Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Just a Spoonful of Sugar…

The rains may be sneaking in late this year but last week I succumbed to the usual seasonal malaise and was laid low by a mega bout of flu. After a night creating an entire mini Matterhorn of used tissues, I toddled off to the chemists to purchase a shed load of tablets. After buying about five different types of flu pills, I retired to my boudoir to make horrible noises and randomly select the first medicine from my bag of Apotik Melawai goodies.

Most Indonesians love their drugs of course and need very little encouragement to take pills by the bucketful. There is a bewildering array of popular medicines at your local pharmacy for all the usual gastric and common cold type ailments, as well as plenty of pills for those local sicknesses that don't precisely correspond to biomedical categories. I'm referring of course to those twin scourges of Indonesian health, Masuk Angin (Enter Wind) and Panas Dalam (Hot Inside). What these two names actually designate has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Personally, I've always found wind more likely to exit, as opposed to enter, my body. I was once on an intercity bus that broke down and the word being spread among the passengers that had assembled around the back of the ailing coach was that the engine was suffering from Masuk Angin, so clearly this is a pandemic that affects organic and inorganic objects alike. As for feeling hot inside, well that covers just about everything from indigestion to pancreatic cancer.

Local television is full of commercials for these rather non-specific medicines. My favorite product though would have to be Pil Kita (Our Pills). Apparently the whole family can stay in the pink with these things but what they actually do remains a complete mystery. You can imagine the conversation can't you?
-Shall we take Our Pills son?
-But I feel fine dad
-You take your pills now! I don't want to be dragging you down to the hospital tomorrow.
-But what exactly are these pills for dad?
-Well.... they're for us.

Products such as this are, of course, the tip of a very large traditional medicines iceberg. Jamu, those local potions sold in roadside stalls and by ladies carrying baskets full of bottles on their backs, are as popular as they ever were. Sales have increased greatly since the economic crisis in fact and these drinks have become a multi-million dollar industry. Such traditional remedies are seemingly a panacea for almost all human illnesses. There are Jamu for menstruation pain, acne, kidney stones, weight loss, bust enlargement (?!), diabetes, sexual virility and just about anything else you can think of. Some Jamu may be genuinely effective and many are based on ancient Chinese remedies. Many others, however, are no doubt nothing but snake oil (the possibility of bust enlargement, for example, seems to be stretching credulity somewhat).

More seriously though, the popularity of these potions is indicative of the majority of Indonesians' inability to afford prescription medicines. Local doctors will often prescribe extremely expensive brand-name pharmaceuticals when cheaper generics are available, raising suspicions about their possible collusion with drug companies. Doctors here are also given to polypharmacy, namely prescribing a list of six or so drugs to patients, many of which are non-essential but expensive (if you're poor) items such as vitamins. Thus, cheap and traditional herbal remedies remain popular and are perhaps actually effective on occasions; after all, the placebo effect is a well-known scientific phenomenon. If you believe you're getting better, you will get better. The fact that most Jamu drinks taste absolutely revolting only adds to their medicinal credibility in this respect.

On the other hand, perhaps such psychological placebo trickery is a dangerous delusion. The booming sales of the new generation of sickly sweet energy drinks reflect this. Packed full of such health giving compounds as caffeine, taurine and sugar, these ghastly drinks offer an illusory quick fix of instant strength to Indonesia's impoverished masses, a fix which can only temporarily mask the effects of poverty, poor diet, lack of sleep, pollution, disease and parasites.

Perhaps though we shouldn't blame the malingering masses for choosing the quick fix option. Allegedly, between 30 and 40% of medicines on sale in Indonesia are fake (especially those famous little blue pills that have revolutionized male droop). In addition, the quality of health care available can often leave a lot to be desired. One credible report I found on the Internet pointed to the overuse of antibiotics and injections, wrong prescriptions and short three-minute consultations with doctors as all endangering Indonesian health. With bird flu hovering ominously around the headlines perhaps we should all be a bit worried.

Why fret though? Why not forget all of these worries with some recreational drugs? Want to get wasted but are too scared of the stiff sentences dished out for possession of ecstasy, marijuana, etc? Simply drag yourself down to the chemist (or even supermarket) and buy yourself a strip of ephedrine filled asthma relief tablets. Ephedrine is an amphetamine derivative that you certainly won't find in western over-the-counter medicines, or even in prescription ones. Neck three pills down and head to the disco, you'll soon be speeding your head off and, as a bonus, you'll be reducing your unsightly tummy bulge and also be in no danger of an asthma attack either. Rock on man!


