Talking politics when you don’t speak the language

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A view of the presidential palace in Bogor Gardens.

Indonesia is a diverse, pluralistic nation with over a hundred different ethnic groups. It’s also got politics, so political talk is inevitable: currently, the city of Jakarta is in turmoil because the former Chinese governor Ahok was convicted of blasphemy, while the man who accused him and drove the campaign for his blasphemy trial, the Muslim cleric Anis, is taking control as governor. Any takers for a serialized TV show on this stuff?

We’ve had a few chats on Trump and the state of the states while here, mostly in English. And they people who we’re talking with range from sympathy to total surprise when it comes to our reaction regarding Trump. A friend who directs policy at a nonprofit shook her head with us at the insanity already unfolding in the states – things like the immigration travel ban and the proposed wall with Mexico. Then there was the uniformed military officer in Bogor Garden who wanted a selfie with us. He asked what we thought about Trump after the photo, and was genuinely perplexed when I put my face in my hands and replied, “Terrible. Embarrassing. Bad.” Then again, Indonesia (and much of Asia) has a history of leaders that the Western world condemned for being dictators and strongmen. Trump’s tactics are likely to appeal to them.

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An Indonesian war monument and poorly-placed deer amusement park sign near Bogor gardens, where we had one of our Trump conversations.

But for our last night in Jakarta, we got the same question about Trump from locals in Glodok who DEFINITELY didn’t speak English. They were the guys who made our dinner at their nasi goreng cart. They wanted to know the usual at first, why we came to Indonesia and whether we liked it and where we were from. After using my broken Indonesian to convey we were from the U.S., the two exchanged glances and one of them asked, “Trump?”

Ohhh boy, where to start. I started with the “Bad for the U.S., bad leader,” description, but the guys didn’t understand that. After trying to explain for a few minutes, I gave up. Then the guy asked again, “Trump?” but this time he accompanied it with a thumbs up/thumbs down motion. BRILLIANT! I made a dramatic, emphatic thumbs down motion, which set the two guys off in laughter and excited talking.

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The two nasi-goreng chefs who taught us to talk politics without using words.

Now it’s my turn: I ask “Ahok?” and give the same thumbs up/thumbs down motion. I’m curious to know what they think of their former governor, now convicted of blasphemy. I would guess since we’re in Glodok (an enclave of the Chinese minority), they would like him. I’m totally surprised when they give the thumbs down, and make a motion like calling to the sky: blasphemy. He blasphemed Allah. This sign language politics communication is working pretty well.

I ask one more question of our two nasi goreng chefs: “Jokowi?” This is Indonesia’s current president. He’s aligned with Ahok, and one of concerns of the Western world and among the Indonesians is that this Ahok-Anis affair bodes poorly for Jokowi in the next election. They fear that Indonesia will become increasingly pro-Muslim and anti-every other minority in Indonesia, electing people with more hardline views. But I’m surprised again by our two chefs; they both enthusiastically give a thumbs up for Jokowi! His popularity remains unscathed, at least with these two locals.

So the next time you’re in a country and can’t speak the language, you can still talk politics (or anything!) in the simplest possible terms. Just say the word and give a thumbs up/thumbs down. It’s not going to get you a detailed political analysis, but it gets you a feeling, and you might be surprised at how much you can communicate without words.

The Jakarta-Yogyakarta Train

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Passing the edge of a city by train, Jakarta->Yogyakarta.

We’re bound by train to Yogyakarta, the “cultural capital” in southern Java that’s affectionately referred to as “Jogja”. Though a flight is only an hour compared to the train’s nine-hour trip, it’s nine hours well-spent admiring Java’s scenery.

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Trees silhouetted against empty rice paddies.

 

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Rice paddies thick with the greenery of rice plants in Southern Java.
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Javanese dwellings on stilts.

 

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A passenger texts while catching a ride on an ojek.
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An unfocused photo of construction work on a river (likely for a bridge). 

This is the most densely-populated island in Indonesia, and villages, fields, and rice paddies speed by every second. Each moment is a snapshot of Java beyond the cities, where most people farm and know no other way of life. As we speed by, I imagine all of the knowledge they must have about farming and the seasons of Java—how to start rice shoots growing, when to plant them in the flooded paddies, when to harvest the rice plants, when to let a paddy lie fallow. I try to imagine what it must be like to push the rice seedling into the muddy water, feet sunk into the same mud that will nourish this rice plant as the sun beats down on my back. It’s hard work and I’m lucky I don’t have to do it, but I want to know how it feels.

