Monday, December 25, 2006

Deep and Crisp and Even

The snow and ice and warm woolen scarves of another Indonesian Christmas are upon us once more. Admittedly, seasonal cheer may perhaps be a bit thin on the ground in a Muslim country and this is only to be expected of course. The plastic trees and spray on snow on display in the capital's shopping malls are the only real reminder of the winter festival and are of course indicative of the true meaning of Christmas, namely consumption. And while we're on the subject of consumption, I certainly know a few expatriates who will be using the holiday season to consume their own weight in Bintang Christmas cheer (the ones that live in Jakarta anyway, those in the supposedly now dry Tanggerang might have a few more problems tracking down Santa's magic sauce).

in any case, let us hope that the spirit of peace and goodwill to all men (and women) will not be sullied by any bombing shenanigans this year. Apparently police have found evidence of such dastardly intentions in Mr.Azahari's terrorist hideout and are warning everyone to remain vigilant. Ho hum, Tis the season to be merry and all that.

Looking back over the last 12 months, it's been another fascinating year in the grand old R of I of course and plenty of weird and wonky news stories have kept us on our toes. Natural disasters still stalk the nation like two big stalky things of course. The Aceh tsunami disaster was revisited in Pangandaran on the south coast of Java this year and billions of gallons of sea water were ignominiously dumped on the poor local populace. Bird flu has also continued to hover ominously around the front pages and will probably make a resurgence now that the rainy season has arrived. Disaster of the year award though, would have to go to the mud geysers that continue to coat an ever increasing area of East Java in sludge. The whole debacle was totally manmade too, very impressive. On Mother nature's more positive side though, a whole treasure trove of new species have been discovered by naturalists exploring in West Papua and I myself have managed to discover a similar amount of new species down in the Blok M area.

On the social stage, debates, conflict and much soul-searching have arisen between the Playboy bunny at one extreme and the Shiaria-ists at the other. Indonesia's own version of Playboy is frankly so tame by Western standards that it may as well feature a Jilbabbed (veiled) playmate of the month in every issue. The Draconian Porno-Aksi bill continues to be debated by the politicians and threatens to take the country one step closer to Islamic republicanism although there seems to be a growing backlash to the legislation.

On the political stage, the SBY honeymoon is most definitely over and people are once again becoming frustrated, as they were under Megawati, at the slow pace of reform. Meanwhile, Vice President Kalla continues to display a George Bush like talent for the eminently quotable howler. The two I remember most are his recommendation that West Javanese widows be pimped out to Arab tourists and, most recently, his advice to the population to lead healthier lives and thus improve their genes.

While we’re on the subject of Mr. Dubya, George Junior himself flew over for a presidential summit this year and drew the ire of many Muslim protesters. In one voodoo ritual, a goat's throat was slit, a snake and a black crow were stabbed and all of the blood produced was stirred together with spices and broccoli and eaten by some black magic weirdo or other. Yum Yum. Very tasty no doubt but it's perhaps slightly ironic to employ a non Islamic voodoo ritual as part of a Muslim protest against Mr Bush. Mr Bush didn't drop dead on the spot in Bogor or become possessed by demons, although I guess that if news of this rite had actually reached him it may have put him off his lunch. Meanwhile, up in Aceh, the population has made its feelings known by electing ex-GAM (Free Aceh Movement) candidates to the local legislature and thereby giving Javanese rule the finger.

Back in our beautiful city of Jakarta, Governor Sutiyoso (sooty ozone?) has been presented with an Asian clean air reward for his busway brainwave. The Governor will be history next year as his second five-year term in office expires, although the busways will be a fitting legacy for him….and you can take that appraisal anyway you want.

So 2007 now beckons with open arms. No doubt it will start raining like an absolute bitch in January and the flood season will start in earnest. Me? I'll be waiting for the mother of all floods; the huge biblical deluge that will clean the streets of this city once and for all. I'm going to build an Ark out of old Bajaj parts and set sail for the sunset with one woman from every Indonesian province on board. Together, we will we repopulate the Archipelago and sing Dangdut songs all day. AA Gym eat your heart out.

Simon Pitchforth

Monday, December 18, 2006

Til Deaths Us Do Part

Two stories have surfaced recently which expose the dark underside of marriage. I refer of course to the saucy Golkar legislator's cell phone blue movie and to chilled out TV preacher AA Gym and his foray into polygamy. These two scandals seem to position local ladies between a rock and a hard place (no double entendre intended) however, we seem to be getting ahead of ourselves as usual.

Let's start at the beginning and review what has been happening over at the Golkar party first. When the story of Yahya Zaini's hotel room tryst with a Dangdut singer being recorded on a mobile phone and disseminated through the Internet first emerged, the papers initially referred to our hapless anti-hero by his initials YZ. Perhaps this is understandable if the publications in question were afraid of having their windows put in by Golkar heavies. It did cause me to speculate though that conceivably the guy's name was Young Zorro; with a rapier like flash of his cutlass those Dangdut singers are putty in his hands.

As further details, including names, emerged from the story, Young Zorro's position became increasingly untenable and he eventually fell on his cutlass and resigned. The dark irony of Golkar's spiritual affairs spokesman, someone who is no doubt involved in the debating of the Draconian Porno-Aksi bill, himself making a porno film, was too much to bear. Indeed, after a scandal such as this it would be impossible for a politician in any country to emerge unscathed. Back in my semi-beloved Britain, political sex scandals have become commonplace. From the Profumo affair in the 60s through to the recent misdemeanors of Tony Blair's henchmen (Robin Cook, David Blunkett and John Prescott all unable to keep their snakes caged) the sex scandal has become a permanent feature of the political landscape. Only vicarage family man Blair himself had remained aloof from the sleaze.

Male marital infidelity is hardly something new. At least though, when a man's illicit, extramarital affair is exposed, his wife can choose to either forgive or divorce her philandering spouse and the husband is shamed. Polygamy, on the other hand, presents us with a rather different conundrum. In a polygamous marriage, the man's caprices and dalliances are made respectable. If I was Young Zorro's wife, possibly I would prefer hubby to take a secret lover than a second wife. At least it wouldn't be in my face every day, he would be wasting less money and his hurtful actions wouldn't be legitimized through religion.

It was suggested by a columnist on the front page of this paper last Sunday that AA Gym's two wives possess, by being lawfully married to the same man, more dignity than Hillary Clinton did when her husband was caught in his shameful act of cigar rolling with Ms Lewinsky. Nonsense I say. Hilary emerges with an infinitely greater amount of dignity than either of AA Gym's wives (or Bill himself of course). She is not an unequal partner in her marriage and could have chosen to divorce the hapless president in a heartbeat. Instead she chose forgiveness. She has not capitulated to a religious patriarchy which treats women as second-class citizens; mere chattels who are only half as important as men and who thus only have access to half of their man's affections and time. Polygamy is a one-way street under current interpretations of Islam of course. Its inverse, polyandry, namely a woman with more than one husband, couldn't possibly be considered.

Encouragingly though, AA Gym's mostly female fans are up in arms over the whole saga and the be-turbaned guru may have badly misjudged his followers attitudes. Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia. I don't profess to be able to speak for Indonesian sisterhood but if there's one thing your average lady hates here it's polygamy. The green eyed monster is perhaps the deadly sin that the Indonesian female is most familiar with and a rival for her man's affections is a nonsense that simply will not be tolerated.

Personally, I haven't the slightest idea why a man would want to have two, three or even four wives. The mental and physical energy required would be way beyond my humble capacities. Less flippantly though, to have more than one wife renders the whole act of marriage virtually meaningless for me. Surely the whole idea of marriage is to strive for that sacred, one-on-one relationship that trumps all others and to find your soul mate (cue violins). If this is the goal of marriage then three is most definitely a crowd. On a more practical note, if all of Indonesia's male politicians had four wives each, the war on corruption would surely take an even bigger nosedive than it has done already. They would quite simply have to rob the state blind just to keep up.

Maybe the failings of Young Zorro, AA and males in general are best summed up by an old joke. God creates man and says to him, "Well, I've got two pieces of good news and one piece of bad news for you." Man says, "Let's have the good news first then." God says, “Okay, well I've given you a complex and powerful brain which you can use to build cities and computers, create art and culture, enjoy Barry Manilow albums and so forth. " "Great," says man, "And the other good news?" God replies, "Well, I've given you a penis which you can use to procreate the species, perpetuate life and thus live on through your children." "Nice one," says man, "So what's the bad news?" God looks pensive and says, "I'm afraid you won't be able to use both of them at the same time."

Simon Pitchforth

Friday, December 08, 2006

Welcome to Cancer Country

Lung rockets, snouts, coffin nails, fags, tabs, butts, cancer sticks, tubes of joy, whatever you call them, have been back on the Indonesian news treadmill of late. The government is planning to ban cigarette advertising and raise the tax on smoking. This follows hot on the heels of Jakarta's largely ignored ban on smoking in public places; passive smoking being a danger to Jakarta's pristine air quality you understand. It would probably be far better to make catalytic converters on cars compulsory, but the passive smoking lobby will have their way. I have often wished that passive drinking were possible and that I could walk into a bar and get tipsy without spending a penny.... or spending a penny.

But back to smoking. Unlike the smoking in public places ban, raising tax and banning advertising is legislation that would actually stick, its success not being concomitant on either public goodwill or police enforcement, and thus could actually be effective. In this country there has been a 900% explosion in youth smoking in recent years and we all know that some local guys, not content with merely smoking two packs a day, seem to go through about two lighters a day.

Local cigarette companies are inevitably not happy about the proposed new laws. Anything that would jeopardize their gargantuan profits is a danger, and gargantuan they are indeed. According to a recent Tempo magazine survey of Indonesia's richest people, local cigarette moguls seem to be sitting pretty. At number two we find Mr Sampoerna, at number four is Mr Gudang Garam and at number five sits Mr. Djarum. Such wealth contrasts sharply with the women who still hand roll the cigarettes with their poor atrophied, calloused hands and earn about 50 Rupiah a year. With a big a tobacco market comes big profits. Western cigarette companies know this too and have been aggressively marketing in Asia and China since their home countries have clamped down on smoking and cigarette advertising and the percentage of the population is sparking up has decreased.

