Sunday, December 23, 2007

What's Another Year

The holiday season is upon us and this year there's double fun to be had as the coincidence of Christmas and the Muslim holiday of Idul Adha gives all of us a chance for a nice break. Alas, in our house, the absence of traditional Christmas aromas such as mulled wine and turkey stuffing has been complemented by the pungent aroma of cattle and goat dung wafting across from the nearby market as the livestock are fattened up ready for the ritual slaughter. Mind you, in the West, a lot of turkeys will also be buying the farm about now.

And so another 12 months limps dejectedly to a close and the joys of 2008 will soon be upon us. What delights will be in store for us this year I wonder? An increasing series of environmental disasters perhaps? Further attacks on science by the forces of religious atavism? The rich/poor gap widening a bit further possibly? A bird flu pandemic that decimates the world? The further disintegration of our cultural heritage into five second attention spans soundbites and online social networking flotsam? Maybe there'll be an all-out, internecine Sunni/Shia war in the Middle East and if we're really lucky, Iran will build their Shia bomb to match Pakistan's Sunni nukes, and we'll all go up in a puff of isotopes. Er... okay sorry, I'll stop now. 'Tis the season to be merry and all that.

I trust that most of you have managed to escape the city, if only for a day or two, and are currently soaking up the sun somewhere gorgeous. As a Jakarta resident you owe it to yourself. So that was 2007 hey? Another fine year in Jakarta, Indonesia. We've had biblical floods in the capital, plane crashes, new busways causing chaos, a new governor elected and a climate change conference. The year has also just been rounded off by Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, Mr. Bakrie, being declared the country's richest man. Although he's not rich enough, it would seem, to yet compensate victims of his company's mudflow disaster in central Java. Ho-hum, business as usual then.

But the negative nature of the newspaper headline and the TV bulletin is very much the nature of the news culture beast. The happy stuff comes at a more personal level. This year, I've managed to see more of Indonesia's stunning scenery by visiting Borneo and Sumatra. I've enjoyed lots of good food, quaffed some fine beverages, indulged in some hot lovin' and generally made hay while the sun shines.

I trust that many of you have also laughed in the face of world and national events and can tell tales of personal endeavor, victories both small and large, marriages, new friendships, sexual athleticism, interesting holidays and monumental hangovers. Suddenly life doesn't seem so bad ay?

Hopefully there'll be more room for fun and self-improvement next year. I've never been one for New Year's resolutions however. Most people who make them seem to regress from their good intentions and lapse back into old habits by about January the 11th. With this in mind, I managed to dig out a few quotes from the literary greats regarding the false light of optimism that beams around the planet at the dawn of the New Year.

Mark Twain once said that, "New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions." A bit of drunken promiscuity once in awhile is no bad thing I reckon but each to his own. Back across the Atlantic, good old Oscar Wilde said of New Year that, "Good resolutions are simply cheques that men draw on a bank where they have no account." Very witty Oscar.

Back to the present day, that incorrigible and still very much alive old goat P. J. O'Rourke once said that, “The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk; this drunkenness culminates on New Year's Eve when you get so drunk you kiss the person you're married to." The final word, however, goes to the less well-known 19th-century English diarist and critic James Agate, who once said that his New Year's resolution was, "To tolerate fools more gladly, provided this does not encourage them to take up more of my time."

Happy holidays one and all.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Round and Round

As I write this the whole Bali climate conference shebang is nearing its end. The delegates will soon fly home to their respective countries and we'll all get on with leading the same wasteful, disposable lives spurred on by our unceasing competitive materialism and shallow one-upmanship. Shiny new cars and fancy goods will still be spilling off production lines and we’ll no doubt continue to be mollified by the objective purchasing power in our pockets.

The American writer Philip Roth in his famous and otherwise rather smutty book Portnoy's Complaint summed up our condition in one of my favourite quotes thusly:
“Society not only sanctions gross and unfair relations among men, but encourages them... rivalry, competition, envy, jealousy, all that is malignant in human character is nourished by the system. Possessions, money, property -- on such corrupt standards as these do you people measure happiness and success."
It's a pretty uncompromising quote admittedly but one that rings true of Indonesia and the world at large and perhaps one that is becoming increasingly relevant as we reach an environmental impasse.

This is all getting a bit heavy though isn't it? There must be some cause for optimism surely? Well perhaps. I recently stumbled upon an initiative that seems to be moving in the right direction, namely a website called Freecycle.

Now recycling is an old idea. Growing up in the UK (which was way behind the rest of Europe in terms of recycling at the time I might add) my family and I would nevertheless trudge dutifully along to the bottle bank every week to deposit our glassware. The wheels came off the wagon somewhat when I found out that it takes almost as much energy to make a bottle out of recycled glass as it does to make one from scratch. The point is though, that the recycling principle was sown in my young mind.

And now perhaps it is being sown in Indonesia's young mind. Freecycle is a global web site and its Indonesian branch was started in 2004. Basically, people post messages in which they state what they are giving away or make requests for certain items and wait for a reply. Everything is given away free, no money may change hands and new members to the site must offer something with their first posting as a gesture of good faith in Freecycle's principles.

Freecycle seems to offer Indonesia a radical new social paradigm. Partly in terms of the philosophy of recycling but also in the idea of getting something for nothing. In this country, where even hailing a taxi on a random street corner or parking your breakfast in a public convenience has been tapped as a source of income by some one dollar a day underclass chancer, to totally circumvent money in this way is something wholly new (or perhaps a very old?)

Anyway, I joined free cycle recently and posted up my first offer: what amounts to about three quarters of an old PC. Not a bad opening gambit I thought. I scrolled through a few of the other members offers and found such items as:
A key chain made from pewter from Thailand with a Muay Thai fighter picture on it.
A 1980s Berlitz how to speak Spanish travel guide book.

I’m not sure who’s going to trudge halfway across town to pick up those two gems but perhaps someone would be interested. Alas, none of Indonesia's plutocrats seem to have joined the group and posted up their old BMWs but I live in hope.

Freecycle is apparently a fast-growing international movement and was founded in Tucson, Arizona. There are a few rules that should be followed on Freecycle however. Number one states that alcohol, tobacco, firearms or drugs are prohibited on a, "Two strikes and you're out of the group" basis. This strikes me as a bit weird though, when you consider that everything is free. I find it hard to imagine someone posting up a message saying, "I've got half a bottle of whisky in my house that I just can't bring myself to finish, so if anyone would like to come and pick it up..." There should also be no politics or personal attacks on the site although you are allowed to find new homes for pets.

The strangest rule though would have to be, "No Freecycling yourself or your children.” Freecyclers wishing to do this are instead directed to Internet dating sites and told to get their annoying kids, "Involved in after-school band practice," instead. Hmmm, they certainly seem to have all bases covered down at Freecycle don't they?

Actually, I guess you could use Freecycle in order to play a rather malicious trick on one of your pals. He certainly won't be best pleased when he gets home to find that his entire CD collection has been sacrificed to the ideological cause of global recycling.

Ultimately though, Freecycle represents a rather more humane approach to the recycling imperative than Jakarta urchins rummaging around for plastic bottles on stinking rubbish tips. Long may it prosper. Those interested in having a bash should point their browsers at

Sunday, December 09, 2007

From Kyoto to Kuta

This week, the smarting eyes of the world have been focused on Bali as world leaders, environment ministers and a smattering of celebrities gather to talk hot air about hot air. Arnie the Governator, Big Al Gore and Leo DiCaprio are among the more famous names that will be huffing and puffing sweatily around the Island of the Gods on bicycles that have been provided for the delegates. Although in fact, according to this week's Jakarta Post, only 200 out of 700 bicycles have actually materialized in an all too familiar type of Indo.cock up.

We'll see if any good comes of the whole event. I'm sure that pledges will be made and soundbites will issue forth from the lips of politicians with earnest expressions on their faces but when it's all over... Well, maybe the spirit of altruism and environmental solidarity will melt away once again when Western politicians are confronted with the immovable fact that cleaning up the planet and living sustainably is going to require a cut in the richest nations' living standards. This is, of course, a hard sell when placed in the context of our current, naturalized ideology of freewheeling, free market capitalism in which the accumulation of shiny things has become so central to our lives.

I do think though, that the usual niceties of international diplomacy and summits should be swept aside on this occasion. Specifically, Bali is far too pleasant a place in which to be chewing over prophecies of impending global doom. Our great leaders are no doubt currently experiencing palm fringed paddy fields, colorful Batik shirts, sunbathing on the beach and vodka martinis. Such classic Balinese holiday motifs may unfortunately serve to neutralize the urgency of the environmental message that the conference purports to be exploring.

Indonesia is on the front line of the environmental war, what with its rapidly vanishing forests and population pressures and this should be reflected in the choice of conference venue. Therefore, I'd like to propose the visceral reality of Jakarta as a location for a future environmental summit. If we could get that unctious, salad dodging, Nobel laureate Al Gore on a bicycle and send him off wobbling through Mampang, or get Schwarzenegger squashed into a Bajaj, sucking down exhaust fumes with his knees around his buzz cut, then perhaps a greater sense of urgency would be impressed upon the delegates.

Meetings and debate could be interspersed with field trips to watch local garbage collectors burning mountains of plastic, policemen coughing up black lumpy things into their pollution masks, street urchins with interesting skin conditions playing football in raw sewage and floodwater lapping around shanty dwellers nipples. I don't know who would crack first. Arnie would probably demand a chemical suit and an AK-47. On the other hand though, Big Al may possibly develop a taste for Soto Ayam and Nasi Goreng and move his whole Inconvenient Truth operation here, thus reinvigorating the Indonesian environmental movement.

Ah well, why bother hey? Maybe the psychoanalysts are right about there being a death wish deep within the human psyche. In more nihilistic moments I look forward to the end of this whole sad, pathetic human drama with open arms. Embrace extinction and prepare to join the other 95% of species that have ever roamed this Earth in their total non existence. As I said before, maybe any planet that can't sustain its population above the level of 15th century peasantry doesn't deserve to survive. Gosh I am in a good mood this week aren't I? It must have been running into that ex girlfriend of mine last weekend and realizing that she has all the sincerity and sensitivity of Tony Blair doing Christmas pantomime that's made me like this. Still, I digress.

