Frijoles Carboneros (Burned Beans)

A Balinese holiday recipe to accompany the film “Sita Sings the Blues”


  • 1 copy Sita Sings the Blues (below)
  • 1 non-stick sauce pan (possibly 2)
  • 1 slosh olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 avalanche ground cumin
  • 1 can pinto beans
  • 1 restaurant nearby, just in case


1. Cue up Sita Sings the Blues:

2. Note play time (1:21:32). This calls for a burrito, which starts with ‘b’, which stands for beans!

3. In non-stick pan, heat chopped garlic in olive oil until fragrant.

4. Dump in cumin. If you live in the tropics you may need to bang the bottle until it all — Whoops!

5. Heat and stir cumin-garlic paste until toasty fragrant.

6. Dump in beans. What beans?? This $3.50 can is mostly water!

Sita Sings the Blues movie poster7. Reduce beans (lowest heat recommended) while getting a head start on Sita Sings the Blues. We don’t have all day here!

8. Marvel at how filmmaker Nina Paley got my cat, Monster, to star in this movie. She’s a natural! No doubt about it, that’s Monster on the bedside table at 00:06:16 —

9. Oh shit!! The beans!!!

10. Remove beans from heat. Duck to avoid smoke.

11. Note that this was your last can of beans. And it did cost $3.50. Actually more like $4 on account of the devaluing dollar…

12. Recall that the restaurant nearby is closed, due to yet another Balinese commemoration of a great cosmic battle, a la Sita Sings the Blues.

13. Remove beans from pan. If you’ve been following directions, by now they should delaminate as a black, frisbee-like mass.

14. Flake off the blackest beans. Appease Monster by putting these in her bowl. (You will need to remove them later.)

15. Return beans to pan. Add water. While crunching up and reconstituting, consider the etymology of “refried beans”.

16. Reduce beans. Again, lowest heat recommended.

17. Do not, I repeat do not, hit play on Sita Sings the Blues!

18. Taste beans. Are they, , the best beans you’ve ever tasted in your life??

19. Take a picture. I ate my beans too fast and have no evidence for this so-called “photoblog”.

20. It is now safe to resume ‘play’ on Sita Sings the Blues. And to send the filmmaker some love.

Seriously, this film is hilarious, beautiful and highly distracting. And the music rocks.

Like any art depicting deities, it’s taking heat (figurately). My take from Bali is that Nina Paley hit religious anachronism on the head. While most Hindus here would confess some confusion around their pantheon, they’d never let that get in the way of a good story.

And nevermind those Indian accents. The narrators of this tale are Indonesian shadow puppets. Cue photo!

Wayang Kulit shadow puppet play

A Javanese dalang (ventriloquist puppeteer) pits an evil ogre against the noble hero Ardjuna (my namesake?). The contest was one of many trials in an all-night performance for refugees of an erupting volcano. Hours of antics, inspired by local, modern-day farce, climaxed at 4 am -- when Ardjuna received the divine power needed to return the Earth to order. This puppet show drew more viewers than the Soccer World Cup semi-finals televised next door. My bet is that local folk would mightily approve of 'Sita Sings the Blues'.

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Sriwijaya for Sale

Pagaruyung Prasasti

Early Indonesian history is limited to cryptic stone inscriptions and outside sources. Only archaeology can fill in the gaps.

What if you held an auction and no one showed up? Thankfully that’s what happened when the Indonesian government tried to auction off cultural heritage dating from the golden age of Indonesia’s Sriwijaya empire.

Maritime experts believe that the shipwreck discovered off the coast of Cirebon, Java in 2004 harks from 10th century Sumatra. And that the story it tells is not the common tale of outsiders coming in, but of an Indonesian kingdom in its prime, dominating a trade network from Arabia to China.

