Category Archives: food

Gili Trawangan is a Strange, Strange Place

Maria and I traveled to Gili Trawangan for New Years this year, and, despite the fact that we spent the majority of our waking hours sitting in the exact same spot in the exact same Indian cafe not looking at much but the ocean and the clouds, it sure was strange!

Gili Trawangan is one of a trio of islands, known as the Gilis, in Nusa Tenggara Barat, Indonesia. They’re off the coast of Lombok, the island home of the famous Rinjani volcano, and Lombok itself is east of Bali, which is east of Java. Here’s a map, with the Gili Islands circled (I’ve also circled Malang, where we live). Click to enlarge:

We flew in from Surabaya on separate planes and slept our first night in Senggigi, me in a “fancy” place where I was splurging for the night, and Maria in a crappy hostel. It was kind of a mistake how we ended up in Senggigi on the same night in the first place, which is why we didn’t stay together. My place ended up looking a little shabbier in real life than it did on the hotel site I used to make the reservation, but the staff was lovely, the balcony off my suite faced the ocean, and the bathroom and bedsheets were sparkling clean. Didn’t end up getting drunk on the beach that night as I thought I would, but I did enjoy some ocean-listening in the darkness and a great night of sleep.

In the morning, Maria came over to use the nice bathroom. We needed to leave together to catch the ferry to Gili, so we hung around my room for an hour or two, just chatting. Our chatting was a big theme of the vacation. We are both having some crazy times in our lives, so we made a good travel pair.

After a taxi ride to, well, near the port, we took a cidomo (horse and carriage) to the ferry. Naturally, we had to stop at the cidomo driver’s friend’s business where people tried to haggle with us to organize our transportation. We said no thanks and explained we were just waiting for the public ferry. After a few confusing moments and even more hectic moments in the port proper, we got our tickets and went to the shore to catch the boat. The transportation hagglers (hawkers?) were super intense, even more so than in Bali. There’s a speedboat service for twenty dollars that gets you to the island in five minutes, and a public ferry that takes half an hour, but costs just a couple of bucks; I don’t think many foreigners take the public ferry, so the hawkers were really trying to get us. If I remember correctly, we were indeed the only foreigners on the public ferry– if not on the way there, but definitely on the way back; I don’t remember any other non-Indonesians on the first ferry. The boat was a rickety old wooden one, crammed with people and stuff but completely safe (or something).

We landed and had to overcome that terrible first hurdle on any travel adventure: find the place we booked to stay. There aren’t any motor vehicles allowed on the islands (yay!), so we had to rely either on the horse and carriage or our own two feet. Lots of people use bicycles on Gili T, but we had our luggage, so that wasn’t an option. Maria had booked us a hostel a month before the trip, which seemed to be the last available room on the entire island; everything was crazy full and crowded for New Years. Our hostel was a newish one, so it wasn’t on the GPS. We decided to explore a little bit while looking for the homestay, hoping that among the many many signs for various hostels and hotels posted on walls and at intersections, we’d see ours: Gili Tralala. Little did we know that this is also the nickname of the island, which would make finding the hostel that much more difficult.

My initial impression of the island and the atmosphere there was just WOW. There’s basically one major boulevard, and it’s lined with shops, boutiques, learn-to-dive resorts, cafes, bars, and restaurants. One side butts up right against the ocean, so most restaurants have oceanfront dining, which is so lovely. There were tons of foreigners around: lots of beach babes and big, buff dudes and a multitude of quirky folks since the Gilis are a major dive attraction in Indonesia (my basic estimation after my Indonesia travels is that divers are a quirky bunch). The most pleasing thing to my eye was the number of cafes with an international flair: we saw Indian, Italian, “Latin-Mexican” (whatever that is), French, etc etc! It was magical. The food scene in Malang is decent, but there’s definitely not a strip of internationally themed cafes anywhere in the city, especially not setting right next to a sparkling teal-blue oceanfront!

Eventually, we made our way down a side street with lots of signs, hoping that our hostel would be there. A nice young kid on a bike asked us where we were going, so we told him: Gili Tralala. He gave directions and we followed, promptly realizing that he had mistakenly, albeit with good intentions, directed us to a mural that said Gili Tralala. We found another man, also on a bicycle, and asked for help again. He took Maria’s rolling suitcase for us and started asking around. We made it, eventually, but not after a good twenty minutes of trudging around in the mud and muck. Our hostel seemed to be relatively in the sticks, and the arrival was, of course, strange.

