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