Sunday, April 08, 2007

Comparative Study Tour

I had some holiday time couple of weeks ago but was unsure how to best cut loose and enjoy the invigorating natural splendor of Indonesia. I initially started off sitting on the sofa in front of the television, which wasn't a fantastic start. The local infotainment shows were slowly seeping into my unconscious mind, sapping me of the will to live. Infotainment -- it's a bit of a misnomer as far as I'm concerned. In fact, doubly so, what with the programs being neither informative nor entertaining. These shows seem to consist solely of local celebs in their houses, chomping down rice and sitting around on sofas doing precisely bugger all, which was, of course, what I was doing. It's so disconcerting to have one's own indolent self reflected back at one from the TV screen.

Just as I seemed to be entering a never-ending negative feedback loop of sofa abound ennui, it struck me. Of course! I should go and visit my housemate who was doing a short teaching stint in the wilds of Borneo (Balikpapan) and sleep on his sofa for a few days. I leapt off the couch and rode my tricycle down to the travel agents. The next day I was at Soekarno-Hatta, ready to once again test the airworthiness of Indonesia's fleet of rusting jets. I was soon cruising at 30,000 feet without a care in the world although there were few signs of nervous strain on the faces of my fellow passengers as we hit turbulence. "Is it going to be Lion Air's turn this time?" They seemed to be thinking. Lion provided us with no in-flight refreshment but hopefully the money that they save on green pieces of cake and piping cold spring rolls has been diverted into checking that the wings have been screwed on properly.

As I taxied through the town, I was impressed by the general atmosphere of Balikpapan. This is partly, of course, the initial rush that always comes with reaching Jakarta escape velocity. When you leave the capital you sometimes have the strong sensation that you have been holding your breath for months. There then follows a massive exhalation of sulfur and lead particles and a soothing re-inhalation of air more conducive to human life.

Balikpapan seems to be a pleasant and clean city and sprawls lazily down the coast. Some Indonesian towns are very dirty; both dusty as hell in the dry season or rivers of sludge and discarded rice in the wet. Others towns though, seem to display more civic pride and are bright and interesting places to stroll around. Balikpapan, an oil centre, also has more money gushing through it than other Indonesian cities and correspondingly there seems to be a lot of new development and construction underway.

My taxi pulled up at the Pertamina complex which stretches agreeably up a green, wooded hill on the seafront. The idyllic view was only disturbed by the huge metal pipes, storage depots and hoppers belching smoke ominously into the sky like some cosmic chemistry set. Later on that day we went into town to sample the Balikpapan nightlife. The city has a small but active Western expatriate community and we first tried one of the oil men's watering holes which turned out to be, surprise surprise, not unlike a Blok M bar. The only difference being that the females seemed even more predatory and potentially mentally unstable. Then it was onto a higher class kind of joint which was located at a hotel rather haughtily called, "Le Grandeur". We were a long way from Jakarta but it all seemed very familiar. Such places speak volumes about the homogeneity of the Archipelago. Indonesia is supposed to be a fractious nation but everywhere you go in this great country you will find an in-house covers band unifying the nation with their chronic dress sense and endless retreads of Sweet Child 'O' Mine. Perhaps Indonesians have more in common with each other than they realize.

The next day we burned a few kilometers out of town. Once you're off Java and heading away from a major population centre you realize just how sparsely populated the rest of the country is. It makes a serene change. After about half an hour we stopped at a local tourist attraction, a crocodile farm. Here they were offering crocodile satay (which had thankfully sold out by the time we arrived), crocodile skin wallets and crocodile oil which you are supposed to take just before you, "sleep" (euphemism?) The crocs themselves appeared to be completely immobile and dead, as crocs typically do (until they chew your arm off).

Back at the ranch we met up with an interesting character, namely the coach of the local soccer team, Persija Balikpapan, who was also living in the complex. He is an ebullient Englishman who used to play in the English premiership in the mid-90s before moving into management and coming to Asia. The team had just won a match which would explain the massive drunken roar accompanied by fireworks that I had heard emanating from the nearby stadium when I first arrived.

Over a few tins he related some of his Asian experiences to me (not all of them relating to soccer or indeed printable I might add). Sticking with soccer though, he told me how crazy and fanatical fans could be at the matches here and also how most of the teams in the league bribe the referees, which is a depressing thought. If they can't run a clean league in Italy though, what chance have they got here? He did, however, have some great photos taken on his away match travels around Indonesia including some West Papuan tribesmen wearing penis sheaths. "That's the new back four," he said with a large grin on his face.

Simon Pitchforth