One app to rule them all

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hey, it’s been a while! Almost four months, I guess. I’ll admit I didn’t plan to pack in the blogging quite as early as I did on this job but sometimes life gets away from you. For those of you who need a reminder I was in Jakarta, Indonesia for six months working on the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Asian Games. In the end it all went pretty well. Opening especially was a triumph, despite a few hiccups backstage that were exhilarating/terrifying at the time and now make for great stories to dine out on. The next time I see you, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about the Oman flag. Oh, and the torches… you gotta hear about the torches. (For the truly dedicated and Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Reader, here's the official ceremony video, complete with loud and incessant commentary in Bahasa.)

And now it’s all over again. Every prop has been photographed and catalogued and swathed in bubblewrap. The Parties have been had. The farewell dinners have been eaten.

The Props Tent that was once so packed with rolling carts of miscellaneous objects it was difficult to move around looked like this when I finally handed back the keys.

We’re finished a bit earlier than expected so I had a couple days to shop for souvenirs and sort through my apartment and pack before going for two weeks of vacation in Sydney, Australia! I’m actually there now, comfortably ensconced in the central Sydney guest room of a couple of welcoming and generous friends. This is super exciting and I’m enjoying it very much. Now though, with Indonesia fading in the rear view mirror, there’s one thing I’ve just got to tell you about before putting Indonesia to bed, blog-ically speaking: the magic of Go-Jek.

In Indonesia, “ojek” is the word for a motorcycle taxi. It’s a simple concept: you hop on behind a guy on a motorcycle and, for a small fee, he takes you where you’re going. Go-Jek is the 21st century app-based upgrade to the traditional ojek experience and it is simply brilliant. At its heart, Go-Jek is an easy way to order a motorcycle taxi without having to haggle about price or explain where you’re going. It’s the Indonesian equivalent of Uber - a simple but effective ride hailing service. It started in 2010 with 20 drivers and now has more than one million. That’s one million DRIVERS. Not one million users. One million Go-Jek drivers.

Go Jek Driver
The drivers all wear this iconic green jacket, and they all carry a spare green helmet for the passenger.

Getting around by Go-Jek is much much faster than taking a taxi in Jakarta traffic. Motorcycles can weave in and out of the lanes of jammed traffic saving a lot of time. It’s also incredibly cheap. Even a proper taxi is cheap - usually the fare from hotel to stadium was about 20,000 rupiah, roughly £1. For the same ride on a Go-Jek I think you’d pay around 8,000. 40 pence. Sure, you end up breathing in a lot more toxic exhaust fumes than if you were in a car (or probably if you were walking along the sidewalk, if there actually was a sidewalk). And of course even in a more docile environment, motorcycles are just generally dangerous, let alone riding pillion on a motorcycle in the overcrowded and somewhat haphazard nature of vehicular traffic in Jakarta.

There’s also almost always a problem with actually finding your Go-jek once they arrive to pick you up. As with Uber, the app shows you a little map with your location and the location of your driver, which should, in theory, make it simple and easy to find your guy. In reality, both positions on the map are a bit approximate, which usually results in some frustrated wandering around and very often a phone call from the driver in which he’ll speak at length in Bahasa trying to explain where he is, which is irritating and unhelpful. The few times I used a Go-Jek I often had to simply hand my phone to a local colleague, or a security guard at the hotel so that they could explain what was happening, which almost always involved the word “bule” (BOO-lay, meaning Western foreigner.) Nonetheless once you actually connect with your driver, Go-Jek is a handy way of getting around, especially for short trips.

But the brilliance of Go-Jek doesn’t stop there. Oh no. You can also get a Go-Car, which is exactly what it sounds like. You can now even order a Bluebird Taxi - a car from a rival company - through the Go-Jek app. But wait, what if you don’t want to move yourself, but an object? No problem! Go-Jek has you covered. It it’s a small item, you can have it delivered by a Go-Jek driver acting as a courier using Go-Send, also through the app. And what if you need to move a couch? Or a dining room table? Or, say, three truckloads of rehearsal props? (Or is that just me?) Go-Jek has you covered. Simply order a Go-Box, in one of 4 convenient sizes.

In practice, you rarely see a liveried Go-Box truck. Usually they’re pretty beaten-up and generic, open topped flatbeds with high sides. But useful. Very, very useful.

But wait… there’s more! Go-Send has a natural and very useful cousin - Go-Food! Like other food-delivery apps out there, you get a choice of restaurants, order what you want on the app, and it comes. However, where Go-Jek differs is in how the orders are placed and processed. With Deliveroo, Uber Eats and other Western-based apps like that, the order gets sent directly to the restaurant. Not so with Go-Jek. Here’s what happened when, one exceptionally lazy morning, I ordered two coffees and two almond croissants from a nearby Starbucks, using Go-Food:

1. The order was placed in the app and assigned to a driver.
2. The driver physically went to the Starbucks I chose and placed the order at the counter.
3. The driver paid for the order out of his own pocket.
4. The driver waited at the Starbucks while the order was being filled.
5. When the order was filled he brought the coffee and croissants to the office.

Embarrassingly, the Starbucks in question was approximately a 4 minute walk away. But, you know, it was like TWENTY FOUR FLOORS down from the office and then ALL THE WAY TO THE MALL and then TWENTY FOUR FLOORS back up. I didn't have time for that! We had a ceremony to put on!

It’s not unusual to see Go-Jek drivers in their iconic green jackets hanging around at restaurants waiting for orders. Sometimes there are a few at the same place, and some restaurants even designate a place for them to wait. And in the end, it probably would have been quicker to walk to Starbucks and back because when using Go-Food - like when trying to find your Go-Jek motorcycle - there’s almost always a series of texts or phonecalls with the driver, though in this case it’s partly because he wants to make sure you’re the real deal before he forks out his own money for your Grande Vanilla Sweet Cream Iced Latte. However, this too can be mitigated through another Go-Jek service: Go-Pay!

