Friday, August 31, 2012

Travelling Chemist

"You're going to be in Playboy! Show us your bottom!" The neighbourhood women, mouths full of rice, titter and tease the jamu lady. 
Here she is: the jamu lady. Wearing a lacy blouse and batik skirt, her flip flops slap the puddled lanes of Karet, Jakarta. She's a travelling chemist, carrying bottles of homemade jamu inside a wicker basket slung around her neck. Her hair curls at the ears and she has a swipe of red lipstick across one tooth.
Jamu drinks are blends of roots, leaves, herbs, spices, bark, and/or fruit, traditionally believed to enhance well-being, beauty, and libido.

Turmeric is a key ingredient and the palms of jamu ladies are often stained turmeric gold. "I don't usually mind, though," admits Ibu Sis, a jamu seller in Yogyakarta. "I make money from these yellow hands."
Today’s gendong jamu is Ibu Sadina, standing in a quadrangle ringed by blue-washed houses emblazoned with curlicues of adolescent graffiti. A ginger tomcat snoozes with a wary eye asquint; its head a trellis of dry scars. This is a neighbourhood of hanging bird cages: elegant wooden coops harbouring itsy-bitsy lovebirds.
Sadina unties the cloth sling around her neck, lowering her basket. Inside are twenty bottles of different jamu blends, a thermos of warm water, a knife, a raffle of manufactured jamu sachets, a bucket of blue eggs and limes, and a knotted bag of something like saliva.

It’s a bag of discarded egg whites. "If the whites are used, the jamu will smell of putrid fish. Only yolks can be used," Sadina advises. 
Sadina's homemade jamu can be swallowed on the spot or knotted for takeaway. Double shots are Rp 1,000 each ($0.10), rising to between Rp 4,000 and Rp 6,000 for a full cup or added egg. Sadina serves around 40 customers a day.

"Homemade jamu is more popular than factory jamu," she says, giving me some Nyonya Meneer sachets for free. The illustrated sachets show slinky feminine silhouettes, muscular men, unopened flower petals, and barbed-wire lips. Inside are pills and powders ready to be mixed at home.
Not in Suratno's house though, a Jakarta taxi driver. "Jamu in sachets is confusing," he says. "What do we mix it with? In what proportions? I prefer to boil my own jamu godok once a week to help me sleep."
"Do you follow a recipe from your mum?"
"No, it's a recipe from my ancient ancestors."
"Come to my house," invites Sadina. She lives near the Karet graveyard. The labyrinthine lanes are too narrow for sunlight. Inside, on floor mats, we sip air jahe - a warm fusion of ginger, lemon, pandan leaves, and palm sugar. On the walls are two posters of young President Sukarno and a Shaun the Sheep doll.

Sadina’s three-year-old grandson lingers at the threshold. "He’s too young for jamu. He must wait until he's five."

Medicine runs in the family. "Our son’s a pharmacist at the Mintohardjo navy hospital," relishes Ponimin, Sadina's husband. "It's only natural! His mum’s a jamu lady!"
The watercolours above are by Jennifer Lawson. More of Jennifer's effervescent sketches of Indonesia can be found in her June 2012 collection.

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