Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Leaving on a Jet Plane

This week I have had to temporarily depart the urban utopia of my beloved Jakarta and head back to the bosom of my family in not so sunny London. Being a long time expat in Indonesia, there’s always a certain amount of reverse culture shock to deal with when returning home for a holiday. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Firstly I had the terrors of the long haul flight to deal with.

All flights into and out of the UK are now subject to stringent safety regulations in the wake of recent terror scares, A maximum of 100ml of liquids and/or gels are now allowed in a passenger’s hand luggage. That 100ml tube of haemorrhoid cream should also be clearly labelled and placed in a transparent, re-sealable plastic bag so that all of the ground staff and check in crew can have a jolly good laugh at you.

After paying the Rp.1,000,000 fiscal tax/exit charge (when will they scrap this incredibly annoying and unfair daylight robbery?) I boarded my Air Malaysia flight to London via KL. The embattled Indonesian aviation industry, currently banned from running flights to Europe due to safety concerns, could learn a lot from their Malaysian counterparts. From the amazingly stylish and modern new airport in KL to the impressive in flight service provided by their national carrier (this is beginning to sound like an advert) the Malays are well ahead of the game compared with their next door neighbours.

Ultimately though, I hate long haul flights and despite the fancy new computerized in flight entertainment provided, I was starting to climb the walls after about ten hours. After touching down at Heathrow Airport (and not skidding off the runway into a nearby field I might add) it was time to adjust to the lumpen rhythms of life in the good ol’ U of K.

I often have an uncanny sense of déjà vu when I leave Indonesia for Britain. Two years ago, after the various terror attacks perpetrated on Indonesian soil, I returned to London only for the tube train bombers to blow themselves straight to 72 virgin Nirvana about three days after I arrived.

This time, in an uncanny rerun of Jakarta’s biblical (koranic?) floods of last February, large swathes of England have disappeared underwater due to the worst flooding in 60 years. Thankfully my suburban London home has been spared the rising waters but the parallels and contrasts between the two floods have been interesting.

In Britain, as in Jakarta, natural flooding has been exacerbated by an increasing amount of urban development swallowing up water catchment areas. Also, much of the UK’s drainage system dates back to Victorian times, just as Jakarta’s does to the Dutch colonial era, and could probably do with some modernization.

There are contrasts as well though. On the one hand, stranded, rain sodden Brits are more likely to experience an exciting helicopter rescue as opposed to having to just lump it on the roofs of their houses until the waters recede. On the other hand though, when electricity and water supplies are cut, as they have been in areas of England, flooded Brits have the added problem of having no drinking water, reliant as we are on a potable piped water supply.

The sooner global warming driven natural selection replaces our lungs with gills the better perhaps. Ho hum. National disasters aside though, a few other reverse culture shock contrasts also impress themselves on the Nasi addled brain of the returning expat. First and foremost are the prices of…well pretty much everything really. A trip about 3km up the road on the bus is costing me £2 (around Rp.40,000) in comparison with the Rp.2000 it costs to take one’s life in one’s hands on a Jakarta bus; or Rp.3000 if you include a few shekels for the caterwauling buskers. And I’m certainly not jumping taxis at every opportunity, as I would back in the Big Durian.

Another thing that I’m always made immediately aware of when I return home is the quietness of the streets around residential areas. The silence is positively ghostly in comparison with the constant noise, activity and general hubbub of just about everywhere in Jakarta’s densely packed bedlam. It’s kind of nice to have a quiet breather for a couple of weeks although I think that after a while I’d actually start to miss the pell mell frenzy of roaring Bajajs, satay smoke and crouching slackers omnipresent on Jakarta’s streets.

Back to London though, which is also playing host to the 2012 Olympic Games of course. Work continues apace on this colossal project and seems to be going quite well aside from the appalling neo-cubist logo that some agency have come up with to promote the games. Incidentally, an anagram of The London Olympic Games is actually Men Plan Sh** Comedy Logo – clearly I have too much free time on my hands this holiday; still, it beats the horrors of daytime television.