Precious little evidence about the classic Sriwijaya period, recounted in the histories of foreign powers and in widely scattered stone inscriptions, indicates that the Sriwijaya kingdom was not only wealthy beyond compare, but that it was Asia’s hub of cross-cultural learning from the 7th to 10th centuries. The Chinese monk I-Ching, who studied at Sriwijaya for some ten years, described the scene in the late 7th century: “There are more than a thousand Buddhist priests whose minds are bent on study and good works; thier rules and ceremonies are identical with those of India.”

Early in the 20th century, Indonesia’s founding fathers leveraged Sriwijaya in their call for a “National Awakening”. But current government policy turns Sriwijaya into a business proposition. Whereas land-based archaeological sites are studied and conserved by a dedicated research institution under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, marine sites fall under the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, who contracts private marine salvage operations in exchange for a 50% take on proceeds. So goes the great maritime history of Tanah Air (“Land of Water”).

Last I heard — back in 2005, the Cirebon wreck got especially messy when local police confiscated the salvaged goods mid-operation. Fragile remains of the ship itself — the only example of its kind — were yanked from preservation tanks and locked away in shipping containers. For at least a year. I doubt they fared well…

Anyway, despite outcries from international authorities and the Sultanate of Cirebon, it’s looking likely that this shipload of sunken treasures will soon be scattered to the winds. I’m thinking of a photo project — a final Sriwijaya family portrait, of sorts. Any takers??


Cirebon Palace plans to build museum to house artifacts | The Jakarta Post, 01 May 2010

For Sale: Ancient Treasures Dug From Indonesia’s Seas | reproduced from The Jakarta Globe, 03 May 2010, on the salvage company’s website [photos]

UNESCO chief concerned by auction of ancient artifacts | The Jakarta Post, 05 May 2010

Little Interest in Indonesian Treasure | The Jakarta Globe, 06 May 2010 [photo]

Artifacts auction closed sans bidders | The Jakarta Post, 06 May 2010

Indonesia to Ease Auction Rules to Lure Treasure Bidders | The Jakarta Globe, 09 May 2010 [photo]

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Monkey Business

Rosek Nursahid, a founder of ProFauna Indonesia, visits ebony leaf monkeys at a rehabilitation center while coordinating the most ambitious release to the wild to date.

This year in Indonesia, some 2500 Javan langurs will be poached from the wild, mostly sold as pets. Rosek Nursahid, co-founder of ProFauna Indonesia, doesn’t like this. He and a corps of activists will prod government officials to confiscate the endangered monkeys from markets. In the past, this has involved wrestling cages from angry mobs of vendors.

Langurs in hand, ProFauna’s real work begins. Their biggest challenge lies in rehabilitating the animals and releasing them to the wild.

When I heard that Rosek was coordinating the most ambitious langur release to date—41 animals in 3 troops—I asked to tag along. Graciously he worked me into his logistics, a tactical surge involving three times as many people as monkeys.

6-week-old Intan would be the youngest ebony leaf monkey ever released to the wild. How would she fare?

6-week-old Intan would be the youngest ebony leaf monkey ever released to the wild. How would she fare?

Before Release Day, I visited the langur rehabilitation center. I found Rosek working the phones, wrangling ropes and climbing gear, and checking final touches on three dozen backpack-able crates. Then he stole time for one last stroll through the langur enclosure.

Some monkeys had been there for years. Rosek knew each by name and by their tortured pasts. Did they remember the wild? Would they adapt? He was particularly concerned about Intan, a baby born just six weeks before Release Day. He’d never released a toddler, but at this stage it was too late to turn back.

Releasing 41 monkeys to the wild was an effort involving 3 times as many people.

Releasing 41 monkeys to the wild was an effort involving 3 times as many people.

To the uninitiated, releasing animals to the wild sounds easy. In reality, it’s anything but.

For starters, try finding real estate for wide-ranging leaf-eating monkeys on the world’s most populous island. That took a year. Finally, in the shadow of Mt. Semeru, a smoldering volcano in East Java, they found a patch of cloud forest out of range of humans and other langurs.

