Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Jackie" Kerouac's Unplanned Plan

"Where your husband?"

"Where your children?"

"You want taxi ride, pretty lady?" Although I was flattered by the offers, I didn't want a ride. Of any kind.

Traveling alone as a woman can be a real pain in the ass. If opportunistic men aren't pestering you, the mosquitoes are. And those mosquitoes don't take no for an answer. Neither do infected unmentionables, which usually show up after a few days of peeing while squatting roadside or worse, peeing while squatting roadside after you've run out of toilet paper.

Of course, this wasn't at all the case with my accommodations in Bali, where I faced a different kind of problem, one of my own making. Before embarking upon my trip, I'd decided that, for the first time since my twenties, I'd be a "real" backpacker, the kind that just shows up to a place with a dog-eared copy of something Kerouac, and walks into the nearest hostel to rest for the night. Of course, that's best done when you've snuck a glance at to find that there is actually some availability for the dates you're traveling.

Late one evening, after a long drive, I arrived in the Kuta region of Bali, which should have been completely fine for my unplanned plan, considering Kuta is about the most developed, backpacker-friendly beach town on the entire island. I had one goal in mind: to stay somewhere a little bit terrible, the kind of place that offered no hedonistic distractions of any kind. As it would turn out, I shouldn't have been so choosy. Absolutely everything was booked. I had two options: stay in an empty old mansion which was going for $45 a night, or soldier on. If you're a woman traveler, you know you don't dare stay anywhere empty, even if it's a mansion, and especially if it's suspiciously cheap.

So I soldiered on, slightly ashamed of my idealistic and entirely self-inflicted temporary homelessness. After all, it was late, dark, and I was alone (save for the friendly offers of company from men I passed on the streets). A chance encounter at an inn offering the unique chance for "home stay" was exactly what I thought I was looking for. After all, how often do you get a glimpse into the life of true local by staying in his house? But my intrigue was quickly tempered with the sudden realization that I was surrounded by men, quite a few of them. There were no women - anywhere. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but I didn't stick around to find out.

Finally, I found the little-bit-terrible I'd been looking for. For $32 a night, I shared an otherwise perfectly decent, albeit somewhat moldy, room with a dozen or so mosquitoes. Noting their presence as I unpacked, I made sure to liberally cover myself in bug repellent. Which leads me to the explanation for the above photo. Although I'd liberally covered my body in bug repellent, I hadn't thought to cover my face. The next morning, I could only squint in the mirror to peer at the swollen welts around my eyes. It was no wonder that the mosquitoes had gone by then; they were full and happy, enjoying something of a post-coital nap on my dime. And as luck would have it, it wasn't just the mosquitoes that left me alone...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Indonesia's very complicated "basic" sauce

"Do they have rice fields in New York City?" Wayan asked me, apparently serious.

"Yup," I said, apparently serious.

Wayan and his wife Puspa had invited me and a few other paying guests to their home for a lesson in Balinese cooking. But before we began, we'd have to start with where it all came from. Which was pretty much right outside their front door. Wayan and Puspa live in Laplapan, a quaint little village near Ubud, Bali. Each village family owns a plot of rice, and they're allotted plot sizes based on nothing more complicated than their ability to keep up with supply. Much of the rice is farmed using organic fertilizer, which Wayan made a point of proudly mentioning. But neither one of us wants to waste our time talking shop about rice, now do we?

"We'll start with Indonesian basic sauce," Puspa announced (pictured above), after Wayan had shown us around town and then to his outdoor kitchen. More than understanding where the rice came from, understanding the preparation for "basic sauce" is crucial to learning how to cook like a true Indonesian, because this sauce is the backbone for some of the most delicious delicious in our galaxy, and the starting point for a lot of local Balinese cuisine.

What's interesting about basic sauce is that there is absolutely nothing basic about basic sauce. Anything that involves pounding nineteen very specific ingredients with mortar and pestle is exactly the opposite of basic. For example, the recipe calls for four candle nuts and two salam leaves, which can be, but probably shouldn't be, substituted with macadamia nuts and bay leaves. And then there's the distinction between "galangal" and "lesser galangal", both of which needed to be added to the mix in thumb-sized proportions and eventually sauteed for precisely seven minutes on very low heat.

