Strong Arms for Kids

Ketambe, Sumatra

I spent three days and two nights exploring the jungles of Sumatra in search of Orangutans.  I went with two local guides, one hiking in front of me and the other hiking behind me, carrying the tent and all of our food and other random equipment for the three days.  I was really glad I wasn't carrying it, but I felt so bad for him.  The first day, we hiked all day, but stopping every 15-20 minutes so they could have a rest and a cigarette.  I think I became addicted to cigarettes after all the second hand smoke I inhaled.  I tried to ignore it, but, yes, I did feel kind of strange being out there in the middle of nowhere with just two strange men, but unfortunately it was my only option if I wanted to do this trip.  So after hiking to about 5pm, searching and searching for big orange apes, the lead guide, out of nowhere, turns around on the trail, looks at me kind of strangely, goes to grab my hand, and seductively says "you are a very lucky girl".  At first, I didn't want to know why I was so lucky (you know just in case it was something else) but then he points toward the sky and there is a huge male Orang staring at us from the branches above.  I just stared in amazement...It was like being at a zoo, but then you think "wait a second, I am in the middle of the jungles of Sumatra and there is no barrier between me and this huge creature, nor is there anyone selling cotton candy down the path.  THIS IS AS REAL AS IT GETS".  Pretty cool if you ask me.

Once I had enough staring we headed to camp to prepare for the night and cook some grub.  Normally they carry along live chickens to make for dinner but since I was a vegetarian they brought along fresh tempeh wrapped in banana leaf.  I also got to try some new fruits I had never seen before, one was a mangosteen, and the other they called a snake fruit (because its skin looked like snake skin) and it's Indonesian name was salak.  Anyway, for dinner we had a vegetable soup with fried tempeh with fried dry fish and rice.  It was really quite delicious.
Fried Tempeh and fish with herbs and onions
After dinner, the night was spent watching the one guy making me bracelets with a special weaving technique and using a stiff grass.  It was actually pretty cool, and I had fun with my guides, even though the lead guide starting to get a bit too comfortable with me.   I just figured if I made it through this night all would be okay. 

Next morning came, and everything was fine.  We headed out early, just me and the lead guide to go find some more of the big orange guys.  Almost immediately we found one and spent quite some time sitting and watching him.  But as we were watching him, the guide thought it would be fun to make the orangutan jealous by putting his arm around me.  I stayed there, being as polite as possible but not enjoying it one bit...when finally it came...he says to me " Can I say something to you?" and in my head I am thinking OH NO, HERE IT COMES...and it did..."I like that okay for me to say?"  Mind you this is after I met his wife and had his 2 year old son sitting on my lap at the guesthouse.  So an immediate NO came out of my mouth and reminded him that his behavior at the moment is really bad for his tour guiding business.  Luckily we left it at that and all was good from then on, besides him cooking my dinner that night in his bikini briefs, talk about unsanitary.

That night we camped at another site with some HOT Hot springs.  I am talking HOT!  They told me that the water was hot but I didn't grasp how hot they were talking until I put my foot in the water by accident and seriously scalded my foot. I still have a mark actually.  Then the next morning after catching some fish for breakfast and smoking it (which was really tasty), they boiled me some eggs, carrots and potatoes in the actual hot spring.  That is how hot was the hot spring.
The hot springs
Finally after I survived my jungle trek, we returned to the guesthouse, where I scrubbed and scrubbed in the tub until my skin almost fell off.  I have never in my life felt so filthy.  On my last leg of my trip, I was planning on just heading back to Medan and spending 2 nights there, but I ended up meeting these two really cool Austrian guys and spent the night hanging out with them in a random town on the way back to Medan.  The loved the local Indonesian food, so much so, there was absolutely no talking while they were shoveling the food into their mouths.  It was quite entertaining actually to watch them.  After they finished their dinner of a random assortment of all sorts of fried and grilled meats from a street vendor, they almost ordered this dessert which consisted of the thickest piece of what looked like Wonderbread on steroids with gobs of butter spread onto it.  They grilled that for a bit, then put chocolate sauce between two huge slabs of bread and top it with sprinkles.  I almost puked just watching them make it.

Then the next morning the madness continued.  We went to a local eatery for breakfast.  The local eateries in Indonesia have all the food displayed out front in a window case and then you just point to what you want and they give it to you.  After my other Gado-Gado experience, that was the last thing I wanted to eat, but thats the only vegetarian dish I could have, but all I really care about was trying the avocado juice, so as long as I had that, I didn't care what I had with it.  It was a feast, to say the least, and even though everything tasted pretty good, I wasn't so sure if I was going to make it on a bus after that, for an hour and a half, without a toilet (if you know what I mean), but luckily I did, and all was good til the end on my trip to Indonesia...except for my rash, buts that's almost gone, as well. :-). 
It all cost about 3$ per person
Unfortunately I don't scuba dive. There are not many things that scare me, I mean, I have been skydiving, bit by a tiger, worked with all sorts of exotic animals, have jumped horses over 4 foot fences, traveled by myself to all sorts of different strange lands, including sleeping in the jungle with two Indonesian men I hardly know to search for Orangutans, but diving 60ft down below the ocean's surface with large strange, sometimes threatening creatures, scares the bijezus (sp?) out of me.  I have actually done it once, and thought it was the coolest thing in the world sitting at on the ocean floor at 5 meters down, and that was enough for me.  Now I never have to do it again.

But anyway, if you are a diver you MUST go to Labuan Bajo and go diving, but if not, there is still enough to keep you busy for a couple of days.  We stayed at a lovely hotel on top of a big hill, hence the name Golo Hilltop Hotel.  A wonderful place, with friendly, very helpful staff and a really good restaurant.  I was very impressed with their tempeh burger...I can never eat enough tempeh.  And this is the only place in the world to see the Komodo Dragon in its natural habitat, either on Rinca Island or Komodo Island.
With my friends off diving, this gave me a bit of time to explore the town and what it had to offer (well, it actually gave me a lot of time).  I hate when you are traveling and you know you should be going to the local places to eat, you know, the ones with the not-so-nice plastic tablecloths, the plastic chairs, that I am sure at one time were white but are now some greyish/ black color, and a sign out front that is impossible to understand, even though it is written in English but somehow, more times than not you end up in the restaurants geared toward the western tourists.  That is what happened to me, my first day exploring in Labuan Bajo.  I ended up going to a restaurant called The Corner (even though its not on a corner).  Now, first, you must understand my peanut obsession.  I know they are not a nut, they are a legume, but ask me what my favorite nut is, and I will tell you, the peanut.  But anyway, as much as I absolutely love peanuts and can't live without peanut butter for any extended period of time, I absolutely can't stand eating peanut sauce.  There is a dish in Indonesia called Gado-Gado thats a vegetable medley mixed with a peanut sauce.  Perfect for vegetarians.  So I thought I would give it a try again, and since this was a higher end restaurant, I thought there would be a better chance of it tasting better to me.  So I ordered it.  My first bite was gritty, my second bite was gritty and the third and so on and so on.  I tried to ignore the grittiness and everything else I didn't enjoy about the dish and did what I normally do when I don't like something, just eat as fast as I can so I can't taste it.  But then I bit down on a couple of pebbles, and just as I bit down and made a horrible face, I'm sure, and at that exact moment, I swear the entire restaurant staff was all staring at me.  They stared and whispered and stared some more.  I couldn't take it anymore, the pebble was the last straw.  Normally, I never ever send anything back, but this time I had no choice and called the waiter over.  They were very nice, but it didn't help me to get over my distaste for peanut sauce or my guilt and dissatisfaction in myself for not going to a local restaurant. 

So the next day, my friends and I went to the restaurant for lunch, which I should have went to, originally.  I couldn't decide what to order, but ended up going with the spinach in a clear broth soup.  I didn't really know what I was going to get, especially when the waitress asked if I wanted rice with it, but after living in Japan for two years, I am used to ordering food and having no idea what I was actually going to end up eating.  And, of course, I ordered a papaya juice to drink.  Papaya juice is a natural wonder.  Papaya on its own, isn't so good, but put it in juice form and its transformed into heavenly goodness.  But anyway, when my food arrived, this time I was very pleasantly surprised.  It wasn't so much of a soup, but incredibly fresh sauteed spinach mixed with garlic and red chilis, with just a small amount of broth.  It was so fresh and delicious, I had to come back the following day to have it one last time.
After waiting 6 hours in the airport for my plane to take off, then riding in the oldest most rickety old airplane I have ever flown in (and rickety is definitely not an adjective you want to use for your plane) where it didn't matter if you shut off your cell phone and all electrical devices and then landing at an airport where there are children gathered on the side of the runway to watch the airplanes land, this turned out to be my absolute favorite part of my trip.

I flew to the east end of the island and made my way west by land.  I started at Kelimutu (pictured above) then went to the town Bajawa.  In Bajawa I went on a full day tour.  This was seriously one of those days where you are like "this is why I do this", "this is why I spend thousands of dollars to travel across the globe to sleep in cockroach infested hotel rooms, and sit on non-airconditioned buses for hours on end" just for days like the one I had in Bajawa. 

Upon arriving to Bajawa, I met some of the tour guides that were hanging out in front of my hotel.  If you end up in Bajawa, Flores one day, search out Maxmillian or Florencia.  I am so glad I joined their tour.  It was a full day tour (I'm talking 12 hour tour) all for about $35, and it was definitely money well spent.  They are from Bajawa and know this place better than anyone. 
We started out by going to some traditional villages.  There was a special ceremony going on that day and after we watched the ceremony, our guide spent, at least, an hour going into great detail about the ceremony.  He was so knowledgeable and so passionate about the history of his people. 
After watching the ceremony and watching the villagers preparing for their big feast, we were getting pretty hungry ourselves, and were wondering when and where we would have lunch.  Florencia ended up bringing all 15 of us back to his house for lunch that his family cooked for us.  I can't tell you how nice it was to have a home cooked meal.  And, of course, that is the #1 way to learn about a local cuisine.  I was worried about there being 1) enough food for all of us starving tourists 2) there being vegetarian food, but, at least, I was still eating fish at that time. And I can't tell you how satisfied I felt after this meal of fried tempeh and tofu, vegetables in a clear broth soup, and fresh grilled tuna.

After our bellies were satisfied, we headed to a local horse race.  These were a series of horse races leading up to the big horse race that was going to take place on their Independence Day.  The horses are really small in Indonesia, so the jockeys were between the ages of 4-9 years old.  It was so much fun to watch, especially since our guide's horse was racing, as well.
Then when we thought our day was done, we headed to these amazing hot springs.  They were the perfect temperature, unlike the hot springs I met in Sumatra that were literally boiling, and I accidently put my foot into.  It was the perfect end to the perfect day.  Well, actually, the perfect end came later, when we all met up at the local restaurant for some cold Bintang beers and some more local grub.
Well, after 10 flights in 5 days, and countless hours sleeping on airport couches I am back home (in NY), safe and sound from my trip to Indonesia.  I am slowly readjusting to life back in America after being gone for a total of a little more than 5 years and finding myself a bit lost and don't really know what to make of everything.  Hopefully this is just the normal reverse culture shock, I mean I did live here for 27 years of my life, even though it does feel like a foreign country to me right now. 

I had some crazy adventures during my time in Indonesia, which makes readjusting to life back in suburbia even more difficult and has left me dreaming of all the wonderful ways they prepared their freshly made tempeh.  Indonesia is a vegetarians paradise.  Some of the best food I ate was in Ubud.  The traditional Indonesian Nasi Campur (Nasi which means rice in Indonesian is accompanied by an assortment of small side dishes) was heavenly.
This Nasi Campur dish I had in a restaurant in Ubud had a mix of green curry with tofu, fried tempeh, shrimp chips, and greens mixed with fresh shredded coconut.  And washed it all down with a delicious Bintang beer.  Bintang means star in Indonesian and when you go up to a bartender and ask for a Bintang they love to make the joke..."you sure you don't want the moon or the sun?"
Even though, compared to Japan and the US, Indonesia is a really inexpensive place to travel, the "fancy" restaurants can still weigh on your wallet a bit and, of course, its fun to venture out off the beaten path because you never know what you will end up finding.  We found one amazing restaurant on a side street off of the main drag of Ubud that had the most delicious tempeh, fried to perfection and topped with a fresh tomato sauce.  Simple but so flavorful.  This was one of my favorite meals and only cost $1.00.  It was so good, I have already tried recreating the dish at home. 

Tempeh w/ Spicy Tomato Sauce

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp chili pepper flakes
1 tsp oregano
4 tomatoes, chopped
1 zucchini, diced
salt and pepper, to taste

3 tbsp olive oil
1 block tempeh, sliced down the middle, then in triangles

Heat the oil in a large pan, then add the onions.  Allow them to saute for 5-7 minutes, until translucent.  Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute.  Add the spices and tomatoes.  Let them cook on a low flame for about 10 minutes and then add the zucchini (the zucchini wasn't in the dish I had in Indonesia but I thought it made a nice addition).  Let simmer for another 10 minutes.  Then add salt and pepper to taste.

To cook the tempeh, heat oil in a pan.  Let it get super hot, but not smoking.  Add the tempeh to the oil and let cook for about 5-7 min on one side (until a nice golden brown).  Then flip over and cook on the other side for the same amount of time. 

I plated the dish with couscous on the bottom, then put the tempeh on top of the couscous then finally put the tomato sauce on top of the tempeh.  This was absolutely delicious. 

I am now living back at my parents home and have been doing a lot of my own cooking since my parents are not vegetarians, but I haven't gotten around to taking photos of my meals yet.
Look at this portrait of perfection.  This is common bar food at my favorite place "Hitoshi" in Ishigaki.  Not only have I already packed up all my things and said goodbye to all my friends and students that I have spent the past two years with, I am also saying goodbye to seafood.  Once I return to America, I will become a full vegetarian.  None of this "I'm a vegetarian but I eat seafood" thing anymore.  It was really easy for me to give up chicken, beef, and pork six years ago when I decided to become a vegetarian, but seafood is going to be another story.  But, I feel its the right thing to do, once again, to do my small part in helping save our environment and help save our oceans.  But at the same time, I can still appreciate this masterpiece plate filled with deliciousness, including octupus, bonito, tuna, salmon, sea grapes, squid and a number of other types of fish, after two years, I still can't figure out what they are.  I never ate much sashimi when I was in America, only sushi, but in Japan it seems more common to eat sashimi, and that was fine with me.  You really appreciate the flavor of the fish much more when eating it without the rice.  Also, in Japan, they use very little soy sauce and wasabi, unlike most Americans (including myself) who drown each piece in the sauce.  At the moment, I am in Indonesia exploring the wonders of satay and tempeh, but I will be back in Ishigaki one last time for one last sashimi plate at Hitoshi, and then its full vegetarianism for me.  I don't feel so bad though, I reckon, seafood is ruined for me anyway, after living on a tiny island in a fishing paradise for the past two years. It doesn't get much better.

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