The hostel had over-booked itself, so we got downgraded for the first night into a shared dorm. No big deal, except the travelers also in the dorm smelled like buttholes and sawed logs like a pair of professionals. The owner, an older Austrian man who has been living in Indonesia for seven years and doesn’t speak a lick of bahasa, was somewhat apologetic and promised us a private room for the next night. The rooms were shit and way over-priced for the New Year, but we were happy to find a place to drop our stuff and sleep at night. The best part of the hostel was the Lombok couple who managed it, and the worse part, by far, was the maniacal rooster that crowed its pitiful, morose crow all night every night, starting at about two in the morning.

The majority of our vacation was spent parked at the Indian restaurant about five minutes by foot from our hostel, on the main strip and, of course, on the oceanfront. I liked it so much I’d even link to it in case other travelers ever read this blog (or in case non-travelers want to check it out). I think I may even write a Trip Advisor review about how amazing it was, which I’ve never done before because I’ve never cared so much. The cafe is part of the Pesona resort, which does dive training and dives and also has a homestay/hotel. It’s owned (as far as I can tell) by a real live Indian family or family of Indian descent, so the food was legit…not like some restaurants, Indonesian and American, too, that offer ethnic foods but don’t really know how to prepare them well. I’m remembering Maria’s story of ordering something along the lines of gnocchi bolognese in Malang and ending up getting cubes of boiled potatoes with tasteless beef jerky gristle. Blessed be, the Pesona cafe was not of this type.

The food there was absolutely incredible. I can’t even find the words to describe the experience of eating that food. I think the best indicator of our contentment was that we ended up staying there every single day for five to seven hours, eating food, drinking amazing local coffee (and sometimes espresso treats!!!), smoking shisha, and enjoying happy hour. They had floor seating with nice wooden tables and lovely lush cushions; we sat and ate, sat and ate, and chatted for hours and hours. And oh the food, oh the food!! The naan! The chutneys! The paneer and the sauces! Oh drool. Oh, drool! We must have spent 75% of our budget at this place, and it was worth every single penny. If you ever to go Gili, you must go to Pesona. The only better Indian food I have ever had was in India. This topped everything I’ve ever had in the States, even the lovely Indian joints in Bloomington. I could keep going and going about how amazing it was. Thank goodness Maria and I are of the same mindset and could enjoy the countless hours of sitting and chatting and eating and eating, not really caring about doing much else. Just take this in for a minute and imagine this splendid tastiness on your tongue:

#Foodgasm is all we could say. On the last day, we tried to find an alternative joint to try. We walked up and down the strip for an hour before giving in a returning to Pesona. We really did try! But in the end it wasn’t too hard to give up on the search and get back to the Indian joint, especially since the cute waitress saw us walk by in the morning and basically jumped for joy and yelled, “Hey, beautiful ladies!” when she saw us. The day before we had started getting discounts in the form of happy hour specials way before happy hour even started; how could we neglect Pesona on our last day? We would have left the island full of regret. So, we did the right thing, obviously.

The other notable feature of this trip was the nightlife on Gili T, at least in the downtown area. We didn’t go wild and crazy as perhaps we would have a few years ago, but rather chose to remain aloof and take it all in, observing all of the strange drunken people in action. We had a nice New Years doing just that, drinking cocktails while sitting on bean bags watching fireworks near the water. The funniest part of traveling with Maria and enjoying the Gili T nightlife–besides her funny jokes and stories–was the attention her big, beautiful hair received, and it attracted people more easily as the long, late nights went on and people became increasingly emboldened by drink. One pair of strange birds in kilts (see picture below, courtesy of @raeraeraeraerae) were especially interested and approached us as we were walking down the promenade on New Years day, in the eveningtime.

Maria engaged with them, being the travel writer and outgoing person she is, and I kept right on walking, fumbling with my phone and pretending to be super preoccupied and way too chic for it all. These dudes were huge, buff, and shirtless, plus wearing kilts and making all sorts of smiley goo-faces and being too interested in us. Maria, in her excitement and to my great mortification, called me over to chat. (Afterwords, she said she knew I wasn’t into it, but just felt like she had to call me over since the darker man claimed to be Native American and she knows my background and interest…I was skeptical of him and didn’t really mind, in the end, that she called me over. She didn’t mean any harm.) They shook my hand and just leaned in a little too close during the conversation, ending with an invite for us to join them later at a bar up the way. Of course we didn’t, but it wasn’t our last interaction with them…