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Terraced fields near one of Java’s many volcanic cones.

 

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A man plants young rice seedlings in a flooded paddy.
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Farmers escape the heat of the day in a dwelling on the rice paddies. Most fields and paddies we passed had a shelter to hide from the sweltering tropical sun.

 

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A farmer walks through lush, peridot-green rice paddies.
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Farmers dump harvested rice from sacks for husking.
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An ojek stands before a harvested rice paddy.

As people increasingly flock to Indonesia’s cities (a worldwide trend), the passage of this agricultural knowledge halts. Maybe one day it will disappear entirely, forgotten or as good as forgotten, left only in written texts. But hopefully someone here will see value in this knowledge and keep it alive.

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An island in a sea of rice paddies. The erratic growth of the rice here might be from grains lost from the last harvest in a field now fallow.

Jakarta’s Wayang Museum

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An old Wayang doll, on display at Jakarta’s Wayang Museum

The Wayang is a traditional shadow puppet here in Indonesia. The puppets are made in a variety of sizes and materials, from human-sized articulated wooden dolls to 20 cm tall buffalo hide dolls. Each puppet is ornately painted with beautiful colors and can be considered an independent work of art from the Wayang theater. To learn more about them, we stopped by Jakarta’s Wayang Museum in Kota Tua. An employee on duty at the time excitedly gave us a tour in English, taking us through the floors of Wayang on display and walking us through how they’re made.

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The face of a human-sized Wayang doll on display. Note the ornate and brilliantly-colored painting of the face.

Most Wayang dolls are made for the telling of Hindu epics, stories that arrived here with the Hindu religion around the first century. Wayang depictions of Rama, his wife Sita, and Lakshamana from the Ramayana are common, as are depictions of the heroes of the Mahabharata epic. Each doll is laden with iconography to help the audience identify each character in the story, from weapons to hairstyles and facial structure.

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An unfinished Wayang doll of a Hindu epic protagonist. Note the shape of his face, hair, and the monkey on his head, all of which help the audience identify his character by name. I’ve sadly forgotten these details, but they’re written into the museum exhibit’s signs.

 

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Different characters from one of the Hindu epics–I think these ones are antagonists/demons.
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Details in the hair of a Wayang doll. Each hole and line is punched painstakingly into the buffalo hide by hand.

Though these epics are ancient, Wayang is alive and well, still adopting new stories to tell. As Indonesia modernized, contemporary Wayang dolls sprung up beside the ancient heroes and deities. We walk past depictions of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, as well as Wayang dolls representing the imperialist Dutch and British forces that once controlled Indonesia as a colony. There are also depictions of characters in Christianity and fairy-tales. Our guide stops by a pair of Wayang dolls at the end of the contemporary section and points to them with a grin, “These show a couple who have so many children that they are always busy. Indonesians used to believe that having so many children was good, but now too many children is a problem. The Office of Family Planning uses these dolls to show people that they should not have so many children.”

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A Wayang doll of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.
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Wayang dolls of Jesus and Adam.
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The character used by Indonesia’s Office of Family Planning to teach people to have fewer children. The man depicted here has so may children that he’s literally laden down by them.

The museum also has foreign dolls and puppets from around the world, housed alongside its gamelans and other musical instruments. We spot Punch and Judy, Vasilisa the Brave, and a unicorn. There are dolls from Chinese opera. There’s even an Alebrije here, a demon with a Medusa-like head of cobras.

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Chinese opera dolls in the Wayang Museum.
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An Alebrije with cobras for hair.

We finish up with a display on how the Wayang dolls are made, hand punched with tiny metal tools and painted with brilliant colors. Our guide then disappears and comes back with someone who makes Wayang dolls for a living. We’re wary, but we follow him to his workshop around the corner, which is modest, but seems genuine. Tools lay scattered about alongside unfinished dolls and a white sheet at the front of the room serves as a display.

