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Friday, November 24, 2017

Jakarta, je t'aime

If you don't like being overwhelmed by choice,
Padang food may not be for you
I just got back from a two week work trip to Jakarta, and the city has warmed its way into my heart and list of favorite places. I have to confess I wasn't too excited about the travel as I was starting out - just back from a couple of weeks of intense travel, I really wanted to stay put in Bombay for a bit, and none of the friends and colleagues who had been to Jakarta had called it exciting. The image in my head was of a city struggling with mad congestion and pollution but managing to stay cheerful with great street food.  On experience, that image proved correct, but also incomplete. To anyone who says Jakarta traffic is impossible, I say pooh, please come to Bombay, will you! If you've lived in and loved Bombay or Delhi, Jakarta traffic is like a teenager with a stomach cramp before a party: it's not pleasant, something will need to be done about it, but it's not going to stop you from having fun (sorry, horrible metaphor, but it's the best I can think of right now, really impatient to get on with my list). So here I am, a huge fan of the city, and here's a list of things I love about Jakarta, in random order of priority:

Padang food. My food experiences in Jakarta could a fill a book, and Padang food would be its longest chapter. So here's what happens when you walk into a Padang restaurant and get seated: two, sometimes three, servers come over and start putting bowls of colorful curries and stir fries on your table while you go "Whaaaat's going on?". Then you notice that they're carrying the multiple bowls, not on trays or trolleys, but piled up as pyramids on their arms! They continue the process until you can't see the tablecloth on the table. Then your Indonesian friend explains: you choose whatever you want to eat, take it in your plate, and at the end of the meal, tell the server what you ate and get billed for just that. If the bowl of redang had two pieces of meat, and you had one, that's all you pay for. The rest of the food goes back into the community pots and pans for the next set of guests. "But what if I lie about what I ate and pay less?" That questions causes a lot of amusement, turns out the system works. I loved it - quite apart from how delicious the this region's cuisine is (spicy, coconut-based gravies), the whole process is so affirmative and communal.

Martabak. This is difficult to write about because I'm struggling to ignore my watering mouth. Think soft, thick pancakes smothered in butter, cheese, chocolate and cream - and that's just the basic version. You then have the tough task of choosing toppings. This snack, which comes in sweet and savory versions, is something locals are very passionate about, with restaurants dedicated to it. But like most things, the street version is the best.

A screenshot of the Gojek app,
courtesy my friend Fauziah
The bike taxis. Sure, we have them in India but they're a tiny handful. In Jakarta, they're a critical part of the city's fabric, as ubiquitous as India's auto-rickshaws (Jakarta has those too, and guess what they're called? "Bajaj's", pronounced as "Bajai's"). They're fast and make you feel like a superhuman as you wind through traffic, and they're so easy to use! I used Uber, but they have so many (Grab, Gojek, maybe others too) And I'm an absolute fan of this Gojek thing, which must have started out as a taxi service provider but now has such a delightful list of bells and whistles to it! Imagine combining Uber with Grofers, Chaayos, Ferns&Petals, BlueDart, Flipkart, Bookmyshow, Home salon and maybe a few more things, and you'll have some idea of what Gojek is. I don't know any startup in India that has become a verb yet. My hospital colleagues spoke of "gojecking" documents to each other.

The food. I know I've listed Padang food and Martabak, but how do I not mention the five different types of sambal, the tahu gejrot (spicy tofu) that made my eyes water, all the satays and nasi gorengs. The street food is as amazing as you expect, and none of the restaurants I stumbled into disappointed me. A place called Dapur Bapah Elite was especially unforgettable - fabulous food in a hundred year old house. There's also a growing coffee shop culture - perfectly brewed coffee in relaxed, warmly lit rooms which have good wifi connections. My personal favorite among the cafes I worked out of - Watt coffee in Kwitang.

Transjakarta. If the BRT corridor in Delhi had worked out, it would have been like the Transjakarta. A fast, convenient way to travel in a city where unpredictable traffic is a way of life. I've decided that on my next trip, I will choose a hotel next to a transjakarta station as much as possible.

The people. I don't know what it says about me that I thought of the affection I feel for Indonesian people only after mentioning the food and transport. I did say my list was going to be random. How is it that in my two weeks in the city, I did not meet one grumpy human being?

The "Good guide walking tours". I cannot praise these guys enough! I went on two walking tours with them (old town walk and street food walk). They're everything that you expect a good walk tour to be - well informed, chatty, amusing, and then something more - political and passionate. They don't tread gently around issues they care about, and I found that wonderful. And it's pay as you wish.

Special mention: Indomart and Alphamart. These are supermarket chains like 7-elevens, and it might seem a little silly to mention them, until I tell you that they double up as coffee shops, so you can find really good coffee at practically every street corner. The larger ones even have small tables right next to the shopping aisles. There is something indefinably whimsical about enjoying unhurried coffee surrounded by bright boxes of detergent and listening to employees singing as they stack merchandise.

There's one additional fact that also deserves special mention: Indians are visa-exempt! Not visa on arrival, visa exempt! Now I know how people with Australian passports feel in half the world.

And here's an eight-second video of martabak being made - sheer poetry in motion!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Of Sanctuaries and positions of safety

This is the third post to come out of my experiences at the Acumen global gathering in Naivasha earlier this month, and there's no saying if it will be the last. You cannot spend five days with some of the most powerful changemakers in the world and not come out of it shaken and stirred (the first two posts are here and here)

There is one conversation that I am going back to again and again in the week since the gathering, because it was powerful and moving, but even more because it is so relevant to choices I make every day in the Indian political climate. This was Stephanie Speirs' talk on "Sanctuaries". Stephanie is the co-founder of Solstice, an enterprise dedicated to radically expanding the number of American households that can take advantage of solar power. She is also an Echoing Green Climate Fellow, a Global Good Fund Fellow, a Kia Revisionary, and an Acumen Global Fellow, all of which recognize emerging leaders in social enterprise. 

It says a lot about this woman that, given the opportunity to address to 300+ global citizens, she choose to talk not about her amazing journey in the space of solar energy access, but to talk about courage, about the importance of speaking up when staying quiet seems like the most sensible option, about listening patiently to ideas that clash violently with your values. Because that's how the world changes. In her talk, Steph said something that made me sit up and scribble "must look this up!" in my notes. She said that American acceptance for same-sex marriages has gone from 30% to 60% in the last 10 years. How did this happen? Polls indicate that the #1 reason for this rapid change of opinion is the very simple - "I know someone who is gay".

And this is why it is important to keep talking, to keep reaching out to people outside of our "sanctuaries" (we also call these our "bubbles"). My original tendency - every time I read a friend's hateful post on social media, every time I listen to a cab-driver express contempt for a community he doesn't like - is to mentally check out of that conversation (I wrote a post to defend my desire to live a non-confrontational life in 2015). We know that people never change their minds, so why waste your breath? But here is this amazing data that Gallup collected over 20 years that shows that people do indeed change their mind - only 27% North Americans said "yes" to giving legal status to same-sex marriages in 1996, and this number went to 61% in 2016. Would this have happened if gay people stayed in their bubbles and sanctuaries and refused to engage in difficult conversations?

So here's to celebrating the loud SJW in me and all the friends who spend hours arguing and defending their point of view in the face of unrelenting anger and sarcasm. The next time I meet that neighbor who shared with me that she never employs anyone from a certain community ("sometimes they change their surnames so you have to be very careful!"), and left me depressed me for a week, I'll not smile politely and run home. I'll get out my sanctuary and ask her if we can talk about this a bit. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Love and Religion

Or, Religion and Love.

One whispers, I cannot wait to see her again. 
The other mutters, we need to kill these people who eat the other meat. 

One shouts in joy - oh, he wore the shirt I got him!
The other screams - you will wear what we tell you to wear!

One says I'm terrified she's going to friendzone me
The other says I worry about our women marrying their men

Love and Religion
No wonder they don't get along
They don't speak the same words.

Like Swahili and French
The script looks the same
but the vocabulary is too different

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