Wait, I know what you're thinking, and you're thinking you'd much rather see some pictures of the feast Puspa helped us create, rather than write us both into a hungry stupor. In all, we made eight different dishes - from clear mushroom soup (something like a tom yam) to coconut curried chicken, steamed fish in banana leaves, vegetables in homemade peanut sauce, coconut and snake bean salad, deep fried tempeh, and a dessert of boiled banana and jackfruit in palm sugar syrup. That meal was three days ago, and I'm still not hungry. So, without further adieu, the photos are as follows (and excuse the formatting; Blogger is not your friend when posting multiple photos).

Top left: making "basic sauce", or bumbu kuning
Top right: kuah wong, or clear mushroom and vegetable soup
Middle left: sauteed bananas and jackfruit, something like bananas foster
Middle right: Wayan in front of his outdoor cooking stove
Bottom: Puspa and just a few of her many ingredients

As for how to get in touch with Wayan and Puspa, which I very highly recommend if you're traveling to the paradise that is Bali and think that you might be hungry at some point while you're there - you can reach them on their website at

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Here comes the bride!

Out on the prowl for things to do in and around Ubud, we stopped by a wedding. As you do, right? And as it happens (of course it doesn't), the wedding party invited us right in, and offered us cake. Well, sort of.

The "sort-of" part of the story is where truth meets wishful thinking, and the truth was that we were invited in, but not for long. We did have cake, but were escorted right out once the mother of the bride noticed her daughter arriving (pictured top). For the life of me, I can't figure out why were invited in in the first place, but I'm thrilled to have had the chance to see a local wedding, and to encourage absolutely everyone on the planet to adopt the Balinese tradition of eating cake first (pictured bottom). I mean, seriously, Let us eat cake already; why wait?

Now about that cake, which is really a form of glutinous rice: It's made from rice flower mixed with pandan leaf until it turns an olive green color, rolled into bite-sized balls covered in shredded coconut. And, there's a secret ingredient (in good food, there always is). The secret? A center of liquid palm sugar. If you remember "Chewels" liquid-center gum from back when Boy George was cool, you'll know what I'm talking about. If not, get yourself on a flight to Bali and drop by a local wedding.

Photos by Lori Davidson

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sampling poop coffee or "Kopi Luwak" in Bali

About 200 years ago, the Dutch were being dicks. In a nutshell, that pretty much sums up any colonialist period, don't you think? But in particular, these colonists really seemed to be bent on making the lives miserable of their local charges. For instance, at the coffee plantations, for which Indonesia was already becoming famous globally, the Dutch wouldn't allow the natives to use any of the berries to roast their own coffee. Now, in modern-day speak, I suspect we might refer to that as an own goal. Disallowing an unpaid employee from ingesting caffeine and thereby becoming more productive? Not exactly forward-thinking, guys...

Well anyway, one day, one of the locals noticed that the weasels who roamed the area were eating the coffee berries (without a word from the Dutch colonists, mind you) and then pooping them out, whole. What better use for defecated whole coffee berries than a latte, right? So, that's precisely what these enterprising baristas did: collected the poo berries, washed them, and gave them a light roast. Personally, considering the source, I'd have given them a very long, very dark roast indeed.

Now, before I get to the business of how this coffee tastes, I should note here that this pooping weasel is not technically a weasel, but an Asian Palm Civet. "Civet?" you ask, aghast. Yes, "Civet," I say, just as aghast. Because we all remember who nearly brought down the nascent Southeast Asian economic recovery back in 2000-ish with SARS, don't we? That's right, the civet cat. But back to the coffee and the Dutch, because this post-colonialist story has a nice ending, which is a little unusual when it comes to stories about post-colonialist eras.

Of course, it didn't go without notice that the local natives were drinking their own home brew, and naturally the Dutch wanted a piece of that pie. Discovering that the poop coffee was actually far more rich and complex in flavor than what they'd been producing for themselves, everyone knew the locals were onto something. Only problem was that poop comes in short supply, and it can't exactly be forced. So clearly production for this coffee was going to be small. Which made it very expensive. Eventually (and I'm really going to fast forward here, because we all know you're only reading to find out what poop coffee tastes like, not hear me try to parse the finer points of Dutch post-colonialism), the local natives kicked the Dutch out, and forced them, and the rest of us, to pay upwards of $600 a pound for their pooped-out coffee beans.