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A holepunching set used to create the intricate details of Wayang dolls.
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A side-by-side comparison of unfinished and painted Wayang dolls. The line running from lower right to the head of the doll is a handle for use, made from buffalo horn.

Our artisan friend puts on a free, 15-minute version of the Ramayana, becoming all of its characters in turn, from Rama to his wife Sita, to the demon Rawana and the ape-god Hanuman.

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A scene from our performance, wherein Sita encounters the golden deer and asks Rama to catch it for her.

He ends the performance with the reunion of Rama and Sita, followed by a hilariously cringe-worthy reference to modern politics*:

Rama: I am so happy you are back, Sita.

Sita: I am happy to see you too, Rama! We should celebrate, by going shopping in New York in the Trump Tower!

Rama: Hahaha, yes, that is a very good idea! Trump is a good friend, I can talk to him.

Sita: Oh Rama, I love you!

Rama: I love you too!

Following the performance, the was a sales pitch to buy a Wayang doll to support the artisan’s work and his school to teach Wayang dollmaking. We don’t know how legit this story is beacuse it shares some traits with scams we encountered in Yogyakarta, so be aware if you’re approached at the museum. But the guy did have business cards, so…maybe? We’re not the right people to judge, and I consider the purchase of a Wayang doll a donation as thanks for the performance.

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Our artisan friend, demonstrating the hole-punching technique that creates the intricate details of the Wayang dolls.

* My ten-second analysis is that Indonesians are impressed with Trump because they have a history of admiring strongman presidents and see those same qualities in Trump. They just assume everyone in the U.S. is equally as excited about his election.

Getting train tickets in Indonesia

Today’s goal was to buy train tickets on to Yogyakarta, a city in southern Java known for its temples (Borobudur and Prambanan), arts, and culture. Buying train tickets here in Indonesia is usually just a short click away at Tiket.com, where you can browse and book bus/plane/train tickets. It’s so good that both locals and visitors use it, with a small hitch for us visitors: it randomly rejects foreign credit cards.

We were the (un)lucky winners of this lottery when the website refused our Chase card, so our only other options were to 1) have the hostel buy them and pay them back or 2) go down to the train station and buy tickets in person. In the spirit of adventure, learning, and later sharing with all of you, we of course opted for option #2. So, it’s off to Jakartakota to buy tickets!

Step 1: Know the train(s) you want

Tiket.com comes in handy even if you can’t/don’t want to buy online because it has a schedule for all the trains. For reasons that’ll become clear in a couple of steps, write down or print out the details of 2-3 trains you’d be willing to catch from the website; write more if it looks like there are few seats left on the train you want. Likewise, note the price. When you head off to the station, make sure you have both your travel identification (for us foreigners, usually the passport) and enough to pay for the ticket in cash.

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Tiket.com website results for a Jakarta->Yogyakarta train search. The departure day, time, train name/number, and price are all useful to know even if you can’t purchase online.

Step 2: Be prepared to navigate a busy station (and ask for help)

Tiket.com may be convenient, but not everyone in Indonesia has the means to pay online so expect a wait to buy tickets. The length varies by time and station, of course, but when we arrived Jakarta’s main station (Gambir) looked like this:

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The kiosks, windows, timetables, lines for machines of unknown function, and rows of people sitting and milling around at the station can be pretty overwhelming. It’s totally cool to ask for help from either the employees or the security guards (the guy in the white hat).

Though Indonesia has a lot of bilingual Bahasa/English information, not everything has been translated and the train station can feel overwhelming. But a lot of people here speak a bit of English and “tiket” is the Bahasa word for “ticket”, which is super helpful. We found that asking for “tiket Yogyakarta” got us pointed to the right set of windows. From there, a family helped us get a number (like those you get in waiting rooms or at the deli counter) and a ticket form. Speaking of…

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The machine that gives you a number for waiting in line. You want the green button that says “pemesanan tiket/ticket reservation” next to it.

Step 3: Fill out your form!

This is how everyone in Indonesia bought tickets before the Internet age and how you’re gonna buy tickets now: get a form, fill it out with the train you want, and hand it over to the teller when your number is called. This is where the train information you got in Step 1 from Tiket.com comes in handy; after filling out the personal information, write in the date/time of your #1 train choice. Now it’s time to wait for your number, which should appear on a screen above the ticket windows.

