Sunday, December 23, 2007

What's Another Year

The holiday season is upon us and this year there's double fun to be had as the coincidence of Christmas and the Muslim holiday of Idul Adha gives all of us a chance for a nice break. Alas, in our house, the absence of traditional Christmas aromas such as mulled wine and turkey stuffing has been complemented by the pungent aroma of cattle and goat dung wafting across from the nearby market as the livestock are fattened up ready for the ritual slaughter. Mind you, in the West, a lot of turkeys will also be buying the farm about now.

And so another 12 months limps dejectedly to a close and the joys of 2008 will soon be upon us. What delights will be in store for us this year I wonder? An increasing series of environmental disasters perhaps? Further attacks on science by the forces of religious atavism? The rich/poor gap widening a bit further possibly? A bird flu pandemic that decimates the world? The further disintegration of our cultural heritage into five second attention spans soundbites and online social networking flotsam? Maybe there'll be an all-out, internecine Sunni/Shia war in the Middle East and if we're really lucky, Iran will build their Shia bomb to match Pakistan's Sunni nukes, and we'll all go up in a puff of isotopes. Er... okay sorry, I'll stop now. 'Tis the season to be merry and all that.

I trust that most of you have managed to escape the city, if only for a day or two, and are currently soaking up the sun somewhere gorgeous. As a Jakarta resident you owe it to yourself. So that was 2007 hey? Another fine year in Jakarta, Indonesia. We've had biblical floods in the capital, plane crashes, new busways causing chaos, a new governor elected and a climate change conference. The year has also just been rounded off by Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, Mr. Bakrie, being declared the country's richest man. Although he's not rich enough, it would seem, to yet compensate victims of his company's mudflow disaster in central Java. Ho-hum, business as usual then.

But the negative nature of the newspaper headline and the TV bulletin is very much the nature of the news culture beast. The happy stuff comes at a more personal level. This year, I've managed to see more of Indonesia's stunning scenery by visiting Borneo and Sumatra. I've enjoyed lots of good food, quaffed some fine beverages, indulged in some hot lovin' and generally made hay while the sun shines.

I trust that many of you have also laughed in the face of world and national events and can tell tales of personal endeavor, victories both small and large, marriages, new friendships, sexual athleticism, interesting holidays and monumental hangovers. Suddenly life doesn't seem so bad ay?

Hopefully there'll be more room for fun and self-improvement next year. I've never been one for New Year's resolutions however. Most people who make them seem to regress from their good intentions and lapse back into old habits by about January the 11th. With this in mind, I managed to dig out a few quotes from the literary greats regarding the false light of optimism that beams around the planet at the dawn of the New Year.

Mark Twain once said that, "New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions." A bit of drunken promiscuity once in awhile is no bad thing I reckon but each to his own. Back across the Atlantic, good old Oscar Wilde said of New Year that, "Good resolutions are simply cheques that men draw on a bank where they have no account." Very witty Oscar.

Back to the present day, that incorrigible and still very much alive old goat P. J. O'Rourke once said that, “The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk; this drunkenness culminates on New Year's Eve when you get so drunk you kiss the person you're married to." The final word, however, goes to the less well-known 19th-century English diarist and critic James Agate, who once said that his New Year's resolution was, "To tolerate fools more gladly, provided this does not encourage them to take up more of my time."

Happy holidays one and all.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Round and Round

As I write this the whole Bali climate conference shebang is nearing its end. The delegates will soon fly home to their respective countries and we'll all get on with leading the same wasteful, disposable lives spurred on by our unceasing competitive materialism and shallow one-upmanship. Shiny new cars and fancy goods will still be spilling off production lines and we’ll no doubt continue to be mollified by the objective purchasing power in our pockets.

The American writer Philip Roth in his famous and otherwise rather smutty book Portnoy's Complaint summed up our condition in one of my favourite quotes thusly:
“Society not only sanctions gross and unfair relations among men, but encourages them... rivalry, competition, envy, jealousy, all that is malignant in human character is nourished by the system. Possessions, money, property -- on such corrupt standards as these do you people measure happiness and success."
It's a pretty uncompromising quote admittedly but one that rings true of Indonesia and the world at large and perhaps one that is becoming increasingly relevant as we reach an environmental impasse.

