Some people like to visit museums when they travel – what we love most is to visit markets. Nothing compares to the unmediated experience of living culture that a market offers: it’s total sensory immersion. We consider ourselves to be pretty adventurous, but must admit that touring the markets on our recent trip to Southeast Asia felt at times like an extreme sport. You expect the overwhelming beauty of exotic fruits and flowers, and the thrill of un-tasted spice. You don’t expect how the heat and humidity magnify the ferment of centuries in your nostrils. Or the stupefying scope of things consumed as food.
We were lucky to happen upon a local merchant in Yogyakarta named Wandi, who elected himself guide and toured us through the market with fierce pride, insisting we smell and taste everything. ‘Not food,’ he said many times. ‘Medicine.’ And then because his English was limited, he would act out the symptoms of some disease, or the effect of the medicine in question. ‘Batman’ was one such medicine. He picked up a tiny dehydrated bat, and made squeaky sounds with his trachea. Bats are medicine for asthma, it seems. He had charades like this for almost anything we saw and pointed to.