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The handy example of a completed ticket form at the Jakarta Gambir Station. Note that the form is bilingual Bahasa/English, which makes filling it out easier.

Step 4: Exchange your form and cash for a ticket

Once your number is called, gather your travel document and completed form and head to the designated window number. Hand the form over, and the ticket teller will let you know if there are still any seats on the train you wanted. The teller we encountered here spoke English (although not all do, so memorize those numbers in Bahasa or write them down) and told us that our first train choice was sold out. This is the situation where your list of second/third choice trains comes in handy. Don’t worry about filling out another form, just ask about the availability of other trains or show them your list. Thankfully we had a second train choice and finished the ticket purchase in a couple of minutes.

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The windows and waiting area for ticket purchase

Step 5: Get your actual ticket!

“What?!” you exclaim, “Didn’t I just get my ticket?” Nope. Java’s train system runs like an airline, meaning the voucher you get isn’t your actual ticket. You should arrive at the station 30-40 minutes early and exchange the ticket you got for a boarding pass ticket, usually at kiosks or computers just before the security check. The security check guys know what’s up (they’ve helped a lot of people do this), so they’ll show you where to scan the document or do it for you.

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And with tickets in hand, you can celebrate with some fresh bubblegum-flavored bubble tea at the end!

Jakarta in a day

You can’t see everything in Jakarta in just one day. But if that’s all you have, this tour will take you across the city to sample its offerings in history, culture, and food:

8:00 am – Breakfast and Pasar Baru

Catch breakfast at Bakso Rusuk Samanhudi, where their specialties are traditional Indonesian bakso (meatballs) and rusuk (braised ribs). Spoil yourself and get both in menu item #1 (Bakso Urat + bakso Kecil + Rusuk) because you’re going to be doing a lot of walking before lunch. And if you loved it, come back here any time; the restaurant is open 24 hours.

After breakfast, walk down Pasar Baru and watch the market wake up (it officially opens at 9:00 am). Here you’ll find food stalls, clothing and fabric stores, shoe shops, and all sorts of other odds and ends. Watch out for the occasional ojek (motorbike) careening down the street.

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Bakso Rusuk Samanhudi storefront. “Buka 24 Jam” means “Open 24 hours”.
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The tender, fall-apart-at-a-touch rusuk (rib meat).

10:00 am – The Mosque and Cathedral

Wander south and you’ll encounter Istiqlal Mosque, Indonesia’s national mosque and the largest in Southeast Asia. Dress modestly and register with the front desk, and you’re free to admire the architecture inside. Across the street you’ll find the St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, the seat of Catholic worship in Indonesia. Again, dress modestly and you’re free to look around and admire the gothic architecture. Given the conflict in the rest of the world, the peaceful coexistence of these two houses of worship so close together is inspiring.

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Watching the traffic on a rainy day in front of the Istiqlal Mosque.

11:00 am – National Monument (Monas)

Southwest of the mosque and cathedral is the Monument Naisonal (National Monument), also known as Monas. Housed in a massive park, the tower holds a gold-leaf flame atop to symbolize the struggle for Indonesian independence. Reliefs depicting the fight for independence surround the tower’s base, and during business hours you can ascend to the top (though the wait can be long and the elevators crowded). The surrounding park affords a relaxing walk and souvenir vendors, but it can be hard to find your way in and out as the park only has entrances at each of its four corners.

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The National Monument (Monas), with the dome of the Istiqlal Mosque in the background (lower left).

12:30 pm – Lunch on Agus Salim Street

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head south to Agus Salim Street, which is famous for its street food. Grab a quick nasi goreng with telur (egg) or ayam (chicken), or get a bowl of mie (soupy noodles) with chopped meat and veggies. You won’t find many English speakers here, so brush up on your Indonesian foods and come armed with a smile and some patience. Eat quickly if it’s a Thursday and you want to catch the guided English-language tour at the National Museum.

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Mie ayam (noodles and diced chicken) from Agus Salim street.

1:30 pm – National Museum

Hurry back up the street to the National Museum, where on Thursdays you can catch an English-language tour by the Indonesian Heritage Society at 1:30 pm (double check tour times at the link). If it’s not Thursday, explore on your own. The museum houses thousands of artifacts illustrating Indonesia’s diverse history and culture, so it’s best to choose a couple of exhibits rather than cover the whole museum.

