Leftover Learning: Peer-Coaching for Indonesian Domestic Workers

Picture3I interviewed Nanny Tini, the “Beverly Hills Nanny,” a couple years ago. This time she introduced me to a few friends. 


TWO neatly-dressed children frolic in a pile of empty coffee sachets and laundry detergent pouches.

Maids, cooks, nannies and a few gardeners and drivers remove their shoes and sit down on plastic sheets in a shady spot outside the entrance to the Jakarta zoo. Some people contribute additional “trash” to the heap and everyone receives refreshments – an assortment of holiday cakes and pastries.Using scissors, Ninik, a mother of two from Malang, East Java, demonstrates how to cut open a cat food package, bringing it one step closer to becoming a sassy handbag with a repeating cat pattern.

Some people watch while others chat. A battery-operated amplifier, clipboard, and banner reading www.jakartahouseholdstaff.com are the only signs that this is no picnic.

Switching on the microphone, Warantini kicks off the meeting with a 45-second minute of prayer. The thirty-something-year-old woman from Yogjakarta, Central Java began her own career in domestic work 15 years ago in Beverly Hills. The miniature public address system was purchased with her own money a few days ago and hauled here this morning on her motorcycle.

“I can’t tell you my age,” says Tini. She’s worn a few different uniforms over the years – even designed a few – but today she’s casual, black blue jeans with pocket flaps and a collared blouse with the sleeves rolled up.

When she got the nanny job in Los Angeles it was 1998 and Indonesia was beset by political and economic upheaval. One of eight children whose father’s civil service career was limited by his elementary school education, she told me she felt like she “didn’t have a lot of options” at the time.

“I only saw ‘good rice’ once a year during fasting month,” she confided. “Because my parents insisted we buy the very best to give away as alms.” There were just two rules in the family: don’t steal and don’t ever accept charity.

The L.A. household where she was employed was high tech; so learning all the buttons for opening doors, answering phones and logging onto the Internet was one of her first tasks.

And her stump speech this morning at the zoo is that there are always options – so don’t stop punching buttons.

Coincidentally, a few weeks after the rally, Tini got her first scholarship – which was merit based – from Intel, the California-based hardware manufacturer.

Maid in Jakarta


Maid in Indonesia

Technically, this is a “first assembly” (halal bi halal), a centuries old tradition with an Arabic name yet Javanese roots. Not a far cry from an office potluck, for Indonesian organizations that observe it, it marks the normalization of work routines following Ramadan and Eid.

If you laid all of the cars and motorcycles in Java from end to end –  well that’s pretty much what it looks like once everyone has gotten their annual bonus, spent a few days at home and is headed back to into Jakarta for what is invariably a soft start to the new work year.

There’s also an element of musical chairs, since informal sector workers – say, women who want to get married or have a child – sometimes bow out of the workforce temporarily at this time of year. Meanwhile, in recent weeks a record 70,000 newcomers showed up in the “Big Durian” to look for work.

Expatriates – the preferred employers of Jakarta Household Staff (JHS), the grassroots organization that began as a blog – often check into hotels for a week or so until the holidays are over rather than try to run the household without the staff.

So with Jakarta back in the saddle, at the annual JHS meeting the woman known on golf courses, ladies clubs and primary schools around Jakarta as Nanny Tini is breaking the ice.

“OK. Someone asked why I live at the zoo. Well, I don’t live at the zoo” she says, to the relaxed laughter of the crowd of about 75, most of whom are already employed as domestic workers for expat households.

“My address is on my business card,” she continues.  “I really don’t come to the zoo much at all anymore. But if you come to my apartment, I can interview you there.”

Jakarta is an expensive city, even for formal sector workers. Tini admits that many expats pay their staffers less than the $200 minimum wage, although the cost of living has been increasing since 2012 by about 9% annually, and renting a room – just a room – can now easily be over $150 a month.

So the first step is to find a job and the second is to live creatively enough so you can send money home to children, grandchildren, siblings or parents who live elsewhere, maybe somewhere a little cheaper and more serene.