Perhaps Indonesia could give something back to the world in order to atone for all of the rainforest destruction. How about sealing Jakarta inside a huge transparent, geodesic dome; just like they do to Springfield in the recent Simpsons movie? The world's environmental scientists could then conduct experiments on us. They could reduce the water supply for example, or artificially increase air pollution levels in order to see what happens. We would be like 10 million lab rats in amongst the real rats, providing crucial population/ environmental crisis data that could later be used to save the world.

In my paranoid mind though, it sometimes seems as if this has already happened. WALHI, the Indonesian Forum for the environment, has some very interesting stuff on their web site about our urban surroundings. Apparently, 13% of Jakarta's water is contaminated by mercury and 73% by ammonia. Well, the ammonia statistic should come as no surprise to anyone who has had an eye wateringly pungent ride on Jakarta's boatway. I also read that 2.2 million tonnes of toxic waste are discharged into Jakarta's rivers annually and that Jakarta's water table is dropping at such an alarming rate that people now have to drill up to 80 m down in order to strike H2O.

On the traffic front, I learned on my Web browsing that not only are very few cars in Jakarta fitted with catalytic converters, but that those drivers who do have the converters fitted are often persuaded to have them removed by unscrupulous mechanics looking to earn a few extra Rupiah. Apparently, the mechanics mischievously tell them that their cars performance will improve without the converters, which is not even true. However, maybe this information was conveyed to the mechanics by environmental scientists with clipboards outside the dome. Oh the paranoia of it all! I must find something to dispel the gloom of this winter of discontent. Anyone up for Christmas in Bali?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Stir Crazy

Well I've been gored and eviscerated by the runaway bull of Indonesian nationalism on the Jakarta Post letters page of late and this week I may get myself into yet more hot water, but let's press on anyway.

A fortnight ago, a United Nations report was published; its subject: the Indonesian penal system and its, "Cult of impunity," for members of the police and military who torture inmates in prisons and detention centers across the country. Mr Manfred Novak, a UN human rights monitor, said that he found evidence of detainees being electrocuted, suffering systematic beatings and even being shot in the legs at close range. Mr Novak was quoted as saying that, "The problem of police abuse appears to be sufficiently widespread as to warrant immediate attention." He called for a separate offence of torture to be created, a reduction in the time people spend in police custody and an independent complaints system.

This is all very interesting although not entirely surprising to anyone who's lived in this country for a while. During my time here, crawling through the thorns of the Big Durian, I have had two very different encounters with internment Indonesian style.

On the first occasion, which happened only a few months after I first arrived in Jakarta, I was pick pocketed on a footbridge on Jl. Sudirman. I saw the poor wretch responsible making his getaway and actually managed to catch up with him. Unfortunately though, he had already passed my wallet on to an unknown accomplice. Events quickly escalated as a security guard from a nearby building arrived on the scene to hold the guy. Soon after, a policeman arrived in all his light brown, ill fitting shirted finery.

We all drove down to the cop shop together in a van and were shown into a room at the nearby Polda police headquarters. Inside, the officer in question proceeded to interrogate my assailant with the aid of a huge 2 foot long desk stapler. After inflicting a few red welts on the poor wretches back, the lawman held his long arm out and offered me his dual purpose office utility. “Would you like a go Mr?" he asked. "Er... I think I'll wait outside," I said and stepped through the door, my heart racing.

Outside, through the muffled sound of thwacking coming from the room next door, I was grilled by the desk sergeant. "Where are you from Mr?.... What are you doing here?.... Where is your passport?..... Don't you know that you must report to the police every six months?" I was getting a good third degree grilling even though I was the victim. When his back was turned I quietly slipped away out of the police station lest I also be given the dreaded Samurai stapler treatment. What a strange day.

My second experience with the dark underbelly of Indonesia's penal system came when I visited a friend who spent an unfortunate three months in sunny Salemba jail after being caught with a small pinch of Oregano (the better to make his spaghetti with you understand).

It proved to be an expensive stay for the poor lad as an ever escalating series of bribes were scaled. My friend was also shelling out several million a month to stay in the nicer part of the prison, i.e. a room separate from the various caged thugs, murderers and gangsters who make up the majority of the lags down at good ol' Salemba.

Impoverished Indonesians who wind up in jail have it even worse though. If they find themselves in the animal pen they are often tortured by other inmates until they reveal where they live. Word is then passed to the outside and the heavies are sent round to the address in question in order to extort the poor guy's family. Grim stuff indeed.

Back to my friend though. His stay inside interestingly coincided with that of elderly, bucktoothed fundamentalist Abu Bakar Bashir who was then serving time for his alleged role in the Bali bombing. When I went to visit I had to wait in line with around 30 of his bearded and be-turbaned followers who had come all the way from East Java to show their support for the myopic (in every sense of the word) Bashir. They seemed somewhat interested to see an infidel in their midst.

Of course, the whole issue of the penal system here throws this country's corruption and its elite/plebeian class divide into sharp relief. If you're poor, you'll be thrown in the slammer to rot without a second glance (or fair trial). If you are a rich corruptor though, the continuing parlous state of the judiciary will enable you to purchase your freedom.

If you have the connections and the money you can escape incarceration not only before your trial but also, amazingly, even after you have been found guilty. Yes, pending several lengthy appeals processes we have time and again seen convicted fat cats remain firmly ensconced in their luxury pieds-a-terre.

Often, the judiciary has tried to neutralize negative public perception of this unfairness by coming up with the fascinating concept of city arrest. Now, I've heard of house arrest. The detention of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi springs to mind as a prominent example. Although in fact, even house arrest wouldn't seem so bad to a few of my acquaintances, so long as they could keep sending the maid out for a steady supply of noodles, DVDs and beer. City arrest though... how does that work? It certainly doesn't seem like a very stringent punishment does it? And why stop there? How about planetary arrest? “Yes your honor, our client solemnly undertakes not to have his BMW fitted with an ionic positron drive and to head out of the solar system into the asteroid belt pending his appeal."

If you're not minted with ill gotten gains though, it's best not to chance anything illegal here I say. Have a good week and keep your noses clean. Let's have no dabbling in drugs, pornography, copyright infringement or alternative interpretations of Islam. Give thanks that you are an honest law-abiding citizen the next time you drop the soap in the Mandi.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Go Johnny Go!

Onto yet more controversial subjects this week (get that headed letter paper ready). December 1st is World AIDS Day and with rare foresight the Indonesian government has declared that this also be the first day of the country's first National Condom Week. Hopefully this will help to dispel some of the stigma that surrounds the things (prophylactics, rubbers, French letters, Johnnies, Casper the ghost, select the term of your choice) in this country.

To get through the dull statistics first, Indonesia has one of the fastest growing HIV populations in Asia and, although this is largely related to intravenous drug use, there could be up to 250,000 cases here. Unfortunately, condoms account for only 1% of contraception and I would imagine that at least 50% involves the use of the time-honored method of praying and hoping for the best. Female sex workers here generally don't go for condoms and instead choose a tri-monthly injection as their contraceptive method of choice, thus leaving them exposed to the virus.

Among the poor, condom penetration is low (that's a rather unfortunate phrase) and family planning drives have had limited success. Indonesia is a patriarchal society of course and men have the social power to demand sex from women who are generally more subservient. Women are also known to have been blamed for infections, scapegoated for the folly of their men.

Religion is also a factor and Muslim leaders see the promotion of condoms as being equivalent to the promotion of free sex and this has also led to low exposure for our little latex friends. Fortunately, this Islamic reticence about rubbers hasn't reached the level of the Catholic Church whose, "Every sperm is sacred" anti-contraception doctrine and fallacious propaganda regarding the efficacy of condoms effectively condemns many in Africa to death.

I'd like to do my bit for National Condom Week though, the disapproval of various Imams and the Holy See notwithstanding. I've therefore penciled the first week of December into my diary, bought some 'rubber hats' and aftershave and will see if I can get a result. It's for the good of the country you understand.

Condoms are a marvelous invention. They protect against pregnancy and HIV transmission (all the scientific reports on the Internet that I looked up to agree on this). They thus kill two birds with one stone. And let's face it, in terms of family planning, this island of Java is too densely populated and could certainly use a more liberal application of the old Surat Perancis. Alas, ex-president Soeharto's family planning drives, which were run under the slogan "Dua Anak Cukup" (two children are enough), seem to have fallen off the edge of the political radar in recent years. Hopefully National Condom Week will help to readdress this problem. Hell, maybe they should even make chicken shaped ones to put over the island's 'cocks' as an anti bird flu measure. You can never have too much rubber in your life I say.

Condoms were apparently first discovered in Egypt and date back 3000 years. They were originally made from animal intestines apparently (hmm). During World War I, the condom wasn't available and many soldiers subsequently came home with various sexually transmitted diseases to go with their shellshock. In World War II though, condoms were widely promoted and were also put to work in a variety of nonsexual uses such as keeping dirt out of rifle muzzles and covering the firing mechanisms of underwater munitions to keep them dry.

Fast forward to 2007 and the modern latex condom is widely available in Jakarta for those who are interested. Even street side Warung stalls sell the familiar local Sutra brand and apparently a Durian variety is also available, although presumably this refers to its flavor and not to spikes sticking out of it.

I have to brave the chemists though when I'm in need of some stretchable friends. Unfortunately, Indonesian drugstores seem to have the highest staff to customer ratio of any local shops (about five to one at my estimate) which can be intimidating if you are in any way bashful about your rubber purchases. Many is the time that lovely young ladies have followed me around the shelves brandishing bottles of vitamins and inquiring as to what I'm looking for. "Er... razor blades," I'll usually reply before slinking off to locate the Casper shelf on my own.

