“…that the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity…”

August 3, 2010

Ah, the island life! Every time I slap a mosquito on my neck, I check behind my ears; thankfully, the gills have not yet sprouted. So I strap on a snorkel to dive into the shallow Java Sea, whether to check the flow of a new feeding pipe, trawl the sandy banks for traces of degradation, or merely mingle with eels and urchins. In the afternoons I read books from Alain’s shelf while guiltily gulping bottled water and smoking kretek.

On the way to the island, Sofjan – a zealous, jealous entrepreneur – quizzed me: “You are against farmed salmon? How about GMOs? Are you from Greenpeace?” I tried to answer dispassionately. After dinner that evening, I peeled a salak contemplatively. One of the workers piped up: “I saw organic salak for sale in Jakarta.” Sofjan laughed uproariously, pointing at me. “Organic? This one knows organic – and he’s willing to pay for it!” I ignored this comment, not wishing to delve into the connections between pesticide use and farmworker health, the hidden (and artificially low) costs of food, or my own reservations about Big Organic. Finding my conventionally-grown fruit slightly damaged, I cut away the bruised quarter and ate the rest. This caught Sofjan’s eye. “Ah,” he said, smiling. “I would have just thrown it out.”

Fega Marikultura produces about 400 metric tons of barramundi fillets per year. For Sofjan’s 80th birthday (in four years), he wants 30,000 tons. For reference, 30,000 metric tons is just slightly higher than the global barramundi harvest in 2004. (This figure, I should mention, comes from a report that Alain discredits entirely. In fact, he has penned a three-page defense of Pulau Jukung’s sustainability in response to Seafood Watch’s scathing 2006 report.) After three days here, I am inclined to agree with much of what he says – but with plans to grow 7500% over the next four years, the innocent effects of effluent cannot continue unchecked. And it still takes 1.5 kg of fish feed to grow 1 kg of barramundi fillet, a net protein loss – except that every kilogram of barramundi fillet also yields another kilo of guts, bones, and scales. So the protein recycles, just as Jukung’s channelized current recycles fish feces into the surrounding reef.

Or so Alain claims. Of course, it would take time and sophisticated equipment to properly monitor the balance of nutrients in such a complex and delicate ecosystem. But to be fair, Sofjan inherited a mortally wounded reef when he set up twenty years ago: scarred by fishing with dynamite and cyanide, castrated by hungry hands snatching at brilliant fins for aquarium pets. So perhaps “pristine” in my previous post was an overstatement. Nevertheless, the reef appears to be recovering. This is no barren wasteland of coral corpses. Deep lilac brains and vibrant lime mushrooms lurk beneath the surface; parrotfish and angelfish still dart amongst blue starfish and giant clams. And yet this afternoon, from the porch of my bungalow, I spied a strange orange snorkel jutting up between the shallow waves like a sore sea cucumber…

“The real problem,” as Alain is fond of saying, “is too many people.” As usual, I am inclined to agree.


Pulau Jukung

August 1, 2010

Arrived last night after dinner. Of course, I forgot my camera in Jakarta. With luck it will arrive sometime next week. In the meantime, a cursory inventory of my surroundings, equal parts Willy Wonka’s Ichthyoid Factory and Jurassic Park, complete with:

An archipelagic current that baffles motorboats and dislodges anchors. Stories of a pristine coral reef just offshore. Biawak  prowling the sewers and fighting underneath our bungalows. Constant sorting and re-sorting of barramundi to discourage cannibalism. A simple, elegant food chain from algae to fish. And a healthy helping of hermaphroditism.

I’m still getting my bearings. More, much more, to come.

How fishsticks are made

July 29, 2010

Yesterday, Radja Pasaribu took me on a tour of Fega Marikultura’s processing plant, where dozens of part-time workers dressed in rubber boots and hairnets prepared three tons of freshly-slaughtered barramundi for shipment to Bali, Singapore, Australia, and Los Angeles.

Radja and I donned scrubs, washed our hands, and strapped on face masks. I reached for the cloth mask that matched my blue scrubs and hairnet, but Radja stopped me.