It should be, in theory at least, simple enough to ban cigarette advertising here. Other countries have managed it without too much trouble and many tobacco adverts in this country are absolutely ludicrous. Most of them like to insinuate a strong relationship between puffing away like a locomotive and sporting prowess. Mind you, the rugged Marlboro Man action hero riding his horse through the prairies isn't much better. The story of the original Marlboro Man dying of lung cancer is probably an urban myth but if he did indeed have the big C then no doubt he would have opted to have both lungs removed. "Take 'em both," he would have said, "I don't need 'em, I'm so rugged I'll grow gills and breathe like a fish."

I myself was actually in a cigarette ad once. Djarum had assembled a group of reprobate expats who all needed the money and got them to dress up in various national football team colors. The photos were used to promote the last European Championships on special packets and billboards. Thierry Henry? David Beckham? Both twenty a day men don't ya know. Banning all this nonsense is perhaps long overdue here. Personally I would like to see all adverts banned, not just cigarette adverts. The semiotic pollution and cultural debasement of our world is a serious issue and bow-tied advertising copywriters are surely the spawn of Satan.

Returning to cigarettes though, a proposal to up the anti on warning labels on packets of smokes has also been floated. Cigarette packets in Singapore now feature, as well as written warnings, actual pictures of brain haemorrhages and tar caked lungs which is a touch macabre perhaps. At the moment, Indonesian cigarette packets like to warn of impending impotence for smokers here. This is a claim which seems to ring a bit hollow in an over populated country of 250 million people. Perhaps your average Indonesian gentleman is drinking plenty of Extra Joss to counteract the anti potency effects of his Gudang Garams.

Ultimately though, in a free society, there is only so far that you can take anti-smoking legislation. Libertarians say that smokers smoke at their own risk and if someone wishes to open a bar and allow people to smoke in it, no one is forcing people to go there. Can there really still be people who don't know that smoking is bad for them and who believe that sparking up a Djarum will help them to win a 200 m sprint?

The sweet smell of the Kretek clove cigarette is a part of local culture and one of life's few pleasures for Indonesia's impoverished masses. This is increasingly the case as personal liberties are eroded elsewhere by the Sharia lobby. Can't gamble, drink, fornicate or even venture outside the house after 10 p.m. if you're female? Well, at least you can light one up and enjoy five minutes of carcinogenic pleasure (or 45 minutes if it's a Dji Sam Soe). Now where's my cough mixture?

Simon Pitchforth

Friday, December 01, 2006

Biker Heaven

Last weekend, I toddled off to the Jakarta Convention Centre for another one of their lovely motor shows. This one mainly featured motorcycles although there were also a few luxury cars on display for petrol heads to salivate over. An import tax of 100% doesn't seem to deter Jakarta's superrich from their long-term love affair with the supreme German efficiency of the BMW and the Mercedes Benz. In this country, as in any other, such cars are all about ostentation and showing off as much as anything else. As a status symbol they rank several levels above having a maid from central Java put on a little white, starched nurse’s uniform and run around the shopping mall food court trying to administer a fix of ice cream to your kids.

I actually saw someone driving a Ferrari down in Kemang last week. To own such a vehicle in this country is not a very practical idea though. For starters, your left leg will soon go numb as you continually pump the clutch of it’s high performance engine between first and second gear in the city's gridlock. Not only that, as soon as you get off the main road, there's going to be a whole lot of scraping going on as you negotiate the sports car's low-slung body over countless sleeping policeman. No, to own such a car is all about status, testosterone and boy racer élan. It's a Tommy Suharto/James Bond fantasy that symbolizes what you're packing in your trousers. Personally though, I like to reverse the process: basically I use my penis as a car substitute.

I digress, but this is the underlying vibe at motor shows. On the one hand there are the vehicles you may actually have enough money to buy and which are practical. On the other hand there are the male fantasy rides to drool over. Last week's motor show, although mainly featuring bikes and not cars, followed this formula to a tee.

On the practical side, all of the familiar Yamahas, Hondas and Suzukis that plough the city's streets like kamikaze hellcats were present and correct. I admit that I felt a slight sense of unease as I remembered my apocalyptic motorbike crash of a few months ago but this was soon dispelled as I wandered around the convention centre. The beautiful girls on the display stands certainly helped in this respect. Sexist? Perhaps. Sexy? Certainly. You will hear no complaints from me, although maybe to balance things out they should have strapping, macho men at the Ideal Home Exhibition, demonstrating food processors or something. I’ll stick with the motor shows though.

Bike-wise, there was a very handsome, high-tech and reasonably priced Bajaj motorcycle on prominent display. It was slightly more advanced than the Bajajs we know and love and definitely not available in orange. Non-bikers may be interested in the new Yamaha RX King. The King has long been one of the most popular bikes here but as it's an old-fashioned, two-stroke machine, the pollution and noise are appalling. When local lads customize them and race them down the road, thick plumes of white smoke belch out of the back and they sound like a swarm of mosquitoes the size of 747s. Not just the loudest bike in Indonesia but the loudest sound of any kind whatsoever. The new version is supposedly cleaner and quieter, something which all of Jakarta’s citizens may wish to say a silent prayer of thanks for.

On the luxury side of things, there were also plenty of massively overpowered fantasy/suicide machines on display. However, like our old friend the Ferrari, it's just not very practical to go tooling around Jakarta on a 1000cc Suzuki race bike, not if you want to live to see your grandchildren’s faces at any rate. You never know who will be wheeling his Baso trolley across the road as you round the corner at 150 clicks per hour.

Mind you, on the safety side of things, there was a computerized motorcycle safety simulator in action that people were queuing up to have a go on. I also spotted a jacket on sale with electric fans built in to keep you cool in the hot sun. Just the ticket until it rains and the whole ludicrous contraption packs up. There were also plenty of kiddy motorbikes available for rich parents to buy. Get them used to hospital food at a young age ay, that’ll toughen ‘em up. “Our little Bambang is only 10 but he's already broken both legs and fractured his wrist. We're so proud."

Madness. They should ban all bikes. Roller skates for all I say.

Simon Pitchforth

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Service with a Smile

Most people's dealings with public authority here usually occur when policeman stop them on the road in their perpetual search for cigarette money and for members of that heinous criminal underclass who have forgotten to bring any ID with them. This seems to happen less often to me now than it did a few years ago, thankfully. Perhaps internal police reform has reduced this annoying scam somewhat. As a person who enjoys a night out though, I do still occasionally get stopped in the wee small hours, a time when those brave boys in blue (actually brown and beige) come out to play. It happened again last Sunday. My Bluebird was pulled over and some nice policeman, seemingly about 16 years old, stuck his head through the rear window of the taxi.
"You're out late Sir?"
"Yes, well, if it's any of your business, I enjoy going out at night, a time when I can meet my friends and travel freely about town by taxi without needing a shave halfway through the journey."
Actually I didn't say that. It's always frustratingly after the fact that I think of these withering retorts.
"Passport Mr," he intoned authoritatively. I gave him my police card which expatriates have been issued with for the last few years and which are for showing to police in precisely such situations as these.
“But you need a passport, where is your passport?"
"No I don't need it, that's for immigration, this card is for you to look at, a police card, you are a policeman."
After the usual five minutes of forehead wrinkling expressions and of looking at my card as if it had fallen to Earth from a neighboring galaxy, I was off again. But not before the young cop had called over his boss, who looked down his nose at me like a camel observing a blow fly on its rump,.

Fair enough. No money had changed hands. Confusing exchanges like the one above, however, are commonplace when dealing with government employees here, thanks to the perpetual exploitative mismatch between rules, regulations and reality. After this experience I felt inspired to pay a visit to that great house of learning, the Indonesian immigration office, of which there is one near my house in Mampang. Dealings with immigration, alongside encounters with the police, more often than not represent a nebulous zone of confusion which can cause mental distress to both locals and foreigners alike. Immigration is a place where rules and regulations have traditionally been as clear as mud and where time becomes an illusion.

A new law has just been passed in the country which allows children of mixed marriages to retain dual citizenship and live under an Indonesian ID card until the age of 18, at which time they can choose either nationality as their permanent one. Previously, such families have had to squander much time and money on obtaining legal residency for their kids and shuttling backwards and forwards to Singapore. So credit where credit's due to the Indonesian Parliament, the new law seems both fair and reasonable and is all the more impressive when you consider that, according to many reports over the years, the Parliament only manages to pass about 10% of the bills presented to it in any given session.

This new law was supposed to come into effect on November the first and as I know families with children eager to take advantage of the new legislation, I thought that I would toddle down to immigration to check out the reality of the situation at ground zero. I wasn't overly optimistic as I walked through the gates. Indonesia's ethnic Chinese minority, for example, are still chasing down discriminatory citizenship certificates, even though the things were abolished about three years ago when Megawati was at the helm. Also, expatriates trying to process their own work visas here often employ the services of agents in order to avoid the complete mental collapse that can accompany trying to negotiate Immigration’s maze of paper and intransigence themselves.

To step into an Indonesian immigration office or police station is like stepping back in time. Whereas most Jakartans are very technology savvy these days and private offices around town are usually packed with the latest computers and high-tech gizmos, to cross the threshold into the world of Indonesia's lumbering, dinosaur like civil service is to enter a primitive twilight zone. Peeling paint, ceiling fans stirring the soupy air and files stored in rusty filing cabinets as opposed to on hard drives are the order of the day. However, on this visit I did actually observe a couple of computers, so well done there. The reason for this time warp factor is probably that all the cash collected by immigration officials/ policemen in the form of obscure levies is leached straight out of the back door and into their bank accounts. Just call it the prune juice effect. There is not even enough left over for a few AC units or some soap in the rest room to use after the fingers, thumbs and palms of both hands have been printed (perhaps we should be thankful we don't also have to drop our trousers and provide a photocopy of our buttocks too).

Anyway, I managed to attract someone's attention and asked him about the new law. The immigration officer I met was friendly enough and told me that, despite the November the first implementation date having already passed, his office weren't ready yet. He did assure me though, that they would begin processing applications before the end of the year, which sounded very speedy and efficient. Mind you, he could have just been saying that. I suppose I'll have to follow up on the story next month and head back to immigration. Something to look forward to, huh? Well that just about wraps up another miserable column from me I'm afraid, your favorite negative Nellie. I am just referring to government services here though; as I said, the contrast with the high-tech and creative private sector couldn't be more marked. Here's hoping the next time I return to the office they'll be able to give me a leaflet or something about the new law, printed in both English and Indonesian. One can but dream.