Go-Pay is a digital payment system that you top up (with your Indonesian bank card) and use for any Go-Jek service, meaning payment for your Go-Food order is guaranteed and the poor driver isn't taking on any risk by paying for your lunch. You can can also top up by giving cash to a Go-Jek driver who’ll credit your account. Importantly, you can also transfer Go-Pay credit to other app users so it’s become a kind of default e-wallet for a lot of people. This means that if you’re a bule without an Indonesian bank account but with local staff you can give cash to one of your local kids and they do something with their phones and then you have Go-Pay credit. (This system also works when you need mobile phone credit!) (Or you can use Go-Pay to get mobile phone credit using Go-Pulsa. Of course.)

What else can you do with the Go-Jek app? Well, you can get your grocery shopping delivered through Go-Mart, or buy other items through Go-Shop. Pay your bills through Go-Bills, get tickets for events from Go-Tix, or get medicine delivered by Go-Med. Get you car washed or maintained with Go-Auto and your home cleaned with Go-Clean.

App Choices
All in one app

And then kick back with a relaxing Go-Massage in the comfort of your home. And have your hair and nails done at the same time by Go-Glam. I’m not kidding. Those are all real things. With Go-Glam someone shows up with a kit of tools (probably having arrived on a Go-Jek) and gives you a manicure in your own home.

As you might imagine, this whole Go-Jek universe was a remarkable discovery for me. It’s also completely infiltrated life in Jakarta. I’m truly not sure how we’d have managed those ceremonies without it. On other gigs I’ve had a full-time driver/runner with a van. No need for that in Jakarta when you can just Go-Send or Go-Box something. And I can’t count how often I called out from my desk to one of my lovely local staff and said something like, “Misha! We need another 1,000 tiny cable ties! Can you do that thing with your phone and make there be cable ties?” And then an hour or two later cable ties would appear (or tape or charcoal or fishing reels or turpentine or tubes of acrylic paint or wood chips or… whatever) and Misha would screenshot the receipts and WhatsApp it to me and I would give him pettycash to cover the cost and we’d get on with things. It’s very easy to become totally dependent on the Go-Jek universe, and it’s hard to overstate how thoroughly it seems to have become part of life.

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 12.22.28 pm
You can even buy a genuine Go-Jek driver's jacket online and have it delivered by a Go-Jek driver, which is, as the kids say, totally meta. This is Nathan modelling his Go-Jek jacket and Anne showing off her much rarer Ok-Jek jacket. (Ok-Jek is a sit-com on Indonesian TV about the lives of online motorcycle taxi drivers and staff in the fictional Ok-Jek office. You need connections to get one of those!)

As usual, there's a lot more I could tell you about life in Jakarta. Like batik -  there's so much to say about that ancient and beautiful art form - like how every Friday is Batik Friday! Just like Casual Friday in offices in the West, but in Indonesia you wear a batik shirt on Fridays. And like about how when you get served in a traditional Indonesian restaurant you get a fork and a spoon but no knife. And why, the whole time I was in Indonesia did I never find a pencil harder than 2B? And why, in a city where the temperature is normally 33 degrees and humid, did the mall next door have two stores selling down-filled winter jackets? And what is the fascination with "salted egg (yolk)" flavour? And why does everyone walk so slowly? And why are there A&Ws in Jakarta, but if you go there you can't actually get onion rings or a Teen Burger but you can get a fried egg (salted I'm sure) on top of your side of steamed rice?

Yes, there's a lot to say about Indonesia but frankly, I'm pretty much done. It was a long and difficult six months and Jakarta is a hard place to live. The climate, the traffic, the pollution and the chaotic, jumbled and haphazard streets made it a place to be endured rather than enjoyed. That city is tough and I'm ready to be home on my little boat, but not without telling you a few of the amazing things I've been up to here in Sydney, which is many of the things Jakarta is not: clean, open, ordered, temperate, walkable and beautiful.

Then again, the city may not be easy, but the people were amazing.

The Team
For now I'll just be grateful to these lovely people for getting us through some very long days and for smiling the whole time. Thank you Props People!

Random thoughts on Indonesia

Sunday, May 27, 2018

I’m still not really succeeding at being a tourist in Jakarta, and time’s a-wastin’. I’m clinging desperately to five-day work weeks, but that’s only going to last until rehearsals start in earnest and it’ll be time to put my head down and not look up until September. Until then I should really be taking advantage of my weekends to do Things. Colleagues are known to bring a carryon bag to the office on Friday and go straight from their desks to the airport to visit Bali or Yogyakarta or go diving or see Komodo Dragons or something. Maybe this is a sign that the novelty of this sort of work is wearing off for me - the fact that all I really want to do on a weekend is sleep in, make myself a nice breakfast, relax in air-conditioned comfort and maybe sit in a quiet coffee shop with the crossword. Still even with that agenda, there are things I can tell you about because everyday life continues and sometimes it’s different or notable or just plain weird.

On the freelance nature of traffic control:

I may have mentioned before that traffic in Jakarta is a problem. In fact, it's simply an inescapable fact of life. There are too many cars on the road, which, added to a seemingly infinite number of motorcycles that fill any gap like an angry swarm of insects, added to a somewhat approximate sense of the rules of the road mean that something as simple as turning or parking can become a real challenge.

Here’s where the entrepreneurial spirit emerges in the form of the freelance traffic warden. Known locally as “Coin Police” or “Parking Masters” these are men who stand at intersections or turning points or parking spots and direct traffic. Note that I’m not talking about actual uniformed municipal police here. Those also exist in a small number of places, but the freelance guys are much more common.

