Tag Archives: Indonesia

Es Oyen: An Indonesian Treat

Overall, I was not incredibly enthused about the food in East Java.  The tempeh with sauce on heaps of white rice was good the first time I had it…and the second…but after that I started to wish for something different and feel pretty unhealthy after snacking on deep fried krupak with every meal.  And this was only for a week–I seriously sympathize with my friend Elle, who has been living on Indonesian food for a year.  It’s tasty, but I’m happy for the wide variety of Lao food.

Though I was happy to return to Vientiane and exchange the Indonesian diet of nasi (white rice), for khao niao (sticky rice), I did have a brief love affair with one Indonesian dessert…ES.

Es can be a variety of sweet ice desserts served in a bowl or a bag, but my all time favorite was es oyen.

The ingredients:
-sugar syrup
-coconut milk
-sweetened condensed milk


Filed under East Java, Indonesia

Indonesian Girls Leading Our World

I left rainy Bali for East Java, just one island over but seemingly a world away, with few tourists and different culture and religion.  I said goodbye to Clara in Surabaya, the regional hub, where I was immediately affronted with some characteristics of a Javan city, namely the oppressive traffic, and the alarming 4am wakeup to a mosque blasting the morning call to prayer.  I hopped a bus to meet my oldest childhood friend, Elle, who has been serving as a Peace Corps teaching volunteer in East Java for the past year.  We met in Mojokerto, the closest city to the village where she lives, and attempted to catch up on the past year and a half while lurching and swaying in the aisle of a standing room only bus.

This bus dropped us in Mojoagung, a nearby city where another PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) works at a local school.  The PCV women in the region had been planning a girls’ empowerment camp for the previous few months, and my visit was lucky enough to coincide with the culmination of their efforts–the three-day-long Camp iGlow (Indonesian Girls Leading Our World).   After hearing comments from students along the lines of “I want to do that, but I’m a girl,” they decided that an all women’s motivation and empowerment camp would be a great way to bring local girls together to realize their own abilities and opportunities.  And so Camp iGlow was born.

Girls gathered for day one of camp.

Upon arrival I became a de facto camp counselor, along with the six PCVs who had planned the event and on Friday afternoon 60 high school girls descended on the school where the events would be taking place, and where we would be camping on classroom floors for the next two nights.  The girls arrived bursting with enthusiasm and were strikingly gregarious and curious, which I found to be characteristic of most people I met in Java.  They greeted us all with a handshake (a must for Indonesian hellos and goodbyes) and touched our hands to their faces, a show of respect.  All of our names became “Miss” for the next few days and their eagerness and adoration reminded me of days at summer camp, when counselors are something like celebrities.

Making a poster about inner beauty.

Most of the camp was conducted in Indonesian, as the goal was inspirational rather than English learning, so my contributions were minimal, but I followed along whenever possible.  The girls participated in sessions on Inner Beauty and Women’s Reproductive Health, Self-Defense, and Yoga, and played plenty of teambuilding games.  They had breakout sessions making crafts, playing soccer, and learning photograhy techniques (a session that Elle and I planned and led together).  Our first night was spent watching “Bend It Like Beckham” with subtitles (and all of the kiss scenes edited out), and the second for group performances, which culminated in a dance party.  I never would have pictured myself dancing to Pitbull on the basketball court of an Indonesian high school with 60 girls in jilbabs, but there we were, singing along to “Give Me Everything Tonight,” while curious neighborhood kids peeked through the chainlink fence.

Girls practicing framing their shots after the photo workshop.

The camp ended predictably with hugs and endless photos and girls exchanging Facebook info, but also with a real sense of accomplishment.  The girls seemed to embrace the ideals of the camp and leave with new confidence and new friends, which likewise was motivating and inspiring to those of us helping.  Finally, Elle and I spent our last day together exploring her city of Mojokerto, snapping photos at butcher shops and banana warehouses in the market, and shopping for snacks and fabric.

Ever-present Javanese traffic.

Market road in Mojokerto.