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The National Museum building, as seen from the courtyard/garden in front of it.

3:30 pm – Shopping mall stroll

After visiting the National Museum, it’s time to indulge in some consumerism at the massive mall plazas that sprawl just to the south of the National Monument Park. Catch bus line 1 south from the Monumen Nasional stop in front of the museum and take it three stops to Busway Bundaran Hotel Indonesia. Cross the street and you’ll find yourself between the Plaza Indonesia and Grand Indonesia, two enormous, multi-story malls. Complete with themed food courts, international brands, and batik boutiques, you could literally and figuratively get lost in these malls for hours. This is a good chance to stock up on a quality batik scarf of dress, indulge in a quality coffee, or just marvel at the difference in development and income between these malls and the Pasar Baru Market only a couple of miles away.

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A fountain at the Grand Indonesia
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A nautically-themed restaurant, complete with a faux sailboat dining area, light house, and painted blue sky.

6:00 pm – Explore and dine at Blok M

Catch bus line 1 south again and ride 30 minutes (10 stops) to the end of the line at Blok M. If you’re worn out from the consumerism, get some fresh air by wandering the streets around Blok M station or head to Martha Tiahahu park for some greenery. Blok M also hosts a plethora of stores for gemstones, secondhand books, and records if you’re not done with shopping. You can also get an early drink here at a bar, but careful of what you order as we’ve heard there can be hidden charges.

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A man makes nasi goreng (fried rice) on the street near Blok M.

Once darkness falls and the shops of Blok M shutter, head to the Blok M Square for the nightly food market that sprouts up on the sidewalk outside. You’ll find a panoply of traditional Indonesian food on offer, but to sample the greatest variety get some padang—look for a long table with dozens of dishes on it. Get a plate of rice from the vendor and then load it down with whatever catches your fancy – I’d recommend the quail eggs on skewers, fried egg, braised eggplant in sauce, and sweet gudeg. Pay at the end based on how many dishes you got and doff your shoes to take a seat at one of the low tables nearby. When you’re done, indulge in dessert with an STMJ – a local drink made with milk, spicy ginger syrup, honey, and egg, topped with a thick froth and caramelized with a blowtorch.

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A padang vendor at the Blok M food market.
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Our padang plate: rice, braised eggplant, green beans, gudeg, and quail eggs.
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The Blok M market STMJ, with extra ginger concoction on the side for more spiciness (clear glass).

Buses run until 11:00 pm, so when you’re done you can catch one back to your hotel/hostel. Or if you want an all-nighter, you can stay until 3:00 am, when the food stalls pack up for the night to make way for the 5:00 am bulk goods market.

The National Museum in Jakarta

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A view of the National Museum’s new wing.

It’s Thursday, and we’re gathered in the main foyer of the National Museum’s new wing for an English-language guided tour. With the old wing under renovation, the tour is limited to the new wing exhibits. But between the artifacts, scale models, and multilingual tours, the exhibits in the new wing alone paint a detailed portrait of Indonesia’s history.

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A Sanskrit tablet from ancient Indonesia

 

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Depiction of a mythical creature, possibly the Indonesian version of a Qilin.

We start with the natural history of the world and humankind (Man and the Environment), where the guide shows us replicas of proto-human skulls and patterns of human migration. We then follow her up to the second floor, where the tour of Indonesian culture begins. It’s an epic tale of cultural evolution driven by what Indonesia does best: trade. The cultures of Indonesia adopted new ideas that flowed along the trade routes, starting with Hinduism and followed by Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. The result was a cultural melting pot unrivaled by any other pre-modern civilization.

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Decorative belts from ancient Indonesian cultures

 

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A ornate ceremonial gold, silver, and quartz crown.

 

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An intricately-woven basket in the exhibit

The number and variety of artifacts in the exhibits is staggering. We pass ancient stones carved with Sanskrit, ceremonial jewelry worn by the islands’ various ethnic groups, and scale models of temples. The guide stops at one of these scale models and introduces it as Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Inscribed in its walls are the stories of Buddha and his enlightenment. I think Stoytcho and I have found our next destination.

