Monday, June 25, 2007

I Love a Man in Uniform

Boatway news first. Last Saturday, I made another unsuccessful attempt to go sailing on the new Jakarta transport solution. I arrived at Dukuh Atas (near Plaza Indonesia) and noticed that a dinky little quay had just been plumbed in on the canal bank along with steps leading down to it from the bus stop on Jl. Sudirman above. "Right," I thought, "This time it's finally going to happen."

I had arrived at the right place at the right time; nothing was going to stop me. I stood on the quay and took in the immediate surroundings as I waited for a bearded, pipe smoking ship's captain to hove into view, skippering his speedboat with barnacle encrusted fingernails. The canal actually sports quite a pleasant tow-path alongside it that is clearly being kept in a reasonable condition. The water itself though looked extremely turgid (turd-gid?)

Many of the globe’s citizens are currently voting on a new, modern seven wonders of the world. Personally, I'd like to see the Ciliwung River nominated as it’s clearly a wonder that the thing flows at all, so thick is it with the city's detritus. Anyway, after about 10 minutes of waiting on the mini quay, I suddenly noticed a handwritten message nailed to a nearby tree. It said that there wouldn't be any boats that day due to the water level being too high. My masochistic desire to go sewage surfing had been foiled again; I had been hoist by my own petard, so to speak.

I'll try once again next week but frankly this journey has started to assume mythic proportions for me. The handwritten note on the tree in particular has lent the whole operation a Robert Louis Stevenson, buried treasure map kind of atmosphere for me. I'm half expecting an Indonesian Captain Red Beard (if that's not a physical impossibility) to whisk me away to a pirate cove full of Spanish doubloons and smuggled Chinese DVD players.
The saga continues....

The Jakarta governor’s election has also been hotting up to the point of utter tedium as well this week, and an ever-increasing acreage of stickers and posters continue to be pasted up around town. New rhetorical campaign slogans currently raising my hackles, spotted this week were, "Takut Banjir Lagi?" (Are you frightened of more floods?); "Susah Cari Kerja?" (Having difficulty finding a job?); and, most enticingly for the credulous public, "Hidup Sulit?" (Is your life difficult?) This last one in particular had me scratching my head. The Jakarta elections are now being reconceived as a panacea for all of our ills. I wonder what the candidates responsible for this all-encompassing slogan plan to do if I breakup with my girlfriend and feel a bit down. Perhaps Prozac will be dispensed free of charge at selected busway stops.

Anyhow, on with the show. Last week I took my life in my hands and went for a stroll around one of the city's most enormous, smelliest and dingiest markets, namely the labyrinthine concrete edifice that is Pasar Senen. It's a fascinating place to be sure and there must be literally thousands of businesses nestling here, deep in the huge building's catacombs.

You'll find all of the usual mobile phone stands, bra salesmen, T-shirt vendors and Padang restaurants expelling clouds of sulphurous chilli sauce gas over the unsuspecting window shopper. Senen market is best known, though, for selling military clothing and equipment (alas, no guns unfortunately). While I was there I noticed a few closely cropped soldiers strolling around in combat fatigues and army boots. A couple of them were walking up and down trying on their new, intimidating footwear, probably trying to ascertain whether the boots would feel comfortable when stamping on villagers’ heads.

Indonesia loves it uniforms, of course. Uniforms here instantly confer authority upon the wearer and serve to speciously paper over the cracks of social disorganization and disintegration that lie beneath. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise to learn that many other non-military uniforms are also available at Pasar Senen. Police, Sat. Pam. (security guard) and even parking person uniforms are also up for grabs. I toyed with the idea of buying a white Sat. Pam. shirt complete with a whistle and personalized name tag above the pocket but good taste prevailed in the end.

Also available are political party uniforms and blazers resplendent in their assorted, bright, partisan colors. I can't really imagine political fat cats such as Akbar Tanjung or Yusril Mahendra driving their BMWs down to Senen to pick up a new blazer but perhaps they do. Again, I considered purchasing a bright yellow, sleeveless Golkar party body warmer but then thought that such an item of haute couture may attract the wrong kind of limp wristed attention in certain discos (or even shopping plazas).

So I came home empty handed in the end. Even the kitsch watch I found with a photo of General Wiranto on the face didn't really appeal. Now, if they had had a nurse's uniform though.....