Perhaps Jakarta’s new governor should consider making a bid to host the Olympics. The city administration could probably get the required infrastructure up to scratch in time for the 2396 games. London’s old news; It’s time to put Indonesia on the map brothers and sisters.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The hills are alive

If you are looking to escape the oppressive, urban squalor of Jakarta and wander through lush forests and mountains then I've always maintained that it's not necessary to jet hundreds of miles to Borneo or Lombok or whereever.

Almost everything you could want is right here on your doorstep in West Java.

Yes, on this, the most densely populated island on the planet, it is surprisingly easy to remove oneself from civilization and get lost in the last national parks that surround the province's 3000 meter-plus mountains.

It's possible to scale some of these peaks themselves although there is always the possibility that you will lose yourself in a more serious sense if you do.

Indeed several city slicker Indonesians die each year on these mountains as their flip-flops and T-shirts prove to be not up to the job in hand.

Any road up, with all this in mind, a friend and I decided to go camping in the beautiful countryside surrounding Sukabumi last week.

Not having been camping for a long time we first had to get our kit together, although we later found out that tents, rucksacks, sleeping bags and ponchos were available for rent at our destination, Situ Gunung National Park.

Ace Hardware proved useful for a couple of cheap (and pretty flimsy) dome-style tents and sleeping gear. Mini gas stoves powered by aerosol sized cans of butane can also be purchased at many branches of Hero quite cheaply.

Apart from that, plenty of warm clothes are useful. Our campsite was situated at over 1,000 meters above sea level -- not exactly K2, granted, but it does get quite chilly at night.

On the other hand, it also gets very hot during the day and you might need a bottle of sunscreen as well.

All set to go, we drove out to the Bogor/Ciawi toll road early one fine morning and steamed toward Sukabumi, sub-bass woofer rattling the camping gear on the back seat all the way.

When we hit the center of Sukabumi, we hung a sharp left up the signposted Jl. Situ Gunung.

This road heads continually upwards for 10 kilometers, civilization petering out all the way, until it comes to an abrupt halt at the park's entrance.

There would be no more road and no more driving; it was time to pretend to be real men.


The scenery is indeed spectacular around the highlands of Sukabumi: towering forests, deep valleys and high waterfalls. We hiked a couple of kilometers to our first destination, a huge lake surrounded by forest.

A fantastically beautiful and peaceful place it certainly was but one that seemed more evocative of some far-flung Indonesian island than busy West Java.

Now it was camping time proper: the challenge of survival without even two Boy Scouts to rub together. Thankfully, these modern tents almost seem to put themselves up and we were soon cooking up a meal and blithely farting the night away.

To the great jealousy of my companion, I had also brought an inflatable swimming pool air bed with me and reclined contentedly as the sun set.

Things got a bit chilly during the night, however, and condensation formed on the inside of the tents: Not the most comfortable of nights I've ever spent but waking up at dawn was magnificent.

I shambled around the campsite admiring the scenery and warming myself. Suddenly though, the temperature soared by about 20 degrees Celsius in what seem like 10 minutes as the sun burst over the far trees.


After a breakfast of more flatulence-inducing camp food we packed up and headed to another, warmer campsite about 500 meters further down the hill.

This site was located next to a huge, 60-meter-high waterfall. At the site there was one main field area full of Indonesian students on camping holidays playing Pink Floyd on acoustic guitars.

This patch was pretty rough though and full of litter that had been ground into the dirt by several generations of undergraduates.

If you ever decide to try the semi-masochistic world of camping then remember to be very un-Indonesian and bring some dustbin liners for your trash.

Mind you, I can talk. Later on that evening I was retrieving a bottle of beer from our temporary fridge (a plastic bag in the river) and accidentally smashed one: the eco-terrorist attacks.

The river water here up at the source, before it passes through towns where people wash their clothes and drop their guts in it, is absolutely crystal clear incidentally, the perfect antidote to my boat way trip of a couple of weeks ago.