Here’s how it works. Your car approaches an intersection - often this is a designated place for a u-turn, which are a very common here. Standing in the road, among the moving vehicles, will be a guy who’s basically putting this body between you and the oncoming cars to help you filter into the flow of traffic. He waves his arms and holds up a hand to try and stop or slow the cars enough that you can merge. Sometimes it works, sometimes he gets ignored. He does this for tips, usually between 2,000 and 5,000 rupiah, which is between 10 and 30 pence. So if you're inclined, you roll down the window and slip the guy a bit of cash as you roll past.

This is an exceptionally well-equipped guy in Jember, complete with hi-vis vest and flag. His corner was pretty slow, making me wonder how this line of work could ever pay off, especially with the overhead of flag and vest to consider.

Here’s another guy in Jember, who’s even got a bucket for collecting his money. Again, this is a very tame intersection. In Jakarta it’s a much more hectic scene.

The Coin Police also work a parking angle, where they’ll stop traffic to allow you to turn into a spot or help you exit and merge back into traffic. The parking guys also get some money for the actual "rental" of the parking spot. I assume it’s entirely unregulated and simply a case of one guy having a “patch” he works by general agreement, but who knows? Maybe there’s a central ministry that assigns dominion over parking spots on a fair rota. (Sure…)

I find the whole thing alternately charming and terrifying. But I do have a soft spot for the guys who works one particular intersection that’s on my morning 5k running route.

Here’s my guy!

Recently on morning runs I’ve been packing 1,000 rupiah in coins and giving it to the guy at this intersection as I run past. I figure anything I can do to help cross smoothly and easily is worth it. However, this is highly unusual or perhaps even unprecedented. I told some local colleagues about my habit and they found it utterly hilarious that I would tip the coin police as a pedestrian. But I find it fun to think about this guy going home at the end of a shift and telling his buddies about the crazy giant foreign woman who tips him when she runs past. I’m going to make an impression anyways, so why not?

On the horrors of the food court:

I know I talked about inappropriate cheese already but I really can’t let this particular nugget go without a special mention. The food hall in the big mall next door has a lot of odd offerings that I’ve yet to tell you about. For instance, there’s the Cheese Tea (Actual slogan: “Where cake meets cheese. Yum!”) and there’s the Pizza Cones (Actually overheard: “The macaroni was… unexpected”) and squid balls and… well I could go on and on. Recently a cheap-and-cheerful takeaway sushi place has popped up and I’ve taken advantage on a couple nights when I couldn’t be bothered to cook. It’s definitely on the low-rent end of the sushi spectrum, but even so, I was shocked and appalled to see this on offer.

This is exactly what is looks like. Half a processed cheese slice on top of sushi rice, drizzled with yet more plastic cheese, this time in liquid form. For the love of all that is holy people… how can this actually be a thing? Words fail me.

And it doesn’t stop there, because you can get the same thing in a roll! Please Indonesia! Please stop! And Japan… where’s the quality control here? This is your thing. Surely you should have some kind of monitoring system in place to prevent these kind of atrocities.

On the holy month of Ramadan:

And finally, Ramadan Mubarek! Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is set aside as a period of fasting and increased piety for Muslims. Observance of Ramadan is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam and this is the first time I’ve been in a really religious Muslim country during the holy month. (Azerbaijan is a much more secular place so there was little impact on day to day life.) The chief feature of Ramadan is the fast, which is observed during daylight hours, meaning that no food or drink is consumed between sunrise and sunset (and yes that includes water, which in a country with a climate like this must be particularly challenging). Fasting is mandatory for all adult Muslims (with a few exceptions). The term sawm is used to refer to fasting but it translates more literally as “refrain” which encompasses a more general abstinence from more than just food and drink, but also smoking, sex, impure thoughts and evil deeds.

My first inkling that things would be a bit different during Ramadan was when I went for dinner and ordered a beer to accompany my meal. It was after sunset, but even so the waiter informed me that because it’s Ramadan, they serve beer in a coffee mug. Because… I don’t really know. I guess because everyone is trying to be more devout so they want to conceal the fact that alcohol is being drunk. Also, some local restaurants in the area that have outdoor patios put up curtains between the patio and the street during the day. I suppose this is to shield those fasting from seeing those who aren’t.

Mmmmm... mug o' beer!

Also, a notice appeared last week at the hotel informing us that a special breakfast buffet would be available from 3:30am to 5:30am for sahur - the pre-fast morning meal.

That little sticker correcting the start date is probably because the start of Ramadan is based on visual sighting of the crescent moon so can only be estimated until it actually happens.

More significant though, is breaking the fast at sunset, called iftar in arabic, but known in Indonesia as buku puasa. Apparently it’s traditional to break the fast first by eating an odd number of dates. So when I and some colleagues went out to watch the royal wedding at a local ex-pat bar and had beer and curry, they brought us a little plate of dates first (because I’d ordered the special “break your fast” thali tray, also thankfully available to the non-observant).

(Aside - and at that moment I was struck once again with how odd my life is sometimes. Sitting in a quasi-Irish pub in Jakarta with American, Irish and Australian colleagues, eating a buku puasa of curry and watching an English prince marry an American actress. It reminded me of a dinner not so long ago in a Georgian restaurant in Azerbaijan when my companions were Greek and Australian and we watched a Russian news network’s coverage of Donald Trump being sworn in. I guess if they gave out points for cross-cultural-ness I’d have a pretty healthy balance.)

And cheers to a good thali tray! Not quite up to the level of Adam’s Curry in Baku, but we take what we can get.

