Thursday, March 23, 2006

Salam from Indonesia, March 2006

Hope everyone in Australia is well and functioning ok without me ("without who?" i hear you ask). Have been in Jakarta for a few days now, and will be heading back to Melbourne pretty soon.
This week's random thoughts:

If I walk around in Springvale, eventually someone will offer me heroin ("you chasin'?").
In Bali, its "Hey Mister! You want marijuana? You want girl? Jiggy-jig?"
In KL's Petaling Street, its "Hey, DVD? Boss, you want porno?"

Does this happen to everyone, or is it just me? Do I really look that dodgy?

Apart from food and exports of Palm Oil, one of Malaysia's great gifts to the world are Chindians. (For those of you who ain't in the know, that means half Chinese, half Indian.) There are lots of them about, and they're almost universally good-looking. My friend Joachim Babo disagrees with this: he says "like all whisky blends, it's hit and miss." But as a counter argument, I give you Malaysia's world champion squash player Nicol David. Hot damn!

It's interesting that there's a lot of Chinese-Indian intermarriage in Malaysia, but not quite as many Malay-Indian or Malay-Chinese. As Malays are pretty much all Muslim, Malaysian law states that to marry a Muslim you need to convert to Islam, and converting from Islam to something else is illegal.
(Note: having said that, there is a long history of Malay-Chinese and Malay-Indian intermarriage - the Mamak and Nonya culinary traditions are founded on such mixing.)

In Indonesia, by contrast, no one really cares that much about inter-faith marriage. And my family in Jakarta is full on Muslims who have converted to Christianity. You also rarely see Malay women who don't wear the hijab, whereas it's relatively uncommon in Indonesia, despite the population being 90% Muslim. And I can't think of any other Muslim country where you can see transvestites walking around as openly as they do in Indonesia. Malaysia, by contrast, has its "religious police", who hassle Malays for dressing inappropriately, eating during Ramadan, and even bust into hotel rooms where people are suspected of (shock, horror) having sex without being married.

There has unfortunately been a recent push from Islamic parties in Indonesia to introduce public decency laws, governing what parts of the body can be shown in public. This is extremely controversial, particularly in the non-Muslim areas; like Bali, with is tradition of sexual/ fertility imagery in art, and West Papua, where tribal men get about wearing nothing but a koteka (penis gourd). Fundamentalist Islam is not a good fit for the laid-back and tolerant nature of Indonesian people.

* I wonder if the founders of Bandung's LIKMI School of Information Management and Computer Science knew what their institution's name means in English. You'd think someone must have told them.
* If you are planning to build a house in Indonesia and are told that you need to obtain large quantities of semen, don't be alarmed. That's just the way they say cement over here.

Now, I don't want to start perpetuating any negative stereotypes we have in Australia about Asian drivers, especially since most of you reading this are of Asian extraction (including yours truly). But if you were ever looking to find evidence to prove this stereotype, just go to Malaysia - it is truly a country full of "Asian drivers". Drivers in Malaysia seem almost universally rude, selfish and absent minded in the way they drive, to the point that its actually quite amusing to watch.

Indonesian drivers also embody many of these qualities, but to drive in a city like Jakarta requires a certain character that is absent from Australian drivers. An Australian trying to drive in Jakarta would achieve full-blown road-rage within 5 minutes of getting behind the wheel, and would almost certainly harm himself or others. Yet Indonesian motorists seem extremely accepting of the people who cut them off, and I've yet to see anything in the way of even a rude gesture between motorists.

Make no mistake - peak hour traffic in Jakarta is probably the worst thing you can possibly endure in a lifetime, apart from perhaps death and torture. Imagine the traffic in peak hour in Melbourne, then multiply the population by 5, then reduce the width of roads by half; and you have some idea. I had the misfortune to be going somewhere at 7:30am on Monday. It took me (no joke) 40 minutes to move the first 2 km.

Pollution is, as you can imagine, pretty shocking. But cars are not the only problem. Smoking is extremely commonplace, and many Indonesians seem to be of the opinion that if you don't smoke, its only because you can't afford cigarettes, so they kindly supply you with their cancer-causing fumes free of charge. The idea that smoking a cigarette right next to a non-smoker is somewhat discourteous has not really cottoned on here.