Then there was the primal, Stone Age thrill of building a campfire to sit around after dark and either sing Kum-Ba-Ya-Me-Lord or conduct naked satanic rituals in the flames.

After assuring my comrade that you need an intermediate stage of twiggy kindling to get from the burning paper to the burning log stages, we finally got the thing started and sat mesmerized, drinking noxious spirits until it went out.

Then all that remained to be done was to stagger into my tent and listen contentedly to the river and the waterfall while my manly air bed slowly deflated around me.

Luxury holiday in Bali? Pah.

Monday, July 16, 2007

This Means Gore

Last weekend saw a string of concerts held around the world under the Live Earth banner. Al Gore's environmental consciousness raising movement is gathering steam apace and the main concerts featured over 150 acts and netted a global audience of over 2 billion. The concerts themselves also, apparently, produced a carbon footprint equivalent to that emitted by 3000 people over a whole year. In this sense perhaps the whole global event generated more heat than light.

Losing an election to The Big Dubya has obviously stuck in Mr. Gore's craw somewhat and he has since tried to redeem himself through his environmental work and his movie An Inconvenient Truth which, to me at least, seemed to make a pretty persuasive, if not downright terrifying, case for the veracity of man-made global warming.

A couple of friends of mine remain climate change skeptics and are frequently trawling the Internet for obscure scientists who can back up their claims. It's worth remembering however that this year's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was authored and is backed by over 2000 scientists; strength in numbers perhaps?

On another tack, claims of a global climate change conspiracy by the world's major governments also seem a little outlandish. Surely it is in virtually all governments' interests (not their populations’ I might add) to deny, as opposed to promote, climate change. Most of the world's democratic governments and politicians pin their hopes of election or reelection on short-term four to five-year economic gains which are predicated in turn upon our current free-market, energy intensive consumer system. Most of the world still vote with their wallets and asking them to take a cut in living standards to save the planet is an awfully hard sell. And yet this is exactly what is starting (very very slowly) to happen.

In any case, I admire Gore's attempts to raise awareness of these issues, if not his smarmy, Ivy League demeanor. However, I'm not sure that the lighters-in-the-air platitudes of most mainstream rock music are a particularly effective vehicle for a consciousness raising message of this sort. The original Live Aid concerts in 1985 ultimately did little for Africa in the face of Western governmental intransigence over the debt issue. All that Live Aid really seemed to do in the end was cement superannuated old tossers such as Rod Stewart and Phil Collins even more tightly into the money spinning music industry firmament. Bad for Africans, good for musicians. Two years ago, the Live 8 concerts managed to actually extract some hard won promises from the G8 countries. These promises have since been reneged upon, much to the fury of Bono whose huge sunglasses are currently misting up with incandescent U2 rage.

With all this in mind I trotted down to Senayan's indoor tennis arena last Saturday night for the Indonesian leg of the Live Earth concerts. The arena was reasonably full, although far from sold out. Local artists were playing short 20 minutes sets interspersed with environmental messages which were broadcast on the huge video monitors. When I arrived, the group Jakustik (groan, that’s a pun even worse than a Metro Mad header) were finishing up a set of light weight, soppy jazz rock. Next on were Project Pop, a lovable, all dancing mash up of rap metal and local Dangdhut sounds. The audience started dancing in earnest, raising CO2 levels in the auditorium several fold. Other acts on the bill included the smooth diva voice of Rieka Ruslan and a group playing Bob Marley covers (my critical sensibilities started to pucker up at this point).

Just when I had almost reached my Indonesian pop music threshold and was preparing to leave, there was a sudden burst of activity in my seating section. A camera crew marched in with Jakarta governor electoral candidate, Fauzi Bowo in tow. An entire front row was cleared for him so that he and his wife could sit undisturbed by the plebeian masses. The TV cameras were trained on Mr Bowo for several minutes whilst he bathed in the reflected glory of Big Al's Earth Day extravaganza. Whether you will see Mr. Fauzi at events such as these after he's been elected is a matter for speculation. Meanwhile I headed for the nearest exit.

