How Drones can Protect Indigenous Land Rights – Latest for Slate

The countryside in Flores. Which is not Borneo, but I like the picture.
The countryside in Flores. Which is not Borneo, but I like the picture.

Drones to the Rescue: how unmanned aerial vehicles can help indigenous people protect their land – Slate 

My latest on Future Tense, documenting how inexpensive UAVs can help indigenous people (and other people without much access to resources) document where they live and what they own. From an interview with Irendra Radjawali, a fascinating Indonesian geographer who begun pioneering this kind of work with the Dayaks of Borneo, with some inroads into Papua and Bali. It’s really cool stuff.

I think this is going to be a particularly important usage of drones, and I hope to do more writing and research on that potential in the near future.

The Joy of Padang Food – Singapore

nasi padang yay
Nasi Padang at Sabar Menanti.

“What the hell is Padang food?” you may ask yourself one day, if you happen to be looking for lunch in Singapore, Indonesia, or Malaysia. “Does this have something to do with Penang?”

Ah, you fool, it has jack-all to do with a charming city in Malaysia, but in fact describes a style of cuisine typical of the Minangkabau people of  Western Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. Typified by robust spices, long cooking times to ensure maximum flavor, and considerable quantities of coconut, it’s a style that many overseas associate with all Indonesian food. Padang food is available just about everywhere in Indonesia, and is exceedingly popular at lunch time.

The title “nasi padang” usually describes restaurants that function rather like point-and-shoot buffets: a wide array of items are presented behind a glass counter, and you point at what you want to flavor your rice, which is usually served in a whimsical cone shape. Prices are low, service is instant, and it’s a marvelous way to inexpensively sample a wide array of different Indonesian flavors. Some up-scale restaurants will bring all the dishes to your table right off the bat, and you only pay for what you actually touch.

Singapore, thank God, has a healthy assortment of Padang restaurants, and you’ll find most of them in the antique and pleasantly walkable Kompong Glam neighborhood, an easy stroll from multiple metro stops.Certainly Singapore’s most well-known Padang joints are clustered here, and working stiffs on their lunch breaks filter into the area in packs starting around 11:00 AM on any given day. Kompong Glam, with its candy-colored shop houses and beautiful old mosque, is well worth a visit in and of itself.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.
Selection at Sabar Menanti.


  • 778 Northbridge Road, Singapore
  • +65 6294 4805

I wanted to try a new padang place this visit to Singapore, and a quick perusal of the usual Internet food-related forums convinced me to give this one a go – based on its reputation for fresh food, and its remarkable 50-year longevity. No one, of course, had mentioned that it moved. I went to the old location on Kandahar Street, stared at it for a bit in bovine, hunger-induced confusion, and decided to wander around Kompong Glam’s profusion of fancy carpet and fabric shops for a while.

sabar menanti

Quite accidentally, I found myself at the new storefront, where a chipper, seeming member of the family that owns the place just about pounced at me when I paused outside the door. I had found the right spot, and everyone seemed very happy to see me. All of this struck me as particularly pertinent, considering that the restaurant name translates roughly into “Good things come to those who wait”. (They could stand to do a better job of communicating to their public that they’ve moved).

I’m terribly glad I stopped, because Sabar Menanti is serving just about the best padang food I’ve ever had – and it’s not even in Indonesia.  Chew mussels were cooked in a slightly sweet red chili sauce, while cucumber and carrots were sliced up and tossed in a rich, eggy yellow concoction.

I was particularly delighted by the three kinds of fresh sambal on offer: a chunky red chili paste, a smooth, vibrant classic red sambal, and an incendiary green variant. The entire plate was delightful to look at and entirely irresistible: I inhaled it within 10 minutes, and briefly considered seconds.

Anthony Bourdain, who gives me minor rage headaches, seems to agree: he’s got a signed plaque on the wall. I vaguely recall that episode of No Reservations but I believe I’ve blocked it out. Bourdain phobia aside, I highly suggest you give this place a whirl when you’re in the area.

minang storefront


  • 18 & 18A Kandahar Street, Singapore, 198884
  • +65 6294 4805


Rumah Makan Minang is one of the stalwart Nasi Padang joints in Kompong Glam and certainly seems to attract the longest, most devoted lines. I clearly remember first  stumbling upon this place during a gloamy evening in 2010 and thinking “I have got to eat here.” Everyone seems to feel the same way, considering that it’s been in operation since 1954 with little sign of lacking in popularity.

Which I did and do, seemingly whenever I return to the area. Minang specializes particularly in Indonesian tofu dishes and beef rendang, but this time around, I simply ordered from what was behind the window.

A man at the next table and his friend were digging into a gigantic concoction I had always wondered about but had never ordered, and I asked him, as I walked to my table, what it was.

“You must have some!” he demanded, placing some on my plate. He then pretended to take some of my chicken, and we all laughed at each other. It was in fact an excellent and monumental rendition of Tahu Telor, fried tofu mixed with eggs, topped with bean sprouts and carrot, and served with dark soy sauce.

