Fed Up in Bandung

by Larry Danielson

The morning I arrived in Bandung to begin my study of the Indonesian language, I knew I had found a tropical paradise. Situated in the highlands of West Java, this scenic city was surrounded by towering volcanoes. The people were friendly. The stalls in the marketplace were heaped with fruits and vegetables. The night air was cool and refreshing. There were even hot-spring pools nearby where I could relax after long hikes up the mountainside.

The days passed and I returned again and again to soak in those warm, luxurious waters. I forgot the agony of my first twelve weeks in Jakarta, the capital city which Dutch settlers in a fit of nostalgia had built on a swamp. The oppressive heat and the humid, sleepless nights were now a thing of the past.

True, my lessons in “Bahasa Indonesia,” the official language of the country, were not easy. I spent four hours every morning drilling on vocabulary, grammar, and sentence patterns, trying to make sense of a language that has no tenses. Even so, I had no complaints and, after a month in Bandung, I was able to converse at least falteringly in the native tongue.

One evening, I decided to combine business with pleasure. Instead of my usual review of the language texts, I would test my new-found skills in the marketplace. Tucking a small Indonesian dictionary under my arm, I set off for Kartika Jaya, the local Padang restaurant. My strategy was simple: if I didn’t understand some word on the menu, I would just look it up.

I sauntered down the asphalt street, contemplating the fine meal that awaited me. Perhaps I would try a seafood entree—some shrimp dish smothered in a creamy coconut sauce. Or maybe beef, fiery hot and mixed with vegetables. I might even choose fried rice and soto, a delicious chicken soup. It wouldn’t be easy to decide!

Of course, the choice would depend on the cost since my budget was limited. But I’d be liberal with myself. Tonight’s meal was not only a learning activity—it also was a reward for my long hours of study.

I entered the restaurant and seated myself at a table near the display window. I smelled the aroma of coconut milk and the sweet fragrance of cinnamon. I sat there for several minutes savouring the array of smells before I discovered a small flaw in my plan. There was no menu on the table.

As if to add to my confusion, the waiter arrived at the same moment. He was a short, wiry youth and he smiled at me expectantly.

“Selamat malam,” I greeted him.

“Selamat malam. Mau minum apa?”

“Please-Bring-Me-The-Menu,” I said, speaking slowly in my best Indonesian. I motioned with both arms to indicate the square shape of a menu. 

The boy, in his turn, nodded as if to say, “Yes, pak. Right away, pak.” He smiled broadly as he backed away from the table, a gesture I attributed to mere politeness.

Only minutes later, the boy returned, bearing with him the restaurant’s entire menu—three dishes on his right arm and eight on his left. He spread the dishes before me and I sat dumbfounded, my thoughts racing ahead, calculating how many thousand rupiahs this mistake would cost me. With luck, I figured, I might afford the bill and still survive the month without having to borrow. I stared at the exotic dishes before me and decided to make the best of the situation.

I tried first one dish, then another, and then yet another. They were all delicious, and I ate them with a good appetite. But as I emptied the third plate, I began to feel full and my moth burned with the hot spicy flavour.

My appetite rallied on the fourth dish, slowed again on the fifth, and nearly stopped as I finished the sixth. I sampled only portions of the seventh and eighth and nibbled half-heartedly at the ninth, before I resigned myself to defeat.

Slowly I rose from the table. Taking a deep breath to steady myself, I crossed to the counter and stood, feeling foolish and uncomfortably full. I waited, wallet-in-hand, as the waiter tallied my sizeable bill. The cost was high, but not so high as I’d expected, and I tried to correct the mistake.

“You-Bring-Eleven-Dishes. You-Charge-Me-Only-Nine.”

The waiter grinned. “Aduh, in Bandung, you only pays for what you eats.”