Next, chase down funding, push through permits, set a date. Recruit students for three months of monitoring and hope they can actually keep up with monkeys. Hire a village, build a camp, cut steep, slimy trails, string a Tyrolean traverse across a gorge. Haul in planks, build treetop enclosures. Add a neighboring blind at the behest of a last-minute film crew.

Monkeys had to be hauled some 50 meters across a steep gorge to the release site.

Monkeys had to be hauled some 50 meters across a steep gorge to the release site.

Now truck in the langurs. Pack them through the forest, wriggling in their boxes, haul them over the gorge and up into a tree. About two years after you rescued some of those monkeys, shift them to the last cage they’ll ever see. Stuff in leaves and leave them overnight, to settle.

I woke before dawn on Release Day, and joined Rosek on the trek up to Troop #3. Volcanic ash dusted the tree ferns, like snow in the tropics.

I watched from the filmmakers’ blind as the langur cage was opened. We hid behind palm leaves, so as not to scare the langurs. I guess it worked because the first thing the big female did was to march over and greet her new neighbors. Before long there were more monkeys watching us than the other way around.

Red phase ebony leaf monkey

Troop leader Tommy on alert

But Tommy, the troop leader, had other priorities. He climbed high, circled wide around the group and squinted into the forest. Poached late in life, he knew the threats of eagles and aggressive, territorial langurs. Was he up to the task of protecting his harem?

Maybe not. By the next morning Tommy had disappeared. Lost, killed, or living in self-imposed exile, we’ll never know. He was never seen again.

This left Intan without a father, along with her older half-brother, Chewbacca. And though langurs should range far and wide in search of food, this leaderless troop spent days close to its treehouse, and ours, sampling local leaves, napping, grooming, and doing its best to keep the kids out of trouble.

This latter effort proved futile. Intan’s curiosity outpaced her coordination by a long shot. At any chance she’d lurch off a limb and dangle head first, 30 meters off the deck, screaming like eagle bait.

Baby ebony leaf monkey hanging upside-down

Baby Intan in trouble

Before long, mom had had enough. She bounced into the blind, parked Intan on my lap, and took off on a forage. No doubt about it, I was on babysitting duty. Intan craned her neck up with a look that said, “Mom’s gone. Let’s have fun!” Then fell over.

Monkey babysitting

Me getting recruited for monkey babysitting duty

Recall, if you will, that the point of this exercise is to sever the cruel bond between human and wild animal. Then remind me, because never before or since have I seen anything so worth a cuddle as this fuzzy bundle of monkey baby.

Before the release, Rosek made perfect sense when he said that cultivating the trust of the langurs would be a very bad thing. On the whole, we humans should be the langurs’ worst fear. But now all that jazz about maintaining distance and avoiding eye contact was proving a very tall order. I was ready to stuff Intan in my pack and smuggle her home.

Monkey huddle

Mom looking out for Intan and her cousin

Thankfully, Intan wobbled just beyond arm’s reach. She seemed safer there, fixated on some twig and not on me. So silly she was! Jerky, like her nerve impulses came in jolts. She started a jig around that twig—hop, hop, hop, then… gone! Straight over the edge, like a pilot on auto-eject. I dove for her, too late to help, and just in time to see her thumping on leaf litter like dead weight.

Intan lay silent as the langurs and I shrieked obscenities. I was ready to jump off the blind myself. But the langurs were quick. Within seconds, mom had scampered down, scooped up her limp treasure and returned to her tree. She smothered it tight, in a huddle with Chewbacca, who looked fit for tears and Intan’s aunties, who glared as if to say, “To think we could trust a human!”

Just then, mom shifted. And out from under her arm there poked a tiny head. If I didn’t know better, Intan’s smile said, “Wasn’t that fun!” Moments later she was scampering off, in search of her next adventure.

When we climbed down the tree that day, we didn’t come back. It’s hard releasing animals to the wild. Harder still to leave them there.

Baby ebony leaf monkey face framed in mom's fur

Intan, ready for her next adventure.

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Monkey Business, © Djuna Ivereigh, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. Excerpts may be reproduced with a credit to DjunaPix Indonesia Photography, linked to