Simon Pitchforth

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Showing a Bit of Carbon Fibre

Carbon seems to be the global buzzword at the moment. Last week, The Stern Report was published in my native Britain and very stern it is too. The basic thesis of the paper is that if we don't stop driving to the supermarket in four-wheel-drive tanks, flying to Greek islands every two months and forgetting to turn off our bedroom lights, then we're all sure to perish from the effects of rising sea levels and temperatures. In this sense, 2006 is a rerun of 1906: the calm before the century's coming storm.

European countries (and yes, even America, at a State level) for so long in denial over climate change, are slowly starting to think seriously about their energy consumption patterns and how much of a, "Carbon footprint," that they leave on our scarred planet. The utopian 60s idealism of hippies who used to weave their own yoghurt and grow their own underpants is slowly being replaced by a harder-nosed, more realistic reappraisal of the energy gobbling, money obsessed systems that we live under.

Unfortunately, we've been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the first hairy but bright spark discovered the secret of fire as a way to tame and control his hostile world. Fast forward from the Stone Age to 2006 and in terms of burning things, little has changed. We still consume oil without a second thought in order to fuel a capitalist system predicated on infinite expansion and not on finite resources. To live sustainably at the level of consumption that we have currently reached would apparently require one and a half Earths. In the absence of this missing extra half materializing, we are all going to have to make do with the one that we have. Nevertheless, at least these issues seem to be gathering momentum and traction in the developed world. The airline industry is the current bête noire of the environmental lobby and I'll probably have to cycle home via Iran the next time I return to the UK.

Here of course, it's a different story. Countries such as Indonesia, India and China have only just started to arrive at the top table of global wealth and prosperity, only to be told that it's last orders and that the bar is closing. Perhaps they have a right to be a touch annoyed by the West's sudden (hypocritical?) environmental attack of conscience. Indonesia though, really could try harder to be a tad more eco-friendly. In Jakarta, a carbon footprint is a literal description rather than a clever metaphor. As an ex-motorcycle rider I know that if you don't cover your face with a Hezbollah style bandana as you burn up Jl. Sudirman you will end up looking as if a coal miner has been trampling over your face. Jakarta has about 20 days of breathable air every year according to a recent study. Combine that with the 20 Gudang Garams a day that many local males spark up and perhaps it's hardly surprising that there is a lack of clearheaded leadership in this country.

At a national level, we have learned this week that Indonesia ranks third in the world in greenhouse gas emissions. This is principally due to the largely preventable slash and burn forest/peat fires that we've been hearing about every year for the last goddamn decade. Not an environmental record to be proud of really. A thorough debate of these issues remains a distant prospect here though. Politicians remain addicted to their own venal, money grubbing ways and I’ve never heard any Muslim leader say a single word on the issue of climate change. Clerics such as the buck toothed, sexually repressed misogynist Abu Bakar Basir seem to think ladies thighs a more pressing threat to global stability.

Recycling? It's another nonstarter in the R of I. Admittedly some recycling does occur at the huge rubbish dumps that handle the thousands of tonnes of garbage that Jakarta and other cities toss out every day. At these dumps, instead of going to school, young kids wade knee deep in rotting banana skins, used tampons and instant noodle packets in order to collect empty aqua bottles for which they get paid about Rp.10 for every 10,000 collected. This doesn't represent a particularly humane recycling drive or an efficient use of human resources in my humble opinion.

But hey, who am I to talk? How green am I? This planet's low carbon future is going to require each and every one of us to change our habits. I guess my own green credentials mainly revolve around what I don't do as opposed to any pro-active campaigning on my part (I'm nothing if not a lazy SOB). Most pertinently, I have no car or children, which probably cuts down on the old emissions a bit. It's a lifestyle that comes easily enough to me although it's currently not suited to many Indonesians. The poor here will have their eight children and the rich will insist on their eight cars.

Ah well, there will be new busways after Christmas. Perhaps the city administration should issue a box of Durex to every passenger and really try and attack the problem from both sides. Greenhouse emissions? Nocturnal emissions? We've all got to tighten our belts.

Simon Pitchforth

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Celebes Good Times, Come on!

Lebaran comes but once a year (or slightly more often now I come to think of it) and the dilemma, as always, is to either waste the holiday in Jakarta's evacuated Idul Fitri ghost town or brave the mass, sectarian exodus out of the city and attempt to go on holiday somewhere.

Non-Muslim areas of the archipelago are usually the best bet at this time. Bali may be a familiar choice for many of you, however, this year, myself and a couple of chums elected to sample the far-flung delights of the predominantly Christian Manado and its environs which remained mercifully clear of all the hullabaloo (although God only knows what it's like Christmas). A return ticket will cost you over a million Rupiah with only a possible heart in mouth landing and transit in Makassar to break up the three hour flight.

The city of Manado lies about half an hour from the airport and is, in itself, nothing much to write home about. All of the usual urban Indo. motifs are present and correct, from the dusty streets ploughed by several million public minibuses to the nostril singeing markets to the greasy KFC's to the rusting, corrugated iron roofs. However, the pleasures of a holiday here, as with so many of this country's towns and cities, lie in venturing outside of the metropolitan area and communing with nature in a big Byronesque shirt as you run through the paddies with a butterfly net.

Primarily, tourists visit Manado in order to hop over to Bunaken island which lies 40 minutes away by local public boat crammed with island bound cargo and dwellers and which costs a mere Rp.25,000. On Bunaken, you can rent an agreeable, wooden beachside chalet for between Rp.150,000 and Rp. 250,000 per night, which includes three meals, and enjoy some of the best reef diving/snorkeling on the planet. A Rp.150,000 surcharge is also levied on tourists wishing to visit the island and this money is supposedly used for the environmental protection of the reefs that encircle it. This green tax seems to be working because, where as much of the coral around Jakarta's Pulau Seribu (1000 islands) is sadly dead as a doornail, Bunaken's reefs constitute a breathtaking underwater ecosystem through which an incredible variety of multicoloured, psychedelic fish and rays shimmy and groove through the water.

Not being divers, my cohorts and I stuck to our limp-wristed snorkeling. The snorkelling is superb though as the strong sunlight hitting the shallow reefs and fish makes for a riot of color; an underwater light show that would make a National Geographic Channel cameraman weep. Well worth checking out before global warming dissolves it all.

In the evenings, there is basic but very fresh seafood to feast on and you can drift off to sleep next to the mangroves listening to the local boys singing and strumming Indonesian ballads (which all seem to consist of the same three chords) on their acoustic guitars. It all proved to be a pleasing alternative to Bali with its posy cafes and arse-kicking Aussie tourists in tangerine bikinis.

After Bunaken, it was back to Manado and then up into the hills surrounding the city. We ended up in Tomohon, Manado's equivalent of Puncak, and spent the night at the Volcano Hostel (Happy Flower is the other option). From here you can enjoy scenic strolls through the hills and around the ominous Volcano. In the town there are restaurants with spectacular Puncak style views over the distant lights of Manado below. The eatery we tried had an unbelievably cheap all-you-can-eat deal for only Rp.12,000. This included plates of cubed dog. Not to everyone's taste but I gave it a go and regretted the decision the next morning as I sat on the porcelain throne. Also the dog barking outside the front of the restaurant put me off my stroke a bit as I was eating the old Anjing. Still, today's rowdy mutt is tomorrow's dinner.

Simon Pitchforth

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Religion/ Capitalism

Well, Ramadan is nearly over (or actually over, depending on when this column gets to ruin another Sunday’s fun). The fasting month is a time for introspection, meditation and spiritual contemplation. However, there were precious little of these qualities in evidence down the shops last weekend. It was so crowded that I started to feel slightly claustrophobic and when it came time to break the fast the rice was flying around the food court like I don't know what.

Of course, everyone was preparing for the holiday by shopping, shopping and shopping some more. According to a story in last week's paper, crime has also been on the rise in this third week of Ramadan as people struggle to scrape enough cash together for a decent celebration. This is the other side of the holy month. An orgy of capitalist consumption only matched by Christmas in the developed West; a holiday during which we celebrate the birth of Christ, who died for our sins, by buying expensive video game consoles for the kids and eating colon stretching amounts of rich food.

There is nothing new in all of this though. Religion and money have always been bedfellows ever since medieval monks in Europe started selling absolution and bogus holy relics to kings and the rich and powerful at knockdown prices or since Islam was first spread across Asia by hard bargaining merchants. Nevertheless, Religion and capitalism are, at heart, two fundamentally opposed beasts.

Ethically, religion holds to altruism and self-sacrifice. Religious texts promote sacrifice for the public good and collectivism. The Bible and the Koran both stress the immoralities involved in the pursuit of profit margins. Ironically, in this ethical respect, religions mirror the views of Marxist atheists who also believe in social conscience, collectivist action and anti-capitalist politics. In the world of capitalism, however, the individual and his or her liberty and pursuit of happiness reigns supreme and religion is neither supported or opposed so long as its practice does not violate the civil rights of others.

America, the supreme example of a capitalist society, was not, as the George Bushes and Fox Newses of this world would have us believe, founded on the Christian faith. Its constitution is quite clearly secular and its founders were well aware of the dangers of religious dogma and of the need to protect the individual’s rights. Thomas Jefferson said of religion that, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are 20 gods, or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." He also declared that America was to, "Keep within the mantle of its protection the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and the infidel of every denomination."

When the dominant religion makes inroads into capitalist, secular politics though, it manifests itself in greater government control of society. Examples of this are the Patriot Act and various other Big Brother imperatives currently being pushed by Bush and his disciples. In Indonesia, individual liberty is also under attack from religion’s push into politics. Those who would turn the country into one in which there are strong limits on personal freedoms, such as Saudi Arabia, are in the ascendancy.