Before I knew it, I was on a bus back to Surabaya to catch my flight.  On Indonesian buses, hawkers ply the aisles endlessly, playing music, and selling everything from the logical, like food and drink, to the totally random, like flip flops and light up toys.  Once I was able to tune out this endless hubbub, however, I was able to do a bit of reflection on the ride back.  Just the few days I spent in Elle’s new home of East Java revealed such a contrast to my home in Laos.  The religion makes the most obvious difference–Islam plays a massive role in the lives of Indonesians, and shapes everything from dress and gender roles to food and customs.

Krupak, an everyday snack (at the market pre-frying).

Also, Indonesia is one of the world’s most highly populated countries, evident from the crowded cities and traffic, compared with the tranquility of Laos.  This creates many large “Indonesian-only” cities, where Western food is nonexistent and the sight of a foreigner causes gawking, which would not be the case in most of Laos’ metropolitan areas.  Even the food is different–after only a few days, I couldn’t take another bite of white rice or fried snacks, which seem to be main components of the Javan diet, compared to the relative abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in Lao food.  Even the “Indonesian personality” was different.  I hesitate to ever make statements about “what ________ people are like,” because where there are people, there are exceptions, and where there are generalizations, there tend to be stereotypes.  However, in just my limited experience people in East Java seem strikingly more outgoing than people in Laos.  People in both countries are very friendly, but in different ways.  While I find it a Lao tendency to be a bit more quiet and reserved at first, people in Indonesia are not shy about asking you to take photos with them (or just of them!), or just to yell out when they see a bule (foreigner) and try to strike up a conversation.  Sometimes this can come across as harassing, or just plain annoying, and sometimes as genuine curiosity and an opportunity to meet someone interesting.

Okay, I'm still in Southeast Asia after all...


Filed under East Java, Indonesia

An Island (Not) in the Sun

My friend Clara was present for the inception of my blog, in the summer of 2009 in Paris, and a main “character” during its early days.  Now, two years since we last saw each other, she is making a reappearance.  Clara was traveling around Southeast Asia with a friend for six weeks (as part of a year spent traveling and living on different continents) and they stopped by Laos for a visit.  After several weekends spent introducing her to my life in Vientiane, she went off to Indonesia and I finished up the term.

We met again in Bali, that most famous of Indonesian islands, which is known either for its romance (if you’re a 20-60 year old female who has read Eat Pray Love) or its hedonism (if you’re an Australian male from the ages of 15-30…sorry for the stereotype Aussies, but it’s true!).  I had visited here previously shortly after my arrival in Asia, in November 2010, and was looking forward to a return to the sunny island.

After a half day spent in Sanur, a relatively quiet but touristy town with a main beachside promenade scattered with souvenir stalls, flabby tourists, and Balinese kids tearing by on bicycles, we took the ferry to Nusa Lembongan, a smaller island about an hour and a half away.  Lembongan’s main industries and tourism and seaweed farming, and part of its main charm is the (near) lack of cars on the island. After wading onto the island, we checked in, rented motorbikes, and proceeded to explore for the next half day.  The roads on Lembongan are rough and winding, but took us to mangroves surrounding a seaweed farming village, sunbleached temples, and deserted beaches, where ominous black clouds foreshadowed the day to come.

As soon as we returned from biking, the downpour began…and continued for the next 24 hours.  Luckily, an island holiday isn’t a time to be anxiously rushing around and sightseeing anyway, but plans for a second motorbike adventure turned into plans for drinking shakes and reading.

On our last morning in Lembongan, we were stopped in our tracks for a parade.  Men and women with large bundles on their heads, wearing white, processed by us, sounding drums as they went.  As we waited for the boat back to the mainland, the driver explained that these were offerings to the sea, in preparation for the upcoming holiday Nyepi, or the “Day of Silence.”  On this day, people strictly stay inside all day in self-reflection.  Although we left just before the holiday in Bali, we, in a way, had our own rainy day of stillness in Lembongan.

