Monday, November 26, 2007

Go Johnny Go!

Onto yet more controversial subjects this week (get that headed letter paper ready). December 1st is World AIDS Day and with rare foresight the Indonesian government has declared that this also be the first day of the country's first National Condom Week. Hopefully this will help to dispel some of the stigma that surrounds the things (prophylactics, rubbers, French letters, Johnnies, Casper the ghost, select the term of your choice) in this country.

To get through the dull statistics first, Indonesia has one of the fastest growing HIV populations in Asia and, although this is largely related to intravenous drug use, there could be up to 250,000 cases here. Unfortunately, condoms account for only 1% of contraception and I would imagine that at least 50% involves the use of the time-honored method of praying and hoping for the best. Female sex workers here generally don't go for condoms and instead choose a tri-monthly injection as their contraceptive method of choice, thus leaving them exposed to the virus.

Among the poor, condom penetration is low (that's a rather unfortunate phrase) and family planning drives have had limited success. Indonesia is a patriarchal society of course and men have the social power to demand sex from women who are generally more subservient. Women are also known to have been blamed for infections, scapegoated for the folly of their men.

Religion is also a factor and Muslim leaders see the promotion of condoms as being equivalent to the promotion of free sex and this has also led to low exposure for our little latex friends. Fortunately, this Islamic reticence about rubbers hasn't reached the level of the Catholic Church whose, "Every sperm is sacred" anti-contraception doctrine and fallacious propaganda regarding the efficacy of condoms effectively condemns many in Africa to death.

I'd like to do my bit for National Condom Week though, the disapproval of various Imams and the Holy See notwithstanding. I've therefore penciled the first week of December into my diary, bought some 'rubber hats' and aftershave and will see if I can get a result. It's for the good of the country you understand.

Condoms are a marvelous invention. They protect against pregnancy and HIV transmission (all the scientific reports on the Internet that I looked up to agree on this). They thus kill two birds with one stone. And let's face it, in terms of family planning, this island of Java is too densely populated and could certainly use a more liberal application of the old Surat Perancis. Alas, ex-president Soeharto's family planning drives, which were run under the slogan "Dua Anak Cukup" (two children are enough), seem to have fallen off the edge of the political radar in recent years. Hopefully National Condom Week will help to readdress this problem. Hell, maybe they should even make chicken shaped ones to put over the island's 'cocks' as an anti bird flu measure. You can never have too much rubber in your life I say.

Condoms were apparently first discovered in Egypt and date back 3000 years. They were originally made from animal intestines apparently (hmm). During World War I, the condom wasn't available and many soldiers subsequently came home with various sexually transmitted diseases to go with their shellshock. In World War II though, condoms were widely promoted and were also put to work in a variety of nonsexual uses such as keeping dirt out of rifle muzzles and covering the firing mechanisms of underwater munitions to keep them dry.

Fast forward to 2007 and the modern latex condom is widely available in Jakarta for those who are interested. Even street side Warung stalls sell the familiar local Sutra brand and apparently a Durian variety is also available, although presumably this refers to its flavor and not to spikes sticking out of it.

I have to brave the chemists though when I'm in need of some stretchable friends. Unfortunately, Indonesian drugstores seem to have the highest staff to customer ratio of any local shops (about five to one at my estimate) which can be intimidating if you are in any way bashful about your rubber purchases. Many is the time that lovely young ladies have followed me around the shelves brandishing bottles of vitamins and inquiring as to what I'm looking for. "Er... razor blades," I'll usually reply before slinking off to locate the Casper shelf on my own.

And what a selection there is these days: Ribbed, Ticklers, Gossamer Thin, etc,etc, along with various gels and lubricants, it's all very confusing. The latest product that I've seen is called Tingle Gel, which apparently, in addition to lubricating, also imbues a sensation of warmth into both the wearer and his partner. Thankfully there doesn't seem to be a local version of this. I mean, Durian condoms are all very well but Sambal (chilli sauce) gel would be a step too far. I'll see you in casualty.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Off the Rails

Back again. Metro Mad has found itself in the unprecedented position of provoking a couple of letters of complaint to the Post this week. My outrageous suggestion that the small number of Afghan refugees who live here be naturalized has drawn some flak. It’s always nice to provoke a bit of ire and righteous indignation but I really didn't think my comments were that controversial. I find it very interesting, after all the columns that I've written, that negative correspondence has only been generated by me suggesting that a few outsiders be legalized as Indonesian citizens. Very interesting indeed.