Monday, June 18, 2007

Buses in Space

I was scratching my head this week and wondering which of Jakarta's manifold tourist attractions I haven't written about yet. The boat-way has finally started a trial run now after my failed attempt to use it two weeks ago but I wasn't feeling keen last weekend, despite having a cold and a stuffed up nose which would have served me well on the pungent cruise. It strikes me though, that this new initiative is destined to become more of a tourist attraction than a genuine urban transport solution; I mean two boats with a capacity of 25 passengers each aren’t going to make a noticeable dent in the traffic jams. I've decided to forego the pleasures of riding the boat through the flotsam of half submerged couches for another week however, especially as they have been having to stop every 100 m to clean the clogged up propellers.

Incidentally, the boats are appropriately named the Kerapu III and the Kerapu IV, according to a report in last Monday's JP. I think that someone’s taking the pissu there. Not only that but according to the same report, the Kerapu's captain is called Anas... you couldn't make it up could you? Whatever happened to Kerapus I and II, that's what I want to know. Bogged down in Davy Jones's toilet no doubt.

Anyway, I spared myself a case of canal dengue fever for another week and decided instead to head for TIM (Taman Ismail Marzuki) on Jl. Cikini Raya the centre of Jakarta's artsy-fartsy community. The complex hosts plays, concerts and movie festivals and wondering around last weekend I noticed that TIM's impressive new auditorium is nearing completion. What I had come for, however, was to experience the mysteries of the universe at Jakarta's very own planetarium. I can clearly remember visiting London's planetarium (next to the more famous Madame Tussaud's Waxworks Museum) when I was still running around in short trousers and enjoyed the experience immensely so I thought that's Indonesia's very own space dome would be a fun way to kill half an hour.

The planetarium's shows start at 10.00, 11.30, 13.00 and 14.30 on weekends and at 16.00 on weekdays. Admission will only cost you a mere Rp.10,000. Inside the planetarium dome, the audience reclines in comfy chairs which tilt back to angle their field of vision towards the heavens. Cosmic images are then projected onto the dome and reach all the way to the side walls, creating a total surround effect.

I took a seat and the auditorium darkened. The constellations glittered above, just as they do in reality (or just as they don't do through Jakarta's pea soup of a troposphere). I began to feel nostalgic for Bali holiday nights spent staring at the stars and drinking their bottled equivalent. Just as my eyelids were starting to droop, the Indonesian voice-over commentary started.

My Bahasa is quite shaky but I managed to decipher a fair amount of what our cosmic MC was intoning to us from the pellucid depths of space. He used a lot of humor and Indonesian imagery in an attempt to make astronomical and astrophysical facts lucid to us and the audience found him great fun to listen to. Pictures of the constellations were superimposed upon the star field in front of us and our voice-over man told us that mythical half man/half horse Pegasus didn't have to wear trousers because his bottom half wasn't human.

We also learned of meteors crashing into the earth's atmosphere at 50 km per second and were told that if we could travel from Jakarta to Bogor by meteor, then we'd arrive in less than one second. Roll on the Meteor-way project! Sticking with the transport analogies, our host then took us on a brief tour of the solar system and informed us that Saturn's rings consist of lumps of rock the size of Metro Mini buses (only not orange presumably). If only it were possible to take all of the real Metro Minis off the streets of Jakarta and station them in orbit around Saturn too, I think many of us would feel a lot happier.

Then, accompanied by the cosmic synthesizer cheese of hairy, Greek techno God Vangelis, we were transported to the atmosphere of Venus. Venus is perhaps the most interesting planet vis-à-vis our current apocalyptic fear of global warming. Despite being further from the Sun than Mercury, Venus is actually hotter and is made so by the huge concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in its atmosphere. Is this the future of our world? Perhaps, although I've found that it's actually possible to recreate a Venusian microclimate in your clothing here by eating a heavily spiced bowl of instant noodles at a roadside food stall at midday.

Eventually the lights came up again and we all trotted out blinking into the afternoon sun. Planetariums maybe relatively old hat these days and utilize old technology by the standards of our current flat screen, RAM packed, hyper-edited techno society but they still have a charm and magic all of their own as they majestically reveal the secrets of the universe to generations of school kids. Just think, 100 billion stars in our Galaxy and 100 billion galaxies. That's a lot of beer.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pass the Porridge

Back again faithful reader (singular). I was a bit snared up last week but I've returned to vent further spleen over another busy week in the capital.

