Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Big Freeze

The floods have been a dispiriting experience for many Jakartans and now there seems to be something of a post flood malaise setting in as well. Jakarta has turned into a complete armpit of a city as people clean up the sludge, dry their ubiquitous pink and white striped mattresses out in the open air and contract interesting new skin diseases.

Nevertheless, People's Welfare Minister Bakrie assures us that everyone was simply having a jolly old time under 2 m of water, just as they undoubtedly are under 2 m of his mud in central Java. It's a quote that seems to have made everybody's blood boil. To be a politician here is a pretty cushy number really. Rather than being a public servant you can treat the public as your servants and cream off public funds with impunity. You can even make a killing during the flood itself by stapling an extra X billion Rupiah onto the annual State budget, buying a few gross of instant noodles to distribute to the moistened masses and pocketing the difference. The only thing you have to do is to make the right sympathetic noises when something like this happens... and Mr B. can't even do that.

In this sense, the floods have provided us with a useful X-ray picture of current Indonesian political culture. I mean, when the government asserts that the economy is expanding, it's hard for the man on the street to test the veracity of this claim one way or another. When a flood happens though, the machinery of government is laid bare for all to see; not only its incompetence but also its feudalistic, serf baiting arrogance. Has much really changed since 1998?

Perhaps I'm just sore because I've spent another weekend having to wade between my house and the main road. Unfortunately, living right next to one of Jakarta's crystal clear rivers, it doesn't even have to be raining near my place for it to be knee deep at the end of our street. Any shower between my abode and Bogor will ensure a riverbank bursting session of wet trousers for yours truly.

Last Saturday night I made a desperate bid to get down to the pub. I waded about halfway through the 50 m stretch of brackish water that I have to traverse before stepping in a hole and splashing face first into the drink. I made a swift about-turn whilst swearing like a docker and sloshed back home for a change of clothes. I tried another tack; if the beer won’t come to Mohammed and all that. I phoned Pesan Delivery, Jakarta's premier home delivery service and ordered a nice curry and a bottle of ale. Maybe one of their motorbike riders would find a way to get my food through to me. An hour later a brave delivery boy turned up with my meal, trousers rolled up to his knees, sans motorcycle (it was parked at the shoreline).

I'm eternally grateful to this brave young man and gave him a decent tip for his pains. Certainly he proved to have more mettle than most cab drivers do as they decide whether or not to ford the latest road river that they've hit. Your average cabbie will drive tentatively up to the edge of the water and stop dead in deep contemplation before a rude horn blast from the car behind shakes him awake. He then realizes that he can't turn round and has no choice but to attempt the crossing, which he will do, vocal protestations and engine reaching a fever pitch of revs about halfway across, the moment of truth.

Yes, the weather has certainly been getting me down all right, so much so that I decided to spend a recent day off trying to forget it all up at Ancol. After a tasty meal at the pleasant, waterfront Bandar Jakarta restaurant, I stumbled upon Ancol's latest fun attraction.... Ice World!! Oh the irony, from Waterworld to Ice World. Whatever happened to sun drenched tropical beaches? For Rp.50,000 you too can experience that quintessential Bule (Westerner's) winter, simply collect a huge padded coat at the entrance and head into the converted warehouse that is Ice World.

In the first hall there are snow men and a huge ice slide for the children. I suspect not a massive amount of money has been lavished on the construction of Ice World but if you've never experienced winter weather before it must be fascinating. The local punters laughed and joked and watched mesmerized as their breath condensed in the cold air. In the second area, there are banks of snow and huge fans blowing, building up that all-important, authentic windchill factor. Some kids were trying their hand at snowball fights while others seemed to be starting to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Experiencing a cold snap for the first time must indeed be an intense experience. A few years ago I shared a house with an American girl who had come here after working previously as a councilor for overseas Indonesian students in Boston. She told me that the students’ number-one problem had nothing to do with either cultural adjustment or money. Instead, every January, there’d be a steady stream of Indonesian undergraduates knocking on her door and pleading that they were so cold that they couldn't think straight and fearful that their extremities would drop off in the freeze. Jack Frost was taking its toll on their tropical blood.

This is something I can understand too. If I spend a Christmas in the UK after a long stretch here, it's certainly a rude awakening. Apparently it takes about six months for your blood to adjust to a new climate. Perhaps Ice World could run an acclimatization program for overseas students before they head to the chill of North America and Europe. Failing that, maybe we could lock Jakarta's Governor in Ice World for a night and watch his extremities dropping off. It may not properly acclimatize him for a future in Satan's boiler room but it would make great television.