Back to everyone's favorite topic this week though, urban transportation (oh God no). More disruption seems to be plaguing the city due to various new busways being constructed (and, in Pondok Indah, the ensuing bourgeois revolt). In addition, many of the old busway lanes are being fixed after crumbling to dust, which is also slowing things up. Some of the busway stops are also in a pretty parlous state.

One that I saw last week really took the biscuit. On one of the overhead walkways above the road, a metal floor panel was simply missing. There were no cones around the resulting hole or anything and I had visions of some poor grandmother, whose eyesight may not be what it was, plunging 20 feet onto the windshield of a Kijang below.

Back to matters in hand though. This week, I wanted to travel up to the electronics Mecca of Mangga Dua (the two mangoes) but decided to forego the disintegrating busways in favor of a far nobler form of travel. It is possible to get up to Kota by city train which runs on a viaduct over the roofs of the city's densely packed huddle of buildings. I hadn't been on it for years so I thought I'd give it another go.

I arrived at Gambir station and enquired about tickets. I was informed that they could be bought on the platform itself if one was wishing to travel locally up to the Kota area. I took the escalator up to the platform but couldn't find any tickets. Never mind, I plonked myself down on a bench and took in some of the marvelous views of Monas and the city skyline that are afforded commuters at Gambir.

After about 20 minutes the train rocked up and I took a seat. There were no tickets available here either but the train's interior was actually quite pleasant; in fact not totally dissimilar to a London Tube train. There was even a snack trolley at the front of the carriage, all very civilized. Mind you it wasn't rush-hour.

The train ploughed a gentle furrow up through Juanda, Sawah Besar and Mangga Besar stations before terminating in the faded colonial ambience of Stasiun Kota. I had once again been seduced by the romance of the railway and the journey had been fast and mercifully free of choking pollution. It was all as fine as can be despite the stern ticket collector I encountered on my way out who, despite my protestations, berated me for not having a ticket to give him. I paid up and sloped out of the station.

I then headed up the road to the Two Mangoes, in search of a WiFi plug-in thingy for my computer. After finding one for the knockdown price of Rp.280,000, I had a wander around the electronic shops and DVD stands. One particular shop was selling fantastic, state-of-the-art speaker systems and record turntables. Unfortunately there was a Kenny Loggins LP propped against one of their most expensive turntables which rather put me off. It’s always important to listen to Kenny in razor sharp, audiophile fidelity apparently.

Over the road in the crazy market plaza, the usual hubbub, hullabaloo and chaos was in progress and I had an interesting time strolling around the labyrinthine maze of outlets whilst people assaulted me with assorted bags, wallets, kitchen equipment, bras and kinky vibrating back massagers. All good clean fun.

Getting home wasn't such a breeze however. Upon returning to Kota Station I learned that due to technical problems, there were no trains running back to Gambir. Hmmm. I wonder how often that happens? No worries, I thought, and headed out to the busway terminal at the front. Alas the glass and metal ringed bus stop was absolutely jammed to the rafters with seething, sweating commuters. I was between a rock and a hard place and with hover boots alas still on the drawing board it had to be a Tarif Lama taxi home. There's only so far I can take my commitment to public transportation I'm afraid.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Jakarta Undercover

Once again, the shelves seem to have run dry at my local couple of duty-free stores in Kemang. They haven't actually run dry this time though; the two shops in question are in fact loaded with booze but are selling only to residents holding yellow, diplomatic cards. As I'm sure you have inferred by now, I haven't got one.

Still, the booze-less gloom was dispelled last weekend by the impending nuptials of a close friend of mine. Now my friend had planned to get his civil marriage certificates sorted out at the registry office last Saturday in preparation for a full and proper religious ceremony on the 14th in Sumatra. He had organized a traditional pre-wedding, gentlemen's stag night party for last Saturday evening, set for after the mere formality of the registry office certificate gig.

Unfortunately, my comrade's Indonesian fiancé arrived dressed up to the nines with about 20 of her friends and clearly considered the registry office experience to be the full wedding deal. My confused friend and his fiancé/bride left the office in a car with just married plastered all over it and lots of flowers stuck to it. And who wouldn't be confused? He was now in the rather untenable position of having his stag night on his wedding night. I would certainly feel slightly conflicted to say the least.