This is all getting a bit heavy though isn't it? There must be some cause for optimism surely? Well perhaps. I recently stumbled upon an initiative that seems to be moving in the right direction, namely a website called Freecycle.

Now recycling is an old idea. Growing up in the UK (which was way behind the rest of Europe in terms of recycling at the time I might add) my family and I would nevertheless trudge dutifully along to the bottle bank every week to deposit our glassware. The wheels came off the wagon somewhat when I found out that it takes almost as much energy to make a bottle out of recycled glass as it does to make one from scratch. The point is though, that the recycling principle was sown in my young mind.

And now perhaps it is being sown in Indonesia's young mind. Freecycle is a global web site and its Indonesian branch was started in 2004. Basically, people post messages in which they state what they are giving away or make requests for certain items and wait for a reply. Everything is given away free, no money may change hands and new members to the site must offer something with their first posting as a gesture of good faith in Freecycle's principles.

Freecycle seems to offer Indonesia a radical new social paradigm. Partly in terms of the philosophy of recycling but also in the idea of getting something for nothing. In this country, where even hailing a taxi on a random street corner or parking your breakfast in a public convenience has been tapped as a source of income by some one dollar a day underclass chancer, to totally circumvent money in this way is something wholly new (or perhaps a very old?)

Anyway, I joined free cycle recently and posted up my first offer: what amounts to about three quarters of an old PC. Not a bad opening gambit I thought. I scrolled through a few of the other members offers and found such items as:
A key chain made from pewter from Thailand with a Muay Thai fighter picture on it.
A 1980s Berlitz how to speak Spanish travel guide book.

I’m not sure who’s going to trudge halfway across town to pick up those two gems but perhaps someone would be interested. Alas, none of Indonesia's plutocrats seem to have joined the group and posted up their old BMWs but I live in hope.

Freecycle is apparently a fast-growing international movement and was founded in Tucson, Arizona. There are a few rules that should be followed on Freecycle however. Number one states that alcohol, tobacco, firearms or drugs are prohibited on a, "Two strikes and you're out of the group" basis. This strikes me as a bit weird though, when you consider that everything is free. I find it hard to imagine someone posting up a message saying, "I've got half a bottle of whisky in my house that I just can't bring myself to finish, so if anyone would like to come and pick it up..." There should also be no politics or personal attacks on the site although you are allowed to find new homes for pets.

The strangest rule though would have to be, "No Freecycling yourself or your children.” Freecyclers wishing to do this are instead directed to Internet dating sites and told to get their annoying kids, "Involved in after-school band practice," instead. Hmmm, they certainly seem to have all bases covered down at Freecycle don't they?

Actually, I guess you could use Freecycle in order to play a rather malicious trick on one of your pals. He certainly won't be best pleased when he gets home to find that his entire CD collection has been sacrificed to the ideological cause of global recycling.

Ultimately though, Freecycle represents a rather more humane approach to the recycling imperative than Jakarta urchins rummaging around for plastic bottles on stinking rubbish tips. Long may it prosper. Those interested in having a bash should point their browsers at

Sunday, December 09, 2007

From Kyoto to Kuta

This week, the smarting eyes of the world have been focused on Bali as world leaders, environment ministers and a smattering of celebrities gather to talk hot air about hot air. Arnie the Governator, Big Al Gore and Leo DiCaprio are among the more famous names that will be huffing and puffing sweatily around the Island of the Gods on bicycles that have been provided for the delegates. Although in fact, according to this week's Jakarta Post, only 200 out of 700 bicycles have actually materialized in an all too familiar type of Indo.cock up.

We'll see if any good comes of the whole event. I'm sure that pledges will be made and soundbites will issue forth from the lips of politicians with earnest expressions on their faces but when it's all over... Well, maybe the spirit of altruism and environmental solidarity will melt away once again when Western politicians are confronted with the immovable fact that cleaning up the planet and living sustainably is going to require a cut in the richest nations' living standards. This is, of course, a hard sell when placed in the context of our current, naturalized ideology of freewheeling, free market capitalism in which the accumulation of shiny things has become so central to our lives.