And what a selection there is these days: Ribbed, Ticklers, Gossamer Thin, etc,etc, along with various gels and lubricants, it's all very confusing. The latest product that I've seen is called Tingle Gel, which apparently, in addition to lubricating, also imbues a sensation of warmth into both the wearer and his partner. Thankfully there doesn't seem to be a local version of this. I mean, Durian condoms are all very well but Sambal (chilli sauce) gel would be a step too far. I'll see you in casualty.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Off the Rails

Back again. Metro Mad has found itself in the unprecedented position of provoking a couple of letters of complaint to the Post this week. My outrageous suggestion that the small number of Afghan refugees who live here be naturalized has drawn some flak. It’s always nice to provoke a bit of ire and righteous indignation but I really didn't think my comments were that controversial. I find it very interesting, after all the columns that I've written, that negative correspondence has only been generated by me suggesting that a few outsiders be legalized as Indonesian citizens. Very interesting indeed.

Back to everyone's favorite topic this week though, urban transportation (oh God no). More disruption seems to be plaguing the city due to various new busways being constructed (and, in Pondok Indah, the ensuing bourgeois revolt). In addition, many of the old busway lanes are being fixed after crumbling to dust, which is also slowing things up. Some of the busway stops are also in a pretty parlous state.

One that I saw last week really took the biscuit. On one of the overhead walkways above the road, a metal floor panel was simply missing. There were no cones around the resulting hole or anything and I had visions of some poor grandmother, whose eyesight may not be what it was, plunging 20 feet onto the windshield of a Kijang below.

Back to matters in hand though. This week, I wanted to travel up to the electronics Mecca of Mangga Dua (the two mangoes) but decided to forego the disintegrating busways in favor of a far nobler form of travel. It is possible to get up to Kota by city train which runs on a viaduct over the roofs of the city's densely packed huddle of buildings. I hadn't been on it for years so I thought I'd give it another go.

I arrived at Gambir station and enquired about tickets. I was informed that they could be bought on the platform itself if one was wishing to travel locally up to the Kota area. I took the escalator up to the platform but couldn't find any tickets. Never mind, I plonked myself down on a bench and took in some of the marvelous views of Monas and the city skyline that are afforded commuters at Gambir.

After about 20 minutes the train rocked up and I took a seat. There were no tickets available here either but the train's interior was actually quite pleasant; in fact not totally dissimilar to a London Tube train. There was even a snack trolley at the front of the carriage, all very civilized. Mind you it wasn't rush-hour.

The train ploughed a gentle furrow up through Juanda, Sawah Besar and Mangga Besar stations before terminating in the faded colonial ambience of Stasiun Kota. I had once again been seduced by the romance of the railway and the journey had been fast and mercifully free of choking pollution. It was all as fine as can be despite the stern ticket collector I encountered on my way out who, despite my protestations, berated me for not having a ticket to give him. I paid up and sloped out of the station.

I then headed up the road to the Two Mangoes, in search of a WiFi plug-in thingy for my computer. After finding one for the knockdown price of Rp.280,000, I had a wander around the electronic shops and DVD stands. One particular shop was selling fantastic, state-of-the-art speaker systems and record turntables. Unfortunately there was a Kenny Loggins LP propped against one of their most expensive turntables which rather put me off. It’s always important to listen to Kenny in razor sharp, audiophile fidelity apparently.

Over the road in the crazy market plaza, the usual hubbub, hullabaloo and chaos was in progress and I had an interesting time strolling around the labyrinthine maze of outlets whilst people assaulted me with assorted bags, wallets, kitchen equipment, bras and kinky vibrating back massagers. All good clean fun.

Getting home wasn't such a breeze however. Upon returning to Kota Station I learned that due to technical problems, there were no trains running back to Gambir. Hmmm. I wonder how often that happens? No worries, I thought, and headed out to the busway terminal at the front. Alas the glass and metal ringed bus stop was absolutely jammed to the rafters with seething, sweating commuters. I was between a rock and a hard place and with hover boots alas still on the drawing board it had to be a Tarif Lama taxi home. There's only so far I can take my commitment to public transportation I'm afraid.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Jakarta Undercover

Once again, the shelves seem to have run dry at my local couple of duty-free stores in Kemang. They haven't actually run dry this time though; the two shops in question are in fact loaded with booze but are selling only to residents holding yellow, diplomatic cards. As I'm sure you have inferred by now, I haven't got one.

Still, the booze-less gloom was dispelled last weekend by the impending nuptials of a close friend of mine. Now my friend had planned to get his civil marriage certificates sorted out at the registry office last Saturday in preparation for a full and proper religious ceremony on the 14th in Sumatra. He had organized a traditional pre-wedding, gentlemen's stag night party for last Saturday evening, set for after the mere formality of the registry office certificate gig.

Unfortunately, my comrade's Indonesian fiancé arrived dressed up to the nines with about 20 of her friends and clearly considered the registry office experience to be the full wedding deal. My confused friend and his fiancé/bride left the office in a car with just married plastered all over it and lots of flowers stuck to it. And who wouldn't be confused? He was now in the rather untenable position of having his stag night on his wedding night. I would certainly feel slightly conflicted to say the least.

Anyway, the stag night/bucks' party did ultimately get underway at one of those posh, Kota karaoke joints with private rooms. According to that best-selling sleaze-manual-masquerading-as-journalistic-reportage, Jakarta Undercover, all manner of naughty stuff occurs in the private confines of the karaoke chamber and this turned out to be a fine opportunity to check out whether the salacious bestseller was really true (purely for journalistic purposes you understand).

When I arrived I was shown into a luxuriously huge karaoke room full of plush couches and TVs. This was merely one of seemingly hundreds of similar rooms that lay behind many doors in the dimly lit maze of corridors of the joint (whose name is exactly 1006 less than the current year). About 20 guys, some of whom I knew, were relaxing on the couches drinking beer. So what was going to happen now?

If it had been a classic British stag night, we would have been sitting around in some dismal pub somewhere when a policewoman would have walked in, approached the groom-to-be and convinced him that he was under arrest for some spurious crime or other. She would then have announced that she was going to, "Take down his particulars," and have subsequently taken down her own particulars, revealing herself as the traditional but nevertheless rather hackneyed and lame stag night strip-o-gram.

I'm sure that many other cultures in the world have their own version of this pre-wedding, male rite of passage. In the end however we were treated to a couple of young females who, despite not being dressed as policewomen, nevertheless proceeded to take all their clothes off and jiggle about a bit to the music.

There was a fair amount of testosterone and beer fuelled jeering and leering at this point I suppose. A friend I was chatting to though told me that he used to work in such a place (not stripping himself I might add). He claimed that during the female equivalent of a stag night, often known as a hen party, the women generally act much wilder with a male stripper than the men do with the female equivalent. Interesting point, something to do with sexual harassment prohibitions in our society perhaps? Who knows. I only know that as a red-blooded male I felt simultaneously hot under the collar and yet slightly unnerved by the group, public striptease experience.

Indonesia is a politely religious society in general as we know and yet plenty of stuff like this goes on under the surface. Is this just hypocrisy or is something deeper going on within the human psyche here? Why do humans of all races form family units and yet frequent strip clubs or brothels? Why go to a stag night and make a public display of promiscuity before the monogamous pair bonding of marriage?

The whole evening brought into sharp focus a book I recently read on evolutionary biology and the genetics of animal behavior (bear with me). In the animal kingdom, apparently, some species have evolved monogamous, pair bonding rituals. Animals like these, such as many bird species or marmoset monkeys, mate for life and the male of the species is just as involved in raising the offspring as the mother is. Pair bonded species are picky who they mate with as they will be together a long time and females look for good fathering skills in a mate. Pair bonded species also exhibit low levels of male aggression and, in addition, the males look very like the females in both size and appearance.

By contrast, tournament species such as peacocks or baboons or seals are the complete opposite in their genetically predetermined sexual behaviour. In these species, the males aggressively fight each other for dominance of the females and the chance to be the sole procreator of the group. In such tournament harems, 95% of the offspring are fathered by just four or 5% of the males. The winning males are consequently not interested in playing any role in the bringing up of the children as their genes will be passed on through their many female partners and they are also not picky about who they mate with. Females are only interested in getting quality sperm from their males as opposed to any non-existent fathering skills. In addition, natural selection has honed the males’ bodies for aggressive male/male conflict and thus a sexual dimorphism has emerged, i.e. the males look really different from the females and are up to twice their size.

So which group do humans belong to? Difficult to say isn't it? The punchline is that our species apparently possesses genes typical to both pair bonded and tournament species and we thus fall somewhere in the middle in our instincts. This can be seen in our physical makeup too; males and females are not identical but neither, obviously, are men twice as big as women. On average, in fact men are slightly beefier than women. We are not quite monogamous and yet not quite polygamous. Thus we are, in scientific jargon, a tragically confused species. This conflict has no doubt given as 90% of our great literature and art and perhaps also the guilt ridden sexual prohibitions of our religions that we struggle to live up to.

It was definitely baboons in that karaoke room though, with a few Bintang drinking bull seals thrown into the mix. We didn't lock stag -like antlers however and fight over breeding rights with the bare maidens. Instead, I left afterwards and went to KFC.

Monday, November 05, 2007


Another week has fairly zipped by and I'm fully re-immersed in Jakarta's sweltering melting pot after the holiday. And indeed it is a melting pot, more than it may appear at first glance. It's obviously a joke to claim that the city can match the cosmopolitan, internationalist ambience of New York or London, but compared with the rest of Indonesia, Jakarta is a pan-ethnic, polyglot, shopping plaza of fun.

Just last week, for example, I became embroiled in an interesting social match up in a suitably divey bar on central Jakarta's infamous Jalan Jaksa strip. A couple of friends and I were enjoying a bottle or seven of the finest, most foaming-est, nut brown Bintang that the city has to offer.

Now, one of my co-drinkers that night is an active member of the US military who spends half his time pounding around Afghanistan with a big gun and the other half enjoying a bit of Jakarta rest and relaxation (ably assisted by various Afghani souvenirs that he brings with him). Aside from checking in at the US Embassy every now and again my friend is free to pursue the Jakarta dream to his heart's content and take a well earned Bintang break from the (ironically beerless) task of Taliban bashing around Bagraim air base.