Departing Lembongan, the sky finally seemed clear.  But just as the island faded from view, the rain began.  When the rain became torrential, tarps were rolled down the sides, obscuring any sight of the horizon and any breaths of fresh air, just as our small wooden vessel began pitching and rocking in the storm.  The wiry Balinese guys sharing our benches lit cigarettes, which mixed with the strong stench of stale sweat, as the closed berth became hotter, and the passengers queasier.  People stuck their heads out of both sides to start throwing up, and I tried to breathe through my shirt, while simultaneously mentally timing my ability to extract the life vest from the ceiling in case of a capsize, which seemed only increasingly likely.

Fortunately we made it through the shore, without sickness or peril, but only white knuckles and churning stomachs.  I breathed in as many good familiar Bali smells as I could–sweet rice, incense, seawater, and flowers.  And then I said goodbye to Clara until our next adventure and headed to another part of the same country, yet a world away–East Java.

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Filed under Bali, Indonesia, Nusa Lembongan

Trip to Bali Part 3: Nusa Lembongan

The car from Ubud dropped us off in Sanur, where we boarded a boat for an even smaller island that’s part of Bali, Nusa Lembongan (population about 7000).  We settled onto wooden planks in the bottom of the boat next to the other tourists for the one hour ride to the island.  Once on the other side, we waded the last few meters to the beach, where we were immediately approached for business, “Where are you staying?  Here, very expensive, how much you want to pay?”  Our would-be guide handed us a map (which would later prove to be not remotely to scale and nearly useless) and pointed to the side of the island.  “Cheaper here.”  We nodded thanks and tried to walk away, wanting to find a place to stay on our own.  “You need a motorbike?” our new friend called after.  “24 hours, 75,000 rupiah (about $8).”

A few minutes later, we were accepting the keys to the “Sunset I,” our (automatic!) motorbike for the next two days, and driving on the left side of the road for the first time.  In general, there are no cars on Nusa Lembongan (except a handful of trucks that must have come over on a boat), so no buses or taxis (or requests for “Transport?”), just motorbikes riding on the narrow roads along the beaches and through the mangrove forests.  Despite the fact that there are gorgeous white sand beaches with incredible surfing and diving all around the island, it’s not very touristy in general, because there are so many other incredible beaches to choose from on the main island of Bali.  There are restaurant-guesthouses lining the beach that faces the main island, but as soon as you venture off of this strip, it feels like the “real Bali.”  Temples, corrugated tin houses, and tarps with drying seaweed are everywhere.  If burning trash is the smell of Laos, the smell of Nusa Lembongan is seaweed.  Near the shore it seems like every single local house has seaweed outside, and we saw small boats coming in each morning filled with seaweed as well.  Apparently land farming isn’t very good on the island, so seaweed farming is a major part of the local economy.

We easily found a nice-looking place on the beach: Linda Bungalows, which boasted the “Best Food on the Beach” in their open-air cafe, and which I’m inclined to believe: fresh seafood and Western favorites like chicken parmesan and chili con carne (Mexican food is the one type that can’t really be found in Vientiane, so this was exciting).  After checking in, we decided to explore the island by motorbike, with the help of the useless little map.  The middle of the island is covered in forest, which opens up in places to small beaches, each with a charming name like “Dream Beach,” “Mushroom Beach,” and “Sunset Beach.”  Each is a little bit different–some are surrounded by cliffs, some have warung with food and drink, some are fine white sand and others are rocky, with lots of washed-up coral pieces.

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During our driving adventures, we decided to cross to an even smaller island, connected with a bridge.  As we started across, the wooden planks that formed the one way crossing rattled dubiously, and the gaps between them seemed to get larger and larger, until somewhere in the middle, almost four planks were missing, nearly the size of one of the bike wheels, and the only solution was to accelerate and not look down.  Once on the other side the motorbike trials just continued, as the roads became rougher, with huge potholes and unpaved sections, and dramatic vertical inclines and drops.  More than once it seemed like the bike wasn’t going to make it, but the trusty “Sunset I” pulled through every time.

