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 bĂȘte 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