One thing about Indonesians generally though, is that they are quite friendly to strangers. Because no one uses road maps in Indonesia, everyone always stops to ask directions from people on the side of the road, who are always happy to help (although they frequently give you bad directions). Malaysia however is a slightly different story. Although my Malaysian friends in Australia are universally lovely, the average Malaysian person in the street seems somewhat antagonistic. My experiences trying to ask for a train ticket, or board a bus in Kuala Lumpur, gave me the impression that the person serving me had 1000 things he would rather be doing than wasting a few seconds helping me out.

I don't think there is any other country in the world with a higher number of people named Rudy. That's pretty cool.
It's interesting to compare the names of Malays and Indonesians, who are virtually the same in many ways. Virtually all Malays have Arabic names (Mohammed, Syaiful, Abdullah, etc), whereas Indonesians have stuck with Islam but kept their Indonesian names. Indonesians also love to invent new names; only African Americans (with names like Beyonce, Tayshaun, Shaniqua and so on) can rival Indonesians' penchant for making up new names. Usually the typical Indonesian first name is anything ending with -i or -y. Examples: Rudy, Ferry, Andi, Handi, Fenny, Denny, Johnny, Yudi, Muni, Yenny, Ricky, Henny, Novi, Desi, Yuni, and so on.

While not as artery-hardeningly-magnificent as in Malaysia, Indonesia has a great food culture. You can't walk 10 metres in Jakarta without seeing someone selling some kind of food, and generally it's all good. And its more diverse than you'd think, as most roadside stalls specialise in 1 or 2 regional dishes from various parts of the archipelago. At the slightly more upmarket end of the scale, there is a growing number of "modern Indonesian" restaurants that take traditional food, polish off the rough edges and serve up beautifully presented dishes with powerful flavours (including copious quantities of chili).
Indonesians also seem to love eating things which are not overly popular in the West; lung, intestine and goat's testicles can all be found if you're keen, either deep fried or served with chili sambal or coconut gravy. I think I'll pass though.

If anyone is looking for a business opporunity, here's one: start growing and selling the following Indonesian crops in Australia:
Lemon Basil (Kemangi) - like the European and Thai basil varieties, but with refreshing citrus notes. Fantastic. Some Asian shops do have this, but its still very difficult to find.
Markisa - A passionfruit that is the size of an apple and tastes wonderfully refreshing and sweet without the tartness of the tiny little passionfruit we get in Australia.
Cassava Leaves - Popular in SE Asia, Africa and South America, for some reason Australian consumers can buy the cassava root (tapioca) but not the leaves, which are a good substitute for spinach and have 8% protein, extremely high for a leaf crop. I've spoken with people from Africa who would kill to get a supply of these.

Durian, "the king of fruits". Stinky.

Marquisa, a variety of passionfruit, indigenous to the Americas. My favourite.

Petai - also called parkia, sator, twisted cluster bean, stinky bean. I like it - but make sure you aren't planning to kiss anyone for a few days if you eat this.

Sapodilla, aka chickoo, sawo or sapote. Makes a great juice - have been drinking it almost everyday. Also Central American in origin.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Salam from Malaysia, March 2006

Made it safely to Kuala Lumpur and just taking it easy so far. Malaysia's favourite pastime is food consumption, so as you can imagine I'm acclimatising quite well.
I'm really surprised that Malaysia doesn't have an obesity epidemic to rival Australia or the USA, although I did hear that the national average cholesterol level is possibly the highest in the world. Unsurprising really. One would be forgiven for thinking there's nothing much else to do here other than:
(a) eat,
(b) drink something that invariably contains condensed milk, and
(c) talk in between mouthfuls
so Malaysians dutifully dine out as if they are on a mission from God. At any given hour of the day, there is always food available and being consumed. You don't see many full restaurants in Melbourne at 12:30am on a Monday night, but in KL its not uncommon.

Food is not usually of the low-cal variety either - or is just what I'm ordering? (Quite possibly.) My first day here began at 7am with fried noodles, followed by toasted sweet bun smothered with butter and serikaya (jam made from coconut and egg yolks), washed down with tea with condensed milk. At midnight not long after I touched down, my supper was an unusual and original example of East-West fusion - naan bread topped with half a tub of butter, grated carrots, sliced tomato, half a jar of mayonnaise, and sliced cheese. With dal and coconut chutney on the side. It was weird and kinda wrong but tasted oh so good, albeit with enough calories to kill a bull elephant at 10 paces. I gained 4 kilos just looking at it. Expect me to do some serious gym work and spinning classes upon my return to Melbourne.