Anyway, back to Ramadan. There hasn’t been much change to the routine in the office. However many of the local staff are fasting so us infidels have been asked to eat our lunches and drink our coffee in a spare meeting room instead of stuffing our faces in front of our more devout colleagues. Ramadan lasts for a lunar month, so this will continue until mid June when there’s a big holiday - the most important of the year. Edul Fitri, also known as Lebaran in Indonesia, is the feast of fast-breaking. It’s the rough cultural analogue to Christmas in Western culture, not because of any religious equivalence, but simply because it’s the longest holiday of the year and the one where most people travel home. This means all our local staff have about a week off and much of the normal activity in the country will shut down while people celebrate with friends and family. I'll be taking advantage of this lull in activity to sneak in a week’s vacation before the real madness starts, at a location that promises to be highly blog-worthy, as long as I can find the time to write about it.

And that's all I've got for you this week. I think I've got one or two posts left in me before I abandon the blog again until the end of this job, so enjoy it while it lasts. In the mean time I'm off to the mall for a snack that definitely will not include processed cheese slices. 

On the difficulty of being a tourist in Jakarta

Sunday, May 13, 2018

I really did try. I had a recent Sunday off from work and I was determined not to just hang around at home or do another lap of the nearby mall, which is like the second home for all of us on this gig. It’s about a three minute walk away and has air conditioning, coffee shops, food markets, restaurants, movie theatres and all the other trappings of a normal western mall. But I wanted to break out and see a bit more of Jakarta. Because that’s what we do here at Go Stay Work Play Live. It’s kind of the what it says on the tin.

So I busted out the trusty Lonely Planet and looked up the top sights for Jakarta and decided on a trip to Kota. Billed by the blue bible as "the hub of Dutch colonial Indonesia", it sounded promising:
“Despite its nooks of fun and culture, to the uninitiated Jakarta can feel overwhelming and its gifts inaccessible. Kota is where they are easy to find.”
Erm. Sure. First, it took about 45 minutes in a taxi to get from the hotel to Taman Fatahillah, the central square. Because even though it was Sunday the traffic was still not easy and the distance was still not short. I’ll also admit that I made a tactical error in hanging around the hotel for the morning, because by the time I got to Kota it was early afternoon and the temperature was somewhere between scorching and surface-of-the-sun. It was about right for making a tuna melt on the cobblestones.

The square itself is large, and surrounded by big old crumbly colonial buildings which have definitely seen better days. Mostly the central area was empty with people huddled in the small scraps of shade around the edges. Or at least most of them were. Some people were riding neon painted bicycles aimlessly/shakily around the square.

I didn’t get the story with these bikes. I guess you rent them? Plus it seems along with the use of the bike, you got to wear the floppy hat or the pith helmet, so that’s fun.

There are a few museums around the Taman Fatahillah, including the Museum Bank Indonesia which gets a reasonable nod from the LP, and the Jakarta History Museum, which was described as “a poorly presented museum of peeling plasterwork and lots of heavy, carved ebony and teak furniture from the Dutch Colonial period.” I plumped for the third option - the plucky Puppet Museum - which celebrates Indonesia’s long history of wayang or shadow puppets. It was housed in another big old colonial building dating from 1912 and somewhat kack-handedly converted into the museum. However, admission was a mere 5000 rupiah (25 pence) and it was out of the sun and even had one or two air-conditioned rooms, so I was happy to give it a chance.

Wayang is the Indonesia word for puppet, and wayang kulit is the particularly Javanese style where the puppets are flat articulated pieces made from buffalo leather and controlled by rods. (Kulit means skin or leather.) There’s also a style called wayang golek where the puppets are three-dimensional. In 2003 Indonesia’s tradition of wayang was designated by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, though apparently traditional shows are on the decline and it’s harder for the master puppeteers (dalang) to find young people to take up the art form.

The puppets themselves are incredibly intricate and sometimes even painted, though mostly they never appear in front of the curtain (they are shadow puppets, after all).

See how intricate they are? This one isn’t painted but the cutout detail is incredible, especially considering this whole piece is only about a foot and a half high. The curving spine that curls up behind the head is always shaped like that and is made from buffalo horn.

I missed the weekly 10am Sunday wayang performance, so had to just cruise the display cases and try to interpret the slightly garbled and opaque English translations that appeared intermittently. All in all it was a bit sad and faded, which turned out to be the basic theme of the day.

It all just felt sort of thrown together and unloved.

After the puppet museum I poked around outside a bit but there was very little happening. There were a few small vendors selling trinkets or street food and there were a few horse-draw carts you could hire for a ride around the area. And there was the equivalent of the street near Covent Garden where all the living statues hang out. Mostly, though, it felt like the big buildings were abandoned or at least very underused, or possibly turning to compost. Eventually I ended up at Cafe Batavia, a historic restaurant that overlooks one corner of the square where I gratefully retreated for an air-conditioned break, which was the most pleasant part of the day.

The large shuttered windows look down onto the square. Though the cafe only opened in 1993, the building started life as an administrative office of the Dutch East India Company, and they’ve definitely tapped into that colonial vibe. I had some nice steamed dumplings and a very refreshing glass of fresh watermelon juice while underpaid servants fanned me with giant banana leaves and I commented loudly about how hard it is to get good help these days. Trying to keep in the spirit of the place, you know?

After lunch I decided to try and see the other notable site of the area, Kali Besar, the canal that was once a trading hub in the VOC era. (VOC is the Dutch acronym for the Dutch East India Company). I figured it’s a canal, so I really had to check it out, right? The LP promised it was lined with once-grand homes of the wealthy and featured the last remaining Dutch drawbridge, endearingly called the Chicken Market Bridge. So even though I was sweaty and uncomfortable 1.7 seconds after leaving Cafe Batavia, I schlepped my way to the canal.