I do think though, that the usual niceties of international diplomacy and summits should be swept aside on this occasion. Specifically, Bali is far too pleasant a place in which to be chewing over prophecies of impending global doom. Our great leaders are no doubt currently experiencing palm fringed paddy fields, colorful Batik shirts, sunbathing on the beach and vodka martinis. Such classic Balinese holiday motifs may unfortunately serve to neutralize the urgency of the environmental message that the conference purports to be exploring.

Indonesia is on the front line of the environmental war, what with its rapidly vanishing forests and population pressures and this should be reflected in the choice of conference venue. Therefore, I'd like to propose the visceral reality of Jakarta as a location for a future environmental summit. If we could get that unctious, salad dodging, Nobel laureate Al Gore on a bicycle and send him off wobbling through Mampang, or get Schwarzenegger squashed into a Bajaj, sucking down exhaust fumes with his knees around his buzz cut, then perhaps a greater sense of urgency would be impressed upon the delegates.

Meetings and debate could be interspersed with field trips to watch local garbage collectors burning mountains of plastic, policemen coughing up black lumpy things into their pollution masks, street urchins with interesting skin conditions playing football in raw sewage and floodwater lapping around shanty dwellers nipples. I don't know who would crack first. Arnie would probably demand a chemical suit and an AK-47. On the other hand though, Big Al may possibly develop a taste for Soto Ayam and Nasi Goreng and move his whole Inconvenient Truth operation here, thus reinvigorating the Indonesian environmental movement.

Ah well, why bother hey? Maybe the psychoanalysts are right about there being a death wish deep within the human psyche. In more nihilistic moments I look forward to the end of this whole sad, pathetic human drama with open arms. Embrace extinction and prepare to join the other 95% of species that have ever roamed this Earth in their total non existence. As I said before, maybe any planet that can't sustain its population above the level of 15th century peasantry doesn't deserve to survive. Gosh I am in a good mood this week aren't I? It must have been running into that ex girlfriend of mine last weekend and realizing that she has all the sincerity and sensitivity of Tony Blair doing Christmas pantomime that's made me like this. Still, I digress.

Perhaps Indonesia could give something back to the world in order to atone for all of the rainforest destruction. How about sealing Jakarta inside a huge transparent, geodesic dome; just like they do to Springfield in the recent Simpsons movie? The world's environmental scientists could then conduct experiments on us. They could reduce the water supply for example, or artificially increase air pollution levels in order to see what happens. We would be like 10 million lab rats in amongst the real rats, providing crucial population/ environmental crisis data that could later be used to save the world.

In my paranoid mind though, it sometimes seems as if this has already happened. WALHI, the Indonesian Forum for the environment, has some very interesting stuff on their web site about our urban surroundings. Apparently, 13% of Jakarta's water is contaminated by mercury and 73% by ammonia. Well, the ammonia statistic should come as no surprise to anyone who has had an eye wateringly pungent ride on Jakarta's boatway. I also read that 2.2 million tonnes of toxic waste are discharged into Jakarta's rivers annually and that Jakarta's water table is dropping at such an alarming rate that people now have to drill up to 80 m down in order to strike H2O.

On the traffic front, I learned on my Web browsing that not only are very few cars in Jakarta fitted with catalytic converters, but that those drivers who do have the converters fitted are often persuaded to have them removed by unscrupulous mechanics looking to earn a few extra Rupiah. Apparently, the mechanics mischievously tell them that their cars performance will improve without the converters, which is not even true. However, maybe this information was conveyed to the mechanics by environmental scientists with clipboards outside the dome. Oh the paranoia of it all! I must find something to dispel the gloom of this winter of discontent. Anyone up for Christmas in Bali?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Stir Crazy

Well I've been gored and eviscerated by the runaway bull of Indonesian nationalism on the Jakarta Post letters page of late and this week I may get myself into yet more hot water, but let's press on anyway.

A fortnight ago, a United Nations report was published; its subject: the Indonesian penal system and its, "Cult of impunity," for members of the police and military who torture inmates in prisons and detention centers across the country. Mr Manfred Novak, a UN human rights monitor, said that he found evidence of detainees being electrocuted, suffering systematic beatings and even being shot in the legs at close range. Mr Novak was quoted as saying that, "The problem of police abuse appears to be sufficiently widespread as to warrant immediate attention." He called for a separate offence of torture to be created, a reduction in the time people spend in police custody and an independent complaints system.