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A scale model of a traditional house–NOT Borobudur, which had poor lighting and was difficult to photograph.

 

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Necklaces, bracelets, and other adornments that were potentially used as funerary gifts.

We end our tour on the top floor, with the treasures of Indonesia. We’re not allowed to take photos, due in part to a heist that happened here in 2013. But the pieces here match those of Europe’s crown jewels: gold rings, necklaces, and brooches threaded with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Ornate Kris blades, encrusted with jewels. It’s stuff from the dreams of Ali Baba. While we’re finishing up in the exhibit, the lights flicker for a moment and go out. We’re left in darkness, and fumbling for our phones, manage to shed some light on the glass displays. Thankfully, this isn’t a heist; the museum has been suffering intermittent outages thanks to the construction next door. We wrap up and head downstairs, into a sea of fidgeting, giggling schoolchildren waiting for their own tours to begin.

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A student rests behind an Indonesian depiction of a dragon.

Jakarta: Chinatown Food and Flavor

 

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Pork wontons in broth at Mie Ahin.

UPDATE: Mie Ahin, aka Bakmi A-Hin, now shows up on Google Maps in the correct place (here), so you can get there and not have the crazy getting lost adventure we had below!

Today’s destination is Jakarta’s Chinatown, which Stoytcho has heard houses an amazing noodle and wonton place by the name of Mie Ahin. Chinatown is actually conveniently located next to Glodok and we can walk from our hostel (TPL), so we do a search on Google Maps for Mie Ahin. Against all expectations, we get a hit, and in minutes we’re following directions through Glodok’s narrow streets. In ten minutes, we’re in Chinatown.

 

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A shrine at one corner of Jakarta’s Chinatown.

A faded red pagoda marks Chinatown’s main square and a few small shrines guard the streets around it, burnt-out incense sticks still standing in the offering urns. These are the only indications that this is Chinatown. The rest of the area is a maze of narrow alleys, impromptu markets, and mixed-material buildings that have been patched and repatched. Plastic pipes feed the open sewers beside the streets, and concrete slabs form bridges to the doorways of houses and shops. The Chinese minority are rumored to control 70% of Indonesia’s wealth, but if true that money hasn’t found its way here.

 

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Small fish live and feed in the open sewers beside the streets in Chinatown, Jakarta.

We reach what Google claims is the site of Mie Ahin to find no restaurants and continue down the alley, hoping it’s just a bit further. The alley dead-ends in a dirt path by the river, which we follow right leads a person’s front door. We ask for Mie Ahin and they cheerfully point us down another alley, back in the direction we came. Dimmed by the tall apartment blocks around it and makeshift tarps to keep out the rain, this alley seems to go on forever. We stop and ask a few other people for Mie Ahin, and they continue to point us in the same direction. Finally, we emerge back on the main street where we first noticed the Chinatown shrines. We’ve gone in a circle.

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We pass the purported location of Mie Ahin and end up here, on a dirt path by the river.
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We walk back through makeshift markets and narrow streets, looking for Mie Ahin.

I ask a passing guy for “Mie Ahin” and he points us up along the street. We walk a few meters, then ask again at a shop. The shopkeep points us back in the direction we came. We ping-pong between the two locations for a few minutes, convinced that we’re asking for the wrong thing, somebody thinks we want the wrong thing, or we’re just blind because we can’t seem to find this place when we notice a sign posted on a wall. “MIE” it reads, in bold red lettering. We approach the man at the stall next to it and ask “Mie Ahin?” “Ya,” he replies with a smile.

 

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Mie Ahin, at last!

 

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Our chef and Mie Ahin’s owner.

Compared to finding Mie Ahin, ordering was simple. Our chef speaks some English and between this, Google Translate, and pointing, we got one noodle dish and one wonton soup. They came out piping hot, delivered only a few steps from the stall to our plastic-covered table. Both are rich and heavy, flavored with pork and fat and seasoned with mushrooms and vegetables. The wonton skins are thin and just chewy enough. We finish them and order two more. Amused, the guy churns them out with haste. “You like it?” he asks. “YA!” I reply. He beckons on old man from the inside courtyard to come out to meet us. “This is my father. He started this place and it is named for him,” he tells us, beaming.