Simon Pitchforth

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Island of the Sods

I took the path of least resistance this Christmas and New Year and hopped over to Bali to stew in the sun and pig out on huge plates of international haute cuisine (hot food). It was off the plane and straight down Legian for me and I was sculling Storm beer and watching the sunset within the hour. Perhaps though, I shouldn't have lingered around the ground zero area too long. Yes, another Bali holiday, yet another chance to get to grips with the assorted Aussie surf intellectuals, Euro muesli heads and mercenary Javanese hawkers sent by Satan to mess with my head.

Back at the hotel (Suka Beach Inn on Poppies 2, Rp.60,000 per night with swimming pool and obligatory banana pancake breakfast) the Balinese International melting pot was recreated in miniature for my enjoyment. Straight off the bat I managed to scare some refined Euro types in the swimming pool with some uncouth British splashing about and soggy high jinx. They in turn responded by taunting me with a refrain from middle-aged, Tantric sex rainforest guru Sting's An Englishman in New York. I always have a slight inferiority complex which manifests itself when I'm around European tourists. I think this is largely due to the fact that they can understand what I'm saying as they can all speak English, but I can't understand a word of Swedish/French/German etc. My monolingual English ignorance tends to make me a bit wary. However, just because you can speak five languages doesn't necessarily mean that you have anything interesting to say in any of them, and this was demonstrated pool side by my fellow holidaymakers' Brit baiting chorus of Mr. Sting's weak tea bland, midlife crisis rock.

No, I had to get to my room. I was accosted on the way by a massage lady who was most insistent that I avail myself of her elderly services. I pushed her down the stairs and continued up to my Rp.60,000 per night presidential suite.

I got no peace there though. Next-door, a gang of antipodean surf gentlemen were proceeding to demolish their room from within, aided and abetted by several thousand bottles of beer. Every now and then one of these esteemed gents would return with more ale and announce, "Oi've got some more beer boys, wahay!" Smash, crash, thump, laughter, rinse and repeat. Ah, the trials of youth, God bless them all. I smiled and didn't for one second wish that I had a hand grenade to lob through the open window of their attached Mandi.

It was no use, I had to go out. I left the hotel and strolled into the balmy night air. Motorcycles piloted erratically by flip-flopped tourists were snapping at my heels but I was spurred on by signs saying, " Magic drink 50 m ahead," which seemed to be leading me onwards towards Buddhist nirvana and promising me insights into the everything-ness of Bali. After paying Rp.90,000 for a glass of psilocybin juice, I staggered saucer eyed onto the main Legian strip to do battle with humanity's dark side.

The local lads were out in force of course, stationed at 10 m intervals along the pavement and reciting their age old mantra of, "Transport... massage... woman... drugs," usually in that order. Best to keep walking I thought. Show a seconds hesitation and they've got you. I started to feel unsteady on the old legs and thus vulnerable to the handicraft Cosa Nostra. I stepped into a busy bar and sat down for a drink and a breather.

My brains synapses were audibly frying but alas no peace and quiet was there to be found. Surfers had swapped their boards for bottles of beer and were guzzling away as if the Sari Club had never been pulped. Local ladies were swarming around in tarty clothing trying to blend in. According to a Balinese lady that I chatted to, a lot of these girls are actually Jakartan butterflies who flock to Kuta pretending to be moneyed holidaymakers. It's more of a working vacation for them in reality. Unlike Jakarta though, the bar was also full of Australian girls hell-bent on consuming their surgeon general's weekly recommended units of alcohol in two hours.

It was time to slope off back to the hotel and get a good night's rest and thankfully my room was still standing next to the adjacent Mad Max/Rip Curl wreckage. Then oblivion, sleep, bliss.

The next morning I strolled down to the beach, all the way dodging a greater volume of motorcycle traffic than there is in Jakarta. Deck chair arranged, I sat down and settled in. Sun cream on pasty white flesh, knotted handkerchief on head, sorted. And then the broken record started up in earnest. The familiar oxymoronic whine of, "Just looking Mr, I give you cheap price." The psychic serenity of my son seeking session was ruined. Never again. I'll be having two weeks in Darfur next Christmas.

Simon Pitchforth

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Trains and Boats and Planes

So, Indonesia has welcomed in the New Year in time-honored fashion, namely with a few disasters. This year it was a plane crash and a ferry sinking. The Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways. As I write this I'm about 30,000 feet over Java which is ultimately a pretty untenable position for a human being. This fact was brought home to all of us this week when a domestic flight went AWOL over Sulawesi. At the time of writing the plane has still not been found. Presumably it has splashed down in the big drink somewhere and sunk without trace. I first heard the story via a text message from a friend who sent me something like, "Adam Air flight just crashed, what airline are you coming back from Bali on?" to which I replied, "Er... Adam Air actually."