Anyway, the stag night/bucks' party did ultimately get underway at one of those posh, Kota karaoke joints with private rooms. According to that best-selling sleaze-manual-masquerading-as-journalistic-reportage, Jakarta Undercover, all manner of naughty stuff occurs in the private confines of the karaoke chamber and this turned out to be a fine opportunity to check out whether the salacious bestseller was really true (purely for journalistic purposes you understand).

When I arrived I was shown into a luxuriously huge karaoke room full of plush couches and TVs. This was merely one of seemingly hundreds of similar rooms that lay behind many doors in the dimly lit maze of corridors of the joint (whose name is exactly 1006 less than the current year). About 20 guys, some of whom I knew, were relaxing on the couches drinking beer. So what was going to happen now?

If it had been a classic British stag night, we would have been sitting around in some dismal pub somewhere when a policewoman would have walked in, approached the groom-to-be and convinced him that he was under arrest for some spurious crime or other. She would then have announced that she was going to, "Take down his particulars," and have subsequently taken down her own particulars, revealing herself as the traditional but nevertheless rather hackneyed and lame stag night strip-o-gram.

I'm sure that many other cultures in the world have their own version of this pre-wedding, male rite of passage. In the end however we were treated to a couple of young females who, despite not being dressed as policewomen, nevertheless proceeded to take all their clothes off and jiggle about a bit to the music.

There was a fair amount of testosterone and beer fuelled jeering and leering at this point I suppose. A friend I was chatting to though told me that he used to work in such a place (not stripping himself I might add). He claimed that during the female equivalent of a stag night, often known as a hen party, the women generally act much wilder with a male stripper than the men do with the female equivalent. Interesting point, something to do with sexual harassment prohibitions in our society perhaps? Who knows. I only know that as a red-blooded male I felt simultaneously hot under the collar and yet slightly unnerved by the group, public striptease experience.

Indonesia is a politely religious society in general as we know and yet plenty of stuff like this goes on under the surface. Is this just hypocrisy or is something deeper going on within the human psyche here? Why do humans of all races form family units and yet frequent strip clubs or brothels? Why go to a stag night and make a public display of promiscuity before the monogamous pair bonding of marriage?

The whole evening brought into sharp focus a book I recently read on evolutionary biology and the genetics of animal behavior (bear with me). In the animal kingdom, apparently, some species have evolved monogamous, pair bonding rituals. Animals like these, such as many bird species or marmoset monkeys, mate for life and the male of the species is just as involved in raising the offspring as the mother is. Pair bonded species are picky who they mate with as they will be together a long time and females look for good fathering skills in a mate. Pair bonded species also exhibit low levels of male aggression and, in addition, the males look very like the females in both size and appearance.

By contrast, tournament species such as peacocks or baboons or seals are the complete opposite in their genetically predetermined sexual behaviour. In these species, the males aggressively fight each other for dominance of the females and the chance to be the sole procreator of the group. In such tournament harems, 95% of the offspring are fathered by just four or 5% of the males. The winning males are consequently not interested in playing any role in the bringing up of the children as their genes will be passed on through their many female partners and they are also not picky about who they mate with. Females are only interested in getting quality sperm from their males as opposed to any non-existent fathering skills. In addition, natural selection has honed the males’ bodies for aggressive male/male conflict and thus a sexual dimorphism has emerged, i.e. the males look really different from the females and are up to twice their size.

So which group do humans belong to? Difficult to say isn't it? The punchline is that our species apparently possesses genes typical to both pair bonded and tournament species and we thus fall somewhere in the middle in our instincts. This can be seen in our physical makeup too; males and females are not identical but neither, obviously, are men twice as big as women. On average, in fact men are slightly beefier than women. We are not quite monogamous and yet not quite polygamous. Thus we are, in scientific jargon, a tragically confused species. This conflict has no doubt given as 90% of our great literature and art and perhaps also the guilt ridden sexual prohibitions of our religions that we struggle to live up to.

It was definitely baboons in that karaoke room though, with a few Bintang drinking bull seals thrown into the mix. We didn't lock stag -like antlers however and fight over breeding rights with the bare maidens. Instead, I left afterwards and went to KFC.

Monday, November 05, 2007


Another week has fairly zipped by and I'm fully re-immersed in Jakarta's sweltering melting pot after the holiday. And indeed it is a melting pot, more than it may appear at first glance. It's obviously a joke to claim that the city can match the cosmopolitan, internationalist ambience of New York or London, but compared with the rest of Indonesia, Jakarta is a pan-ethnic, polyglot, shopping plaza of fun.

