I’ve learned to grocery shop in under eight minutes. It’s a get-in and get-out situation, because it only takes a few pairs of eyes before the phones appear and I find myself in a zoo. For clarification: The exhibit is social media, and the zoo animal is me.
When I said I’d go anywhere on my Peace Corps application, I may’ve imagined a small village in some corner of the world where I’d get to know all of my neighbors by name. But in Indonesia, I’m a city girl. There’s no way to know everyone in Madiun. Luckily, at home with my host family, I’ve found an oasis. I love that we live at the edge of the city, far enough from the busyness of downtown. When I get back from the market, away from the crowds, it’s time to slow down.
This month I’m trying to take in the details. To take things slow and really learn my corner of the city. Like noticing the intense heat that comes right before a rain storm, and maybe not choosing that time to ride off on my bike. Sometimes I notice a sharp knock on my bedroom window. I open it to find my neighbors—two middle school girls—with mud masks caked on their faces, saying ayo, jalan-jalan. We’re going for a walk—after they finish their home facials, that is. So we lace up our sneakers and just go.
In a place where everyone zooms by on motorcycle, we’re taking things step by step. We explore small streets and search for papaya trees. We share my camera and snap photos of our surroundings. I tell them that in my neighborhood in Maryland, there are no papaya trees, banana leaves, or rice fields. They’re like…. then what is there?
The girls help point out butterflies and pretty potted plants. Like me, they don’t love to have their photo taken, and while I have some of the cutest pictures of them hanging out, I now know what it’s like to find your photo where you don’t want it. Like on strangers’ Instagram accounts and shared across Whatsapp groups, or printed on a calendar at a school in another city.
So when we go on jalan-jalan, we’re in control. When a stranger rides by on a motorcylce and says minta foto, the girls say no. We’re learning a thing or two about asking permission, and we’re turning our attention to this incredible island where we get to live, trying to take it all in.
We walk through rice fields and down the main road, until we reach the train tracks. We start to loop around the soccer field, and take a break in the shade. When our sunblock has worn off , we’d better go home. We’re sweaty and hungry, and it’s time to eat. Ayo makan.
What’s cookin, good lookin?
On school days, I usually buy lunch in the school cafe and then eat with my host family in the evenings. Sometimes we’re all malas—a bit too lazy to cook—so we pick up food at the neighborhood warung. On our street alone, there are five places to get a hot dish. Cooking in Indonesia largely means boiling, steaming, and frying foods–which in 90 degree heat is no joke. So when it’s late in the day and too hot to stand in front of the stove, we like to indulge in whatever our neighbors are serving up.
This is nasi campur, which translates to “mixed rice.” It’s my go-to at the school cafeteria because you get a little bit of everything: steamed papaya leaves, fried eggplant, chopped tempeh, marinated tofu, spicy sambal sauce, a few noodles, and a fried corn cake called bakwan—the snack we learned to make in Kediri. And it’s totally vegetarian. Instructions: toss it all together and dig in.
Next up is soto ayam, an Indonesian chicken soup. It’s a little different anywhere you go, and I’ve even had a ginger variety. As with nasi campur, a whole mix of ingredients go into building this bowl, and you can customize it at a street-side warung. It’s got a salty broth, a handful of rice, a few strands of noodles, chicken, hard boiled egg, green onion, crispy chips, bean sprouts, and a few peanuts. Then you can add sambal and lime for that much-needed acidity that compliments any soup.
Meet mie ayam, boiled noodles with pulled chicken in a slightly sweet broth. At the warung down the street from our house, it’s served with a thin rice cracker that’s kind of like a tortilla chip. (Kinda.) If you’re looking to carbo-load, mie ayam is where it’s at.
Ayo pulang. Back at home, we’re drinking juice. There are SO MANY delicious fruits here, and buah naga (dragon fruit) has the prettiest color. I just learned that the word magenta is the same in Indonesian and English. Few people can say no to a glass of this bright dragon fruit smoothie on a hot day—i.e., every day. And when blended with banana and pineapple, it’s both frothy and tangy. Cheers to you. Thanks for checking in. ❤