The pace of life on the island seemed very relaxed.  “Chilled out” is one of Lonely Planet’s favorite phrases to describe places in Asia, and with no cars, and relatively few tourists, Lembongan  fits this description perfectly.  It seems like life just goes on exactly the same year-round–the temperatures don’t fluctuate much, tourists come in and out on daily shuttle boats, fish are caught and cleaned, seaweed is harvested and dried, the roosters crow as soon as the sun rises.  The two days that we spent on the island were so relaxed (well, except for a few hair-raising driving experiences).  On the last night, as we sat with a Bintang Beer on the porch of the bungalows watching the vivid sunset, and waiting for dinner time, the power suddenly went out.  But the tables were lit with candles, and the kitchen used gas, so the evening continued uninterrupted–a typically quiet Lembongan night of seafood, Bintang, and the sound of the tide.


Filed under Bali, Indonesia, Nusa Lembongan

Trip to Bali Part 2: Ubud

“Transport?  Taxi?  Yes, transport?”  This is the refrain of the sidewalks of Ubud.  Every few meters, there’s another guy sitting at a storefront accosting all passersby with offers of transportation.  If you keep walking and look uninterested, they’ll always add, “Maybe tomorrow?  Where are you going?”  Though annoying, all of the drivers seem good-natured, somewhat aware of how ridiculous it would be if suddenly after walking past 10 other taxi drivers you suddenly wanted them to take you there, but persistent in offering anyway.

Ubud is packed with tourists, and places catering to tourists, even during the low season.  This means that there are annoying foreigners who do culturally-inappropriate-anywhere things like not wearing a shirt in shops (while nowhere near a beach), but also that there are lots of trendy ex-pat restaurants with “delicacies” (for Asia) like macaroni and cheese and guacamole.  The popularity of Ubud as an inland cultural, artsy town has probably only increased since the Eat Pray Love movie came out a few months ago, because, unbeknownst to me until after we got back, it’s the town where Elizabeth Gilbert lived in the book and the movie.

There’s not a whole lot to the immediate town except eating, and lots and lots of shopping.  Stores with handicrafts, from baskets to woodcarving to batik line every street, and there’s a jam-packed market in the center of town.  The market has everything from knock-off designer goods, to more art and handicrafts, to ubiquitous Bintang Beer gear (Bintang Beer is almost as good as Beerlao, but not quite), fruit, and endless sarongs.  The Balinese seemed to me like much more generous bargainers than the Lao.  In Lao at Talat Sao (Morning Market), the shopkeepers will roll their eyes at your lowball prices, and then let you walk away if you can’t come to an agreement.  In the Ubud market, a bargaining session between Alex and a merchant went something like this:
“How much?”
“80,000 rupiah.”
“How about 20,000?”
“NO, no…50,000.”
Starting to walk away.  “25.”
Sighing. “Okay.”

One of the big attractions that we visited was the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest and Sanctuary, which is at the end of–you guessed it–“Monkey Forest Road.”  Inside the forest, there are trails that lead through the lush overgrowth, with several temples.  Immense banyan trees grow alongside the path, with labyrinthine roots, and low-hanging branches that look like they belong to Tarzan.  Inside the forest, local guides sell bananas to feed to the 300 primate residents of the forest, who are not shy at all about demanding food, laying the middle of the path, and approaching visitors.  The monkeys are everywhere–cavorting on temple walls, eating insects off one another, lounging underfoot.  Because so many tourists visit and feed them, they aren’t at all hesitant to demand–or take–what they can find.  As we were walking unsuspectingly down the path a particularly audacious monkey dove onto Alex and began trying to pull his water bottle out of his pocket with its teeth.  After an altercation that involved not wanting to get rabies but wanting to detach the sharp-toothed monkey, the monkey won, managing to pull off the cap, and get a face-full of water.