The Jakarta governor's election will be upon us next month and many of us will be glad when the whole candidate grinning, baby kissing, Kampung bribing spectacle is over. My local area has been liberally pasted with the stickers and posters of various candidates and their running mates. The sooner they peel off in the next floods the better as far as I'm concerned; they've been creeping me out slightly, these cats in hats, Cheshire grins beaming out from under their traditional Pecis (Muslim gentlemen's headwear) covering every square inch of concrete surface. And what's worse, the campaign period hasn't even officially started yet. In about a month's time the city will be one big sticker.

To choose an example at random, Adang Daradjatun and Dani Anwar's posters simply enquire, "Bosen Macet?" (Are you bored of traffic jams?) Well indeed I am Messrs Daradjatun and Anwar. So what's the big plan this time then? Hot air balloons? Donkeys on roller skates? Your posters seemed rather light on the details.

In fact, I attempted to check out the new Jakarta boatway that was supposed to be undergoing trial runs last weekend. I trotted off the busway at Dukuh Atas and walked the few hundred yards to the canal only to find.... nothing. What's more, nobody seemed to know anything about it either. Hey ho. I sat down for a Teh Botol and a rest. Perhaps the water level was too high... or too low. Rumor has it that if the water in the river is too high then lady passengers will be snagging their headscarves on low bridges. Conversely, if the water level is too low then the selfsame headscarves will be sprayed with raw sewage as the boats’ propellers get snared up in the turgid turd strata that cover the riverbed.

I suppose we'll see if the whole riverboat shuffle project pans out over the next few weeks but personally I think it about as likely as incumbent Governor Sutiyoso sporting a bush whacker's hat with corks dangling from it and opening meetings at City Hall with a hearty, "G'day mates". Mr. Sutiyoso's recent brush with Australians who wish to remind him of the military's dark Suharto era past serves to remind us all of the continuing invidious influence of soldiers on the country's political scene.

I guess I'd have to reluctantly plump for the current lot who run Jakarta though, in all their corrupt, thug backed inefficiency, if the alternative is the Shariaists encroaching on the city from their surrounding suburban powerbase. Between a rock and a hard place ay? Any non-Islamist group running on an anticorruption, help the poor ticket would automatically be branded commie and have their trouser bottoms set on fire of course. And I don't even get a vote! Why bother!

In an attempt to cheer myself up I headed off to Lippo Karawaci last Sunday for the 30th Annual Highland Gathering. Yes, for 30 years since 1975 (with a couple of years off for good behavior) Scots from all over South East Asia and even from Scotland itself have gathered in Jakarta in order to chop wood, toss cabers, play rugby and enter tug-of-war contests. The Scottish are in their ascendancy at the moment. They have their own parliament and Tony Blair is finally stepping aside to make way for the true Tartan talents of Gordon Brown.

Unfortunately, Gordon didn't turn up at Lippo Karawaci to toast the event but the Highland gathering remains an enjoyable afternoon out for Jakarta's ragtag expat. community and a chance to catch up with people you haven't seen in, oh, about 12 hours. People bring their families along and stroll around the perimeter of the games field, stopping in at the various hospitality tents and watching men in kilts doing butch things with large pieces of wood. The tents either belong to Jakarta bars such as Eastern Promise and Amigos, or to the event's sponsors, namely various investment and insurance companies trying to ensnare potential investors with the promises of prize draws - I put down a false name on my ticket though, so they'll never get me!! Also sponsoring were oil companies such as the controversial Halliburton, no doubt flush with Iraqi reconstruction money, but again, as with Mr. Brown, there was no sign of Dick Cheney in a kilt anywhere.

I plonked myself down in the Jakarta-Java Kini tent and enjoyed their very generous hospitality. The up market lifestyle magazine was very sportingly giving away bottles of Storm - the beer brewed in Indonesia that actually tastes like beer. Apparently this fine brew, previously available only in Bali, will soon be on sale in the capital. Roll on the good times. There was also Bali's Hatten wine on offer but I wasn't quite as enthusiastic about that. After a few more ales and tug-of-war contests, the sun finally set on Karawaci. Bekilted men lit the ceremonial bonfire which was the cue for an impressive fireworks display to start.

After that I managed a gulp down a few free Margarita's that the Amigos' tent was giving away as it closed before I become emotionally unstable in a taxi on the way home. Scotland the Brave will return next year.