The other weird thing I consumed was a drink strangely called "Michael Jackson", which consisted of seaweed jelly (black) floating in soybean milk (white). It turned out to be just okay, but it was such an odd combination that I just had to try; although I normally shy away from ordering drinks named after child-molesting entertainers ("anyone for a round of Gary Glitters?")

Interesting cultural fact: Working with teenagers as I do in Melbourne, young guys often tell me that you gotta be careful about messing with someone of certain ethnic groups, as he's liable to ring up his cousins to come and inflict a beat-down upon you. In Australia, they say its the Turks, Lebs and Pacific Islanders who have the biggest supply of belligerent cousins on speed-dial. In Malaysia, it's the Punjabis who have this reputation. So be warned; be careful who you start fights with, because you don't want an army of turban-clad dudes named Balbir and Jaswant Singh chasing you.

Communication is a funny thing in Malaysia. One of my friends has a theory that compared to many other countries, Malaysians are less friendly when it comes to striking up conversations with strangers, simply because of the uncertainty in what the other person's first language is. Heaps of people speak English, but enough don't to put some doubts in my mind over what language to use. Malays all speak Malay obviously, and the Chinese and Indians here all speak a little. Educated Chinese and Indians almost always speak English; the less well-off might not. But do I start speaking my shoddy Malay to someone who may possibly be fluent in English? Malay and Indonesian are virtually the same language (Bahasa Indonesia is basically a variant of Malay), but they are just different enough to cause confusion. Particularly as my Indonesian (sub-standard to begin with) is riddled with Jakarta-slang. So a simple, common phrase in Indonesian (eg. "when can you do this?") could be completely incomprehensible to a Malay speaker. It would be like me going to an old-people's home in Australia and speaking in American ghetto slang; it's still kinda the same language, but I'd get a lot of funny looks.

Everyone knows I love my mother's country, but still I've been inspired to give some

1. TRAFFIC LIGHTS: Indonesia has these too of course, but in Malaysia people actually stop at them. It's notable also that the concept of the seat-belt has appeared in Indonesia only 2 years ago.

2. BIRDS: No, I don't mean women (although they are nothing to complain about). Kuala Lumpur has pockets of green all over the place where you can actually see and hear birds. Even monkeys apparently. This may not seem like anything special, but if you go to Indonesia you will very rarely see live birds except in cages. In a crowded and poor nation of over 200 million, the fate of wild birds was sealed the moment Indonesians realised they tasted good.

3. TOILET PAPER: All that food has to go somewhere, of course, but in Indonesia this can raise problems for fragile Westerners like myself. Indonesians seem to take the admirably conservationist approach of "Why waste paper when Allah has given you a perfectly functional left hand?"
Now I'm sorry, but I just don't play that. Chop down all the trees you like, as long as my left hand remains untainted. Malaysians however, have been using toilet paper for decades, so you can walk into any toilet here confident in the knowledge that you will be sufficiently supplied. To do that in Indonesia requires severe optimism.

4. WARM SHOWERS: A foreign concept to the average Indonesian, yet standard in urban Malaysia. Even in the stinking hot weather, the whole Indonesian bucket-of-cold-water concept is a shock to my delicate system.

5. SAFER TAXIS: Its all relative of course, and I'm just going by hearsay. But in Indo, my relatives feel it their duty to warn me constantly that getting into a cab in Jakarta is akin to playing Russian Roulette. In KL, the worst thing a taxi driver will do is try and rip you off by hiking up your fare. So I guess I'd rather a cab driver rob me using sly words than dump me in an alley for all his homies to rob and brutalise me.

6. FOOD: Did I mention food? Good food is ever-present in Kuala Lumpur. Its not that there are more eating-places than in Melbourne. It's just that in Melbourne, walk into a place that sells food and 9 times out of 10 you'll have little to choose from beyond meat pies, sandwiches, pasta and vanilla slices. In KL, replace that with char kway tiao, masala thosai, char siu, fish head curry, kerabu (possibly the best salad in the world ever) and chendol. Its fabulous, and enough to make me consider bulimia as a valid way to experience several more meals a day. If you are going to live here however, just make sure you have a good heart surgeon.

Anyway, I'm gonna go eat some more. One Luv