Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Pushcart Wars

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Yesterday’s shopping expedition to upscale Pasaraya mall was followed by the movies at Senayen Plaza, maybe. There are two huge shopping malls side by side and they both have Senayen in their names. The one we were in had not only the luxurious movie theater but also a bowling alley and even more upscale shopping. Where Pasaraya was a merchandise-by-floor experience, Senayen was a Western-style indoor mall which included two department stores one of which was Marks and Spencer, the British company. We also saw Prada, Gucci and the usual gamut of expensive stores. Despite the high-end shopping available, the movie was a bargain: although there were no children’s or senior discounts, our four tickets totaled 10,000 rupiah, about $10. Carter’s medium pop corn and soda [shared with Briton] cost about $2.50. Dinner at the dim sum restaurant was about $45 for 5 of us including drinks, another bargain.

Jakarta is a mixed bag, so to speak, in its retail businesses because, in addition to the malls catering to the middle class and wealthy, there are places like Mangga Dua which aim at the lowest of common denominators. Restaurants show the same dichotomy. We have eaten in mid-range establishments in pleasant surroundings and good food and service [Gourmet Garage, Toscana, Koi], but we are surrounded on every street corner [and mid-block, too] with tiny warungs. These are the local greasy spoons, little 10-foot wide hovels selling local food to local people. If the average Mukti-on-the street wants rice or noodles, he can duck into any of 10,000 warungs; they all appear to sell the same food. There are also storefronts offering masakan padang, the local food from the Padang region of Java. The masakan padang is like a buffet because, according to Briton, the food sits out awaiting customers; she says the smart way to pick one of these places is to pick a busy one so there is a better chance that the food is fresh. Even smarter, of course, is to avoid both the masakan padang stalls and the warungs.

There is a third alternative for the hungry Indonesian. There are thousands of pushcarts offering the same cooked-to-order rice and/or noodles as well as other local delicacies. These carts are rather uniform, approximately 2 feet wide, five feet long and equipped with two large wheels and a handlebar. Each has a little propane cooker powered by a tiny gas canister which appears to be less than half the size of the tanks Americans use on their outdoor grills. It never ceases to amaze the casual observer how all of these vendors stay in business or how customers decide which to patronize. We don’t know if there is any customer loyalty or if it would make a difference. In addition to the food vendors, every other square foot of sidewalk is taken up by sellers of notions – cigarettes, soda, phone cards and snacks. Again, each is selling the same products [probably bought from the same suppliers] for the same price.
Interspersed with all of these stalls and pushcarts are “real” stores and restaurants, but there is no order to it. It is a city planner’s nightmare.

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