Religion and capitalism are incompatible, both in theory and practice. On the plus side, religion strives for social equality and for a social conscience but is, by definition, socially authoritarian and repressive. Capitalism on the other hand is the complete opposite. The individual is socially free to pursue his own dreams and wealth but the system makes little provision for those who fall through the cracks in society's pavement as they struggle to make ends meet. When Religion and capitalism collide in the political realm, they only serve to pervert each other and the masses get to live in the worst of both possible worlds, i.e. no money and no social freedom.

If politicians here were really people of faith, they would be addressing the fact that, according to a recent Economist report, 18 percent and rising of Indonesia's population live in total poverty. In fact, the real figure is probably a lot more than this because, instead of trying to genuinely attack the huge wealth gap in this country's society, the politicians have instead massaged the figures and have moved the poverty definition goalposts to a mere Rp.152,874 a month. This is well below the widely used global benchmark of a dollar a day. In fact, it's estimated that 80 million Indonesians live in abject poverty, a figure more astonishing than if either George Bush or Yusaf Kalla were to pass through the eye of a needle.

Simon Pitchforth

Ding Dong the Bells Are Going to Chime

I had the opportunity to attend an Indonesian wedding last weekend, something that I haven't done in quite a while. An ex colleague of mine was getting hitched and she had had the presence of mind to actually remember old Mr. Metro and fire off an invite (via sms).

On the big day I couldn't find my one solitary Batik shirt, which I keep exclusively for weddings. It must have had it away with the laundry fairies at some point. In any case, I dressed as formerly as I could and then headed off for the free I mean to toast the couple at the start of their lifetime’s journey together.

Now your Indonesian wedding differs from your Western one in many ways. Most pertinently, there is usually no booze or dancing. This in turn means no inebriated best man trying to flick peanuts down the bridesmaids’ dresses, no embarrassingly revelatory drunken speeches and no grandma shuffling around the floor to an Elvis Presley number. So perhaps an improvement then.

I found BMWs jamming the road solid when I arrived in my tarif lama Korporasi taxi, resplendent in its handsome green and orange livery. One should always arrive in style. It's usually best to turn up at an Indonesian wedding reception about 30 minutes to an hour late in order to avoid the long-winded speeches. When you arrive you'll be asked to sign the marriage book and then be given a little memento of the event such as a key ring or a fan with the bride and groom's name printed on it. At this wedding though, the names of the happy couple were emblazoned on a shot glass which I was duly presented with by the charming young usherette. Times change huh? Alas, as expected, I found nothing to fill it with when I went inside. I deposited my traditional envelope of money, about enough for a couple of packets of Sampoerna cigarettes, and entered the reception hall.

First things first, at an Indonesian wedding one should, upon arrival, mount the stage and shake hands with the bride and groom and both sets of parents. Usually something along the lines of, "Er.. Hello….You don't know me but good on you," four or five times with a brief interlude in the middle to share a quick word with the person you actually know. The happy couple at my reception both looked fine in their traditional Javanese costumes.

Actually, I have to confess to finding Indonesia's normally very lovely women at their least attractive on their wedding days. The whole bridal look is stylized in the extreme and the white make up is caked on until the young lady's face resembles that of a department-store perfume counter girl or a British Airways stewardess. For a more Asian comparison, I guess there's something quite Japanese about the whole look; like a Geisha or one of those traditional masked dramas. The Javanese groom's appearance is also very stylized and actually quite androgynous. He'll often even be wearing a subtle smear of lipstick to accentuate his face. And don't even get me started on the hairstyles; out of this world.

After my formal greeting it was exit stage left to join the buffet queue. I selected carefully and didn't choose the steak or anything that needed cutting as I could see that there were about ten times as many guests as there were chairs, another common Indo. wedding motif. I served myself, picked up a glass of flat Cola and tried to juggle my meal in the corner of the hall. Still, at least I wasn't the one up on stage getting married. Indonesian couples seemingly have to stand up for hours on end on their wedding day, greeting people and smiling like champions. It's a wonder they have any energy left cooking.

I finished the really rather good food and hung about for a bit watching the photographers in action. There was no beer as I've said but that isn't necessarily always the case at these weddings. If a Western guy marries an Indonesian lady, he'll usually manage to have some stashed away somewhere for his mates. At least this was the plan when my friend Dave married his lady friend Yeni a few years back. Unfortunately, after the speeches, we headed to the back of the hall for our rendezvous with Mr. Bintang only to find that the assembled drivers had got there first. Yes, the Bapaks had quaffed the bloody lot. Whatever happened to the sanctity of marriage?

Simon Pitchforth

Friday, October 13, 2006

Island In the Stream

Singapore has been in the news this week, what with its recent general election, and so I thought that a bit of a piece on Indonesia's oft-visited near neighbour might be in order.

The island calls itself the Republic of Singapore although, in comparison with its expansive neighbor Indonesia, it's really little more than a sandbar.

Despite its diminutive size though, Jakartans and Indonesians are constantly (if they've got any money to speak of) hopping back and forth to the island-state in order to shop, visit world-class hospitals and clinics and generally to enjoy a bit of first world standard infrastructure and law and order before heading back to the chaos of this fair city.

After a stint in Jakarta, Singapore can indeed be appealing, for a few days at least, and people fly there in droves from Jakarta to worship at the altar of Southeast Asia's economic miracle.

As an expatriate in Indonesia, my experiences in the city-state come when I have to renew my work visa at the Indonesian Embassy there.

The usual saga involves disembarking at Singapore's monumentally huge and high-tech Changi airport and taking a ride into the city on a local bus. After about an hour, I am thoroughly seduced by the clockwork order, efficiency and cleanliness of the place.

Traffic runs fluently, pavements are smooth and level, litter is unheard of and the whole city actually seems to have been laid out according to some kind of logical plan.

Then I arrive at the Indonesian Embassy and am immediately plunged back into the pell-mell chaos of the motherland as I try to fill out a visa application in the cramped building and then join the free-for-all queues in order to pay the embassy staff the requisite "extra" money needed to facilitate a speedy processing of my papers.

After all that's over, there's a chance to bowl up and down Orchard Road, shopping and eating some great food.

Yes, Singapore certainly has been a huge economic success over the past 50 years or so, and partly for reasons that this country could do well to emulate.

It opened up free trade zones and allowed foreign companies to set up shop completely tax-free. The strategy worked and contrasts strongly with the tortuous minefields of bureaucracy, bribery and sleaze that foreign investors usually encounter over here.

However, Singapore is also a place I don't think that I could ever live in for any period of time and this is for a number of reasons.

On my first visit there, I was casually extinguishing a cigarette on the pavement when I was accosted by a policewoman with such fervor that I could have been molesting a child.

"You don't do this in Singapore!" she screamed with a nationalistic vehemence that put me at a loss for words.

This is the other side of Singapore, the Big Brother breathing down its citizens' necks, the autocratic nanny state that inflicts corporal punishment (caning) and imposes lists of rules and regulations in their thousands.

It's this regimented social hegemony and mind-set that disturbs Westerners and Indonesians alike.

'False democracy'

The various Mr. Lees that have run the country through the People's Action Party (PAP) have turned Singapore into a democracy as false as Indonesia's was under Soeharto.

Take the recent election for example. The PAP won 82 out of 84 seats, 37 of which were uncontested by any opposition at all.

The reason for this is that opposition politicians are perpetually hounded, victimised and sued into poverty for supposed defamation by the bellicose politicians who run things.

Orwellian thought control is pervasive and Internet bloggers have become the latest victim of Southeast Asia's Big Brother.

Political discourse is discouraged and when the republic decided to set up a Speaker's Corner in one of its parks (inspired by the one in London's Hyde Park, in which people stand and speak whatever is on their minds), they decided to build it next to a police station.

Indonesia now seems like a democratic utopia in comparison (albeit one that barely seems to function).

This Big Brother/thought crime mind-set that exists in Singapore produces not only the lovely policewoman who pulled me up short, but also a lack of great thinkers or artists.

Certainly none are springing to mind as I write this and I guess that there is little room for artists to manoeuver in the strict political and social hygiene of Singapore.

Singapore also, despite the huge economic wealth generated there, has no welfare system to help out its poorest citizens.

No economy exists in isolation, especially these days, and perhaps Singapore's wealth is partly propped up, if not on the poverty of its own citizens, then on the poverty of surrounding countries such as Indonesia.

One example of this are the many Indonesians involved in corruption who have fled to the island because it won't extradite Indonesian criminals back home.

So I'm afraid it's Jakarta for me every time in all its dirty, stinking, rioting, impoverished, chaotic, grid locked, overcrowded glory. Viva le Republic.

Back to Bali: Bombs, cocktails and surfers

BALI, 04 December 2005 - I managed to hop over to Bali for a few days last week in order to both soothe my metro madness and also to see how the old island was faring after the recent bombings. Lion Air did the honors for about Rp 900,000 return, which is pretty good value, I guess, although anyone hovering around the six-foot-tall mark will have a few comfort issues to deal with when trying to squeeze into their cattle-class seats. After 90 minutes with my knees around my chin we touched down at Ngurah Rai airport in the rain and a taxi whisked me down to Legian.

Tourist numbers are perhaps down, although there seemed to be a healthy amount of people on the beach: tanning, surfing, flirting and rubbing sunscreen into their firm, pert, young ... erm ...right. Anyway, a quick evening burn down to the main Kuta strip accompanied by my trusty South African housemate and valet proved interesting. I've always marveled at the sheer density of tourist-related businesses in Bali, around the Kuta area in particular. There are simply millions of them. It would take several years to have a meal and a drink in every bar or restaurant. I've never been able to work out how all of these places manage to survive at the best of times, let alone in a post-terror slump.

However, far from being run-down, Bali's restaurants and bars are increasingly more stylish and chic. Most of them have been here for years but a gradual process of renovation and improvement is transforming them from spit and sawdust backpacker boozers into nouveau yuppie fashion fests.

Down at Kuta ground zero there is still a huge space where the Sari Club stood and opposite that there is a monument to the bomb victims. Apart from that though, it's business as usual. Slump or no slump, there'll always be enough tourists to fill out the bars in the densely packed, central area around the ex-Sari. The aging Bounty Club is still doing a roaring trade plying highly inflammable, local Mansion House cocktails to tanned and tipsy Australians. If there was ever a bomb outside the Bounty, the volume of Mansion House in the place would probably cause it to go sky high.