“Here.” He tossed me a small green mask wrapped in plastic. I hesitated, but Radja urged me on: “Sure, they say they wash these, but…” He shook his head doubtfully. “The disposable ones are more sanitary.” I didn’t move. “You know, when you wash a face-mask, you have to treat it with sterilizing chemicals. And then you need to build a wastewater treatment plant. And a treatment plant is very expensive, maybe two, three million US dollars. And it uses a lot of energy, and a lot of water.” Touché. I unwrapped the papery green mask.

On the floor, we confronted the umami miasmi of fish flesh. “Hey,” Radja quipped, “at least it’s not rotten.” I thanked my stars for the mask, disposable or not.

In one room, workers beheaded fish, collecting the heads in a bin for fishhead soup. The entrails and bones, in another bin, would make fish meal to feed yet more fish; the scales, crushed for pearlescense used in lipstick; and even the skin, Radja claimed, could be used as a leather substitute.

“And the waste meat is used for value-added products,” Radja added. “You know, fish sticks.” Ah, yes. Value-added.

Radja was also keen to show off the plant’s ongoing renovations: new light fixtures and hygienic wall paneling for improved safety for workers and consumers. All in all it appeared a humming (if humdrum) operation. The plant is ISO 22000 Food Safety certified and uses every part of the fish.

But the processing plant is only 1/3 of Fega Marikultura. Processing fish, at least on this scale, is much less resource- and energy-intensive than raising them (transportation, I’m not sure… Radja says less than 1% of these fish will be consumed locally, on Java or Bali. Some of these barramundi will fly across the Pacific to a distributor in LA, and from there who-knows-where-else?) The other 2/3, the hatchery and farm, are waiting on Pulau Jukung. But rough seas and stormy weather kept the boat at bay this morning, so I won’t reach the island farm until next week. Until then, dear readers, remember: just because it smells fishy doesn’t mean it is…

Chicken or Fish?

July 25, 2010

“Chicken or fish?” asked my flight attendant. I was about to ask what kind of fish, or whether it was wild-caught or farmed, or where it came from, but then I realized these were rather stupid questions to ask a flight attendant, even if she was inordinately pretty and uncommonly accommodating. And that’s saying something, because every Singapore Airlines flight attendant is pretty and accommodating.

“I’ll have the fish, please.” It came with steamed rice and vegetables, cheese and crackers, a side of potato salad and tiny shrimp, a cup of spring water, and a glass of white wine. For airline food, not bad — although every bite reminded me of the scene in Airplane! where incapacitating food poisoning befalls all the passengers who foolishly choose fish. Next time, I told myself, ask for a vegetarian option.

People often ask if I am a vegetarian; I am not. I eat meat on occasion, if it was raised and slaughtered under humane and ecologically-responsible conditions. This usually means I eat meat rarely (no pun) and when I do it is relatively expensive; but it also means every time I eat meat it is a truly delightful experience. For a long time I ate seafood under the misguided assumption that it is more sustainable than land-raised meat. But harvesting seafood can be ecologically devastating, not to mention painful and degrading for the animals themselves, their aquatic companions, and human communities.

It is easy to despair over the exploitation of people, animals, and ecosystems that the hungry stomachs of humankind appear to demand as sacrificial fodder. Yet if we all boycotted every agricultural industry with a bad reputation, we might not starve, but we’d certainly be peckish, probably anemic, and definitely bored. Call me an optimist, but I believe there are better alternatives on the metaphorical table: food that fills our stomachs instead of turning them, food that elicits sighs of satisfaction instead of groans of guilt, food that nourishes the soil and water as well as our bodies and spirits. Fortunately, I have a friend who claims he runs one of the most sustainable aquaculture operations in Southeast Asia. So, dear readers, for the next month I’ll be staying on Sofjan Alisjahbana’s fish farm, Pulau Jukung, in the Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands) region of Indonesia. If you’re curious, concerned, or just plain hungry, follow me.

Lagi pulang ke pulau-pulau, I push on, push on, keeping a log…

July 18, 2010

Here we (archipela)go again.


a loss.

July 7, 2009

The whole village had convened at Swasti’s household.  Old men sat smoking and chatting in swift undertones of Balinese, a language of sharp, staccato consonants and deep, velvety vowels of which I understand perhaps three words.  Women rushed about, sarongs swishing, with small, intricately woven trays of leaves containing offerings of incense, flowers, and rice crackers.  I surveyed the scene at a loss.