 

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Mie with chicken, mushrooms, and vegetables + wontons with broth and veggies. THEY WERE DELICIOUS, GET YOURSELF SOME.

 

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We pose with the owner’s father, founder of Mie Ahin. I appreciate his patience with us since we worked through translations via his son and Google Translate.

Mie Ahin is so good that we come back again a few days later in the late afternoon. The Mie Ahin stall is empty—it’s is only open for lunch! The rest of the time this courtyard-turned-restaurant transforms back into a courtyard, with the nearby building’s residents sitting around for a chat. We wander around looking for a meal and drift toward the smell of steamed bread to find Chinese buns down the street at Ming Yen Restaurant. We pull up plastic chairs inside and a guy comes out with a menu. It’s all in Indonesian, but the guy walks us through the types in English: pork, chicken, Chinese sausage, mushrooms, and red bean. We get one of each and chow down—they’re a bit bready, but the fillings are delicious.

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Steamed buns, a substitute and comfort after finding Mie Ahin closed.

Meanwhile, the guy running the restaurant wants to know more about us and what we’re doing here. We tell him about the world trip and he’s thrilled. “I want to travel like that! I moved here to help my family run this restaurant, but I am also in school now,” he grins. “Your English is great,” I tell him, “that’ll help you a lot in traveling, so keep studying!” I don’t know if it’ll take him around the world, but hopefully it’ll take him somewhere. The kind people around here deserve as much.

Jakarta: Photos from around

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Night traffic in Jakarta

Jakarta is a sprawling megacity, with 10 million people crammed into an area smaller than New York City. The people here come from a kaleidoscope of cultures and faiths; dozens of Indonesian ethnic groups rub elbows and the majority Muslim community lives alongside communities of Buddhists, Christians, Catholics, and Hindus. It’s business as usual for the thousand year-old seaport, which has seen waves of nearly all the world’s religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity) carried on the tides of trade routes.

Indonesia’s wealth has increased in the past decade, but with it has come rising income inequality that is etched into Jakarta’s cityscape. We’re staying in Glodok, an industrial area near the seaport characterized by corrugated aluminum roofing, wooden market stalls, and open sewers in the streets. But take a bus thirty minutes south and you’ll find yourself in Central Jakarta neighborhoods like Menteng, surrounded by walled mansions and multi-story malls with marble floors pushing the latest luxury brands, where doors are opened for you by bellhops who speak perfectly unaccented English. The economic disparity in the city is jarring—residents of Glodok and Menteng may share a city, but they live in different worlds.

In spite of the wealth gap, nearly everyone we meet in Jakarta is happy to see us. Any smile from us is immediately returned by a passing person. On the bus and around town, people who speak English ask us about our travels and translate our responses for excited relatives. Gaggles of schoolchildren approach you at tourist attractions, tasked by their teachers to interview tourists as English homework, and in nervous giggles ask about your favorite Indonesian food. I’ve never felt more welcome in a country where I don’t speak the language. It’s as if the entire country is excitedly curious about you, reaching out to embrace you in every act.

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Jakarta rush hour seen from Glodok, where five rows of cars fit into four lanes and sometimes the motorbikes skip traffic via the bus lane (right).

 

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The square in front of the Jakarta History Museum in Kota Tua.

 

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Stoytcho tries a hot bowl of wedang ronde, a local sweet snack.

 

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A variety of dishes offered at a padang stall in the Blok M food market.

 

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People watch rainy-day traffic in front of the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. Across the street is the Jakarta Cathedral; both houses of worship have coexisted on this street for decades.

 

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Two girls, one with a headscarf, walk together in front of the Jakarta History Museum in Kota Tua.

 

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A puppet made for Wayang, the traditional Indonesian shadow puppet theater.

 

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A nasi goreng (fried rice) stall on the street.

 

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The narrow, makeshift market-crammed streets of Chinatown, near Glodok.

 

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Pipes empty into a streetside open sewer in Glodok.

 

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A fountain in the Grand Indonesia Mall.

 

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The National Monument (Monas), commemorating the country’s fight for independence.

 

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A woman and her child in an ojek (motorbike) parking lot.

 

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We take a selfie with Indonesian students that interviewed us for their English class.