Chicken Feet Soup for the Indonesian Soul

In the month of August the Indonesian calendar witnessed the celebration of Ramadan, Idul Fitri, and Independence Day. For those of you not living in Indonesia and looking for some frame of reference, it’s comparable to celebrating Hannukah and Christmas, and then New Years Eve a week later. Only here there seems to be a great deal more family time, and a lot less (no) alcohol to temper the situation. There’s an Indonesian saying that your neighbors are closer to you than your furthest family members. In fact, it’s difficult to determine where one bloodline ends and the other begins. In the end they all just flow together. When I first moved here, it was like meeting the Dugger family as each person came forward to introduce himself or herself as a sister or brother. Since then, my relationship with each of these people has deepened. The renewed focus on friends and family after a month of Ramadan equipped everyone with a heightened social duty to participate in life’s many milestones. The subsequent events made me feel like I was an extra in the movie, Being John Malkovich, as I ventured through the different portals of life. I visited the homes of newborns, went to cemeteries to sing passages of the Koran to the deceased, and paid respect to the dying. What stood out among these events wasn’t a singular event, rather the accessibility and rawness of the emotions from each event. For the first time in my life, I was able to see these events with the perspective of an outsider looking in, rather than from an insider looking out. Which is not to say that these events didn’t affect me personally- they did- but they also allowed me to witness deeper cultural norms that are usually kept at bay.

Perhaps it has something to do with living on the world’s most populous island, but here the frequency that you’re faced with life and death is far greater than what it is back home. In addition to the greater frequency, it’s also much more raw. Whether it’s life or death, we choose to keep these events behind white, sterile curtains (yes, I am aware of the sanitary measures that are in place as well). Somewhere between the curtains you allow yourself to filter through the emotions you want to come to the surface and those you don’t. In the process you lose a bit of the humanness. If it’s not life or death we’re dealing with, we create our own walls that will somehow allow us to keep our deepest sorrows private. Later, it’s possible to seek solace in your own room and process the emotions however you see fit while keeping up the bulletproof image. Here the pain and emotion that you bear is a shared weight, and everyone experiences it in the open.
Monkey-ing around with my favorite 2-year olds in the neighborhood

Monkey-ing around with my favorite 2-year olds in the neighborhood

When we visited the home of the dying man, his mattress had been removed from his room and was positioned in the middle of the living room where it was surrounded by over forty friends and family members. In an earlier post, I made a comment about the Javanese, and their love of slumber parties. No matter whose house you’re at on the island of Java, there will be a full supply of mattresses, lest you decide you want to spend the night there. This first struck me as rather bizarre, and just plain uncomfortable (these aren’t memory foam or extra pillow top mattresses either). It’s still something that I’m getting used to but I have come to accept as common practice. Everyone was there to keep him company and remind him of his fondest memories before passing away.
It was a similar process when my Ibu gave birth. The mattress was drug out into the front room, and all my neighbors came streaming in the house to accompany her while she had her contractions. She later walked herself to the car and was driven to the Bidan’s (midwife’s) house to give birth. Upon her return a few hours later, she miraculously seemed unphased by the whole ordeal. That night she slept with my bapak, four of the neighborhood children and their mothers, and a few aunts from out of town in our living room. I carefully tiptoed over the sprawled out bodies each night on my way to the bathroom-what a gauntlet! When my Ibu wasn’t able to produce milk for the first days after delivery, our neighbor (the mother of a 2-year old) stepped right up to the plate. Sometimes I’m still caught off guard by how communal everyone is over here, but always with the best interests at heart.
Trying to fully engage in the culture here when you know that just across the ocean your family is experiencing the same milestones, albeit in their own ways leaves you feeling like you’ve reached a bittersweet standstill. You have one foot in the water, and the other out. In the back of my head, I can’t help but think that after two years expire I’ll return to one family, and leave the other. When we visited the grave of the deceased, the first number my eye jumped to was the woman’s birth year- 1948. This year happens to be the same birth year as my own mother. I started thinking about her, the portrait of happiness and health, while simultaneously feeling a bit guilty that I was here looking at this gravestone. Proximity is after all the greatest indicator of a relationship’s vitality. A few days later, when my Ibu gave birth and the baby was born on my Mom’s 65th birthday, it was a fortuitous coincidence. I could take a step back and be grateful for experiencing life’s milestones on two continents and even more grateful for my simple, rice-field life. Sipping on a coconut, and watching the sun set on the rice paddies, I was able to ponder and process the weight of these emotions without the usual distractions or feeling like there was somewhere else I needed to be.
We closed the month of August, and the marathon holiday season with a trip to Ujung Genting to see the baby green sea turtles off. They provided a nice microcosm of life, and setting those tenacious buggers out to sea without looking back bolstered my enthusiasm for what’s to come.

*Chicken Feet Soup is a nod to the series, Chicken Soup for the teenage soul. Throughout Ramadan, one of our staple ‘soul-healing’ foods was chicken feet soup.