But this meeting isn’t about finding a job – at least according to Tini.

“I can’t give you a job but I can tell you how to look for one.”  It was a message she’d have occasion to repeat several times throughout the morning and one reason is because she’s even busier than ever since quitting full-time nanny work and “Can you give me a job” is a very frequently asked question.

She says she dedicates as much time as possible to her informal mentoring/job placement work, in between hand-making and marketing staffer uniforms and running an apartment cleaning service, both of which also require some blogging and other online work.

When I met Tini – through her blog – it was 2010 and just after Mt. Merapi (near Jogyakarta) had erupted. My own housekeeper had to return to her village to shovel ash so I was stuck. When Tini explained she was “helping her friends” look for work –  and that’s why she came to the zoo once a week on Sunday mornings to do interviews – I wrongly assumed she ran a labor agency.

But this morning, as I watch her pause her address, relinquish the mic, and disappear into the audience to greet late arrivals, it dawns on me that these really are her friends and she hasn’t seen them for quite a while.

A few weeks earlier, while briefing me on her plans for this year’s first assembly, Tini rattled off from memory details on budget, attendance and agenda from the three previous years. With relief she noted that this year would be less burdensome since more volunteers were signed up to help with set up and take down.

“I don’t know where else to put it,” she said referring to the recyclables the group has been experimenting with as a form of dues-paying. “So for now, it will just have to go in my living room. At least there will be some ladies to help me pack it up and move it.”

Ninik and her kids had already finished the bagging work and Ninik was listening to Tini’s nutshell version of business networking for domestic staffers.

“Who’s the person that can guarantee that you’ll find a suitable position and be successful there? Well, that’s you.”

“But we can help each other, too. Right? Isn’t that why we’re here? To help each other get ahead (maju bersama)?”



A career in dirty work

Between interviews, business cards, and business networking on the weekends, I was surprised by all the formalities entailed by work in the informal sector.

On the other hand, domestic work in Jakarta could possibly be a career, I was realizing – maybe even a business opportunity.

Sukarno, seated next to me in a Jakarta International School (JIS) golf polo, seems satisfied with his own career decisions and those of his two sons, one a business consultant and the other who had just opened his second sushi bar in Jakarta. He said he’d been able to send them to college by working as groundskeeper and gardener for the likes of JIS, Amex and Total.

My impression is that Sukarno probably turned down a lot of job offers – since who wouldn’t want a professional gardener for $200 a month. But Tini recalled there had been some job gaps and lean times for him and his family. And she emphasizes that domestic staffers whose employers suddenly pick up stakes and vanish overseas have always been the primary focus of JHS outreach.

And to hear Tini tell it, the secret to a successful career in dirty work, is to anticipate opportunities : learning to cook in order to stop ironing; posting an index card at the supermarket to find a new boss; or buying gardening tools and hiring a friend in order to provide services to more than one family.

“If you’ve got skills, you’re going to be fine here [in Indonesia],” says Tini.

“And if you don’t, then I really wonder why you’re looking for work overseas.”

It echoes the Indonesian government’s vision, announced earlier this month, that by 2017 no Indonesians will be going overseas to work as domestics. Whether or not it’s feasible, it’s a policy tied to Indonesia’s inability to ensure proper protections for migrant workers as well as the “brain drain” factor.

“Expats need someone special,” Tini told me. “We [domestic workers] have to understand them, put up with them and even live with them.”

And families fresh off the boat can’t help but be even more demanding. Thus domestic staffers can easily find themselves over their heads – with long shopping lists of things you can’t find in Jakarta or as a go-between viz-viz the cable man, the landlord or the boss’ secretary.

Aside from cross-cultural savvy, or the ability to pick it up, many of Tini’s own professional attributes –organization, innovation, dedication and patience –also come in handy. Tini says it’s amazing how fast people will turn over their keys, computer and kids to you, if they think you’re responsible.

But it’s one thing to have learned these lessons and another to teach them.

