bowties guard the entrance.

We pull  right up to the edge of the lobby and Cak Nur guns it a little to get us over the tile lip.   The men step aside as we drive indoor and park in the middle of the lobby.  Scantily dressed women wave and wink  to us from behind a registration desk.

We have arrived at Indonesian karaoke.


One of the men takes the car and drives it deeper into the structure to the valet parking.  We are led down a dark hallway and a door opens revealing ten or so giddy perkutut farmers laughing and singing in a haze of smoke and Casio-driven pop songs.  “Oh no,” I thought.  “I hate karaoke.  And I know they are going to make me sing.”  Kian smiles.  “Chalk it up to experience,”  he says.

Cak Nur said he used to have to do a lot of karaoke entertaining when he was a contractor for Lapindo, the company that caused the Sidoarjo mud volcano.   A non-drinker, he would carefully monitor the level of his coca-cola to see if anyone had slipped him some spirits.  Tonight Cak Nur was in form in our private karaoke room belting out Indonesian favorites.


Kian and I sat next to each other on one of the side couches until one of our grinning perkutut hosts showed up with two young women on his arm indicating that we should sit boy-girl-boy-girl.


My denim mini-skirt clad call-girl (all innocent mind you) went by the “easier-than-my-real-name” appellation of Esther.  She smiled and stroked my arm hairs (we don’t have these in Indonesia) and asked me why my drink was so full. “I’ll drink and then you drink,” she giggled.  I smiled and nodded and took the smallest sip I could.  She chugged half of her glass.  “You won’t be able to keep up with me!” she chortled.  “That’s the idea!” I smiled.  (All this was said in shouts above a sound system which could rival any mosque’s loudspeakers.)

We were moved to a larger room and a vivacious young woman named Cindy – bleach-blond hair and denim short-shorts – became the animateur.  She butchered Love me Tender, but she had spirit.  I had hoped that the room change would enable Kian and I to sit next to each other again but we were again ordered to separate as the girls plopped down in between.

“So, Esther,” I decided to make small talk after I nodded yes that my wife would be angry if she held my hand. “Do you like this job?” I said.

“No,” she answered. “I get drunk every night and hate the smoke.  But I do this job because my father died and the family needs the money.  Beer?”

At that moment Cindy shoved a mike in my hand.  It was a song in English, so I guess she thought I must know it.  I pecked along behind her in a stunningly horrible rendition of Welcome to my Paradise (never heard of it before),  but the well-lubricated perkutut men laughed and cheered all the same.


Around midnight, with hoarse voices and tired eyes, we went back to Cak Nur’s house to catch some sleep.  The DDT had cleared from our room and we settled in for three-and-a-half hours rest.  Well before dawn, in a  steady rain, we were on our way.  Just after crossing the new Madura bridge (one of the longest in Southeast Asia) I could feel my neck resisting the sleepy bob of my head.  My head seemed to have won as I woke up in Sampang, the location of the match.

Kian pointed out the piles of white limestone which is the foundation of this island.  Piles of the stone cut into blocks lay in lanes on the road and every house seemed to be built of the stuff.


We had been warned that Madura was not as friendly as Java (which has got be the friendliest place I’ve ever been).  In fact,  we had been warned that Madura was not at all friendly and I thought of the tough faces of Albania I had seen in National Geographic.  Hmmm, are these people akin to the dour pusses that sharpened every fence pole in their country to stave off a possible parachute attack?  The faces on the street did look hardened.  We’ll see.

We found the competition site and unloaded the special cage we had made to house a camera. It was an old cage of Cak Nur and my hope was to be able to mount it up on a long pole to get a bird’s eye view.  The risk, however, was that one of the 600 competitors would protest and we could have trouble.  We had bought a ticket in the corner of the field and we picked our way through the puddle-ridden grounds to the site.  I delicately reached into the cage and turned the camera on.  Tarjo hoisted the cage up on the rope and we waited for the competition to start.