It’s gorgeous. Or at least it might be gorgeous, though it’s impossible to tell because the whole thing is shrouded in solid steel fencing. I think there is some kind of refurbishment going on, probably linked to the Asian Games.

I did eventually find the Chicken Market Bridge, though it too was unaccessible. This shot was taken from a nearby traffic bridge.

I did finally get access to the waterside in an area where the fencing hadn’t reached. You can see there’s great potential.

And that's really the overwhelming impression of the area - one of unrealised potential. In a place with more money the whole neighbourhood would already have been intensely redeveloped and be teeming with cafes and boutique hotels and gelato bars and places selling handmade batik and fridge magnets. And the plucky puppet theatre would be clean and brightly lit with impeccably curated displays and running shows on the half hour.

By the time I’d seen what there was to see of the canal I was utterly done. I know I go on about it but the heat and humidity here really is ridiculous and draining. So by the time I’d made it back to the square to try and find a taxi I was pretty fed up. That’s when I got stopped by an entire class of kids and their teachers who were all there to practice their English with the foreigners visiting the square. (This had actually happened early in my visit too, though those kids came as single spies and not in battalions.) So I stopped in the middle of the square in the blazing sun surrounded by a horde of 10-year-olds on a mission. And I waited while their teachers urged them forward and each one approached with their clip board and shyly asked me one of four stock questions. And then I signed each of their papers while unsuccessfully trying not to drip sweat on them and wondered how they could actually be wearing jackets while nearby a stray dog spontaneously combusted.

And then I took a selfie, of course.

So even though I was drenched and deflated and kind of bummed out by the day, those kids gave me the boost I needed to find a main street and call a taxi and slump gratefully in the air conditioned back seat while the driver tried and failed to find the fastest route back to the hotel. And when I eventually did made it back I took what I think was a well-earned nap. I suppose I may need to give Kota another chance one day. Maybe when it's cloudy and I can find someone to follow me around fanning me with a giant banana leaf while simultaneously spritzing me with chilled mineral water and carrying my drink.

GRUB!: Inappropriate Cheese

Sunday, April 29, 2018

It’s about time I told you about some Indonesian grub. There has been no shortage of odd and notable food in my life since I arrived, but today I thought I’d focus on one particular thing that’s cropped in a few different places: Cheese.

Asia in general is not a hugely cheesy place. In fact, cheese is notably absent from basically all East Asian cuisine. This is partly cultural (Ha! Cheese… culture…see what I did there?) and partly because a large percentage of East Asian people are lactose intolerant, though really the two feed into each other. Whatever the case, the cheese selection in my local Ranch Market runs heavily to processed stuff, maybe because of the growing influence of Western fast food. I have managed to find two worthwhile offerings in the harder, more pungent end of the cheese spectrum, but all in all it’s not exactly a cheese party here. (Also wine is so heavily taxed that it’s basically out of the question to buy it for casual consumption. A bottle of wine that I’d expect to pay £10 for at home would be about £50 here. So a wine and cheese party? Definitely not happening.)

Then again, you do run into cheese in some unusual places. Back on Carefree Day in Jember our local hosts presented me and my colleagues with large boxes of packaged local cakes to bring back to Jakarta with us. This was a lovely gesture, expect that the airline forced us to check our cake boxes (???) so we ended up having to hang around at the luggage carousel even though we’d cleverly travelled with only carry-on bags. Apparently this cake could not travel safely in the cabin.

Naturally, I was curious to check out the contents of the sealed boxes once I got home to Jakarta.

And here it is - what a spread!

First - DO NOT BE FOOLED. Those look like regular cakes right? And that bottom one totally looks like a tray of brownies. Which it is… sort of. All of these treats are made from tape (pronounced TAH-pay, and note that link requires translation). Tape is a fermented product, sometimes made from rice, but here we were dealing with the cassava variety. (Cassava is a starchy root vegetable called manioc or yuca in other parts of the world.) I’ll admit I was having a bit of trouble getting to the bottom of this tape business, mostly because all the websites are in Bahasa and Google Translate can only do so much.

As evidence, I submit:
"Prol Tape is known as food with nano-nano flavor, in it can contain sweet, sour and savory taste. This cassava-based food offers a variety of flavors ranging from chocolate, cheese, raisins and original. Types of food made from wheat flour, cassava tape, milk, butter and eggs it tastes almost like a cake but the flavor of tapenya is very tasty that is sweet, wry and tasty." 
So you can understand why I was confused until I found this You Tube video - which you all really need to watch right now - where the making of cassava tape is detailed in still photos and videos with English subtitles and a backing track of “I will survive”. (It is the video that proves you can find anything on YouTube). For those without the inclination or bandwidth, here are the basics: peeled cassava is partially cooked then sprinkled with a powdered form of yeast, wrapped in banana leaves, and left to ferment for about three days. The end result is a soft, sweet but a little bit sour and slightly alcoholic mushy thing. I can only assume that’s what forms a large part of the cakes from my box of cake.

So there I was with a box full of cake made from fermented cassava. Luckily, I didn’t really understand the whole fermented cassava thing when I first tried the cake and therefore approached it with an open mind. It was a bit heavy and quite moist but otherwise, pretty nice and reasonably cake-like. The thing that really threw me off was the topping.

See the stuff on top of the brownie that looks like grated cheese? It looks that way because it is, in fact, grated cheese.

So yeah, it wasn’t just a box of cake made from fermented cassava. I was a box of cake made from fermented cassava topped with grated cheese. There’s no getting around it, that’s just a weird combination. Also, the dry cheese is just sprinkled on top so it gets everywhere when you try to eat it. This turns out to be lucky because it means you can easily brush the grated cheddar off and be left with just the cake made from fermented cassava. Then you can go about your normal business untroubled by cheese where cheese shouldn’t be. (Like here, where you can’t even brush it off.)

