Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rumble in the Jungle

So another holiday season is over and Jakarta is once again full to bursting point with post-Idul Fitri returnees. In fact, it's probably even fuller than that, what with the annual new arrivals who've been told by their city dwelling relatives that the streets here are paved with gold. The reality, of course, is that they aren't paved at all full stop, but I wish these out comers luck anyway and hope that they manage to avoid the public order stormtroopers who will be trying to round them up in the coming weeks.

I spent my Lebaran holiday exploring the magnificent countryside around Medan in Sumatra and barely lived to tell the tale, more of which later. After flying to Medan via Air Asia, my holidaying housemate and I headed immediately for the hill town of Brestagi (Medan itself being nothing much to write home about).

Brestagi is a couple of hours away from Medan via jam-packed, Dangdhut rockin' seat squeezing, sweaty public bus. Thankfully, the conductor allowed us to ride on the roof with the spare tyre, which afforded us a pleasant cool breeze and plenty of mouth agape, "Hello Mr?" type stares.

Upon arriving we checked into the Wisma Sunrise View Hotel (an overpriced Rp.150,000 per night) and settled back to enjoy the magnificent views over the town and the quite breathtaking rising damp in the rooms. The next morning we explored the small but sweet town of Brestagi, located the inevitable Western backpackers' cheap eatery and had ourselves an authentic, Lonely Planet guidebook, banana-pancakes-cooked-by-an-Indonesian-Rastafarian breakfast.

After loading up with calories it was time to finally get down to brass tacks and do some serious hiking. There are two volcanoes next to the town, Gunung Sinabung and the smaller Gunung Sibayak. Being the limp wristed, nancy boys we are, we opted for Gunung Sibayak and set off from the park entrance through the drizzle. We reached the summit after a couple of hours of sweaty climbing and laughing at the Macaque monkeys in the trees (“I'm afraid it's Macaques, doctor”).

We then descended through the sulphurous mists of the volcano via a different route and bathed our aching muscles in the public hot springs of a nearby village. This was the perfect end to the day's expedition and we returned to the Wisma Damprise glowing with rude health.

The next day, it was back to Medan to catch an even sweatier public bus the three hours to Bukit Lawang, a well-known backpacker/tourist resort and orangutan rehabilitation centre and the stunning southernmost entrance to the enormous Gunung Leuser National Park which stretches all the way up into Aceh.

When we arrived, we checked into the superb Eco Lodge Hostel (081 26079983) and went out for a stroll. The cafes and small businesses that line the kilometer or two of the riverbank at the park’s entrance were full of smiling, happy Lebaran holiday families, cracking open the peanuts and jungle juice. Things haven't always been so jolly at Bukit Lawang however. Some of you may remember reading about the flash floods that devastated the area in 2004. A local guide at our hotel told us that over 50% of the businesses in the area were smashed to smithereens and scores of lives were lost in the deluge.

The Jakarta floods are bad enough but up here you have the additional problem of soil erosion and rain causing huge 60 foot high trees to come crashing down the steep slopes onto your house. It's a sad tale which could all too easily happen again, what with the continued environmental degradation and logging problems that bug the area.

The scenery at Bukit Lawang is simply stunning though. A huge roiling river cuts a swathe through a plunging gorge of virgin jungle in which orangutans dwell in the wild. After watching the orangutans gorge on bananas at the official feeding site, we decided to take our lives in our hands and surf a huge tractor tyre inner tube down the river, as many locals were doing.

Now, the Lonely Planet, every cheap skate’s favorite travel guide, explicitly warns against tubing and I guess that such a hazardous enterprise would never be allowed in the West without crash helmets and lifejackets. As I rode the bucking white water I fell off twice, bounced my tube against rocks, banged my legs against the bottom and mainlined pure adrenaline as I wondered if I'd ever be able to stop without breaking an arm. Sheer lunacy.

The next day, it was time for an overnight jungle trek. Our trusty guide, Jungle Eddie (real name Dedi) introduced us to wild orangutans and took us yomping over extremely steep, raw jungle terrain before we pitched camp next to the river in the late afternoon.

During the night it rained cats and dogs but we remained dry in our bivouac. The next morning the river had risen a couple of feet and was surging along powerfully. Our guide presented us with a stark choice: either shamble back to base camp on our sore legs via the way we had come the previous day or spend half an hour rafting back to the Eco Lodge on four tractor inner tubes lashed together with rope. It was probably indolence rather than masochism that caused us to choose the latter.

It was heart in the mouth time again as we bounced terrifyingly along whilst waves dumped cold water over us. The concerned expressions on our guides' faces told us that they were rafting at the edge of their abilities. We made it back, shell-shocked, and unwrapped our rucksacks from the three layers of plastic bags our guides had sealed them in before we set sail. Time for a beer.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Beyond the Fringe

There's another week to go until joy is unconfined once more and the holidays begin in earnest. Ramadan's spiritual meditation and contemplative abstinence will finally find ecstatic release as the feasting begins.