Made, the musician and dance instructor at whose house I have been staying, turned to me after he had greeted everyone.  “So, I will stay here.  Maybe you will, ah…”  Torn between an insatiable anthropological curiosity to see the coming ceremony and the knowledge that my presence was an awkward burden, I looked at him expectantly, waiting for some indication as to whether I might to stay.  “Maybe you will go back to Made’s house, ya?”  I nodded silently and took my leave.

At ten o’clock this morning a baby died.  Since I arrived at Made’s house in Desa Bona ten days ago, he had told me of the child’s medical problems.  The mother, Made’s sister-in-law, had lived in Made’s house while pregnant because her two previous babies had died within a week of their birth, and Made suspected that evil spirits might be at work.  “So I invite her to stay at my house when she give birth,” Made had explained a few days ago, “so maybe she have better luck with this one.”  And she did have better luck — the baby had survived three months before succumbing to a cardiovascular condition that Made could only vaguely describe.  “The doctors in Denpasar say his heart is not good,”  Made had said dejectedly.  “They say his heart is too big, it cannot pump blood to the right place, it will not grow…”

The ceremony this afternoon will be nothing like the lavish, gaudy cremation rites I saw last week.  There, cream-white cows with golden grins adorned the towering bamboo funeral pyres of prominent village members who had died over the past year.  It was an auspicious day for cremations in the Balinese calendar, and marching bands played with gongs and cymbals while merchants milled about the crowd selling ice cream and plastic windmills.  That was a celebratory send-off, a farewell feast for the souls of loved ones who had lived full and happy lives.  But the baby who died this morning was only three months old.  I do not know its name.  I do not know what will happen to it now, or to its parents.  I only know that when I arrived I was introduced to its mother, who held her tiny child with cautious pride; and that two nights ago when I came back to the house long after midnight, my footsteps woke the baby.  His father opened his door unceremoniously, glaring at me with bloodshot eyes as I bowed in hasty apology.

Since my arrival here I have been rushing madly about with Made to attend temple dedications, full-moon rituals, arts festivals, and countless dance and music practices.  He may be, as Andy half-jokingly suggested, the busiest man in Bali.  But now I am taskless and alone at the house — a house that seems infinitely emptier than it did yesterday — while the family observes its private grief.  Time, I suppose, to update my neglected blog.


June 28, 2009

Last night I went to see Arham’s concert at Puri Saraswati’s temple pond behind the Lotus Cafe.  Or what I thought was going to be his concert.

Arham is (or claimed to be) the young composer I met on the night bus from Jakarta.  As an amateur musician and aspiring freelancer, it didn’t take much to convince me to see his performance, which he described as an experimental collaboration with a Frenchman.  His (alleged) professor from the University of Karawaci looked on smilingly from a few seats down as Arham and I discussed our musical backgrounds in the stuttering, broken language of Englonesian.  “I want be like Chopin,” he said sheepishly.  “Tapi… from Indonesia.  And with computer.”

As I took my seat, Arham was nowhere in sight.  But it was crowded and dark, and the program called for a ten-minute intermission, so I figured I would track him down then.  The program also said “A House in Bali:  A new gamelan opera.  Original music by Evan Ziporyn, Berkeley, USA.”  But where was Arham’s name?  Puzzled, I carried on an uneasy conversation with the Balinese gentleman to my left, who pointed out the gangsa his son would soon be playing.  “Ini namanya dia,” he said proudly, opening my program and showing me his son’s name.  But where…

I never saw Arham that night.  Here’s what I did see…

bis malam

June 27, 2009

Initial plans had called for a direct flight from Jakarta to Denpasar, but when I heard that the bus might be cheaper, my Jewish side seized the wheel.  Of course I rationalized these penny-pinching instincts with thoughts like “Oh, but I’ll get to see all of Java!” (it is, after all, the world’s 13th-largest island by area) and “Oh, what colorful characters I shall surely meet!” (and the world’s largest island by population)

Spending 24 hours in a bus that advertises, Super Executive Class!  Now with A/C! might not appeal to every traveller.  In addition to the letter in my previous post, I found this review:

With improved roads, the bis malam or night bus from Java to Bali is now faster than the train, although one cannot deny its dangers. Most Indonesians travel this way, but you must be prepared to tolerate cigarette smoke and noise. Non-smoking buses are not available and the volume of videos are usually at their highest. Be sure to specify air-conditioned to avoid inhaling the noxious fumes spewed out by trucks and buses. Look up the Lorena buses, which are suppose to be the best in Bali; it will cost you a little more but deluxe services and a toilet is included.