So here I am, a slightly anxious flier at the best of times, 8 km up in the sky trying to sublimate my nervy aircraft neurosis by writing this and confronting the issue head on. Is this to be the final curtain? Crash diving into the sea with only an in-flight piece of green cake to keep me company in the afterlife? To be fair to Adam though, I don't think I'd feel any less tense if I was currently aboard a Lion or Merpati flight.

They say that flying is, statistically speaking, the safest form of transport however I rather wonder how the numbers for this country stack up against the global air accident figures. There have been a fair few crashes of Indonesian planes in recent years whilst only this week a Lion Air plane skidded off the runway at Ambon airport and a friend of mine's Adam Air flight to Batam was cancelled because the plane needed repairs.

Bad weather and poor maintenance are usually blamed for crashes here and there is probably a bit of truth in both of these assessments. Weatherwise, those monsoon rains really do whip into the country hard causing major drink-down-the-shirt, fork-stabbed-in-the-eye air turbulence during flights. It was absolutely teeming down and blowing up a serious gale in Bali this week (although I still managed to get enough sun to turn a not particularly attractive shade of lobster red -I'll be seducing crabs by the bucketful this month if I make it back alive).

As for plane maintenance, well who knows? Certainly the new breed of low-cost Indonesian domestic fliers tends to buy older, second-hand planes from the big airlines which could be a factor. As for the actual maintenance itself, there are international safety rules and regulations of course although I can't seem to prevent my brain from conjuring up images of an oil stained, motorcycle repair type Bengkel shack at the side of the runway and a smiling mechanic running out with a spanner in one hand and a tube of superglue in the other shouting, "Rp.200,000 I fix jet ya?"

It all seems so straightforward when you board a flight doesn't it? A perma-chirpy stewardess will inform you that in the event of the plane landing in the sea, jolly little inflatable slides will pop out and you can slide down and have a nice splash around in the water until help arrives. It never seems to work out like that in real crashes does it? If we do start to go down though, I'll be making a grab for the old oxygen mask before you can say, "Please fasten your seatbelts". Hopefully the gas will induce a euphoric high in my brain and I'll accept my fate with stoic calm and a goofy smile on my face as we tailspin into the sea at 500 km/h.

One has more chance of surviving a ferry sinking of course and indeed a few brave souls who were passengers on the ferry that sank off the coast of Java just after Christmas did manage to stick it out for a few days before being rescued. There are safety and maintenance issues with Indonesia's Pelni ferry fleet too though. Many of the ships are pretty old and rusty and there is a propensity to overload them and exceed their maximum capacity. However, unlike passengers on the Titanic or on that boat that went down in Estonia's freezing waters a few years ago, at least you can survive in Indonesia's stormy but warm seas for a few hours or even days without succumbing to hypothermia.... if you can swim that is. And therein lies a major catch for many Indonesians I fear. If a ship full of non-swimmers goes down you're going to see the worst side of human nature and this is apparently what happened during the recent sinking. Grown men kicking old grannies aside and fighting for the life vests. It sure ain't pretty.

So where does that leave us? Well, there are always the trains. The romance of rail is perhaps being left behind in our mad rush for cheap flights and our desire to arrive before we depart. There's only a proper rail network on Java but there are some fantastic views to be seen, particularly in the mountainous East and West of the island. You can relax supine in air-conditioned comfort with a plate of fried rice and a can of Bintang beer from the dining car and watch the world go by at a relatively sedate pace. Nevertheless, Indonesian trains do occasionally crash to so again we return to the issue of safety. On the minus side, some of those railway viaducts consist only of 150 m high stilts supporting bare railroad track. To look out of the window as you pass over one of these faux-bridges can be an unnerving and vertiginous experience, especially when your carriage starts to tilt at a 20° angle. On the plus side though, when Indonesian trains do occasionally plough into stalled public minivans on level crossings, it's usually the minivans that come off the worse for wear.

Intercity buses? These can also be perilous as drivers wired on Krating Daeng and over-the-counter, ephedrine laced asthma pills get that king of the road, overconfident vibe going and plunge off the edge of mountain passes at 80km/h.

Back to Adam Air reality though. I have just landed safely (obviously or you wouldn't be reading this would you?) Now to get an airport taxi into town. This could be my most dangerous mission yet.

Simon Pitchforth