My environmental moment of the week however came via the Internet and not through the cult of Gore at all. A regular Jak.Chat. forum poster (check it out) linked me across to the website of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEM), slogan: May we live long and die out. In their own words, the VHEM suggests that, "Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth's biosphere to return to good health. Crowded conditions and resource shortages will improve as we become less dense."

Admittedly this is a pretty uncompromising mission statement although there can be little doubt that overpopulation is a factor in the current mess we find ourselves in. How the VHEM would fare in Java though is another matter. Java is certainly a, "Dense" island (no sniggering at the back please) and I've often considered the relative merits of NATO carpet bombing the island with supplies of Durex. I can't really see VHEM Indonesia holding a demo on Jalan Thamrin though, giving out flowers to passing motorists and urging them to have vasectomies. Big Al's concerts are no doubt a slightly more palatable route to environmental awareness... so long as you can stand yet another Bob Marley covers band without wanting to actually increase your carbon footprint and thus bring about the demise of our miserable species even sooner.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Tea

Finally, after two failed attempts, I made it onto Jakarta's not-so-mass and not-so-rapid transit system last weekend. Yes, at last I managed to catch the boatway in fully operational mode and went for a sail through the city centre, buoyed up by a flotsam of empty Coke cans and other non-biodegradable trash.

Initially I was fearful of another wasted trip to the mini quay that's been constructed at Dukuh Atas. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of activity there when I arrived at the magic hour of 4 p.m... My only company for the first 15 minutes were two old weather-beaten codgers, one of whom was repeatedly lowering a bucket on a rope into the murky waters below and extracting the brown liquid. God knows what he was planning to do with the stuff; I only pray that he wasn't going to bathe in water that was so dirty that even rats would turn their noses up at it. Perhaps he was a dermatologist, fallen on hard times but still conducting research into interesting new skin diseases.

Eventually though, the Kerapu III hoved into view and moored itself alongside the quay's metal steps. The boats being used in this new scheme were previously to be found ferrying tourists around Pulau Seribu (The Thousand Islands). Now however, they have been press-ganged by the city council into trawling through the urban sludge in a putative attempt to make Sutiyoso and co appear to be doing something constructive about the city's transportation woes for as little financial outlay is possible.

I hopped aboard and entered the enclosed cabin area which can hold about as many people as one of Jakarta's Metro Mini buses (although I didn't notice any buskers with guitars willing to swim out and chance their arm in mid sail). After taking a pew I noticed that every seat had a yellow inflatable life jacket underneath it and was given pause to reflect again upon the irony of the large percentage of people from this island nation who can't swim. There were also laminated airline style safety cards on display instructing hapless city sea dogs how to blow into the little whistles attached to the jackets and attract help before their legs dissolve in the noxious chemicals to of the Ciliwung.

After a couple of minutes we set sail and the Kerapu's two Yamaha outboards powered us under Jl. Sudirman towards the Karet terminus, and mere five minutes sail away. I pulled my camera out and started snapping away like crazy as it was a novel experience seeing city landmarks such as the BNI tower from a boat. At the delightful Karet quay (a post-industrial urban twilight zone, seemingly in the middle of nowhere) we admitted more passengers and started to head back eastwards.

The boat way is currently being hyped up by the city administration as an urban transport solution however the passengers seemed to consist entirely of parents giving their children a nice fun ride in a boat and journalists and TV crews interviewing and filming each other for their boatway news reports. There seemed to be a distinct lack of anyone actually traveling from A to B.. And so alas the boatway’s utilitarian aspirations seem doomed to failure and it instead seems destined to become a minor tourist attraction: kind of like Du.Fan. (Jakarta's amusement park) accompanied by an unpleasant smell of poo. The kids loved it though and burbled happily to their parents, "Is that a fish dad?"
"Er... kind of... I guess you could call it a brown trout son."

After stopping at Dukuh Atas again we steamed on to Halimun where we moored up again before turning around. I'd been led to believe that the boat way went all the way to Manggarai in the east of town but upon inquiring I was informed that this final section of the cruise hasn't been opened yet. So that was it, three stops over a jawdropping 2.7 km. Awesome.

