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.