We saw them schmoozing it up the next day, still in their kilty glory, in the bar across the way from where we were sitting. Friends, it truly was a show. They were up on all kinds of ladies, and everyone seemed to know them. I came to the conclusion that they must own the bar, and Maria said if they did then the kilt schtick would be great marketing/promotion. We sat on our bar stools watching the crowd for a good three house, making up stories about people and eavesdropping like a pair of old lady friends. We are great people watchers. At one point we were considering surreptitiously filming people and providing commentary in order to make a people watching YouTube channel, which I still think is a good idea. There were just so many oddballs to watch: an older drunk man in red with cowboy boots fawning over a local guy, a pair of tortured young lovers whose story we just couldn’t figure out because their body language was so awkward, an older couple arguing over some Facebook photos indicting the man in the pair for being out and about partying when he had told the woman he wasn’t, a pair of sultry ladies with hip style being totally aloof about it all (haha, no not us, in addition to us), and oh my gosh more. It wasn’t as debauched as Kuta, Bali, but there was plenty to keep us entertained until the wee hours.

As you can imagine, we both felt great by the end of the trip, despite a questionable snorkeling excursion that I don’t even want to rehash. Travelling back to Malang took an exhausting ten hours, but Maria is sure she’ll go back to Gili T for diving. I feel like I can finally check the Gilis off my travel list; it’s kind of a right of passage to hit up these types of famous tourist places (I felt the same about certain spots in Bali) despite that one can find exciting and off-the-beaten-path alternative destinations quite easily when equipped with bahasa and a decent budget for transportation. I had a good time and will fantasize about the food for the rest of my life, and I’m glad to have traveled with Maria to experience her perspective and build a new friendship. All in all, we each spent about $350-400 for the whole thing (including plane tickets), so from a practical perspective it was very worth it, and there’s no price to be set on getting closer to a new friend in such a beautiful place. A strange, beautiful place.

Love,
Sammy

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100 Things I Love about Indonesia (Redux)

In no particular order:

  1. Friends (what else can I say? heartstrings.)
  2. Call to prayer
  3. Fried tempeh and spicy sambal
  4. Cute, trendy fashionistas
  5. Snack boxes and meal boxes with tasty sweets and juicy meats
  6. Electronic tennis rackets for killing mosquitoes
  7. Green, green, green all around
  8. Great meals for under a dollar
  9. Cloudy, rainy morning peacefulness during the monsoon season
  10. Laundry service on every corner for lazy people
  11. Fruit stalls on the side of the road year-round
  12. Being able to go home from work when sick/tired/headachey and not feeling guilty or being shamed by coworkers/supervisors
  13. Crazy linguistic environment for non-stop left brain hemisphere stimulation
  14. Karaoke, Indo-style
  15. Really juicy pens
  16. Friendly neighbors who’ll always make you a cup of tea
  17. Rice paddies in the sunset
  18. Learning never to neglect appreciating the value of a cool, passing breeze
  19. Cheap fresh ginger, garlic, chilis, spices, fruits, coffee…
  20. The meatball man’s wooden block call (tok tok tok-tok tok-tok tok-tok-tok-tok-tok)
  21. Students’ endless, organic artistic creativity
  22. Batik and tailors
  23. The fact that there has been a female president of this country
  24. The dudes who help guide traffic, freelance-style, in crazy intersections
  25. My current very supportive work environment
  26. Traffic light count-down displays
  27. Interesting people to pester and demand stories from
  28. Traditional medicinals (jamu)
  29. Javanese baby cheeks, free for the pinching
  30. Dudes who transport menageries on their motorcycles
  31. Dangdut music blasting from loudspeakers (as long as I can get away from it eventually)
  32. Caked-on, over-the-top makeup
  33. Shops with rows and rows of headscarves (jilbab) for sale in every color and with every type of rhinestone and sequin in every pattern imaginable
  34. Traditional massage and modern reflexology massage
  35. Funny socks with a separated big toe so wearers can use flip-flops with socks
  36. Futsal fun
  37. Perfume stands where you can get cheap knock-off perfume mixed while you wait
  38. Easy and convenient (if not always safe) public transportation system
  39. Daily greeting-handshakes with coworkers (which used to annoy me, but now I love it)
  40. No carpets = no need for a vacuum
  41. Cheek-kisses, European-style, which are quite popular and just so sweet
  42. Fascinating history to study and learn about
  43. Janky-ass museums that are, at the same time, super amazing
  44. The fact that “ketchup” means soy sauce and ketchup is known as “tomato sauce”
  45. Domestic brews that always hit the spot, even though really they are watery and terrible
  46. Increasingly flexible hip joints that feel so good (thank you, squatty potties)
  47. The daily Jakarta Post (basically the Indo NYT) English-language version, published everyday
  48. Sparkly Qur’anic verses in golden thread on black velvet canvases
  49. Ritual meal-sharing (slametan) for special occasions
  50. Old women who specialize in infant care, doula-esque stuff, and baby massage
  51. Fabrics that don’t stretch out after repeated hand-washings (unlike those of most of the clothes I bring from the US)
  52. The crazy memories get stirred when I catch a whiff of clove cigarette smoke or rotting garbage/sewage or a certain brand of mosquito repellent or unrefrigerated meat or jasmine tea…and a variety of other Indo-scents
  53. Bright blue butterflies and other pretty flying things
  54. Indonesian toddlers who are just young enough not to realize I’m that different
  55. Indonesian toddlers who burst into tears at the sight of my pasty face
  56. Indonesian toddlers who call me auntie at their mothers’ prodding
  57. Indonesian toddlers
  58. How I learn to laugh at what would normally be extremely frustrating, because if I don’t laugh I’d surely go insane
  59. Paradise sunsets
  60. Old ladies who don’t realize I can’t understand their Javanese and just keep talking at me and stroking my arm as if I understand them perfectly
  61. School and office uniforms
  62. STMJ: susu (milk), telur (egg), madu (honey), jahe (ginger); an amazingly delicious cold-killing drink served warm and made to order (imagine hot chocolate for consistency/mouthfeel but sweet creamy ginger goodness instead of chocolate for taste)
  63. How various regions have their own styles and motifs of batik cloth
  64. The scent of fresh jasmine flowers
  65. Live gamelan performances
  66. Live wayang kulit performances
  67. Eating with one’s fingers (which, by the way, actually does make food taste better)
  68. Greasy, dirty, MSG-filled spicy fried rice with egg, chilies, and green onions
  69. Indonesian TV commercials, which are great for language-learning
  70. Boiled veggies with galangal
  71. Ladies-only gyms
  72. Food cooked in fresh banana leaf packets
  73. Super-talented buskers and street performers
  74. Of course, amazing scenery: waterfalls, mountains, rice paddies, fields of sugar cane, volcanoes, palm and banana and coconut trees…
  75. Meatball stands with steamed tofu for sale
  76. Babies in headscarves (which we PCVs have affectionately dubbed “jilbabies”)
  77. Old ladies in old-fashioned Javanese sarongs, walking around with their boobs all out, totally carefree and chill, or wearing unbuttoned old-timey shirts
  78. Hordes of giggling teens obviously interested in asking for a photo but way too shy to go through with who burst into convulsive fits of amusement when approached
  79. Singing the Indonesian national anthem (I don’t know why, it’s just great fun)
  80. Craftsmanship industries, such as carving/woodwork, which are still going strong
  81. Side-of-the-road restaurants and Indo-style food trucks (which are basically souped-up wheelbarrows complete with mini-kitchens and display windows)
  82. The funny Indonesian obsession with (gross) shredded cheese as an ingredient for classy pastries and desserts
  83. The booming “herbals” industry, which makes it relatively easy (or at least possible) to get natural/clean products like soaps and lotions without too many chemical additives
  84. Seemingly random Indonesian-Chinese Buddhist shrines, always bright red and gold, seeping fragrant incense into the streets
  85. Durian
  86. Riding on the back of motorcycles
  87. Driving motorcycles
  88. Infinite variation of accessories and clothing items available for purchase since home industries and local businesses haven’t quite yet been taken over by mass industry chains like we see in the US; on average, I see more variation here
  89. Karaoke machines on buses
  90. Emotional and over-the-top Indonesian soap operas, known as cinetron
  91. Indonesian rappers and hip hop artists
  92. Free range Javanese roosters and chickens, which are tall, slender, multi-colored, and gorgeous
  93. Velveteen peci hats for men
  94. Peanut sauce over veggies, grilled chicken skewers, boiled spinach, rice medallions…over anything, really
  95. Teasing/affection culture (my Raycraft style fits right in)
  96. Hand-painted signs and advertisements
  97. Endless and fascinating seeming-contradictions that make Javanese culture ‘work’
  98. Fresh young coconut drink (es degan)
  99. Magic and mysticism, traditional healing, the pervasive belief in ghosts and place-spirits, spooky stories, and getting the shivers about all of these things
  100. Being able to learn something new (and probably weird) each day by simply starting a conversation

To follow: 100 Things I Find Maddening about Indonesia

dreamland, usa

Well, what a time Jakarta has been!