For Rp.3000 you can't really argue though. If you are a poor family, the boat way represents a cheap alternative to a cruise through the Thousand Islands with the kids. If you are reporter on the other hand, the Kerapu cruise evokes a moody, bleak, post global warming vision of sailing through the wreckage of society’s collapsed infrastructure after sea levels have risen 10 m. If you are a commuter on the other hand, well, I wouldn't bother to be frank, you're probably better off sticking with buses and taxis. Back to the drawing board please Mr. F. Bowo.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Fairway to Heaven

I thought I'd have a well earned rest from trying to get on the ruddy boatway for a while and instead paid my first ever visit to Jakarta Fair this week. However, this first entailed a busway ride from Blok M all the way up to the other terminus at Kota Station. The ride itself was fine but the rush hour wait at the busway terminus in Blok M bus station was a touch unsettling. The crush of humanity and high temperatures made me feel dizzy and the only way out was via the Busway. Once you've committed yourself to the crush, there's no escape. I felt like I was in a scene from Schindler's List although to be fair, urban rush hours in London and Tokyo can be just as sardine like. In Tokyo, they even crowbar them into the subway trains with big sticks.

Back to Jakarta Fair though, as I said, this annual festival has always managed to pass me by before. The fair used to be held at Monas (the national monument) apparently but its current location at the expansive Kemayoran fairground area is a little out of the way for me as I'm sure it is for many other Jakartans too. That said, over 2 million people, it has been predicted, will visit Jakarta Fair this year. With this in mind I elected to visit the fair on a Monday evening when I thought that it would be quieter.

Ha, fat chance of that as it turned out. It seemed to me as if the 2 million visitors had all decided to at turn out at the same time and the whole place was a riot of people, color and noise. God alone knows what it must be like on weekends. The fair itself covers a huge area, both indoors and outdoors, and it took me a couple of hours of traipsing around, promotions girls foisting snack foods on me all the while, to see everything.

Jakarta Fair is basically a cross between a huge shopping mall and a funfair, with the accent on the shopping mall side. Everything you can possibly think of is on sale inside the cavernous halls of Kemayoran: motorbikes, furniture, watches, televisions, chocolate, electronic gadgets, bicycles, computers, clothes, the lot and most are at discounted prices. Yes, take a break from the usual shopping malls and enjoy this annual opportunity to go and see.... a really huge shopping mall.

But it's not all about conspicuous displays of material consumption. Well actually it mainly is, but there are some entertainments to enjoy too. As well as a few funfair rides there is a tourist train that circumnavigates the fair and which the kids seemed to love. There's also a main stage hosting non-stop entertainment including plenty of slinky hipped Dangdhut singers; the dads seemed to love that one.

At the rear of the fair there's a motorbike safety course which I think that every Jakarta biker should be forced at gunpoint to sign up for, although it would probably take several centuries and several thousand hospitalizations to achieve this aim. On a similar but slightly more dangerous biker note, I was amazed and amused to see that one of the fair's attractions was a good old-fashioned wall of death. I watched a few daredevils whizzing round and round before starting to feel dizzy and heading off for a feed.

As with any fair, there's plenty to eat here, from salmonella hot dogs and grotty teeth rotting sweets to the slightly more palatable fare available in the food court area. Boy was it ever busy in Kemayoran though and on weekends it must be even more so as family groups spend quality time together masticating on peanuts, drinking virulent blue soft drinks and entrenching their psyches even more deeply into the soft belly of the material consumer lifestyle as they ogle the products on sale together. Don't come here if you're looking for a bit of rest and relaxation. I came away with a throbbing headache although I quite enjoyed confronting the racket, hustle and cheap glitz of the Jakarta Fair experience. It was kind of like a concentrated version of the whole city itself.

A ticket for the fair will cost you a mere Rp.15,000 and it’s open between 3 p.m. and around 10 o'clock on weekdays and all day at weekends. You've still got a couple of weeks left to check it out. A few aspirins and earplugs may come in handy though.