Hawker’s Delight

Southeast Asia is a dizzying swirl of motos, heat, pollution, and arguably some of the world’s best food. Amidst this frenetic thrust of humanity, Singapore emerges as an oasis of calm. The motos have been up-scaled by European cars and the MRT, the scent of orchids (and the occasional durian) lingers in the air, and you don’t seem to mind the heat and humidity when you’re distracted by Singapore’s many other charms. People who like to chew gum may argue that it’s a bit too uptight and boring, but after living in two countries in SEA it’s a feat that such a place exists, and continues to defy the expectations of its neighbors. From the moment you arrive at Changi airport, Singapore is a breeze. People speak English, Western toilets are ubiquitous, the water is potable, and things run efficiently. Yes, there are times when you feel like you’re taking part in some massive social experiment, or trapped within the pages of Brave New World. Aldous Huxley may have been envisioning the future Singapore when deriving the motto “community, identity, stability” for his utopian World State. Interestingly, the two most taboo topics in Singapore are criticizing the government (Big Brother is watching you), and racial discrimination. Even the Housing Development Board (HDB) goes to great lengths to maintain social stability. They are currently building and renovating millions of flats, each of which have their own schools, markets, playgrounds, and food centers. These flats have strict quotas of racial mixing, and generally are comprised of 33% Indians 33% Chinese and 33% Malaysians. Despite the social engineering at work, Singapore is a dynamic and multi-faceted place. The best way to discover its many facets is to embark on a gastronomic tour de force throughout the city.

The ideal starting place for a food tour of Singapore is the hawker centers. The hawker centers brings together the Singapore of new and old, and fluidly meld the countries varied culinary traditions. For those not familiar with hawker centers, a hawker centers is a Southeast Asian market where vendors sell food from small booths- more or less a love child between food carts and food courts. Long before hipsters were frequenting food carts in Portland, immigrants from all over the world were frequenting hawker centers in Singapore. Lau Pau Sat, the “original” Singaporean hawker center first opened in 1838, and currently stands amidst a busy commercial district surrounded by sparkling skyscrapers. While eating satay and guzzling down Tiger Beer, it’s amazing to think that just 50 years ago Singapore was a squalid island exhibiting little economic prowess. As each wave of immigrants arrived to Singapore (predominantly Chinese, Indian and Malay) they brought with them their own cuisine. Today, most of these cuisines remain undiluted, although every once in a while they fuse together to create local favorites like chili crab, laksa, and fish head curry. The last time I came to Singapore, a friend passed along her copy of the book, There’s No Carrot in Carrot Cake. Before heading to the hawker centers, pick up this book to give you some insider info and a visual of the foods you’ll be sampling. Once you’ve mastered the art of hawker centers, you’ll be fully prepared to explore the more upscale dining establishments, without the risk of spending your money on something you won’t like. Wherever you end up, rest assured that you’ll never grow hungry in Singapore- it borders on mania how many places there are to eat in this city.

The other anomaly that you’ll discover in Singapore, and won’t in SEA’s larger cities is Singapore’s commitment to sustainability and green space. In 2002, Singapore launched the Singapore Green plan, a plan that continues to improve the quality of air, water, waste management and ecology. The island that Sir Stamford Raffles first happened upon was an uninhabitable swamp with next to no natural resources. Since then, Singapore has worked tirelessly to reinvent itself (they’ve even chosen to add on more land to the island) without forgetting its formerly fragile self. We traveled to the neighboring island, Pulau Ubin to see what was described to us as the “old” Singapore and were left somewhat disappointed. The island was beautiful, and like the old Singapore it was full of mangrove swamps, but given the amount of time it took to get there and the smallness and over-security of the island it wasn’t worth it. We rented mountain bikes in hopes of some rugged terrain, and were left with gently rolling hills and highly guarded areas that visitors were unable to trespass. Later in our trip we decided to visit MacRitchie reservoir, which we found to be far more satisfying. The reservoir is home to primary and secondary rainforests, and also some very friendly monkeys. My other favorite retreat (and I don’t seem to be alone in this) is the botanic gardens. Every time I visit, I’m amazed that an island as small as Singapore can contain more plant species than all of North America. One look at my backyard and Colorado, and this could be confirmed. The last out-of-doors recommendation I can make is to visit the Night Safari. As the safari cart snakes through the zoo, you almost feel like you’re encroaching on some sacred time of day for the animals, but you can’t bring yourself not to pry. Antelopes come within a hands reach, as flying foxes loom overhead. The evening concluded with a nighttime creatures show, and I almost died from cuteness overload when a small otter swamp up to the stage to show the audience how to recycle. He dribbled around the aluminum, paper, and plastic before slam-dunking each into their respective bin.

Sitting in Chiangi airport before my flight home to Indonesia, I mentally began preparing myself for the third world and its constantly entertaining bucket showers and squatty potties. I couldn’t help but wander the price that is paid to live in a developed country. It began to boggle my mind the amount of economic, environmental, and political strain countries like Singapore endure in order to exist in the first world, while their neighbors struggle to exist in the third world. Each day new citizens and tourists arrive. Many of these people have never had the luxury of potable water and hot showers, and there are others, like myself, who have lived a whole life in a developed country, but greedily consume the resources before returning to my new life in a third world country. In his book, Collapse, Jarred Diamond states that one of the world’s biggest problems is the “increase in total human impact, as the result of rising Third World living standards, and of Third World individuals moving to the First World and adopting First World living standards. “ However, the perspective of a person from a developed country living in developing country slowly but surely loses its acuteness. Somehow Perceptions changing is different from changing perceptions. For the sake of all of us, it’s important to remember to draw the line at losing some acuteness rather than losing some sensitivity.


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