I’m in Indonesia for a few weeks of work and I’d like to share some observations with you. As always, I will do my utmost best to avoid alienating an entire country by making outrageous generalizations.
Indonesian cats have really weird tails. Unlike most cats I’ve known, Indonesian cats have short stubby tails. Not stubs such as the tails exhibited on the hindquarters of felines hailing from the Isle of Man (Hi Ellen!). But stubby as if someone chopped off their tails in a fit of pique. In fact, that’s what I thought when I saw my first Indonesian cat. “Now why would someone do that?” I wondered. But they’re all that way. And it looks most odd.
Indonesians who live along the Kapuas River in Central Kalimantan are agile and fearless. I spent several days visiting a number of villages and hamlets along the Kapuas River. Travel is by boat only; there are no roads to speak of. During the rainy season, the river can rise by as much as a metre. For that reason, all of the houses are on stilts and to get to the main road (such as it is) from the dock you need to scoot up a little plank suspended over the muddiest dankest looking river water you have ever seen in your life. Probably filled with millions of gigantic alligators like this one. Inevitably the plank is made from rotting wood that shatters under big clomping Western feet, plus there is nothing to hold onto unless you count the many Indonesian passers-by whose hands I clutched as I climbed and descended plank after plank after plank. I am clumsy at the best of times and, laden down as I was with computers, cameras, digital recorders and all sorts of other valuables, I broke out in a sweat each time we hit a new town and faced a new plank (also, it was 1000 degrees). But, amazingly I managed to keep to my feet, much to the disappointment of the hordes of children who ran to the docks in every town to laugh at my efforts to climb to street level. How did they know? Was someone phoning ahead in a place with no discernible phone signal? “Quick, run to the dock. A big tall white woman is trying to climb an 8 inch-wide walkway made of toothpicks held together by Kleenex® and suspended 30 feet in the air over a vat of snapping alligators. She’ll never make it, the clumsy fool. Mwaahaha.”
Indonesians have very strong calf muscles. Squat toilets are not exactly unique to Indonesia. You can find them all over, including in many public restrooms in France and Italy. Usually there are on-site alternatives or you just mosey on to the next bar to find a ‘normal’ toilet (albeit, usually without a proper seat, but whatever). It’s the same way here, at least until you get out of the city at which point the squat is your only option. Decorum forbids me from dwelling overlong on this cultural marker. Suffice it to say that you are strongly advised to bring along a flashlight if you are spending the night in an Indonesian village (and it would be good if you could make friends with one of those stubby-tailed cats and convince him to reconnoiter for you before you enter the possibly rat and lizard infested loo). You won’t find toilet paper. After you have squatted and done your business, you are expected to wash yourself off with water scooped from the nearby bak mandi (bath). That’s why Indonesian bathrooms are always sopping wet. The washing off is traditionally done with the left hand and so anyone who tends to favor their left hand, i.e. a left-handed person, e.g. me, is thought to be unclean. Story of my life.
The use of the bak mandi is not restricted to the post-squat rinse. To take a bath, you douse yourself with water from the tub, lather up, rinse and repeat. The water is (usually) clean and (always) cool and a bak mandi can be refreshing, albeit extremely messy. I was, however, constipated for three days. Last thing: people who have only ever known the squat toilet are understandably confused when they see the other kind. So they may need some gentle instruction, as can be seen on this sign found in a bathroom at the local airport.
Indonesians have asbestos tongues. Do you see the devil’s red mixture in the picture below? That is called sambal and it is a major Indonesian condiment, served at every meal.
Sambal is also popular by the way in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, the Philippines and, for historical reasons, the Netherlands. Here is a typical recipe: Take 1 million of the hottest fresh chili peppers you can find. Mix with garlic, shallots and shrimp paste. Eat. (If you have a normal tongue) Die.
According to the Internet, Indonesia boasts as many as 300 varieties of sambals, ranging from the mild (which I have yet to encounter) to the very hot (been there!). Different varieties employ different types of chilis and may also feature add-ins, such as tamarind, peanuts, lemongrass, durian and the wonderfully named green stinky bean (Parkia speciosa).