Or here, at Dunkin Donuts. (Yes, they have Dunkin Donuts here. Also Krispy Kreme and A&W, though it’s not A&W as we know it.) Honestly, Indonesia, WTF? A chocolate glazed donut rolled in grated cheese? Ok, we’re talking about a relatively mild cheddar here, but still it’s just not right. I blame the Dutch, who brought their cheese culture here as colonial overlords but clearly did not take the time to explain the finer points before they left.

Finally, there was the delicacy we sampled on the Jember trip on our first day there. After we’d concluded the business of the day we had some time to do a bit of sightseeing and ended up driving half-way up the mountain outside of town to a faded old resort hotel. Along the way there were some nice views.

And once we got there we had a good look down at where we’d come from.

And of course we stopped to sample the local delicacy as recommended on the TripAdvisor page that directed us up the mountain. One review in particular pointed out that the “banana fritter come up beyond expectation” so of course we had to try that.

Pisang keju. Literally, “banana cheese”. This has confused-Dutch-mashup written all over it - especially the chocolate sprinkles part.

Sliced bananas, lightly coated in flour and pan-fried, topped with grated cheese and chocolate sprinkles. I think there may have been sweetened condensed milk in there too. It was weirdly ok, but maybe that’s just because I was hungry. Also these bananas are a different variety that the usual Cavendish that we get at home. They were starchier and less sweet and I think that helps. Our lovely local staffer said this is a very common preparation in Indonesia, and one that she even makes at home. However, I can’t help but think it would be greatly improved by removing the cheese, and I say that as a committed caesophile. But think about it: fried bananas + condensed milk + chocolate = undeniable yumminess. Whereas: fried bananas + condensed milk + chocolate + grated cheddar cheese = Huh?

We didn’t finish the whole plate of pisang keju. Too much keju for my taste, and it was also quite filling. Since that trip I’ve seen this weird grated-cheese-on-dessert phenomenon repeated over and over again. I think my "I'll try just about any weird food" credentials are pretty unimpeachable, but I struggle with this. Cheese - at least the firm, salty cheese we're talking about here - is such a very savoury thing. If we were dealing with cream cheese or ricotta or mascarpone or similar then I'd be all over that. But I find this combination a bit like dipping your pain au chocolate in soy sauce or spreading your chocolate cupcake with a nice layer of miso paste. Yes, you could get used to it, but why bother?

In the mean time, work is still busy. I've tried to do some touristy stuff in Jakarta, but have been slightly defeated because it's a very big, very hot, very choked up city so it's hard to move around, and then mostly uncomfortable when you get where you're going. Or perhaps I just had a bad day. Stay tuned and I'll try to find something worth telling you about. And while you're waiting could someone please have a Tim Hortons Sour Cream Glazed donut in my honour? With extra gorgonzola, please.

*P.S. Am I the only one who thinks “Inappropriate Cheese” would be a great name for a band?

Monkey Business

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Working internationally is challenging. You have to accept that everything that might be simple and straightforward at home will inevitably be complicated and opaque in your new environment. You’re working in an unfamiliar culture, with people who often don’t speak your language. Frequently they are people who’ve never before done anything like what you’re asking them to do. Finding the tools and materials you need can be difficult or impossible. And there’s a new currency, a new climate and new food. I’ve always said that there’s a constant low level of stress that goes with living and working in a foreign place - you may perceive it or not, but it does wear you down. Sometimes.

And sometimes you have to spend your Easter Long Weekend flying out to visit a couple of potential suppliers.


So yeah, I had to work over the long weekend. But that work was on BALI, probably Indonesia’s best known and most popular tourist destination.

That’s how I found myself, accompanied by my designer colleague Nathan, at a lovely guesthouse run by our local contact in Ubud. Ubud is a small town sort of in the centre of Bali, well away from the better-known surfer-focused coastline town of Kuta. Ubud has a history as an artistic centre and more recently has attracted the yoga and spa culture. And while we may have escaped the drink-fuelled Aussie vacationer crush of Kuta, there’s no escaping the fact that Ubud is still a tourist town. So I was pleased that our guesthouse was a pleasant walk from the main drag, literally set among rice paddies.

Plus there was a herd of ducks who lived in the rice paddy.

I say it was a pleasant, except that it was even hotter than Jakarta. Like hot enough that Nathan was heard to say, “The sun is trying to kill us.” I’m starting to acclimate to the temperature here, but it was still tough and I basically had to resign myself to being a damp and sweaty mess for most of the three days we were in Ubud, while also having about 3 quick showers a day. Sort of like the adult equivalent of running through the sprinkler.

However, there was one place in Ubud where the sun’s anger was mitigated: the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a popular tourist spot at the southern end of the main north/south street in Ubud, appropriately called Monkey Forest Road.

Take care indeed, as we shall see.

The forest is a nature reserve and complex of Hindu temples that’s home to a large colony of crab-eating macaques - more than 600 in all. (And here I'll point out that they're also called long-tailed macaques and don't only eat crabs, which is a good thing because the coast is a solid two hour drive from Ubud and very few of the monkeys had driver's licences.) Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country. Bali, however, practices a particularly colourful and local form of Hindu, which is why the island is covered in Hindu temples, including those in the Monkey Forest. It also gives Bali a very different and quite lovely vibe. For instance, part of the Balinese style of Hinduism involves leaving small offerings for spirits around the home or in the community. These most often take the form of small trays made from palm or banana leaves with a few flowers or flower petals, other bits of twisted play leaves, and a few grains of rice. They’re in household shrines, outside temples or businesses, on pathways, or even on vehicles and machinery. This is a daily occurrence. As our host eloquently put it, “You have Thanksgiving once a year. We have it every day.”