Just last week, for example, I became embroiled in an interesting social match up in a suitably divey bar on central Jakarta's infamous Jalan Jaksa strip. A couple of friends and I were enjoying a bottle or seven of the finest, most foaming-est, nut brown Bintang that the city has to offer.

Now, one of my co-drinkers that night is an active member of the US military who spends half his time pounding around Afghanistan with a big gun and the other half enjoying a bit of Jakarta rest and relaxation (ably assisted by various Afghani souvenirs that he brings with him). Aside from checking in at the US Embassy every now and again my friend is free to pursue the Jakarta dream to his heart's content and take a well earned Bintang break from the (ironically beerless) task of Taliban bashing around Bagraim air base.

After about three bottles of the old Batavian amber nectar, three guys came and sat at the table adjacent to our own and ordered some cokes (with which they were to mix surreptitiously with the bottle of duty-free Bacardi that they had hidden under their table in a plastic bag). Eventually, introductions were proffered and the secret Bacardi supply was shared joyfully amongst the six of us. It turned out that our new friends were Afghan refugees who had fled here in 2001 during the supposed overthrow of the Taliban by the coalition of the willing. Well it's a small world and make no mistake! US military occupier meets refugee from the same war at the United Nations of Jaksa.

After a brief Bacardi and Bintang brokered US/Afghan peace conference during which my international friends compared notes on their experiences of Kabul, the Pashtuns, etc etc we moved on to more local matters. It turns out that these poor lads have been stateless refugees in Jakarta for over six years now. Apparently Indonesia plays, “Temporary," home to about 500 Afghan refugees, who, in this John Howard era of asylum seeker crackdowns, have been unable to make the final leap over to their dream destination of Australia. As a result, these would be cobbers are stuck in limbo in Indonesia, officially not allowed to work and paid a monthly pittance of Rp.500,000 by the UNHCR.

It's certainly not the dream expatriate life of the Westerner or Japanese or Korean that springs to mind when one thinks of foreigners in Jakarta. However, the boys that we met have tried to make the best of things during their six years as Jakartan refugees and I surmise that there must be considerably worse places in which to have refugee status conferred upon you in this world.

All three of them spoke Indonesian well and one of them has married a local lady with whom he has had a child. The boys also professed to enjoy the occasional night out at local sin bin/pleasure palaces such as Stadium Discotheque in Kota. Clearly these boys have found a means of income over and above the UNHCR and good luck to them I say.

It's a shame that the Indonesian government seems to view these people as a burden and won't grant them the opportunity to stay and work here legally, even after six years. Browsing the Internet I found a quote from the wonderfully and appropriately named Mr Godam from the Bogor Immigration Department who said, five years ago, that, "We have to watch over them, which is not easy because of their large number and because they stay in different places." Yes, very compassionate; whatever happened to the international Muslim brotherhood that Indonesians love to evoke during this endless war on terror?

Afghans elsewhere in Indonesia have fared even worse it would seem. I learned via the Web that in Cilacap in 2001, "For security reasons, following the attempt by several refugees to escape from their current shelter, the Nusakambangan quarantine centres, they have been transferred to Batu prison, a special block for inmates convicted of drug offences." Nice. In addition, in 2004, three Afghan refugees in Mataram, Lombok, went on hunger strike via the rather drastic method of sewing up their lips. It would seem that being a refugee here can be every bit as bad as doing time in one of Johnny Howard's outback gulags.

Returning to our Bacardi fuelled Stadium heroes though. The boys told us that they still held out hope of eventually making it to Australia somehow or other. There was no way that they would ever go back home to the troubles and the resurgence of the hated Arabized Taliban. This resolve, they said, has only been strengthened through their encounters with the Arabs in Jakarta who, they claim, are arrogant, snobby and tend to look down their noses at Afghans.

Sitting in our salubrious Jaksa watering hole though, it was time to put a positive spin on life. The booze flowed freely around our pan Asian conference table and we talked some more until I had to retire dizzy for a few minutes in order to let out a rather unpleasant Technicolor yawn. The Afghans slipped away into the Jakarta night, ready for some hot nightclub action although not before letting us know that two of them,"Swing both ways," as I believe it's known in common parlance. In this respect they were not atypical Afghans, our American friend told us after they had left.

I was coming down hard the next day with a heavy Bintang/ Bacardi hangover gnawing at my optic nerves in the office. The memories of an enjoyable and educational night remained with me though. Jaksa rocks, who needs Oz?