Simon Pitchforth

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Sleaze

From Bangkok to Manila to Singapore to Phnom Penh, the cult of the Asian bar girl and the Western gentleman sleazer is renowned the world over. Expat businessmen can be found cavorting drunkenly with girls half their age (or less) in mutually symbiotic relationships all across the region. For the man, there's the chance to dangle a gorgeous, trophy girlfriend from his golf atrophied arm and the chance to feel young and sexy again. For the girls, there's the opportunity to make the average monthly wage in a single night (if they get lucky), enjoy a hedonistic excess of booze, drugs and sex with the remote possibility of one-day being able to leave their country behind and start a new life abroad.

Jakarta, too, has its fleshy share of expat sleaze but the scene here enjoys a somewhat lower profile than either the ping-pong ball cabarets of Bangkok, the dodgy paedophilia of Cambodia or the GI shagging excesses of the Philippines. Thus Jakarta is often mooted as a bit of a well kept secret among Caucasian cads. The bule/bar girl scene in our green and pleasant city is, in fact, totally out- sleazed by the uptown karaoke joints frequented by Indonesian businessmen, if we are to believe the outrageous stories contained in Indonesia's number one selling book, Jakarta Undercover. The hapless bule has no chance of reaching the Caligula-esque heights of Kota's karaoke rooms in which shady gangster types run drug fuelled orgies to a background of some of the most inappropriately jaunty music ever heard.

Tanamur discotheque in Tanah Abang was the original Mecca for horny expats. In what is supposedly the oldest disco in Southeast Asia, people of all races and sexual preferences would cavort every night, year in year out. However, now the scene has moved on due to security concerns and the proliferation of swanky hotel bars and clubs. The main venues of choice for a spot of chicken hunting now seen to be CJs, Tiga Puluh, BATS and Retro which are all located in opulent five-star hotels in the centre of town. These places mostly feature bombastic live music of an MTV nature (except Retro , which is a slightly trendier disco) and contain, of course, loads and loads of our feathered friends. The drinks aren't cheap in these places but a careful selection should yield results. The Long Island Iced Tea in Tiga Puluh, for example, costs Rp.75,000 but has spurred many a be-suited Western businessman into frighteningly uncoordinated losses of inhibition.

Moving downmarket, you're sexually frustrated expat can also be found in the Blok M area of town. Bars such as LM, Oscars and D's Place offset the multitude of expensive Japanese karaoke joints in the area with a good old-fashioned dose of bule spit and sawdust. The beer is cheaper, and so are the "ancillaries". However, it's worth pointing out that the girls in all these bars are exactly the same and move freely between the higher and lower class venues. One does not necessarily find a higher class of lady at BATS than one does at D's Place. They all wear the same Wonder Woman style enormous, shiny metallic belts, they all talk on the same mobile phones and they all chomp on the same Baso. This doesn't seem to apply to the lowest venue for the ladies, however, namely Jakarta's backpacker street of broken dreams, Jl. Jaksa. Despite this, you might just find a cutey in amongst the toothless transvestites and over made-up sea monsters that trawl the Jaksa strip.

So what are these ladies like then? The girls you will find in expat clubs and bars can be divided into a few prominent sub species:

Type1 : Miss Whisky Cola
Age: 18 to 28
Modus Operandi: Miss Whisky Cola is so-called because this is how she will introduce herself to you. Consider the following exchange-
"Hi, what's your name?"
"Whisky Cola please"
"That's an interesting name, however did you come by it Miss Cola, or can I call you Whisky?"
Basically, she is a good time party girl out for whatever she can get. However, she has known a lot of men before and this sometimes causes her to forget her manners (see above). Miss Whisky Cola is no shy and retiring, Javanese wallflower type and enjoys hearty laughter and bawdy humour although her eyes are able to assess a bule’s earning potential, living situation and marital status within about 3 nanoseconds of him ordering that first beverage for her. Try and match her drink for drink and you'll be assured of a good time (or blood poisoning).
Hemline: As high as possible.
Units of alcohol consumed per week: 100 plus.
Background: Betawi, Sundanese, Javanese, Menadonese. Miss Whisky Cola is usually to be found living in a rented kost (boarding house) with others of her kind, living on a diet of boiled noodles, Sampoerna Menthol cigarettes and Baso. However, she may have got her hooks into a wealthy businessman and be staying at his luxury apartment, caning the room service and giving the concierge heart palpitations every time she comes in at six o'clock in the morning dressed in less than Christine Aguilera.

