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Christmas on a Volcano, in a ‘Desert’ and Under a Waterfall

My father told me that my grandfather once said something along the lines of “you are closest to God on a mountain.” Literally, figuratively, or both, I’ve always loved that phrase. So since I’m far from home, and won’t be celebrating Christmas with my family until I’m back in the States on January 6th (Ukrainian Christmas on the old Julian calendar), I thought I should make Christmas on the 25th in Indonesia a memorable one. Mount Bromo in eastern Java always makes the list of “most beautiful, awe-inspiring” sights in Indonesia, so I thought I’d get on a mountain, be in nature, and perhaps be closer to God.

Chloe and I based ourselves out of the second largest city on Java, Surabaya. We paid Rp 600,000 (about $32 each, find them here, according to our receipt: for a driver to take us to Bromo and wherever else we wanted for the day. We left Surabaya at 11 p.m. and reached the final parking lot near Mount Bromo at 2:30 a.m. The pitch black, winding drive was a bit scary, but I was too busy looking at the stars, you can’t see stars in Jakarta, it is too polluted. It is important to tell your driver to go all the way to the final lot because hotels along the way try to lure customers with Jeep and room combos. You can either get into a Jeep near the mountain with a driver and be driven to many places or get on a motorcycle with a driver and hike from wherever you want them to drop you. For $10 Chloe and I decided to get on motorcycles. At around 3:30 a.m. we got on the bikes and they dropped us at the base of Mount Pananjakan from where our hike began. And this is what the sunrise “on Christmas day in the morning” was like:

We had flashlights and hiked for about two hours all the way to the viewpoint. “Awe-inspiring” is an apt description. From Mount Pananjakan you see Mount Bromo, the active and smoking Mount Semeru, and Mount Batok.

The clouds looked like water — moving, drifting, swirling and overflowing onto the terraced onion field plots around the mountains.

At the viewpoint many people wanted to take photos with Chloe and I. All I wanted to say was, “there is a beautiful volcano behind us!” The Bromo area is Hindu, and this boy in his beautiful batik wrap was selling flower offerings:

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On Religion

Don’t worry, I’m not about to write a treatise. But after over six months in Indonesia, with plenty of reading and editing, I think it’s time I write about some serious topics. Over a week ago I finally visited Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. It is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and can hold over 100,000 people.

When we entered the mosque complex we were directed to room where we were given robes to wear and where we left our shoes. Our guide wasn’t very excited to show us around and the free tour (donations encouraged at the end) was not very long. Istiqlal was built to commemorate Indonesia’s independence from Dutch rule and Wikipedia tells me that Istiqlal means independence in Arabic. I found it fascinating that a mosque was built to commemorate a political event. Religion and politics mix and mingle in a fascinating way in Indonesia. The Indonesian state is built on Pancasila, the state philosophy, which says that there must be belief in one god, and one god only. And this is where things begin to get complicated. Although the Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the state only recognizes six religions: Islam (Indonesia is about 90 percent Islamic, making it the world’s largest Muslim populated country), Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism.

I am much more conscious of religion than I have ever been before and this is because of everyday facts: the call to prayer and seeing women wearing jilbabs. Before moving here I was conscious of bringing clothing that was more modest, skirts going to my knees, cardigans to cover my elbows. I wanted to be respectful, but the fact of the matter is that Jakarta is a huge metropolis, so there are plenty of people who wear whatever they want. The photo below shows the doom in Istiqlal that measures 45 meters in diameter, signifying the year Indonesia proclaimed its independence, you guessed it: 1945.

So in a country that politically stresses understanding between religions, it seems only perfect that right across from Istiqlal mosque stands St. Mary’s Cathedral. The Catholic cathedral was built in 1901 and when I stepped inside everything felt familiar.

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Indonesian Fruit Installment 7: Rambutan

In my last fruit installment I wrote about klengkengs, so now I’d like you meet another member of the family, a closely related cousin, named rambutan. Rambutan are found all over Southeast Asia and there are several varieties found around the world. A fun Wikipedia fact: rambutan means hairy in Malay. They are in season now and you can buy three bunches for a little over a dollar.

My first experience with rambutan occurred over three years ago in Paris when I went to an Asian grocery store with Sam and Shirin. I decided to buy some rambutan because they looked funky and I liked the reddish, yellow color. My host family swore that the fruit made them wake up the next morning at 6 a.m. completely energized. I have never experienced this.

When not in season, rambutan is a bit more expensive and usually sold pre-packaged in Jakarta grocery stores. Sometimes you get lucky and meet someone who has a tree! A few weeks back when I was at my boss’s apartment baking pies and biscuits for Thanksgiving (which was wonderful), I met his maid/chef who helped me a lot in the kitchen and then fed me snacks, including rambutan that her husband harvests from their tree. I was in heaven.

Rambutan are addictive. They are light, not too big, and juicy with a nice fruity taste. You find yourself having eaten about 10 without even noticing. C’est la vie.

Penang Eats

A good general rule of thumb is if a place is packed with locals, families, old men shooting the breeze, and young couples on dates, you should eat there. It was around 11 a.m. and I was getting a bit hangry (anger brought on by hunger). And that was when I saw all of the aforementioned and a nice lady waved at us, “Hello, sister!” Leong Kee Tim Dim Sum at 61 Lebuh Kimberly was the answer to all my food god prayers.

I think of dim sum as Asian tapas without the tapas price tag. At Leong Kee Tim prices ranged from 0.70 ringgit cents to 7 ringgits per plate. We never did find out what was the most expensive item was at $2. Women hustled around with dim sum carts and stopped by our table and without being able to read the Chinese menu we pointed and pointed and pointed some more until our table was covered in plates of food. Leong Kee Tim wasn’t a fancy place, it was a neighborhood joint with self-serve pots of Chinese tea. But since we were two confused looking white girls, tea was brought too us and people smiled as we photographed our food.

Some buns called to me, so I pointed and then bit into the best bun I have ever had in my life. It turned out to be filled with sweet black sesame seeds and it was perfectly light and buttery. Chloe and I both looked at each other when we bit into this bun — this was the real deal.

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Culture and Cuisine: Welcome to Penang

My stomach dictates a good deal of my life choices and this time around, I’m glad that was the case. Penang, Malaysia is a culinary capital — a crossroad where Malay, Indian, Indonesian, British, and Chinese traders passed through and live(d). This intersection of cultures and cuisines is at the heart of the island of Penang. The name Penang comes from the word pinang in Malay, which means areca nut palm. And when something is named after food, it’s a good sign.

George Town: The Old World

Penang is about a two-hour flight from Jakarta. It is located off of the mainland of Malaysia and there is a 13.5 kilometer bridge linking Penang to the mainland, here it is on a map. We had a nice view of the bridge from the Princeton in Asia fellow’s apartment where we stayed. When you land there is a handy information desk with city maps and a public bus that for less than a dollar will take you almost anywhere on the island. Oh, Indonesia, if only you had information desks and easily accessible clean buses. My one transportation complaint with Penang is you are never sure how long you’ll have to wait for a bus and taxis are few and far between. Cabs don’t have meters so you have bargain for a price and the cabbies aren’t willing to budge too much. Malay is pretty similar to Indonesian, so we were able to barter in Indonesian.

Our first stop of the day was George Town, the old colonial hub of Penang, where there are many historic buildings and plenty of streets to wander.

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