Come to think of it, isn't a picture worth a thousand words? Watch the video above of me drinking many, many cups of gender-specific poop coffee. Yes, this coffee comes in male and female.

Video by Lori Davidson

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Poop coffee, metaphysics, and clove fires

Bali is a sensory explosion - all five of them. If you were blind, gagged, deaf, and wheelchair-bound, you'd still know the moment you stepped out of the airport (or were wheeled out) that you were here. Because, right away, you inhale Bali. Mix clove cigarettes, teakwood timber, and the dense wet of tropical vegetation, and then light them all on fire. The result is a heavy, smoky musk, and it defines the place. I can't believe that Dolly Parton hasn't already been out here to bottle what is obviously meant to be her namesake's scent: "Bolly".

And then there's the taxi ride from the airport. While you're remarking to yourself on the fact that every single facade, doorway, lamppost, shutter, and rooftop is carved in the most intricate, delicate pattern, usually found elsewhere in the world only in museums, you're taxi companion is talking about the metaphysics of following one's dreams in life. Of course, that sort of thing was always going to happen, and this time his name was Michel. In his fifties and hailing from Pune, India, where he'd just completed a course on, really, what I just said - the metaphysics of following your dreams, Michel's next stop was motorcycling through the Himalayas via the Indian border. You know, it's people like him that make the rest of us who supposedly "backpack" look sad and small and so-not-adventurous-at-all.

The next morning, this morning, I woke at dawn to the shrill bleating of my iPhone. Grumbling with some annoyance that I'd not only left the ringer on, but turned it into a cloying duckish birdsong, I realized that I hadn't done anything of the kind. The cacophony was coming not from my phone, but outside my window, where a cloying, duckish bird was performing his morning ablutions, and a crew of roosters had begun to crow with a severity that suggested they were about to be executed for lunch purposes.

"Forget about the five senses!" I hear you saying, shivering in your frigid, snowing-in-March, non-tropical dwelling somewhere in the northern hemisphere. "Tell us what you're doing today!" Why, thank you, I will. Actually, I was getting to that, via the five senses. But I see you're getting impatient, so I'll cut to the chase.

Today, I will be tasting poop. It comes in a cup, after it comes out of a feral cat's bottom, and here they call it coffee. More precisely, "kopi lumak", or "coffee lumak". Named for the animal that defecates it, this particular brew is one of the most expensive in the world. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why, although I'm looking forward to finding out.

Photo by the esteemed Lori Davidson: Typical Balinese stone and wood carvings

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Back to Asia...with a vigorous uvula!

I need to divulge something that at first may seem like superfluous information, but in the context of this tale, is not at all. In fact, without telling you that I sat in the lap of luxury for my trip back to Asia, none of this makes any sense. So, there it is: I flew to Bali in Business Class.

It's been a long time since I flew Business Class. In fact, the last time that I did was right before I quite my banking job. Back then, as I sat in my armchair on a flight to wherever, a stack of unread FX research in front of me, and a long list of unanswered Blackberry emails, I thought: "This is what I'll be giving up if I give up my job." So I gave up my job.

Years on, it was with Christmas morning excitement that I boarded a Business Class flight. Not just any flight, but a twenty-six hour flight. Not just any twenty-six hour flight, but a twenty-six hour flight to Bali, Indonesia. In fact, I was so eager to board that plane that I was the first to do so, right in front of people leaning on canes and in wheelchairs. That, of course, was unintentional. I was simply giddy.

But I digress. The reason for telling you all this is that I had a lot of space in my seat. So much space that I could pick my nose and brush my teeth if I wanted to, without anyone noticing. I mean, I had actual walls around my flat-bed! In fact, I could've picked and brushed at the same time. But I'm not admitting to anything.

Anyway, and the reason for this long-winded little note: the guy two seats away from me (which was quite a distance!) provided an extended soundtrack to my flight. Click the link on the video to listen in. Excuse my sipping port in the middle of the shot - I kinda had to.