“Oh no, I never took the bus,” said Oma with a laugh.  “Your Uncle Amir, I think, did, once.”  And in the end it wasn’t even that much cheaper than the plane (Rp 380,000 [US$38] vs. $60-ish to fly). Every sign seemed to warn in earnest, hati-hati! Caution!  Dilarang masuk! Do not enter!

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And yet my first reaction upon climbing aboard was surprise at how nicely the bus was furnished.  Individual reclining seats?  No discarded water bottles littering the aisles?  Big, clear windows?  Smoking area confined to a closed-off room in the back?  Where’s the adventure I was promised, the traffic-dodging, kretek-smoking driver and the high-octane thrills?

So in uncomfortable luxury my journey began.  Crawling through the clogged arteries of Jakarta’s endless gridlock, Indonesia’s ubiquitous motorbikes might be able to weave through traffic, but hardly a bus.  Slowly, though, the scenery melted from glass-and-steel megalopolis to terra-cotta-and-scrap-metal slumburbs, then gradually dissolved into an endless sea of ricefields.

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By the time we arrived in Denpasar (10 hours behind schedule — Indonesians often run on jam karet, rubber clocks), I had:

*received an arm, leg, and scalp massage from my seatmate Benni, a south-Sumatran high school counselor eager to practice his bahasa Inggris (he also gave me a hand-written, signed copy of a poem he had written:

Aku tak bisa bicara tentang bulan sayu di tengan malam

ataupun bicara tentang plangi di musim bunga.

Tuhan, seandainya aku dapat bicara di matahari terik,

aku bicara damaikanlah dunia

ini untuk ku dan semua alam.

… and an invitation to stay at his house in Bali’s Jembrana district.  I politely declined, although such friendliness, apparently “creepy” by American standards, is totally normal among Indonesians, especially towards bule [white folk]).

*completed a crash-course in bis malam driver’s etiquette.  Honk at least once, but probably more if necessary or proper,

  • when about to pass, as a friendly warning
  • while passing, as a friendly reminder
  • after having passed, as a thank you (or, more likely, as a signal to get the hell out of the way so we can get back into our lane)
  • at vehicles moving too slowly
  • at vehicles moving too quickly
  • at vehicles passing us
  • at cyclists, often coming the wrong way down the middle of the lane at a leisurely pace
  • at animals in the street (cats, dogs, chickens, goats, small children)
  • while passing, at smaller oncoming vehicles, to warn them we’re not backing down
  • while passing, at larger oncoming vehicles, to notify them we’re backing down (this happened, I believe, only once)

*and made friends with Arham, a young composer who “want[s] to be Chopin.”  Tonight (and yesterday and tomorrow) he’s performing a piece at the Lotus Cafe in central Ubud.   “It starts at 8pm but i think you should come at 7 to make sure you get the best seat…”

So until then, I’ll be glued to my trusty-rusty laptop (with its CD-ROM drive making disgruntled grinding noises and threatening to fall loose for a third time; with its pathetic wireless card, thanks to which file uploads can take multiple days; with its newly-installed Windows XP, purchased at a pirated-software stall in a Jakarta mall five years ago and threatening to crash in 30, 29, 28 days if I don’t “authenticate”; with its missing “N” key, leaving only a stubby rubber stump between B and M), posting photos.

You know the drill…

bis malam

June 23, 2009

A letter to the editor of the Jakarta Post:

Experience with Lorena bus
The Jakarta Post,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 01/05/2002 7:07 AM  |  Opinion

Because flights to Bali were full, my husband and I foolishly decided to take a bus to Denpasar. We contacted a travel agency and asked for a super executive service and purchased two Lorena super executive seats — bus number SE VII, at the cost of Rp 350,000 each.

