drunken prawns and chocolate martinis

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February 3rd 2012
Published: February 3rd 2012
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Is it possible to fall in love with yet another country? Indonesia has impressed me so far, and I can tell I am going to enjoy working here. Jakarta reminds me very much of Bangkok with its humidity, terrible traffic, migrating food carts, and Southeast Asian faces. People are friendly and pleasant, and the Asian hospitality is a treat. There are no electricity problems, good internet connections, and you can find delicious food wherever you go.

I am staying at a high-rise hotel called Hotel Mulia in a neighborhood called Senayan in Jakarta. When you pull in to the hotel, guards use mirrors to check for explosives under the car, and they peek in your trunk and glove box. You have to go through a metal detector and have your bags scanned each time before going through the front entrance. This was all put into place after the bombings of large hotels in Bali in 2002 and in Jakarta in 2003 and 2009. But don’t tell my mother-in-law or grandmother that…

The hotel is mostly populated by Asian business men, but also some Caucasian men, some of which you can see with much younger Indonesian women in very sexy outfits (sex workers, most likely). I shared an elevator with such a couple shortly after my arrival, and probably had a scowl on my face the entire ride down the many stories. The building is spacious and gorgeous, with the most amazing breakfast buffet I have ever seen, and a gorgeous pool and fitness center overlooking the city. I am staying on the 29th floor, and my view of the city is beautiful (when the fog passes).

I have spent the last few days in the local JHU CCP office, in and out of meetings about the research protocol, hiring procedures, and budgets. My research assistant for this project seems very smart and motivated, and he’s really taken the reins in getting things set up. On Sunday I leave Jakarta to go to Bogor, a city of about a million, and then a few days later to Palembang, a city of about 1.5 million. Both places were among the first to enact smoke-free policies in the country, but enforcement remains a problem. Our goal for this trip is to talk to key people in the cities about the policies and what people think of them, notify them of our research plans, and observe smoking behavior.

Aside from meetings, I have tasted the local cuisine, which is mostly delicious. I had chicken satay with peanut sauce my first day here, and yesterday for lunch I had a spicy mango chicken dish with coconut rice. There was grilled stingray on the menu at that particular restaurant, but I didn’t quite have the guts to order it. I had room service the first night—chicken and pumpkin ravioli. And last night I went for dinner with a few of my colleagues to a seafood restaurant. That place pushed my boundaries a bit…we ordered “drunken prawns”, and to my horror, a bowl of live ones were brought to the table. The server poured a ladle full of boiling water on them, then took the bowl back to the kitchen to finish boiling. When the prawns were brought back, the server doused them with Chinese wine, lit them on fire, and we watched as the alcohol burned off.

Although I eat white meat and fish, I don’t do well when my food looks like the critter that it comes from. So when I had to de-shell the prawns with my own hands, pulling off the heads and legs, my appetite was not as fierce. They were delicious though, and everything was covered in tons of garlic.

Most of the restaurants I have been in here are very swanky—lots of modern Asian décor and house music thumping in the background. The menus are like books, with photos of most of the dishes. The variety of fruit juices alone is a lot to take in, but in order to avoid traveler’s diarrhea, I have not indulged.

But the highlight so far was a drink I had with my colleague from Baltimore, who is helping with this project. We went to a hotel called the Dharmawangsa last night, which is a gorgeous, high-ceilinged museum-like place. We ordered their highly recommended chocolate martinis, and gazed around happily as we licked the sides of our chocolate-dipped glasses and watched the numerous butlers shuffling around.

Tomorrow morning the country director of our local office is sending her driver to pick me up and take me to the spa for a 3-4 hour pampering session, followed by an afternoon of shopping, and finally a night out for Thai food and a movie. “I want Michelle happy so she comes back to Indonesia!” she said with her Indonesian accent and a loud laugh during dinner last night. The way things are going, I don’t think that will be a problem.


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