Anyway, pressing on with our travelogue, my Springbok colleague and I settled down at the bar and plumped for the least disagreeable drink on offer: Mansion House vodka mixed with Hero-brand pineapple and coconut syrup and a dash of napalm, all served in a huge goldfish bowl. We scanned the bar. Yes, it's still packed in downtown Kuta after dark. There can't be many places in the world where you can find yourself standing at a urinal next to a man in flip-flops, a sarong, some kind of skydiving crash helmet and an "Osama Don't Surf" T-shirt. I zipped up and headed back to the bar. Everyone was trashed. Young bules on holiday are a fearsome prospect; there must be more booze consumed on this 100-meter strip of street in Kuta every evening than there is in the whole of the rest of Indonesia combined.

Several MH cocktails later we staggered into Kuta's current busiest club, which is situated right next door to the Bounty, again just next to ground zero. I could hardly see the bugger as the Mansion House was beginning to affect my optic nerves, but my comrade told me the place was called, "M Bar Go" (I bet they gave themselves a pat on the back after coming up with that name). We partied until dawn with a packed club full of Australian surfers, Japanese hipsters, rich Jakartan flipsters and some really quite jaded looking local ladies of the night.

The next day we headed down to Jimbaran, a pleasant beach just south of the airport. I was sad when I heard that Jimbaran had been bombed as it's a chilled out and friendly little place: a beach containing a promenade of seafood restaurants with tables and chairs in the sand and a nice calm, surfless strip of sea to swim in. It's a great place to go if you're after an easy to reach break from the hurly-burly of Kuta.

A waiter that we met there had just got out of the hospital after the blast, which had apparently embedded a load of ball bearings in the poor guy. It wasn't as big a blast as the first Bali bombing, but 11 corpses lying on the beach sure ain't good for business. And what has happened to Bali's business since the second bombings? Well, as if in answer to Mr. Noordin Top and his proto-Hamas gang of jihaders, Air Paradise, Bali's low-cost air link to Australia, recently announced that it was ceasing operations, which will surely be a substantial blow to tourism on the island. Any more bomb attacks would, in my estimate, presage a permanent downsizing of Bali's tourist industry.

Are more bombs likely though? Unfortunately, what with Indonesian fundamentalists making Palestinian-style guns-and-balaclava suicide videos and terrorist websites instructing locals how to be bule snipers and take out westerners as they cross pedestrian bridges on Jl. Sudirman, I wouldn't bet against it. Tourism in Bali probably also hasn't been helped by the central government's short-sighted scrapping of the free visa on arrival policy in favor of a reduced period visa that has to be paid for.

At the end of the day though, the Balinese probably have it better than Indonesians who live on the breadline in Lampung or East Java, for example. At least you've got a chance with tourism. There are problems, sure, but tourism is a pretty egalitarian industry in comparison with the other forces of global capitalism that buffet the poor of this country. Tourism provides a true trickle-down economy in which the money goes straight from the tourists to the locals without being sidetracked by corrupt officials. Here's hoping the Island of the Gods manages to weather the storm and continues to induce life-threatening hangovers in tourists for many years to come.

Simon Pitchforth

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday night! Malam Minggu! What does one do with oneself in this fair city when the night of the week to cut loose arrives? How do the city's vibrant youngsters let their hair down and enjoy a few hours respite from the daily grind? Well, I think that would all depend on their financial situations.

If you are one of the great, unwashed masses then your options may be limited by cash flow constraints. Such constraints will probably render you unable to afford a night out at one of the city's hot nightspots (and at Rp 140,000 for two tiny drinks at Dragonfly recently, I don't think I can afford it either, quite frankly). So what should you do for your kicks then? Well, many of the chaps around my area seem to favor suicidal, 140 decibel/kilometer per hour motorcycle road races lasting into the wee small hours as their preferred method of Saturday night excitement and perhaps also as a way to forget the daily troubles and frustrations of this cruel, cruel city.

Yes, they scorch up and down the road with their nuts on fire, these young warriors, protected from fatal head injuries by their trusty baseball hats and fueled by a high octane mix of Beer Bintang, that alcoholic Cap Anggur grape stuff and no doubt a dash of Pertamax Plus that a local Warung owner furtively mixes together in plastic bags for their delectation. Dangerous, yes, foolhardy, perhaps, but youngsters need their thrills and sometimes I guess a few frames of billiards in a musty, peeling billiard hall or a martial arts B-movie in a rickety cinemaquite cut it.

Then, as a bonus bit of excitement on Sunday morning, the Saturday night knights with their chromium chargers can always go and noise up some local Christians and force them to shut up shop by threatening violence. What's that all about then? Is it just a misguided stab at religious piety? Or are the increasing numbers of youngsters organizing into medieval mobs really sublimating their frustrations at a society that has forgotten them? Do these disenfranchised youngsters need their own shaky sense of self-worth and power reinforced by the black-and-white moral reductionism of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and similar groups? Alas this seems, to me at least, all too likely. If these guys all had steady jobs and a bit of cash in their back pockets come Saturday night, then maybe they wouldn't feel the need to make such poorly judged attempts to get closer to Godbe it by crashing into a Satay seller at 120 km/h in a twisted mass of metal or by smiting his enemies as they sit around a coffee table in Bekasi saying a few prayers and eating biscuits.

So what of the other end of the economic spectrum? Well, if it's Saturday night andloaded, Jakarta is your oyster. You can step from your extravagantly furnished, expensive, air-conditioned house into your expensive, air-conditioned car and drive to an expensive, air-conditioned club for some expensive, air-conditioned drinks (well something is making them half evaporate between ordering the damn things and the glass touching the lips! They're getting away with half measures,telling you!)

It's true that once you get used to your air-conditioned life, it can get a bit hot at street level but still, the upper-class elites and those that run things in this country really like to seal themselves off from the huddled masses and therein lies the problem. This sense of social alienation between our poor, motorbike warrior and our rich clubber is exacerbated by the lack of public spaces in Jakarta. Public spaces and parks are not only of a physical and environmental benefit but also help in the socialization of society. Here, and increasingly in gated communities in the West, the rich shut themselves away in private cul-de-sacs, behind barriers guarded by uniformed men. This privatization of street life is a depressing modern phenomenon and entrenches social divisions.

Across the road from our house, for example, are some very posh residences indeed. However, I can't recall ever seeing the owners of these places. Only the staff ever emerge to connect the houses to the outside world and to each other and only maids and security guards are ever to be seen on the street. All that can be glimpsed of the owners are cars coming and going. They don't even open the gate themselves when they come home. A few toots on the horn will bring the Sat Pam (security guard) running in his crisp white uniform. I half expect these people to emerge from their vehicles in NASA space suits, so unsuited to Earth's atmosphere do they seem.

I guess when you have a huge underclass to utilize and employ cheaply, as there is here, then you don't have to engage with the mundane realities of everyday life as much as the poor guys on the street do. Need a packet of cigarettes or the phone bill paid? Send the maid out. Street in a state of disrepair, city a mess on the outside, thousands of unemployed youths milling about? Why should you care? In this context, President SBY's recent stint as an Ojek (motorcycle taxi) passenger in order to get to his destination on time probably, symbolically, meant more to your average Indonesian than a hundred speeches about the economy.

So what's the answer to such social alienation then? Personally I would like to see a National Union of Pembantus (maids) set up and a one-week strike convened. Then we would see some changes in social policy,sure.

-- Simon Pichforth

On the couch

Psychoanalysis is the school of psychology which was founded by famed Viennese quack Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, and which has been refined by various other intellectuals since then. I thought, this week, that it might be a fun exercise to put Indonesia on the couch, so to speak, to see if there are any potential areas of conflict in its collective psyche that may prevent it from functioning properly, just as there may be in any individual person undertaking analysis.

Even though there are differences between group psychology and the psychology of the individual, there are enough similarities for us to be justified in drawing certain parallels.

Central to psychoanalysis is the concept of the unconscious, an area of the mind in which resides drives, desires, fantasies, attitudes and motivations about which we know nothing. At the opposite end of the mental spectrum from the unconscious (or collective unconscious in this case) is the superego, or conscience, which incorporates the morality and the ideals of the culture of which it is a part and which includes feelings of guilt.

So let's get down to psychoanalytic cases. In the West, alcohol is a chemical that interferes with the normal functioning of the superego. We could say that the conscience is soluble in alcohol. Alcohol is a social ritual in Western countries and has a relaxing effect on the strong or forbidding conscience. This lessening of tension can sometimes be a good thing but excessive drinking can make the normally mild and gentle become violent and antisocial.

In Indonesia, there are many strong prohibitions which inhabit the population's superego and inhibit unconscious drives. Increasing prohibitions on sexual behavior and the sublimating force of artistic expression (i.e. the impending puritanical antiporn legislation) are becoming reality here. Also, strict social stratifications at the heart of the culture that demand excessive politeness and obsequiousness to one's social superiors exist here too, and can serve to build up tension like a pressure cooker under the country's collective superego.

Indonesians though are very often denied, for better or worse, the release of alcohol. Instead, they indulge in that other activity that the good Dr. Freud insists can also negate the superego or conscience, namely gang formation. Gangs of youngsters or adults can commit acts together, such as mobbing to death petty criminals, burning down churches or harassing minorities, that none of them could commit individually. Afterward they cannot understand how they came to participate in anything so violent and destructive without any feelings of guilt, and perhaps even with pleasure.

An almost kleptomaniacal level of corruption is also something that prevents Indonesia's body politic and collective psyche from functioning smoothly. Psychoanalysts talk of the pleasure principle and the reality principle. A child functions exclusively under the pleasure principle; he knows only what he wants (pleasure and not pain) and cannot recognize reality.

Adults cannot live by this principle because society does not permit it. It is the function of the ego (the conscious mind) to transform the pleasure principle of childhood into the reality principle of adult life, and thus to take into account societies restrictions and prohibitions as the subject seeks to find satisfactory solutions for his life. Those involved in corruption here seem to be arrested at the pleasure principle stage of development, i.e. they quite simply can't not steal the money that is in front of them, despite the potential consequences and thus, to avoid painful emotions such as severe anxiety, guilt and shame, they have to mount ego defenses.