After about three bottles of the old Batavian amber nectar, three guys came and sat at the table adjacent to our own and ordered some cokes (with which they were to mix surreptitiously with the bottle of duty-free Bacardi that they had hidden under their table in a plastic bag). Eventually, introductions were proffered and the secret Bacardi supply was shared joyfully amongst the six of us. It turned out that our new friends were Afghan refugees who had fled here in 2001 during the supposed overthrow of the Taliban by the coalition of the willing. Well it's a small world and make no mistake! US military occupier meets refugee from the same war at the United Nations of Jaksa.

After a brief Bacardi and Bintang brokered US/Afghan peace conference during which my international friends compared notes on their experiences of Kabul, the Pashtuns, etc etc we moved on to more local matters. It turns out that these poor lads have been stateless refugees in Jakarta for over six years now. Apparently Indonesia plays, “Temporary," home to about 500 Afghan refugees, who, in this John Howard era of asylum seeker crackdowns, have been unable to make the final leap over to their dream destination of Australia. As a result, these would be cobbers are stuck in limbo in Indonesia, officially not allowed to work and paid a monthly pittance of Rp.500,000 by the UNHCR.

It's certainly not the dream expatriate life of the Westerner or Japanese or Korean that springs to mind when one thinks of foreigners in Jakarta. However, the boys that we met have tried to make the best of things during their six years as Jakartan refugees and I surmise that there must be considerably worse places in which to have refugee status conferred upon you in this world.

All three of them spoke Indonesian well and one of them has married a local lady with whom he has had a child. The boys also professed to enjoy the occasional night out at local sin bin/pleasure palaces such as Stadium Discotheque in Kota. Clearly these boys have found a means of income over and above the UNHCR and good luck to them I say.

It's a shame that the Indonesian government seems to view these people as a burden and won't grant them the opportunity to stay and work here legally, even after six years. Browsing the Internet I found a quote from the wonderfully and appropriately named Mr Godam from the Bogor Immigration Department who said, five years ago, that, "We have to watch over them, which is not easy because of their large number and because they stay in different places." Yes, very compassionate; whatever happened to the international Muslim brotherhood that Indonesians love to evoke during this endless war on terror?

Afghans elsewhere in Indonesia have fared even worse it would seem. I learned via the Web that in Cilacap in 2001, "For security reasons, following the attempt by several refugees to escape from their current shelter, the Nusakambangan quarantine centres, they have been transferred to Batu prison, a special block for inmates convicted of drug offences." Nice. In addition, in 2004, three Afghan refugees in Mataram, Lombok, went on hunger strike via the rather drastic method of sewing up their lips. It would seem that being a refugee here can be every bit as bad as doing time in one of Johnny Howard's outback gulags.

Returning to our Bacardi fuelled Stadium heroes though. The boys told us that they still held out hope of eventually making it to Australia somehow or other. There was no way that they would ever go back home to the troubles and the resurgence of the hated Arabized Taliban. This resolve, they said, has only been strengthened through their encounters with the Arabs in Jakarta who, they claim, are arrogant, snobby and tend to look down their noses at Afghans.

Sitting in our salubrious Jaksa watering hole though, it was time to put a positive spin on life. The booze flowed freely around our pan Asian conference table and we talked some more until I had to retire dizzy for a few minutes in order to let out a rather unpleasant Technicolor yawn. The Afghans slipped away into the Jakarta night, ready for some hot nightclub action although not before letting us know that two of them,"Swing both ways," as I believe it's known in common parlance. In this respect they were not atypical Afghans, our American friend told us after they had left.

I was coming down hard the next day with a heavy Bintang/ Bacardi hangover gnawing at my optic nerves in the office. The memories of an enjoyable and educational night remained with me though. Jaksa rocks, who needs Oz?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rumble in the Jungle

So another holiday season is over and Jakarta is once again full to bursting point with post-Idul Fitri returnees. In fact, it's probably even fuller than that, what with the annual new arrivals who've been told by their city dwelling relatives that the streets here are paved with gold. The reality, of course, is that they aren't paved at all full stop, but I wish these out comers luck anyway and hope that they manage to avoid the public order stormtroopers who will be trying to round them up in the coming weeks.

I spent my Lebaran holiday exploring the magnificent countryside around Medan in Sumatra and barely lived to tell the tale, more of which later. After flying to Medan via Air Asia, my holidaying housemate and I headed immediately for the hill town of Brestagi (Medan itself being nothing much to write home about).

Brestagi is a couple of hours away from Medan via jam-packed, Dangdhut rockin' seat squeezing, sweaty public bus. Thankfully, the conductor allowed us to ride on the roof with the spare tyre, which afforded us a pleasant cool breeze and plenty of mouth agape, "Hello Mr?" type stares.

Upon arriving we checked into the Wisma Sunrise View Hotel (an overpriced Rp.150,000 per night) and settled back to enjoy the magnificent views over the town and the quite breathtaking rising damp in the rooms. The next morning we explored the small but sweet town of Brestagi, located the inevitable Western backpackers' cheap eatery and had ourselves an authentic, Lonely Planet guidebook, banana-pancakes-cooked-by-an-Indonesian-Rastafarian breakfast.

After loading up with calories it was time to finally get down to brass tacks and do some serious hiking. There are two volcanoes next to the town, Gunung Sinabung and the smaller Gunung Sibayak. Being the limp wristed, nancy boys we are, we opted for Gunung Sibayak and set off from the park entrance through the drizzle. We reached the summit after a couple of hours of sweaty climbing and laughing at the Macaque monkeys in the trees (“I'm afraid it's Macaques, doctor”).

We then descended through the sulphurous mists of the volcano via a different route and bathed our aching muscles in the public hot springs of a nearby village. This was the perfect end to the day's expedition and we returned to the Wisma Damprise glowing with rude health.

The next day, it was back to Medan to catch an even sweatier public bus the three hours to Bukit Lawang, a well-known backpacker/tourist resort and orangutan rehabilitation centre and the stunning southernmost entrance to the enormous Gunung Leuser National Park which stretches all the way up into Aceh.

When we arrived, we checked into the superb Eco Lodge Hostel (081 26079983) and went out for a stroll. The cafes and small businesses that line the kilometer or two of the riverbank at the park’s entrance were full of smiling, happy Lebaran holiday families, cracking open the peanuts and jungle juice. Things haven't always been so jolly at Bukit Lawang however. Some of you may remember reading about the flash floods that devastated the area in 2004. A local guide at our hotel told us that over 50% of the businesses in the area were smashed to smithereens and scores of lives were lost in the deluge.

The Jakarta floods are bad enough but up here you have the additional problem of soil erosion and rain causing huge 60 foot high trees to come crashing down the steep slopes onto your house. It's a sad tale which could all too easily happen again, what with the continued environmental degradation and logging problems that bug the area.

The scenery at Bukit Lawang is simply stunning though. A huge roiling river cuts a swathe through a plunging gorge of virgin jungle in which orangutans dwell in the wild. After watching the orangutans gorge on bananas at the official feeding site, we decided to take our lives in our hands and surf a huge tractor tyre inner tube down the river, as many locals were doing.

Now, the Lonely Planet, every cheap skate’s favorite travel guide, explicitly warns against tubing and I guess that such a hazardous enterprise would never be allowed in the West without crash helmets and lifejackets. As I rode the bucking white water I fell off twice, bounced my tube against rocks, banged my legs against the bottom and mainlined pure adrenaline as I wondered if I'd ever be able to stop without breaking an arm. Sheer lunacy.

The next day, it was time for an overnight jungle trek. Our trusty guide, Jungle Eddie (real name Dedi) introduced us to wild orangutans and took us yomping over extremely steep, raw jungle terrain before we pitched camp next to the river in the late afternoon.

During the night it rained cats and dogs but we remained dry in our bivouac. The next morning the river had risen a couple of feet and was surging along powerfully. Our guide presented us with a stark choice: either shamble back to base camp on our sore legs via the way we had come the previous day or spend half an hour rafting back to the Eco Lodge on four tractor inner tubes lashed together with rope. It was probably indolence rather than masochism that caused us to choose the latter.

It was heart in the mouth time again as we bounced terrifyingly along whilst waves dumped cold water over us. The concerned expressions on our guides' faces told us that they were rafting at the edge of their abilities. We made it back, shell-shocked, and unwrapped our rucksacks from the three layers of plastic bags our guides had sealed them in before we set sail. Time for a beer.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Beyond the Fringe

There's another week to go until joy is unconfined once more and the holidays begin in earnest. Ramadan's spiritual meditation and contemplative abstinence will finally find ecstatic release as the feasting begins.

Unfortunately, this year's fasting month has seen a slight resurgence of those elements who would seek to undermine this very personal of religious experiences with threats, intimidation, violence and conformist dogma. I refer of course to the antics of the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) who seem only able to find peace and enlightenment through extreme acts of religious catharsis, to wit: smashing up bars and food stalls.

It's a bit of a shame that these boys are on a comeback tour and we all know the arguments about there being no compulsion in religion and fasting being a personal choice etc etc. In fact, perhaps one could even argue that the FPI should logically be thanking food stalls and bars that stay open for providing Muslims with greater temptations to resist and thus the possibility of an even stronger affirmation of their faith through fasting. Logic though, doesn't seem to be a priority here.

To be flippant for a moment, you could imagine that a real challenge for a fundamentalist would be to lock himself in a room full of beer, cigarettes and women during Ramadan as a test of his mettle. Actually that's not a bad idea for a reality TV show. I reckon TVRI could go for it. It certainly couldn't be any worse than the soppy religious ballads that have been hitting local TV screens this month, which are themselves almost as bad as the Christmas novelty records perennially released in the West. As an added bonus, the show would keep these firebrands out of trouble and prevent them from raiding my local Warung (food stall) which seems to be doing a roaring trade this holy month despite their wares being respectfully hidden behind the ubiquitous Ramadan curtains.

So where do the police fit in with these rather vigorous defences of the sanctity of the holy month? Well, as with most other aspects of the law here, they seem to have a rather ambivalent attitude to the FPI's antics. Last week, national police spokesman Inspector General Sisno Adiwinoto declared, perhaps rather optimistically, that, "The police, as an institution, keeps public order and safety."

