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Loco for Lokum: on assignment inTurkey The lowdown on winning the 2011 World Nomads/Rough Guides Scholarship...

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - Journey in an Unknown Culture

WORLDWIDE | Thursday, 3 March 2011 | Views [12296] | Comments [15] | Scholarship Entry

Jamu in Java

Under the veil of tarpaulin, the market plays out like a slideshow for the senses; fresh bursts of neon pink dragon fruit and fiery red chillies, the reek of sweating meat, the slippery film of eels glistening in the slats of sunlight. A gaggle of women gossip in rapid Javanese as a vendor blasts out bubblegum pop from a distorted radio. Schoolgirls wear their white jilbab like halos, floating between rattan baskets of galangal and tamarind pods.

I find her stall tucked between strings of barbecued chicken feet and a steaming wok of caramelizing peanuts. She squats on a low stool, enveloped in the colourful canopy of her skirts. I notice her hands first, wrinkled fingers like miniature accordion bellows, moving with the stiffness of age yet the deftness of expertise. They dip and dive into the clay pots laid out in front of her. A squeeze of this, a dollop of that, a sprinkle of something else. Fastidious measures gleaned from 1,300 years of tradition.

Her name is Ibu Siswu but she goes by many names. A Jamu maker, a practitioner of traditional Indonesian medicine, a herbal doctor, a medicine woman. She can pluck a miracle from the sky, I’ve been told.

I linger as she tends to her customers: a drooling infant with gooey eyes; a swaddled baby running a fever; an elderly gentlemen with an ailment that turns his cheeks crimson as he whispers in her ear.

Her hands move with the grace of an inspired artist, the clutter of potted herbs and extracts cocooning her in colour. Piles of rose apple, lemongrass, kepal fruit and grated turmeric litter the workspace. Vials of peppermint oil line up behind a bowl of chopped limes oozing with sugary pulp. Swinging baskets tender ready-made tonics - blended oils for eczema, teas to boost fertility, a dubious looking pessary for preserving one’s virginity.

At the front of the queue, I mime eating and clutch my aching gut. She nods knowingly and sets to work. A smidgen of this, a generous squirt of that. Each ingredient crushed beneath bare hands, smashed with a pestle and rolled flat until the juice bleeds out into the bowl.

A coconut shell brimming with runny, canary-yellow liquid is pressed into my hands, the medicine swirling ominously beneath me. It’s a bitter and chalky tonic with an acerbic aftertaste that demands a sweetened chaser to soothe the tongue. My hand drops to my stomach as if a miracle might occur instantaneously in my bowels.
“Kesabaran,” she whispers. Patience.

Outside, I brave the death-dance of midday traffic and marvel at the panorama of tiered rice paddies and lush green tea plantations. I scour the roadside warung and munch on glutinous corn fritters and sweet-soy rice balls. I savour the haunting melody of the muezzin as the call to prayer seeps out into the streets. And later, wobbling precariously in the back of a tuk tuk, I have to admit, I feel pretty good.

Tags: #2011Writing, Travel Writing Scholarship 2011



A well deserved winner - great work Zoe.

  natmatmoonshine Apr 28, 2011 4:09 PM


What a great story, good on you Zoe :)

  Jo Apr 28, 2011 5:08 PM


Congrats! Very deserving

  Tina Apr 28, 2011 7:14 PM


Many thanks to the judges for selecting my piece - there are so many beautifully written and evocative stories amongst the shortlist (especially the 2nd and 3rd place stories) - it must have been a really hard decision. I'm thrilled that I somehow made it to the top of the list!
I can't wait to embark on what sounds like an incredible adventure (horse-riding, kayaking, biking, hiking... I'm going to be exhausted!), especially the opportunity to work with Terry Richardson and learn everything I possibly can about the world of travel writing. Here's to hoping this is start of my future travel writing career :)

- Zoe

  zoe_smith Apr 28, 2011 7:34 PM


You deserved it, Zoe!
I will learn more how to write from you :)
Anyway, I am from Indonesia, lives in one of the cities in Java.
You can contact me whenever you come to Java again :)

  Josefine Apr 29, 2011 2:50 AM


Congratulations, Zoe - it's a fantastic achievement and it really is a lifechanging opportunity!

  keith_ruffles Apr 30, 2011 4:20 AM


Great work Zoe! Once I read Jamu In Java I knew I didn't have a chance. I'm totally integrating the word 'fastidious' into my daily vernacular.

If you're ever traveling through San Francisco and need a couch, don't hesitate to ask!

Emily and Chris Knight

  chrisaknight May 2, 2011 2:26 AM


tuk tuk? I don't think we have one of those here. didn't you mean bajaj? tuk tuks are in Thailand.

  sarah Jun 8, 2011 6:30 PM


Yes, you're right - they call them Bajaj in Indonesia, but it's practically the same as a Tuk Tuk and everyone knows what a Tuk Tuk is so it seemed easier to use the 'universal' word!

  zoe_smith Jun 8, 2011 6:45 PM


This is great! Is there a 2012 competition?

  Luke Jan 10, 2012 6:44 AM


Such a great story, you write it as though I can see it!

  lisaf Feb 20, 2012 3:50 PM


Just FYI

Bajaj is the manufacturer from India. In India, tuk-tuks are called Rickshaws!
Awesome screed zoe!

  Pritesh Mar 2, 2012 6:14 PM


great work! :)

  Susan Mar 22, 2012 3:40 AM


Very nice and educative story to read.I wish to take part in this highly competitive contest.Zoe really deserves to be crowned as the best writer for 2011.

  GaniDare Mar 23, 2012 11:42 AM


A very nice piece of writing!

  DJRaby Jun 12, 2016 2:02 AM

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