Eating a state of mind

I am very much enjoying Indonesia, the culinary experience. I considered the possibility of an Indonesian restaurant back in Minneapolis/ St. Paul. The more I thought about it, the more I dripped sweat into my Soto Ayam, the more I realized that the idea just wouldn’t fly.

It’s not that the food is too incredibly different, though it’s very unique; Minnesotan hipsters are capable of moderate culinary adventures. It helps, also, when the cuisine has an exotic yet easy to pronounce name – anything to give the self proclaimed connesuir a feeling of cultural “in”-ness. It’s more than that.

Eating Indonesian, in Indonesia, like Indonesians, is less a different flavor as it is a different state of mind. It might be possible to export the experience, somehow, though I don’t know that any amount of imported furniture, expensive lighting schemes and carefully chosen background music would do the trick. And I’m sure there are some excellent Indonesian restaurants in Minnesota; I will not condemn them offhand. I will have to be convinced, however, that they can come close to selling to Minnesotans how it feels to eat Indonesian in Indonesia. And this has a great impact on the taste of the food, in my opinion.

I have yet to put my finger on it exactly, of course. It’s impossible to summarize the experience of any place in simple sentences, it’s always something complex and outside the realm of vocabulary. The aesthetic of Indonesia so permeates you, is an all-encompassing and self-contradicting thing. You will be eating the most amazing thing in the world, and part of the reason that it is so damned ‘enak’ is because it hurts so much. This pain/ pleasure sensuality is an important part of the Indonesian aesthetic, for me.

Another perhaps impossible to replicate feature is the fact that, quite often to even the locals, you can’t really be sure what you’re going to get. Take soto, for example, a signature dish of the country. On Jalan Margonda, Margonda Street itself, in front of the train station by Universitas Indonesia, there are four restaurants with this spicy soup in their name, each claiming to serve it in the style of a different region. The radical difference that these regions can offer is understandable, considering that Indonesia is a conglomeration of thousands of separate islands and ethnic groups, and comprises a still developing national identity that seems to bring together countless unique worlds.

Anyway, I’ll keep eating my way through Indonesia, and I’ll try not to add too much sambal next time (I’m still paying the price for enjoying that last bowl of soup too much – again, the pain/ pleasure thing).

Until next time.

A Quiet Chaos

I stood, watching the economy class train pull up to the Pondok Cina station. Ugg, my stomach dropped way down. Are ALL those people going to downtown Jakarta? Heads and limbs, entire bodies  hung out the windows and doors, people seemed to pop out onto the platform as many others pushed and shoved to get into the rolling box. Oi. I gulped, clutched my shoulder bag, and plunged in. The first thing I notice, as the train rocks forward again away from Depok, is how incredibly quiet it is. There is an air of eternal patience, and unspoken understanding that we are all crammed into this hot and stinky metal box,  and there is just no point in any of us getting pissed off because we’re all suffering through it to get where we need to go. There is an immense civility, yet just under the surface hangs a tension, a feeling that while everyone makes room for everyone, when it comes down to it, the only person that is going to give a damn about you is you. Of course this is simply a first impression. I look forward to delving deeper into the Indonesian psyche. Solidarity with the people, ya!

I made it to Jakarta, and my friend Suroto brought me around to several NGO offices. He is involved in the youth and cooperative movements. I had a long discussion with an 80 year old Javanese man, the founder of the largest organization of credit unions in Indon. What those eyes have seen through an incredibly turbulent century of political activism.

Depok Damage Report

check out a map of the island of Java. My school is in depok, just south of the capitol city of Jakarta. Map

Greetings and Selemat Malam,
I just wanted to send a quick email, at the end of my first day as a student here at Universiti Indonesia. I was so surprised, passing through the insane streets of rush hour Jakarta on my way from the airport, to arrive in this green, quiet village next to the campus in Depok, south of the capitol Jakarta and north of area called Bogor. My professor at the university of minnesota has friends here, and I have been so lucky to arrive in a new, strange place to find a family waiting for me with delicious dinner, a soft bed, and a lively one and a half year old curious about every aspect and piece of luggage that came with this strange and towering orang bule. some of the nicest people i have ever come across.
More later, much more, for I can already feel whatever it is that is floating around in the air of this island soaking into my pores, a raw edge that challenges one to put forth the challenge to just try and comprehend its complexities, all the while chiding you to seek comfortable refuge and hide from the chaos and heat and masses of people speaking a different language.
this is the biggest university in one of the biggest countries in the world, so i suppose i shouldn’t have been so surprised by sheer mass of the campus. and a beautiful campus it is. tensions within the society are not hard to find, and people are hardly in denial about it. there is a strong christian enclave here, and a very strong culture of Islam, of course. I’m just amazed at what i see as an eagerness to be politically active with so many people. I am going to enjoy exploring this. a new friend told me about the role of the students is changing the governemt before, and how the campus was moved outside the city, “into the jungle,” by the government in response. even now, she said, if there is word of political activity on the streets of the capitol city (not entirely uncommon), you will still find armed soldiers at the train station in depok, preventing students from making their way towards jakarta.
ok, time for me to balik rumah and join my temporary family for some ikan asam manis and some kankung tahu. I’m sure i will get some homesickness when i actually have a moment to sit down, but for the moment i’m quite enjoying being busy. talk to you later.
ted andy