Well, they occasionally do I suppose although I have, with my own eyes, seen the cops stand by and do nothing alongside the usual hordes of rubber necking civilians whilst the FPI go about their God-given roles of holy demolition men. Cynics may even suggest that there is collusion between the two groups for the purposes of rent seeking but we won't open that can of worms today.

A friend of mine texted me from a Kemang bar last week to tell me that the FPI were outside making a noise and scaring people. The bar itself has admittedly been guilty of the heinous Ramadan crime of serving beer in coffee cups in a hilarious re-enactment of American prohibition. Personally I prefer to drink coffee out of a beer glass during fasting month; my optic nerves could really do with a break from the local draught brew.

So what drives members of a given religion to act in such a super sanctimonious way? Aren't they being rather hypocritical? Unfortunately, there's no easy knockdown argument to confront them with. We may think that a suicide bomber is crazy, to take an extreme example, but within the parochial confines of his own belief system he may be acting completely rationally.

It's a sad fact about religious ethics that for every Dr. Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi there's a Taliban foot soldier or a US pro-lifer ready to shoot a doctor dead (I've always loved the irony of that one) for what they perceive to be completely rational beliefs. So with all this in mind and hoping to put the FPI in context, I ran a little Internet search this week trying to source out a few examples of ultra extreme fringe religious behavior.

One strange story I found concerned a Saudi man who divorced his wife for watching alone a television programme presented by a male. The Al Shams newspaper reported that the man ended his marriage on the grounds that his wife was effectively alone with an unrelated man, forbidden under Islamic law in the ultraconservative kingdom. Now that's really taking gender segregation into La-la land.

Then there's the US extremist Christian group The Army of God who once kidnapped women's clinic physician Dr Hector Zevallos (and his wife I might add) and held them for eight days in an abandoned ammunitions bunker.

A current bête noire of US Christian extremists are the Harry Potter books which have been accused of indoctrinating children into occult rituals. One website I found described the books as causing readers to, “Spill the blood of roosters, have goats rape virgins and eat newborns." Another web based rant that I found laid into the Harry Potter merchandising circus thus: "The worst product available to corrupt our youth was Potter's vibrating broomstick, now taken off the market under pressure from Christian parents, because it taught young girls how to abuse themselves and awoke their interests in the sins of the flesh."

Ulp!! Give me the anti-Bintang league any time. They can't hold a candle to these weirdos. Perhaps my favorite and most succinct encapsulation of the paradox of religious extremism though came during the Danish cartoon protests. There's a famous photo of someone holding aloft a placard which simply says," Behead those who say Islam is violent". It is perhaps an unfortunate fact of life that the most dangerous people are often the most religious.

But let's put on a brave face. Have a good week, feel the love, be nice to each other and remember that your teacup is ultimately half full rather than half empty. And best of all, it's not filled with tea either.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Lone Biker

We are now halfway through the holy month folks and the holiday season will soon be upon us. In the meantime, spare a thought for Mr. Sheikh Mus Zaphar Shukar, the Malaysian astronaut who will be blasting into space towards the end of Ramadan. This epochal event has produced some serious soul seeking amongst that country's Muslim community. Various newspaper articles have played out the kind of contorted arguments and creaking of metal that usually occurs when the religion mothership attempts to dock with the sleek, high-tech space station of modern science.

Mr Shukar will apparently be orbiting the Earth 16 times in any given 24-hour period but clerics have decreed that he will not be required to pray 80 times per day. He may instead perform his religious duties upon return to Earth. Mind you, it's swings and roundabouts with this story. I mean, if he had to pray 80 times a day at least he'd be able to break his fast 16 times a day. Suddenly things don't seem so bad.

Nevertheless, returning to more terrestrial matters, last Saturday I took a break from my embryonic stem cell research to check out the car free day underway on Jalans Sudirman and Thamrin. A couple of Metro Mads ago I discussed how encouraged I had been after hooking up with some of Jakarta's Bike to Work community and riding my aluminium steed around the city in a show of solidarity with them. This time though, the omens weren't so good.

I switched on the TV before I left the house and a cable news reporter was covering another car free day in China. Gesturing towards the internal combustion engine choked streets behind him he opined that the whole event had fallen somewhat short of being a resounding success. In fact, it seemed that the Chinese had completely ignored the whole thing. So much for their green credentials.

Would Indonesians prove any more responsive to a car free day than those Sino petrol heads? I decided to go and investigate. First though, I had to reach Jl. Sudirman's car free zone via the distinctly un-car free zone of Jl. Gatot Subroto in the centre of town. I donned my pollution mask and hit the road. The mask itself resembles something from World War I but is a vital accessory to have if the budding cyclist is to filter out the chemical soup that hangs heavy in the capital's air. Believe me, the ambient atmosphere is every bit as deadly and astringent as the mustard gas used in the trenches once you start breathing heavily. In fact, I've often considered whether some kind of scuba diving apparatus would be more appropriate or even one of those pressurized steel suits that they use for diving to the bottommost trenches of the ocean.

I descended on to Jl. Sudirman from the Semanggi clover leaf and was immediately greeted by.... loads of cars. It seems that the police had wimped out on the total car ban and had allowed drivers onto the side lanes of Sudirman and Thamrin. Only the centre lanes had been closed off. Bah, humbug. Not a good start I thought. The busway was also running of course so it was a far from emissions free Sudirman that I pedaled along. Nevertheless, it was a deliciously surreal feeling to have the centre of Jl. Sudirman completely to myself whilst the jammed cars crawled slowly along the edges. If only it could be like this every weekend.

I suddenly realized, however, that I did indeed have the central lanes of the road to myself. There were no other cyclists... at all. Where the hell was everybody? It was around then that I started to think that the ecologically indifferent Chinese were not alone in their lack of support for this brave environmental initiative.

Ah well. I decided to have a nice ride anyway and rocked up through Sudirman's skyscrapers along my own private ultra wide cycle lane. Towards the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, I finally came across some other cyclists: a married American couple who seemed as bemused as I was as to the whereabouts of the city's other bikers.

In front of Plaza Indonesia a marquee had been set up but nothing appeared to be going on inside. Ho hum. I continued on up Jl. Thamrin towards the end of the car free zone at Monas (the National monument).

At Monas itself, six emissions testing areas had been set up for cars to use free of charge. These were also somewhat less than a hive of activity though. I only saw one car being tested and staff at the testing stations sat around listlessly, twiddling their thumbs. Mind you, it doesn't take any high-tech equipment to be able to spot the city's dirtiest vehicles, one can simply see the clouds of soot that billow out of their exhausts. Any guesses?

Yes, as we all know the great Jakarta punchline is that the filthiest vehicles by far are public transportation. How embarrassing. I mean it's all very well getting 40 passengers in one vehicle but if that one vehicle is emitting 40 times the normal amount of pollutants then what's the point?

The answer? New fleets of buses of course. However, that's going to take money from a city budget that is largely leaked away through the sieve of corruption.

I cycled dejectedly back down to Semanggi feeling betrayed by my fellow citizens. At the cloverleaf junction I stopped next to a drinks vendor for some refreshment. I introduced myself as disgraced Tour de France winner Floyd Landis but alas the guy didn't offer me any testosterone injections or shots of human growth hormone... although he did claim that his bottles of Cola cost Rp.8000 each, the cheeky swine.

Then it dawned on me as I slurped away. Of course! It's the fasting month! No one's going to fancy a sweaty cycle when they can't drink are they? Nice planning Mr Sutiyoso!!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Noise A Noise

It seems that Ramadan is upon us once again and so may peace be upon all of you. This fasting month, it's nice to see that in keeping with the Islamic duty of Zakat (namely the giving of alms to the poor) that the city administration has criminalized both begging and the giving of money to beggars. The poor have thus been rendered alm-less.

I won't rake over all the arguments surrounding begging again as I wrote about the whole sorry issue in a recent MM. Suffice to say that many children are forced to beg on the streets of Jakarta by unscrupulous adults just as Victorian kids were often forced up chimneys by sadistic sweeps in times past. In this sense, getting them off the street would be a good idea. However, I don't think that criminalization of these poor urchins is really going to improve their quality of life.

How about some decent money being put aside for a few positive initiatives rather than letting NGOs take up the slack as usual? Where matters of the poor are concerned, the administrative arm of city governance, rather than having a velvety glove on the end of it, more closely resembles an iron fist... in an iron glove... with iron bits sticking out of the knuckles.

But moving swiftly along this fine holy month, may I crave your indulgence this week whilst I discuss an urban problem that has no doubt caused many reading this to tear their hair out in frustration. I'm referring here to the issue of noise pollution, a problem that admittedly some are more sensitive to than others.

Noise is a highly subjective thing of course; one man's music (often mine) is another man's racket. In addition, noise does not directly poison the planet. It is transient and, unlike chemical pollutants, once the noise stops, the environment is free of it. In human terms though noise can definitely be considered a form of pollution. The roar of a Bajaj engine, for example, may be as damaging in human terms as the plumes of black soot that billow from its exhaust. Sleep is lost and migraines flourish. Noise causes stress and stress, as any doctor will tell you, kills.

Getting down to specific cases though, the Batavian noise assault (good name for a metal band that) breaks down into several specific causes. If noise pollution is a modern disease then Jakarta is most definitely PA positive. Indonesia’s enduring love affair with the PA system will be a familiar nuisance to many of you. It seems that where this country is concerned, one can paraphrase the motto of the American National Rifle Association: "They'll get my microphone when they prize it from my cold dead fingers." During any public gathering of more than say, two people, the use of an 8 kW sound rig, a microphone and a graphic equalizer set to accentuate the harshest timbres of the human voice is absolutely de rigueur, even if your audience are only sitting 3 feet away from you. Also, the microphone should ideally be possessed by the ghost of the late Jimi Hendrix and be feeding back about 40% of the time.

I recently ate in a shopping Plaza food court in which a fashion show and concert were taking place. The volume was incredible, probably on a par with a Metallica gig or a jumbo jet taking off or something. I could perhaps have stomached a little cocktail jazz piano in a food court while I'm trying to eat but this decibel fest was literally curdling my Soto Ayam. Upon returning to the ground floor of the Plaza I could still hear the event apocalyptically booming overhead.