A particularly dense collection of offerings. I very often saw people - both men and women - walking with woven palm trays full of these little offerings, stopping to place them at different locations.

But back to the monkeys. Nathan and I arrived at the monkey forest in the morning, and the dense jungle immediately made the climate more comfortable. I’d been careful to put my sunglasses in my zippered bag, and neither of us was carrying food. Nathan had made the mistake of scrolling through a few of the user-submitted photos on Tripadvisor and reported that there were an alarming number of photos of bite wounds, so it seemed important to be cautious. And the marker for the first aid station was prominently displayed at the entrance to the park. Advice on the sign nearby said:
DO NOT PANIC if the monkeys jump on you, please drop any food and walk away. They will soon jump off.
DO NOT RUN, when monkeys approach you, keep calm and don’t scream. Avoid shouting as this may frighten them.
DO NOT LOOK MONKEYS IN THE EYE, this is interpreted as a sign of aggression.
DO NOT HIDE AND FOOD, because the monkeys will know and try to find it and do not ever try to pull it back.
… and so on...
Even before you enter the forest you notice the monkeys, who, being wild animals, wander where they want and often end up out in the road near the entrances to the park. As soon as you get into the park you realise just how many monkeys there are, and just how habituated they are to humans.

Here’s one near the entrance, plundering some offerings for food. This is also a frequent tactic of the local chickens.

And so we started walking through the park, enjoying the cooler air and taking eleven zillion photos, as did everyone else there.

The foliage is dense, and the park has several wide paved paths.

Also monkeys. Lots and lots of monkeys.

Doing monkey stuff.

Including stuff with twin baby monkeys!

The park staff feed the monkeys a steady diet of sweet potatoes and you’re discouraged from feeding them anything else. But its clear the monkeys are completely adapted to life as a tourist attraction. Early in our visit Nathan sat on a stone wall lining one of the paths and a large monkey crawled right over him as he sat taking a photo of another beast. He had the presence of mind to keep still and just let it happen, but that wasn’t the only up close and personal encounter we had with monkeys that day.

This guy was not very chatty

But Nathan did get a good going over from this one and still managed to get a selfie in the process.

As we were making our way around the park, the monkeys seemed to get a bit bolder. Or perhaps there were just more of them around. One decided I and my bright red daypack were of particular interest, jumped right onto my shoulders and proceeded to open the zipper of the pack and extract both my bottle of water and my sunglasses before I got the pack off and he departed. Luckily, my sunglasses were deemed inedible so I got those back. The water bottle ended up as a donation to the monkeys.

Here’s the larcenous litter bugger caught in the act. And I know it’s hard, but can we please refrain from the inevitable “monkey on my back” comments?

Nathan later reported that he wasn’t really sure what to do to help. And though he did do an excellent job of capturing the whole event on camera, he admitted that by this point that it was clear “the monkey was in charge”.

By the time we'd extricated ourselves and any remaining possession from the Monkey Forest it was well past lunch time and we were both very much in need of food and drink served in cool monkey-free surroundings. Luckily we found all of that a short walk down Monkey Forest Road were they served us very very cold very very tasty beer and french fries sprinkled with an addictive house-made mix of salt, chili powder and palm sugar. Sounds a bit weird but tastes amazing. (As Nathan pointed out, it was the holy trinity: salt, fat and sugar!) Then we really had no choice but to wander back to the guesthouse with the promise of cold showers and naps beckoning.

As we walked through the rice paddies, we started to hear a lovely chiming tune and gradually realised it was coming from our place. Our host is a musician and composer (the guesthouse is an intermittent sideline) and it became apparent that there was some kind of group rehearsal going on in his private rooms one floor down from the guest rooms. This was made a even more magical and mysterious by the fact that we couldn't see any of the musicians, we could only hear the sounds filtering up from below. So after a quick rinse in the shower I lay on the cool sheets and closed my eyes and listened to ethereal music and it all blended into a sort of dream.

We were only on Bali for about three days, but it was long enough to know that a return trip would not be a bad idea at all. The direct flight only takes a couple hours and costs about £100, and the guesthouse was friendly and there's still a lot more to see. Oh, and the supplier meetings went well, so I guess there's a chance I'll have to go back anyways. Work, work, work, eh?

Sunday in Jember

Sunday, April 1, 2018

I know I live an unconventional life. Some days though, that point gets driven home with such force  that I just need to share. Such was the case when I woke up on a Sunday morning in Jember. Jember is a small city in the eastern end of Java, and I was there with a couple of colleagues to visit a supplier for the ceremonies. (Actual quote from the very very short Wikitravel entry on Jember: "Whilst not the most attractive or interesting of cities, it does have decent facilities for visitors…” A ringing endorsement if I’ve ever heard one.) We flew out very very early Friday, had activities and meetings on Friday and Saturday, and were scheduled to fly out again Sunday morning. Before we finished our meetings, the local supplier suggested we come out Sunday morning to see a rehearsal he was conducting for an annual event that happens every year in Jember (unrelated to the ceremonies). By this time though, we were tired and protested that we had an early flight and there probably wasn’t time to drop by. That’s when he told us the proceedings started at 7am, so we really had no choice but to check it out. It would have been rude not to.

I fully expected we’d show up to the downtown park in Jember shortly after 7am and find a small, disconsolate group of people, resentful of the early hour, and maybe a couple of dog walkers. After all it was 7am on a Sunday. Who would be out at that hour?