Ego defenses are a normal psychological device but their pathological manifestation, as we sometimes see in this country, inhibits normal functioning. Denial and projection are, according to Freud, very primitive ego defenses because they originate in early childhood. They are, however, defenses that we see being used time and time again when we read Indonesian newspapers. When in denial, a child (or person involved in corruption) is reprimanded for something he has done. For fear he will be punished, he insists that he didn't do it, even though he knows perfectly well he did. The next step is automatic; he insists his brother (or colleagues) did it.

In the ego defense of projection, a person's feelings of guilt or shame are assuaged by projecting their own faults onto others. It's like seeing yourself in a mirror and believing that the image is actually somebody else. In Indonesia, social taboos and transgressive behavior such as premarital sex or political manifestations such as aggressive, neo-imperialistic policies are usually projected onto the West and thus the country avoids having to confront its own inadequacies.

Female sexuality and masculine bias are also central tenets of psychoanalysis. Freud talked of penis envy in the female unconscious, but more recent psychoanalytic theory postulates that the reverse is also true, namely that men envy women for their greater sexual capacity and for their ability to create life. Man cannot create life but can only destroy it and this envy lies behind male subjugation of women, something hitting the headlines here with the introduction of the very vague and repressive concept of pornographic actions, namely a prohibition against any celebration or display of female sexuality (i.e. no thighs, please).

So, the prognosis for our couch-bound archipelago? It's hard to say but a few more years in analysis should help. This shouldn't be construed as an insult though. There's really no stigma attached to undergoing analysis these days. A few couches in and around the corridors of power would be a good start.

-- Simon Pitchforth

Ding Dong the Bells Are Going to Chime

I had the opportunity to attend an Indonesian wedding last weekend, something that I haven't done in quite a while. An ex colleague of mine was getting hitched and she had had the presence of mind to actually remember old Mr. Metro and fire off an invite (via sms).

On the big day I couldn't find my one solitary Batik shirt, which I keep exclusively for weddings. It must have had it away with the laundry fairies at some point. In any case, I dressed as formerly as I could and then headed off for the free I mean to toast the couple at the start of their lifetime’s journey together.

Now your Indonesian wedding differs from your Western one in many ways. Most pertinently, there is usually no booze or dancing. This in turn means no inebriated best man trying to flick peanuts down the bridesmaids’ dresses, no embarrassingly revelatory drunken speeches and no grandma shuffling around the floor to an Elvis Presley number. So perhaps an improvement then.

I found BMWs jamming the road solid when I arrived in my tarif lama Korporasi taxi, resplendent in its handsome green and orange livery. One should always arrive in style. It's usually best to turn up at an Indonesian wedding reception about 30 minutes to an hour late in order to avoid the long-winded speeches. When you arrive you'll be asked to sign the marriage book and then be given a little memento of the event such as a key ring or a fan with the bride and groom's name printed on it. At this wedding though, the names of the happy couple were emblazoned on a shot glass which I was duly presented with by the charming young usherette. Times change huh? Alas, as expected, I found nothing to fill it with when I went inside. I deposited my traditional envelope of money, about enough for a couple of packets of Sampoerna cigarettes, and entered the reception hall.

First things first, at an Indonesian wedding one should, upon arrival, mount the stage and shake hands with the bride and groom and both sets of parents. Usually something along the lines of, "Er.. Hello….You don't know me but good on you," four or five times with a brief interlude in the middle to share a quick word with the person you actually know. The happy couple at my reception both looked fine in their traditional Javanese costumes.

Actually, I have to confess to finding Indonesia's normally very lovely women at their least attractive on their wedding days. The whole bridal look is stylized in the extreme and the white make up is caked on until the young lady's face resembles that of a department-store perfume counter girl or a British Airways stewardess. For a more Asian comparison, I guess there's something quite Japanese about the whole look; like a Geisha or one of those traditional masked dramas. The Javanese groom's appearance is also very stylized and actually quite androgynous. He'll often even be wearing a subtle smear of lipstick to accentuate his face. And don't even get me started on the hairstyles; out of this world.

After my formal greeting it was exit stage left to join the buffet queue. I selected carefully and didn't choose the steak or anything that needed cutting as I could see that there were about ten times as many guests as there were chairs, another common Indo. wedding motif. I served myself, picked up a glass of flat Cola and tried to juggle my meal in the corner of the hall. Still, at least I wasn't the one up on stage getting married. Indonesian couples seemingly have to stand up for hours on end on their wedding day, greeting people and smiling like champions. It's a wonder they have any energy left cooking.

I finished the really rather good food and hung about for a bit watching the photographers in action. There was no beer as I've said but that isn't necessarily always the case at these weddings. If a Western guy marries an Indonesian lady, he'll usually manage to have some stashed away somewhere for his mates. At least this was the plan when my friend Dave married his lady friend Yeni a few years back. Unfortunately, after the speeches, we headed to the back of the hall for our rendezvous with Mr. Bintang only to find that the assembled drivers had got there first. Yes, the Bapaks had quaffed the bloody lot. Whatever happened to the sanctity of marriage?

Simon Pitchforth

Summer Break (Part 2)

Metro Mad all got a bit too personal last Sunday. When I left off last week I was just about to have my broken leg bolted back together with titanium screws in the operating theatre of Pertamina Hospital after pranging my motorcycle quite heavily against a wayward Bajaj. This week I thought I’d continue the whole sorry saga of my Jakarta hospital experience and generally prolong the downer I’ve inflicted on the usual Sunday Post fare of luxury watches and desert island paradise holidays.
The last thing I remember in the operating theatre before the anesthetic switched out the lights was the doctor saying, “Time to pray to your God.” I fired off a quick prayer to Thierry Henry and slipped into the blackness.
When I awoke I was fully bandaged up and lying in the hospital room that would be my home for the next week. One tube fed into my wrist while another fed out of my…er…third leg. I had been turned into a mere conduit; a section of human piping in the hospital’s complex sub-systems. I have to admit that having never been hospitalized before, I was slightly freaked out by the whole experience. I was determined, however, to put on a stoical face when the visitors started to arrive and the fruit started to accumulate into a huge mountain in the corner of the room.
All of my chums were around to visit and inspect my tubing within the first couple of days. It was all very cheering. After a couple of days though I was texting them with increasing frequency and imploring them to bring food in for me. The hospital food was nothing special and, frankly, was getting me down. I presume though, that this criticism could probably leveled at most of the hospitals on the planet. Initially I was brought baked potatoes, instead of rice, as my side dish, a nice Bule sensitive touch. I soon set the catering staff straight however and managed to get myself put back onto rice rations after a couple of days. Thankfully friends helped me out with my nutrition regime. On one memorable evening I was brought a take away Indian curry and a couple of cans of beer, stinking out not just the room but the entire floor of the hospital.
I was, in fact, staying in a double room although I wasn’t actually sharing with Indonesia’s ex-president. The nearest I got to a Soeharto was watching young Titiek on TV as she tried to dampen everyone’s World Cup enthusiasm with her potato like charisma. Yes, at least the football was on to cheer me up a little and my mind was soon taken off my spavined leg by Christano Ronaldo and his frankly rather homoerotic Extra Joss advertisement. He may have , “Never felt so energetic like this before,” but my team, England, clearly hadn’t been sipping enough of the old Joss before their games and their torpid performances catapulted me back into depression. I could have done better myself hopping around the pitch on my crutches. The Bapak in the bed next to me agreed and instead threw his weight behind the Dutch team.
The nurses taking care of me were efficient little angels although they studiously ignored my overly optimistic demands for some morphine. If I have one slight criticism, it’s that they did insist on upon waking me up at 5a.m. every morning with a chirpy, ”Sudah siang, Mr.” (It’s already afternoon). Obviously they didn’t want me to miss a single, edifying second of my lovely stay in hospital. There’s one fundamental thing that separates Westerners from Indonesians and it isn’t religion or politics or anything like that. No, it’s what time we get up in the morning. For a pale face like myself, 4 or 5 a.m. is no time to be leaping out of bed and springing into action; even less so if you replace the word leaping with hobbling.
After a week I was packed off home with a bag of pills for a dull summer of convalescence and Stephen Hawking style fun. Ah well, at least I’m able to sleep in now. Nevertheless, I’m pretty immobile at the moment and starting to wonder how I can keep Metro Mad running over the next few weeks. Expect columns about the interior of my fridge and the delights of Kabelvision to be coming your way in July.
Drive safely everyone.

Simon Pitchforth

Back on the Blok

In the spirit of regional autonomy and the recent local elections, I’d like to nominate Blok M as a candidate for adding to Indonesia’s ever growing list of provinces. I've always maintained that the ever popular ‘M’ is a self-contained, one-stop zone in which I could live out the rest of my days quite happily. I'd lurch from plaza to restaurant to cinema to bar to hotel without ever leaving the area. Blok M's Regent could set up his office on Jl. Melawai and everything would be fine.

However, one potential fly in the ointment in this twisted little fantasy is the bar filled road of Jl. Felatehan, just behind the bus station. In our imaginary new province scenario, Felatehan regulars wouldn't be happy with mere regional autonomy and would push for a plebiscite and full independence. The street’s voracious micro economy, driven as it is by beer swilling, male, western expats and Baso chomping, local disco butterflies could even spawn some kind of deranged independence, guerilla movement. Molotov cocktails manufactured from old Anker bottles refilled with cheap perfume would rain down on riot police from behind a burning barricade of overturned Bluebird taxis as Felatehan's night-time boys and girls resist the Imperial Indonesian forces and their demands for early Ramadan closing hours.

This is all a rather unlikely state of affairs, granted, although Jl. Felatehan certainly looks the part of a violence racked province, resembling as it does, Beirut circa 1982. However, let's return to reality for a moment and take a look at what lies behind the piles of rubble and the scarred and crumbling buildings of Jl. Felatehan. The road is certainly as popular as it’s ever been and there are still plenty of bibulous Bules and beskirted broads to be seen during the hours of darkness, weaving drunkenly between D's Place, Sportsman's, Oscar's, My Bar, Everest and Top Gun. In fact, despite looking like a Tsunami has just hit it when viewed from street level, business is pretty good on Blok M's famous road of revelry, so much so that the aforementioned six bars have all recently joined forces to create FAB - the Felatehan Association of Businesses (no sniggering at the back please). FAB aims to bring a bit of solidarity and central planning to Felatehan and so far the businesses involved have managed to set up an inter-bar pool league and have also clubbed together for some security men under a mini marquee who look under your car with one of those mirror thingies on wheels.