Then there's the traffic of course. The worst culprits here are the Bajajs and the two-stroke motorcycles whose engine frequencies are pitched perfectly at that teeth rattling level. This problem is exacerbated by the many young, boy racer motorcyclists who gleefully customize their machines to make them louder, rather than quieter. By strapping huge drainpipe sized, eardrum shredding exhausts on to their little scooters these guys are engaged in a constant battle to give their road presence a more macho swagger.

Another source of noise, polluting or otherwise, are the mosques. Now I will have to be careful what I say here and if anyone feels offended, all Fatwas should be addressed to my blog site. Basically, the call to prayer lasts about three minutes and Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day. So does this mean that the houses of the holy are broadcasting for a total of 15 minutes per day? Well, I think we all know the answer to that question.

In recent years, the length of on air time seems to have been lengthening at the city's mosques. They have almost become like mini radio stations although obviously with no actual radio needed. The mosque noise is compounded by the harsh frequencies of the Tannoy systems that they all employ. An un-amplified human voice would be cool though. Either that or the people who collect in the streets to build new mosques could instead consider using the money to fit out existing mosques with state-of-the-art Bose speakers and buying their Muezzin a few bottles of expectorant. The religion of peace? Shouldn't this ideal be aural as well as political?

Other lower volume annoyances that sneak in under the psychic radar but which nevertheless wage a slow war of attrition with one's mental well-being include the endless soft rock bilge piped into supermarkets, airport waiting lounges, cinemas, hospitals, massage parlors and morgues. Soppy balladeers, Michael Learns to Rock, famous for never being heard of in the West, are a perennial favorite in this country and never fail to induce the requisite Stepford wife stupor in checkout queues.

Other sources of noise pollution? Well I'm sure you all have your own bugbears. Exceptionally loud car calls are another common one, the sound seems to drift over the rooftops for literally miles. I should also give a special mention to my local Satay seller who has replaced the endearing wooden "tok tok" sound with the rather less traditional blare of a car horn screwed to his trolley. How I hate him so.

Ultimately though there's a paradox here. Indonesia is traditionally a country of halus (soft) people. It's the country that brought us the ambient bliss of Gamelan music, the sound of moonlight that has inspired and captivated Western composers from Debussy to the present-day. Why then does Jakarta set the teeth on edge so? Perhaps these huge Asian cities are kind of anathema to the cultures that spawned them in the first place. Anyway, my iPod seems to be charged now so I'll bid you farewell.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Chain Reaction

When every last drop of fossil fuel has disgorged its energy into our ever warming atmosphere; when every Honda SUV is but a rusting hulk of iron half submerged by the ever encroaching sea, the bicycle will still be going strong. Bicycles are clean, green, and, when the driving of Ferraris and gas guzzling people carriers become socially unacceptable about 20 years hence, they will eventually be mean. For the moment though they still perhaps have something of an image problem and are no doubt still connected in many minds to people who like to grow their own denim, weave their own yoghurt and rear starlings in their beards.

Now I'm a lifelong cyclist. Admittedly, I was briefly seduced by the testosterone thrill of the motorcycle but after a heavy, bone crunching accident last year, I sold my iron horse and reverted back to the more gentle pleasures of my trusty mountain bike. But perhaps this raises some questions. Logically, bearing in mind Jakarta's no rules traffic free for all, am I any safer on the bike than a motorbike? Am I any less likely to get shunted through the plate glass window of my local Circle K by a runaway cement truck or shredded under the wheel arches of a Metro Mini just because I'm traveling at a more sedate pace? On reflection, perhaps not. But I will never give up the bicycle, mankind's greatest ever invention.

With this in mind, I headed out on my trusty 15 speed low rider last Sunday in order to pedal down to Senayan to check out the annual gathering of Jakarta's Bike to Work community. I first popped into my local cycle shop just down the road from me to pick up a couple of accessories (including a bell which makes a lovely tinkling sound - drives the girls wild it does). Disconcertingly, the Chinese lady behind the counter asked me if I'd like to buy some life insurance from her. Apparently she works for an insurance firm and was just filling in at the bike shop for her husband. Still, I was slightly rattled by her offer and, let's be frank, cycling in Jakarta can indeed prove deleterious to one's health. If the Metro Minis don't get you then breathing in the turgid atmosphere, equivalent to around 20 Marlboro gaspers per day, perhaps will.

Is Jakarta really so inhospitable to cyclists however? Certainly, on a Sunday I found it extremely pleasant coasting down to Senayan Stadium in the sunshine. A few cycle lanes would no doubt improve things though. Upon my recent trip home to the UK, I noticed a lot of new cycle lanes in the suburbs and cycling there is booming as a result. Many of Jakarta's suburban roads, however, aren't even wide enough for the two opposing lanes of traffic, let alone cycle lanes. It's anarchy out there I tell you.

Anyhow, as I sailed into the Bung Karno stadium complex, I immediately happened upon a group of around 20 Indonesians in Bike to Work T-shirts. They were mainly young males wearing futuristic cycle helmets and sunglasses and riding fancy bikes with elaborate suspension systems and disc brakes. There were a couple of veiled young ladies there too, riding more modest machines complete with feminine shopping baskets but it was the lycra clad, slightly homoerotic, male vibe that seemed dominant.

I discreetly tagged onto the back of their group as they rode out through the gates and slowly up Jl. Sudirman. This was the life. As we rode along I imagined all of Jakarta riding to shopping malls and restaurants in bicycling gangs like some vision of precapitalist China before Asia started to suffocate in its own soot belch.

The Bike to Work people were very considerate road users as well and indicated their intentions clearly with elaborate hand signals. Many Jakartan motorists, in comparison, don't even bother with their indicators.

After a few minutes, the group realized that a pasty faced Westerner in an England football shirt had infiltrated their group. After a hearty round of Hello Misters, I found out that they were bound for the new park in Menteng. I agreed to come along with them for the ride.

When we arrived at our destination, I got chatting to some of the guys and they told me that, yes indeed, most of them actually did bike to work. They were also cycling hobbyists though and said that I should join them on one of their numerous out-of-town jaunts. Usually, they told me, they stick their bikes on the train and get off in Bogor for a day’s cycling. Great chaps one and all and also environmentally aware, mentioning, as they did, global warming in their talk with me.

After our brief chat, I was presented with a Jakarta Bike to Work T-shirt which I proudly donned immediately. We parted company and I left the group as they cycled to the Sunda Kelapa mosque in Menteng in search of Bubur Ayam (chicken porridge). The stuff’s full of protein pedal power I'm sure but I draw the line at Bubur Ayam I'm afraid. It tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken in wallpaper paste as far as I'm concerned.

As I cycled home down Jl. Rasuna Said alone, I passed another group of renegade cyclists. This time there were about 50 of them and they all gave me a friendly wave. There's none of this road rage among the cycling community you know. Why not join us? You can buy a nice bike for about the same price as a mobile phone. Just don't ride on the Busway lanes unless you've always had a hankering to be 1 inch high and 4 foot wide.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Fuel for the Fire

Firstly this week, may I extend my humble apologies to anyone who may have trotted along to the Jl. Jaksa Festival last Sunday after my recommendation in last week's column. The festival it was in full swing on Saturday with live music, riotous revelry aplenty and even an appearance by Mr Moustache himself, Governor elect Fauzi Bowo. When I turned up on Sunday, however, the whole thing had almost shut down completely. There were only a couple of stalls open to detract from the usual Jaksa groundswell of white skinned lushes and African soccer fans. Apologies to anyone who may have ventured down although I'm sure most of you are much too classy to be hanging around Jl. Jaksa on a Sunday afternoon.

On with the show then. Two stories have caught my eye recently and perhaps offer interesting parallels and contrasts with each other. The first concerns the ongoing kerosene war in town. The government is just about to remove subsidies on the Indonesian underclass's fuel of choice. This has caused panic buying, hoarding and five hour waits for people and their huge plastic flagons at kerosene depots all over town. The plan is to force people to convert to LPG (gas) which is, surprise surprise, more expensive, at Rp. 4250 per liter than the subsidized kerosene rate of Rp.2000 per liter. This would no doubt explain the queues. People seem reluctant to convert to gas and the government have, according to one report, only achieved between five and ten percent of their target so far.

I invariably find local stories such as this depressing. How difficult must it be for literally millions of people to make ends meet in breadline Batavia. Every Rupiah has to be squeezed dry of its potential worth just to enable one to keep one’s head above water and if that means queuing for five hours to save a few thousand then so be it. 1 kg of natural gas is supposed to have the energy content of 3 liters of kerosene but if you can't afford it, you can't afford it.

How lucky the rest of us have it in comparison and I'm certainly not very far up the greasy pole that leads to huge disposable incomes, BMWs and bourgeois respectability. My only kerosene worry last weekend, for example, involved trying to figure out how to light a barbecue using the stuff without taking my eyebrows off. It's not as easy as you might think although we eventually managed to get the charcoal glowing and cooked some horrendously charred sausages and burgers.

Never mind the kerosene though; another fluid shortage was playing on my decadent Western mind last weekend. Specifically I'm referring to the mysterious disappearance of wines and spirits from the shelves of duty-free stores and supermarkets in Jakarta and Bali. Disaster! Kerosene stoves? Forget it, where's the booze gone? I'm a white skinned imperialist and I demand a stiff drink with my barbecued burger.

The vanishing refreshments are seemingly nothing to do with religious edicts or the Sharia lobby however. Neighbouring Tanggerang may have run dry with piety but Jakarta still consumes its own weight in liquor every year (my statistics). Indonesians like to joke that they can drink beer because it's only 5% alcohol and the country is only 95% Muslim. This is an interestingly mathematical approach to problems of religious doctrine I think. Maybe this is why Muslims are allowed to have four wives; because they can only see 25% of each one through their veils.

Back to the matter in hand though. Apparently the alcohol crisis in town and on the Island of the Gods is due to the, "Collapse of a complicated quota system that controls alcohol imports following a shakeup of the Finance Ministry's customs and excise agency earlier this year." Hmmm, yes. This no doubt means that large amounts of money haven't been flowing as freely as certain bureaucrats would like.