The Lorena bus was an executive and expensive disaster. As soon as the driver hit the toll road he lit up a clove cigarette, began puffing furiously and with his free hand weaved maniacally though traffic. Not content in endangering the lives of the passengers on the toll road, the lunatic driver, on exiting the toll, played chicken with oncoming buses and trucks, swerving to the wrong side of the road.

We were but two hours out of Jakarta with another twenty hours of this madness ahead of us. My husband ordered this maniac to stop and between Cirebon and whoop whoop we both stepped off.

On top of the bus fare another Rp 150,000 to return to Jakarta was lost and of course our holiday to Bali is in ruins. We guarantee to you Lorena that we will never use your service again.



… and subsequent response:

mau ke mana?

June 22, 2009

… is an Indonesian greeting that literally says, “Want to where?” or, idiomatically, “Where are you going?” It functions like “How are you?” in English:  a colloquial salutation that does not necessarily indicate any interest in where you are going or how you are doing. The similarly polite, indifferent response is usually “Tidak ke mana-mana” — nowhere in particular.

Titania, the chipper young Features Editor at the Jakarta Globe, walked me out of the Globe’s offices and onto the parking deck on the 9th floor of Plaza Semanggi.  “So, do you know your way around the city?”  (Incidentally, Titania has the subtlest, most effortless American accent of any Indonesian I have ever met, including those who’ve spent more than half their lives in the States.  Something about growing up with a language composed of five rich but simple vowels and only a couple of diphthongs renders Indonesians incapable of shedding their telltale archipelagic accents.  “Johnson?” is usually the bewildered response I get when I introduce myself; Indonesian has no “th” sound.  “Ohh,” they’ll say, embarrassed after several failed attempts.  “Jo-na-tan.”)

I shook my head somewhat defensively.  No, I don’t know my way around Jakarta.  Does anyone?  It is one of the most anarchic cities in the world, a cautionary tale for bright young urban planners.  Borders sprawl so chaotically and fade so gradually from skyscraperscape to rice paddy that estimates of the metropolitan area’s population can range from 12 to 18 million, depending on whom you choose to count.  Fiercely-guarded postmodern manses and rusty, pathetic hovels are separated by only a few yards of concrete and shards of glass.  The whole city is like one gigantic, overcrowded bazaar — every street corner that doesn’t have a huge, ultramodern shopping mall or a trendy “fusion” restaurant is home to someone selling fresh diced mango, clove cigarettes, celebrity gossip magazines, soda-in-a-plastic-bag-with-a-bendy-straw (save the glass bottles for a deposit!).  As Davy Linggar, painter and photographer, quipped to the Jakarta Globe, “You can survive on Rp 10 billion or Rp 1000.”  (US$1 million or $0.10.  The quote comes from a series of mini-interviews to commemorate Jakarta’s 482nd anniversary last Sunday.  If 482 seems like a strange number, consider that most Jakartans need any excuse they can get to celebrate.)

So no, Titania.  I’m sorry to admit that I don’t know my way around Jakarta, and probably never will.  But maybe this time will be a little bit different.  This time, my first time back after three years, my first time without my parents or my brothers, my first time since leaving home for college, my first time having anything to do besides visit relatives I didn’t know existed and complain about being away from friends, my longest visit ever (eight weeks!).  I’ve been brushing up on my Bahasa and doing all my homework, all my background reading, all my research.  I know I’ll never know the city, but after a brief stint here I hope to develop a vague, cursory notion of what makes it tick, whirr, rumble, buzz, hum, whine, and roar.  It’s 4:49 a.m. — or as I have come to call it, blog o’clock.  My jet-lag is epic and the oceanic orchestra of traffic never, ever stops.  Jakarta, I don’t know you, I can’t recognize your faces or navigate your streets or read your vital signs, I’m struggling to stay afloat but the ocean is vast and the rivers are trashed and the rainy season is coming, the monsoons are coming, I’m barely treading water, I can scarcely breathe, I can scarcely even see you through the smog.

(“Yeah, neither do I,” she said with a smile.  “So what better way to get to know the city than to work at a newspaper?”)