“There will be less gossip this year,” Ninik said when I caught up with her at her workplace ahead of the meeting to ask about her role as a JHS steering committee member.

We’d been admiring some herbs she’d grown from seeds brought over from England while her husband, Udin, was exercising the dogs in the spacious gardens. Ninik and Udin live with their children at the same address as their employer, which is convenient but not common.

Ninik said the idea this year was to share specific messages – almost like a workshop. She ticked off cooking skills, recycling, English, understanding what foreigners want, and how to ask for letters of recommendation, including digital copies, as potential agenda items.

Tini had told me the same thing: “They’ve got to listen this year. We can do a lot of things but it all depends on training.” It’s a sentiment frequently voiced by business leaders in Indonesia that always rings true.

But here at the zoo it’s all bullet points: how to be more successful as a domestic. Dozens more people had arrived, packing the picnic tunnel-shaped picnic area which was a little warmer than it had been.

Tini shares some universally applicable tips on text messaging, including the fine line between following up on something and bugging someone.

“If I don’t return your text there are two possibilities. One I missed it. So please send it again. Or, two, it wasn’t actionable. There was really no response required.”


 Learning to learn

As the mic floated around the group and various JHS associates – mostly women – volunteer testimonials, somehow the discussion never seems to move very far from recycling.

These women have made silk purses from sows’ ears, turning some of hardest, lowest-prestige work anywhere into something to be proud of: self-reliance, sending kids to college, learning a foreign language, and traveling overseas, among other achievements.

But on their minds this morning is how the entire Indonesian archipelago seems to be filling up with consumer trash. One speaker said she’d just returned from a distant island and it was as bad there as here.  Someone else said it was ironic that some people – like trash pickers – struggle to collect the same items that others are trying to get rid of (garbage collection can be irregular in Jakarta).

While I admit that recycling is fun as well as a relatively popular chore in my own household, I still didn’t understand why everyone kept hammering the ”like” button on this particular issue.

So I sent Tini a text after the meeting. As usual, she responded almost immediately saying that it was likely because of the way she’d relentlessly jawed the group over the years about recycling. And that jived with what Ninik had said about Tini trying to make recycling edgy, such as through competitions.

Thus it was likely that one person’s habits, i.e. Tini, had influenced the habits of many. Which is the opposite of how it normally works, if you think about it. You could also compare it to a college class that works out somewhere over the course of the semester what the professor really cares about, as opposed to what she’s merely obliged to cover because it’s on the syllabus.

Anyway, the results were in the bag. Taking out the trash had been recast as civic education, aesthetic expression and environmental activism on a do-it-yourself basis without sponsorship, grants, etc.

The Indonesian word sosialisasi  refers to the transfer of explicitly-held knowledge or “know-how” in a particular social context. It combines informing with persuading and – at the end of the day – may well resemble a potluck or picnic.  Despite being a sometimes odd blend of top-down and bottom-up approaches to change management, “socialization” is ubiquitous in international development and corporate responsibility work in Indonesia.

Tini was referring to the learning process as it was taking place: “We’ve been talking about learning. But do you know what I heard?”

“I heard someone say, they’d love to study but no one has given them an opportunity.”

“I heard someone say they wanted to study recycling, “ she continued, fashioning an illustration out of leftover scraps of gossip.

“But this isn’t study, it’s learning.”

“And the thing about it is that we’re all free to learn. In fact, we have to learn. And no one can stop us.”

Tini, who jokes that she has a master’s in babysitting (it comes out “MBA” in Indonesian), further explained to the group that “having a degree and having knowledge are different. Even if you don’t have the degree you can still have the knowledge.”

A few weeks the sophomore entrepreneur who says her dream is to have a training center but she’ll settle for an office had a chance to tell her “How IT Changed My Life” story at Intel Media Camp 2013 in Bogor, West Java.

The out-of-town trip and new tablet computer were the first formal recognition Tini has received in connection with her social and business ventures, but, in a way, also the culmination of something that began long ago on a borrowed laptop after putting children to bed.