Back in KL!

another quake, UGGGHHH…

Back here on Petaling Street, the central backpacker haunt of Kuala Lumpur, the most impulsive indulgence inspiring night market ever (ask my sister, whose simple half an hour here produced that fancy “original” designer handbag). back at the international hostel that I have continued to frequent since that very first night that I found myself on the streets of KL, tired and wonderfully out of my element. At least I’m not expecting an end to the noise from motorbikes and street stalls that never comes at night, making it a bit easier to sleep. Reunion with my friend Veena, graduated from University in Penang and living here in the big city, has been delightful. Off to meet her for lunch, actually.
The world is on fire, even from the vantage point of normally non-political Malaysian mass-culture. Then I looked at the news, and saw the thousands and thousands that have taken to the streets in protest of Israel’s actions in the Middle East. But then, Indonesians, for all their similarities with Malaysians, seem to be altogether different, something I look forward to understanding more over thenext few months. I’ve spent a lot of time taking advantage my international vantage point, talking to my foreign and Muslim and Buddhist and other friends and acquaintences, trying to get an understanding of what my generation, my peers around the world, are thinking. Is there a line being drawn between Islamic and Western worlds? I certainly don’t think it’s predestined, but the possibility seems all to real to not scare the hell out of me. Malaysia and Indonesia are so very important in this question I believe. Both are countries with Islamic majorities, yet they are incredibly different from the countries in the Middle East. They are places where lines are being drawn, places where these lines could become battle fronts if we, the citizens of the world, are not vigilent in our pursuit of communication and understanding.
But then, perhaps I shouldn’t be rambling like this, using my mass email as a platform. Sorry. Another important cultural flow, represented by the hoards of Chinese school boys that fill this cyber cafe with their all too vocal reactions to their online multi-player video games seems to be driving me nuts…

Taking the streets

As a student in Malaysia, I was always struck by the apathy that seems to charactize so much of the people that I meet. Part of this, of course, is the pledge that University students are forced to sign, promising they will stay out of politics. This seems endemic of a broader cultural trend, however; it has been easy for me to get the impression that most are more worried about simply obtaining the basic necessities, or, on the other end of the spectrum, in self-gratification.

This observation seems even more important when I look at news headlines and see that in Indonesia, the country just to the South, with the same basic religion and ethnic makeup, thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest of Israeli action in the Middle East. This is a complicated web just begging to be examined an over-confident American exchange student sure of his ability to comprehend a complex world.

I’ve been on a mission here in Malaysia, trying to get a bit of a sampling of what my generational counterparts, be they Muslims, Christians, Buddhists or other, are thinking about what’s happening in other parts of the world. And I’m excited about getting to Indonesia, to discover if and how my peers there are different.

Tiny, Tiny World

I wanted to run to the CC this morning, quickly before I meet Fiza for lunch over in Gelugor. Amazing how the world gets smaller and smaller, every day it seems. I was in Southeast Asia not 4 hours before running into someone that I knew from a previous life in Penang, without even leaving Bangkok International. My time here in Penang has been one encounter after another with folks that recognized my face, with places that I felt I have traversed and lingered in many many times. fiza and cheryl.jpg Hi-class dining at the best Malay street restoran with friends is a daily occurance. My friend Pourchesta, an Iranian doing her Masters degree at USM, saw this tall thin orang putih and recognized him instantly. She treated me to tea at a kedai kopi, and we discussed the political and cultural currents in our respective countries, and how it all comes together in some weird way through our shared Malaysian experiences. pourchesta.jpg

Catastrophic Java

hello all,

thank you those of you that have sent emails after hearing about the
earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Java. if you haven’t heard about
it, check out the news, it’s really sad.
i am still visiting my friends here in malaysia, enjoying myself a bit
before hopping on the plane in a few days down to java. i’m having a
great time, though i cannot help but be struck by that “peculiarly American
guilt- that I should be up and doing something constructive,” as journalist
Tracey Dahlby so aptly puts it. i am definitely looking forward to going down
back to indonesia, and am by no measure frightened by the place, but the
frequency of unfortunate events (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes etc)
is enough to at least perk the ears up. the thrill of adventure and the
maintenence of a healthy naivete are imortant, but a complete disregard
for caution is another thing altogether. i don’t believe there is anywhere
near that kind of danger in java, and am pretty quick to tell anyone who
thinks so paranoid.
anyway, thank you all for caring about me, and i hope all is well on
your side. missing you from malaysia.