Java Part 1: cities

Two weeks after the wedding, we found ourselves in an Indonesian small city called Jogja (by the locals). Our host said she would rather categorise this place a village, but I beg to differ. Jogja has an international airport nearby, some traffic jam and a decent size train station full of taxi scammers.

We arrived yesterday after seven hours and a half on the train, an early rise and a second-degree trauma – me losing a bank card. As soon as we walked out of the platform area, an apparently official taxi booth offered to get us a taxi for 80,000IRP. We could have taken it if our host hadn’t given us an estimate of around 40,000IRP. We found another taxi driver ourselves outside the station and ended up paying 24,000IRP even though the driver did take us the longer, round-the-block way at one point. We missed Uber!

Jogja is surely at least a town. Maybe my host was thinking of Jakarta and Bandung in comparison. They are indeed mega cities with traffic going on for miles. We happened to be in Bandung last weekend, among the visitors who wanted to splash out shopping at factory outlets or enjoying some dramatic views of nearby volcanoes and crater lakes. We did neither despite sitting on a taxi for 3 hours to go to the Tangkuban Perahu. That three-hour taxi journey covered about 30 km from Bandung centre to its northern mountainous area.

From Jakarta, where we landed the first night, through Bandung to Jogja, we have spent a lot of time in slow trains and slow moving cars. Before seeing Java, Hanoi and Bangkok were at the top of my list for busy roads. How little did I know!

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We’ve learned a lot about patience and anticipation in Java. Would we make it to the volcano site before it rains in this traffic and under those hanging clouds? What would we do then? Would we make our train despite setting off more than one hour in advance for a distance of 4 km? If we don’t make it to the station, how would another day in this craze city be like? Should we make a desperate attempt to walk there and there?

We did walk several times. Pavement is rare and litter is common. Javanese cities have little to none street lights, which makes an evening stroll much less pretty and reassuring. Some scenes are like a stab to the heart. In Jakarta, I’ve seen extremely dirty side streets with open holes next to food stalls. In Lembang, I’ve seen a stream running through forest land covered in used plastic bags and giving out pungent smell. I couldn’t bring myself to come near and look closely at the colour of the water.

Jogja does not have bad traffic and a serious pollution problem like Jakarta or Bandung. We managed to walk the old town without being hit by cars and motorbikes, but the constant pestering from touts is unpleasant. We tried shaking our head with a smile, many firm “no”s while gesturing with our hands, pretending not to understand English. Nothing works. Some drivers followed us a long way, shouted at us names of places, presumably we would want to go and they would take us. One even stopped his becak (Indonesian traditional cycle rickshaw) on our track, so that we could not walk anymore. We just wanted to explore his city in our own pace and in peace but it didn’t seem possible.

Though Jakarta, Bandung and Jogja definitely have their own charm and some delicious food, they are not for us. We booked more train tickets, packed our stuff and determined to leave cities behind – big and small – to (hopefully) find mountains, jungles and quiet beaches.

Jogja, Tuesday 26 April 2016

Getting Married

Getting married should not have has anything to do with a big wedding. Getting married is about love, compassion and commitment, so you keep hold of the other person’s hands regardless tough long days. Your wedding day could well be one of those days if you have more than half a thousand guests and no time to eat. Ten years ago, I was on the “hosting team” at one of those weddings. Afterwards, I promised myself I wouldn’t get married if it meant I had to go through such a day. I was dead serious! But the couple has survived a lot more days that were way tougher. They are still happily married. So hell, I guess I could do it too.

Life-of-Pix-free-stock-photos-llove-hands-water-santallaI really believe it though that marriage has nothing to do with a big wedding. My fiance has recently read a lot of travel blogs. He sent me a post from a guy who advocates for travelling the world (instead of throwing a wedding party) before officially setting foot into your marriage life. He wrote something like If you still enjoy the company of each other after travelling together for a year, then it is very likely that your marriage would work. Of course, not all couples have to travel for such a long time first to stay married ever after. But when travelling together, you learn a lot about more about each other. You make decisions together, support each other and grow together. Most importantly, you know how to have fun together. So hell, it doesn’t hurt to do some travelling to top up that big wedding, right?

Truth to be told, it is not really gonna be a big wedding. There will only be a couple of hundred guests. And it will definitely be chaotic. But I do look forward to it. I like holding hands, you see.

Christmas

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My first Christmas celebration in was a modest and quiet gathering in Barnsley, a small town in South Yorkshire – somewhere you would think of when listening to Adele’s Hello.

It was December 2009. I spent the holiday with a cousin of mine and her family. At the time, I was barely used to the cold of a northern winter. In the three months up to that point, I was always in thick layers of clothes wherever I go, including going to bed. Born and bred in tropical Vietnam, English winter was alien to me. The most challenging part though was the darkness. Winter days were so short, and when it got completely dark around 4 pm I always felt the urge to curl up in bed and think of a warmer home where my family and loved ones were. Loneliness caught up with me soon as the light was out.

So I took up my cousin’s invitation without a second thought and traveled down to Barnsley from Newcastle in the Xmas break of my master. On Christmas day, her husband, an English man, roasted a beef joint and lots of vegetables. It was my first ever roast dinner. I have had many of those since, some close to extravagance, but I never forget that first one. It’s just like how people make a big fuss about first love. You might move on, but you never forget.

Barnsley was however not the kind of big towns where shop windows were filled with beautiful decorations and mansions went over the top with lights. Bus service rarely operated over the holiday and taxi fares were simply too dear for us to take a trip to somewhere with more going on. It seemed hard to keep the morale up when the juicy taste of the roasted beef started to fade. The days got shorter, the wind felt colder and the gathering wasn’t as homely as one hoped for.

I remember all the Christmases that came after Barnsley. I was up and down everywhere from a quiet, snow-capped village in the Lake District of England to bustling Bangkok of tropical Thailand. Much has happened in the last six years. I am no longer in contact with my cousin or few other people with whom I have spent the sacred holiday. A hint of sadness came each time I was reminded of that fact. Life moves on, sometimes for the worse, though mostly for the better as one would hope.

I am to England for another Xmas. I still find its winter too cold, regardless of all the talks about how mild it is this year. I still struggle with how quickly it gets dark outside. But I am sure this is gonna be a good one.

Stop Wasting Food: Starting with Ingredients

Do you also hate wasting food? I find letting unused ingredients going off the worst because of the guilt. The sprouting potatoes or a bunch of soggy coriander that I threw away were the hard work of some farmers and could have made a meal for the children who went to bed hungry.

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So I have researched different ways to stop wasting ingredients. Try them out if you like.

1. Find-recipes-by-ingredients apps

Sometimes ingredients go to waste because you don’t know how to use them. You have two avocados, half an iceberg lettuce and some chicken thighs: which dish can you magic up? When no decent idea comes to mind, you shove them into the far corner of the fridge and eventually forget about them until it’s too late.

Luckily, there are apps you can use. Those apps help to find recipes based on the ingredients that you already have. Some have advanced searches for prioritizing the ingredients, and some have filters for the type of food, such as Asian or European, breakfast or supper.

Most of them are, however, simple to use with both browser and mobile versions. They come in very handy when your stomach is empty and your fridge is full of random bits and pieces.

2. Stocking up

This might sound the opposite to what we are trying to achieve, but let’s not be hasty.

Some ingredients last longer because they are dried, such as herbs, nuts, rice, or spaghetti. Some ingredients can be kept for a long time in the freezer. Actually it is okay to freeze most ingredients but check these tips first. Pickled or canned vegetables can also last quite long.
Keep those ingredients around because they can fill up the missing links in a good recipe that uses your fresh ingredients.

Think about Wednesday evening when you are too tired to do a supermarket run after work, and your aubergine needs using.

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However, dried ingredients don’t last forever. Nuts can keep their taste for some time, but herbs do lose their flavour gradually. Do a cupboard check every month to see if you need to use certain spices sooner or even replace them. Frozen food can last for months, but it is best to keep a labeling system for the regular check.

The thumb rule: dried or frozen food is the backup plan, not the main source of nutrition. Go for fresh ingredients whenever you can.

3. Buy herb pots

I used to throw away herbs more often than not. Recipes often ask for a handful as a garnish while supermarkets sell them in packs of a few handfuls. Besides, herbs are fragile: they go off more quickly than cucumber or tomato, for example.

You can, however, buy herbs in pots. With a sunny windowsill, you can keep the plants alive for at least a week. Freshly picked leaves also taste nicer.

The herb pots that you find in supermarkets are often densely planted to give the most leaves in the smallest areas. Thus, they often don’t last every long. But you can move all plants into a bigger container or thinning out the original pot carefully. Then, you can keep, for example, a pot of basil plants going for a couple of months.

4. Master stir-fry rice

It is possible to make a good stir-fry rice from random ingredients once you master the principle. For me, it is the dish for clearing out the fridge. Some people do stews while others make noodles.

Whichever you choose, learn to master it. Experiment with different types of ingredients.

For example, when I do a stir-fry rice, I want something sweet and hardy (carrots, peas or sweet potatoes), something sour and crunchy (pickled cabbages or gherkins), and something spicy (red chillies or jalapenos). Any combination of the three main factors with an egg on top would do.

5. Make weekly food plans

This is the most pro-active “strategy” which I got from using an ingredient delivery service.

The company send you ingredients enough for three meals for two people every week together with recipes. There are also other options for the number of meals and people.

The interesting thing is that they often choose meals that share a couple of ingredients so they can send, for example, a whole pack of chives instead of 5 sprigs of chives. Thus, no awkward ingredients are left unused.

On a personal level, you and I can do the same thing. Plan the week food in advance so we can buy a big pack of certain ingredients and use them all within the week.

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