On further reflection though, maybe a few weeks off the sauce will do us all some good. We will have some breathing space to reflect on how the invidious spread of the global liquor industry is turning us all into alcoholics. All the same, I could use a drink.

I hope you don't imagine that I'm trying to equate my booze quandaries with the problems of having no cooking fuel. I'm merely trying to exemplify the huge social gulfs that exist here. I would never, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, declare, "There's no kerosene? Well let them cook with Smirnoff."

In any case, to assert a social stratification based on a ruling vodka class and a submissive kerosene class would be fallacious; the reason being that kerosene queuers enjoy the occasional tipple themselves. Indeed, Indonesian supermarkets are full of cheap, local brands of spirits such as Mansion House. Products such as these seemingly have a chemical composition exactly midway between the two types of liquid under discussion in today's column. Jakartans from all levels of society will take a drink and if all alcohol was banned here, then maybe recent events in Papua would be repeated in the capital. Specifically, people would be dropping like flies from moonshine poisoning and the pernicious effects of beverages containing 75% alcohol (ouch!)

If I had to queue for five hours for 4 litres of kerosene I might even contemplate drinking a few shots of it on the way home to dampen the pain of my urban underclass existence. Jakarta, to me at least, often seems to exemplify the worst aspects of 21st century capitalism. The masses are kept in poverty: scared, demoralized and uneducated and it seems to be getting worse. There is indeed a class war being fought, not only here but all around the world, however only one side seems to be fighting. Anyway let's raise a glass and pray for full shelves again soon. Cheers.

Stop Press

Typical, you write a column and it is out of date before it’s even printed. A visit to Kemang Duty-Free this week revealed that shelves have been nicely restocked with falling down water of every type and strength. The prices have gone up though, rather confirming my suspicions about bureaucratic payoffs. Go and stock up before Ramadan starts but don't forget the Panadols too.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Festivals and Inflation

I've had a fair to middling week I suppose. We're still having trouble getting Astro to connect us up to televisual images of 22 men kicking a leather ball around. There seems to be a big backlog of potential customers who are waiting for their footy and I guess we are way down the queue. Last Sunday I had to resort to watching the Turkish Grand Prix as a substitute.

Still, at least my fellow compatriot Lewis Hamilton, the rookie sensation and first ever colored Formula One driver, is still doing well. Being a black man driving a fast, expensive car though, I keep expecting to see a police car chasing him around the track trying to pull him over. "Excuse me, is this your vehicle, Sir?" Anyhow, come on Astro, pull your collective fingers out.

Last Sunday I hot-footed it down the road to the Kemang Festival as I thought that this would kill a bit of time and afford me the rare opportunity to witness Kemang's snobby boulevards overrun by Plebian hordes. Crowded it certainly was. The world and his wife (and kids) seemed to be on the streets of Kemang, squeezing themselves along the two narrow rows of stalls that ran virtually the whole length of the street.

It was a fun little Festival and perhaps Jakarta should have more of these. If you're actually reading this on Sunday, September 2nd, then you may care to pop along to the Jalan Jaksa festival/fair, which will be in full swing until the evening. God knows what it will be like though; perhaps a bit boozier than the Kemang Festival but no doubt fun nevertheless.

Yes, more festivals please. Although I guess Jakarta is already, in a sense, one huge, permanent street festival. Back to Kemang Fest though. A friend and I started to stroll slowly through the stalls. Many were no different from the clothing and knickknack boutiques that you would find in any market. Others were selling more interesting curios however. There were stalls of old colonial pseudo antiques; including vases and even old bicycles, that could be bought cheaply, taken home and dusted off for display. There were also plenty of plants and flowers up for grabs for your green fingered Jakartans.

One of the most interesting stalls that I ran into was being run by an old acquaintance of mine, Mr John, an expatriate teacher who has for a long time run a little cottage industry sideline turning out framed photographs and creative handicrafts. His latest ruse is old vinyl records. He sources out classic rock albums and binds both the discs and the sleeves into a single, decent quality frame to produce objets d'art worthy of any bedroom or bar room wall. Clocks manufactured from old records were also available for the budget connoisseur.

What really caught my eye, however, was a tastefully framed Rp.1 (yes one) note from the 1950s with the following passage decoratively printed underneath it:

Five things you could buy for one rupiah in the 1950s:
5 cups of coffee (for you and your mates)
two packs of cigarettes (to go with the coffee)
two litres of rice (two-day's sustenance for a family of four)
two Nasi Goreng brackets (for you and your date)
a bus ticket home (still saving up for the motorbike)
Those were the days!

A very creative talking point for my wall, I thought and snapped it up for Rp.150,000. Those were the days indeed. It makes me feel slightly vertiginous when I think of how inflation has tacked so many zeros on to our beloved local currency in the intervening years until now. I've often wished that Bank Indonesia would chop a few zeroes off and start again from one. I would also appreciate seeing the public execution of the bright spark at the Treasury who decided that it would be a good idea to make the new Rp.100,000 and Rp.10,000 nodes the same approximate size and color. How many people have found themselves Rp.90,000 out of pocket since they were introduced I wonder?

Back to my framed vintage currency though. I thought I'd get the calculator out and see if I could create the 2007 equivalent of my friend's Rp.1 purchasing power table. The first item on the list was 5 cups of coffee. Rp.1 today? Well if we take a cup of Starbucks's ludicrously expensive brew (let's say Rp40,000 for a cup size of about 350ml) then Rp.1 should buy you precisely 0 .008 mL of coffee; presumably not enough to drown a mosquito in (or even be visible to the naked eye?)

Next up was two packets of cigarettes. If we assume Rp10,000 and 16 cigarettes per pack then you should be eligible for 0.0016 of a single cigarette or around a 10th of a drag. Well it should make quitting easier.

Then we have the foodstuffs. Let's go with the fried rice. With your 1950s Rp.1 you should be in line for 0.0001 of a plateful. I guess this wouldn't amount to a single grain of rice. Again, we’re going to have visibility issues with this one.

As for the bus ticket, let's calculate one rupiah in a Bluebird taxi. Let's take a rough estimate of Rp.400 for every 200 m travelled (is this correct anyone?) This would give us a 50 cm long journey. Admittedly, I've cheated here because of the Rp.5000 flag fall charge but at least 50 cm has the benefit of being a distance visible without the aid of a microscope. Perhaps a snail or similarly low paced mollusk would be interested in popping down to the other end of the flower bed to see their bank manager at these rates.

Those were the days? Perhaps, perhaps not. However, I'm not sure that the reverse time travel option would be that much fun either. Take Rp.50,000 back to 1955 and purchase 40,000 plates of fried rice and 60,000 packets of cigarettes. That lot would probably raise your blood pressure a few points, although living in modern Jakarta's pea soup air sometimes makes me think I've just smoked 60,000 packs of Gudang Garam. Bring back hyperinflation I say. Let's see if we can't get a few more zeros tacked on there by the end of the decade.

By the way, those interested in perusing my friends handicrafts and antique jewellery and porcelain, should telephone Kustiana Murtjono on 0817 139 577 or come along to Cilandak Town Square on a Wednesday and check out his stall. This shameless plug has been brought to you courtesy of Metro Mad.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Red, White and Feeling Blue

Another year, another Independence Day in the People's Republic of Indonesia. We are now up to 62 and counting. I suppose you would be expecting me, on past form and least, to be launching a massive broadside assault on the achievements of post-World War II Indonesia up until the present day. Well, we'll see, I'm not sure I've got the stamina for doing another hatchet job on Indonesian politics this week.

People have asked me at various times over the couple of years that I've been writing this occasionally quite cantankerous and no doubt libelous column, if I have ever had any negative feedback or trouble with any authority figure over my Alzheimer fuelled ramblings. I have always replied in the negative and pointed out that I'm not really saying anything that can't be read in Jakarta Post editorials every day (which are, incidentally, written by Indonesian journalists). I may possibly employ a touch more sarcasm than is strictly necessary but I would have to be going it some to top the Post's Independence Day editorial of a couple of years back which was headlined 60 Wasted Years.

Anyway, I decided to give freedom day a fair go and headed up to the National Monument, Monas, to see what festivities were going down. Unfortunately, I never seem to be able to get up early enough in the morning to enjoy the various races and pole climbing competitions that are the Independence Day staple. If there were pole dancing competitions then maybe I'd make the effort.

The Monument's park was packed when I arrived though. Family groups were everywhere, strolling around the recently rejuvenated gardens or camped out on the grass flying kites that frequently came close to garroting me as I wandered past. It was as idyllic a scene as you’re ever likely to see in this concrete, urban Hades and I wondered why the National Monument’s grounds aren't this crowded every weekend.

Parents really should make more of an effort to shoehorn their offspring away from their Playstations and take them somewhere for a runaround. I mean, in classes that I teach I've noticed that the number of kids who look as if they've been inflated with an air hose has been skyrocketing in recent years. They really should be out on their bikes, burning off those chicken drumsticks, getting run over by articulated lorries and being taken to see nonexistent puppies by complete strangers.

The huge number of national holiday families relaxing at Monas generally seemed to be as happy as Larry though, I must say. The culture here is very communal and few things make your average Indonesian happier than chilling out in the company of a million other Indonesians.

I slowly waded through the reclining families up towards the northern perimeter of the Monument Park where the presidential palace lies. SBY's VIP Independence Day bash appeared to be in full pomp and circumstance flow as I neared the top end of the park. I noticed an awful lot of military personnel camped out, securing proceedings. There were also more Indonesian policeman than I've ever seen gathered together in one place before. Aside from the massed security forces, I spied a TV reporter, wearing a traditional Indonesian three-piece Armani business suit, being filmed on a raised platform .

Over the road up the Palace, the brass bands were playing, the rank-and-file soldiery were marching and people were waiting expectantly for the President's Independence Day address. I had seen enough by this point though and hotfooted it down the road to Jl. Jaksa for a (not so) cool Bintang before the amplified platitudes could start.

Nationalism ay? It's a curious beast. Personally I have no time whatsoever for nationalist ideology or patriotism. To me they are just two of the levers that those in power manipulate to control populations and prevent them from seeing the truth of their lives clearly. It was a round world the last time I checked.

