Warungs of Dobo

The boat ride back to Dobo, in the dark afternoon of the musim hujan (rainy season), was almost as wet as the outbound trip. The trip to the village had exhausted me, and I said little as we motored back to the town, only looking at boats on the horizon. We were all so soaked and anxious to get home that when we arrived at about 4:30, Saimin just dropped me off at the hotel’s dock, and said I could pay him later. I dumped cold water over myself in the traditional mandi attached to my room, and tried to wash the salt out of my clothes. I didn’t have high hopes for my shoes, which had been completely immersed in saltwater. My only water came from the tank in the mandi—the hotel’s plumbing had stopped working almost completely. I left the faucet open to refill the tank when I could, and occasionally a trickle came out. The hotel’s electricity also had a tendency of failing at inconvenient times, but at least the place was clean.

At some point I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and would have to find something. Dobo, like any Indonesian town, has a multitude of nocturnal warung, streetside stands, with varying degrees of infrastructure. The nicer ones have tables and chairs and electric lighting, but for this night I ended up at a smaller one that specialized in sate ayam, chicken satay. Although I’m usually a vegetarian, that’s almost impossible in Indonesia even if you speak the language flawlessly. Refusing a host’s offer of meat would also have been very rude, so I had reconciled myself to eating animals while I was there. The husband and wife who ran the warung grilled the chicken skewers, smothered in peanut-chili sauce which they made from scratch in a stone mortar and pestle, over a coconut husk fire. A huge meal (excessive, really) of ten generous and delicious chicken skewers, plus cassava as the starch, cost about $1.50.

People who read a lot of travel writing must get tired of hearing that some of the best food in the world can be got cheaply from roadside stands in developing countries, but it is certainly true. The ambience may take some getting used to, with the unmufffled motor-scooters passing by every ten seconds, and the precarious bench and table, lit spottily by a hissing Coleman lantern. An American health code inspector would recoil in horror at the conditions of preparation, though these warungs are kept clean where it matters. The important part is that I never had a bad meal from a warung, and often had an excellent one. The options are necessarily limited; as at a great restaurant, it’s best to trust the chef’s judgment: there’s a reason that the cook has assembled the ingredients for a particular dish. Dispensing with vegetarianism made it easier to trust the koki, especially in the Malukus, where everything has fish or chicken in it. The street food is always worth checking out—most often, it’s better than food in the restaurants, if the town has restaurants at all. Dobo didn’t, of course, apart from a few establishments that qualified only by being enclosed by walls and a roof. Apart from that, they didn’t differ at all from your usual warung.

My best culinary experience in Dobo was probably the mie goreng (fried noodles) in a warung a couple hundred yards from the hotel. The combination of noodles, finely shredded chicken and vegetables, and fried eggs, with a perfectly balanced spicy sauce (the chilis not overpowering the flavor of anything else), was immensely satisfying. All this for the princely sum of $1.65! I also developed a reputation for liking the ayam kampung (village chicken) of a warung nearer to the hotel, a roast half chicken served with rice, greens, and sambal, the chili sauce of which there are a thousand variations, most of them quite good, as long as they’re made from scratch. That was really a bit exorbitant, at $ 2.50. Despite being left-handed, I managed alright with the custom of eating everything with the right hand. I even made some progress toward the skill of rolling the rice up in little balls: the proper way to eat it, apparently. Ripping out pieces of chicken and fish was easy enough, but the rice took some practice.

The most basic food sources were women who sold food on the sidewalks, setting up at dusk with a cloths spread on the bricks, piled with fried fish, fried chicken, and bungkus (banana leaf bundles) of fried rice or papeda, a polenta-like substance made from sago palm starch. This food was all amazingly cheap, and almost as good as warung food, though fried fish does get a bit tiring after a while.

Refrigeration is still a luxury in Indonesia, and the local (eminently practical) custom of serving many dishes at room temperature is unnerving at first, but Indonesians are perfectly aware of all the microbes besieging them; they boil their drinking water religiously, and when that’s not an option, they have taken to buying bottled water, or filling their jugs up from commercial filter stations. The people who saw my little portable water filter admired it suspiciously.

Back in the states, I’d often tried to proselytize to my friends about the joys of life abroad, and it’s interesting to note that the threat of exotic diseases seemed the insurmountable obstacle for many of them. They were terrified of coming down with something like malaria or elephantiasis, and my observation that millions of people managed to live comfortably in these mephitic regions without contracting horrible diseases didn’t have much of an effect; they chalked their survival up to a natural immunity, which a full-grown American could not hope to attain. There may be a small amount of truth to this, but in fact the locals in most places, especially the cities, take the same precautions as the average tourist, and “immunity” as such seems mostly to come from behavior rather than predisposition. With that in mind, I’m always amazed at Americans who arrive in a distant country and insist on maintaining their own customs and diet, then becoming surprised when they fall ill. The same thing happened with European colonists, who seem to have suffered far less once they learned to adopt local customs, wherever they were.

The next morning, I booked a plane ticket out of Dobo; the earliest flight was in four days. There was no way for me to get cash in Dobo, and I was running short, so more boat trips were out of the question. I would have a few days of enforced laziness to read, write, and explore the town.

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