Before I continue writing about my travels in Ukraine, I wanted to go back to Indonesia. I’ve been thinking about Indonesia a lot this past week because an important presidential election was just held there and because I just went “back” to Indonesia after reading and reviewing Elizabeth Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc. The presidential election isn’t quite over because both candidates claimed victory and the official counting won’t be finished for another 10 days. It’s a pivotal moment in Indonesia and all of that got me thinking about my first days there.
So here’s a short story I wrote some time ago about sambal and masuk angin. Enjoy.
The burp caught me off guard. It was my second day in Indonesia and I was busy worrying about lunch, learning a new language and my own foolish decision to accept a yearlong job offer in a country I knew almost nothing about. “They had a dictator named Suharto. It’s the fourth largest country in the world and the most populous Muslim nation. Bali is there. And, it’s going to be hot,” I told my friends in a self-assured tone that was masking all of my deepest fears.
On my first day in one of the hottest countries I had ever allowed my pale, prone-to-burning body to enter, I had gone to lunch with teachers and students from my language school. “Sambal,” my teacher Asti said as she handed me a plastic bowl with a red substance inside. I had watched as everyone else at the table took two, three, four or even five spoonfuls of the red sauce and dumped it on top of their plates full of rice, vegetables and meat. Two spoonfuls later, I was a total wreck. My pale skin had turned bright red, I was sweating profusely and I was desperately trying to hold back tears. “You like spicy food? You like chili pepper sauce?” Asti asked. Why, oh why, hadn’t she asked this a minute earlier?
The loud, deep burp interrupted my painful recollection of lunch. I was startled. I looked over and saw a group of middle aged motorcycle taxi drivers sitting with their tank tops rolled up over their bellies while smoking clove cigarettes that created clouds of intoxicating smelling smoke. As soon as they noticed me, the shouts of “Hello, Mrs.! Where are you going?” and “Beautiful” started. And then, one of the drivers burped again.
A friend in college, who had grown up in the Phillippines, had one thing to say to me before I moved to Asia: “You know nothing about mangoes.” She went on to tell me how the one, maybe two, easily found varieties we get in the US are sub-par. Needless to say, within about a week of being in Indonesia, I realized she was completely and totally right. Not only are there hundreds of varities of mangoes, they can taste like completely different fruits. Really I could write a Dr. Seuss rhyme here…
So in my effort to get to 20 tropical fruit posts, here’s my ode to a fruit most people know, but don’t really know. When mango season arrives across Asia, there’s an excitment among the vendors. And the fruit isn’t necessarily cheap. I would sometimes pay almost $2USD for a large, perfect mango in Jakarta. Often street vendores give you a spicy salt that you can dip the fruit into.
It seems that India wins on the mango craze. The Alphonso variety is considered the creme de la creme — here’s a NYTimes story on mangoes in India. And here is a CNNGo piece about the same area where the very expensive prized variety comes from. I have yet to try it.
After over a year of living and working in Indonesia, it was only fair that on my final full day in country I would watch the sun rise and set (cue: awww). Leaving a place and not knowing when you will return is always tinged with a bit of melancholy and thoughts of regret: all the things you still want to do and the things you would have done differently. I still distinctly remember the balmy temperature and taste of the last chevre salad I had in Paris after almost 7 months of living there. I always distinctly remember my first day and last day in a place. And in all honesty, after 14 months, my final day in Indonesia was the best last day I could have ever wished for in a country that I grew to love and still follow very closely reading news and chatting with friends who live in Jakarta. The sunrise over Labuan Bajo heading out to Komodo Island:
I sipped hot, oh-so-sugary Jasmine tea as our boat cut through the waters, passing other islands to reach the famed Komodo Island.
We met up with another ranger and began hiking in the early morning heat. We saw many deer on the island and I watched one get extremely close to a Komodo dragon — thankfully nothing happened.
The ranger station was, as on Rinca Island, a popular hang out spot for my lizard friends:
Komodo dragons. They are scary buggers. Just read this news story, or this one. Or this bizarre story involving Sharon Stone and a Komodo dragon. These prehistoric-like creatures draw crowds to the Western shores of Flores where boats depart from the town of Labuan Bajo and head out to sea to Rinca Island and Komodo Island where the lizards do dwell. Tourists from around the world come to visit the dragons, found nowhere else in the wild, and snorkel and dive in the amazingly clear waters. It was one of those places I knew I had to see while living in Indonesia.
When I told friends and colleagues back in Jakarta I was going to visit Komodo National Park, several of the women I told paused and giggled. I knew they wanted to tell me something, so I prodded them. “Well just make sure you don’t have your period,” one woman finally told me. I was confused. “They can smell the blood and will attack you.” I left the office that day terrified that I would be attacked by dragons. So I did what any person would do and went home and Googled. I decided this was probably somewhat of an urban myth and that I would be fine.
On the day of my arrival in Labuan Bajo everything was fine in the lady department, but the journalist side got the better of me and I decided I would ask my new guide, an Indonesian male, all about this whole situation. I had even had a male friend in Jakarta mention it to me, so this was either one big urban legend or there was some truth to it.
As we sailed away from Labuan Bajo, surrounded by beautiful blue seas, I said, “I have a question about the dragons and women.” I was afraid I was asking a delicate question that might embarrass my guide, but the opposite proved to be true. I had noticed many small huts along the shores of islands we passed on the way out to Rinca Island. My guide informed me that Komodo dragons have an amazing sense of smell and definitely pick up blood. The women who live on Rinca and Komodo must be very careful when they get their period. My guide told me women tend to stay inside for about a week and carefully burn all waste so the dragons don’t pick up a scent and come running. It is also the reason why no women can be park rangers on Rinca or Komodo Island.
When we landed on Rinca Island, we were immediately handed large sticks. If a dragon got too close, we were supposed to hit them in a sensitive spot: their nose.
I woke up at the convent with a tinge of sadness because today would be my last day traveling with Pak Ardi and Pak Patris. They were going to drop me in Labuan Bajo where I would board a boat and go looking for Komodo dragons. But before we parted ways, they had some sights in store that left longing to stay on mainland Flores for several more weeks. We drove off of the main Flores highway and stopped near a regular looking home. Pak Ardi told me a local village woman would lead me up a hill and he’d wait at the bottom enjoying some cigarettes. We hiked up a steep dirt trail and then the woman pointed for me to go join an older Indonesian man who was with a group of tourists from Spain. When I peered over the side of the hill, I was shocked. Pak Ardi told me the rice fields were circular and beautiful, but once I saw it in person, wow: