Friday, November 28, 2008

Redemption by Poultry

In general, spending holidays in foreign countries sucks. This is especially true of Thanksgiving, which no one really understands beyond the fact that it involves turkey. This year, I spent it one of the restaurants at my posh digs in Surabaya, Indonesia. My quarrel isn’t with the hotel itself, which is an incredibly beautiful iconic place, built in 1910. My room is palatial, with these beautiful wood floors that are obviously made of something you aren’t allowed to cut down anymore. (I am adding pictures of the hotel because it is all I have from this week in Surabaya, and because my sister tells me that no one really reads the words part anyway.)

No, my quarrel is mainly with the manager of the joint (British, who has a people should never be allowed to cook anything). He somehow imparted to the kitchen staff that crab rangoons were an integral part of the American holiday menu (though they were doused with mayonnaise, which is unarguably American), and that turkey should be served heavy on the spine and liver. I almost took a picture of the gravy soaked chain of vertebrae. (I was stopped by the fact that I was already eating alone with a novel and making Calvin and Hobbes style faces at the food, so anything else might be considered rude.) And, least authentically of all in my opinion, I only got one little thimble full of crappy Australian wine to wash down the culinary train wreck.

Needless to say I came back to my room a little depressed about the whole ordeal. And I was still in a mood when I woke up today. Luckily, I thought, only one more day until I can blow this crap town. Then one of the local consultants called and asked if I would like to have a late lunch, traditional Surabaya food, bebak goreng.

Now when I first got to Indonesia, I though goreng meant "food," because every dish on the menu always ended in the word goreng. It actually means fried. Nasi goreng is fried rice, mie goreng is fried noodles, ayam goreng is fried chicken... And bebak goreng is fried duck.

As it is good politics to agree to these sorts of outings, plus I didn’t have other lunch plans, off we went. Upon arrival, the restaurant looked promising – a giant fryer full of duck out front, only one main course on the menu, and not a fork in sight.

And thusly I found my redemption here in Surabaya. The memory of the turkey disaster melted away with each crunchy, juicy, fatty bite of duck. The grease running down my fingers as I scooped more duck and rice into my mouth cleansed the soul of my inner foodie. I was renewed. I was once again whole. I was once again zen with poultry.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


There are some days when I put on my blue suit, sit in my windowless office in Washington, write statistical analysis code, and wonder if I really made the right career decision. Then there are days where I get to take the helicopter to work.

I spent three days this week in the remote province of Oecussi, Timor Leste. Non-contiguous from the rest of the country, Oecussi is stuck out in the middle of Indonesian Timor. It is accessible only by overnight ferry or UN helicopter. The difference in death risk between ancient leaky ferry and ancient Russian helicopter is probably negligible, but at least the helicopter is faster and has a crew of attractive suntanned Ukrainian gentlemen.

After days of navigating the Byzantine UN bureaucracy to get myself a seat, I arrive at the airport. Things are somewhat different checking into a military rather than commercial flight. Instead of national passport and ticket, it was organizational badge and “orders.” They look at the ID, stamp the “orders,” hand you a set of earplugs and point the way to the open air waiting area. At some point, someone comes up, herds you into a group, tells you to turn off your cell phones and asks if anyone has any dangerous materials. The UN police and soldiers reach around their Batman belts containing baton, pepper stray and loaded handgun, to check their pockets for any accidentally forgotten cigarette lighters.Then shake their heads without a trace of irony and we all get on board. (One guy did transfer his extra ammunition clip to the zip pocket of his uniform, so safety was being completely ignored here.)

The helicopter is a Russian built Mi-8MTV-1. (I googled it, and found an order form! Note in the first sentence that this “multipurpose helicopter is intended primarily for airlifting assault troops and engaging hostile light armor material and manpower.” No wonder I had to sign a release saying I won’t sue if we are hit by any sort of shoulder mounted projectile…)

The name of the helicopter was part of the safety briefing. (This meant nothing to most of the civilians on the flight and none of them really spoke English anyway, but regardless, you get a nasty look if you put your earplugs in before they finish talking.) Also included was pointing out that the helicopter had four windows (clearly there were five), two door (okay got that one right) and two fire extinguishers (one is here to the left and one is… um… right then…) But don’t worry, the crew is well trained in case of an emergency. The really useful information that they don't mention is that you need to be careful with the windows (they are completely open to the outside). I under-estimated the suction and leaned out a little too far with the camera while we were flying. The Nikon almost got a quick lesson in gravity.

Oecussi was just like a three-day version of Peace Corps. It was brutally hot, no one spoke English, no electricity or running water, mosquitoes traveled in opaque squalls… I stayed in the best hotel in town for $10 a night. It had a bucket shower, squat toilet and no fan. It proved to be a long night.

After I had finished working with my teams for the day, I decided to explore despite the withering mid-afternoon sun. I walked up and down on the beautiful beach. The water was so nice and inviting. Unfortunately, the conditions violated one of my fundamental rules of traveling. I don’t swim on beaches where the locals don’t swim, and not a soul in the water. In a country with riptides, sharks and “endemic sandcroc” problems, you want to be careful about these things. So I meandered off to explore the rest of the town.

The main town, Costa, is the site of the first arrival of the Portuguese on the island in the 16th century, which explains why it is a fiercely patriotic bit of Timor Leste stuck out in the middle of Indonesia. The Portuguese were nice enough to lay it out in traditional old world Europe style, broad tree lined boulevards in nice straight lines. Which vastly simplifies a grid search of a restaurant with that telltale generator hum. Where there are soldiers, there must be cold beer… (I eventually found one attached to a hotel. I immediately switched hotels.)

The next day involved a long drive trying to meet up with one of my survey teams. Outside of the main town, there is no cell phone service in the district. So we drove from village to village, sometimes almost an hour apart, up and down mountains, asking if anyone had seen a car full of outsiders. We eventually passed them on the road by chance. (Which would be more amazing if Oecussi had more than 10 cars in it.)

After a roadside software patch and progress check, I had the rest of the day and all of the next to kill before the helicopter came to get me. It was a long hot 24 hours, particularly after I finished my book. Fortunately the helicopter ride back was uneventful. I never thought I would be so grateful to see Dili.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Now that the election is over (and the good guys won!), I feel like the internet is filled with the lost souls of blog readers, desperate to find something to fill in their work day now that they can’t debate the relative merits of a $4000 haircut to a just plain $1000 haircut. This could be my moment, to grow from a cult classic to a main stream readership. But, alas, my real life is not cooperating. I am in Dili. Again. I spend my days at the office and my limited free time underwater. But you heard that story.

So I am going to need to improvise. On Sunday a big group of expats hired a large sailboat to take us out of the island of Aturo. It was a day of sunbathing and diving, culminating in a moonlit ride back to Dili harbor as lightening flashed in the distance, and dolphins did flips in the boat wake. And I got a couple good shots of undersea life that I would like to post.

All that I am lacking is a compelling narrative. I am going to borrow a story.

The captain of the boat was your typical Aussie – stone crazy. He build is boat piece by piece, and sails it around Southeast Asia with his much younger girlfriend and a cargo of god-knows-what. (From scallops for Australia to booze for drier parts of Indonesia, this man is an example to seafaring capitalists everywhere.)

But, as inevitably happens with people of this persuasion, we ended up playing “the weirdest thing I have ever eaten”. I am pretty good at this game. As longtime readers know, I am completely kamikaze about what I will put in my mouth.

He opened a story about spending a season castrating camels in Australia and feeling wasteful about “throwing away all that good meat.” I countered with days-old undercooked sheep brain in Mauritania. He moved on to the large maggots that tasted like ham-and-egg hotpockets when cooked (“not to be recommended raw though mate.”) I busted out fried termites and caterpillar-in-oil sandwiches in Burkina. He swung back with garlic and chili cicadas at his brother’s marriage into a headhunter tribe in Boreno. I whipped out live ants in Thailand. He was starting to sweat a bit and I thought I might have him on the ropes. I was running low, but I still had dog and monkey so I wasn’t worried…

It started innocuously enough with kangaroo tripe – which is cooked without washing the “semi-digested crap” out of it and doesn’t smell good. On the plus side though, it can be whipped up in only a few minutes while it takes two hours to cook a full kangaroo. Okay. Then he started talking about how they actually cook said kangaroo. The tail is cut off for later, and the stomach you had already taken out through a small incision because, see previous story, you were starving. Then the right of the kangaroo hunter begins. The hunter has earned the right to drink the blood of the kangaroo. The carcass isn’t drained of blood before it is put on the coals, so the blood gets hot and pressurized as it cooks. When it is done, the hunter puts a slit just below the ribs and drinks the stream of steaming kangaroo blood, which, in the true spirit of too much information, congeals immediately into “a really fresh like blood pudding.”

I picked up my ball and went home. The jaws of everyone onboard just dropped to the deck. The vegetarian weaved unsteadily. This guy was King.