Our first clue that we were seriously underestimating the people of Jember came in the car en route to the park when we realised there was some kind of Fun Run going on. The opposite lane of traffic was mostly full of people wearing bib numbers and clearly involved in an organised race. Naturally there was no traffic control, though people seemed unconcerned with that. And oddly, there was some kind of superhero theme to the race. We saw lots of Batman t-shirts, a few Wonder Womans (Wonder Women?) and at least one fully costumed Captain America.

And that is definitely an Ironman mask. Well played, sir.

When we finally reached the Central Park we were frankly stunned.

Central Park in downtown Jember was bustling. Time: 7:20am Sunday.

Sunday morning is apparently a big deal in Jember. The young local staff person who was accompanying us on the business trip called it “Carefree Day”, which I think is delightful*. She insisted that this was normal for a Sunday. I suppose in a place where the weather is as wiltingly steamy as it is here it makes sense to get out and do things before the worst heat of the day sets in. And when the call to prayer comes at sunrise, maybe you’re up anyway so why not head into town and have some fun?

And what fun it was. Beside the Superhero Run, the perimeter of the park was filled with people. There were lots of stalls and carts selling food - mostly rice, or noodles, or rice and noodles, along with many other unidentified things, many of them fried. It was a lot like the breakfast buffet at the hotel in Jember, which I’d had high hopes for. I love a good hotel breakfast buffet, and this one was extensive. Unfortunately, despite it covering one whole wall of the large dining room, there was almost nothing I could identify, unless I wanted to have rice and noodles for breakfast. The only chafing dish that contained western style breakfast items had baked beans (made from kidney beans) and something called “Spaghetti Mushroom" (actually rotini with some kind of dark brown sauce). There was also toast, and fruit and a few semi-recognisable pastries. I had fruit. Yes, I know part of the point of these jobs is to be adventurous and learn to appreciate the local culture and blah blah blah. And I promise there is a lot of weird food to come on the blog. I’m truly already overflowing with weird food experiences. And I understand bacon would be a stretch in an Islamic country. But on a Sunday morning at a nice hotel I want a damned croissant and some eggs. Not a steaming bowl of rice porridge topped with tiny dried fish.

But back to Central Park Jember. There weren’t just food stalls. There were also a lot of people engaged in some kind of sporting activity. A few were running through the crowds around the perimeter of the park, and some of them were wearing those plastic jackets you put on to make you sweat more. (Seriously? This is really not a climate in which you need assistance to get a sweat on.) There was also a large group doing karate, some impromptu volleyball and badminton, and a lot of kick-about football.

And of course the local chapter of the Indonesian Nunchuk Club.

For the kids there were a lot of people selling balloons and kites and model planes and bubble wands and other toys. There were also sandboxes to play in, and ones with tubs of that weird kinetic sand stuff. And no street fair is complete without a bouncy castle.

Let me just say this again: 7am Sunday morning.

My favourite was definitely the guy who was selling tropical fish. He had goldfish in bags, along with a whole metal-framed rack of tiny bottles, each with a single fighting fish in it. And all of this was mounted on the back of his motorcycle. Of course. Forty glass jars filled with live fish on a motorcycle. It was a Dr. Seuss illustration come to life.

I take my hat off to you, young man. Except I have no hat. Not a problem though, because I could have bought one a few stalls down. In fact, I could have bought a woolly winter hat which is exactly what I need to go with my plastic running jacket. Because obviously I’m not sweating enough already. Indonesia will not rest until I am so dehydrated I turn into that bad guy at the end of Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. (Aside: I love that the search term I used to find that link was “raiders of the lost ark nazi bad guy end dried up”. I didn’t even get the movie right and I still found what I was looking for. Google may have a creepy amount of information about me, but that is still pretty impressive.)

But back once again to Jember Central Park. If you’re not interested in buying a fighting fish from the the back of motorcycle, don’t worry. You could also get a colourful little bird in whimsical cage.

More Dr. Suess.

Or a small brightly painted crab. These are not painted seashells. These are live crabs in shells, for sale. My Aussie colleague recalls her kids buying these on family holidays in Indonesian (which I guess is the equivalent of the Mexican vacation for North American families). Apparently a useful side effect the bright colouring is that it makes the crabs easier to spot when they escape and are running/scuttling free in the house.

Completing the menagerie was what I can only assume was the weekly gathering of the Jember and District Reptile Fancier’s Club - a group of young men gathered at a corner of the park holding various snakes and assorted scaly things.

I also love that this guy is essentially wearing a lizard as a backpack. Because how else do you transport a lizard?

Finally, rounding out the facilities on offer at the park was a large display in honour of World Oral Health Day, manned by the students of Jember University School of Dentistry. So let’s review, shall we? By doing a single circuit of a small park at 7:30am on a Sunday I could have purchased virtually unlimited amounts of food, drink, clothing and/or live animals, played a game of football or badminton, done a bit of karate or nunchukking, petted a giant lizard, and had a quick dental check up. All this while losing about 20% of my bodyweight in sweat.

Still, you have to hand it to those Jembervians (Jemberites? Jembergs?), they really know how to rock a Sunday morning. Apparently there are similar gatherings in central Jakarta, starting at around 6am. I may check that out one week. Especially if I can then proceed to the air-conditioned splendour of the Hyatt Hotel weekend brunch buffet where I am promised a proper slap-up breakfast with the added bonus of free-flowing booze to go with my bacon and eggs. It may not be in the local spirit, but sometimes you just need a different kind of spirit, right?

* Since that Sunday in Jember I've realised that I think my local colleague was not saying "Carefree Day" but, in fact, "Car-free Day", because the surrounding roads were closed to vehicle traffic. But that's not nearly so fun so I'm going to continue to think of it as Carefree Day. Don't try and stop me.