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Just outside the main part of town, the tourist shops disappear and Ubud becomes a landscape of spectacularly terraced rice fields.  A small path weaves through the farms and into the forest.  After a session of hard-bargaining at the market, we decided to spend our second afternoon in Ubud meandering through the rice fields.  Despite the fact that it’s an activity recommended to all tourists by guidebooks and hotel owners, it was a peaceful experience.  We saw Jurassic Park-like foliage, farmers at work, uncomfortably large spiders, bathing children.  In a few areas, locals were selling things from their homes.  “Young coconut?” one couple offered.  We decided it was time for some refreshment, and asked for two, which were quickly cut open for us using a machete.  Most coconuts that I’ve had are nothing but quick snacks, but these…these were a challenge.  The coconut water seemed to be bottomless.  “One liter each,” our host said when we finally finished and had them cut open to eat the inside.

No visit to Bali would be complete without a trip to the beach, so after two days enjoying Ubud’s attractions, it was time to make moves to our next destination: the island of Nusa Lembongan.

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Filed under Bali, Indonesia, Ubud

Trip to Bali Part 1: Surprise Vacation and Arrival

Tuesday, 12pm
I am sitting at home, struggling to plan the evening’s lessons through a fog of dengue fatigue.  The future looks bleak.

Tuesday, 1pm
I receive a text message from coworkers saying that school has been canceled for the rest of the week (due to the craze-inducing combination of Vientiane’s 450th and the That Luang Festival).  My energy levels mysteriously increase and I head straight for the AirAsia website (best friend of PiA fellows across the continent).

Tuesday, 8pm
I am in a tuk-tuk en route to the Vientiane airport with my housemate Alex, who is also a Vientiane College teacher.  Our plan?  Vientiane–>Bangkok–>Bali, Indonesia. I’ve only come to the realization a few hours before that Bali is not just ONE place, as I’ve naively assumed for a long time, but an entire island large enough to have many cities, beaches, and mountains. Armed with only a Lonely Planet guide and a plane ticket to Bangkok, we set out from Vientiane, my first time actually leaving the country since I arrived two months ago.  Also for the first time, I get to experience travel the “old school” way.  That is, walking up to the counter in the airport and buying a ticket a couple of hours before the scheduled flight.  It’s the low tourist season in Bali, so luckily the flight isn’t sold out.

Wednesday, 11:30am
Alex and I land in Denpasar (the capital city of Bali), change our money to Indonesian rupiah (which conveniently has almost the exact same exchange rate as Lao kip), and step out into the hot, humid, Bali morning (leading me to realize this is also my first trip south of the equator).  Outside the airport, we are approached by numerous drivers, with the persistent chorus of “Taxi?  Transport?”, which we will hear pretty much constantly anywhere we walk for the next two days.  We take up one of the drivers on his offer, and ask to go to Ubud, an inland “cultural center” town about an hour from the airport.  Along the way, our driver explains in very good English–I notice over the course of the trip that everyone seems to speak English quite well–that although Indonesia is a majority Muslim country, the island of Bali is an exception, with over a 90% Hindu population.  He says that almost anytime a new house is built, a small temple is built alongside, which certainly seems to be true based on our observations.  A large number of the houses have little walled courtyards next door, with small private temples.

Some of the ubiquitous offerings.

The road to Ubud takes us through the large, commercial town of Kuta, where we pass a McDonald’s (with drive-thru), Pizza Hut, KFC, and Dunkin Donuts within close range (all of which thankfully don’t exist yet in Laos) and then through the country inland to Ubud.  Along the road we pass countless shops selling concrete statues, and lots of roadside artist studios, the closer we get to Ubud.  Most of these feature traditional Balinese motifs, although some are a bit more “unique”–one has an 8-foot painting of Beyonce’s face on the porch.

Mandia Bungalows: can I just live here?

After getting dropped off on the main road in Ubud–“Monkey Forest Road”–we decide to walk around checking out guesthouses.  The first one we visit looks good enough for two nights…in fact, I would be happy to stay there for the rest of the year.  The porch of the small stone “bungalow” is decorated with fresh hibiscus flowers, has a table with tea and instant coffee, and looks out into the walled garden, with palm trees and more tropical flowers.  Now that we’re settled, it’s time to explore Ubud.


Filed under Bali, Indonesia, Ubud