Yes, despite the infidel security issue, the street's bars have been looking quite lively of late. Starting at the far end, D's Place is always full of friendly faces playing Find-the-Joker, competing in the Monday night music quiz or the dance competitions or getting up to God knows what in the VIP members’ room (I’m not allowed in myself). Next along, Sportsman's still offers the western sports bar experience complete with live broadcasts of all the top events. Next to that, Everest, a newer addition to the street, features live music and a vertiginous, drive-in movie sized screen that takes up the whole rear wall of the club for watching the sport on. Moving right along, My Bar has become the literal and spiritual centre of the Jl. Felatehan of 2005. It’s pretty much full every evening with the moistened T-shirt and whisky cola brigade and is open until 5 AM. In addition, My Bar's two new tasteful floors (live music lounge and billiard hall) and slightly less tasteful line in merchandise (baseball hats and g-strings) have helped to cement its reputation. Opposite My Bar, Top Gun is getting a bit long in the tooth these days -its name alone should tell you that – but it can still pull them in in the early evenings. Finally, Oscar's, at the bus terminal end of the street, is currently in the process of reviving itself with a brand-new gourmet menu, talk of a members' club called Bisu and lingerie theme nights.

So in this crazy city, Jl. Felatehan has managed to weather the storms of financial crisis and terrorist bombings and has come out the other side with its core clientele intact. Clearly, many of Jakarta's impish expats have a deep-seated need for this street and the bonhomie and "companionship" (ahem) that it offers. FAB as the new GAM though? Vive la Revolution!

Simon Pitchforth

Xmas Cheer

So here we are. Christmas is upon us and the last Metro Mad before the holiday is now inflicted upon you. Christmas ay? Christmas time, mistletoe and wine (available from duty-free shops only), with logs on the fire (turn the AC down for that authentic winter glow). Yes, no matter how long you've lived in Indonesia and how at home you are here, it always feels little strange, as a Westerner, to wake up on Christmas morning (or afternoon depending on how the Christmas Eve shenanigans progressed) to the prospect of a Nasi Goreng and a sweaty run down to the Warung for some Krating Daengs and a packet of Gudang Garam.

The best policy for most festive expatriates is to huddle together like Lapland penguins at someone's pied-a-terre and drink themselves into a traditional Yuletide stupor whilst munching on stringy turkey, listening to an MP3 compilation of Christmas hits and trying to avoid contracting dengue fever. Alternatively, one can head out of town, which can make for a pleasant Christmas break, despite the fact that the experience will be considerably less festive than the previous option. Hardcore Santa groupies may opt to head to a five star hotel and pay through the nose for an impersonal Christmas lunch with all the trimmings whilst some unctuous jazz pianist bashes out White Christmas in the corner. Bali can be a genuinely decent option for an enjoyably festive and fun Christmas and New Year’s break and usually there's a real party atmosphere in the air. Between Schapelle Corby and Jemah Islamiah though it could be a bit quiet there this year. I had better think of a plan quickly I guess unless I want to be crying into my fried rice whilst watching Bule Gila reruns come the 25th.

Then, of course, it's the New Year's Eve frenzy a few days later. Your chance to blow a cardboard trumpet into someone's ear until they snap and insert it into you sideways. Your chance to reflect upon another exciting year in the good old R of I. And yes, what a year it's been in Indonesia. Not all good, it has to be said, but never a dull moment I trust you will agree. 2005 started, of course, with thousands of poor Indonesians picking up the pieces of their lives after a colossal wall of water ripped into them on December 26th. It wasn't the happiest of conclusions to 2004 and was interpreted by certain fundamentalists as being God's punishment on Indonesia for letting ladies wear bikinis in Bali. Let's hope though, that a post-war, post tsunami Aceh doesn't inflict too much Sharia style misery on its citizens in the form of public canings for courting couples and Ojeg drivers caught playing dominoes for a few hundred rupiah. Give these people a break, I say.

So what else has been grabbing the headlines this year? Well SBY showed that he had the balls to scrap the country's fuel subsidies and, politically at least, the gamble seemed to pay off as people didn't run amok burning down shopping plazas as they did when Soeharto tried the same trick seven years previously. The jury's still out on whether Mr, Susilo is actually a decent President though. We'll talk again next year, provided of course that my orange juice isn't spiked with arsenic on my next flight back to the UK. Yes, there was the Munir story too of course. The human rights activist who had his seat upgraded to Garuda's new hemlock class. The verdict upon the alleged pilot poisoner, Mr. Polycarpus,
is due next week but who was pulling the strings? The whole episode shows that New Order era forces of darkness still stalk the land with impunity.

What else happened? There were more bombs, naturally. Sidney Jones earned herself some handy frequent flier miles and the opportunity to buy a lot of duty free Scotch. Indonesian athletes didn’t do themselves particularly proud at the recent SEA Games. Inul Daratista’s 15 seconds of hip gyrating fame expired. More bloody shopping plazas opened. The city became even more gridlocked, despite the fuel hikes and, to cap it all, Indonesian’s in far flung provinces have just started to drop dead of starvation this festive season.

All doom and gloom then? Perhaps, but that’s just the nature of newspapers and TV news I’m afraid. The more life affirming stories never make the headlines in this rough and tumble world. If you’re lucky, you may get a segment about Ollie the skateboarding duck or something at the end of a half hour news cast filled with AIDS, terrorism, war and global warming but generally it’s unremitting negativity. However, there’s still a whole lot of beauty, love and fun out there ready to be experienced in this weird and wonderful country for anyone who’s willing to put on a clean pair of underpants, fill their pockets with small change and march out bravely into the flow. Happy Yom Kippur everyone.

Simon Pitchforth

Warias of the Wasteland

Whilst returning home one evening last week after blowing the froth off a few ales on Jakarta's street of backpackers and broken dreams (Jl. Jaksa), my Bluebird hansom cab passed over the river/canal flyover that connects Menteng with the skyscrapers of Jl. Rasuna Said. On the flyover I saw several tradesmen plying their wares on another grueling nightshift. Those of you who have seen these fellows before whilst driving south of an evening will no doubt be emitting a familiar chuckle. For those not in the know however, allow me to elucidate more clearly and reveal that these gentlemen are what are generally known as lady-boys... transvestites if you will... looks like a lady... in fact it's a chap.

Now, I may be opening up a whole can of worms here and perhaps this subject is not entirely fitting for a Sunday. However, these fine bodies of men are almost certainly one of the city's minor tourist attractions. The first time I saw these charming creatures I was new in town and wet behind the ears. A friend took me for a spin around the area in a taxi and I was a little shocked. We then headed on to a club I might add, no money changed hands, I'd like to make that quite clear and our taxi doors were not breached in anyway.

The area in question is known as Taman Lawang and extends from the aforementioned flyover into the pleasant, leafy environs of Menteng. I have always considered this to be a slightly weird arrangement. Other cities and countries make sure that street walking, especially that of the gender bending variety, is confined to the cheesy side of town. Menteng though is one of the poshest, most gentrified and expensive districts in the city. Ex-president Soeharto is the area's most famous resident but no doubt other powerful politicians, businessmen and generals are also domiciled there. I can't begin to imagine how they feel when they leave their mansions of an evening to be confronted by semi-nude transsexual prostitutes being solicited by Kijang drivers.

Homosexuality is frowned on by Indonesia’s nominally Islamic population. Nevertheless, lady-boys, commonly known as Bencong, Banci or Waria, seem generally to be treated as figures of fun. They are seen as clown like individuals for people to point and laugh at rather than beat up or harass. In fact, this socially marginalized but ultimately accepted she-male pantomime goes way back into the roots of Indonesian history, to the beginning of oral (careful Simon) and written records. For example, among the Bugis ethnic group of Sulawesi there exist cross-dressing palace guards known as Bissu who predate the arrival of Christianity or Islam to Indonesian shores.

Your modern Indonesian transvestite however is not treated as an equal member of society. She will often suffer discrimination from both family and neighbors and the obligation to engage in a heterosexual marriage is strong here. She is also limited in the work available to her. Many Waria can be found working in hair salons or, of course, walking the streets of Menteng at night. Also though, she-males are often seen on television in Indonesia. At the moment, Waria are under increasing persecution from the ascendant Sharia law lobby. The 2005 Miss Waria pageant, for example, was (literally) broken up by FPI (Islamic Defenders’ Front) goons. It would seem that Indonesia's gender and sexual minorities are facing an uncertain future.

In a recent movie that I saw, two characters, in a classic display of male homophobic bonhomie, are explaining how each knows that the other is gay. Their conversation went like this:
-You know how I know you're gay? You saw the movie Maid in Manhattan.
-Really? Well, you know how I know you're gay? I saw you making a spinach dip once.
-Is that so? Well, you know how I know you're gay? You like Coldplay.
Etc etc.

Similar thoughts sometimes cross my mind about the Indonesian gay community. Something like:
-You know how I know you're gay? Because your Indonesian and gay.
I reckon that the effeminate transvestite tradition here makes your average gay man stand out more from the less camp masses when compared with his equivalent in the West who has gained more social acceptance. However, I could be wrong on this one as I don't possess the so-called Gay-dar sensing powers that homosexuals claim enable them to spot other gay men at fifty paces.

Well, I think that we've just about wrapped this subject up. All letters of complaint should be addressed to the Jakarta Post. You know how I know you're gay? You read Metro Mad.

Simon Pitchforth

We’re Going to the Zoo, You Can Come Too….

Zoos are perhaps a slightly anachronistic concept these days. Most people prefer to see their animals strolling unconfined around a spacious safari park than looking despondently through the bars of small cages like some Victorian freak show. A decent safari park (Taman Safari) can be found out past Bogor on the road to Puncak. The city zoo, however, is much nearer. Follow Jl. Mampang Prapatan south until you reach the southern part of the ring road. Then, instead of turning right to the chimps’ tea party that is Cilandak Town Square in full swing. Continue south for another kilometer or so until you hit Ragunan Zoo.