This is all very interesting although not entirely surprising to anyone who's lived in this country for a while. During my time here, crawling through the thorns of the Big Durian, I have had two very different encounters with internment Indonesian style.

On the first occasion, which happened only a few months after I first arrived in Jakarta, I was pick pocketed on a footbridge on Jl. Sudirman. I saw the poor wretch responsible making his getaway and actually managed to catch up with him. Unfortunately though, he had already passed my wallet on to an unknown accomplice. Events quickly escalated as a security guard from a nearby building arrived on the scene to hold the guy. Soon after, a policeman arrived in all his light brown, ill fitting shirted finery.

We all drove down to the cop shop together in a van and were shown into a room at the nearby Polda police headquarters. Inside, the officer in question proceeded to interrogate my assailant with the aid of a huge 2 foot long desk stapler. After inflicting a few red welts on the poor wretches back, the lawman held his long arm out and offered me his dual purpose office utility. “Would you like a go Mr?" he asked. "Er... I think I'll wait outside," I said and stepped through the door, my heart racing.

Outside, through the muffled sound of thwacking coming from the room next door, I was grilled by the desk sergeant. "Where are you from Mr?.... What are you doing here?.... Where is your passport?..... Don't you know that you must report to the police every six months?" I was getting a good third degree grilling even though I was the victim. When his back was turned I quietly slipped away out of the police station lest I also be given the dreaded Samurai stapler treatment. What a strange day.

My second experience with the dark underbelly of Indonesia's penal system came when I visited a friend who spent an unfortunate three months in sunny Salemba jail after being caught with a small pinch of Oregano (the better to make his spaghetti with you understand).

It proved to be an expensive stay for the poor lad as an ever escalating series of bribes were scaled. My friend was also shelling out several million a month to stay in the nicer part of the prison, i.e. a room separate from the various caged thugs, murderers and gangsters who make up the majority of the lags down at good ol' Salemba.

Impoverished Indonesians who wind up in jail have it even worse though. If they find themselves in the animal pen they are often tortured by other inmates until they reveal where they live. Word is then passed to the outside and the heavies are sent round to the address in question in order to extort the poor guy's family. Grim stuff indeed.

Back to my friend though. His stay inside interestingly coincided with that of elderly, bucktoothed fundamentalist Abu Bakar Bashir who was then serving time for his alleged role in the Bali bombing. When I went to visit I had to wait in line with around 30 of his bearded and be-turbaned followers who had come all the way from East Java to show their support for the myopic (in every sense of the word) Bashir. They seemed somewhat interested to see an infidel in their midst.

Of course, the whole issue of the penal system here throws this country's corruption and its elite/plebeian class divide into sharp relief. If you're poor, you'll be thrown in the slammer to rot without a second glance (or fair trial). If you are a rich corruptor though, the continuing parlous state of the judiciary will enable you to purchase your freedom.

If you have the connections and the money you can escape incarceration not only before your trial but also, amazingly, even after you have been found guilty. Yes, pending several lengthy appeals processes we have time and again seen convicted fat cats remain firmly ensconced in their luxury pieds-a-terre.

Often, the judiciary has tried to neutralize negative public perception of this unfairness by coming up with the fascinating concept of city arrest. Now, I've heard of house arrest. The detention of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi springs to mind as a prominent example. Although in fact, even house arrest wouldn't seem so bad to a few of my acquaintances, so long as they could keep sending the maid out for a steady supply of noodles, DVDs and beer. City arrest though... how does that work? It certainly doesn't seem like a very stringent punishment does it? And why stop there? How about planetary arrest? “Yes your honor, our client solemnly undertakes not to have his BMW fitted with an ionic positron drive and to head out of the solar system into the asteroid belt pending his appeal."

If you're not minted with ill gotten gains though, it's best not to chance anything illegal here I say. Have a good week and keep your noses clean. Let's have no dabbling in drugs, pornography, copyright infringement or alternative interpretations of Islam. Give thanks that you are an honest law-abiding citizen the next time you drop the soap in the Mandi.