Type2: Miss Doe Eyed Fawn
Age: 21 or less
Modus Operandi: Miss Doe Eyed Fawn is the diffident newcomer to the whole bar scene. She will stand or sit quietly with her often more experienced friends and will probably giggle when approached by a salivating white male. She is unlikely to speak much English. She'll usually drink orange juice only and may not even smoke. The music and dancing are all she requires for a good night out. Treat her gently in order to slow her inevitable 18 month long transformation into Miss Whisky Cola.
Hemline: Below the knee.
Units of alcohol consumed per week: Half (and this was only because some dastardly bule tried to spike her orange juice with vodka).
Background: Miss Doe Eyed Faun may be new in town and from a somewhat less than cosmopolitan Kampung. She will also live in a Kost or may be with her own family. She was probably persuaded to give Jakarta a shot by one of her "hairdresser" friends.

Type3: Miss Got-A-Life
Modus Operandi: This species of disco frequenter is either a student or an office worker. Money may still be an issue though, especially if it's time to pay tuition fees. She is looking for off-campus/after office hours kicks and maybe a little romance. She will speak some English and will probably prove to be a more stimulating conversationalist of either of the previous two ladies.
Hemline: Jeans
Units of alcohol consumed per week: 7
Background: Trisakti/UI/Telkom or Pertamina receptionist. Probably lives at home, may be looking to escape the drudgery of a stifling domestic environment.

Type4: Miss Too-Long
Age: 35-95
Modus Operandi: Miss Too-Long has been trawling Jakarta's expat bars looking for Western men for ten years or more. Time has mellowed her somewhat from the dizzy heights of her Whisky-Cola persona however she may exhibit dangerous sociopathic or even psychopathic tendencies as the frustrations of spending Too-Long in these places without finding an escape route occasionally bubble to the surface and manifest themselves in criminal acts of jealousy or other flaky behaviour. Miss Too-Long will often act as a surrogate mother or auntie to the other girls, especially Miss Doe Eyed Faun, protecting them and warning them against certain guys. Miss Too-Long will occasionally find a pie-eyed beau to take her home. Despite getting on a bit she has always managed to maintain a 20-year age gap between herself and her paramours.
Hemline: Best not to look.
Background: String of failed relationships, marriages. Probably a couple of kids.

As for the boys, well the Western bar guys seem to fall into two basic categories. The first is the older expat, probably with a wife and family either here or in his home country, looking for a "bit on the side" and earning fistfuls of dollars. The second type are the young blades who are most likely to be English foreign language teachers or Jakarta Post journalists who earn about 3 percent of the first guys salary. The second group always puts the bar girl on the horns of a dilemma. Basically they are aesthetically more attracted to the younger man but ultimately know that they can't touch them for much cash. They know full well that the distance the hairline has receded and the larger the potbelly has grown are directly proportional to the amount of money that can be mined. The smart girl will try to play one of each of these guys to ensure a happy, spiritually fulfilled life.

So, is the Western man in Indonesia a lowlife vermin? An exploiter of women? A male chauvinist? Does he feel bad when he wakes up the next morning, sleep having sobered him up and removed his beer goggles, to confront what he brought home the previous night, as she fields phone calls from her other boyfriends and totters off into a taxi on her high heels? Perhaps, in his defence, he could say that sexual emancipation or loose sexual morals, whichever way you look at it, are as much a part of Indonesian society as they are Western society, the only difference being that Indonesians pretend that this isn't the case. However, maybe this "When in Rome..." line of argument smacks of a convenient moral relativism. On the other hand, our sleazing hero might say that the way these girls are treated by Westerners compares favourably with the way that they are treated by his local counterparts. This argument perhaps rings truer, after all, gender equality is more of a living, breathing, door slamming reality in the West than it is here. The Western man, emasculated by three decades of the feminist paradigm, can find Indonesian girlfriends who don't break his balls every five minutes whilst the local girl can enjoy a relationship with fewer firmly delineated gender roles. Certainly the Western women who have relationships with Indonesian men often have more "issues" to deal with.

Then again, perhaps being in a country surrounded by so much beauty brings out a bule’s worst characteristics - an intoxicating, hedonistic selfishness for the men and a certain amount of jealousy for the Western women. The fact is that Indonesia is temptation made real, made flesh. It's the ultimate test of one's moral fibre. This country is a red and white carrot perpetually dangled under one's nose; it’s a little three inch high Satan sitting on your left shoulder continually whispering into your ear, "Be bad, be really bad..." Alternatively, maybe we're just bastards. There's only one thing I know for sure and that is that, come judgment day, there'll be a Whisky Cola waiting for each and every one of us.