A Madurese traditional band was playing and I went to film them.  In front of the band stood the two racing bulls that would be awarded as a door prize.  I stood shooting the band and bulls when I felt something crawling on my sandaled feet.  Fire ants.

Shit!  I pulled the velcro and started slapping dozens of ants off my afflicted peds.  “Damn those hurt!” I bellowed.

“You were standing on their nest, what do you expect them to do?” Kian offered in a none-too-consoling tone.  “We grew up with them.”

I would stand on fire ant nests about five more times during the day.  Basically, I deduced, they were anywhere the ground was dry, just like me.  Filming the local Madurese band – fuck! Fire ants.  Interviewing the head of the competition – bastards!  Hang on – I’ve got fire ants again. Why isn’t anyone else ripping off their footwear??

I went to look at the cage and indicated to Cak Nur and Tarjo that it was pointing away from the field.  We collectively grimaced.  Do you think we could put it in the middle of the field?  I see some free poles.  Let’s just do it, suggested Cak Nur.  I pressed him to ask Gunawan who was here representing the national organization and he agreed we could mount the camera on a free pole on the middle.  The bell rang for the end of round two and I followed Tarjo into the field to retrieve the camera cage.

“Jim! Jim!” Cak Nur urged me back.  He explained to Kian that the rules stated that no cages should go up or down during the 3 hour match.  Tarjo would try to get the cage up as quietly as possible. He slid a cage cover over it and hurried onto the field.  Instantly calls rang out from the crowd. “Jo, Jo, what are you doing!”  We ran over and explained what was happening and that it had been approved.  The cage, camera already running, went up and we watched as Jo rushed off the field.  Phew.

The sun had come out and I continued to film in the hard rays.  Many of the competitors, Henry Manila included, threw a frilly bird cover over their heads to shield the heat.  Round one, two, three and four.


The cages came down and Tarjo delivered our stealth cage to the edge of the field.  A man flagged me down and it wasn’t long that I realized he wasn’t one of the many people delighted to talk to me.  When Kian arrived to translate he was yelling, “you made my bird lose!  How dare you mount that cage among the birds! You cost me money!”

I conferred with Kian.  Should we offer him the price of admission?  How should we handle this?  Cak Nur came to the scene and took the man by the shoulder and listened to his complaint.  Lots of nodding and apparent sympathy later Cak Nur came over to us and said, “no problem, all taken care of.”  He warned us later that if we had offered him money the man might have been insulted that we were trying to buy him off.

Back at the front the band started playing again and winners were being announced.  I went up and one of the organizers who had greeted us was doing a swaying dance in front of the racing bulls.


Men started pulling out bills and handing them to the dancer.  A hand reached over my shoulder waving a bill and the man came and took it in his mouth directly in front of my camera.  Gunawan, the culprit, was standing behind me laughing.

A big toothless man, who was apparently the richest man there and the winner of the contest, grabbed at my camera to shoot the scene.  I smiled at him but wouldn’t give it over.  He laughed and pointed to the dancing guy.  And then a man with a revolver took it out and pointed it at me.

Woah!  My instinct, oddly enough, wasn’t to move but to take a picture.  The moment reminded me of standing on the roof of a tall building and flirting with the drop below. Frightening, but alluring.  Then it dawned on me I should move away from the gun.  Cak Nur later assured me that this fellow was  a bit nutty and doubted the gun was real.  Nutty and gun – great combination!

After a few more bouts of fire ants and trophies the competition ended.  As in Solo everyone disappeared quickly and quietly – except for the man who won the racing bulls who led them away kicking his heels and singing, an entourage of kids running behind him.

We headed back to Surabaya for some lontong balap (see the food entry) and a good night’s rest.  The next day Cak Nur would drive us to the airport.  We would be bound for Bali.

Assorted Pics

DSC07345 DSC07361




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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.


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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

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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.

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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.)

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(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)

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(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

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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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Filed under 3-3 The Cage Makers