Standouts included stir-fried greens with sambal belacan (shrimp paste), braised chicken in sweet soy sauce with a hint of chili, and flaky tofu with chili. Still, it wasn’t as good as Sabar Menanti: the flavors weren’t as fresh, and there wasn’t as much variety. Perhaps I’ll try ordering off the menu here next time, especially if the rendang isn’t up at the counter.

minang plate

Beyond these two stand-bys, there are sundry great padang options in Singapore, and it’s not to be missed if you’re in the city and want to try something different.

I maintain that the first person to realize that padang food is profoundly marketable to obnoxious Silicon Valley types will get obscenely rich – especially if they serve their food out of a graffiti-adorned food truck at music festivals.

Rinca, Komodo Dragons, and Existential Terror

dragonvictims copyA visit to Rinca is a brush with existential terror.

This is what theme parks are trying to sell you with their roller-coasters and bungee jumps and thrill rides: a completely controlled moment of heinous fear and vulnerability in the face of total destruction, something to make you value being alive.

Except the theme park is carefully engineered to not actually kill or injure you, whereas the carnivorous and often grumpy Komodo dragon is subject to no more restraint than a big pointy stick with a fork in it.

This distinction, I should note, is somewhat underplayed in all the travel guides.

When we disembarked from the boat at Rinca, our guide met us at the entry way to the dock, which has a wooden entryway that somewhat resembles a low-rent Jurassic Park gate. Which is entirely the right atmosphere to convey when you are willingly entering the domain of prehistoric lizards that want to eat you. In fact, paying good money for the experience.

After a confusing few minutes of figuring out which park entry fees to pay – the tickets, camera fee, and guide fee are all separate and must be divvied up by use of complex theoretical equations, or it seemed that way — our guide led us to one of the buildings near the ranger station, where a small group of Komodos was lying docilely in the sun.

dragonlazy copy“We don’t feed them, but they smell the food cooking and they come here,” he said. The guides were making sure to keep the tourists well away from the Komodos. “They can move very fast when they want to.” The forked sticks were held at the ready.

“Are they particularly hungry this time of year?” I asked, watching as one big male dragon opened and re-opened its eyes, regarding the tourists with what seemed like profound disinterest.

“They are always hungry,” he said, darkly.

As we walked through the low-lying jungle of Rinca, the guide told me and the Swedish couple accompanying us that he had in fact been bitten by a Komodo dragon in May of last year. He freely admitted that it really hurt. “Enough pain to last me a long time,” he noted. They washed it out with antiseptic and he was OK, but he remained a bit — jumpy.

“How long have you been here?” I asked him, dancing around the “Why in the hell do you do this for a living?” question.

“I studied hotel management, but I worked in a hotel only two months. It was very boring. So I came here.”

dragonavoidancestick copy“Boring” is not a word that describes the working life of a Rinca tour guide.

In fact, three rangers had already been bitten this year, and last year featured a well-documented incident wherein a Komodo crept delicately into the office and took up residence under a desk — surprising the man who returned to occupy it with a flash of large and pointy teeth. Another man who came to his rescue was badly bitten as well in the ensuing man-on-lizard brawl.

Suddenly, on the path ahead of us, there was a Komodo Dragon —moving at a rather impressive clip for such a low-slung creature. “Goooo back,” the guide said, brandishing the stick, sounding worried. I went back, shooting (mediocre) photos as I went. “Gooo back further!” the guide said, and I moved rather faster as the dragon picked up speed, flicking its khaki colored tongue into the wind.

komodoadvance copyThe creature eventually made a sharp right turn into the bushes, dragging its tail languidly behind it. We walked by quickly. Jumpily.

“After I got bit last year, i am a little…traumatized,” admitted the guide. I felt this was eminently understandable.

“They look so much like the palm fronds and logs,” I said, myself afflicted with a spot of jumpiness after seeing a Komodo Dragon actually *move* for the first time in my life. Move faster than I wanted them to move, really.

“They have very good camouflage,” the guide said. Ruefully.

“Do you have any snakes?” I asked. We had moved into an area of thicker jungle, interspersed with numerous plops of water buffalo dung. Megapod birds chased each other through the trees, and small lizards scattered at our tread. Every log was manifesting into a Komodo.

“Oh yes, we have three kinds of venomous snakes,” the guide said.

“You have a lot of problems here,” I said.

“Yes. Yes, we do,” he said.

We turned a corner and the guide suddenly stopped. “There’s a green tree viper!” he said. What timing!

treeviper copy
The emerald-green snake was draped languidly over a bush and staying very still, perhaps hoping that we wouldn’t see it. Green tree vipers, unsurprisingly for such a malicious sort of place, can kill you. Most things on Komodo, it appears, can kill you. We all took photos, including the guide, as apparently such snake sightings are rather rare.

Two encounters with potentially deadly reptiles in a mere half-hour! What a bargain!

What the hell is wrong with us?

rincalandscape copyWe went up to a hill and looked out over Rinca and the little sheltering bay where the boats moor. I stood on the grassy hill overlooking the Jungle of Certain Death and wondered about early human explorers on Rinca. I imagine they must have sheltered here, in the grassy outcroppings where hungry Komodos would likely find it hard to hide. Did they have pointy sticks, at least? How many of them got eaten?

The rest of our walk back was uneventful, though all four of us reacted with somewhat unusual attention to every mysterious sound and crackle of bush. We had all been jolted into the reality that we are small and soft and eatable: this is the peculiar, rather dark appeal of a visit to Rinca.