Unfortunately, this year's fasting month has seen a slight resurgence of those elements who would seek to undermine this very personal of religious experiences with threats, intimidation, violence and conformist dogma. I refer of course to the antics of the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) who seem only able to find peace and enlightenment through extreme acts of religious catharsis, to wit: smashing up bars and food stalls.

It's a bit of a shame that these boys are on a comeback tour and we all know the arguments about there being no compulsion in religion and fasting being a personal choice etc etc. In fact, perhaps one could even argue that the FPI should logically be thanking food stalls and bars that stay open for providing Muslims with greater temptations to resist and thus the possibility of an even stronger affirmation of their faith through fasting. Logic though, doesn't seem to be a priority here.

To be flippant for a moment, you could imagine that a real challenge for a fundamentalist would be to lock himself in a room full of beer, cigarettes and women during Ramadan as a test of his mettle. Actually that's not a bad idea for a reality TV show. I reckon TVRI could go for it. It certainly couldn't be any worse than the soppy religious ballads that have been hitting local TV screens this month, which are themselves almost as bad as the Christmas novelty records perennially released in the West. As an added bonus, the show would keep these firebrands out of trouble and prevent them from raiding my local Warung (food stall) which seems to be doing a roaring trade this holy month despite their wares being respectfully hidden behind the ubiquitous Ramadan curtains.

So where do the police fit in with these rather vigorous defences of the sanctity of the holy month? Well, as with most other aspects of the law here, they seem to have a rather ambivalent attitude to the FPI's antics. Last week, national police spokesman Inspector General Sisno Adiwinoto declared, perhaps rather optimistically, that, "The police, as an institution, keeps public order and safety."

Well, they occasionally do I suppose although I have, with my own eyes, seen the cops stand by and do nothing alongside the usual hordes of rubber necking civilians whilst the FPI go about their God-given roles of holy demolition men. Cynics may even suggest that there is collusion between the two groups for the purposes of rent seeking but we won't open that can of worms today.

A friend of mine texted me from a Kemang bar last week to tell me that the FPI were outside making a noise and scaring people. The bar itself has admittedly been guilty of the heinous Ramadan crime of serving beer in coffee cups in a hilarious re-enactment of American prohibition. Personally I prefer to drink coffee out of a beer glass during fasting month; my optic nerves could really do with a break from the local draught brew.

So what drives members of a given religion to act in such a super sanctimonious way? Aren't they being rather hypocritical? Unfortunately, there's no easy knockdown argument to confront them with. We may think that a suicide bomber is crazy, to take an extreme example, but within the parochial confines of his own belief system he may be acting completely rationally.

It's a sad fact about religious ethics that for every Dr. Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi there's a Taliban foot soldier or a US pro-lifer ready to shoot a doctor dead (I've always loved the irony of that one) for what they perceive to be completely rational beliefs. So with all this in mind and hoping to put the FPI in context, I ran a little Internet search this week trying to source out a few examples of ultra extreme fringe religious behavior.

One strange story I found concerned a Saudi man who divorced his wife for watching alone a television programme presented by a male. The Al Shams newspaper reported that the man ended his marriage on the grounds that his wife was effectively alone with an unrelated man, forbidden under Islamic law in the ultraconservative kingdom. Now that's really taking gender segregation into La-la land.

Then there's the US extremist Christian group The Army of God who once kidnapped women's clinic physician Dr Hector Zevallos (and his wife I might add) and held them for eight days in an abandoned ammunitions bunker.

A current bĂȘte noire of US Christian extremists are the Harry Potter books which have been accused of indoctrinating children into occult rituals. One website I found described the books as causing readers to, “Spill the blood of roosters, have goats rape virgins and eat newborns." Another web based rant that I found laid into the Harry Potter merchandising circus thus: "The worst product available to corrupt our youth was Potter's vibrating broomstick, now taken off the market under pressure from Christian parents, because it taught young girls how to abuse themselves and awoke their interests in the sins of the flesh."

Ulp!! Give me the anti-Bintang league any time. They can't hold a candle to these weirdos. Perhaps my favorite and most succinct encapsulation of the paradox of religious extremism though came during the Danish cartoon protests. There's a famous photo of someone holding aloft a placard which simply says," Behead those who say Islam is violent". It is perhaps an unfortunate fact of life that the most dangerous people are often the most religious.