The, "My country right or wrong," mentality seems a little strange in light of the fact that one has no choice whatsoever into which country one is ultimately born. What does being English or American or Indonesian ultimately boil down to? It means your parents had sex there. Great. A favorite comedian of mine once mused that instead of putting colored stripes and stars and moons on our flags, we should paste up pictures of our parents making love. Let's see what boot rally mentality can circle around that unpleasant little image. "Is that your mum up there on that flag?"..." Hey, shut up!"

Oscar Wilde once said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and this aphorism could certainly be said to ring true in this country. Corrupters and human rights violators here so often seem to start waving the old red and white as a diversionary tactic when their backs are against the wall.

Perhaps though, a fractious country such as this needs the glue of nationalist sentiment to stick it together. India, for example, was a very fractious country and Gandhi scored a lot of success in uniting it under a banner of peaceful secular nationalism. This country's brand of nationalism however, is still depressingly militaristic. The monolithic (and still pretty unaccountable) Armed Forces loom over everything with their military and business muscle and divide and conquer tactics. Not very Gandhi-esque at all in fact.

Let's finish positively though. I'll admit that nationalism does have a place in sport, because in sport, who wins or loses is of no consequence whatsoever. So let us be true red-and-white patriots then and congratulate the Indonesian shuttlers at the Badminton World Championships who have just won gold medals in the men's doubles and mixed doubles events. Let us also congratulate local boxing hero Chris John for successfully defending his world featherweight title in Japan this week. May they return to cheering tickertape parades, universal acclaim and lucrative Extra Joss endorsement contracts. Hip, hip, hooray.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Votes, Boats and TV Woes

Hello again sports fans. It's been a busy week in Jakarta, what with Mr. Bowo snatching election victory by a moustache’s width at the finishing line. Indonesia's only satirical TV show, Drunken Republic, depicted Mr. Bowo sporting a huge plaster on his upper lip after the Governor elect had urged voters to pierce his moustache on their ballot papers. Well done indeed and long may the show continue to puncture the proud and pompous leaders of this land.

Actually, a colleague of mine told me that his Indonesian wife had taken their young son into the polling booth and simply asked him which candidate she should choose. "The lovely moustache mummy, like on TV," he replied, pointing at the ballot paper. Now six-year-olds don't actually have the vote in Indonesia, which does beg the question why Mr. Bowo seemed to pitch his election advertisements to exactly that age group.

So then, another five years of the backroom boys for the capital. Personally, life in Fauzi's Jakarta has already turned sour from me with the removal of English Premier League football from our screens. PT. Direct Vision Astro, a company I would bet few people here had ever heard of before last week, have outbid Kabelvision, Indovision and the free local terrestrial channels for the rights to show English soccer.

Whether this hugely annoying occurrence will provoke a stampede for Astro connections remains to be seen. However, when we tried to phone Astro from my office last week all we could get was an answer phone message, so I guess that answers my question. I wish we had all been told a little sooner about this epochal change; as it stands it's probably going to take weeks to straighten this mess out.

Your average Indonesian chap, of course, is quite partial to watching the EPL of a Saturday evening on the local channel TV7. In the wake of its absence, your workaday, down at heel Jakartan gentleman will have to seek out some other low-cost entertainment to indulge in after dark on Saturday. Perhaps there will be a mini baby boom nine months hence as a result. What use is my Kabelvision connection now though? Am I going to have to watch the insufferable Oprah Winfrey smugly backslapping celebrities and ex rehab patients from now on? It doesn't bear thinking about.

In an attempt to prove that there must be more to life than soccer and shopping plazas, I thought I'd head up to one of the few places in town that I haven't yet denigrated in the Sunday Post, namely Sunda Kelapa, the old colonial and still active port at the top end of Kota. After getting a taxi to Jakarta's northernmost border from the end of the busway and accidentally giving the driver Rp.100,000 instead of Rp.10,000 (curse these new notes) I found myself breathing in clean(ish) sea air.

The docks themselves are wonderfully old and dilapidated and you can spend a very enjoyable afternoon wandering around, letting the ghosts of the colonial past wash over you. There are plenty of colorful and weather-beaten ships to take pictures of. Most of them are crewed by even more colorful and weather-beaten old coves. I took a few snaps and after a while, I sat down and had a rest from the walking and the endless cries of, "Yo ho ho, hello mister" that were being launched in my direction.

Then, over the battered warehouses and loading cranes, I spied something. I stood up and saw a brand, spanking new building called the Marina Batavia sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the decrepit functionalism of Sunda Kelapa. I walked around to the entrance to investigate.

A security guard was a nice chap and told me that Marina Batavia, Mr. Sutiyoso's final great project, was just nearing completion and should be opening very soon. Ah!! Even up here I couldn't get away from the city administration and their pet projects. Mr. Security took me on a ride around the complex on his scooter and told me what was going on. Apparently, the new marina is set to rival the one at Ancol just a little bit further east along the coast. It will soon be running trips and tours to the Thousand Islands chain (Pulau Seribu) whilst the huge marina building itself will house restaurants, billiard halls and even karaoke lounges.

I made a mental note to return when the place opens and headed back to the civilising calm of (ex?) Governor Sutiyoso's dubious legacy project, the busway (alas, there's no karaoke at the bus stops yet). I've written about the Thousand Islands before in this column but would again urge people to have a few days holiday there, either via Ancol or the new, sexy Marina Batavia when it opens. Too few people seem to know how close they are to paradise. It's simply a question of navigating a path through the 15 km wide band of effluent and industrial pollution that engulfs the capital's coastline before alighting on the clean tropical atolls at the far end of the Thousand Island chain.

Anyway, rest assured I'll be back soon to check out the Marina when it opens. I'm sure it will all be very decadent, the next best thing to Mr Sutiyoso's original idea of establishing a casino/gambling zone in the Thousand Islands themselves. It's a pity that one didn't come off (I believe the Sharia law brigade poured cold water on the idea). Floating croupiers, bow ties, Martinis, palm fringed glamour. One can but dream. Oh well, back to reality I suppose. I'm off to phone Astro's answering machine again.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Choice 2007

Well, it's Wednesday and as I write this I've been given the day off work due to the Jakarta governor's election, so at least some good has come out of the whole process. Main contenders Fauzi Bowo and Adang Daradjatun have been locked in a titanic struggle of ludicrous sloganeering, a citywide campaign of poster and sticker vandalism, in order to secure a winning proportion of the approximately 5 .7 million votes on offer. Why anyone would trust either of these guys to run anything more important than their own baths is quite beyond me but at least, for the first time, the city's residents have their own democratic say over who will continue to run the capital into the ground for the next few years.

As with the country's general elections, the campaigns haven't really been fought on any actual issues or dissemination of policies beyond the laughably hubristic slogans pasted up around town promising the earth and more. Mr Bowo's television commercials dispensed with any mention of either education, housing, transportation or environmental problems in favor of encouraging people to punch the ballot paper through his moustache (to the tune of the Indonesian version of Happy Birthday). In a recent televised debate between the two candidates, Mr Daradjatun, upon being presented with the opportunity to ask his rival a question, inquired about... yes, you've guessed it... his moustache. Personally, if I had the opportunity to vote today I be sorely tempted to take the ballot paper home and use the thing as a dartboard instead of merely punching a hole through the luxuriant foliage of Mr Bowo's upper lip at the polling station.

Democratic process should be about questioning politicians hard about their beliefs and plans so that one can make a meaningful choice about where to cast one's vote. Indonesians, since the fall of Soeharto, have enjoyed a free and fair choice in national and local elections but one that, as yet, hasn't been all that meaningful. Politicians and party leaders have sat in their ivory towers whilst their supporters have danced around the streets waving gaily colored banners like so many football supporters." Support my team!" they scream," No! Support my team!" But why? What do you stand for? About the only issue that has emerged to differentiate the parties from each other is that of secularity versus religion (for religion read Islam) and to me that is quite depressing.

I've often thought though, that democracy conflicts with Indonesian culture at some deeper level. Democracy is largely predicated upon politicians calling each other liars and fighting tooth and claw for every vote. It's about our leaders ripping into each other and insisting that their rivals' figures just don't add up. This is how policies and issues become clear to the voting public. However, this country's polite, genuflecting, consensual culture is perhaps in fundamental conflict with the wars of words required of a healthy democracy. Certainly I find it hard to imagine Indonesia producing anything like the jeering, sarcastic rabble that you see in the British Parliament. Better a jeering, sarcastic rabble though than backroom deals and unctuous, inscrutable smiles. Maybe things are, very slowly, changing here, but it's a difficult transition.

To be fair though, the hollow sloganeering of politicians is a problem for democracies the world over in our media soundbite age. Promises to create full employment, end all traffic jams or provide free health care and schooling (as Mr Daradjatun has done) are by no means unique to Indonesia. Politicians have to be seen to be of firm backbone and show strength. They have to answer the questions put to them on their campaigns with unwavering certainty. But to be so certain ignores the crucial value of doubt. Doubt can be a positive thing; it can reveal openness to possibility which in turn can lead to opportunity.

Instead of any rational doubt though, voters the world over are instead bombarded with hollow rhetoric and promises that cannot possibly be kept. The result of this is that nobody believes in campaign promises and the result of this is a general disparaging of politics in the population. This means voter apathy and the vast ocean of indifference that we've seen in the current Jakarta campaign or in the USA where voter turnout has often struggled around the 50% mark.

How refreshing it would be to have heard one of the Jakarta candidates holding forth thus in the last few weeks:

-Well, clearly our city is a big, complex mess and there's no point in promising to fix in five years what will probably take 50 years and a lot more money than I have at my disposal to put right. However, with this in mind, I promise to study how our budget can be used most efficiently and for maximum impact and will form a team to take a coolheaded, objective and above all, open look at the important issues. In addition, my facial hair will at no point be allowed to detract from the seriousness of this contest and to this end I have decided to have my mustache ritually shaved, burnt and the ashes scattered from the boatway into the Ciliwung River to the accompaniment of Happy Birthday.

Now that would be someone worth voting for.