Sometimes I forget to share stories about what’s right in my backyard (aside from Kevin). I forget that the things that have become commonplace to me, were once very foreign and even a little scary, like the traditional market in Kerinci.
Going to the market was my first experience in my little jungle town. I arrived at my townsite around 10 p.m. on Friday night and at 8 a.m. the next morning I was whisked away in a school bus, along with five Filipino expat teachers, and taken to the market for the weekly outing to buy groceries.
I remember it well because I was completely unprepared for the onslaught of attention, grabbing, shouting and grime that I was about to endure. The market seemed like a warzone to me. It was pouring rain, there were tarps and scraps of plastic signs arranged in a patchwork to form rooftops, there were piles of rotting produce everywhere and ditches filled with “I don’t even want to know what” zigzagging their way through walkways and between food stalls. It was here that I first experienced people shouting “hey mister” and “I love you” at me and trying to get me to purchase items from their stalls. It was here that I first saw mangosteen, smelled the distinct and offensive smell of the plastic bags used here and saw a chicken slaughtered before my eyes (though I had previously seen a turkey slaughtered, thank you for that photo assignment Philadelphia City Paper).
Today the market is just part of my weekly routine. At the entrance, a group of the same men will generally greet me with smiles and shout “Selemat pagi bule cantik (good morning beautiful white person)!” or use the small amount of English that they know and say things like “I love you! Marry me! Good morning beautiful!” as I pass by. Beyond the entrance, a veritable rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables awaits me while the back alleyways of the market are filled with meats, clothing and various household items. It is here that shoppers can find baskets piled high with salted fishes of all sizes, tables littered with chicken carcasses, smelly basins of water teeming with (mostly) live fish, mounds of knock-off “name brand” clothing mixed in with neat rows of jilbabs and tiled counters stained with the blood of fly-covered beef waiting to be sold.
Sanitation is not exactly paramount at the traditional market and it took me months before I felt comfortable purchasing certain items there. I’ve learned to be less finicky about flies, they are just part of life here, and I have gotten used to turning a blind eye to food preparation practices at food stalls (so far I have not had any bouts with food-related sickness, thank goodness)!
But the market will always be a little bit of a challenge for me.
When it comes to protein, my eating habits have changed considerably. I’ve only purchased beef twice since arriving because I never know how long it has been sitting out in the jungle heat. I rarely purchase fish since I live inland and freshness is often a concern (though my Filipino friends are very helpful in this endeavor with their keen knowledge of fish). I do purchase a live native chicken once in a while to be slaughtered at purchase but most of the time, I just eat tofu. It’s locally-made and a major staple in Indonesian diets so I am learning to love it.
Another difficulty at the market is bargaining. Bargaining is expected unless a specific price is listed (and even then it’s sometimes negotiable). As a white person it’s extra challenging to get a fair price because you will always be quoted prices double and triple that of a local customer. Thankfully for me, a fellow ex-pat has always accompanied me and helped me with purchases and because he has lived here for five years, most of the venders know him and give him the “local” price. Additionally, while he is Filipino, he is often mistaken for being Indonesian!
It wasn’t until I traveled alone through Java and Bali that I really honed enough language to bargain successfully on my own. Additionally, I’ve noticed that my being able to say prices in Bahasa often surprises vendors and so when I suggest they sell items to me at 50% less than the initial quote, they will often agree and give me the “local” price (or at least close to it). I think it’s mostly because they are entertained by my pathetic attempts at Bahasa. No matter the reason, I still consider my recently obtained skills to be a big step toward being more independent in this country, making it a major personal triumph for me!