The zoo costs a mere Rp.3000 to enter (Rp.2000 for children) which includes a Rp.300 insurance premium. Should your head be ripped off by a huge mountain gorilla or you have the Nasi squeezed out of you by a boa constrictor, you stand to collect a massive Rp.7,500,000 payout. Very reassuring. Stroll through the zoo's main entrance and you will find yourself in a huge park. My memories of zoos are closely intertwined with that of childhood: school trips to London Zoo, being sick on the coach trip there, losing my packed lunch, teachers losing their sanity, flipping off the monkeys, laughing at the Makaks (Oo! Ma kaks!), etc etc. The Jakarta zoo obviously fulfils the same educative function as zoos do elsewhere. Visit on a public holiday and you'll be overwhelmed by millions of family and school outings. Kids (and adults) will be ignoring all the signs and feeding buns, peanuts and bananas to listless, manically depressed animals suffering from middle-aged fur loss. It's generally a total hullabaloo and if you include the, "Hello Mr." factor, if you're a western visitor, you can be, at times, actually unsure as to which side of the cages' bars you are on. Should you wish to join this pell-mell bedlam on a public holiday then you'll find all the usual zoo motifs to be present and correct: elephants (looking a bit emaciated some of these), tigers, giraffes, zebras, a huge gorilla enclosure, Komodo dragons and ritual humiliation of the animals shows (snake dancers, elephant rides, etc etc).

For me though, I find that a visit to the zoo on a common or garden weekday to be most fortifying. Ragunan becomes a peaceful place as there are very few visitors and many of the special enclosures are closed. However, forget about the animals for a moment and consider the fact that Jakarta’s zoo is pretty much the only real park in town. By real park I mean that you can truly get away from the stresses of city life, as opposed to the area around Monas or that place in Menteng, which are little more than glorified traffic islands. Sad as it is, between Ancol in the north and Ragunan Zoo in the south, the city is woefully deficient in its green areas and this is a problem that is only getting worse with all the ceaseless development. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some developer has his beady little avaricious eye on the zoo too and plans to turn it into a zoo-mall complete with robo-animatronic lions and tigers for the kids and a branch of Starbucks.

As it stands though, for Rp.3000 you can have a midweek stroll around beautifully peaceful gardens and grass areas and meditate away your nervous metropolitan tensions. There's even a sizeable lake which can be enjoyable to sit next to with a can of Bin(a)tang purchased from one of the zoo's many Warungs. The lake certainly differs from Jakarta's other waterways in that it's not full of human excrement, discarded Aqua bottles and dead rats and you can take in a view of the park’s tree filled vistas without singeing your nostrils. Yes, midweek is the best time to visit and, in fact, you may find that visitors are even thinner on the ground these days due to a recent bird flu scare that closed the Ragunan for a couple of weeks.

Victorian throwbacks zoos may be but I'll support Jakarta's quaintly old fashioned zoological gardens to the bitter end against the ever-increasing tide of fast food restaurants, 24-hour Internet access, multi-storey car parks and polyphonic ring tones. Just watch out for that H5N1.

Simon Pitchforth

Do The Cop Shop Bop

Indonesian policemen, noble upholders of the law, with their voluminous peaked caps and their epaulettes the size of telephone directories. Love them or loathe them, you are bound to run into the medium-length arm of Indonesian law enforcement sooner or later.

By far the most common encounters between the hapless bule and the Indo cop occur on the bustling public highways of Jakarta. The boys in blue (brown actually) can often be found, of an evening, trying to supplement their meager incomes by stopping cars, taxis and bikes and the asking for ID. If you don't have any on you (and contrary to what they may tell you, a photocopy is sufficient) 50,000 rupiahs worth of palm grease should see you safely on your way again. Its highway robbery, basically, although I guess you’re less likely to be knifed in the kidneys than you are during a real hold-up. Should you be on a motorbike, you might be tempted to try and burn past the officer who is attempting to pull you over. However, there will undoubtedly be another cop stationed 50 yards down the road and you will really be in trouble when he finally gets hold of you.

Strangely, for the Western motorist, these highway (patrol) men are usually utterly indifferent to how much you have had to drink. You won't have to blow into any bags, you won't have to slur incoherently "But I haven't had a c**t all night drinkstable!!" They will only want to see your documents. You could be swigging a bottle of Scotch and projectile vomiting onto the dashboard for all they care. An Australian friend of mine was once pulled over while drunk as lord behind the wheel of his Kijang. He didn't have any ID on him or any cash whatsoever after a night on the booze. His Polri cop nemesis simply refused to believe that he didn't have any bribe money on him, however, and after about half an hour of being pestered for a “present” my colleague disembarked from his car in an alcoholic rage and proceeded to strip off all his clothes in the street in order to prove the lack of funds about his person. His inebriated state was never an issue though, and he was eventually allowed to continue driving home.

Should you have the misfortune to be taken into police custody in Indonesia, you might find yourself incarcerated in somewhat less than Alcatraz-like conditions. On the two occasions that I've been hauled into the Cop shop, I was allowed to amble freely around the station doing exactly as I pleased. One time, some friends and I were driven to a police station near the port of Merak after being stopped at a police roadblock (well, we won't open that can of worms now). We slept the night on the office floor after an interrogation which involved us being made to play guitars, answer questions about our love lives and have matey photos taken with the on duty officers. The next day, our spirits flagging, the nice chaps down at the station even let a couple of us out to go out to McDonald's and buy some burgers for the other two in our group. Now that's what I call policing.

I guess an incident such as this highlights the other side of the police force here. Indonesians are generally a friendly lot and if the police are not just looking at you, at any given moment, as a walking ATM machine, then they can be some of the most acquiescent cops on the planet and will try to genuinely help you if they can. We all saw the TV pictures of Bali bomber Amrozi laughing and joking with the officers who were interrogating him. This footage caused great offence to watching Australians. Westerners, I guess, are used to their policemen putting a certain amount of moral distance between themselves and the suspects in their charge. This doesn't seem to happen in Indonesia, however. The cops here will laugh and joke with the crooks they haul in. They will also beat the living crap out of them as well, of course. Other countries like to sweep incidents of police brutality under the carpet whereas here they are broadcast on TV every morning on reality Crimewatch shows.

If you should meet a policeman on your travels through the archipelago just remember the golden rule: keep smiling, difficult as this may be sometimes.

Simon Pitchforth

Going Google Eyed

Well, the World Cup wraps up tonight and we can all get some sleep at long last. My personal player of the tournament would have to be Germany's Torsten Frings, if only for his very wonderful name which sounds more like something that Lance Armstrong would use in the Tour de France - "Yes my new high-tech bike has got an ultra lightweight carbon-fiber frame... and torsten frings." It was also a pleasure to watch Captain Extra Joss getting his comeuppance in last Wednesday's semifinal. Now though, I suppose that we're all going to have to find something else to amuse ourselves with for the next four years. For those of you planning to forsake your televisions and return to the virtual, online pleasures of the Internet, I thought I'd conduct a brief survey of how Indonesia performs on the information super cul-de-sac.

Indonesia's traditional print media encompass (for English speakers) your very own Jakarta Post and, for slightly more in-depth coverage, the English-language edition of Tempo magazine, both of which generally do a good job of disseminating the crazy things that go on in this great country. Online, The Jakarta Post's web site contains comprehensive archives, but can be a little tricky to navigate.

Print media in Indonesia however, constantly walk a tightrope between journalistic integrity and a fear of incurring the wrath and vengeance of the feudal powers that be. Things have opened up somewhat since the toppling of Soeharto but nevertheless, journalistic freedom has often found itself under attack here. Every week, Tempo magazine prints letters from the lawyers of apoplectic politicians and generals which threaten legal action. Both Tempo and the Jakarta Post have received various sinister visits to their offices over the years and have been on the receiving end of threats and/or a good smashing up. Journalists for regional Indonesian language papers continue to be beaten up, kidnapped and even murdered for daring to live up to the investigative probity required of their profession.

Online though, writers tend to be a lot braver. The anonymity of the Internet enables hacks and wannabe hacks to neatly sidestep the face punching, office trashing consequences of their investigations. A good example of this is the Paras web site which often features news stories that the papers would perhaps find too hot to handle and is well worth bookmarking on your browser.

Blogs (online diaries) are the latest global Internet trend and people in Indonesia are also joining in the fun. There are some great English-language blogs written here by authors who vent their spleen in no uncertain terms about life in Indonesia and its politics. Many of them resemble this column on steroids. Local blogs worth checking out include, Jakarta Eye, Jakartass, Indcoup, Java Jive and the new Jak Chat forum.

I decided though to head for the global search engine Google in order to conduct a little experiment and see how topical issues in Indonesia are shaping up on the Internet. I first pumped the words, "Indonesia" and "Sharia" in for a search and was rewarded with a colossal 497,000 results including which contains some quite extreme anti Muslim rants. I then tried, "Indonesia" and "Pluralism" which scored me an even bigger 647,000 results. Clearly this country's current culture war is being reflected online in no uncertain terms.

Next, I thought I'd try a current news story. I performed a search on the words, "Bakrie" and "Mud" but only got a disappointing 553 results. "Soeharto" and "Bastard" netted me a slightly bigger 816 matches.

Always keen to find out how I fit personally into the broader scheme of things, "Bule" and "Scum" led me to the web site which contains a fascinating list of ethnic slurs from around the world. Here the word, "Bule" is defined as, "A white person; literally means albino." Hmmm. Well I certainly can get a bit pink eyed after a few Bintangs. In this derogatory dictionary, the word, "Bule" is sandwiched between the American colloquialisms, "Bhurka Bitch" (Muslim woman) and "Buddhahead" (Asian person). It's nice to see racial tolerance spreading around the world via the Internet like this.

Finally, I decided to search,"Jakarta" and "Traffic accidents" - a subject close to my heart as I'm sure you’ll understand if you've been reading Metro Mad over the last fortnight. My morbid search led me straight to the US Embassy’s official web site where I learned that in the first half of the year 2000, 5996 traffic accidents resulted in 4563 deaths and 3330 serious injuries. Ulp! I guess I'm lucky to be alive. Now where’s my Extra Joss?

Simon Pitchforth