But let's put on a brave face. Have a good week, feel the love, be nice to each other and remember that your teacup is ultimately half full rather than half empty. And best of all, it's not filled with tea either.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Lone Biker

We are now halfway through the holy month folks and the holiday season will soon be upon us. In the meantime, spare a thought for Mr. Sheikh Mus Zaphar Shukar, the Malaysian astronaut who will be blasting into space towards the end of Ramadan. This epochal event has produced some serious soul seeking amongst that country's Muslim community. Various newspaper articles have played out the kind of contorted arguments and creaking of metal that usually occurs when the religion mothership attempts to dock with the sleek, high-tech space station of modern science.

Mr Shukar will apparently be orbiting the Earth 16 times in any given 24-hour period but clerics have decreed that he will not be required to pray 80 times per day. He may instead perform his religious duties upon return to Earth. Mind you, it's swings and roundabouts with this story. I mean, if he had to pray 80 times a day at least he'd be able to break his fast 16 times a day. Suddenly things don't seem so bad.

Nevertheless, returning to more terrestrial matters, last Saturday I took a break from my embryonic stem cell research to check out the car free day underway on Jalans Sudirman and Thamrin. A couple of Metro Mads ago I discussed how encouraged I had been after hooking up with some of Jakarta's Bike to Work community and riding my aluminium steed around the city in a show of solidarity with them. This time though, the omens weren't so good.

I switched on the TV before I left the house and a cable news reporter was covering another car free day in China. Gesturing towards the internal combustion engine choked streets behind him he opined that the whole event had fallen somewhat short of being a resounding success. In fact, it seemed that the Chinese had completely ignored the whole thing. So much for their green credentials.

Would Indonesians prove any more responsive to a car free day than those Sino petrol heads? I decided to go and investigate. First though, I had to reach Jl. Sudirman's car free zone via the distinctly un-car free zone of Jl. Gatot Subroto in the centre of town. I donned my pollution mask and hit the road. The mask itself resembles something from World War I but is a vital accessory to have if the budding cyclist is to filter out the chemical soup that hangs heavy in the capital's air. Believe me, the ambient atmosphere is every bit as deadly and astringent as the mustard gas used in the trenches once you start breathing heavily. In fact, I've often considered whether some kind of scuba diving apparatus would be more appropriate or even one of those pressurized steel suits that they use for diving to the bottommost trenches of the ocean.

I descended on to Jl. Sudirman from the Semanggi clover leaf and was immediately greeted by.... loads of cars. It seems that the police had wimped out on the total car ban and had allowed drivers onto the side lanes of Sudirman and Thamrin. Only the centre lanes had been closed off. Bah, humbug. Not a good start I thought. The busway was also running of course so it was a far from emissions free Sudirman that I pedaled along. Nevertheless, it was a deliciously surreal feeling to have the centre of Jl. Sudirman completely to myself whilst the jammed cars crawled slowly along the edges. If only it could be like this every weekend.

I suddenly realized, however, that I did indeed have the central lanes of the road to myself. There were no other cyclists... at all. Where the hell was everybody? It was around then that I started to think that the ecologically indifferent Chinese were not alone in their lack of support for this brave environmental initiative.

Ah well. I decided to have a nice ride anyway and rocked up through Sudirman's skyscrapers along my own private ultra wide cycle lane. Towards the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, I finally came across some other cyclists: a married American couple who seemed as bemused as I was as to the whereabouts of the city's other bikers.

In front of Plaza Indonesia a marquee had been set up but nothing appeared to be going on inside. Ho hum. I continued on up Jl. Thamrin towards the end of the car free zone at Monas (the National monument).

At Monas itself, six emissions testing areas had been set up for cars to use free of charge. These were also somewhat less than a hive of activity though. I only saw one car being tested and staff at the testing stations sat around listlessly, twiddling their thumbs. Mind you, it doesn't take any high-tech equipment to be able to spot the city's dirtiest vehicles, one can simply see the clouds of soot that billow out of their exhausts. Any guesses?

Yes, as we all know the great Jakarta punchline is that the filthiest vehicles by far are public transportation. How embarrassing. I mean it's all very well getting 40 passengers in one vehicle but if that one vehicle is emitting 40 times the normal amount of pollutants then what's the point?

The answer? New fleets of buses of course. However, that's going to take money from a city budget that is largely leaked away through the sieve of corruption.

I cycled dejectedly back down to Semanggi feeling betrayed by my fellow citizens. At the cloverleaf junction I stopped next to a drinks vendor for some refreshment. I introduced myself as disgraced Tour de France winner Floyd Landis but alas the guy didn't offer me any testosterone injections or shots of human growth hormone... although he did claim that his bottles of Cola cost Rp.8000 each, the cheeky swine.

Then it dawned on me as I slurped away. Of course! It's the fasting month! No one's going to fancy a sweaty cycle when they can't drink are they? Nice planning Mr Sutiyoso!!