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Smart boss, rich boss 

Ninik vouched for Tini as a techie. “She told me I should look for cooking videos on You Tube. So I did.” Ninik’s boss – who is very supportive of her JHS role – confirmed to me that she’d been promoted with a raise after mastering the family’s favorite dishes.

In addition to clueing me up on which herbs are easiest to grow in Jakarta – not tarragon – Ninik gave me a thumbnail sketch of her domestic staffing career. She was already a mid-career employee by the time she got her current position, with Tini’s help.

Speaking in both Indonesian and English she betrayed the same range of emotions any professional might, looking back on the lucky breaks, rough patches and results of a singularly successful career. Her children try to follow the conversation, hands folded neatly on the kitchen table.

There was a focus on creativity and communications – especially English-speaking ability — in her self-narrative. But it’s probably not correct to say that because of her English Ninik can cook authentic roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, put on high teas for office purposes, and handle children on overseas trips.

Surely there’s a link. But success in a cross-cultural work environment, including language acquisition, also requires curiosity, creativity and risk-taking.

Ninik said she got her first job with an expat family “because of my English,” even though she didn’t speak any at the time.

Having misunderstood the labor agent – not Tini –  she actually showed up with her suitcase, Mary Poppins style, at the first job interview. And she maintains she was entirely monolingual in Indonesian.

“Do you speak English?“ she was asked.

“Yes. That’s what I said. What else was I going to say?” reflecting back on what had been a risky and rewarding moment.

Both Ninik and Tini spoke of former employers with respect and affection while the work experiences they shared with me reflect optimism, serendipity and a sense of humor.

Another frequent theme was having to  choose between competing job options. Such as when Ninik’s husband had to quit his job as a driver for a Singaporean family even before his new role working for Ninik’s employer – his current position –  was fully in place.

“Of course several times my husband and I have had to sit down and ask ourselves which one of us is going to work. That’s normal,” she said.

“But, as you can see, this is so much better. We’ve been so fortunate.”

The salary, benefits and experience were comparable as between the two jobs and Ninik faltered as she tried to nail down why the move had been such a good one for him.

However, the Nanny Tini axiom –  Would you rather work for a rich family or smart family? –  is quite relevant. In other words, not every organization affords the same opportunities to learn and grow.

Tini credits all her former employers – beginning with the kind Angeleno family who taught her about democracy and the Internet – for facilitating her acquisition of language, business and technology skills. And she credits herself with having chosen all the right employers.

With her own apartment, Tini has a little more space now. Yet she’s sanguine about self-employment and how hard it will be to get a business (or two) off the ground when she doesn’t even have an office.

Until she finds one, all the JHS jobseeker data will be stored in her living room, with the recyclables. Tini has yet to digitize the nearly 160 files corresponding to men and women who describe themselves variously as housekeepers, dog walkers, house couples and so on, many supported by employer letters of recommendations. And in most cases, there’s also a photo of someone standing outside the Jakarta zoo.

Jess Morgan does qualitative research and advises on workplace learning.

Blog to website : Jakarta bed & breakfast success story

It was a humble blog and it’s a humble business. But still — it’s kind of a fun adventure to look back on.

Halimun House Index

Why and how? Well, without the blog it’s hard to see how the guesthouse would have come about. And without the blogging skills, it’s hard to imagine I would have gone ahead and made a website

I did, however, using BaseKit, the free web editor that came packaged with the HostGator hosting package. I’d recommend HG for being responsive, easy to use and because they accept PayPal. What really blows me away, looking back on it, is how easy BaseKit was. I did a lot of stuff the hard way because I was scared I’d “lose everything” otherwise, but that worked out fine. And when I got up the guts to do it right (well, slightly better, let’s say) that was do-able also.

Tell you one thing, nothing surprises me more than to hear how good WordPress supposedly is for websites. Would you have guessed that based on the free version of WordPress? Not me.

Calon Arang: The Lion, the Witch and the WordPress

Newer than the Odyssey and older than Hansel and Gretel?  Beowulf of Bali? Am I warmer? Hotter?

Are tongues of flame leaping from my nostrils and my mouth, devouring banyan trees and instantly turning nearby soldiers to charred mounds of flesh ??

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Friends, I really have no idea what to say about Calong Arang besides:

  • she was a witch and her name seems to mean “ready to barbecue” (swear! best translation I can make/find)
  • who practiced the blackest of magic and sacrificed kids to Durga
  • it’s a seminal tale, about 1000 years old, remembered better perhaps in Bali than Java
  • totally connected to Rangda (witch), Barong (the lion), and trance dance
  • Pramoedya covered it in The King, the Witch and the Priest A Twelfth-Century Javanese Tale
  • one of the first Indonesian films (1927) went there; but now it’s lost (not the 1985 one)
  • crops up a lot in Indonesian plastic arts, wayang and theater
  • Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead and Hildred Geertz (once married to Clifford) are among the only folks who’ve managed to comment at all without wholesale  copy-pasting Wikipedia and ripping off jpegs from DeviantART

So Hildred Geertz (it seems) pointed out that, in Bali, it’s real magic — not just a story about magic — and the costumes are a big part:

 [N]otions that [it's] just a story are dispelled on recognizing that … the play is a practical act of attack and defense in a world teeming with … invisible beings …. who are willful, irritable and easy to anger, but [can also] be … benevolent ….  [I]n Balinese rituals, the masks and [the] play bring the spiritual beings into contact with humans where they can be … bargained with, entertained and even threatened. 

Enacting a narrative such as Calong Arang is a means for communicating with these beings and one of the main channels are the masks themselves, for masks can be, in Bali much more than mere costumes [77]. 

Images of Power:  Balinese Paintings Made for Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead

I warn you, stick with Google images. No matter what language you speak you’ll find nothing relevant about this topic. And if you go to a performance titled “Calon Arang,” again, that’s like saying “Hansel and Gretel.” It could be almost anything.

Spooky, man. Real spooky 8 ]

Expate, outsource, automate and disappear: how to spend less and live more in Indonesia

Here’s what we’ve heard over the years about why single expats find that sharing a house near the business district with other expats makes sense in a city like Jakarta.

“I like the fact they’ve got a micro-brewery on board. It’s social, but in a focused way. The Jakarta serviced apartment thing was convenient, but ultimately alienating and boring. There’s just not that much going on in Jakarta on the 26th floor.”

– Development consultant, Madrid

“The kost thing was fun for a while. Sure you meet a lot of people, including Indonesians. It’s almost like a family experience. But then if your boyfriend comes to Indonesia or something . . . or you want to throw a Halloween  party, you may as well be in a hotel . ”

– Tech journalist, Palo Alto 


“My company offered me a big kontrakan [rental house]. But there were a lot of questions about who was going to look  after it. I’d just as soon not have a pool if I have to clean it.”

– Expatriate GM, Melbourne 

“I’m having enough trouble with my driver so I wasn’t really keen on having more people [maid] to manage.”

– Hydro engineer, Montreal

“Once I got the gym membership and located a few good swimming pools, there was really no reason to stay in the apartment.”

– Intern, Helsinki 

Continue reading

Indonesia forever?

Are you a bull or bear when it comes to Indonesia. This is a 1-question poll about your investment in this country.

Get ready, get set, GoPro Jakarta

Here’s me and #babygirl getting ready to roll. The first, but not the last, Hero3 footage I’m uploading.

Ironically, if you’re like me and live in Indonesia, then you can’t view this Vimeo footage because, for reasons we don’t understand, Vimeo for several months has been blocked in Indonesia. Because it’s a porn site, you know. For reasons we don’t understand.



Wake up, it’s night in Jakarta

Night time is basically the right time in Jakarta — because it’s cooler, quieter and less congested. You can get a lot of stuff done at night. A night watchman can help set the tone.

Yes, we have vacancy.

P1140154P1140010P1140055 P1140022P1140042

Little girl dreams about farms, fairy tales and flying tigers

As we come closer to reverse engineering our own brains questions like this come up:

When we look at a glass of iced water, we perceive the liquid and the solid ice cubes as independent things even though they are intimately linked as part of the same system. How does this happen? Out of all possible outcomes, why do we perceive this solution?

No clue and I’ll raise you one: When do we begin to perceive that the liquid and solid ice cubes are dif? Because, guess what — I don’t think every baby does. In fact, just betcha that when they’re really little, kids see stuff a lot cooler than when they get older. Dr. Seuss and Sasha Shulgin (1925 – 2014) cool. Like liquid ice.

I mean, nobody knows what babies dream — right. Or toddlers. Just look at all the crazy illustrations below for some artists’ impressions. Because arguably the reason we tell kids fairy tales is because no one else would believe them. It’s obviously part of the process of peeling the water away from the ice cubes and getting your reality on.

Life starts in the barnyard, correct. My daughter, for example, knows very well that “horses like hay and goats like to play” — even though she’s only seen a couple actual horses, no goats, a few cows, the odd flock of wild turkeys. Because she’s into it — Massey Fergusun tractors, anthropomorphic scarecrow technology, old-school cowbells — all the stuff. Very basic, you say. But look how young you (probably) got involved yourself. So, yea, it would seem basic.   P1140141  Continue reading

Shut down & off the hook: Jakarta Car-Free Day photos (every Sunday a.m.)

So these are the best pics I could find of “Car-Free Day” which is when they shut down 5 miles or so of the downtown every Sunday a.m. for jogging, biking and just hanging out. Oh yea. And one pic of “Car-Free Night,” just in case.

So the earlier you go the cooler it is. If you later, it’s hotter as well as less cool. Bring your camera. This may be the only time you see adult Indonesian women wearing shorts, err …

Photo of Car Free Day in Jakarta from Sudutpandangedward33 blog at blogspot photo by @rossa_indah (Twitter) Photos of Indonesia lowrider bicycles Hotel Indonesia traffic circle on "Car Free" Sunday morning in Jakarta 8107925709_835c72f6fd_z Indonesian girls in short shorts and t-shirts Car Free day in Jakarta from Aldiesyafaat.files.wordpress blog Photo of Car Free Day Jakarta, by Argo Sendy Lawu Photo by daiax at Flickr Photo of Car free day in Jakarta by daiax at Flickr daiax_8646822559_flickr Indonesia in line skate photo by Galih Setyo Putro of Hifatlobrain blog jakarta_car_free_night_by_sawungkampretz-d5rujiu Bikes and street vendors on Jl Sudirman for Jakarta Car Free day welovejakarta_com

Dump old spice and other tips for Indonesian cooking

After 500 years on the global #spice map, Jakarta is one gourmet -friendly city. This post is about how to make the spicy goodness of Indonesia work for you.  

Remember how you turned onto Indonesia? Was it about cooking? Food? Spices? Are we getting warmer?

Indonesian essential oils

Essential oil — Indonesia

We really are getting warmer, ’cause this Indonesian spice and herbal thing has begun to heat up. It used to be you could go for years in Indonesia without anyone making a big deal about spices. Because, after all, we’re talking about the Spice Islands where people demand savory food. But recently you see more restaurants catering to locals as well as expats that invoke the East Indies’ spicy history.  

After all, this is where even the poorest of the poor awake before dawn to spend hours grinding weeds and seeds into a savory base used to spark a flavorful paste to season a sauce which may just be one of the key ingredient of — shall we say — a dumpling . . .  to be elaborated over the course of hours or days, together with other exotic and disparate elements — some fresh, others not,  into a “simple” traditional Indonesian dish like siomay.

And not to miss the value added, in the take-away context, that’s going to come with three to five toppings and sauces, each individually-wrapped in leaves, plastic (and occasionally newsprint or recycled office paper). Depending on whether you ordered fish, fowl or neither, the toppings will range from dried onions and tiny chili peppers (eaten raw, as in Mexico) or shredded coconut, raw cane sugar, etc. Among the most common optional sauces you’ll to choose from a soy-based one, a peanut number, a spicy one — a million more but I forget them and can’t describe them at all in any language, but no reason to chose either, have them all, it’s included. And that’s how we make two-for-a-buck street food around here.

While the glut of fast food and convenience stores  that has accompanied the explosion of middle-class Indonesian consumerism over recent years will surely take its toll on the Indonesian palette sooner or later, for now I see peeps sticking fairly close to their culinary roots  and, I might add, bark, leaves, stalks and stems.

Yet buying spices in Jakarta is perhaps easier written about than done. Fact, is there’s a couple missing links in the supply chain. Women who grew up shopping at a traditional or village market (AKA wet market or pasar tradisional) and producers who used to sell there are now wandering around Carrefour, Ranch Market, and Hero looking for each other. But things are sorting themselves out fast and what I’ve seen over recent years mushrooming options and falling prices.Uh huh

Language and labeling is also a challenge.  Indonesian has many words for spice (rempa-rempabumbu, or hasil bumi) and yet for the most part cooking know-how is coded in regional languages like Sundanese, Javanese, etc. — not Indonesian. So sometimes it’s hard to hunt down spices that are actually here in Indonesia, let alone trying to substitute your way to French, Italian, Mexican or other gourmet greatness while based in Jakarta. It’s possible, but requires patience, as do special spice/herbal applications such as for diet, detox, jamu (traditional medicine), essential oils (minyak astriri), aromatherapy or other purposes.

Be as creative as possible because there’s a lot to (un)learn. Basically, the gist of it is to demand more from the Indonesian spice experience. Just think: if you can get the most essential oils at the mall in Melbourne and the sexiest of  shallots in San Fransisco, then it ought to be that much better here Jak, especially once you factor in prices. Right?

If you want to make this work, do yourself a favor and drop the “gingko is for grandpa” and “hops is for beer” riot upfront.  Hops is a brilliant sleep aid and, while the gingko research is ongoing, so far we know that it works for young and old men and women — at least for sex (get blood flowing several places).

It’s important to know the horticultural, historical background and cultural context for spices — like nutmeg and mace are the same species; black pepper and chili pepper aren’t related; and green/Bell peppers (which Indonesians, Dutch and others call paprika) and chili peppers are related.

And what about “old spice”? Just dump it. Ground nutmeg, ground black pepper, and whole cinnamon bark ,just to name a few, very frequently have funky stuff growing in or on them, or a funky smell, after just a few months of sitting in the spice rack in Jakarta. And sometimes the funky junk is already present when you purchase them at the store. I picked up some Mr. Boemboe dried basil that was infested with tiny beetles the other day and you can often see the little worm folk doing a Swiss cheese number on the nutmeg seeds while they’re still on the shelf at the supermarket.

Here’s some more Indonesian spice advice:

  • Start with the basics and focus on one spice/species (same root) at a time. As you might expect with kitchen science, it’s about building blocks and baby steps. So, learn as much as you can about varieties, sources, quality and uses of one plant.  Some of the most rewarding phytonutrients sources, mood changers and sex pals are roots, shoots, weeds and seeds you already know and love — coffee (biji kopi), tea (daun teh), ginger (jahe), tumeric family (kunyit), chili pepper (cabai), cinnamon (kayu manis), coriander (ketumbar), cloves (cengkeh) and pepper (biji lada) — sorry, for the short list.  That last one, BTW, is (indirectly) how we ended up with the piperizine family of chemicals, including everything from antidepressants to pepper spray weapons.
  •  Get some simple tools like the mashing stones, some mesh wire for drying things, a kitchen scale, etc. Now go buy some cinnamon sticks and make sure your outfit is robust enough to reduce them to a fine powder.
  • Re-task the maid from the ironing board to the kitchen to help with the unlearning process. Why not startw ith the bawang category (garlic and onions belong to this group), then move on to the non-pepper group which includes chili peppers (cabai), black pepper (lada) and green peppers (paprika). (See, even though in English the word pepper suggests a close relationship here, there really isn’t one.) Very soon you’ll remember from Anthropology 101 that food — especially spices — is entirely cultural. So, it’s really important not to say “as far as I know nutmeg is mostly for eggnog”;  or “yea, I think everyone knows that tumeric is good for you.” Ask instead, why the hell were people killing each other over nutmeg and what can tumeric do for you today.
  • Get in touch with your inner wet market. Sadly and despite a fairly solid traditional market lobby and even some well-intended regulations (which aren’t working), the traditional market may be on its last legs in Jakarta. And the situation is mirrored throughout Indonesia. (Yes, indeed — I’m talking about those horrendously freaky, leaky, smelly, dark concrete caverns where the maid buys veggies in the early a.m.)

But not to setres out, since something nearly as funky will surely take it’s place — just wait and see. If you’re near Block M, it’s already in place — that wet market has been relocated into a normal shophouse directly across from Blok M Square where it appears as a lovely “Asian produce” store. I suppose it’s resembles the original, more or less, except not as dark and cleaner and more user friendliness.

  • Jump-start your upstream spice knowledge by growing an herb garden. The only reason Jakarta isn’t a huge hippie magnet is I guess that people can’t imagine a Muslim hippie (actually yuppie, because you pay a pretty premium locally for seedlings, soil, fertilizer etc). But I can tell you what the Indo hippie /yuppie reads and it’s Trubus. Anyway, no need to read. Nothing could be easier than gardening in Jakarta. But have an Indonesian help you with it, if possible, to increase local relevance.
  • Reverse engineer a hot mug of jamu.  Jamu is Indonesian herbal medicine and it’s so universal you may never have heard of it if you live in Indonesia. But people overseas know about Indonesian spice and once they’re get hooked on classics like ginger coffee fortified with love herbs or cajuput oil  (little dab will do for aches and pains), hell with that revenue we may even be able to quit logging off the rainforests around here.
  • Find the local herbals section/shelf of your favorite Jakarta pharmacy (AKA apotik) to see for yourself how it all starts coming together. Yes, there is some risk in shelling out hard-won rupiah on an obscure botanical product from an unknown outfit in Central Java, but mostly just cash you’re gonna lose if it sucks. The  established cosmetic/spa/herbal makers (it’s a growth industry) lobby hard and the local press snoops pretty good on this one, to keep a good thing from going down the drain. There are exceptions, though. I would consume local/unknown essential oils a drop at a time only (build up gradually) and be very suspicious of whether or not cupid has figured out how to spike your pasak bumi (a relatively expensive natural aphrodisiac) with throw-away chemical sildenafil citrate (tell me if you need a ton, it’s also got some curious larger-than-life side effects ; )
  • Go for a little ethnic flavor. Remember, Indonesian is a catch-all, not an ethnicity. Tap centuries of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) wisdom in China town at bespoke, made-while-you-wait herbalist shops behind the electronics market (that spans both sides of the main drag) in Glodok.  Or to to Pasar Baru for a little Indian touch. As for other go-now brick-n-mortal fix, you’ve got tons and growing retail options for spice/herbal/spa products at the mall these days (including Botani at Gandaria City). The grocers and fruiteers are also stocking more exotic natural teas, etc. There are also a couple people who do small scale wholesale and you can email me.

  • Just keep clicking to learn and buy in large quantities.  For instance here, on Nature’s Herb Form, you’ll find just about as much grass & oil info you’d ever need (local analog here if you’re pretty sure you’ve got the next-gen Coca-Cola almost market ready, check Indonetwork, Agromaret or even Kaskus for a wholesale hookup.
  • Make it good, but not too good. Eggnog and beer are pretty good examples. Remember, as a patent medicine, Coke had non-secret ingredients cocaine and kola nut. Now only one of those is still legal and there’s pressure on the other. Then, during prohibition they had to quit putting alcohol in Coke. And now they’re forcing kids to drink it without caffeine some times. As always, however, it’s still flavored with nutmeg.
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Homemade spice dyer