Simon Pitchforth

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Come Hell or High Water

Well, I’ve had a damp and interesting week in the big durian. It started on Friday night of course with myself and Mr. Eric (my only housemate not to have conveniently gone away on holiday during this whole sorry episode) frantically bailing water out of the house as it poured through the living room ceiling. I guess we shouldn’t have skimped on the roofing a few months back when we only had the bedroom areas done. The rain eased eventually and we retired for the evening. Around 2AM there came the click and ominous silence that indicated the electricity going off.

The next morning there was barely time for me to shamble bleary eyed into the toilet before it all started again and my comrade and I resumed our undignified tableau in the drawing room. The noble Mr. Eric dealt with the buckets whilst I scooped water out of the door in my underpants with a Pizza Hut take away spaghetti dish.

In time the rain let up again and we could rest. The phone and electricity had been cut off but at least I could go to work. I looked over the front gate….Ah…Perhaps not then. We live at the end of a cul-de-sac which traverses a steep slope and the flood tide had risen right up to the house next door. Thankfully we had been spared the discomfort of knee deep water in our pad but the poor residents at the bottom of the slope were submerged under five feet of it. Yes, the floods may not have sullied our less than pristine floors but there seemed to be no way out for us. We were marooned with no power or telephone.

Just as I was having visions of Eric and I skinning wild cats and grilling them on our garden barbecue for the next few weeks, something sailed into view at the bottom of the street. Shiver me timbers!! The local Ojeg (motorcycle taxi) boys had forsaken their Hondas for three empty oil barrels lashed to some planks of wood. We were saved.

So Jakarta floods again and I’m sure a significant proportion of my seven or eight readers, not to mention all of those poor sods who spent last weekend perched on the roofs of their houses, can relate similar stories to the one above. The front page of last Saturday’s edition of this paper featured a map of the capital’s flood prone areas but frankly it would have proved easier to draw up a map of areas not prone to flooding. When the next colossal floods hit five years hence such a map will probably consist solely of a picture of the top of Monas.

Mr. Sutiyoso has his maps and charts too, of course. Our esteemed city governor was a guest on a local light entertainment show last Sunday, explaining the floods and his plans for future heavy storms with the aid of some diagrams. Mr. Sutiyoso has already been Jakarta’s governor for almost ten years and will no doubt be replaced this year by a candidate of equal competence. This being the case, it would probably be better to judge Mr. S on his record as opposed to his promises and on this many will find him a woeful underachiever.

One news story I recall from the aftermath of the 2002 floods related how the city council had purchased a whole ten rubber dinghies as part of their emergency evacuation strategy. With over 100,000 people forced from their homes this weekend I make that 10,000 per dinghy. This is what you get though when your country is still run by soldiers instead of professional bureaucrats. Certainly, far too little attention has been paid to the environmental consequences of Jakarta’s endless construction boom and never-ending desire to turn a quick buck at the population’s expense.

Jakarta’s leaders, however, are up against some intransigent problems in their part time quest to keep the city’s collective trouser bottoms dry. Firstly, there is the general population’s propensity to chuck everything that they have no further use for into the nearest river. Many of the city’s waterways and flood gates are jammed solid with plastic, vastly reducing their capacities. Secondly, Jakarta’s location itself is far from ideal. A squelchy coastal delta bisected by six rivers full of mountain rain water is a pretty bad place for a capital city, especially one as densely populated, politically corrupt and impoverished as Jakarta is.

What a time Indonesia’s been having recently what with Tsunamis, landslides, earthquakes, droughts and floods. Mother Nature has turned on her Indonesian progeny where previously it has blessed this nation with bountiful fertility. Planting rice every few months is not going to be enough anymore and it’s an eerie coincidence that these catastrophic floods happened on the very same day that the latest UN climate change report was published. The report asserts the incontrovertible truth of human driven global warming and predicts a grim future for our species if immediate action is not forthcoming.

Perhaps our collective future will be something like the one predicted in the legendary Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos. In the book, the processes of Darwinian natural selection round upon our large human brains. Brains that have brought so much suffering and misery to the world are depicted as having little intrinsic survival value and as being an evolutionary dead end. In Vonnegut’s vision, homo sapiens’ brains thus start to shrink and their bodies grow seal like flippers as they return back to the blissful ignorance of the oceans in droves.

Far fetched? Perhaps. Just maybe though Jakarta’s councilors are an early embodiment of the truth of Vonnegut’s thesis. Perhaps the councilors’ descendants will take their flippers to the water during future Jakarta floods. And you thought regional devolution meant something to do with politics? Pass me a bucket of fish please.