I’m getting ready to fly to Malang tomorrow, and the next steps in this adventure are to obtain the appropriate visa and get an apartment, probably not in that order. If all goes well, I will only have to wait for two weeks for the visa to come through, at which time I can officially start my project. So, I will have two weeks’ time to find and settle into some digs in Malang, do some reading, reconnect with some important people in the area that I’ve been waiting to see, start planning logistics of the project, and eat a lot of gado-gado at my favorite restaurant. 

Today, the other student researcher and I finally had some face-to-face orientation from the organization administering the grant. I count it as a big success; why there’s no pre-departure orientation in the States I’ll never be quite sure. We’ve learned a lot of important information recently that ideally I’d have known before departing, but begitulah! We’re well on our way, and things seem mostly under control. The paperwork and bureaucracy isn’t terribly overwhelming, just laborious, costly, and time-consuming. Luckily, during our visit to various ministries and the national police headquarters, we were escorted by our AMINEF contact; I don’t think I’d have been able to find all of the appropriate offices and personnel on my own. At least we’re being helped by people who have gone through this time and time again with Fulbright students. I am grateful! 

Our major goals have been to obtain the required permits and letters of permission to apply for out full-term visa and to send to the various kabupaten (districts) where we will conduct our research. Luckily for me, I get to send out a bunch of letters since I plan to travel all over East Java collecting data. Couldn’t have just chosen one location, could I? So far, it seems that the research visa I will obtain in the near future is much more restricted than the teaching visa I had during Peace Corps, which was administered by the ministry of education rather than research; as it turns out, on the research visa, I will not be permitted to do any formal teaching beyond presenting or discussing my current research project or visiting as an invited guest speaker to workshops on research methodology designed by the university counterparts (unfortunately, I can’t design or host any workshops myself). I will be able to use my Peace Corps connections as planned in order to construct a travel plan and conduct participant recruitment, but I need to be very careful about how I do this, and everything has to be discussed with and presented to my university counterparts so that there are no surprises to any relevant authorities or supervisors when I start. I also need to make clear to communities with PCVs that I am no longer affiliated with Peace Corps. 

Anyways, that’s the only semi-interesting stuff– I can’t say it’s boring because the inner workings of a highly bureaucratized government on the verge of a change in administration are inherently interesting in a befuddling sort of way, and considering the challenges foreign researchers face in Indonesia is interesting as a novice researcher whose regional focus is this amazing and complicated place! I don’t doubt that this is the only time I will have to go through this type of process, and perhaps things will become easier as these ministries begin to act as academically and internationally open-minded as they apparently claim to wish to be. I hope that more academics from outside of Indonesia can come here for research or educational exchange, especially for research projects in collaboration with Indonesian scholars… we’ll have to wait and see whether the permit/visa process becomes easier in the future (I certainly hope so!). 

The very interesting aspects so far are, of course, friends and food. I had a lovely meal with Agnes the first evening in Jakarta, and I just about cried when I saw a friendly face after so much exhausting travelling. We had satay Padang from a street vendor off the main road by my hotel and caught up on just about everything, including each ID-4 PCV, one by one. The next night, after an afternoon pedicure and finally getting a new (smart)phone, my fellow American friend and I met up with Lauren’s host sister and her friend. They are both working on their bachelor’s degrees in computational statistics here in Jakarta, both planning to graduate into immediate employment with the census bureau. I had met Lauren’s host sister many times in East Java and was just tickled to see her again! We all had some spicy nasi goreng from a street vendor in a pasar malam (night market), which we reached by way of a crowded, rat-infested back road behind the shopping plaza where we met. Lauren’s sister was very apologetic for making us walk through the nastiness in the dark: “I did a bad, I’m so sorry!” Still, we had a great time catching up, too, and she Skyped with Lauren after she went back to her apartment. Reunions!

The hotel accommodations here in Jakarta have been perfect; I’m staying in the same hotel I stayed in when I first arrived in Jakarta in March, 2010. I’ve got a western toilet, decent internet, hot shower, AC, and complimentary breakfast with coffee, so what else could I ask for. I’ll be happy to move on to Malang and escape the noise of the city (and the damn taxi fares, sky-high due to unavoidable traffic jams), but parting ways with my new Fulbright friend will be a bummer. Still, I get to look forward to reunions upon reunions over the coming weeks/months, and I couldn’t be more excited at the prospect. I’m very eager to settle down, unpack my suitcase, and see what kind of fun I can have, though I’m enjoying myself quite a bit already just by reminiscing and remembering my previous experiences here (and thinking about how far I’ve come in the past 4 1/2 years). Indonesia smells, looks, feels, tastes, and sounds the same, and, overall, being back is amusing and pleasurable. Bowling Green is starting to feel like a dream; how could it be that I was gone from Java for two whole years? 

xo 
Sammy