Simon Pitchforth

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What’s All the Bus About?

I managed to check out the city's newest attraction this week in an attempt to convince myself that Jakarta is a vibrant, ever-changing metropolis whose development is on an upward trajectory. I toddled out to the main road nearest to my abode (the main Buncit/ Mampang strip) and attempted to convey myself uptown via one of the new busway corridors.

I located the nearest gleaming, chromium plated bus stop and made my way up to the ticket office via what seemed like several kilometers of ramps inclined at a 1° angle to the horizontal. Now Jl. Mampang isn't Jl. Sudirman and consequently the road's median strip, instead of providing plenty of room for a bus shelter, is in fact only about 2 foot wide. The fiendishly clever architects have got around this intractable problem by designing and building bus stops like high-tech space cities in which the ticket offices and extra waiting areas are suspended 20 feet above the road.

At the ticket office I perused the handsome new busway system map with its nicely color-coded lines dovetailing into neat terminals. The map's ordered topography gives the weary traveler the reassuring illusion of there being some kind of integrated plan underlying the city's pell-mell transportation system. I purchased a dinky little paper ticket as the electronic ticketing system is not ready for use yet.... and neither, apparently, are about 80% of the required number of buses, but that's another story. I then descended from the hovering spaceport waiting area into the 3 foot wide street level platform.

It was about half past nine at night and I was the only passenger waiting. On a weekday morning though, I imagine it's going to be a pretty tight squeeze in these chromium cattle sheds. A bus arrived within five minutes and I hopped on to await my fate. The new busway buses are very sexy and also have an amazing two doors in them, an improvement over the original busway corridor coaches. This is no doubt an attempt to obviate those Indonesian elevator moments that we all know and love; the ones that make you shout, "Look! Can we get out first before you buggers try to get in."

Then we were off. The joy of steaming through Mampang's gridlock (ironically exacerbated by the busway itself) was intense. "Look at those fools in their puny little cars," I scoffed as we sailed along the asphalt, passing idling autos by the score as if on some magic carpet. At one point however, we did almost clip a car which was turning right across the busway at the time. Maybe they should fit these buses with black box recorders. Unfortunately, trying to extract one from the mass of cars and humanity down on one of Jakarta's busy arteries before their homing beacon radio transmitters ran out would perchance prove far harder than retrieving one from the bottom of the ocean.

While we're on the subject though, may be Adam Air should ditch their fleet of geriatric 737s and shift down a gear into a less technically demanding field such as buses. It would be a lot safer for all concerned and Adam Bus could make up the shortfall in the number of buses by buying a load of 17 year old ones from Japan, painting them in their garish orange livery and pretending that they're brand new.

Back to my epic, corridor busting voyage though. We were soon sailing effortlessly up Jl. Rasuna Said and it felt wonderful. Flying past the skyscrapers at night on a brand-new almost empty bus allowed me to entertain the fantasy that I was in Singapore or Europe. Only the half constructed monorail pillars sticking up forlornly into the sky served to remind me where I was (and when are they going to start building the damn thing again? it's been months now).

Alas, at the top end of Rasuna Said, we reached the narrow bridge that runs over the stinking river below and the busway concept came a little unstuck. It hasn't been possible to cordon off a separate busway corridor on this narrow section and so passengers will soon find themselves grinding to a halt with all of the other cars during rush hours when it’s bumper to bumper.

My shiny new bus turned left at the Izzi Pizza after the flyover (just before Menteng) and I disembarked at another of the busway's chromium cathedrals. This one was having a few teething troubles however and my Singaporean/first world transportation fantasies were rudely interrupted by the platform doors which opened about four inches before grinding to a halt. A smiling busway employee was soon on hand to crowbar the bloody things open (I swear I don't make this stuff up) and I strolled down another shiny metal walkway into the frosty Jakarta night.

I would have to get a taxi home as the buses stop at 10 o'clock but I had nevertheless saved myself some time and money on my trip. I do wish the powers that be would consider running the buses until midnight at least but Jakarta does indeed go suddenly quiet after about 10 o'clock at night, you just try finding a decent restaurant open after that time and you'll see what I mean.

Still feel like driving? Cast your Kijangs into the sea I say and join the new urban bus warriors. We corridor kids are now surfing around town like bats out of hell; wild eyed loners at the gates of oblivion. I'm going to get a leather jacket made with Jakarta Busway embossed on the back in metal studs. All you squares watch out.

Simon Pitchforth